Stanford University was a far different place when Ira D. Hall attended in the mid-1960s. Having grown up in segregated Oklahoma City, Hall arrived as one of only about 15 African Americans on campus, including students, faculty, and staff. His engineering advisor once asked him, “Why are you here?” and in the question Hall heard a racial tinge. “I said to myself: To hell with you,” he recalled in 2017.
To Hall — the 2020 recipient of Stanford GSB’s Ernest C. Arbuckle Award — just being at the university was the point; Stanford was his field test. Although he was studying electrical engineering, he foresaw a future for himself as an executive at a global corporation, and he understood the challenges ahead for a black man managing in what then was an overwhelmingly white world.
“I respect people and try to stay focused on the objective, especially as a black person in a non-black world,” he says. “It’s not a Pollyanna-ish view, like ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ It’s more ‘Can’t we all stay focused?’”
Hall began his career at Hewlett-Packard, later became a Wall Street corporate finance investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and served as treasurer of both Texaco and IBM U.S. He has also served on the board of directors of numerous corporations and nonprofit and governmental organizations, including Praxair, a leading global industrial gases and engineering company now known as Linde. Hall chaired Praxair’s audit and finance and pension committees, and Linde CEO Steve Angel said Hall’s expertise and judgment helped steer the company through the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Angel described Hall as a collegial and well-respected board member and a “champion of diversity.”
Now 75, the Miami Beach, Florida, resident retired as president and CEO of UCM LLP, a Wall Street investment management firm.
The Arbuckle Award recognizes a commitment both to managerial excellence and to addressing the changing needs of society. It was created in 1968 in honor of the late Stanford GSB dean whose name it bears. Explained a present-day dean who helped select Hall for the honor: “Ira Hall embodies the true spirit of the award and the Stanford tradition of making a difference by giving back.”
You’ve said your time at Stanford helped you develop your own leadership style. How would you describe that style?
I’m direct. I listen a lot. I encourage collaboration and then make a decision and implement that decision. I try to stay focused on the result. I like people and try to be fair with them, to never mislead them. My personal brand is to be highly respected, well-liked, and trusted. If I can go about my business doing that, I get good buy-in and good results.
Are there common mistakes you see some leaders make?
Different people make different kinds of mistakes, so I wouldn’t want to generalize. I do think it’s good to have turnover at the top of any public corporation or private organization, so you constantly get new thinking and leadership. Making sure there’s turnover is something people should be intentional about. I tend to set an objective up-front for how long I’m willing to do a job and then stick to it. Also, I tend to select a very diverse team and be inclusive. People who don’t do that aren’t getting all they can from a leadership group. You need good people, and then you have to engage them to get their best.
You first went to work as an electrical engineer at Hewlett-Packard, then, with the backing of William Hewlett and David Packard, became executive director of the Stanford Mid-Peninsula Urban Coalition. How did that happen?
After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there were riots in the streets around the country, and there was a need to bring together the corporate community and civic community into an urban coalition. John Gardner [secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson and a Stanford University trustee] challenged the company to get involved. So I worked daily with Bill [Hewlett] and Dave [Packard] for a month and we decided to go forward with such a venture. I took a leave of absence and ended up spending six of my eight years between undergrad and grad school on that project.
What exactly was the project?
The overall mission was to attack top priority areas of racial and subsequent economic discrimination. The coalition built hundreds of units of housing for persons of low and moderate income, founded investment companies that invested in minority business, and investigated and prosecuted racial discrimination in housing, advanced education, jobs, and health care in the mid-peninsula part of the Bay Area. My job as the CEO was to make things happen — to generate trust among people who didn’t know each other, define solutions, raise the funds, and get things done. We were serious about the objective because it was urgent and the right thing to do, and we had a lot of success thanks to the wide group of people we recruited. It was about doing the right thing as defined by the community, but Bill, Dave, and I only wanted to do it if we thought it could work.
It did work. But then you went back to business school for your MBA.
It was always my intention to get that comprehensive graduate-level business education. Even though I’d been successful at this for several years, I knew I didn’t want to do it forever. Bill and Dave said all along that they would welcome me back to HP at any point. But while I had developed a sense of marketing and finance and how to delegate, I didn’t know the fundamental architecture of marketing, or finance, or accounting — all the things that were integral to a global company. I wanted to be a leader in such a company. And I had a life model in mind. I wanted a wonderful family life, a successful professional life, and a meaningful civic life. I went to business school to start on a professional life geared to the corporate side, in addition to the civic side.
Despite Stanford’s lack of diversity back then, you ended up as president of your senior class. What gave you that kind of confidence?
My parents, my parents, my parents. They were just remarkable human beings. They were so courageous and smart. I grew up in segregated Oklahoma City, and my parents were fearless. Not provocative, but fearless. My mother was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some very smart people. So I know I got my confidence from them.
You were a bit of a prodigy, becoming the youngest-ever Stanford trustee at age 26. And now you’ve established the Under 30 Service Award to celebrate young alumni with a commitment to public service. Why do you think early involvement in public service is so critical?
Thirty happens to be the age I was when I decided to go back to business school. I look back at my public service by the age of 30 and realize it was distinctive. So I wanted to say it’s possible to do that. And not only possible, but that service will produce its own reward and you will not pay a penalty for doing that. Don’t wait until you’re a senior citizen to contribute. Be involved all along the way and give up your time. You’re smart, so share some of that with organizations that need it.
But you must have made personal and professional sacrifices to be that involved in civic life.
I sacrificed sleep. When we had kids, I was totally into the kids. When I was an investment banker, I left at 6 p.m. and went home to have dinner with my family, and then I’d go back to work and stay half the night. I knew I had to be good enough to succeed, given a lot of the things I did.
How is the Stanford of today a different university than the one you attended in the ’60s and ’70s?
Stanford today has maintained its academic excellence while adopting a university-wide commitment to diversity. People know the institution has rigor behind its pronouncements, and the commitment to diversity works its way into how things are run, including hiring decisions. Is it there yet? Probably not. But the way that serious commitment is working its way through the machinery is a wonderful thing. Stanford could never go back, and I applaud the mission it has been on. Our objective should be to have the most definitive world-class implementation of diversity on the planet. Why should anything less than that be acceptable?