NYU Alumni Awards. Friday, April 20, 2018. Gotham Hall

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When George Barrett (STERN ’88) moved to New York City to be a professional musician, he never expected it would be the first step towards a career at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. Now, 30 years after graduating from NYU Stern’s MBA program, Barrett is Executive Chairman of the globally-integrated healthcare services and products company, Cardinal Health. Beyond leading the company’s expansion as Chairman and CEO from 2009 until 2017, Barrett spearheaded Cardinal Health’s diversity initiative, which is lauded around the world for its support of women, diversity, and the arts. Join us as we honor George at the NYUAA Awards luncheon on April 20, 2018 in New York City.

George Barrett

Before accepting the NYUAA Distinguished Alumnus Award, we sat down with George to ask him about his time at NYU and how it influenced his career:  

Why did you decide to attend NYU?

Well, I had made an unexpected detour from my life as a musician...I needed a change and I wanted to do something that would afford me "a more normal lifestyle." Ironically, that has not been the outcome. My (at the time) girlfriend, later wife's, father encouraged me to think about business which really was not of any interest to me at all. I come from a family of artists, writers, and teachers, so this was not part of the language of my family.

I started with a small company that manufactured products for pharmaceuticals. I realized that in order for me to continue to grow I needed to feel more fluent in some of the language of the business world. NYU gave me the most flexibility. I needed to work full-time; I was prepared to take nights and weekends. And NYU was incredibly welcoming to that.

How did the faculty at NYU shape your experience?

There were a couple of people that I really connected to for very different reasons. Robert Lamb taught a course in ethics and business ethics...before there was a lot of discussion about ethical issues. Every day, if you live in the world of healthcare, you are making decisions every day that touch public safety and people's lives. I felt a certain connection because I was literally living the discussions all the time.

The other person I would point out because he is so iconic is Ed Altman. He is such an incredible finance professor. Of course, I felt completely clueless in that class and I was embarrassed most of the time that because it seemed to be such a struggle for me, but he was fantastic.

My managerial accounting professor...was among the most exciting teachers and demanding teachers that I've ever had in my life. It was an extremely hard subject for someone who had no training in it. He was one of those guys whose expectations of you were unbelievably high. You know, that is in some ways what we should expect from a great teacher, high expectations. We tend to live up to those as humans and, I think, sometimes down to low expectations when those aren't put in front of us. I was very appreciative of that. He was just incredibly engaging on a subject that I would have thought would have been incredibly dry. He just made it come to life.

When you think back to the things you learned at NYU, what do you still you use in your business life?

I've had sort of a jigsaw puzzle of a life. I think everything that I've done along the way has contributed to putting the puzzle put together.

The work that I did here at NYU gave me a technical grounding, a fluency, and a confidence that I might not have had in speaking the language and delivering business objectives.

 

I've been really fortunate to learn from experiences and people who have a lot to offer. I'm ready to listen and try to learn.

You’ve been back to speak to students a number of times. What’s it like to return to campus?

To me, one of the great joys of my life is getting a chance to talk to young people that are at a different stage in their career. I find it incredibly energizing. I always learn from them. I probably bring a different perspective than some leaders with whom they've come in contact and I'm not uncomfortable sharing those perspectives. I love doing it. The time flies. I find young people at a certain stage in their career just fascinating and hungry for information. It's just great fun for me.

Have you seen yourself in some of those students at all?

There are always in the class some students who feel the way I felt. And they may not have been a music major, they might have been a French literature major. They felt like their classmates were way smarter and way more experienced.

Those folks tend to light up with me because I do share something about my background. I think for them it's reassuring that people come to leadership from all kinds of places and they come in all shapes and forms.

 

I remind all of them no matter what you're doing, it's really about what you're doing at that moment. The path to getting there is mostly about curiosity and that willingness to learn from everybody. [I remind them] not to obsess about whether or not you're going to be a CEO, but just do what you do great. When people do that, you can't take your eyes off them.