Interview with Dr. Robert J. Swieringa

August 10, 2011 |

This afternoon, I was humbled to speak with one of the leaders in the world of accounting, Dr. Robert J. Swieringa. Dr. Swieringa is a Daniels alumnus with a jaw-dropping resume. To name just a few of his many accomplishments, he was the Dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, a Board Member at the Financial Accounting Standards Board, and the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (the organization which creates the GMAT). Currently, he is a Professor of Accounting at Cornell, a member of the Board of Trustees of Augustana College, a member of the Board of Managers of the Partners Group Private Equity Fund, and a member of the Board of Directors of General Electric. Dr. Swieringa kindly took half an hour out of his busy schedule to enlighten me with his wisdom. Here are some of the things I learned from our conversation.

  • Forgive. When I called Dr. Swieringa, I thought I was completely prepared for our interview. The plan was to interview him on a landline set to speaker phone, and to record the conversation using a colleague’s cell phone. Unfortunately, as soon as I dialed Dr. Swieringa’s number and prepared to press “Record” on the cell phone, I realized that the cell phone had timed out and was password protected. Dr. Swieringa was incredibly gracious when I asked if I could call him back in a moment so that I could get the password for the cell phone. I felt terrible for my mistake and could not have been more grateful for Dr. Swieringa’s kindness.
  • Daniels has been a leader in the business world for generations. Dr. Swieringa graduated from Augustana College with his AB in Economics. A motivated and brilliant student, he took classes over his summers, and graduated in the middle of the academic year. The flexibility of the Daniels program meant that Dr. Swieringa could begin his MBA program in the spring rather than having to wait for a traditional fall start. In addition, accounting students from Daniels were known for achieving high scores on the examinations they had to take after graduation, and the school came highly recommended by one of Dr. Swieringa’s professors, who was a Daniels alumnus. A passion for Daniels runs in the Swieringa family. Four decades after Dr. Swieringa graduated, his son, John, earned an EMBA at the College.
  • The faculty at Daniels is one of its greatest assets. Dr. Swieringa said that the faculty at Daniels was one of the most valuable parts of his MBA experience, and he even recalled three of his favorite professors by name. Later on, when he became a professor himself, he incorporated some of their teaching techniques to help illustrate concepts to his own students. Dr. Swieringa expressed his support of our current Dean, Dr. Chris Riordan, and praised the innovative changes she is making for the students of Daniels.
  • When struggling with periods of difficulty and self-doubt, remember that everything moves in cycles. I asked Dr. Swieringa how he has dealt with periods of self-doubt on his path to success. He explained that he had developed the perspective that dark times do not last forever. Difficulties will arise, but it’s important to remember that life is cyclical, and hard times will end eventually.
  • Persistence is a key to success. Dr. Swieringa was friends with Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts. Often, Mr. Schultz would be working on fifteen different strips at once. Occasionally, he would have to scrap one, but that did not stop him from making the other fourteen into masterpieces, and from becoming one of the most successful cartoonists of all time. Achieving this success meant developing the abilities to face hard work head on and to handle many projects at once.
  • Reach out to others. When Dr. Swieringa was a student at Daniels, he was part of a group of students who met for lunch or coffee every day. If someone needed help with something, he would write his question or problem on the blackboard, and the entire group would help him solve it. Whether you’re an MBA student or a businessperson (or both), you don’t live in a self-contained bubble. It’s tempting to think that you can solve every problem on your own, but this kind of thinking can box you in and impede progress. Reaching out to others is an invaluable way to break through challenges. You don’t have to do everything alone, and you will be more successful if you learn to ask for help.
  • Do well, but also do good. In your path to success, it’s essential to remember to give back to others. Dr. Swieringa has been involved with a wide variety of charitable organizations over the years, and as a proud alumnus of Daniels he is committed to giving back to his alma mater.  In fact, Study Room 343 is named after Dr. Swieringa and his son, John.  Finding altruistic passions and remembering those who contributed to your success are just as important as doing well for yourself.
  • Surround yourself with intelligent people. While working as an Assistant Professor of Accounting at Stanford, Dr. Swieringa met Dr. Robert T. Sprouse, who was one of the founders of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Because Dr. Swieringa knew Dr. Sprouse, he was able to be a direct participant in this Board during an exciting and monumental time in the world of accounting, and had the opportunity to share knowledge with some of the most brilliant minds in the country in settings both formal (at FASB meetings) and informal (over coffee or lunch).
  • Work to develop an interdisciplinary perspective. Dr. Swieringa had taken courses in psychology and sociology while earning his AB in Economics, and he wanted to continue his studies in the behavioral sciences while earning his Ph.D. in Accounting at the University of Illinois. Unfortunately, the head of the program to which he was applying did not understand why an accounting student wanted to study organizational behavior, and grilled Dr. Swieringa for four hours about his intentions. In the end, Dr. Swieringa’s earnestness convinced the program director to admit him, and he earned a Ph.D. in Accounting and Complex Organizations. The classes offered in the Daniels MBA program expose students to many different disciplines. Daniels is an excellent place to develop what Dr. Swieringa calls “a high tolerance for ambiguity”, and to learn how to consider diverse and multiple perspectives while solving problems and making decisions. Student should take advantage of the unique opportunity Daniels provides to learn to view the world (and the challenges they face) through a wide variety of lenses.
  • Appreciate accounting textbooks based on real-world case studies: they haven’t been around forever. Today, we take for granted the fact that accounting textbooks are based on real-world case studies. When Dr. Swieringa was studying accounting, this wasn’t the case. Many textbook problems were disconnected from the way accounting worked in the real world. In his teaching, and later on when writing his textbooks, Dr. Swieringa challenged students by presenting them with real-world problems which didn’t have straightforward answers. Rather than performing simple calculations to figure out the solutions, students had to go deeper to figure out the thought processes behind the numbers on the page.

The Daniels Values of Community, Excellence, and Ethics were reflected in every one of Dr. Swieringa’s responses.  One of his closing remarks was that he was proud to have earned his MBA from Daniels.  I am honored to stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr. Swieringa, and I am deeply grateful for the time he took to share his knowledge and wisdom with the Daniels community.

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