Words of Wisdom from NYU Stern’s Dean Henry: EQ Is Your Competitive Advantage

Dean Henry Photo for CGSM

Peter Blair Henry, Dean, NYU Leonard N. Stern School of Business
Photo by: Brian Stanton

What does it mean to you to be the youngest person to hold the position of Dean at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business?

It was an honor to be asked to lead at the age of 40, a great vote of confidence in my potential. But as a former athlete who never quite lived up to his ability on the field or the court, I am acutely aware that potential is a mixed blessing. Potential does not automatically translate into performance, and in the final analysis you have to deliver. I use this athletic awareness to motivate me in the intellectual realm of my life as well. Each day, I am determined to use whatever native talents I have as a leader to deliver results for our students, faculty, alumni, and employers. I’d like to think these efforts will also create a positive impact in the wider world of business and society.

What advice or nugget of wisdom would you like to share with underrepresented students or professionals who are considering an MBA program or want to advance in their careers?

Underrepresented populations frequently wrestle with the notion and realities of “outsider” status. I know I have. Some feel this status all their lives, at times quite painfully. I’d like to suggest, however, that “outsiders” have already naturally developed one of the greatest skills a leader can possess: the ability to perceive yourself as others do. W.E.B. Dubois referred to this as a sixth sense that comes from living under a “veil.” Others may call it EQ, active listening skills, or the ability to read a room. Whatever name you give it, you should recognize this “outsider” skill set as a source of sustainable competitive advantage, one that is closely linked with empathy. Empathy or the ability to step outside yourself is not only a “nice” trait: If you want to do business in an increasingly integrated world in which your customers and clients are ever more likely to come from countries and cultures not your own, then the ability to see through “other” eyes (especially if your competitor cannot) is a powerful source of differentiation. Rather than trying to shed the outsider label, far better to embrace the advantage it gives you.

Who were some of your role models and mentors who helped you achieve your success? How so?

Stanley Fischer, now Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been an important professional inspiration—particularly in the way he has translated the intellectual creativity and rigor of his academic work into real-world impact. From his influence as a central banker to his role as an architect of economic reform, Stan has demonstrated how theory and practice can work together to improve standards of living across the globe. The most important way he has contributed to my success, however, has been in the role of “dedicated teacher.” Teachers matter. I took my first graduate course in macroeconomics from Stan at MIT in 1994. I was crestfallen when the IMF whisked him away a few months later, because I’d dared to hope that he might become my advisor. Years later, when I took a chance and somewhat brashly sent him a chapter of my doctoral thesis, Stan didn’t blink. Within a few days, I received a two-page reply with detailed comments and suggestions for improvement, which I took with extreme gratitude for his generosity. The paper was published and is still in many ways my most important article. Today, Stan remains an important interlocutor, critic, and supporter. I try to do the same for my students.

What advice would you offer students interested in working abroad?

Certainly there are the usual things you can do to prepare for working abroad such as learning a foreign language, taking the time to delve deeply into the politics and culture of another country or region, participating in study abroad programs, and living overseas at the first opportunity. But even without going overseas, you should do things that demonstrate and hone your ability to take in different perspectives and to persevere and thrive in different circumstances. You should put yourself in work, learning, or personal environments where you are out of your comfort zone for a prolonged period of time and reflect on what you learn from the experience. Be able to demonstrate why this kind of personal and professional “stretching” has made you a more flexible person.

What has been your most important life lesson?

That almost everyone has the will to win, but the will to prepare to win is what creates lasting success. Preparation means spending your years in school and the early part of your career doing the hard work required to master a craft, keeping your head down but your eyes and ears open. When you do this, if your substance is first rate and you are open to possibilities, then you will be asked to lead.