Arnold Chavkin ’77 and Keith Sherin ’91 (EMBA) recently shared their leadership experiences and advice with students as part of the School’s 2012 David and Lyn Silfen Leadership Series.
Chavkin, currently managing director at the private equity firm Pine Brook Road Partners, was previously CIO at J.P. Morgan Partners, a member of Chemical Bank’s merchant banking group, and a generalist in its corporate finance group. He talked about the importance of being open to opportunities as they present themselves in your career.
“The development of one’s career has nothing to do with planning or a vision of what you want to do when you grow up,” Chavkin said, before adding: “I’m 61, and I’m going to decide soon what I want to be when I grow up.”
He believes being an effective leader starts from within and that it is fundamentally different from being a manager or a boss. Chavkin said there are several key attributes that strong leaders have: confidence, self-awareness, empathy, a strong moral core and values, and humility — a managed ego. Chavkin thinks anyone can develop these traits and hone their own effective style of leadership — if they leave a little room for luck.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world. Anyone can do this,” Chavkin said. “The only thing I knew before going into private equity was that I needed skills. Always put yourself in a position where luck can happen to you, then have the skills to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.”
Sherin, vice chairman and CFO of GE, also stressed the importance of being open to unforeseen opportunities along one’s career path. He joined GE 30 years ago as part of its financial management program and has held various financial positions in the company, including CFO for the European plastics business and commercial aircraft engines business — the latter an area he previously planned on avoiding.
“Never say never,” Sherin said. “Opportunities are going to come your way that you can’t plan on. Do things you’re not comfortable with because it will help you later on.”
Sherin advised students to specialize, saying there are no generalists in today’s world, and that developing self-confidence, communication skills, and a personal decision-making compass will help guide them as leaders, even when they fail. “I’ve used up almost all of my nine lives [as a CFO],” Sherin joked. He also encouraged them to do self-assessments throughout their career, and explained that realizing he wouldn’t become a CFO at GE without an MBA led him to the School’s Executive MBA Program. “My Columbia MBA was a game-changer.”
Chavkin and Sherin are both members of Columbia Business School’s Board of Overseers. The David and Lyn Silfen Leadership Series is a unique partnership between students and top executives. The program attracts renowned business leaders from around the world to the School to provide a forum for students to exchange thoughts and ideas with the most important people in business today.