In the latest installment of the Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series, Helen Dashney, fixed-term faculty of finance and organizer of the series, welcomed Raj Gupta, co-chair of the board of advisors for the Johns Hopkins Gupta-Klinsky India Institute, to speak to MBA students on Oct. 27 in a virtual fireside chat.
Over his career, Gupta has served as a director at public companies across a wide range of industries, including Hewlett Packard, DuPont, Howmet, Aptiv, Airgas, Tyco and Avantor. Gupta discussed what he’s learned, covering everything from his nearly 40 years at Rohm and Haas to serving on numerous public and private boards of directors.
“In business, like in life, nothing is a straight line — there are ups and down. You’ll have disappointments. You’ll have successes. You definitely want to celebrate your successes but also learn from disappointments,” he said.
Gupta began his career at Rohm and Haas as a financial analyst and advanced to hold many different leadership positions. From 1999 to 2009, he served as chairman and CEO, leaving the company after closing a complex transaction that resulted in Dow Chemical acquiring Rohm and Haas for $15.3 billion during the Great Recession.
Along with sharing insight into the complexity of the deal, he elaborated on the importance of building trust. Today, companies are challenged by a broad array of economic, geopolitical and social issues. A leader is tasked to consider all stakeholders, not just investors.
“Building trust is important because you need support of all your key stakeholders when things aren’t going well. Good leaders have the courage to admit failures and be able to pivot,” he said.
In 2015, Gupta became chairman of Aptiv, whose CEO is Broad Spartan Kevin Clark (B.A. Finance ’84, MBA ’86). This experience, along with his board roles at other companies, were examples that Gupta discussed to illuminate how the collaboration between a CEO and a board is highly valuable when driving change and innovation. Being proactive, knowledgeable and confident to freely express one’s perspective encourages more broader thinking.
“Fifteen to 20% of the companies in the Fortune 500 disappear almost every year. There is no guarantee that if you’re successful today, you’ll be successful in the future,” Gupta shared. “All the change taking place … if you’re going to be a survivor and successful in this new world, just doing more of what you’ve done is not going to work. Boards that encourage constructive, open dialogue and critical discussion is very important, instead of just approving what the CEO or management team wants.”
A fundamental conviction Gupta holds as a leader is that diversity matters and adds value. Rotating board members every three to five years as part of development, as well as gaining different, diverse points of view, is a critical aspect of growing as a board member.
“Having diverse thought is very important. Never compromise the quality of a candidate. Instead of limiting the choices to typical available candidates, you really need to diversify and expand the pool you want to seek and why you are seeking them,” Gupta said. “Diversity of thought also comes a great deal from your own experiences. Diverse background, gender, all of that adds to your different perspective. I think the two work in tandem — diversity of background and diversity of thought process.”
Before parting ways, he provided helpful advice to those who aspire to become a board member later in their career: “You have to have a very successful personal career with a track record. Create your network. Do research on the company. As you grow experience, start thinking about how you want to become a board member. Can you learn from the prospective firm? How can you add value?”
As an honorary Spartan, Gupta has participated in the speaker series three times and enjoys learning from each new generation of students.
More information on the upcoming 2022–23 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available via the Full-Time MBA program.