Q & A with an Owen Staff Member

Read McNamara recently joined the staff at Owen after spending 35 years in the consumer goods industry.

From the Fall 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

qYour master’s degree from Vanderbilt is in Latin American studies. How did you become interested in that?

aI was born and raised in a small town in rural Connecticut. I hadn’t seen much of the world by the time I got to college but found that I had a facility for languages and actually became a modern languages major at Colgate. Like so many liberal arts graduates, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in life. I knew I wanted to work internationally because I had that wanderlust that so many 22-year-olds have, but I had no idea if I would channel that interest into the business world or into the public sector. The perfect way for me to find that out, albeit an expensive way, was to get myself into a nonterminal degree at the graduate level, and Vanderbilt had a wonderful—and still does—master’s program in Latin American studies.

qInternational opportunities have played a big role in your career. Where have you lived and worked, and what have you learned from those experiences?

aMy family and I lived in Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela, and later in Hong Kong for three years. In Hong Kong I grew to have a tremendous appreciation for what you and I would call consensus management. The Asian way of attacking a problem is so much different from the way we do it in the West. In Latin America what I took away was an appreciation for a more emotional approach to business. In some ways it is the antithesis of what I found in Asia. I remember that my boss at Pillsbury told me, “You’ve spent enough time in Latin America. I’m going to send you someplace where you’re going to have to do things totally differently.” He was right. The two things I grew to appreciate are different approaches to solving the same problem. Also another key difference I noticed was the pace at which business and social life are done. In Latin America the pace is deliberate and methodical—often with detours. However, in Hong Kong, the pace my wife, five children and I experienced was breakneck. People had to prod me along because everything happened so fast. I’m glad, though, that I spent time in both parts of the world, as different as they are.

qYou mentioned your wife and children. What did they think about moving around to all of those places?

aMy long-suffering wife of 38 years has been through 15 moves. She is the real champion. The five children—four boys and a girl—are appreciating what they experienced more and more as they age. I just recently had a conversation about this with my eldest, who is 34. It was a very different conversation from the ones I had with my kids when they were teenagers being uprooted from one country to another. In fact, one of my kids is now involved in international work.

qSpeaking of change, you’re in the middle of making a big transition from the corporate world to academia. Where did you work before Owen?

aBefore this, I started a general management consulting practice in 2003 with four friends. I had always looked upon owning my own business as something to do in the “presunset” years. It was a wonderful experience. And before that I was in the consumer packaged goods industry at companies like Gillette, Revlon, Pillsbury and more recently Bausch & Lomb in Rochester, N.Y., where we just moved from.

qHow did you become interested in career management?

aI’m very fortunate to have been involved in a pro-bono capacity with career services at Colgate. When I was on the alumni board there, I headed the career services committee and found that I really enjoyed it. In fact, I spent three or four years after my term was up volunteering one day every month in the career services office. That’s how I got a taste for it.

It’s a tremendous differentiator when we can point to alumni who are very active in helping our students showcase their talents in person.

—Read McNamara

qDid you envision yourself doing this for a living at the time?

aYes, my wife and I decided in 2004 over the dinner table that my last career move would be getting involved in a top-tier MBA program in a career management position. And here I am. This didn’t happen by chance. I’m just fortunate enough that Vanderbilt came to me.

qWhat was so appealing about this particular opportunity at Owen?

aBeing part of a team that is absolutely committed to achieving top-tier status. In my conversations with Jim Bradford, I found that we are kindred spirits in that Jim is determined to make Owen a top 20 program. I love that challenge. I think we have all the tools in place. I did a great deal of research into where the school’s been and where it wants to go, and I wanted to be part of that.

qWhat are some of the challenges facing the Career Management Center this academic year?

aA very difficult economic environment has to be at the top of the list. It’s a challenging market for MBAs right now. Also things are changing very rapidly after a long period of relatively stable best practices. When I graduated from Wharton with an MBA degree in 1973, they were using essentially the same practices in career management that had been used 20 or 30 years before. Today, though, employers have the luxury of doing what we call “just-in-time” hiring, which means our students sometimes sit on the edge of their seats until May or June. Supply and demand factors allow employers to do that. It’s no longer so common for companies to come to campus—for the man to go to the mountain, so to speak. Of course, we have very loyal employers who come here, but that number goes down every year. And that’s not just at Owen; that’s at all of our peer schools. We have to use technology and be creative in getting the mountain to the man and putting our great students in front of these companies in different settings.

qWould you say that’s the most important part—getting one’s foot in the door and being face-to-face with employers?

aAbsolutely. And the key to that is our alumni. I can’t stress that enough. One of the things that attracted me to Owen is the loyalty of the alumni and the great success of those individuals. We’re not that old as a school, relatively speaking, and we don’t have as many alumni as some of the schools we’re competing with. It’s a tremendous differentiator when we can point to alumni who are very active in helping our students showcase their talents in person.

qIf there’s one message you could convey to Owen alumni, what would it be?

aConnectivity is the word of the day. To me, it’s a reality at Owen. I’ll give you a concrete example. In last year’s class, all the members of the student government association sent me a welcoming email and offered to do anything they could to help. Whether they had started their jobs or not, they said, “I’m here for you. Please let me be part of this connectivity.” That’s very gratifying. Words like collegiality and collaboration take on special meaning here. This place is different, and that’s coming from someone who has been around a bit.