Professor Profile: John HighBarger

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John HighBarger, a former global managing partner at Accenture draws his guidelines for running a business from his football coaches, Darrell Royal and Bill Ellington. “Darrell, with his very country-boy simplistic approach to stuff that still makes sense, and really I use as basic rules for how I ran my part of the business. You do it right or you do it wrong, you don’t do it halfway. If it’s halfway, it’s not right,” Highbarger said.

John came to UT to play football, but unfortunately got hurt. In order to keep his scholarship, Darrell and his assistant coach put him in recruiting. After graduation, he wandered into the consulting world and moved around three firms before settling at Accenture. He worked mainly in the strategy practice which dealt with broken businesses. His clients were generally five billion dollar and up companies, allowing him to work the best leaders across industries.  He retired in 2002; How ended up back at UT? He can attribute to his daughter. “She had a lunch with the dean, the director of the business honors program, and a couple of department heads, and she mentioned that I was retiring. The next thing I know she calls me and tells me ‘you’re going to get a call from the dean.’”

He took the offer and now teaches two classes of MKT 372, Contemporary Issues in Marketing and Marketing for Entrepreneurs. Each of the courses are modules based on ‘the latest and greatest thing going on and what you really need to know as you head out. Since they’re upper division electives, they’re very much focused on the student that’s getting ready to graduate soon and making the transition from student to young professional,” he said.

Most recently he partnered up with the dean of Cockrell to pair teams in his classes up with engineering students in Longhorn Startup. The response was overwhelmingly positive and both of them were shocked. “We didn’t think those engineers understood that they needed help. We were wrong. They knew what they didn’t know and they needed this kind of help.” The students are now working together to further develop their business ideas.

Highbarger reviews his curriculum annually to keep the topics interesting and current. However, he has evolved what he hopes students takeaway. “I’m spending a lot more time talking about not the hard factual kind of stuff, but the between the lines kind of stuff, that is necessary to succeed. I think that the one thing that I find with our student body is that everybody here has been very successful up at this point and most of them think that the way they have done that up to this point will continue to take them forward. That’s not exactly right, you can’t study your way to success in the business world.” Business involves the whole picture and he wants to prepare his student not just for the technical side, but also the political.

Learning to manage client relationships is central to this “You’re dealing with people, and people aren’t robots. You could come out with the right answer that may not win.”  When it comes to winning clients however, it’s not always if you win, but how you do it. “We can look at the proposal we turned in and we lose it for some reason we can’t control, then that’s not a bad thing. That’s still a good proposal, we did good work. If we did a poor proposal and won it for some reason, that’s not a good thing. We have to do it right. We have to do everything right. The right includes the facts, getting the proposal [done] correctly, and the right includes the politics and the people behind it.”

When citing his role models he spoke fondly about his coaches, Darrell and Bill as well as Sam Houston and Bill Marriot. HighBarger worked closely with Marriot during a two year project between the companies. There he got to know him for the “Top notch” leader he is. “He can be tough, no doubt about it. I never wanted to go in there with bad news. He can tough, but he knows what he’s doing. Behind this all, is a man with compassion for his employees, sincere desire to serve his customers well, see to it that they are served well, and to cut out as much of the nonsense as possible. Those are my kind of heroes,” he said of Bill.

During his time at Marriot he had his own suite while he worked at Headquarters, where he got to know his house keeper. She was a Guatemalan woman, who had been granted asylum in US due to the fact that her husband was murdered by a kill squad. With no skills or language proficiency, the state department sent her to Marriot. There they trained her and put her and her children in English and citizenship classes. “By the time I met her she was actually assistant house keeper and responsible several floors, plus these suites. Her son was about to graduate from high school and had already been accepted into George Washington University right there in D.C. She just couldn’t be happier.” He set up a meeting between her and Bill, so she could tell her story. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s the kind of stuff that gets you up in the world and makes you feel good.”

To John, business means more than a set of transactions or cutting a deal. “Business is about creating the things and services that make our life better and equally important creating jobs so people can have the things they want and have better lives.” When asked what the most satisfying aspect of his work, he summed it up to “Helping people, helping make businesses more effective, [and] helping make the US more effective.”

In regards to teaching he pointed to a stack of thank you cards and stuffed animal elephant. “I get to see these young people while there here before they go out to the real world. You feel good about helping them get started and helping them be successful.” He said he had even been stopped on his way to an airport terminal, by a former student want to thank him. “That’s the kind of thing that makes you do what you do. Keeps me going.”

Article by Daniela R.

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