FTG 0050 – Executive Perspectives for Success and Happiness with Former Fortune 500 CEO Lou D’Ambrosio ’86

Episode 1 August 22, 2023 00:46:41
FTG 0050 – Executive Perspectives for Success and Happiness with Former Fortune 500 CEO Lou D’Ambrosio ’86
Following the Gong, a Podcast of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
FTG 0050 – Executive Perspectives for Success and Happiness with Former Fortune 500 CEO Lou D’Ambrosio ’86

Aug 22 2023 | 00:46:41

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Hosted By

Sean Goheen

Show Notes

Overview:

Lou D’Ambrosio ’86, is a Partner at Goldman Sachs, having previously served as a Strategic Senior Advisor to the company. Lou has also been the CEO of Fortune 500 companies and a senior executive across multiple industries. Lou served as Executive Chairman of Sensus, a clean technology company, CEO of Sears Holdings – comprised of Sears, Kmart, and Lands’ End – and CEO of Avaya, Inc., a global telecommunications company after 16 years at IBM. He earned his bachelor of science in management with honors from Penn State’s Smeal College of Business in 1986 and his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1992. Lou joined Following the Gong while he was on campus to receive the Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award. Lou shares his story coming to Penn State as a first generation student from South Philadelphia to the C-suite and his advice for students to succeed regardless of major. He further shares his insights from a robust career as a senior executive leading massive organizations through events like sales and acquisitions, changes in technology, and personal & health challenges. Lou’s business insights and perspectives on what really matters in life make this episode helpful for any Scholar or Scholar Alum at any stage in their journey and career. Lou’s sought after opinions are typically found in national publications and at venues like the World Economic Forum – and here they are focused specifically on helping Schreyer Scholars to make the most of their Scholar experience. His full bio and a detailed breakdown of topics discussed are available in the show notes below.

Guest Bio: 

Lou D’Ambrosio ’86 Business is a Partner at Goldman Sachs, having previously served as a Strategic Senior Advisor to the company where he leads the firm’s Value Accelerator – a platform of distinguished operating executives that partner with CEO's in value creation.

Lou has also been the CEO of Fortune 500 companies and a senior executive across multiple industries. Lou served as Executive Chairman of Sensus, a clean-technology leader in conserving water and energy through smart meters. He was also the CEO of Sears Holdings – comprised of Sears, Kmart, and Lands’ End. Additionally, Lou served as CEO of Avaya, Inc., a global telecommunications company. Earlier in his career, D’Ambrosio spent 16 years at IBM in leadership roles across Software, Services, and Asia Pacific and was a member of IBM’s Worldwide Management Council.

Lou is active in non-profit organizations and served as a trustee of the Jackson Laboratory, a leading biomedical organization. Lou has been a speaker at major conferences, including the World Economic Forum and Interop and has been quoted in leading media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and USAToday.

At Penn State, D’Ambrosio was an Evan Pugh Scholar and University Scholar, graduated summa cum laude, and was the Smeal College of Business’ valedictorian earning his bachelor of science in management with honors in 1986. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1992 during which time he also received the National Business Honor Society Scholarship, the Junior Achievement Foundation Fellowship, and the Distinguished Service Award from Junior Achievement for mentoring inner-city children through Project Hope. He received the Emerging Professional Award in 1998 from the Smeal College of Business. Lou was named a Penn State Alumni Fellow in 2008 and received the Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award, the University’s highest honor for alumni, 2003.

Episode Topics: 

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Credits & Notes:

This show is hosted, produced, and edited by Sean Goheen '11 Lib (Schreyer), '23g Bus.

The artwork was created by Tom Harrington, the College’s Web Developer. 

The sound effect is “Chinese Gong,” accessed via SoundBible used under Creative Commons License. 

The theme music is “Conquest” by Geovane Bruno, accessed via Pixabay and used under Creative Commons License.

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Episode Transcript

Sean Goheen (Host) 00:00:01 Greeting scholars and welcome to Following the Gong, a podcast of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. *GONG SOUND EFFECT* Sean 00:00:12 Following the Gong takes you inside conversations with our Scholar Alumni to hear their story so you can gain career and life advice and expand your professional network. You can hear the true breadth of how Scholar Alumni have gone on to shape the world after they rang the gone and graduated with honors and learn from their experiences so you can use their insights in your own journey. This show is proudly sponsored by the Scholar Alumni Society, a constituent group of the Penn State Alumni Association. I'm your host, Sean Goheen, class of 2011, and college staff member. If this is your first time joining us, welcome. If you're a regular listener, welcome back. *GONG SOUND EFFECT* Sean 00:00:55 Lou D’Ambrosio, class of 1986 is a partner at Goldman Sachs, having previously served as a strategic senior advisor to the company, Lou has also been the c e O of Fortune 500 companies and a senior executive across multiple industries. Lou served as executive chairman of Census, a clean technology company, CEO of Sears Holdings, comprised of Sears, Kmart, Lands End, and CEO of Avaya, Inc. A global telecommunications company. After 16 years at I B M, he earned his Bachelor of Science and Management with honors from Penn State s College of Business in 1986 and his M B A from Harvard Business Role. In 1992, Lou joined following the Gone while he was on campus to receive the Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award. Lou shares his story coming to Penn State as a first generation student from South Philadelphia to the C-Suite and his advice for students to succeed regardless of Major. Sean 00:01:41 He further shares his insights from a robust career as a senior executive leading massive organizations through events like sales and acquisitions, changes in technology and personal and health challenges, Lou's business insights and perspectives on what really matter in life. Make this episode helpful for any scholar or scholar, alum at any stage in their journey and career. Lou sought after opinions are typically found in national publications and at venues like the World Economic Forum. And here they are focused specifically on helping Schreyer Scholars to make the most of their scholar experience. His full bio and a detailed breakdown of the topics discussed are available in the show notes on your podcast app. With that, let's dig into our conversation with Lou D’Ambrosio following the gong. Joining me here today on following the Gong is distinguished alum, Lou D’Ambrosio. Lou, thank you so much for speaking with me today. In Person No Less here at University Park, Lou 00:02:36 Thrilled to be here. It's um, such a great memory. So always love coming back. Thank you. Sean 00:02:40 Well, we're glad to have you here. We're recording on Distinguished Alumni Award weekend. So glad that you're able to join us back here in State College. So Lou, I always like to start by asking how you first came to Penn State and eventually what was then the University Scholars Program? Yeah, look, I Lou 00:02:56 Wish I, I wish I could say it was a very kind of thought out comprehensive evaluative process, but it was pretty much, it was pretty, uh, straightforward actually. You know, I grew up in a blue collar row home in South Philadelphia and on Saturdays it was all about Penn State Football and you got out of the neighborhood, that's where you went. You went to Penn State and it was an extraordinary experience. And then as you say, uh, the Schreyer Honors College was not established yet, but there was the beginning of the University Scholars Program and it was very alluring to me because it, it spoke about the ability to, you know, gain that intimate academic education to be intellectually challenged, to be in small, you know, classroom environments, seminar like environments with grad students and yet also have the vastness, the beauty, the wonders of Penn State. And so that kind of potent blend of attributes was quite appealing to me. Sean 00:03:55 That's great. And I'm sure a lot of our students listening can relate to, you know, Saturdays, Penn State Football and then Sundays either go Birds or go Stillers. So I'm sure that that is pretty relatable for a but it's definitely Go Birds, let's be clear. Oh yes, yes. And that's just to be clear, same in my household too. So Go Birds. Uh, and if you've listened to previous episodes, you know, we interviewed Stefan wti who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles, so go back and check that one out. Now. I'd love if you could give some insights on your experiences, uh, early on in the Scholars program, particularly what it was like being a first generation college student. Yeah, Lou 00:04:25 You know, it was interesting because Penn State provided a widened lens for me to see the world. And yet at the same time, it also provided a, a bit of a mirror to see myself and that journey into college, into the world. It just set the foundation for me. You know, it taught me to know myself, to know how I think it connected me with lifelong friends. And when you're one of the few people from the neighborhood, you know, so to speak, that goes to college, you do feel somewhat of a pressure to kind of, you know, do the right thing. You know, 'cause you're doing it for far more than just yourself, um, for your family, for your friends, for people who may not have had opportunities that you have had. So it was, it was exhilarating, you know, being a first gen college student and so forth. It also keeps you on your toes, you know, you have a certain kind of vigor and resiliency and, you know, argue a bit of a chip on your shoulder and, you know, I think pared in the right way, it could definitely serve to your advantage. Sean 00:05:24 Absolutely. And one of those things, uh, that you put that attitude towards was, you know, something that is unifying feature of the scholar experience from day one and that's the honors thesis. So Lou, can you tell us about what you described in advance was bit of a, a rather unique thesis experience? Yeah, Lou 00:05:40 It was a, it was an extraordinary experience. It was the first time that, um, the scholars program ever had a joint thesis with people from two different colleges. So it was myself in collaboration with Joe Kernan who was in liberal arts. And the thesis, you know, truly left an indelible impression. You know, on me, I remember, you know, our thesis advisor, Lori Perman, and our thesis, the title of our thesis was, it's Funny, and I, I don't remember what I had for breakfast. I remember, you know, my thesis title. The thesis title was What's So New about The New Breed, a study of the alleged changes in American workers values. And in that thesis we actually challenged what had been the current writing at the time that people's values and work were changing. And that white collar workers wanted something different than blue collar workers, you know, and inspired it by my father's life as a blue collar worker and watching the hours he put in and knowing what he ultimately would've loved to have worked, there was no way that I would, was comfortable with the current writing that like I wanted something different from work than he did. Lou 00:06:40 And through a lot of research and discussions and extrapolations, we came to the conclusion that in fact, many people want similar things from work. They may not be expressed in the same way and perhaps, you know, white collar workers have greater events for the expression of it and for the manifestation of it. But one should not confuse the expression of what one values in work with what some of their underlying beliefs are. And the whole thesis in many ways was a bit of a, a tribute to kind of our background and frankly a direct challenge to the current writing that somehow, you know, people with more education value things different in work than maybe those who did not have that same opportunity. Sean 00:07:19 I love that you mentioned you didn't even remember what you had for breakfast today and it's, we're recording this in the morning, which makes that all the funnier and you remember this nearly 40 years later. Yes. I think that really speaks to the impact of the thesis experience and I'm sure it, it influenced your career and your perspective as a C E O to jump ahead a little bit. Is that, is that an accurate assumption? I think it Lou 00:07:38 Is. 'cause I think, I think it began my exploration of what do people value and work. And when I was fortunate enough to kind of ascend into, you know, significant leadership roles, I never lost sight of those learnings of that exploration. And you know, I've been very less fortunate, lucky, et cetera, in, in my career and I've had, you know, several hundred thousand people, you know, kind of working on my teams and I've always tried to be very mindful that you're changing a company but you're also impacting people's lives. And look, of course, it's not all one way or the other. And frankly I try to always, you know, render that dilemma false because it's possible to, to do both. It's not always easy. There's always multiple trade-off, there's also always multiple constituents and you do the very best you can do to kind of optimize the overall situation. But within that context, surely the exploration, the research, the writing of the thesis at Penn State was formidable in the way in which I approached leadership for, you know, some very large companies. Sean 00:08:35 Excellent. And we'll dive into that in a little bit. Uh, I do have one more question about your time here at University Park. So you graduated not only with honors, but at the top of your class, uh, in the SNE College of Business. And you talked about, you know, coming from South Philly, the the mentality of, hey, I've got a chip on my shoulder, wanna work extra hard. What specific strategies did you actually use to put yourself in that position that maybe students even today could apply to their own experiences as they pursue, you know, their 4.0 or whatever other goals that they might have? Lou 00:09:04 That's a great, it's a great question. Look, I would say there's probably, you know, two or three lessons learned. One is that nothing replaces hard work. You could always outwork anyone. So I did spend a lot of time studying and a lot of time preparing. Number two is try to find out what you're good at. For every single one of us, there are certain classes that we take and we say, boy, this is, this is pretty straightforward, this is like pretty natural. And while you see like other struggling and conversely there's other classes where like, you know, people are finding it quite easy and you're like, oh my gosh, this is pretty hard. How do you find that balance? On the one hand, you wanna push yourself outta your comfort zone to take some of those classes which challenge you. But on the other hand, like also gravitate towards your strengths and what you're good at, become great at what you're great at, become superlative at and maybe what you're like just not particularly good at. Lou 00:09:52 Just become okay at. So when you blend hard work to then following your passions or those things that in, in which you excel. And then through the process, I think you would discover who you are and you discover what you want. And like I remember for me, like at times I would be studying on a Friday evening and everybody would be out, I would go meet them afterward. But for some reason I, like, I felt like, you know, maybe I had a bit of an advantage 'cause I was studying until, you know, 10 or 11 o'clock at night. And if, and, and it was a bit of a strategy kind of that I deployed then I had like a terrific time, you know, for the rest of the weekend. So I would say the combination of hard work following your passions and then deploying your own study habits that work uniquely for you. Sean 00:10:32 That is great advice. And I want to continue on with your story. So obviously you graduated from Penn State and then a few years later you went to Harvard Business School. Which one of the top options for anyone who's pursuing an M B A? So how did you approach that experience and what would you tell a scholar who is planning to pursue graduate education at an Ivy League institution like Harvard? Lou 00:10:52 Yeah, so it's, it's, it's an excellent question. Look, first of all, I would say, depending on what graduate degree you're pursuing, I think often, not always, but often doesn't make sense to maybe take a couple years out of college to work a bit to help hone your craft, hone your interest, be more reflective of who you are and what you want and what you want to pursue. And for me, I, I actually graduated and then did not start Harvard Business School for four years. It was a great time for me to just really kind of get to know who I wanted, that I did want to pursue in a career, in business. In terms of like preparation, you know, for kind of a top graduate program, I think there are two pieces of advice I would give, which prima fassa seemed contradictory, but they're actually not. Lou 00:11:36 The first is do the research and understand what type of candidates is that school looking for. So understand what type of steps, what types of actions, what type of experiences would be helpful to you to become a strong candidate. The second recommendation or suggestion, which again in some ways seems contradictory to the first one, but it's not, is to follow your unique path. Because where I've seen people are is actually on both sides. Where on the one hand they may have not had the type of experience they're gonna put themselves to be a competitive candidate. But on the other hand, I've seen people try to, you know, erroneously kind of follow a certain playbook that they think that everybody who goes to, you know, Harvard Business School or Yale Law School or pick your favorite type of, you know, grad school you want to go to that they try to ha they try to be like the prototypical applicant. Lou 00:12:24 The problem is there's gonna be 10,000 other protocol typical applicants. So what is your story? Like, what makes you, you like, what makes the reader of the application say, wow, that's kind of an interesting story. Surely the grades have to be there and the credentials have to be there and the experience have to be there. But you tell your story, all of your story, be all of who you are, and number one, you'll give yourself the greatest chance to be accepted into one of these programs. But number two is if you're not, you weren't not because you were trying to fake you or someone else be who you are, crush it, make the applicant and readers see it and then let faith play out. Sean 00:13:01 I think that makes a lot of sense. 'cause eventually you're gonna have to be yourself anyway, so why not do it right from the beginning. Exactly. Lou 00:13:06 'cause you think about it, like you, I uh, we've all been in these situations where you do these, you know, mock reading of applications and like how do you pick between candidate 1, 2, 3, 4, 5? They're all extraordinary. One of the ways you pick is based on the how interesting a certain application was. Just, it was interesting. They did something, did something that was just kind of different from what others had done. Not in a way that like tries too hard to be different, but in a way that is authentic but unique. And you could, and you want the kind of the reader of the application to say, you know what, I think you know, she or he would be a wonderful member of our class. So Sean 00:13:40 You spent a few years in industry go to B School at Harvard, then you come back to industry and a large part of your career early on was spent at I B M. So I was wondering if you could tell us some of the lessons that you learned either before or after B-School that would be helpful for scholars. And then on that same vein, what are you seeing now as a senior leader with early career professionals that would be helpful for our current scholars and young scholar alumni who are early in their careers as well to help them succeed in their early stages. As Lou 00:14:09 You said, the first, you know, 16 years or so of my career were with, you know, I b m I've been at it now for 38 years or whatever. So a little less than a half of, of, uh, of my career. I would say the first point I'd make is the very decision to go to work for I b m. You know, when I graduated business school, everybody was going into like investment banking or consulting and I was very fortunate to have offers in those areas. But for me, going to I b m felt right, it's what I wanted to do. It was aligned to what was important to me at the time, which was to build a set of skills and to get things done and to make an impact. And candidly, I just really liked the people there a lot. First thing I would say is when you make the choice of where you're going to go to work, have it a place that's aligned to what's important to you. Lou 00:14:56 Second thing I would say is when you are there, and what I tried to do was find those areas where you can make an impact. And that's not to say like your first 1, 2, 3 times you're gonna find that place out. You're gonna find certain jobs or certain roles that you're like pretty good at, but not differentiating good at. But then you start to find the areas that you are differentiating good at. And I tried to really kind of move my career into those areas, you know, that for me personally, kind of blend in strategy and operations and business development and the ability to kind of, you know, lead groups and then one success led to another success and you get yourself into a very nice virtuous cycle. And also being alert to the different types of roles in an organization and the alignment between that role and your skills. Lou 00:15:40 'cause if you look at much of the research, particularly the, the more recent research, most people are not inherently excellent or awful. Where success often comes from is where there is the right fit. So try to find those roles where your skillset, where those superpowers that you possess are particularly important for that type of job. Because then you will be extraordinary, then you will be excellent. Doesn't mean you'll be excellent in another job. So guess what? The others you shouldn't go to go to the job where you could be excellent, find that fit. All the research shows the people who are most successful is the alignment of the requirements of the role and the skillset. And those very people in another job would not have done well. And those people who did well, frankly put in the work to understand what types of roles they could exceed in. So Sean 00:16:22 Lou, this was not on the the questions I had written out, but there's turning the expression of what got you there is not going to get you there, there's different variations of that. So how do you know you, you get really good at a role. How do you know when it's time to elevate yourself to the next one knowing that it will take a different set of skills to succeed in those elevating levels of leadership? Lou 00:16:41 Yeah, I think one of the more toxic environments that one could be in is where one becomes to stagnate. And when you stop growing, when you stop learning, I think you find yourself starting to look at other types of opportunities. So I think for employers it's important to continue to kind of challenge the team. And I think for the employees you wanna have a, a mentality of continuous learning, always be on the pursuit of looking to learn. When you're in one role and you're thinking about the next role, thinking about the very skills that it takes for that role. Observe the people. Who do you want to emulate? Who do you not want to emulate? Which attributes do you want to combine? Which, which attributes of which people do you want to amalgamate into something that is uniquely you? And because I don't know one's deep quantitative skills and excellence in making predictions tied to machine learning could be excellent in job A, if you're going to another job in job B where it's as much, I don't know, deductive as well as inductive reasoning. Lou 00:17:41 And then there's a leadership component upon that. Do you have the dexterity of skills to continue to evolve? And I think kind of a central tenant thought on this whole topic is just a continuous reinvention of oneself. Are you constantly looking to be the best version of yourself, not for your current role, but for your future role. And then in that role for the next role, and this has less to do with title or level or what have you, it has to do with kind of being true to yourself, being fulfilled and continuing to reinvent yourself to what you want that ultimate version to be. Sean 00:18:14 So speaking of that ultimate version, you progressed up through the leadership at I B M and then eventually you were tapped to be the c e o of not one, but two different large companies in different industries, and particularly at a young age for those. So, and and and even then you didn't found those companies either, they were preexisting companies. So it's a little bit of a different experience from somebody who maybe starts a, uh, a startup and, and founds it. Did you always know that you wanted to do that or how did you go about identifying that that's where you wanted to go? And again, trying to, going back to the last question maybe bound on, how did you start setting yourself up to take on that c e o role? Yeah, Lou 00:18:49 And look, I mean it's, it's um, it's very thoughtful. I mean, in this year I must say that I actually always did have a desire to lead significant organizations and to blend kind of a deep thoughtfulness with an effective leadership. And you know, I've been able to accomplish that multiple times in my life and my career. And I do think part of it is, you know, gravitating to those things you're good at. And I think this happens to be everywhere, both from a knowledge perspective as well as a stylistic perspective. I've been able to thrive, but I'm constantly, you know, reevaluating myself and reevaluating ways to get better. In terms of the journey itself, look, first and foremost, I think you have to deliver results. Secondly, mentorship is very important and mentorship is really your responsibility. Yes, there's certain companies which actually do it better, more systemically than others, but you need to think through who to reach out to. Lou 00:19:44 I remember interestingly, I was here probably 25 years ago at Penn State receiving, I think it was called the Emerging Alumni Award. And I remember, you know, working at that meeting that I was at was a person named Ryan Newman. And Ryan, you know, liked what I said or enjoyed what he said or whatever the case may be. And he took it upon himself after that meeting to reach out to me, you know, in many ways, in a very polite way asking if I could like help mentor him. And you know, 25 years later, we're dear friends, we still have this kind of mentorship relationship and we work together in different uh, ways and so forth. So that was Ryan doing it. That to me is a perfect example of somebody who happens to be working at an event and they see somebody that says something that happens to resonate to somebody. Lou 00:20:28 That person took it amongst themselves to do it. So deliver results, move to the areas you're excellent at, you own your mentorship. And then the last point I'd make is that you also own your career. Again, there's certain companies who have wonderful management training programs and bosses who look out for you and so forth. Don't ever be confused. You own your career and if things aren't going well, think through ways to make it better and work with those people you care about to help find yourself in the right situation. And I think, you know, frankly, through all of those techniques where to have you, I've been able to kind of embrace them and you know, I've had my own mentors who've been extraordinary to me and, um, it's worked out well. Sean 00:21:06 Well, I'm glad you hit on that because mentorship is the overarching theme of this podcast and I really like the take it and be active with it. I think that's great advice among all the other great nuggets that you just dropped there. Lou, now two part question for you about being a c e O. What did you enjoy about that type of role and then what was something that really surprised you once you got into the role that you just never expected from having worked your way up? I would Lou 00:21:30 Say the part that I enjoyed the most was the ability to impact a company and impact people. So a person can really make a big difference in changing the very course of a company. And I think what I was so appreciative of, but I don't think I fully internalized until I was in those roles, is how much of an impact you could also have on people's lives. The people go home and part of their happiness will be based on how effective of a leader you were or were not. And that is an incredibly rewarding opportunity to impact a company, change the course of a company, but also impact lives along the way. And that impacting lives is probably the one that was a bit of a, you know, beautiful kind of exceeding my expectations. I guess if there's a, is there's a flip side to that is sometimes when it comes to some of the people aspects of it, you know, you wear that stuff very heavily, you know, because sometimes these are not always the easiest discussions are easiest decisions and so forth. So sometimes the people decisions, discussions, et cetera, are more difficult than some of the really difficult challenging business problems. Sean 00:22:38 It's no longer a case study in, in besol. It's, it's with people in real lives, right? Versus life. So one of the, those companies that you had a real impact on was a company called Avaya, did I pronounce that right? Yep. Um, and you led them through a sale and acquisition process. So how did you navigate that for both yourself as the leader, but also for your employees? Does that can be an exciting and a scary proposition for everybody involved? Yeah, so Lou 00:23:00 Look, it was, it was a heck of a journey. I mean, Avaya was spun out from at and t and loosen basically the phone company from at and t Loosen and I became c e o when the company had recently actually gone public. And it was a brand new company, it was a brand new public company. So it was this kind of blend of, you know, you had tens of thousands of people, but yet as a standalone company was new. And how do you build a team? How do you build a governance? How do you kind of establish the right motivation? How do you make the, you know, that fine distinction in strategies. You know, at the time there was, you know, the phone strategy, not to be technical here, but with something called T D M and there was a big debate in terms of whether or not phone calls could be made over the internet, you know, voiceover ip. Lou 00:23:39 And it's one of these things, it's obviously after it's obvious, like now it's obvious, of course, you know, you can make phone calls over the internet, but back then it was like this, like, you know, holy war in terms of, you know, voice is different, it's not a regular application. And I was a big believer had it, having been in technology that in fact you could have the voice application quote unquote, um, over the internet. So the ability to kind of redirect the company to, you know, voice over IP was incredibly rewarding. And then we had, you know, great growth, the stock price went up, you know, quite high. And then we had, you know, what you'll hear in the industry refer to as strategic options, you know, which was do we make acquisitions? Do we go private? Which we ultimately did, do we combine with another large company? Lou 00:24:20 And I'm saying those decisions, there's two elements. One is the, the bylaws per se prescribe certain optimization equations, like the shareholders have a duty in these following areas and that's like clear what that is. And likewise, there's the things that are kind of less objective, but equally important, which is who are all the other stakeholders? You know, what's the right action for the customers? Importantly, what's the right action for the employees? How do you set something else up so forth. And in that decision, you know, we decided that, you know, going private was the right decision. And if I contrast that, I had the opportunity to lead a, a large kind of clean tech company. It's a smart meter company called Census. And I led that company, which was private at the time, and we decided a few years later that the right next step for that company was to combine with a large strategic company, which was in the, you know, clean water area company called Xylem. So one situation going private was the right situation with census, combining with a strategic party was the right decision and it's the sophistication or best possible job you could do at having a sophisticated view of looking at all the constituents, all the variables, and what is the right strategic decision for the company. Sean 00:25:34 So I imagine that was kind of stressful going through all of your, all of these decisions and you shared in advance that you actually ended up stepping away from your career for a little bit to focus on your health. So can you tell us about the experience and Oh yeah, how you realized that that was something that you needed to do? Yeah, Lou 00:25:49 I I, I, again, it's one of these decisions where I wish I had the kind of the thoughtfulness or the objectivity to make decision to make the decision versus the decision being made for me. So look, I mean, long story short, I was, you know, in the prime of my career, I was 43 years old, I was leading a Fortune 500 company. I was getting ready to give a big keynote speech for 20,000 people. I was feeling a little under the weather, I was given certain medications to kind of get me to feel better. And without going into all the specifics, basically one of the medications I had a, an allergic basically reaction to and essentially attacked my body and it induced something coello protease and a compromised fibroblast. And long story short, um, two weeks later found myself no longer able to walk. I'll never forget this. Lou 00:26:35 We were with, uh, my wife and I and our two kids who were young at the time. We were in Disney World and it was pouring raining and I could not get up. And we did the best to try to, you know, have the kids think it was some type of game we were playing. It isn't a fun to get, you know, soaked and so forth. But in fact, you know, my body was just given out on me. You know, I lost 35 pounds, I lost tremendous amount of muscle mass and essentially for two years I could not walk. And when that happens to you, life gets jolt into its proper perspective. Um, I had no choice but to kind of take care of my health. And after much exploration the medical field, we found that the answer, thank goodness, was not, it was not a disease, it was an effect that was happening to my body, but that would fix itself once the cells reset themselves. Lou 00:27:21 And that's exactly what happened. The cells kind of reset themselves. I began to gradually feel better, and then I kind of, you know, recovered 100%. And just to kind of go under that theme and then like when I got better, my wife was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, thank God, after a couple years of treatments, she fully recovered. So it's kind of interesting and, and I think this hopefully will be helpful to, to some of the student listeners, which is always try to do your best to put things in perspective. As my wife and I now look back at those two incidences pretty much back to back, we feel very fortunate in some crazy way that they happened because it accelerated our life perspectives by probably 15 years. And it allowed us to make choices in life with the benefit of that, that we probably otherwise would not have made. Lou 00:28:08 And so while they were, you know, horrible, you know, three, four or five years and you know, our kids kind of went through it during those tough times, it gave us a perspective that we otherwise would not have had. So the people I admire are the people who are able to kind of jolt themselves into a life perspective without having to be in a wheelchair or without having to have had cancer. But that they have just a wherewithal to have done it. And yes, it was an, it, it was an adjustment for me from, you know, being, you know, on the cover of magazines and speaking at the World Economic Forum and, you know, young and one of the youngest CEOs of a Fortune 500 company to then no longer able to walk to then, you know, working with, with my family and my wife's situation. But in the end, I wouldn't trade it for anything because it allowed us to have the perspective we have to and the family that we have today. Sean 00:28:52 Well, I'm glad that you both are fully recovered and thank you able to join us at University Park this weekend to celebrate your accomplishments as we're recording this and more importantly, glad that you were able to pull perspective from that and share that with our scholars. So, you know, listening that email, sometimes it can wait till the next day, right? You know, that homework assignment, you know, you gotta get it done, but take a breather, enjoy, smell the roses. Right? It's true. Lou 00:29:14 But I, you know, look, I gotta tell you though, it's, it's so true and it's so easy to give that perspective to others. And then when it's you, sometimes it's just more difficult. So my kind of counsel to the people listening would be find people in your lives who, if you cannot always put things in the right perspective that they will help you do that. You need people who could help you kind of with that. And by the way, like there's trade offs because some of these other roles and some of these other accolades are forth, you gotta work darn hard for. So again, how do you kind of carve out that path in life where you render that dilemma false? And am I gonna work hard and succeed or am I gonna put things in perspective and be happy? That's a false dilemma. Carve out for you your life uniquely, how you render that dilemma. False. How you create an equation that's uniquely you to get the best of what you want out of life. Sean 00:30:03 I think that is really good to look at that way sometimes these false dichotomies that we, we box ourselves into. Now you rebounded, got well again, your wife rebounded, got well again. And it's pretty common for folks who are either currently or have been CEOs and other roles in the C-suite, like the chief legal officer, the chief financial officer, the c o o to serve on boards of other companies and nonprofits. So can you tell us a little bit about what that type of work is like and more importantly for those who get the opportunity to do something like that, how do you go about choosing to say yes or no to those opportunities? Great Lou 00:30:35 Question. And I think <laugh> and, and, and the answer to the last part of your question, I do think you have to be very deliberate with your decisions. 'cause like once you say yes to something, like you really have to do it right. It's not like, you know, I'm gonna do it and like, you know, it'll feel good the first day and like, you know, someone wrote a press release, like you actually have to do it then. So I would be very deliberate about it. All your passions, like what do you care about, what do you care about? I've been on, you know, boards of, of an orphanage for a decade, a biomedical research nonprofit, which is looking at which genes cause which diseases and what type of cellular intervention could change the very course of the disease. I've been on trustee boards for theater companies. I care about every one of those, whether it's children, whether it's science and healthcare. And I must admit, as we went through our own situation, we became deeply engaged in, in, in the whole era of healthcare or whether it's the arts. Follow your passions and if you're gonna commit to something, do it right. Do not be one of these board members who shows up, you know, at every other meeting. If you're gonna do it, engage and do it. And it's incredibly fulfilling when you do Sean 00:31:39 Well as a volunteer manager in my day job. I appreciate that advice and I would wholeheartedly echo that, Lou, but this is kind of my side hustle in my job is running this podcast and you as a c e o um, and executive have even found your own side hustle, if you will. Can you talk about how you got into some music, even though your primary experience was in consumer brands and telecommunications? Yeah, you know, Lou 00:32:01 It's interesting. I mean, I have always loved music, like really loved music, but loved it from a consumer perspective. I consume music, actually both my kids are, are into music. My daughter's released a few songs actually. But as I progressed in my career, you know, as a c e O and led large companies and so forth, you find yourself kind of continuing to intersect with different ecosystems and group and so forth. And I became involved in, you know, with several people in the theater world and understanding that world and so forth. And then it's very interesting, Sean, 'cause it's, it goes back to your earlier question. It was the intersection of a couple of my non-profit passions that kind of catalyzed my work in this area. So when I was kind of the cheer of an orphanage and we were having a gala for the orphanage, we brought in different, you know, stars from Broadway to perform one of those stars is a person who starred in Hamilton for five years, a woman named Mandy Gonzalez. Lou 00:32:54 And we began to work together and I was her dream to put together an album and she has a fabulous voice. She's accomplished. She, you know, uh, originated the role of Nina Rosario and in the Heights then played Angelica Skyler for five years in Hamilton. She's dear friends with Lynn Manuel Miranda. Anyway, we work together and I, you know, proudly now get the credit as the executive producer of her album, which is called Fearless. And the funny, not the funny thing, but the great story is like the day it was released, I'll beit a moment in time. It was number 13 on the iTunes charts between Ed Sheeran and Beyonce. And fortunately my daughter screenshotted it. It didn't last long there, but for that moment in time it was there. And this woman, Manley has an extraordinary voice. So I've, whether it's kind of supporting shows per se, are executive producing a world class talents album. Um, yes, side hustle, passion call you one, you have to find out my early point who you are. And sure some of your lifetime is carved out for that. Sean 00:33:48 This is an audio only podcast, but if you could see Lou right now, he is just glowing talking about this. So definitely a, a cool, uh, accomplishment that you've exactly, that you've added to your impressive resume already. And speaking of talent, it's not a surprise at all. And you've referenced this early in our conversation as a scholar alum, you've been asked for your expert opinion, both as an advisor right now for Goldman Sachs, but also numerous publications, magazines and conferences like the World Economic Forum. How do you approach those opportunities, whether it's an in interview for, say the Wall Street Journal or something like that, or speaking to you said 20,000 people as a keynote. I Lou 00:34:22 Would say three things. Number one is, and it goes, goes back to one of the kind of central themes that we've spoken about here, which is you put the work in, you understand who's gonna be at the conference, what's happening, what's of interest, what's happening economically in the world, what's happening geopolitically in the world, you know, thinking about today's environment with what's happening with, on the economy, with interest rates, with consumer buy-in and the geopolitical world with Ukraine, with China. So when you're speaking at some of these large forms that have a global audience, you wanna make sure that you're speaking at a level that is of relevancy, that is of interest to the people. Whether it's a business conference or a governmental event, or whether it's a kind of non-profit. You wanna understand who the audience is and substantively craft the narrative on areas that they actually care about. Lou 00:35:11 Number two is you wanna speak in an engaging style. One of the reasons why chat G B T right now has become so alluring to so many people is be because of its mastery of language. And people in an audience, when they hear somebody speak, both how people speak and the phraseology that they use connote a certain competency in a specific area. So I think in addition to kind of the prep, the stylistic engagement matters a lot. You wanna keep somebody's interest. And number three for keynotes, like no one to be quiet, like no one to, no one to stop talking. I mean, how many, I guess the people on the, you know, listen to the podcast. Like how many speeches were you ever part of that when they ended you said, my gosh, I wish that just went a little longer. Like zero, like zero, zero. Okay, maybe one, probably not though. So like, you know, no one to shut up Sean 00:35:59 And also never ever start a speech by saying, I'm gonna keep my remarks short because inevitably that's a sign that it's not going to be short. Exactly. Lou 00:36:07 Exactly. I mean, there's little tips, right? Like, you know, if it is a little bit of a longer side, make sure you help people like, and I just have, you know, two more quick points left so they know, okay, my gosh, at least there's only kind of two points left. You know, I I I I I prefer structure, like, you know, we're gonna talk about three major things, tell people how long it's gonna be, but, but, but mostly have content they actually care about stylistically engage them and no one to be quiet. Sean 00:36:28 Well, speaking of that structure, we're going to move into the last part of our conversation. This is the reflective question. So Lou, what kinds of questions about corporate management and your experiences as senior leader? Did I not think to ask, or putting it another way, what kind of questions do you get from student mentees or business journalists that I could have asked you but I didn't think to right now, Lou 00:36:47 One of the questions that's frankly apropos and on many people's minds is the whole discussion of, of artificial intelligence and what that's what's gonna happen with kind of roles and so forth. And first of all, AI is not taking over. There's no kind of sation being out there that's gonna like, you know, kind of take over this world and so forth. I think there's gonna be certain jobs which are gonna be augmented. I think the knowledge level overall in the world increases. Um, I think we have to embrace the technology, put the right governance around the right structure to it. So one of the questions I've recently gotten was around, you know, what types of jobs are most at risk and so forth and, you know, general summarizing jobs. Yeah. Like some of them, you know, may be challenged 'cause some of these large language models are pretty extraordinary, but guess what? Lou 00:37:27 There's always been technology innovations and so forth. So you have to just continue back to one of our early points, continue to reinvent your skillset. Another question I got I get frequently is, you know, have you seen a set of skills evolve over the last, you know, 35 to 40 years in terms of what it takes to be successful? And I would say not really, but with one caveat there not really is that, you know, substantive depth matters, leadership matters, the ability to kind of bring together teams matter. All those things have have been consistent, you know, over decades and will continue to be decades, forever. I would say this, this first point though, substantive death depth, particularly in areas like technology companies has become increasingly important. So if you look at, you know, 25 years ago, oftentimes technology companies were run by quote unquote business people. Now you're seeing many of those technology companies with leaders who also have frankly some pretty good technical chops, I think for your students and so forth. Like what's most important is to work your tail off, find the areas that are of passion to you and continue to kind of search out, seek that mentorship and own your career. And I would've said the same thing 35 years ago. Sean 00:38:32 Now, what would you say besides maybe charting an album between Beyonce, NA Shein would is your biggest success to date? That's Lou 00:38:38 Easy. Uh, my family, that sounds so corny, but it's so true. Like it's everything. It's um, it's everything. Sean 00:38:44 I think that's a great answer. And I think a lot of our guests have said similar sentiments as well. I Lou 00:38:48 Mean, look, I, you know, and Penn State brings a lot of that about, I mean, I went to college here, but in many ways through me, so did my parents. Um, one of the first philanthropic endeavors that our family, you know, launched was, uh, a, a scholarship from my dad, Marty D'Ambrosio scholarship, which, you know, we probably have, I don't know, 50 plus recipients, you know, who've received it over the years. So his legacy in endorses though, he never went there, but you know, he never had the opportunity, you know, he, I went to high school, but so what I went there and so did he and so did my mom. My mom was actually with me this weekend. My, my dad unfortunately passed away. And, you know, my wife and our two kids, that's, that's my greatest, that's life. As recently a younger colleague who's starting to raise, you know, starting to have children ask me, you know, oh yeah, here, you know, starting a family changes your life or whatever. Not really. It becomes life. It is life. So for me, my greatest accomplishment is the relationship to myself, my wife Kim, daughter, Alexis son Christopher, that bond, we've gotten that part of it. Right. That's Sean 00:39:48 Awesome. I think that's all you can really hope for in life. But on the flip side, Lou, what would you say is your biggest transformational learning moment or failure and what you took from that experience? That's Lou 00:39:57 An excellent question. Um, I would say I wish that it's a little, what we talked about earlier, that I was jolted into a life perspective, life reality because of an illness. Like, I think I tried to keep a really good prioritization on life before that, but I, I probably w I, I do wish I, I could have done a better job in certain areas. I would say that the sooner one could internalize two, what, what's really of motivation to them, the better I've learned over the years how much of a motivational learning is for me. And like, I think I always realized that, but maybe if I internalized that earlier, I would've potentially been better at different things I've done. But I've always tried to be open-minded in terms of learning. Yeah. So those are some things. Sean 00:40:39 So Lou, you mentioned a few folks already, but are there any professors or friends from your scholar days that you'd like to give a shout out to? Oh, Lou 00:40:46 Sure. Like, so like a couple of my, you know, dear buddies, you know, Steve Morty and his wife Gina Morty, our dear friends, I was, you know, Steve's best man in his wedding. And, and Gina and we're all have stayed super, super close. Joe Kernan my collaborator on my thesis still today. We talk about the thesis. It's interesting, right? 'cause we talk about a thesis both in terms of like how relevant it was and how relevant it is. And then maybe, if I'm being fair, how potentially idealistic it was in certain areas as well. But that's okay. That's okay. Like we can reflect, you know, it was like a, you know, a 21 year old, you know, may have been starry eye, but yet there were seeds of it, which kind of transcended time. And, uh, so Joe Kernan, Ryan Newman obviously is younger than me, but he's still a dear friend. Lou 00:41:29 Teachers Vicki aptt left a profound mark on me. Um, she's actually a social psychologist, but really kind of was instrumental in thinking about people's behavior within groups and how the groups act and the individual's behavior within the group. And I, I, you know, some of the learnings of that all the way through, you know, leading large companies. I take with me any joy at the business school, the honor of walking down with Denny when, you know, when we did the graduation and, you know, he's one of the folks who introduced me when I was very blessed to give the, um, the graduation speech when we graduated. So yeah, great memories. I I keep those people, you know, some of 'em, like literally I still keep with all the time and some of 'em for sure in my mind. Sean 00:42:06 Now you've mentioned a lot of great pieces of advice that definitely tie to our mission statement, whether it's academic excellence and your thesis in grad school building global perspective. You talked about, especially with kind of the, the big picture in speaking and understanding the environments around you and creating opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Obviously you've had a lot of leadership roles and dropped some great nuggets of knowledge around leading teams in large organizations. But is there a final piece of advice that you wanna leave our scholars with today? Be who Lou 00:42:35 You are. Embrace who you are. Don't worry about what other people think. You answer to nobody but yourself. You worry about what you want to do and if you know your 10 best friends that you're graduating with are going to company X, but in your gut, you'd rather go to company y, you go to company y, do not follow her mentality. Do what's right for you. And by the way, like if in fact you wanna go to the same place that all your 10 friends are going to go to that same place, like don't not do it because they're going there, but just follow your dreams. You know who you are. Everybody has their own unique equation. Everybody has their own calculus and they know what matters to them. Don't worry about what others thinks. You go what works for you. Making a lot of money works for you and that's what you care about. Lou 00:43:13 Don't worry about some people perceiving it as, you know, vanity or what have you. If doing something for social good matters to you, don't worry about other people saying, you know, well how much money are you making if you wanna wear a tie every day? And that's what the company says, if you wanna wear shorts every day, if you wanna wear flip flops every day, you do what works for you. And I'm telling you what I've seen is people who try to do what either they think somebody else wants them to do or what their parents want them to do, or what their friends think they should do, or what they think sounds good. All that stuff's baloney. You follow your dreams, you be all that you could be and start with that immediately. And you'll look back 40 years later, 50 years later and say, thank goodness I started my life early. I started my career early in being true to whom I am. Sean 00:43:52 Couldn't have said it any better if I tried. So if a scholar wanted to reach out to you and kind of like you said, Ryan Newman walked up to you, love and Lou 00:44:00 LinkedIn is the best way. LinkedIn. Yeah. So have 'em reach out to me on LinkedIn. Excellent. I i I will kind of, you know, get right back to them and uh, you know, you know, based on where they're located, you know, work with you and Sean and the team. We'll, you know. And Sean 00:44:11 Finally our last question as we always do here on following the gong. If you were a flavor of Burke Creamery ice cream, Lou, which would you be? And most importantly as a scholar alum, why would you be that flavor? Hmm. Lou 00:44:23 I think I'd have to go with, um, I'm not even sure if they still have it any longer. It was like called like, I think it was like W P S U Coffee Break. That's Sean 00:44:32 It, that's the name. Is that still there? Yep. Oh yeah, that's a staple. I think Lou 00:44:34 I have to do that 'cause like, it's, it for two reasons. One is I love espresso. So even though it's not saying like, you know, espresso break, like let's just substitute coffee for espresso, but let's go with Coffee break. Just because it's something that I have to constantly tell myself that it's okay sometimes to take a break. It's okay sometimes to step back and think. So if I ate ice cream, whether it's, you know, it it, it'll be like an, it'll be like another like kind of have Ian signal that I need to take a break. And I would say there are scholars. Um, next time you're having something at a creamery, try coffee break and spend maybe 10 seconds, 15 seconds just reflecting on what really is important to you in life. Sean 00:45:11 Lou, that was a absolutely stellar answer to why you would be a specific flavor. I think a lot of times folks angle in the coffee. I love that you angled on the break in the name Lou D’Ambrosio Lou 00:45:20 Espresso too. Don't forget. Oh yes. I'm just saying yes, you know? Yes, Sean 00:45:23 As somebody who consumes way too much coffee, I appreciate all of it. <laugh> Lou D’Ambrosio, you have been the CEO of too many companies to name right here, but you can read it in the notes in your podcast app. Thank you so much for joining us here live in person for Following the Gong. I enjoyed our conversation and I hope you two listening did as well. Lou 00:45:40 Thank You Sean. It's really, really, really delight to be here. *GONG SOUND EFFECT* Sean 00:50:29 Thank you Scholars for listening and learning with us today. We hope you will take something with you that will contribute to how you shape the world. This show proudly supports the Schreyer Honors College Emergency Fund, benefiting Scholars experiencing unexpected financial hardship. You can make a difference at raise.psu.edu/schreyer. Please be sure to hit the relevant subscribe, like, or follow button on whichever platform you are engaging with us on today. You can follow the College on Instagram and LinkedIn to stay up to date on news, events, and deadlines. If you have questions about the show or are a Scholar Alum who'd like to join us as a guest here on Following the Gong, please connect with me at [email protected]. Until next time, please stay well and We Are!

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