Harry Kraemer: From Fortune 500 CEO To A Favorite Kellogg Professor

Harry Kraemer in a Kellogg classroom.

My Grandfather always used to say to me when I’d complain about something at work, “Harry, that’s why they call it work. That’s why they pay you.” Rather than saying, “Oh my goodness, look what happened now,” you’re going to get up every morning and say this is really truly complex and it’s going to be a big burden. Or, you know what you’re going to try to do: We’re going to try to do the right thing and do the best we can do.

To add a little humor to it, students will sometimes say, “You have a $12 billion company and 50,000 people in 103 countries. Professor Kraemer, what kept you awake at night?” I’d say, “By the time I went to sleep, nothing kept me awake. If it takes me more than five minutes to go to sleep, I’ll just read another book!” I don’t have a lot of time for worry, fear, anxiety, pressure, and stress. When I talk with executives sometimes, I’ll say, “What are things that most people do that they wish they didn’t do and they sometimes think is hard to control?” I say, how about five things: worry, fear, anxiety, pressure, and stress. I’ll say, “What do you know about these five things?” They’ll say, “It’s not very constructive and it can ruin your health.” I’ll say, “Yeah, all of those are true, but most of the time when you wait until you are in the middle of a problem, it is hard to control it. When things are going well, if you say, “The only thing I know for sure is that something is going to go wrong, you can say to yourself (because that’s why they call it work), “No matter what happens, I will do those two things: Do the right thing and do my best.

P&Q: Leadership can be a lonely and unforgiving role. What aspect of leadership can students only learn from actually being in the C-suite? What are lessons they may be hearing now, but they won’t truly understand it until they have to carry the full weight of leadership responsibility on their shoulders?

HK: Some of this stuff, until you really go through it, sounds very, very academic. I think the reality of life is, the folks entering an MBA, particularly at a place like Kellogg, are all very, very bright and driven. They have a view that, “I can actually do the work of 2-3 people.” I think the difficulty is, as you move up in an organization, you may be able to do the work of 2-3 people, but you can’t do the work of 50 or 100 people. Your ability to learn how to delegate rather than micromanage and your ability to be able to get from the roots to the trees to the forest (and my whole diagram of the vertical parallel lines), your ability to put it all in perspective and actually move from being the person who is answering the questions to the person who is asking questions to tell whether we’re on track and going in the right direction overall.

Here’s the cycle as you’re moving up: There’s going to be much more to do than you’re ever going to have time to do it. It’s impossible. So the only way you can deal with it is that you have to learn how to prioritize and allocate resources. Those are the two big managerial challenges: How do I prioritize when I can’t get everything done and what do I end up doing when I don’t have all the resources to get everything I’d like to get done. Resources, by definition in any job, means you only have 100% of the people, 100% of the time and 100% of the dollars that you got. That then requires you to start to be able to prioritize and allocate resources. How can you possibly prioritize if you haven’t figured out what is really important? This, once again, comes back to self-reflection. Once I realized that I can’t get everything done — and I need to get the most important things done — I either become overwhelmed and I’m running around like a lunatic or I literally step back and say, “What are the most important things and in what order?” By the way, I refuse to become overwhelmed because, once again, I know what I’m going to do: I’ll try to do the right thing and I’ll do the best that I can do.

P&Q: You entered academia after leaving Baxter in 2004. Four years later, you were voted by students as Kellogg’s best teacher. Talk to us about the transition from corporate life to academia. What were some of the biggest challenges? Best rewards?

HK: This may really surprise you, but the transition wasn’t that difficult for me. The reason I say this — and I say this in hindsight because I didn’t realize it at the time — is that if you strive to be an effective leader, a very, very big part of a leadership role in a company is being an effective teacher. It is really getting people to understand their roles, communication, motivation, and prioritization. To a certain extent, it was a surprise to me that when I told a lot of my colleagues at Baxter that I was going to be teaching, their comment was, “That’s an obvious thing for you to do because that’s what you’ve been doing for 25 years.” To a certain extent, a lot of what I do now is very, very similar.

Kraemer the Cub: Dreams do come true!

When I was at Baxter, I would, at least one day a week, go around to our manufacturing facility, sales force, distribution centers and I would literally have what I call “Q&O” sessions —Question and Opinion. What’s on your mind? What are you thinking about? That’s similar to the way I conduct my classes. I literally say, “Here are a couple of key topics. Let’s fire away and have a good dialogue.” Somehow, in my 12 years of teaching, I have yet to use one PowerPoint slide in a class. I try to make it conversational and a dialogue. To a certain degree, that transition for me was pretty easy.

When I was at Baxter, I also made myself pretty available to everybody. At Baxter, I would say, “Here is my email address. You may be a plant worker or a sales rep in Kansas, feel free to contact me. I do the same thing now. In my first class — and this spring I was teaching downtown to 100 students — I give out my mobile number and my email address. If you want to talk about leadership, careers or some personal thing, I don’t have answers, but I have opinions. Feel free to get a hold of me anytime.

The transition for me was very simple because it was a continuation of what I have always done.

P&Q: What advice would you give to incoming MBAs to be successful and get the most from the MBA experience?

HK: Some things that I tell them, in no particular order, are the following.

Number one: Take as diverse a set of classes as possible because when I think of those vertical parallel lines and getting your arms around things, you want to get as broad an understanding of everything that’s involved in business as possible.

Number two: Don’t be in a hurry, but take the time to be self-reflective and figure out what in this whole process you do want to get out of it. Yes, the classes are important, but the people, network, and relationships are important, too. I let the students know that I still keep pretty close touch with 35 or 40 of my classmates from 40 years ago.

Not only building those relationships, but also enjoying the experience. Rather than thinking, “Oh my goodness, this first job out of Kellogg is going to be the most important critical thing in my life.” Well, no, it’s really a journey. It’s one more step. Thinking about the long-term in an uncertain world is one of those things that is going to cause you to be self-reflective, to put all of this stuff into perspective.

When it comes to their first jobs, I will tease students saying, “I have a room full of Type A folks. I bet when all of you were getting ready to graduate from high school and you were thinking about what you were going to take in your fall term of freshman year of college, some of you stayed up all night and talked to a million people about what you were going to do. This is going to be life-shattering.”  I say, “You know what, it is 10 years later. Do you even remember what you took fall term freshman year? As you looked back on it, there are only two things that were really important. The first thing you needed to do was learn a lot and the second was to do really well in whatever you took. Whatever you decide to do in your first year, do really well and learn a lot because it’s just going to be one more step on that path to where the future takes you.

P&Q: Many of your students are parents or will soon become one. You talk about having five children and being involved in their lives. What did you learn from your MBA and executive experience that has helped you be a good parent?

HK: To the extent that you become self-reflective and you start to think about what really matters, look back on those six buckets. Have you thought enough about making sure that whatever career you get into, that you really are able to balance what’s most important? If you say that your relationship with your spouse or children is really important, are you making sure that you are allocating enough time to make that really a priority. If not, is it because it is nice to say it was important but it really isn’t, or is it really important and you’re not disciplined enough to make sure you do it? We spend a lot of time talking about what your life balance really is and what should it be. A lot of the leadership concepts–improving your communication skills, setting reasonable expectations, helping people–are incredibly applicable to being a parent.

DON’T MISS: KELLOGG’S $250 MILLION MARVEL ON THE LAKE OR MEET THE CLASS OF 2018 AT KELLOGG