Back to School

A stint teaching college can ease the transition from corporate life.
Kate PlourdApril 1, 2008

In his first two weeks teaching an introduction to international business class at the University of San Diego, recently retired McDonald’s Corp. CFO Matthew Paull had little trouble explaining how global businesses adapt to local culture, or how the roses that Americans order for Valentine’s Day affect labor and environmental practices in Ecuador.

It was the administrative things that tripped him up. For instance, he’d never had to master the intricacies of PowerPoint or figure out how to set up his own E-mail account. “I had been a pampered executive,” says Paull, who retired last December and co-teaches the class of 33 college juniors and seniors. “For six years I would describe the basics of what I wanted and my staff would turn it into a PowerPoint. Now I have to do it all on my own.”

Nevertheless, Paull describes the decision to take up teaching as a lifesaver, easing the transition from CFO to the much slower pace of retirement.

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He’s not alone. Many executives, including CFOs, have returned to the classroom after exiting Corporate America, whether teaching part-time, participating in MBA student-mentoring programs, or taking on a full slate of classes. Beyond keeping a foot in the working world, for many the chance to share their experiences and insights with students is a valuable reward.

What a CFO Brings to School

Unlike many traditional academics, whose teaching is often based on research and focused on theory, executives-turned-professors generally offer an experience-based approach to teaching finance, frequently integrating tales from their CFO days into lectures as a complement to textbook knowledge.

Former Denny’s Corp. CFO Andrew Green, a full-time professor of finance and accounting at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, mines his experiences from Denny’s in almost every lecture. He even takes students on field trips to the Denny’s test kitchen and has brought his successor, Mark Wolfinger, in to talk about the company’s latest earnings call.

“Students benefit from the opportunity to hear from people who are doing these things in real life,” says Green, who began teaching part-time in 2006 and now teaches three courses in finance as well as one — rare for a CFO — in marketing.

In the case of former Young & Rubicam executive vice president and CFO David Greene, real-life know-how from his 12-year stint at the advertising agency led him to his alma mater, Indiana University. He began lecturing there in 1991 and took a full-time position in 1997 when he retired. He has since developed an experiential program in the school’s graduate accounting program.

Among the six classes Greene teaches is a graduate-level “Career Success Skills” course in which he presents students with a wide range of trying situations they are likely to encounter on the job. (In fact, most have happened to Greene.) He walks into class on presentation day and, role-playing the CFO, requests that students (playing junior partners) give their 25-minute presentation in 10 minutes because he’s running late. Greene may announce that the profit-allocation recommendation should be X when he knows the students are prepared to recommend Y. Students are then forced to think on their feet and defend their conclusions under pressure.

“The students don’t always find the experience fun while they’re in the middle of an exercise, but they always say they use the skills in the long run,” he says. “The university wanted someone like me to help students understand how the real world differs from academia.”

The Academic Load

“The first time you teach a class, it’s a ton of work,” warns former 3Com CFO Christopher Paisley, who teaches three MBA and two undergraduate accounting classes at Santa Clara (California) University. (He also taught part-time at a community college for 10 years before taking the position at SCU.) Since taking on the job as the Dean’s Executive Professor of Accounting and Finance at the Leavey School of Business in 2001, Paisley says he has developed an even greater appreciation for teachers, who spend countless hours preparing lectures, choosing appropriate homework problems, preparing and grading tests, and actually reading the textbooks themselves.

Such preparation is challenging, agrees former Los Angeles Times CFO Jim Shaw, but it can help executives understand how their experiences in Corporate America relate to what students are learning and how to include those experiences in their teaching.

While preparing for the M&A course he teaches at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Shaw realized he could use examples from his career at the Los Angeles Times and Newsday Inc. to augment many chapters of the course’s textbook.

“You don’t often get a chance to sit down and think about what you’ve done,” says Shaw. “Students are smart. They ask some difficult questions and you need to understand what you’re doing up there.”

Funneling that know-how into a format comprehensible to a 20-year-old student can be trying at first, says Andrew Green. “When you’re a CFO, you’re presenting at bank meetings and to stock analysts and boards at a swanky New York hotel,” Green says. “It’s a lot different from presenting a business case to a group of students.” This is where Green says Denny’s examples come in most handy. For instance, to explain how to calculate the time value of money to determine the present value of a stream of cash flows, he illustrates the concept by describing how Denny’s estimates the rate of return on a new restaurant over the 20-year life of the restaurant.

While the challenges of teaching can be formidable, some believe that CFOs are prepositioned for success in the classroom. To succeed in today’s environment, CFOs must be educators, teaching line managers about their organizations’ financial performance, says Eddie Robinson, former CFO for the North American region of Mars Inc., who is an MBA-student coach in William & Mary’s Executive Partnership program.

On the other hand, the differences between corporate life and college may prove stressful, says Nancy K. Schlossberg, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and author of Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life. “A university doesn’t operate like a business. It’s a whole different world, and [executives] may find it difficult to understand,” she says. First, the hierarchical structure of universities often favors tenured faculty, which doesn’t position retired executives at the top, says Schlossberg. And scholarly status is often determined by what professors do outside the classroom in their academic research, rather than how well they teach or the success rates of their students.

Many CFOs and executives say they miss the camaraderie and teamwork of the corporate world, as well as the thrill of making important decisions. “My leadership [of students] still involves influencing, but it’s not a direct supervisory relationship. I supervise students, but they don’t work for me,” says Green. “The status, power, and control you have as a CFO are not the same as that given to a professor. You have to let go of some of those trappings.” On the other hand, Green says teaching and advising young people is both enjoyable and rewarding.

Paull finds the similarities satisfying. “When you get something right at McDonald’s, thousands of lives are affected positively. I [get] the same satisfaction when I explain something complicated and see the light go on in a student’s head,” he says.

That satisfaction, says Pam Lassiter, a principal at Lassiter Consulting, helps smooth the shift from a high-pressure career. “Powerful people expect to be able to handle the transition to retirement easily as long as their financial portfolio is in line,” she says. “But they should think about their psychological portfolio as well.” Teaching, says Lassiter, is intellectually stimulating. It forces you to stay ahead of trends and keeps you on top of your game.

The academic life can be so rewarding, in fact, that you may not mind having to provide your own administrative support, or even create your own PowerPoint slides.

Kate Plourd is a reporter at CFO.

Those Who Can…

If you think you might want to teach:

  • Reach out to department heads at universities that interest you.
  • Determine qualifications for adjunct or part-time faculty. Some schools also offer positions specifically for former or current executives.
  • Observe classes.
  • Network with current faculty.
  • Try out a guest lecture.

Source: Pam Lassiter, Lassiter Consulting

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