Les Williams will share his experiences in entrepreneurship in the launch of a new Master of Engineering class in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

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After earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia in 2000, alumnus Les Williams had an exciting journey. Williams went on to earn his MBA at Harvard Business School, and then pursued a distinguished career that melded mechanical engineering with business. He co-founded an innovative and very successful risk management company in Washington, D.C., Risk Cooperative, where he serves as the chief revenue officer.

What better person to teach the Master of Engineering class in business and entrepreneurship for UVA’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering? Williams has been appointed a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor of practice for spring semester 2021. Professors of practice teach courses, advise students and collaborate in areas directly related to their expertise and experience.

“Our students can significantly benefit from understanding the intersection of engineering and business concepts,” said Eric Loth, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor. “This is especially true for mechanical engineers who graduate and move into the manufacturing field, and other types of industry, where business dynamics and entrepreneurial ideas are critical to the success of new engineering systems.

“Les has a wealth of experience and success in both the engineering and business worlds — and is a dynamic communicator of these concepts. He will teach the Harvard Business School Case Method, which takes on the fundamentals of real-world scenarios in a highly strategic approach. This course is a great opportunity for our students to have a unique edge and to become the next generation of engineering business leaders.”

Williams has been incredibly active at UVA since his undergraduate years.

Highlights of his undergraduate experience included being a member of the Raven Society and the I.M.P. Society, prestigious student groups at UVA, and serving as a peer advisor to younger engineering students.

He was one of only two students in his graduating class given the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. The award recognizes college students “who have demonstrated noble character and acted as humble servants, placing service to others before self-interest.” Other recipients of this award include a supreme court justice, a theologian and a first lady.

Today, he is proud to serve as a trustee of the UVA Engineering Foundation and as a member of the UVA Alumni Association Board of Managers. He and his wife, B.J. Wiley Williams, also a graduate of UVA and Harvard Business School, provide generous annual gifts to UVA and Harvard, which support fellowships for current students. 

Not surprisingly, while at Harvard Business School, Williams served as class co-president, presiding over a student body numbering nearly 2,000, and later served on the global alumni board.

Williams was part of a UVA leadership seminar in early spring that gave students a glimpse of his knowledge and experience. “The students said it was one of the best seminars they had ever been to,” Loth said.

UVA Engineering asked him to share his thoughts about starting his appointment as a professor of practice for this spring.

At the beginning of the interview Williams joked, “I bleed blue and orange,” referring to his dedication as an alum; biology aside, it’s almost believable. His enthusiasm for all things UVA, and especially UVA students, is palpable.

Q. How will you teach the Harvard Business Case method?

A. I will take business cases from the technology of operations management department, where cases are written specifically about manufacturing companies.

Case studies cover different scenarios and include questions like: Should a company merge with this other company? Should a company go forward with a certain product, even though it hasn't tested things fully? It will be all about these types of dilemmas that companies go through.

Some of the cases are going to have nothing to do with products. The cases are going to have to do with people in organizations. A big part of what managers ignore is the people part, organizational behavior.

These engineers that we graduate from UVA are very smart, but I want them to understand the people issues they will face are going to be 80% of their issues, only 20% will be the technical part. If you're going to be a leader, like most UVA engineers, you will have to learn how to interact with people of all different backgrounds, shades of colors, races, sexes, all within a technical environment, too.

The technology is the fun part! But you have to look at all of it. The people, the process and the technology will be discussed in every single case. I'm heavy on the organizational behavior aspect.

The teachers that teach the Harvard Business Case method walk around a lot, pace, they use a lot of their body in their mannerisms, to really make points. They have so much energy!

One teacher I had, Jim Heskett, would climb up the blackboard like Spiderman. When he was trying to accentuate a point, he would climb up there and say something like, “It’s the fact that they have not hired the right person!” and with a large gesture, circle the name and climb back down. Everybody in the class stared in amazement, like a light bulb went on and they got it.

You can call it theatrics, but it’s theatrics in the good sense. That's what I'm going to bring to the classroom.

Teaching the class online-synchronous, you have to engage people you, have to use a mix of humor and  a bit of drama so that you can really put students in the mindset of the case protagonist — what she or he is going through — and solve this problem.  And the students are going to learn as much from each other as they do from me.

 

Q. When did you know you wanted to teach?

A. It was 2004, and I was in a class called Technology of Operations Management at Harvard Business School — it's basically an engineering class for business school students. We learned about cycle times, process improvement, Kaizen assembly lines, manufacturing — and I loved it. All engineers love it, because it's something we can relate to, we’ve heard all of these terms.

The professor's name is Stefan Thomke, and this man is an amazing person. He walked into class one morning and said, “Today, guess what? Guess what? I got tenure! So, guess what?! Today, I don't teach.” And he puts the chalk down. “We’re not doing a case today, I'm taking the day off.”

We’re all excited for him. He's like, “No, I'm serious. How about I have somebody else teach the case today?” The case just happened to be on BMW and Chrysler. It was a joint engine program. Some of my friends said they thought I should teach it. And I said, “That’s great with me!” So I got up there with the chalk.

I started teaching the case. Because this was my second semester, I had been through a lot of case discussions before, so I was able to teach for 30 minutes. The professor was really impressed!

It was hilarious in one way, because I was doing all the stuff the teachers do. I was walking around, pacing, and being really expressive when I was making my points.

What’s interesting, fast forward to two and a half weeks ago, when I sent professor Thomke a note explaining what I'm doing at UVA, and he says, “Do you know, after you put that chalk down, I was telling myself and my colleagues, this man should be a teacher. I'm so happy that you decided to do this.”

We’ve been in touch all these years, and he’s still a great resource. He’s sending me some cases he recommends and some of his teaching notes. All the cases I’ll be doing will be ones written by Harvard and some by UVA’s Darden.
 

Q. What are your plans for class time?         

A. One of my professors, Tom Delong, taught a “reflective leader” class and, in addition to the case studies, I plan on using some of the things he taught me. He said, “Les, when you're teaching, remember that humans learn in three ways: They learn through learning new content, they learn by having their assumptions questioned, and they learn through learning about themselves. Keep these in mind as you plan each week so they act as guidelines for each class discussion.”

He said, “Here's what great teachers do: They know the subject. They know the students. They know their own style and stay true to that style. They create security for students in their classrooms where each student feels safe, but uncomfortable at times so they can find a path to transcend their previous assumptions.”

I also have lined up some guest speakers. Some have a degree in engineering, and some have their MBA. It’s a diverse group.

For example, one of the speakers is my good friend Lauren Cassidy. She graduated from mechanical engineering in 2000 and she went to Harvard Business School; I encouraged her to go. Now she is the COO of a private equity firm, but she has run a few other businesses. When she comes to be a guest speaker, she's going to talk about her trials, tribulations and successes as a woman in a management position of an engineering company.

This is the type of guest speaker I’ll be bringing. They're as excited as I am!

Q. What do you want the students to leave with at the end of your class?

A. I want my students to have the same type of relationship with me that I've had with my professors. I want them to know this is lifelong learning, it’s not transactional.

I want them to know this is more than a class. Soon they're going to be an alumnus or an alumna of the University of Virginia, and we will be in the ranks together, we will be partners. Friend me on LinkedIn, use me for career advice, use me for any type of advice. You’re now entering young adulthood. I can help you. We're bonded forever.

That’s why I keep in touch with a good number of my professors from Harvard and they treat me like I'm going to treat the students. I still lean on them for a lot of stuff. They send me the cases. Sometimes I meet up with them when I'm in Boston. That's the relationship I want to have.