In September, Ken Hersh, president and CEO of the George W. Bush Presidential Center since 2016, became the first-ever Distinguished Executive in Residence at the Cox School and made his first official appearance at the Spears Institute event, where he conducted a fireside chat with Lorie Logan before the Tolias’ appointments were announced. Hersh will serve as Distinguished Executive in Residence for a four-year term, with potential for reappointment, and will participate in three to four student engagements per academic year to model his proven leadership acumen to SMU Cox students. Additionally, Hersh is a featured speaker for the Cox Leaders on Leadership: Fireside Chat Speaker Series on January 24, among other Cox School engagements. In the following Q&A, he discusses his new role, the importance of great mentors and why he decided to write a book.
What insights and perspectives from your own career in leadership will you take into this new role?
Hersh: Having had a career in the for-profit sector and then transitioning to the not-for-profit side allowed me to see how different workforces respond, and how culture and leadership and mission overlap.
How have you benefited from mentorship in your career?
I was blessed very early in my career to office for over a decade with Richard Rainwater in Fort Worth, one of the legendary founders of the entire private equity investment business in this country. He was charismatic. He was a visionary. He had an electric personality. Ultimately, we modeled our entire business after some of his philosophies around picking great people, aligning interests and then getting out of their way.
What goals do you have as you step into this role as Distinguished Executive in Residence?
Most importantly, it’s to be available. If I can be available to both students and faculty as a resource, whether it’s around the energy industry, the asset management industry or leadership in general, then I’m happy to do it.
Why did you decide to write “The Fastest Tortoise”? What are some of the key messages you hope people will come away with from the book?
I originally wrote it for my future demented self, so I would remember what I did, and secondarily for my unborn future grandchildren. But as people read it, they liked some of the lessons, and my editor and I expanded it and made it what turned out to be. I’ll call it a book for generalists everywhere.
I navigated the energy industry with no energy background to speak of. I’m not a petroleum engineer, a geologist or geophysicist. Yet I was able to carve out a successful investment franchise in an industry that, frankly, I knew nothing about. So, there are some very important lessons about betting on yourself and about not being afraid of uncertainty. It’s important to always be curious, to be intellectually honest and to always be optimistic.