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Jeff Campbell takes a seat in the executive’s chair at Cal State San Marcos

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“You’re going to have the 'King of the Whoppers' in here soon,” Professor David Bennett said to a room of laughing upperclassmen.

He was referring to Jeff Campbell, former CEO of Burger King, who spoke to about 80 students during their Wednesday morning class. Campbell’s former titles also include chairman of the Pillsbury Restaurant Group and senior vice president for brand development for Pepsi-Cola.

California State University San Marcos’ (CSUSM) College of Business Administration launched its “In the Executive’s Chair” course in the fall of 2002 to give students the opportunity to learn about the corporate world from senior-level executive’s experiences and business insights.

The class is hosted by the Center for Leadership Innovation and Management Building (CLIMB), which was established in 2004. Bennett, co-founder of the course and CLIMB, said “In the Executive’s Chair” is one of the most popular classes in the business school.

“In our research we have yet to find any school of business that has a course like this for credit,” Bennett said. “Every college has speakers, but never a class for credit with all speakers.”

The class is open to students, members of the campus and the business community at no charge with space permitting up to 125 people. The four-credit course has continuously come to life through Bennett’s network.

“(Campbell) was running Burger King while I was running Taco Bell -- we were fierce competitors,” Bennett said.

This is Campbell’s second time in the executive’s chair offering encouragement and helping to make the unknown -– the business world –- less intimidating.

When Campbell entered the room, a song playing the lyrics, “I like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony” as three screens in front of the room projected “Pepsi not Coke -– Whoppers not Big Macs.”

As the jokes and class settled down, Bennett and Dr. Raj Pillai, executive director of CLIMB, began the discussion with Campbell to jump-start the almost two-hour class.

Campbell spoke about his move from marketing to operations during his 17 years at Burger King. He dropped his title as vice president of marketing to seek out broader responsibility within the company through a training program to become regional vice president in one of 10 regions, which was not a guaranteed position.

He attributed his successful transition to having “good bosses” and the ability to “digest a certain amount of risks.”

Pillai directed the conversation to Campbell’s myths of leaderships, in which he uses “poster people from history” –- utilizing his M.A. in history -– as his inspiration.

Campbell says the statement, “previous failures preclude people from leadership positions” is a myth and cites the personal obstacles Gen. Ulysses Grant overcame to support his argument.

Campbell also says, “great leaders have to be well educated,” is proven to be false by looking at Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism for Civil Rights.

Third, Campbell cites James Stockdale's life outside the campaign trail to show how the statement, “great leaders have to be great speakers,” is another myth.

During Campbell’s military training, he said he learned something he would later use in the corporate world.

“A leader is responsible for everything her people do or fail to do -- you take the heat,” he said. “Never give your people up. You take the bullet. Never give your people up.”

When asked about what he is most proud of in his career, Campbell said, “The people that have worked for me that are now or have run companies themselves … anybody that I may have had some contribution to helping along the way.”

Students participated by asking prepared questions and impromptu inquiries after a formal question and answer session. Each week, the class splits into groups, which allows two different teams of four to interview an executive. Dressed in business attire to fit the occasion, the prepared group led Campbell to delve further into his professional and personal life experiences.

The first question asked to define achievement.

“My definition of success is about what kind of person you are and the impact you have on other folks,” he said. Campbell defines success to a quote most often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson –- "to laugh often and much … is to have succeeded" -– which he used as part of his eulogy for his college roommate.

Among the other topics discussed, students learned Campbell's greatest personal influence is his wife of almost 37 years. His mentor is Norman Brinker, whom he speaks with to this day.

He also has a personal goal of becoming a published writer and says the most fun he had during his business career was Burger King’s “Battle of the Burgers” campaign.

In addition, he said he believes self-starters who are “intellectually curious and energetic” make companies successful, and added that his ideal environment is “one where there is mutual respect across functional boundaries.”

Campbell also believes leaders can be made.

“Look at history, (there is) evidence all around us,” he said. “People have turned themselves into leaders.”

In terms of ethical dilemmas, he has found, “doing the right thing when there’s no penalty isn’t that hard. We get our points for doing the right things when it hurts.”

Campbell currently teaches at the San Diego State University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management and had volunteered at the Chairmen's RoundTable for the past year, a nonprofit that mentors local businesses. He hopes this involvement makes him a more active member of the community. Campbell said he moved 16 to 17 times throughout his career and he wants to “have roots and be a part of the community.”

Campbell has taken life’s lessons in a form of his own personal philosophy. He believes people are the cause of their own unhappiness in life and life is a daily challenge that gets progressively better as you “take control of your own head.”

“One of the best skills we can all learn as we grow and hopefully mature,” he said, “is to fight inch by inch, like an invading army, get more control of our own skulls.”


View video of Jeff Campbell at California State University San Marcos’ (CSUSM) College of Business Administration “In the Executive’s Chair” here.

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