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The Systems Thinker

  Monday, February 1, 2016

Although it was just six years ago that Dr. Willy Donaldson first stood in front of a Christopher Newport classroom, he has been a fixture in the local business community for more than 30 years.

He’s been CEO of eight companies and run four startups in that time. Donaldson, who teaches management and entrepreneurship in the Luter School of Business, epitomizes the best of a liberal arts and sciences education. By encouraging and questioning ideas, and embracing the intersections between disciplines, he helps students get the most out of college and realize their full potential.

Two events started Donaldson down this path: one mundane, the other soul-searching. He graduated college with an engineering degree but didn’t find the work fulfilling, and wanted to try his hand at management. That’s when things got serious. “I got a call from my father who ran two businesses,” recounts Donaldson. “He got very sick but hadn’t planned for any kind of transition, and called me, terrified. He said, ‘I have to go into the hospital in a couple of weeks – what do I do?’ So I quit my job and went to work. At age 26 I was acting CEO of two companies.”

It was a life-changing experience, one that taught Donaldson the importance of others to one’s own success and the need to keep learning. “It was unbelievable, both good and bad,” he says. “I’ve always had mentors in my life, and I went to them and said, ‘I’m 26, fairly bright, but I know what I don’t know – and I don’t know how to run a company.’” His advisers counseled him and suggested training programs that would help him harness his passion and energy to become an effective leader. It’s how he learned to apply systems thinking, which he had studied in engineering, to the business world. The method reveals complex organizations like businesses as a set of smaller pieces. The more one understands the underlying structure of the components and their inter-relations, the better decision-making will be. “It really helped me understand business,” he says, emphasizing that a big-picture view. "I also realized it’s not rocket science, and that it’s 90 percent about people. Products and services are interesting, but success is about getting the people right.”

Donaldson’s belief that people from a variety of backgrounds and interests can – and should – fit together in a system is what fills his classes each semester and makes him a sought-after mentor. Mitch Phillips met Donaldson through the professor’s role as a faculty adviser for the Captains’ Educational Enrichment (CEE) Fund, a student group that manages a real-dollar investment portfolio. “Professor Donaldson has provided the insights and ideas necessary to get the Fund to where it is today,” says Phillips. “His real-life stories connect events from his past to our current situations, and he uses his mistakes and successes to o er quality advice. His wisdom, along with my classes, have put me in a position where I feel con dent making decisions in the business world.”

After Donaldson’s initial exposure to business, his world expanded tenfold. He joined nVIEW Corporation in 1986 as president and CEO and helped the Newport News startup become a global player in video and computer projectors in a short time. It was a whirlwind and gave Donaldson perspective and wisdom beyond his years. “Taking the company public was a great experience,” he says. “But I realized that though I loved doing it, I really liked smaller, more focused companies.” And so he went back to where it all started: running and advising local businesses.

He is still involved with several companies, but his teaching and mentorship at Christopher Newport are in the forefront now. A specialist in strategic management, he works to join nance, management, marketing and accounting in a complete system.

“We think about the totality of the business, put all the pieces together and do it in a systematic way,” says Donaldson. “It’s what I do in my consulting work, it’s what I’ve done as a CEO, and it’s particularly important in business schools. You can’t just optimize any one of those – you have to be strong across all of them.”

His ability to converse in many languages, so to speak, and to guide students along multidisciplinary paths is what endears him to his students. Clark Andersen (’15) took several of Donaldson’s classes, but it was their interaction outside of class that had the most impact.

“From the moment I met Professor Donaldson, I was sure he would have a lasting impression on me,” Andersen says. “He’s a professor, adviser, mentor and friend, and my interaction with him helped to shape the way I look at the world today.” He adds that Donaldson’s real-world approach is deeply meaningful and ties classroom lessons to actual business outcomes.“With his guidance, many student organizations become working classrooms for leadership training, and lead to a lot of success,” Andersen says.

For Donaldson, his heterodox approach is the key to success. He works with students in any major; in fact, he’s convinced that when students partner with like-minded peers in other fields, the most fruitful ideas result. “I think we do students a disservice when we let disciplinary swim-lanes trap them and the way they think,” he says. “We should do more to break down academic barriers.” He illustrates the idea with a major-bending example: “Say there’s a student who’s a great musician, has an idea for a music app, but needs to hook up with a business person and needs someone from the computer science department to help him code … those are the kinds of connections we need to do more to facilitate.”

“What else in the world is there to do but help people?” Donaldson muses. “That’s the way I feel about it. It’s just the essence of it.”


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