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Dave Roberts: Helping leaders soar

Dave Roberts - UNC Kenan-Flagler

Dave Roberts’ desire for new challenges – mixed with several doses of serendipity – led him to a career in global business and then to UNC Kenan-Flagler to teach.

Since 2008 he’s been having an impact on people’s lives – from undergraduate and MBA students to CEOs and generals.

In October 2018, the School tapped him to serve as president of UNC Executive Development.

“We are exceedingly fortunate to have Dave Roberts’ leadership and expertise in this critical role,” says Doug Shackelford (BSBA ‘80), dean and Meade H. Willis Distinguished Professor of Taxation. “He has been an important member of our community for 11 years, and has a deep understanding of and experience with Executive Development, from teaching in a multitude of programs to advising on strategy and collaborating with our dedicated Executive Development team. He personifies our core values, demonstrating his deep commitment through his service to School and excelling in teaching in all of our programs.”

Roberts is excited to work together with a “great team of faculty and staff” to help organizations develop their leaders for success.

“Our clients are facing challenges from many fronts, including a generation of senior executives who are aging out and need successors,” Roberts says. “Our clients need to develop their key talent, and that is what we do best at UNC Kenan-Flagler. With our unique capabilities in developing global, inclusive leaders and using technology to enhance learning and access to education, we are uniquely prepared to help them. It’s a kind of magic – our expertise at developing leaders with the added layer of doing it the Carolina Way.”

That Carolina Way attracted Roberts to Chapel Hill from the very start. “It’s the story of my life – I have always been drawn by the culture at every place I have worked. Here at Kenan-Flagler we focus on people and collaboration. It’s why I love the School and why I am so excited to contribute in a new leadership role.”

From engineering to sales

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 as a territory sales engineer and then took on responsibilities for major accounts, and then managing the team focused on one of HP’s largest international accounts. 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 learning and development for the U.K. sales organization, 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 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 their 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 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, and asked Roberts if he would be interested in applying for a new position to build a sales curriculum.

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

Teaching becomes a profession

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

The dynamic environment in the classroom has kept Roberts invested in his work. “Every class is different and has its own personality,” 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 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, Hugh L. McColl, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Leadership and senior associate dean for academic programs. He partnered with Roberts to develop the online course “Leading from the Middle” for the online MBA program.

“Dave conveys this knowledge in a very accessible, humble and engaging way that resonates with people at all levels,” says Hofmann.

The strategy works. Roberts has worked with top organizations in North America, Mexico, Europe, Asia and Australia, and taught in the U.S., U.K., India and South Africa for UNC Kenan-Flagler. He has taught in every degree program and, received the 2014 Weatherspoon Award for Teaching Excellence in the Undergraduate Business Program – a highlight of his career, he says.

Focusing on executives

What Roberts finds most rewarding about teaching is how often he feels that he’s truly having an impact on people’s lives. “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 executives an immediately apply is invaluable. He asks questions and does research to develop a deep understanding of their businesses and collaborates with them in the classroom to dive into how to address their challenges.

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 develop a relationship with an Afghan leader,” he says. “This is serious – and that’s what makes it really enjoyable.”

And while teaching is not what he originally envisioned himself doing for the majority 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 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. When I have taken on new roles, it has always been moving towards something, rather than away.”