MBA success stories: Ian Walker, University of Edinburgh Business School (UK)

In terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR), few global corporates have made such a strong commitment to supporting the communities in which they operate as healthcare multi-national Johnson & Johnson.

Ian Walker, Corporate Citizenship Director at Johnson & Johnson, is responsible for the company’s citizenship in Africa within the Johnson & Johnson Worldwide Corporate Global Community Impact team, guiding the company’s strategic philanthropy in a region that has significant healthcare and humanitarian needs.

With a mission of making life-changing, long-term differences in human health, the World Wide Corporate Contributions team’s partnerships focus on: saving and improving the lives of women and children; preventing disease in vulnerable populations; and strengthening the healthcare workforce.

Having completed his MBA at University of Edinburgh Business School, Walker retains close links with the Business School, encouraging a passion for sustainability and corporate social responsibility in the leaders of tomorrow.

2017 marks ‘the year of the MBA’ as AMBA celebrates 50 years of the MBA outside of the US – how did completing an MBA impact you and your career?
I graduated from Edinburgh University Business School 25 years ago with an MBA and joined Johnson & Johnson straight after that. The MBA really opened the door to Johnson & Johnson for me as it taught me strategy and management but also, importantly, the language of business. I wasn’t the finished article when I finished my MBA and the real learning came in the corporate environment, but it gave me a really strong foundation from which to build my career. Without the MBA, I couldn’t speak the language of business.

Tell us about your career journey – how have you made it into your current position?
My first role at Johnson & Johnson was as a commercial executive, so not quite sales and not quite accounts. I was involved in pricing strategy and international tendering across the entire international portfolio. This gave me a great understanding of how the business works.

I then moved into sales management. It’s common in the company for aspirational mangers to be placed in a sales role so they can understand the customer piece. I worked there for three years before I took on marketing director positions across the UK, Europe and the US. 
From there I was promoted to Managing Director for the Africa region and was responsible for our export business. At the time, we worked on a classic distributor model and sold to intermediaries in each of the countries in which we operated.

However, there was one team in charge of French-speaking countries, based in Paris, and another for the English-speaking nations, based in the UK. My remit was to consolidate this and bring it together. I did this and doubled the size of our business in the region. We were awarded the Queen’s Award for International Trade, and after that, I decided I needed a new challenge and made it known that I wanted something different. That led me to my current role, heading up the Global Community Impact team in Africa.

Talk to us about the projects that are exciting you most at the moment.
At Johnson & Johnson, we’re passionate about giving something back and being philanthropic but this corporate-giving strategy needs to be managed. It’s a great role and a nice place to be. I find it very rewarding. Last year, I was lucky to be able to attend an event to celebrate the money we’d raised for a Burns Unit at a hospital at Soweto. In South Africa, burns are a difficult fact of life, and we have been able to support the hospital to raise funds to enhance its facilities. It was remarkable to see this in action.

The future success of our economy depends on leaders who are innovative, responsible and value sustainability – do Business Schools have a way to go to ensure these qualities are nurtured and developed?
I have given a number of talks to MBA and MSc students at Edinburgh University on programmes about social values and responsible business. These courses focus on how CSR impacts on business and society and has been really well-received by students. This wasn’t an option when I completed my MBA, but millennials are much more aware of the role of social business and responsible management.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing business leaders in such a fast-paced global market?
The biggest challenge is that we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. The global markets are upset with uncertainty and business leaders need to handle this.

I believe there are three types of growth: sustainable, profitable and compliant. If companies grow in one of these ways, even if profit does not come in the short term, they are in a position to grow more over the longer term. These are the building blocks of long term sustainable growth alongside CSR and great employee engagement. Cost-cutting is an issue in the current climate, but there are very few examples of organisations that have cut themselves to grow – in the long term you’ve got to invest to grow.

AMBA has been working on a programme to nurture economic growth in Africa through connecting employers with Business Schools. What are your aims for further harvesting the potential in the region?
I have worked in Africa for 10 years. I know Africa is an incredibly exciting region and the opportunity for the continent is massive. I do feel though that the West has been slow to realise this opportunity – while China has made a concerted effort to focus on Africa. What is China seeing that the West is not? Perhaps too many corporates have resigned Africa to the ‘too difficult’ box. This is remiss. It’s important to build a foundation for Africa’s growth. Johnson & Johnson has been working in partnership a number of Business Schools in Africa and areas like leadership, management and administration need to be honed. There are great business leaders in Africa – but there is still work to be done to nurture their potential.

Johnson & Johnson is a major recruiter of MBA graduates; what skills would you as a leader look for in MBA recruits?
I’d like to flip the question and focus on the worst skills an MBA could present. That would be saying they are ‘strategic’. The best MBAs strategise – but they also think and execute their ideas. Tactical execution is the bridge between an idea and results. That’s why we put would-be managers into sales roles – so they can experience tactical execution of corporate strategy.

The best MBAs are able to operate within a middle ground of strategy and operational execution; this is how they drive growth. Great leaders have a vision and this is how they keep people with them. Everybody can have good ideas, making them work in practice is the differential.

What would your advice be to those completing their MBAs?
My main piece of advice would be to be open to new ideas. The world is changing and you can never be sure where the next door to opportunity will open. Those who are not open to ideas are locking out potential sources of innovation or entrepreneurship. Be open to new experiences. Take a sideways or even a downwards move in your career in order to move up.

Also remember your career trajectory is not a marathon, it’s a series of sprints. Sprint when you feel excited about something, then rest and keep fresh so you’re energised for the next sprint. Think of your career being like Usain Bolt.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business in an increasingly volatile world?
I’m so optimistic about the area in which I work. A decade ago, the majority of the Fortune 500 didn’t measure CSR – now 75% of them do. I do worry about the other 25%, but either way, this is a massive improvement. CSR drives shareholder value and growth – it’s not Utopia. It’s day-to-day life here at Johnson & Johnson. It’s more than creating jobs, it’s about motivating and engaging our people to give something back to society. This, to me, is really exciting progress.

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