NC State’s ‘Think and Do’ mentality is pervasive across the Poole College of Management’s campus, and not much embodies the university’s action-oriented ideology more than the practicum projects hundreds of students complete each semester as part of their coursework. For those unfamiliar, practicums are extensive, often times semester-long projects that involve student teams working directly with corporations on hands-on initiatives to develop recommendations and solutions for problems the companies are currently facing. The students don’t do it alone though; each practicum project team is assigned an advisor — often times a faculty member — to help guide the students’ vision and strategic decision-making as they work to devise their solutions.
For the school’s supply chain practicum projects, many of the student teams have the unique privilege of working with one of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative’s (SCRC) eight executive advisors, a group of seasoned professionals with over 200 years of combined industry experience who guide one or more student practicum teams in their efforts each semester. The first of these eight advisors — the rest of which will be highlighted in future editions of the SCRC Connections newsletter — is Tom Donahue, who shares a bit below about his professional background, and how he uses his extensive experience to help the students he advises ‘Think and Do’ each day.
What is your professional background?
I worked for IBM for 37 years in a variety of sales and executive management roles, both in the US and internationally.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Leading IBM’s sales efforts in Asia-Pacific for the Distribution Sector (Retail, Travel and Transportation and Consumer Packaged Goods Industries).
Can you describe your role as a practicum project advisor?
My main responsibilities focus on ensuring that students think through and prepare a well written, specific statement of work for their projects, followed by building a realistic and detailed project plan, and then finally organizing and preparing their thoughts so they can present a logical, cohesive presentation describing their work efforts and the conclusions/recommendations.
How did you hear about the executive advisor opportunity, and what made you decide to share your knowledge and expertise with students?
I heard about the SCRC through another professor in the Poole School of Management. We discussed my background and interests and he recommended I speak with SCRC Executive Director, Dr. Robert Handfield.
Can you give a brief overview of the project(s) you are advising this semester?
I’m currently involved in two projects this fall. The first involves researching Master Data Management — understanding it’s fundamentals, why it is important for enterprises to have a Master Data Management plan, and finally how the plan should be implemented within the client we are working with. The second project involves developing a plan for a major enterprise to increase their minority purchasing spend from 8% to 15%. The students have researched best practices in the marketplace to build a plan for this client to systematically increase their spend to achieve 15% minority sourcing within five years.
What challenges do you often find students facing when working on their projects? What do you advise them to do?
Each team has their own unique challenges depending on the work involved and the individual client. However, two common challenges I see involve full-time working students finding the time to dedicate to the project. Work issues arise, along with travel, family issues, etc. that make it very challenging to accomplish the work EACH and EVERY week. It takes great discipline for full-time working students to succeed. The second common challenge is students’ reluctance towards or fear of presenting. I spend a lot of time getting students comfortable speaking to groups and senior executives.
Why would you recommend taking a practicum course to students? What do you think is the most valuable skill or opportunity gained by completing a practicum project?
The most compelling reason to take a practicum course is the opportunity to work with Fortune 500 companies, doing real work that they intend to implement in their organizations. The projects we work on are real-world issues that companies need help with. Students know their work will have a direct impact on the client. The most valuable skill is the ability to think about a problem in a new way — students aren’t burdened with how things have been done in the past and are free to think of new and exciting approaches to solving issues.
What advice would you offer to students to help them become better candidates for professional positions or graduate school?
Get comfortable speaking and writing your thoughts in a simple, cohesive manner. Whether you’re in a one person company, a small company or large enterprise, you have to be able to speak to advance. It’s a fact of life. If speaking isn’t natural to you, work with the advisors to improve your skill and confidence. Skillful speakers have a distinct advantage in the workplace. Second, everyone can also improve their writing skills. Same as speaking — employees who can succinctly and clearly write have a distinct advantage as well.
What has been the highlight of your experience as a project advisor?
For me the highlight is always the same — if a student leaves the class with more confidence and a better perspective how enterprises approach project management, then I feel good.
Click here to learn more about Tom.