September 20, 2018 Honing his principled leadership skills

Dadrien Barnes

Dadrien Barnes (MBA ’17) began his career working in financial accounting. Although he was good at his job and could have easily continued working at a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear power facility near his native city of Knoxville, Tennessee, he realized he was ready for a change.

To accelerate that transition, he decided to pursue an MBA. As he considered where to earn his master’s degree, he was motivated by a desire to gain exposure to different types of people, ideas and cultures while exploring new career paths. In talking with friends and colleagues, a common theme emerged: Barnes could experience all those things and more at The Ohio State University while earning his MBA from a top-ranked business school. 

After one visit to campus, he was resolute in his decision that the Max M. Fisher College of Business was the perfect fit. 

As a new student in the Full-Time MBA program, Barnes began his academic journey with an open mind about where his studies would lead him in his career transition. But what he didn’t know initially was that he’d discover an unexpected academic path — and use — for his graduate degree. 

That path was human resources (HR).

“When you enter the Full-Time MBA program at Fisher they have you complete a career assessment, and I remember one of the fields that was listed in my top 10 was HR, and I was like, ‘No way!’ Then I talked to Nancy Gilbertsen, in the Office of Career Management, and she asked me, ‘Why not HR?’”

“I had no intention of going into HR at all. Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got in to the MBA program.” 

But thanks to encouragement from Gilbertsen, corporate and graduate relations specialist at Fisher, to take an HR class and explore an HR-focused summer internship after his first year in the program, Barnes had a change of heart.  

“Those experiences opened my eyes to how I, as an MBA student, could really play a pivotal role in the HR space,” he said. “I pushed back, believe you me, but things started to line up and it just made sense.”

“And then, after my internship, I had no doubt that HR was what I wanted to do!”  

Barnes’ view of the HR field was also shaped by a course taught by a professor whose influence continues to guide him professionally to this day. 

That class was Strategic Management of Human Assets (BUSMHR 7309), which is taught by Dr. Steffanie Wilk, professor of management and human resources. It had a profound impact on Barnes and solidified his desire to pursue a career in HR. He credits Professor Wilk — who also serves as Fisher’s associate dean for diversity and inclusion — with providing a safe environment that encouraged students to lead in-class conversations that Professor Wilk facilitated.  

“Professor Wilk’s  class was the one that really opened my eyes to consider HR and look at the field from a much more strategic perspective in terms of understanding its impact on the business,” he said. “Whenever I come back to Fisher, I tell everyone I talk to, ‘If you take no other class, I don’t care what your specialization or focus is, make sure you take her class.’ At the end of the day, you develop an understanding of how to get the most out of your people by how you structure their roles, how you build teams, and how you design organizations for different objectives and business priorities.”

But that realization was the just the beginning for Barnes on his journey of career and leadership self-discovery. He also had opportunities outside the classroom to develop the so-called soft skills that employers seek. As a first-year MBA student, he became involved with Fisher’s Black MBA Association (BMBAA). In his second year, he transitioned to the organization’s president.

“My objective when I was president was to make sure the organization was set up for success after my time,” he said. “I always take the lens that a good leader is defined by the team that he or she has. So if they can operate in your absence as if you were still in the room, it’s a testament to how good of a leader you are.”

Cultivating his own leadership style

For Barnes, his two years in the MBA program “flew by,” and he made several friends and innumerable memories; but he recalls his two trips to the National Black MBA Association’s annual conference as particularly meaningful, especially during his second year. That’s when Barnes drew upon his experiences from the previous year and used lessons learned to help first-year graduate students maximize their experience at the event. 

“I had Fisher BMBAA organization members who needed help preparing for interviews and reviewing résumés,” he said. “So a few members of the leadership team and I rolled up our sleeves and helped get people prepared while we were there at the conference.” 

“Some people were nervous to help, but to me, it was a chance to put servant leadership into practice, and I took a lot away from that. Now, did I get a chance to talk to more companies? No, but that was a decision I made because I really wanted to invest in my people and my organization to help them go out there and pursue the careers they wanted.”

The combination of his MBA studies, experience with the Black MBA Association and his internship prepared him for a unique opportunity as his second year in the program was winding down. 

During the spring of 2017, Barnes was selected to be the first-ever Fisher student to participate in the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE). The innovative program allows graduate students and early-career professionals in the fields of business, journalism, law, medicine and seminary to explore professional ethics through the historical context of Nazi Germany. 

Today, he finds it hard to put the experience — and the accompanying emotions — into words, but he credits the fellowship with putting ethics into an entirely new light for him. 

“The spin they put on it was thinking about all the businesses that played a role in the Holocaust,” he said. “Imagine being one of the train conductors taking people to a death camp, and that was your day job. Imagine you’re one of the accountants who had to log all the things that were looted from people’s homes and then turn around and sell them to somebody else. What if you were the company leader that manufactured the gas chambers and profited from it. What is your role in that? Is it ethical that any of these would be you just doing your normal ‘day job’?”

“The question that stuck with me is, ‘What are you willing to take a stand for and how do you go about enacting change with that kind of mindset or lens?"

The FASPE experience allowed Barnes to interact with graduate and professional students from other top universities and disciplines from across the United States. He credits the fellowship with helping him with his own ethical decision-making framework and discovering where he, as a leader, draws the line and how he can guide others who might have different ethical viewpoints to  a common ground. 

In addition to the ethical discussions Barnes and his fellowship cohorts had, the participants toured two of the Auschwitz concentration camps in Poland. Seeing the personal belongings — from the stacks of shoes to the looted housewares to the glass cases containing the hair of so many victims who lost their lives — was profoundly moving for him. The camp tours also provided him moments for reflection and opportunities to ask himself difficult questions.

“For me as a future business leader, I had to take a step back and think, ‘Who would have signed on to do this?’ but at the same time recognizing that if you went against the law you would more than likely lose your life during that time,” he said. 

“So I realized at that moment it was easy to reflect back and say, ‘Yeah, I would never do that,’ but I also thought, ‘But what if my life were on the line? What would I do?’”

Barnes credits his MBA studies at Fisher with preparing him for the once-in-a-lifetime fellowship. Additionally, serving as a leader of Fisher’s Black MBA Association forced him to move beyond his comfort zone. 

“I’m naturally an introvert, so it takes a little more effort for me to put myself out there and meet different people,” he said. “In my BMBAA leadership role, I had to be engaged because it was my responsibility to not only introduce myself but make people feel welcome and feel like they had resources and a support system.” 

“Having that experience set me up for success in the FASPE program because it was much easier to make connections, have those engaging conversations and really make friends. I definitely think my leadership role set me up for success with the fellowship.” 

In the summer of 2017 and with an MBA degree in hand, Barnes began his HR career as the US/Canada change lead at Ford Motor Company. He’s putting his education, experiences and leadership skills to work at the American automaker’s Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters as a member of the Human Resources strategy team responsible for redefining HR’s role and changing how the team delivers HR products and services across the enterprise. 

Barnes is featured in a college recruitment video recently produced by Ford.

Although he’s proud of his achievements and all that he’s learned so far, he’s also quick to 
admit that he wouldn’t be where he is today without help from mentors and other caring people throughout his life who helped him along the way and were willing to take a chance on him. That sense of gratitude compels him to pay forward by remaining engaged with current Fisher students and taking on other volunteer opportunities.  

Today, he advises MBA students, younger peers and family members to take charge of their careers by being ambitious, and — most importantly — not being paralyzed by fear of failure. 

“I like to think that the people who fail often — whether those failures are small or big — are the people who typically find much greater success down the line as opposed to people who always succeed,” Barnes said. 

“Don’t be afraid to fail, because that’s typically when you learn the most.”