Howe teaches students how to be professional leaders

Alan Howe (BADM ’82) is a professional board director specializing in turn-around situations. He’s served on 27 public and private boards spanning multiple industries including enterprise software, wireless, telecom, composite materials, and IT services. In many ways, he’s a professional leader brought in at a time when companies need a strategic change in direction. He got his start at Gies College of Business, and he still comes back occasionally to pass on his expertise to the next generation of business leaders.

Alan HoweQ. What drew you to being a professional board director?
A. I never imagined I would be doing this, but it does fit my skill sets. I’m more of a generalist and also a strategic thinker; being a director rewards those two categories. I’m also a pretty good reader of people. Basically a couple investors took me under their wing and trusted me to be their representative. It was a little bit of luck and a little bit of timing that got me here.

Q. What message do you have for students?
A. I tell students that what they think they’re going to be doing in the next three years is probably radically different than what they’ll be doing in 10 to 15 years, so get ready for change. Be adaptable because you never know where the next opportunity may come from. Secondly, I tell them ‘You are your own brand.’ You have to market yourself and what skills you bring to the table. The days of being aligned with one company your whole career are long gone. Ultimately you’re in the process of selling value. The other thing I tell students is ‘You’re going to stumble and make mistakes.’ Everybody does. I’m made plenty of mistakes. If you never make mistakes, that’s a bad thing because I think mistakes help you make better decisions in the future.

Q. What do you think makes a great business leader?
A. The best characteristic is humility. You can’t ‘big dog’ in a corporate setting or talk about how smart you are. Lead with humility. Also listen and learn from people around you.

Q. What are the challenges of being a leader in a turnaround situation?
A. You have to make decisions relatively rapidly. Usually if there’s a difficult situation, you don’t have the benefit of time, and you have to make decisions with imperfect information. It usually involves making the best of bad options. Maybe you have bad management, bad products, or a bad competitive situation, and you have to make choices based on the information you have at that time.

Q. It can’t be easy working with so many different types of companies.
A. It’s challenging for sure, but the biggest advantage is you can learn from different types of situations. You can gain experience from one situation and quickly apply it to another, so you don’t make the same mistake. It allows you to make better decisions more quickly.

Q. What stands out to you about your business education at Illinois?
A. I remember that it was extremely competitive. Competitive curriculum and competitive classes. It sets you up for a competitive world. Coming back to Gies Business now, it appears the students are a lot more capable than I was at the time. They seem very bright and highly motivated. I’m very impressed with the investment in facilities and faculty. The College is headed in a great direction.