By Liz Warren-Pederson
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spent part of March 30 with Eller undergraduate and MBA students while he was in town to receive the 2012 University of Arizona Executive of the Year award.
Gates — the only Secretary of Defense to have served two back-to-back presidents of different parties — met with select students for up-close-and-personal sessions in advance of the awards luncheon, at which he delivered a speech on leadership that garnered a standing ovation.
“Going into the up-close session, I expected other students to ask questions pertaining to his experience as an educator, because his roles at Texas A&M and the College of William and Mary are the ones that most students can best relate to,” said Allison Stein (Eller MIS and Operations Management ’12). “I was surprised that the students in the up-close session asked lots of very specific questions about certain situations, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein and the specific weaknesses our government shows that may be susceptible to terrorist attacks.”
She added that he gave thoughtful and thorough answers. “The level of detail he used to answer our questions was impressive, and we could tell that he was giving us every discernible piece of information he could in order to give us the most well-rounded perspective to explain how and why specific decisions were made.”
Stein has accepted a job in the defense industry, and had prepared a lot of questions. She was most concerned about the future of the defense industry, as the U.S. scales back military engagement in Afghanistan. “I asked about the future of the budget for the Department of Defense, and whether he felt the industry would turn to international sales in order to maintain profitability,” Stein said. “Not only did he explain the method of defense sales via contracting and sales restrictions on the defense industry, but he went on to explain the importance of the blossoming ‘cyberspace defense’ industry, which is expected to grow and demand more government funding. So in short: yes, I’ll still have a job in the long-term.”
Michelle Vock (Eller Marketing and MIS ’13) said she wasn’t sure what to expect going into the session. “I ended up extremely impressed at the Q&A and the luncheon,” she said. “Secretary Gates stood out to me as a genuine and wholehearted person. He took the time to thoroughly answer all of our questions with an answer that would lead to a life lesson.”
She was impressed with the way he approached and resolved conflict. “It is obvious that he has gone through his career with modest confidence and high morals.” When Vock’s turn came to pose a question, she asked about his career path, from leaving the College of William and Mary as a new undergrad all the way to the White House.
“Secretary Gates did a wonderful job discussing his experiences at the CIA, Texas A&M, National Intelligence, as Secretary of Defense, and now as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary,” she said. “His two pieces of advice are to work hard and put in the time now, so that you can lead and succeed in the future, and it takes a little bit of luck and perfect timing.”
Both Stein and Vock were glad for the opportunity to participate in the sessions. “It makes the dream of success and high achievement more tangible,” Vock said. “I left the session with a new sense of direction and an optimistic view on the future. I know that building my way up in the professional world will be difficult and strenuous, but possible if I work hard and look for opportunities to grow and move forward.”
“Not only was it extremely valuable to me as an entry-level employee in the defense industry, but it provided me with so much insight into the kinds of leadership that is built within the government,” Stein said. “Secretary Gates is such an impressive man, who has maintained humility and kindness throughout high levels of stress. While Eller has given me all the skills I need to succeed in the work force, this experience showed me the accomplishments that can be achieved if I continue my education and commitment to myself, the community, and the greater good.”
Learn more about the outstanding corporate, nonprofit, and public sector executives the Eller College hosts as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series.