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Reggie Fils-Aimé ’83 delivers a speech Oct. 21 in Call Alumni Auditorium.

Fils-Aimé delivers inaugural Leaders in Residence lecture

Intellectual curiosity, communication and courageous decision-making are among the principles behind effective leadership, said Reggie Fils-Aimé ’83, former president and chief operating officer at Nintendo of America Inc., in a talk Oct. 21 in Call Alumni Auditorium.

Fils-Aimé is the inaugural Leader in Residence at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. His talk, sponsored by the Dyson Leadership Program, focused on a list of guiding principles for leaders that he developed while working for companies including Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut and Panda Express as well as Nintendo, from which he retired earlier this year.

His most notable achievements include the launch of wildly popular products such as the Nintendo DS, Wii and Nintendo Switch.

“Leaders think about the future and have the ability to develop people and teams; they balance functional expertise and strategy,” Fils-Aimé said. “They are able to examine a problem and consider the impact of possible solutions.”

Not all managers are exceptional leaders, Fils-Aimé said. Functional expertise – the ability to organize people and projects – while valuable in the business world, is just one step on the path toward effective leadership, he said.

“It’s important to paint a compelling picture of where you want to be,” he said. “The vision must be clear and must be positive, and have a positive impact on the business.”

He cited Nintendo’s evolution from a playing card manufacturer in the 19th century to a global video game market leader, based on a vision to “put smiles on people’s faces, with products that surprise and entertain.”

Fils-Aimé recalled that, as a senior at Cornell, he was selected to work at Procter & Gamble and led teams of older, more experienced professionals. “I focused on driving teamwork and collaboration and getting people invested in teamwork,” he said. “It was a mentality of helping others succeed. It’s important to let employees emerge in their own way to achieve a goodwill that leads to business success.”

Intellectual curiosity is critical, he said. He asked countless questions to help Panda Express expand from a Chinese restaurant category dominated by mom-and-pop operators to a global organization.

“Previous efforts by the company to create a concept that could succeed on any street corner had failed,” he said. “I talked to employees, customers, the finance team and the real estate team to figure out what would work. The key was maintaining the highest-quality food and changing just about everything else about the restaurants – the design, the layout, the in-store operations, the marketing. The results exceeded all expectations, and I believe this was driven by intellectual curiosity.”

Effective leaders also have effective communications skills, Fils-Aimé said.

“Writing a one-page memo helps you think clearly about ideas and executing those ideas,” he said. “Write down what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how to execute the plan.”

He added: “Valuing differences means exerting leadership while pushing for diverse and inclusive organizations. Different perspectives and identities lead to better ideas and better results. This is a fact.”

Effective leaders must make tough decisions based on the best available knowledge, Fils-Aimé said. For example, Nintendo took a risk on Wii and Wii Sports during a slump in the video game market.

“Nintendo saw a lack of innovation in games and consoles – a lack of fun,” he said. “The Wii and Wii Sports changed the interaction between players and the game. It was a gutsy call that paid off.”

Leaders in residence will visit campus once each semester to meet one-on-one with students, lead small group discussions, guest lecture and participate in a larger workshop or campus presentation.

Jay Wrolstad is a freelance writer. Read the full version of the story on the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business website.

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Abby Butler