“You can’t plan your life,” Robert L. Joss, Sloan ’66, MBA ’67, and PhD ’70, told a soon-to-graduate class of Stanford GSB students in 2010. “You can’t plan your career. But you can plan to be prepared.”
Joss, the Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean, Emeritus, at Stanford GSB, shared this life lesson as part of a “last lecture” after serving 10 years as dean at the business school.
Indeed, the prodigious career that unfolded with more than 29 years of leadership in the commercial banking industry is quite different from the one Joss was planning when he first entered the Stanford Sloan Program in the fall of 1965.
“My objective then was to get a PhD and pursue a career in academia,” Joss recalls.
Joss was 24 at the time. He had been working for a real estate firm just outside Seattle after completing an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Washington.
In these early years of the Stanford Sloan Program, renamed the Stanford MSx Program in 2013, the aim was to expose future professors to the rising stars of corporate leadership (and vice versa), filling a gap in business education. The program received philanthropic support from longtime General Motors Chairman and CEO Alfred P. Sloan Jr., through his namesake foundation. From 1957 to 1968, the Sloan Program selected PhD students like Joss to join a small group of executives from some of the world’s largest companies.
“These men had a lot of experience,” Joss says of the professionals who joined him and five fellow PhD candidates around a large oval table each day at the business school. “We [PhD students] could bring something to the party, but they knew so much more about management and leadership.”
A Cohesive Group
In Joss’s Sloan Program cohort, some of the leaders were sponsored by employers at United Airlines, Pacific Gas and Electric, NASA, and Boeing. Despite the age difference between the PhDs and the corporate executives, the fellows formed a cohesive group. For Joss, it was an illuminating, confidence-building experience.
“I got to know these people really well,” Joss says. “I could see my career being on par with their careers. It opened my eyes to what it might be like to be an executive at one of these large companies.”
After the one-year fellowship, Joss continued to plan for a future in academia. He went on to complete his MBA and then a PhD in finance. He left Stanford in 1968 with an offer to become a finance professor at the University of Michigan.
But he deferred that academic appointment to spend a year in Washington, D.C., as a White House Fellow. That year turned to three, and Joss’s experience with the U.S. Treasury left him inspired to do something different — something outside the academic path he had planned.
“I wanted to get into an industry and develop an expertise,” he says. “I settled on commercial banking. I wanted to be part of a larger institution.”
He selected a role at Wells Fargo, drawn partly by an appreciation for the San Francisco Bay Area that he developed as a student at Stanford. He rose to the rank of vice chairman by 1986. In 1993, he made the move to Australia, where he served for six years as chief executive officer at Westpac Banking Corporation, one of Australia’s largest banks.
Learning How to Think Things Through
Today, he credits the rigor of his Stanford business education with preparing him for these leadership roles.
“I felt I learned so much about how to think and size up a problem and figure out solutions,” Joss says. “It served me so well in all of the jobs I had. Stanford taught me ways to think that were extremely helpful. Learning how to think your way through a problem is particularly important. Executing is the next step.”
Eventually, Joss did take a job in academia — in a role he might not have imagined when he was studying to become a professor more than 30 years earlier. In many ways, his appointment as the eighth dean of Stanford GSB was more demanding than his previous roles at the top of the banking industry, he says.
“Being a dean is not at all like being the CEO of a company,” Joss says. “It was more akin to being the managing partner of a firm. You’ve got a lot of really critical partners.”
During his tenure from 1999 to 2009, the MBA and Sloan Program curricula were reinvigorated and personalized significantly. Joss also oversaw the fundraising and groundbreaking for the school’s Knight Management Center, and he promoted multidisciplinary programs between the business school and other graduate schools and institutes at the university. The Stanford MSx Program recently saluted his impact by naming a Dean Robert L. Joss Award in recognition of the academically highest 10 percent of graduating Sloan Fellows.
Still Teaching and Learning
Joss continues to teach an Issues in Leadership seminar for Sloan Fellows and second-year MBA students. He also serves as a director of Makena Capital Management, SoFi, C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, and C.M. Capital and is active in Australian-American affairs, serving as co-chair of the advisory board for the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and as a member of the advisory council for the American Australian Association.
Still considering himself as much a student as a teacher, Joss embraces the balance between academia and the corporate world that has defined his own career. In that “last lecture” to soon-to-be graduates many years ago, he encourages students to find their own ways to never stop learning.
“Stay around the university,” he tells them. “It gives you great perspective on the future.”
Photos by Robert Holmgren