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Leadership perspectives: Joseph High

Leadership DayJoseph High (BSBA ’76) attributes much of his success to UNC Kenan-Flagler – and his father.

High joined other alumni and keynote speaker Adam Bryant of The New York Times to take part in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Leadership Day. MBA students attended interactive workshops, talks and simulations for course credit.

High shared advice for successful careers and discussed the responsibilities of corporate leaders. He is senior vice president and chief people officer for Grainger, the Fortune 500 distributor of facilities maintenance products. He previously served as vice president of human resources at Owens Corning and head of HR at ConocoPhillips.

“I learned a lot here in my undergrad program and I learned a lot from my dad, who was a small-business owner,” he said. “Grainger helps customers keep their facilities running and their people safe – and we know we cannot forget small businesses. They employ the most people and they keep the economy working.”

High shared these lessons of experience:

  • Get experience in more than one function. Don’t let that experience be solely about getting a promotion. A career is collection of value-added experiences.
  • Understand the context. Conduct an environmental scan of the organization and the industry, including a stakeholder analysis to see what drives company success and what is important to individuals so you can powerfully connect with them.
  • Be self-aware. Examine how your experiences have shaped your values and priorities. What makes you feel really uncomfortable? What gets you stuck? Discussing race or sexual orientation can still be difficult. When you experience a lot of discomfort, recognize it as a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow. Don’t run from it.
  • Know your people. Reflect on who you are. Encourage your team members to reflect on their personal and professional experiences as well.  When you share these self-defining insights with each other you create powerful connections and get greater returns from your people.
  • Provide feedback. Help people discover potential that they didn’t know they had. You’re more likely to do that if you’ve gone through that inner discovery yourself and know your people.
  • Build your team. Most corporations’ benches are not deep and a shortage of talent is one of the biggest business risks for organizations.
  • Value inclusion and diversity.  Embrace and learn from the full sources of a person’s identity.
  • Leave the organization stronger than you found it. Be a good steward, which includes succession planning.

UNC Kenan-Flagler offers leadership learning that is truly unique among business schools, High said. A pioneer in leadership development in business education, the School launched its Leadership Development initiative in 2005.

High praised the School’s ability to prepare students to meet the demands of modern, global business through discovering themselves and their individual strengths.

He is actively involved at the School and serves on its Board of Visitors.

“One of the things that keeps me giving to this University is its commitment to bring together a diverse group of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and small high schools,” High said. “I came from a very small high school – and of course there are lots of people here from really big and prosperous school systems. If UNC didn’t have this commitment to this broader perspective, including appropriate selection and support of African Americans, I wouldn’t be here.”


Alumni who shared their lessons of experience, in addition to High, were Michele Buck (MBA ’87), then president of The Hershey Company – North America, and Markus Saba (MBA ’93), then senior marketing director of global commercialization for Lilly Diabetes Business Unit. Todd Woodruff (PhD ’12) led sessions on why effective leaders fail and leading like your life depends on it.