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David Simmons Discusses Career Management

David Simmons (BS MCS, TPR ’86), Chairman and CEO of PPD, returned to the Tepper School of Business on Jan. 23, happy to share his insights on successful career management. As the third speaker in the 2013-2014 W.L. Mellon CEO Speaker Series, Simmons discussed personal life lessons learned with a full room of Tepper School students.

“This is intended as a look back on my career since I left Carnegie, on the lessons that I learned along the way and wish I had known then,” said Simmons, now at the helm of PPD, a private biopharmaceutical development firm with 13,500 employees in 46 countries. “Those lessons got me to where I am, and I hope they might be useful to you.”

Simmons began by remarking on a memorable finance course he’d taken as a Carnegie Mellon junior and smiled at his former professor seated in the audience — Tepper School Dean Robert Dammon.

“One of the reasons I can do what I do is because I’m not intimidated by any problem,” continued Simmons, who graduated with a double major in applied math and industrial management. “No matter how complex it is, I’m comfortable breaking it down, and comfortable with analysis. That ability to tackle complexity was forged here at Carnegie Mellon and my finance course was part of that process. I have a lot of gratitude for what I learned here and hopefully I can give a little bit back.”

He then set out a brief history of a career that included 15 successful years at Pfizer before joining PPD in 2012, illustrating 10 lessons he learned on his rise to the top. He began with the revelation, “In my senior year, I wallpapered my room with rejection letters.” With this cautionary tale, he stressed the importance of bouncing back and demonstrating resilience. However, he just as quickly underscored the significance of staying grounded in the face of success, stating, “You’re never as good as your best win.”

Simmons emphasized the need to take on challenging assignments as he believes they can be the most meaningful points in one’s career, and he cited a personal example. While working as a business technology leader for a steel company, he was asked to leave his role and take on a significant enterprise project. He was to close a union plant and open a new facility in another state. It meant moving equipment, negotiating with union officials and even receiving threats.

“This was a very pivotal point in my career,” Simmons explained. “When you’re managing your own career, you may be asked to do something that you haven’t done before, that doesn’t feel comfortable and that you think is very risky. Sometimes that job can be the best thing you’ve ever done.”

He stressed the impact of what he termed “your advocacy network,” and relayed another personal story of winning a “dream job” because four of his previous superiors were sitting on the selection committee. He then complimented the students on their abilities as he warned them.

“Your analytical horsepower is pretty much unrivaled coming out of this school, and that is going to work well for you,” he maintained. “You’ll do your job better than others and you’ll be promoted, like cream rising to the top of the milk bottle. You’re going to get to the level, however, where you and all your competitors are ‘cream’ and all are qualified for a position of increased responsibility. Then how will you move forward? You need to pay attention to your network.”

Simmons next outlined his method for evaluating senior position candidates, giving the students a glimpse into the hiring priorities of a chief executive. He listed a number of necessary “table stakes” qualities that included hard work, the ability to collaborate and resilience.

He then enumerated a second group of differentiating characteristics, or “something extra” qualities that included “a definitive performance statement,” as well as both fearlessness and humility. He noted that in his experience, a high performing individual who displays empathy often correlates with a dedicated workforce.

Simmons summarized the decision process he employed in joining PPD. It was a significant career move, leaving a high-level position at a leading public company to take the helm of a smaller private-equity owned firm.

In that vein, his final advice included the importance of creating your own decision framework, of growing your professional network and accepting what you can’t control. As the presentation came to a close, he took one quick question from the audience on how he garnered trust at PPD. He easily answered that he took the time necessary to assess the situation, to set a clear strategic statement and to be certain “to do no harm.”

With that, time ran out as Simmons thanked the students and expressed his positive perceptions of the great strides taken by the university and the Tepper school since his attendance in the 1980s.