Cardinal Health CEO discusses leadership

Published: 2013-11-27

George Barrett

George Barrett’s message couldn’t have been clearer: if you’re not learning, you’re not leading.

The chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health visited the Fisher College of Business campus last week to speak to FisherDirect and MBA students, executives, and academics on a wide range of topics – from the dynamic landscape of the health care industry, to the anticipated boom of seniors needing medical care, to effective ways to recruit and retain talent.

But the message always circled back to leadership.

“I’ve learned more from the people who have worked for me and the people around me than I’ve ever learned from my bosses. It’s not even close,” said Barrett, who was recently named the Large For-Profit CEO of the Year by Columbus CEO. “If you’re not learning from the people that work for you, then one of two things is true – you’ve got the wrong team, or you need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask the right questions about yourself.”

Barrett’s acknowledgment that he didn’t have the typical business education and experience of most successful CEOs – in addition to an MBA from New York University, he has undergraduate degrees from Brown University in music and history – resonated with many in the audience. None more than Andrew Rosen.

Rosen was one of 30 FisherDirect students invited to attend the event, a quarterly professional development meeting hosted by Fisher’s Center for Operational Excellence. A freshman from Cleveland with an early interest in human resources, Rosen left the event with plenty of leadership insight – and a full page of neatly written notes, quotes, and other Barrett-isms.

“He mentioned that it doesn’t matter where you come from – that if you seek to be at the top, you can get there,” Rosen said.

Barrett, who oversaw Cardinal Health’s $101 billion in revenue last year and No. 19 ranking on the Fortune 500 list, was emphatic in his belief in the importance of creating a company-wide culture of operational excellence, something that continues to evolve at the company.

“Operational excellence has been an area that has enabled our improvement,” he said. “But it has to be continuous. It can’t be one time. It can’t be a department. It’s got to be something that’s deeply embedded in the way that you run your organization. … So much of this is about creating an environment in which excellence can thrive.”

For FisherDirect students like Rosen, the opportunity to participate in a discussion with a CEO and be surrounded with executives and industry leaders is a part of a business education that can’t be duplicated in a classroom.

"I sat down and was looking around at all these professionals – various leaders from various companies – and I’m thinking ‘I love this. I belong here. This is the career I’m pushing for,’ ” he said.