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Spring 2002

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Stranger in a strange land

by Bernard Kastory

     On my last day as a corporate executive for Bestfoods—after thirty-three years, I became an “acquisition synergy” when Bestfoods was acquired by Unilever—an e-mail arrived from Skidmore College, where my son was studying. The e-mail announced an opening for “an experienced executive with international business experience” to become Skidmore’s Harder Professor of Business Administration. Fate works in strange ways, and last September I became the new Harder professor.
     In my first academic year, I’ve been doing my best to share my experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm about global business management with a group of eager undergraduates and dedicated colleagues at Skidmore. The transition to a new role and a new culture has been a test of my adaptability and self-image. It’s been a period of intensive change, learning, and perspective broadening. Many days I’ve felt inadequate in my new role. Sometimes I was frustrated by my new environment. But I’ve also felt the excitement of a stimulating and effective class session and the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from influencing, as well as learning from, my students.
     In some ways the Skidmore culture is similar to what I experienced at Bestfoods. Both are characterized by pride and community spirit, and both include many highly caring, competent, ethical people. Another common characteristic is the willingness to try innovative ideas and approaches. But it was a major-league culture shock to move from an action-oriented, profit-driven, top-management-led world to one where the future vision is being defined by a committee of everyone, where e-mail messages to the all-faculty list debate everything from the selection of a convocation speaker to the promotion of junior administrators, and where there’s an attitude that top-down, prescriptive leadership is inconsistent with independent thought or individual freedom.
     In the corporate world, time is money and action is highly valued. In academe, time is an opportunity to explore ideas, challenge concepts, and look at things from multiple perspectives. Individual opinions and ideas are encouraged and valued in both cultures, but the timeline from ideas to action is much shorter in the business world. Also, in the corporate world simple is beautiful. Business leaders strive for simplicity of concepts and communication because it facilitates quick and consistent action. In higher education, simple is often seen as simple-minded, and simple solutions are challenged because they lack the discipline of complete evaluation and the complexity that surrounds most issues.
     These fundamental differences stem, of course, from the fact that colleges and businesses have very different missions and objectives. While I understand this on an intellectual level, I still feel a little like a stranger in a strange land. Having spent more than three decades in business and just a few months on the faculty, I’m still adapting and looking forward to the next academic year. Hopefully, a year from now, I’ll be truly bicultural!

Among the courses taught by Harder Professor Bernie Kastory this year was a special-topics seminar on the food business. Kastory’s son Mark ’02 is a business major.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College