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CEIBS Visiting Leader: Dr. Richard Thoman

Richard’s CV at a glance

  • Unique experience of being a ‘top five’ executive at four ‘Fortune 75’ U.S. corporations in three industries; technology, financial services and food.
  • Former President and CEO of Xerox, former CFO of IBM, as well as former Chairman and former Co-CEO of American Express Travel Related Services.
  • Adjunct Professor of International Business at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Professor of Practice at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, Visiting Professor at INSEAD’s Singapore campus.

What Characteristics do you need to climb the corporate ladder to C-suite? 
RT: There are a set of characteristics that I share with the MBAs that I mentor, but I realized long ago that the most important element has to do with the word ‘success’.  Leadership has to be successful leadership, otherwise no one will follow you.  What makes success? This boils down to two elements; firstly, the judgement to make consistently good decisions, and secondly the willpower to make sure these judgements are carried out.  A common pitfall for CEOs is that they let their egos get in the way of making sounds judgements.  After all, you need subordinates who will tell you the truth – good or bad, and are confident to do so without the CEO getting very upset.

What value does an MBA from CEIBS have for young professionals?
RT: I think if you see China in your future, then the decision is very straightforward – come to CEIBS.  The first time I visited China was with American Express during my tenure as CFO over thirty years ago, there were no hotels in Shanghai, and so we were put up in a state mansion.  Fast forward to 2018, and not only has the city become competitor for the world’s most attractive metropolises, but it is still changing dramatically.  I visit Shanghai every year as part of CEIBS MBA Visiting Leaders Mentoring Programme and take Mandarin lessons every time.  Sadly, my language skills quickly disappear every time.  But that’s my point, you have to be in China and be part of the change here; otherwise you quickly lose that advantage.

What advice do you most often you give to young professionals?
RT: Stick with the goals that you are passionate about.  When I realized at a young age that I wanted to lead a large multinational company, I identified two paths, either fight my way through middle management to the top, or join McKinsey & Company and skip middle management.  Within five or six years I was on the right track, and was offered a bigger job for a famous company but with less decision making power.  I turned it down as I was determined to stick to what I felt passionate about.  Because of this, I often tell MBAs not to jump jobs too often as it can leave a negative impression.