UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Dave Roberts: Helping students soar


Dave Roberts - UNC Kenan-FlaglerDave Roberts’ desire for new challenges – mixed with a bit of serendipity – led him to a career in global business and then brought him to teach in Chapel Hill.

Roberts grew up in Wales and graduated from the University of Hull in England with degrees in electronic engineering. He went to work an R&D lab, but realized something was missing. “It was not for me,” he says.

After two years he applied for a job with Hewlett-Packard (HP), which was looking for engineers to train as sales people. He joined HP as a territory sales engineer and then took on responsibilities for major accounts and managing the team focused on HP’s largest international account. He’d found the “missing component” – more face time with people.

“My last two years with HP began to prepare me for teaching,” he says. He was promoted to be in charge of sales force development for the U.K. sales force and oversee the development and roll-out of a new approach for account management for European sales people.

After 11 years with HP, Roberts was ready for another change. He joined a small consulting firm focused exclusively on developing top-line growth with major international companies. When the firm was acquired by a U.S. company, Roberts moved to Atlanta with his wife and two daughters. There he continued his consulting work, which included facilitating team sessions with senior executives, sales managers and sales people.

“What I did for most of my 16 years in consulting was really teaching” he says.

Roberts' transformation from businessman to professor began with an unexpected phone call.

The call came from Alston Gardner, a Carolina grad and founder of the sales-training firm that had acquired Roberts’ company. Gardner had been teaching an introductory sales class at UNC Kenan-Flagler, which wanted to develop a sales curriculum following a gift to the School. He was calling to see if Roberts would be interested in applying for a new position to build it.

Roberts, a pilot with a commercial license, flew himself up from Atlanta in a small single-engine plane. “My interview was the first time I had ever been to Chapel Hill,” he says.

Since arriving at UNC Kenan-Flagler in 2008, Roberts helped create courses on sales strategy and skills that are taught in the Undergraduate Business Program and in the different MBA and Executive Development programs.

The dynamic environment in the classroom keeps Roberts interested and invested in his work. “Every class is different and has its own personality – it’s a challenge,” he says. “I like a challenge.”

Roberts pulls from his professional experiences to contextualize concepts with real-world examples – a teaching strategy he believes is particularly beneficial for Undergraduate Business students who haven’t yet had the experiences that provide that context.

He also teaches about using influence, persuasion and negotiation skills to achieve strategic goals and effect change.

“Dave brings a great deal of practical experience spanning sales, influence and broader issues of organizational structure and power,” says Dave Hofmann, the Hugh L. McColl Distinguished Professor and area chair of organizational  behavior, who partnered with Roberts to develop the online course “Leading from the Middle” for MBA@UNC. “He conveys this knowledge in a very accessible, humble and engaging way that resonates with people at all levels.”               

The strategy works. Roberts has worked with top organizations in North America, Mexico, Europe, Asia and Australia, and taught in the U.S., India and South Africa for UNC Kenan-Flagler. And in 2014, the School honored Roberts with the Weatherspoon Award for excellence in teaching in the Undergraduate Business Program – a highlight of his professional career, he says.

What Roberts finds most rewarding about teaching is how often he feels that he’s truly having an impact on someone’s life. “I love teaching people who are learning while they also have a day job,” he says. “They are looking to learn new concepts but are simultaneously asking, ‘How can I use this tomorrow?’”

Roberts’ ability to provide concepts and tools that can be immediately applied in the workplace is incredibly valuable to executives, says Kip Kelly, director of marketing and public programs for UNC Executive Development. “Dave works to develop a deep understanding of their business, asking questions and conducting research so he knows the challenges the executives are facing and uses that knowledge in the classroom, diving into their challenges and driving a meaningful dialogue.”

Working with military officers through UNC Executive Development programs is especially gratifying for Roberts. “I’m teaching people who, after they’ve spent their time with us, might be back in Afghanistan using skills we’ve taught them to negotiate with an Afghan leader,” he says. “This is serious – and that’s what makes it really enjoyable.”

Roberts finds time in his demanding schedule to enjoy his hobbies – tinkering with electronic inventions, listening to live music and, of course, flying his Cirrus plane. “It’s my vice – I love to fly,” he says. “It enables me to switch off from everything else. In some ways, it’s relaxing because it’s the opposite of relaxing. Everything else has to ‘go away’ because you can only focus on the flying.”

And while teaching is not what he originally envisioned himself doing for the rest of his life, Roberts is very content having found the missing piece of his puzzle. “Some people – and some of my students – are concerned that they should have a long-term plan, he says. “But a ‘retrospective plan’ has worked well for me.”

“Looking back, I can see all those moments when I made critical decisions that brought me to this point. Every step built on the next,” he says. “My degrees allowed me to become an engineer and learn about methods and processes – and I couldn’t have sold for HP without my knowledge of electronics. HP developed my sales, management and leadership skills, and my knowledge of educating people. Then consulting improved my sales, people, teaching and facilitation skills. Now I feel I can use all of this at the highest levels of education.”

His advice to students is simple: “Make good decisions,” he says. “Make sure you’re going to do something that you like, that you love, that you have a passion about, and the path will work itself out.”