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Schooled in the personal side of business

Richard Popovic:
Schooled in the personal side of business

What is it that makes a group of people click, and how can you speed up the process?
At Xerox Corp., Richard Popovic studied teams and how to make their members work better together. Now he uses the knowledge he gained to run the Executive Development Program at the University of Rochester’s William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration.
As associate dean, he runs three MBA programs for professionals in three countries. He must balance selling the concept to potential applicants with picking the best candidates to learn the theory to go with their experience.
Popovic has the unusual mix of abilities that gives him an understanding of machines, while also being skilled at dealing with people.
He is the fifth person to run the Simon School program since it was started in 1966, and the third to also complete the program himself.
His main area of expertise is team building, “understanding what drives people,” Popovic says.
Coordinating is a big part of his job these days.
“I have a great staff here,” he says. “When I’m gone, things happen. The goal is to make things happen in each country.”
The program caters to a range of professionals who typically have six to 10 years of management experience. Participants are nominated by their companies, which pay the two-year tuition of $56,000. Students take classes one day a week from September to July in the first year, and from September to June in the second. They also attend a series of lectures in Europe with European and U.S. government policy-makers and industry experts.
Study teams, selected by the administration, meet weekly to prepare for class.
The professionals in the program come from a variety of backgrounds, with the largest group lately in operations management and engineering. There also are shopkeepers and employees of non-profit organizations.
Popovic, since becoming associate dean in 1993, has increased class sizes in Rochester while launching the program in Switzerland and continuing the one in the Netherlands.
Running the three programs takes him abroad roughly one week out of every month, more travel than any previous dean.
Since the program is demanding, increasing the number of students from 40 to 60 or even 70 a class has involved an “interesting mix of screening and marketing,” as Simon School professor Clifford Smith Jr. puts it. Popovic talks to all the applicants personally.
“Rick’s best when he’s one-on-one,” says Smith, Clarey Professor of Finance and Economics, and a member of the Faculty Committee on Executive Programs, a policy-making and oversight group.
“I’m not suggesting he’s not effective in front of 50 or 100 people, (but) Rick does so many of the personal things very, very well,” he says.
Previous deans left the personal dimension to administrative assistants. But students juggling full-time jobs, 25 hours or more of classwork a week and family life sometimes become distracted and need to talk.
“At times Rick turns into a sort of father confessor, because we’re talking about very busy people,” Smith says.
Popovic has been there. His manager at Xerox nominated him for the program. With many years spent managing people, he was experienced and, paraphrasing inventor Buckminster Fuller, knew there were certain things he did not know.
“But there were a lot of things I didn’t know I didn’t know,” Popovic recalls.
The program taught him to ask more informed questions of finance experts and others he dealt with. And the weekly meetings with a study team built on Popovic’s understanding of how such relationships work.
After completing the program in 1992, he returned to teach different aspects of team building. When the position of associate dean opened up, he applied for it. A series of interviews and months of waiting followed. Then he was offered the job.
“He’s doing now what he wanted to do most of his life,” says Rose Popovic, his wife. Not long after he took the job, Xerox began a massive series of layoffs, she notes.
A good deal of Popovic’s career, including three years in the military and 21 at Xerox, involved figuring out how to get different kinds of people to relate better and work as a unit.
Popovic grew up in Erie, Pa. He started dating Rose the summer before their junior year of high school. It was the late 1960s, and Popovic expected to be drafted to go to Vietnam. Instead he enlisted, choosing to become a nuclear weapons specialist.
“I didn’t like the Army very much, but it was a great time and a great learning experience,” he says.
In that setting, he first learned the importance of teams. Working with lethal weaponry, he notes, “you needed to have 100 percent trust in what the person was doing.”
He also appreciated that the Army wanted results and rewarded those who delivered. Later, he would get the same kind of encouragement when he began working at Xerox.
There were no commissioned officers in the field, in order to get rid of traditional hierarchy, he says. Popovic, at age 22, was in charge of nuclear weapons control.
“I was driven to get things done,” he says. “You get an assignment, you finish it.”
After moving from New Mexico to New Jersey to Germany, his three-year tour was up. By then he was married, and the couple moved back to Erie to be near family while Popovic finished college.
He studied psychology, knowing he wanted to be in management, at Pennsylvania State University’s Behrend College in Erie. At night he held down a job pounding copper coils into huge electric motors for General Electric Co. The job was exhausting, but the money was good.
“You got a choice,” Popovic says. “You can take everything that happens, suck your thumb and say, “Woe is me.’ Or you can take everything as a learning experience.”
After graduating from college, he went to work at Xerox. The company was progressive, with few barriers to the ambitious. Six months after he started, Popovic earned his first management post.
“They let you do anything … as long as you accepted “the glory or the sword,”’ he says.
At 30 he became a district manager, one of 64 at that level in the United States. He was transferred here in 1977, and the family moved to Pittsford.
Over two decades with Xerox, Popovic got to explore challenges in 17 different jobs in areas that included customer service, technical support, management training and organization-effectiveness strategy.
Popovic helped start an internal consulting group for Xerox middle managers in the 1980s.
“That was real good news and real bad news,” he recalls.
The good news was that the consulting was a big success. Managers more quickly trusted and heeded the advice of a fellow “Xerite,” and the company saved money by not hiring outside groups.
The bad news was that Popovic spent his weeks zipping around the country to different districts, now flying to Florida, now to Hawaii.
After two years–his daughter, Rachelle, by then was a young teenager–Popovic and his wife sat down to discuss what his schedule was doing to the family. They decided he had to end the constant travel. With that choice went Popovic’s aim to make vice president by age 40.
“We had to put things in perspective,” Rose Popovic says. “I think that was a turning point in our life.”
Xerox still had plenty for Popovic to do. As a strategist in the late 1980s, he was assigned to imagine what Xerox would look like in five years.
He wanted to make a video, but instead of using a bunch of talking heads, he decided to make a science- fiction video, called “It Came From 1992.” He hired an ad agency that mounted a production using New York City actors and special effects. Popovic would work with the crew every night during the shoot into the early hours of the morning.
The video eventually was shown to all U.S. employees of Xerox, showcasing such innovations as copy machines that diagnosed their own malfunctions and made service calls.
“I can’t imagine another company doing this,” he says.
Though Popovic has made the transition to academia, he finds the schedule even more demanding than when he was at Xerox. Universities, he has found, operate much leaner than corporate America.
That means he has a lot to do, as well as a lot to delegate. Though he still travels one week a month for the Simon School, he is at home more than in the years when he was a Xerox consultant.
A year and a half ago he got a job offer that would have meant a move to Phoenix, double his current salary and a Mercedes ESL.
Popovic turned it down.
“How much more do you need?” he asks. “There’s more to life than money.”
Popovic still finds time to pursue his passions. He likes boating and has a Jet Ski. He also is a car fanatic, ever since he was a teenager.
When friends and relatives are looking for a new car, they turn to Popovic for advice. His old study teammate from the MBA program, Duane Roland, says that when his own son was looking at buying a Ford Escort and considering a ’95 and a ’96, Popovic knew everything about the cars from the difference in trunk volume to their relative resale values.
For a year Popovic even served as a test driver for the Democrat and Chronicle’s car column, rating the latest pickup or Porsche.
Last May he got the thrill of his life when his daughter, now a publicist for the Richard Petty NASCAR driving school in Charlotte, N.C., gave him the gift of a day at the track.
After Popovic received some training, and signed a stack of waivers, the instructors let him loose on the racetrack with three other beginners and two professional drivers.
Popovic was sitting, harnessed in his car, wearing a fire suit and listening to some last words of advice before he took off. The instructor told him if the car caught fire, he was to pull a pin that would release fire-retardant foam.
What would he do, Popovic asked, if he crashed the car and broke both of his arms?
“If you’re on fire, you’ll figure it out,” the instructor said.
But Popovic’s main fear was of hitting the wall that loomed up at a 24-degree angle at the edge of the track–not because he was afraid of dying but because he would be embarrassed.
He did not hit the wall. Instead, he averaged 140 mph on the 1.5-mile track and had the time of his life.
Afterward, his shoulders ached from gripping the steering wheel, and he noticed bruises across his chest from the heavy harness. But when he got out of the car, he was elated.
“I couldn’t get the grin off my face.”

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