Mr. Leonard’s legacy
Former business executive is helping to create a new generation of leaders.
UGA senior Sarah Beatty’s future seems bright. The finance and accounting major completed an internship with Goldman Sachs last year, and she has a position there waiting for her when she graduates. But Beatty, who’s from Roswell, is worried about moving to New York City and leaving behind everything she knows.
Luckily she’s having lunch on this November day with UGA alumnus Earl Leonard, a former Coca-Cola executive who knows exactly what to say.
“It’s going to give you a new dimension,” he says. “You don’t want to ever stay in the same place for the rest of your life. That’s not good.”
Downtown Athens’ Mayflower restaurant—“putting the South in your mouth since 1948”—might not seem like the ideal place to discuss big life questions, but it’s one of the places where Leonard regularly meets with students. Over hamburger steaks or a vegetable plate, he talks with them about whatever’s on their minds, sharing the wisdom acquired during his 40-year career.
Conversation varies from the serious to the lighthearted, but either way Leonard demonstrates sincere interest in their lives. He encourages them to follow their hearts, expects them to work hard and answers their questions honestly.
It’s an approach that’s made him extremely popular. Another guest at today’s lunch, Brittany Sink, a senior accounting major from Birmingham, Ala., interned last summer with Aegis London.
“I bet you enjoyed London,” Leonard says. “Tell me about it.”
Earl Leonard’s relationship with the University of Georgia began nearly 60 years ago when he entered as a freshman. After earning a degree in journalism, he served on the journalism faculty while earning a second degree in law. Post graduation he became press secretary to U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell, then joined Coca-Cola in 1964. Leonard spent 35 years with the soft drink giant, becoming senior vice president in 1983 and leading the corporate affairs division before retiring and serving five additional years as a consultant.
Though he settled in Atlanta, Leonard stayed involved with his alma mater. He took on a number of roles with the Alumni Society (now the UGA Alumni Association) before becoming president. He got involved with fundraising, serving as chairman of the Annual Fund and helping to start the President’s Club (giving level of $1,000 or more). Leonard served on hiring committees, the School of Law Board of Visitors, the Journalism Dean’s Advisory Committee, the Athletic Board and the UGA Foundation board of trustees. These years of service followed from the belief that his accomplishments were a direct result of the training he received.
“I wanted to do something to [give] back to the University of Georgia, which I credit with making me a successful person,” he says.
UGA President Jere Morehead was a young faculty member in the late ’80s when Leonard invited him to Coca-Cola for a visit.
“Over the years, I would just periodically pick up the phone and say, ‘I need some advice,’” Morehead says. “He’d either give it to me then, or he would invite me to come see him. That’s one of his favorite lines: ‘Come see me.’”
In his last decade at Coca-Cola, Leonard noticed that the job candidates he met were lacking leadership skills and began thinking about how higher education might train future generations.
“You have got to have leadership abilities for a 21st-century success in business,” he says.
After retiring in 1999, Leonard and his wife pledged $2 million to establish the Bebe and Earl Leonard Leadership Scholars Program, a two-year leadership development curriculum for Terry College of Business undergraduates. The gift helped to establish the Institute for Leadership Advancement, and the program has since expanded to offer leadership development training to non-Terry students.
And Leonard continues to give his time, serving as a Terry Distinguished Executive-in-Residence. He visits campus every two to three weeks, scheduling one-on-one meetings with students from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is when his voice usually gives out.
“He has contributed thousands and thousands of hours to students and has truly impacted one class after another of Leonard Leadership Scholars over the years,” Morehead says.
“Thinking is hard work, but thinking about yourself is the hardest work of all,” Leonard tells a group of students last November.
He’s visiting the ILA class Leadership, Personal Development and Organizations, taught by Instructor Vikki Clawson, one of three required courses for Leonard Scholars. The students are working on the Personal Development and Leadership Portfolio, a series of journals, exercises, interviews and assessments that helps them identify personal values, develop a leadership vision, assess strengths and weaknesses, and create an action plan.
“One [part] I really enjoyed was having to write our eulogy. That was an eye opener,” says Ambreia Curry, a junior from Valdosta majoring in finance.
“I always thought financial gain was one of my big driving points… [but] I didn’t mention money at all.”
This kind of thoughtful work is required of students when their training is rooted in servant leadership, a philosophy that embraces shared power and emphasizes helping others develop and perform well. When ILA was established in 2001, it was built on a core set of values—responsibility, stewardship, excellence, integrity and purpose—that drives the curriculum.
“To have such a personal class in the middle of a research university is a gift,” Clawson says, “and the gift [came] with Mr. Leonard saying we need to have value-based leaders.”
Each year 30 juniors, all Terry students, are chosen as Leonard Leadership Scholars, joining 30 more in the senior class. An additional 60 students are named ILA Fellows, who are not required to be Terry majors. Both Leonard Scholars and ILA Fellows earn the Certificate in Personal and Organizational Leadership.
Leonard doesn’t help select the Leonard Scholars, but once they’re chosen he studies their résumés and photos so he can call them by name. He speaks to each incoming class of Scholars, offering a welcome that is affectionately referred to as “Pearls from Earl.” Some examples:
• “Leaders should not be afraid of the strengths in their colleagues.”
• “Go to the side of those who make a mistake, particularly the young. They will follow you forever because you did not shun them.”
• “Life is a one-act play. There are no encores.”
• “You are not entitled to anything you have not earned.”
“He not only talks to them about business, but more importantly, he talks to them about being an effective human being and being men and women of integrity and character,” Clawson says.
“I think he’s part parent, part teacher, part corporate businessman and an absolutely genuine, authentic human being.”
In August 2005, Earl Leonard received a letter that brought him to tears. It was from Holly Isdale, a managing director at Lehman Brothers, who thanked him for sending Drew Fulton (BBA ’06) to serve as an intern in their analyst program. They were so happy with Fulton’s performance that the firm offered him a position.
It was a breakthrough moment for Leonard. He’d campaigned hard to get a Wall Street firm to look outside the Ivy League for interns, and Fulton was his first successful placement.
“Our kids are just as good as any kid from Harvard,” Leonard says.
He keeps up with “my kids” long after they graduate, displaying photos in his office in Terry’s Executive Education Center in Buckhead. His bulletin board is overflowing so new items are attached to nearby wall space, and his files are full of cards and letters sent by Leonard Scholars thanking him for speaking to their classes, meeting one on one and providing scholarships to support summer internships.
With more than a decade of Leonard Scholars out in the world, ILA can boast 300-plus graduates working at places including KPMG, AFLAC, Chick-fil-A, Ernst & Young, Google, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola.
Fulton, now at Maverick Capital in New York City, says the program helps UGA graduates compete not just with students from Georgia but from around the world.
“It is an invaluable experience to have access to that type of training … and every year that goes by I appreciate that fact more and more,” he says.
Morehead wants future UGA students to have the same access, so establishing an endowment for the Leonard Leadership Scholars Program is a priority for the university.
“That’s one way to ensure that the work of Earl Leonard will go on for a very long time,” he says.
“That’s a jam-up tie,” Derek Hammock, a junior accounting major from Vidalia, tells Leonard.
The two are posing together for a photo before starting their one-on-one meeting.
“This is a terrific young’un right here,” Leonard announces. “He’s a good one.”
At 77, Leonard is bridging a 50-plus year gap when he meets with students.
“I learn from them as much or more than they learn from me,” he says.
He believes that today’s young people worry more than they should about knowing what they want to do for the rest of their life.
“I tell them there’s no way you can know exactly what you want to do right now because you are still in the process of becoming,” Leonard says. “You’re not who you are yet.”
In the meantime, he has some recommendations:
• “Travel—you learn every hour you’re out there. You absorb things.”
• “Be yourself, number one. You’re there to learn.”
• “Ask why questions.”
These “Pearls from Earl” give students something to think about while discovering who they are and figuring out who they want to become. No doubt they will change as they examine principles of leadership, engage in study abroad and explore the professional world through internships, but a few things will stay the same. Earl Leonard will root for their success now and after they graduate; he’ll share his wit and wisdom with future classes of Scholars; and he’ll begin meetings by asking about them, as he does today with Hammock.
“Now,” Mr. Leonard says, “what’s on your mind?”
—From Georgia Magazine, March 2014