On Thursday, the Broad College held its second event as part of the fall 2019 Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series, welcoming Paul Cook, a two-time Broad graduate, to speak to current Broad MBA students. Cook (B.A. Supply Chain Management ’84, MBA Finance ’86) was most recently the CEO of Valant, a Seattle-based software company that specializes in creating cloud-based medical systems for behavioral healthcare.
Cook began with an equation that illustrated return on equity. His talk was structured around how a career is a return on invested time, a concept he expressed with passion.
“When you come to the end of your MBA, you’ll be faced with decisions,” he said of finding employment opportunities. “It’s a mistake to simply base your decision on who will pay you the most; you’ll be working 40-, 60-, 80- hour work weeks, and all that money won’t mean anything if the work is not rewarding.”
Cook then mapped out the elements prospective graduates should consider when deciding on a position: team dynamics, organization leadership, alignment of the company and its employees, strategies and goals that involve disruption and innovation, levels of execution and delivering solutions, and behaviors found in the company’s culture.
Cook mentioned team dynamics and leadership in the same breath as they are intricately related for him. “I try to hire people who are better at their roles than I would be,” he said. He went on to explain how having this constructively competitive environment is helpful because it’s what pushes the organization further.
Cook had a similar insight for the leadership of an organization and its need for cutthroat members. “I want to be able to hire people who can be described as animals, who are consumed by their work,” he said, referring to a person’s mindset.
However, there’s a caveat: they must also have what Cook called a code of behavior. “There is no room or time for bad behavior on a the team,” he said.
When describing the alignment of a company, Cook referenced a scene from HBO’s Game of Thrones with the quote, “One army, a real army, united behind one leader, with one purpose.” He used it to describe his belief that companies need to have a “true north” that guides decisions. This true north needs to be understood by every employee, in every department, so that they will make decisions in support of that guiding principle.
“I want a company that’s disruptive with a product, because I want to win, I want to take market share,” Cook said. He referred back to his desire to hire “animals” and explained that this is why.
“I would argue that you want to stay away from a company that isn’t being disruptive, because they will eventually be disrupted.”
Cook explained the relationship between starving and indigestion. Indigestion is when a company attempts to do too many things, and as a result, they all come out poorly. He explained that indigestion kills a company a lot more frequently than starvation.
“Sometimes it’s hard to avoid becoming a windsock and chase the shiny penny,” Cook said. He explained that it’s better to be really good at two or three things than decent at everything.
Behaviors of the company culture
The major theme of Cook’s remarks on behavior was handling failure. He explained the importance of planning ahead. “You cannot go to work without thinking about what else can be done, because there will be no time to figure out alternatives in the moment. It’s always best to have a plan B,” he said.
Cook expressed how failure is inevitable at some point and described the environment that is most successful is one that has a “small rearview mirror and a large windshield.”
“If we lose an account, I’m not interested in blaming someone,” he said. “I’m interested in why we lost it and how we can do better moving forward.”
During his presentation, Cook welcomed an unexpected guest to attend the session: Dr. Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine and associate provost and assistant vice president for health affairs. Beauchamp and Cook met at MSU as undergrads.
Cook closed his talk by informing the attendees of the value of both their honesty and authenticity in the workplace. “If you’re aware of something that isn’t working, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell everyone. It goes from being your problem to our problem,” Cook said.
He also compared a person’s honesty to their authenticity: “You must be your authentic self, you must be transparent, because if you aren’t, you can’t be effective.”
Cook then returned to the MBA students who will be looking for work in the very near future, and he advised caution in environments that don’t support their members. “I think if you show a level of initiative in your company and it’s not recognized, go somewhere else,” he said. “If it’s not rewarded, you’re in the wrong place.”
He also had some inspiring words for all the attendees’ futures: “Be brave. You’re soon-to-be Michigan State graduates, and you will succeed. Because you’re in the right place.”