Managers traditionally have built their careers by concentrating on specific disciplines such as finance or marketing. Such specialization, however, pales in comparison to the value that executives can generate when they fuse together insights from various fields into a cohesive whole.


That was the message that the heads of three companies — ARAMARK, Commerce Bancorp and Contigroup Companies — delivered to students when they spoke recently at Wharton. “My experience has been that you’ll develop the best solutions for any business problem only when you are able to integrate perspectives of a broad range of disciplines,” notes Joseph Neubauer, CEO of ARAMARK, a managed services company in Philadelphia. “I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know hundreds of CEOs around the world, and I can absolutely assure you that being focused is critical, but being narrow is a mistake”


Banking as Retail

There can be tremendous value in importing new perspectives from a different discipline or industry. Vernon Hill, president of Commerce Bancorp., broke every rule of banking to create one of the highest-growth retail banks in the industry. Hill envisioned the company as “a retail chain that turned out to be a bank” and used this perspective to challenge assumptions about banking. He emphasized convenience and superior service – opening seven days a week and offering free coin counting machines – rather than focusing on lower rates and cost cutting.


Hill grew the bank organically in an era when larger rivals believed the only way to grow in the mature banking industry was through mergers. Like a retailer, he built the business one branch at a time, from a single location in New Jersey in 1973 to a network of more than 220 banks spread throughout the surrounding region. The company’s advertising emphasized the new “anti-bank” positioning with messages stressing, “no stupid hours, no stupid rules.”


While traditional banks were growing by single digits or shrinking, Commerce posted 26% compound average growth of its assets over the past decade. Although Commerce remains relatively small, it is taking billions in deposits away from larger competitors. Hill points out that First Union lost $6.1 billion in deposits in New Jersey between 1991 and 2002 and Fleet lost $1.7 billion at a time when Commerce gained $8.4 billion. Like a retailer, Commerce also monitors and reports “same-store sales,” which have been steadily increasing. “It’s a retailer’s view of life, not a banker’s view of life,” he notes.


This fresh perspective is important for organizations and for individual employees, Hill says. “No one needs a me-too bank, university or employee. Every one of us every day has to learn to create value. When you learn to create value, you have value.”


Running 6,000 Profit Centers

Complex business problems usually cannot be solved through a single discipline. Neubauer discussed the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives in the decentralized businesses that have built ARAMARK’s $10 billion company in “managed services,” including outsourced food, facility management and other support services. Individual front-line managers are responsible for handling client relationships and P&L for 6,000 profit centers around the world. “Finance, marketing, operations, sales, service, human resources – you are basically running your own business,” he says. “Cross-functional integration is necessary for survival.”


In addition to expanding individual knowledge, diverse teams can help focus multiple perspectives on business problems. Neubauer says he often pulls together a team to consider a particular challenge. “The days when one person could have all the knowledge to solve a problem are over,” he adds. “We sometimes pack 15 people into a meeting room designed for six, and we always come up with better solutions the more bright minds we put on it.”


Sticking to Their Chickens

Sometimes companies can have too narrow a focus. Paul Fribourg, CEO of ContiGroup Companies (formerly Continental Grains), walked away from an opportunity to enter the motorcycle business with a partner in China because it was so far removed from the company’s core experience in grain and livestock. The Chinese partner ended up building a business worth billions of dollars. “Don’t be afraid to go a bit farther afield than you normally would if your partners are very good,” Fribourg says.


There are risks to dabbling beyond the limits of your knowledge, however. The company did take a flyer on a group of young financial executives within the company who had the idea of creating a new business in securitized mortgages. The parent company’s small investment helped create an enterprise worth more than $2 billion. But then, after the collapse of the market for securitized mortgages, the business dried up overnight. “Be willing to go outside your normal path, but you have to be smart about when you need real expertise when you reach a certain size and competitiveness,” Fribourg says.


Sometimes taking a fresh look at the business requires divesting the core. During its early years, Continental Grain moved up the food chain to flour milling and then to breads and livestock. In 1997, however, the company that had been a grain trader for six generations made the difficult decision to leave the low-margin, high-risk grain business. Board member Henry Kissinger took Fribourg aside and asked him how the company could get out of a business that was a part of its name and for which it is known around the world. “What do you give up if you give up grain?” he asked. The board decided to go ahead with the move, and it turned out to be a good decision because grain trading has suffered in recent years.


Fribourg, who serves on the board of Vivendi Universal, says company leaders often face very complicated questions without clear-cut solutions. A case in point is the recent decision of the Vivendi board to sell its entertainment assets to General Electric’s NBC division, in a deal estimated to be worth $13 billion. While financial analysis could determine that the GE offer and a competing bid had a similar value, the GE deal provided less cash to the struggling Vivendi but offered more entertainment expertise. The board had to weigh that immediate concern for cash flow and paying down debt against the long-term value of having a partner with NBC’s experience involved in managing and developing the assets. “Do you take the cash up front or stay with the successful company?” he asks. The board chose to go with GE, but these are decisions that defy simple analysis.


Looking Beyond the Numbers

Ethical concerns and new regulations demand broader business knowledge from top leaders, says Tony Conti, managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Assurance and Business Advisory Services for the Southeast Region, who also spoke at the event. “In the world we are in now, with Sarbanes-Oxley, if you don’t have an appreciation for finance as a CEO, you are in trouble,” he notes. “When you sign your name, you better be sure you can stand behind it. You need to be narrow, deep and broad.” Conti believes top leaders need to be skilled in disciplines such as accounting, client relationship skills, change management, developing and motivating people, and building the business.


Even managers who don’t aspire to be CEOs need to expand their thinking in today’s environment, says Franklin Allen, a Wharton finance professor and co-director of Wharton’s Financial Institutions Center. He notes that even for someone concentrating in finance, cross-functional perspectives are important. “You can’t just look at the numbers,” he said. “You need to understand what is behind the numbers. And if you want to be good at marketing, you have to understand finance, and how value is created.”


Gaining Interdisciplinary Perspectives

How can interdisciplinary perspectives be developed? Traditional career paths cause managers to burrow ever deeper into their specific fields of expertise. Sometimes managers need to create a detour to increase perspective. Neubauer had built a successful finance career when he became the treasurer of PepsiCo, the youngest treasurer of a Fortune 500 company. But he shocked colleagues when he left the corporate post for a senior financial position at PepsiCo’s smaller Wilson Sporting Goods division.


“Many of my friends on Wall Street didn’t understand why I’d go from a corporate job to a division job, but my dream was to run a $500 million company by my early forties,” he says. “And I needed to expand beyond corporate finance to get there. I needed to learn how to manage a business. What is marketing? How do you run a sales force? What is product development?” This prepared him to move to ARA Services in 1979, and later become CEO of the company, which was renamed ARAMARK.


This doesn’t mean that young managers can succeed as absolute generalists, the panelists stressed. Managers need a deep grounding in a specific discipline, but also the ability to think outside that frame. “We still look for people who can demonstrate competency in one area such as accounting,” says Neubauer. “If a manager is just cross-functional, forget it.”


Fribourg notes that companies can encourage these perspectives by assigning employees to work in different parts of the organization throughout their careers. “You need to encourage people to change roles and get into different parts of the business.”


Wharton has launched a new cross-functional initiative designed to strengthen and cultivate this interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research. “Business practice in a global economy demands that business leaders have a broad range of knowledge,” says Wharton Dean Patrick Harker. “It is not enough to specialize in just one area.”


While it is risky to explore disciplines and jobs outside one’s core discipline, the world is changing so rapidly that being locked into a single perspective also can be dangerous. “The biggest risks you take in your career are going into totally unknown parts of the business,” Fribourg told his audience. “Don’t go down the traditional path. The whole world is going down that road. Try something new and different. You don’t know what the world is going to be like tomorrow. Standing still in a fast-changing world may be the riskiest strategy.”


Rapid change and uncertainty demand broader insights and creative approaches. “When you wake up in the morning, it is a very different world than when you went to bed,” Neubauer says. “You have to integrate, triangulate, and focus on the total gestalt of the problem you are trying to solve. Analytical models can only take you so far. Seek opportunities to broaden your perspective.”