Caterpillar Executives Tom Bluth (JD ‘00) and Clay Thompson Speak to MSL Program Students

The MSL program plans tons of events that connect our students to the outside world and to professionals who are doing intersectional work that is relevant to our students’ many interests.  Recently, we held a special executive seminar, with Caterpillar executives Tom Bluth (JD ‘00), Vice President of Legal Aftermarket Support, and Clay Thompson, Vice President, Latin America Sales and Operations. These two supporters of the MSL program led an informative and entertaining discussion about product lifecycle development in large corporations. Students learned about how the knowledge they are obtaining in the MSL program translates to the real world, and how others with STEM backgrounds and legal training have led teams, solved complex problems, and worked globally.

Tom’s and Clay’s bottom-line message was that having intersectional knowledge – such as that gained in the MSL program – is critical to driving projects and products to success.

While the seminar was focused on product lifecycle issues, the discussion logically turned to topics involving leadership “at the intersection.” Tom and Clay answered student’s questions about leadership, and emphasized the importance of staying engaged with the many layers of a product’s development, ranging from its engineering, through managing its risk factors, through intellectual property concerns, business strategy, and legal issues. Here are some of the key takeaways that Tom and Clay imparted, based on what they’ve learned from their voluminous work experiences around the world:

  1. Managing and understanding intersections is critical to success. Most traffic accidents happen at the intersections; similarly, many product decisions go awry at the intersections between business and legal.
  2. Leaders who understand how different functions work together are going to be more successful than those who don’t. Some leaders see different functions as barriers in the overall process, but those who see all the related functions as strategically related are more likely to thrive and avoid big setbacks.
  3. No matter how high up in the hierarchy you are, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. “Go and see” what is really going on in your organization.
  4. Know what you know, but also know what you don’t know. Even if you think you know things, ask questions. Asking questions will help you learn and will also allow those around you to share what they have learned – all for the benefit of the project.
  5. The global market is complex – each customer and culture should be approached with an open mind and willingness to be flexible. When entering a new market, it is important to learn about the culture and competitive environment of that market. Many business tactics do not translate well across borders; good leaders respect the local culture and attempt to understand where their customers are coming from.
  6. Customers should be partners. Companies should remain keenly cognizant of their customers during the product development cycle.

In short, leaders need to understand how different business functions intersect to support the overall goals of an organization. The Bluth/Thompson seminar was a demonstration of how programs that focus on interdisciplinary learning, like the MSL, prepare graduates to rise as leaders. MSL students are uniquely prepared to understand product development, and they have the tools to be transformational leaders.

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