Santa Clara University

MBA alumna makes collaboration a priority

Nilofer Merchant

MBA 2000: Author, Management Consultant

“Kindness” is not usually first on a list of what creates excellence in a business leader, but it’s up there for Nilofer Merchant, CEO and founder of Rubicon Consulting, an influential Silicon Valley firm specializing in high technology business.

“Kindness disarms people,” said Merchant (MBA ‘00), “Rubicon does strategy at the highest level for multi-billion dollar companies (Adobe, Apple, HP, Symantec and Nokia are a few). These are companies that have to decide who they are today and where they want to go. They never call us because things are going great. You get called because something is broken.

“Now, you could see these people as screw-ups, or you can see them as people who’ve done the best they can with what they have. I think that compassion and courage are rare in business. I’m the first person to say what the elephant in the room is, but I say it kindly. If you don’t have kindness in your heart, how many people are going to want to tell you what’s going on in the company?”

On the other hand, Merchant also has coined the phrase “murder boarding” for her process of promoting good ideas and killing bad ones. She has a pitch-perfect ear for the catchy phrase, exemplified by a talk she gave called “Even Steinways Get Out of Tune.” The talk, later turned into a company White Paper, was about spirituality in business – a topic that first piqued her interest when a classmate (who later became her husband) suggested she take Andre Delbecq’s course, “Spirituality for Business Leaders.”

“You had to study a tree and write a journal entry about it,” she recalled. “I remember thinking it was the silliest exercise ever.”  But as she thought more about the assignment, and about the capstone project was she was working on, she realized that the tree was a powerful analogy for business. She saw core strengths and experiences as the roots and the fruits of labor up in the branches. The class also inspired her to explore her personal values and goals.

“What kind of person do I want to be? What feeds me at a personal level?” she asked herself. She says that people who don’t ask those questions often never learn what their answers are.

Merchant admitted that although she learned much at Santa Clara, she wasn’t a stellar student. It took her seven years to finish her degree, which was interrupted by leaves of absence as she was promoted into new positions.

“When I started the program, I wasn’t even a first-level manager,” she said. “By the time I left, I’d been a vice president at a start-up and an executive at a Fortune 500 company.”

“What was nice about the program was that everyone was in the same spot,” she added. “Everyone was in ties and suits and working really hard. Going to SCU added tremendous value to my career. I’d go to class Tuesday and then apply what I learned on the job, and then come back to class Thursday with a different take on the issue.”

Her MBA program gives her access to SCU’s network of alums populating businesses throughout Silicon Valley. Merchant also keeps in touch by frequently serving as a guest speaker to Leavey classes.

“Santa Clara is justly known for serving the working executives of this area,” she said. “If you want to continue working and building your career, it’s really the only choice.”

Merchant took what she learned and tested in the marketplace and turned in into The New How, a book about strategic leadership and the perspectives needed to make it work. The book was released by O'Reilly Media in late 2009.