All-star CEOs lend their perspectives as they help Knight teach M.B.A. class at Olin School

Like all the schools at the University, the Olin School of Business is always eager to have area executives teach a class. But when Charles F. Knight, chairman emeritus of Emerson, stepped up to co-teach an M.B.A. course, the school got much more than it bargained for.

“This must be the most unusual design of a course,” Anjan Thakor, Ph.D., senior associate dean and the John E. Simon Professor of Finance, told the class at its first meeting. “From planning, to creating content, to executing the idea, nothing about this course has followed the normal routine. I think you’ll find the experience most interesting.”

M.B.A. student Marla Rappaport (right) talks with Charles F. Knight after the first meeting of the Olin School of Business course
M.B.A. student Marla Rappaport (right) talks with Charles F. Knight after the first meeting of the Olin School of Business course “Creating Exceptional Value: Performance Without Compromise” March 20 in Simon Hall. Knight, chairman emeritus of Emerson, is teaching the course and has enlisted several “celebrity” chief executive officers to guest-lecture.

The course, “Creating Exceptional Value: Performance Without Compromise,” covers topics you would expect in a business school. But this is no ordinary class. It touches upon the business challenges that correspond closely with the new themes that define the new direction of the Olin School.

“The class represents how Olin is redefining the focus and identity of its degree programs,” Thakor said. “Our pedagogy will use experiential learning to develop leadership skills in a global setting.

“The curriculum will be distinguished by analytical rigor and the use of creativity and innovation for unstructured problem solving.”

The unusual part is that Knight enlisted several “celebrity” chief executive officers to take part in teaching the course, so as to provide a variety of perspectives by heralded business leaders from a variety of industries. The guest lecturers include:

• Jack Welch, retired chairman and CEO of General Electric;

• Louis Gerstner, retired chairman and CEO of IBM;

• Larry Bossidy, retired chairman and CEO of Honeywell International Inc.;

• David Farr, CEO of Emerson; and

• August Busch III, chairman of Anheuser-Busch Cos.

“These guys are probably the smartest people you will ever meet in your life,” Knight said to students. “If we don’t have fun in this class and learn a ton, we never will.”

To say that the class was a popular elective is an understatement. All 78 spots in the class filled quickly. In addition to the M.B.A. students who met the requirements for the class, two undergraduates are enrolled.

To accommodate the heightened student interest — and to share the valuable opportunity with the Olin School’s alumni — all of the CEO lectures are being simulcast into May Auditorium in Simon Hall. On March 20, the first day the class met, more than 120 alumni, students and other faculty in the auditorium heard Knight’s inaugural lecture.

Recent alumnus Jack Benecke got out of work early to attend the 4 p.m. class. He said attending it is an extension of his education at the Olin School.

“As a young business professional, I couldn’t pass up the chance to get the benefit of learning from the best about the challenges they faced growing their businesses,” Benecke said, adding that he was impressed that the Olin School was offering such a class.

“For the school to be able to do something at this scale and to have so many powerful business executives is unique. St. Louis doesn’t often get the academic recognition other cities have. This class is one way to change that reputation.”