December 2012 | 

Career Move: Functional Expert to Broader Leadership

career move

Three years ago, Richard Donaldson made the move from private legal practice, where he had been for his entire professional career, to an in-house counsel position at Computer Sciences Corporation. The move meant Donaldson needed to learn a new language. “Coming from the legal department, I provide input that influences decisions, and I needed to understand the business drivers and the commercial context to enhance my credibility. I had to fill in some gaps in my knowledge and be able to speak the language of business.”

Donaldson filled in those gaps by coming to Wharton for the two-week Executive Development Program. EDP is designed specifically for executives like Donaldson who have mastery in one area and then take on a broader role. The program brings together a team of faculty experts in diverse business disciplines, and, as Donaldson notes, it’s pitched right. “The main benefit of EDP was its broad-ranging scope. It covered a wide variety of subjects at just the right pitch, not at a superficial level but also not diving too deep. I didn’t need to become an expert, but I needed enough depth to understand the issues and speak the language.”

An unexpected benefit for Donaldson was the new community of fellow EDP participants. “Our class was a very diverse group, literally coming from the four corners of the globe. They shared insights that took some of the abstract concepts we were learning and gave them life. We might have the concept reinforced in a discussion with someone who had dealt with that issue or could describe the situation and what actually happened. That’s the kind of learning you can’t get from a book or a lecture. The entire two-week experience was centered on building and learning from the community.

“But that community wouldn’t have happened if the class size was bigger. It’s a key differentiator between Wharton and some other programs. You’re not in a group of a hundred. It gives you the opportunity to make meaningful connections and to learn from each other. And the community didn’t end at the end of the program. The majority of our class is still in touch. We keep up with everyone’s career development and personal lives.”

Donaldson also appreciated the team-centered learning — a real switch from the “highly individualistic and hyper-competitive” legal community. “The need for collaboration is a real one,” he notes. “The days of the autonomous, authoritarian CEO are over. That’s an old paradigm. Having a consensus-building style in the current economy and globalized environment makes you more effective. Working collaboratively with people from around the world with different experiences, perspectives, and assumptions helps you learn to be more effective when you get back to work.”

How did his experience in EDP affect Donaldson’s success in his new position? “Since the program,” he notes, “different lessons have resonated with me at different times. The new knowledge, and being able to speak the language, have helped me tremendously. In fact, after the program I got a promotion. While I’d like to think it was mainly due to ability and hard work, my competitive advantage was definitely enhanced because of EDP.”