Advice for the Class of 2015: PPD’s David Simmons

2015 Full-Time MBA Commencement Speaker David Simmons, chairman and CEO of PPD

2015 Full-Time MBA Commencement Speaker David Simmons, chairman and CEO of PPD

I am an adopted Tar Heel. I live in the state and work in the state, and I absolutely love it here. My son is an undergraduate here in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. So, count me in as deeply invested in the continued success of this elite institution.

PPD and UNC have a symbiotic relationship that goes back decades. We are a leader in clinical research and we employ 14,000 people across 45 countries. More than 300 UNC graduates are employed by PPD, and we have hired 90 in the last two years. We rely on 10 UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA graduates in our executive ranks, and their average tenure has been over 10 years with us. This prestigious business school has been a bed rock of talent for the past and continued success of PPD.

I am a mathematician by background and started my career designing computer software for the steel industry. It has been quite a journey from my start in the steel industry to the CEO of a life sciences company.

I joined PPD three years ago as chairman and CEO. Prior to joining PPD, I spent 15 years at Pfizer. Why did I choose to leave Pfizer after 15 years of great success to become the chairman and CEO of PPD? My aspiration was clear: I wanted to test myself as a CEO.

By 2010, I felt that I had the experience and capability to tackle such a significant responsibility and leadership challenge. I wanted to gather experiences and did not want to get too stagnant in my current role. I was also impressed with the quality of the private equity partners who would be my board members.

By sharing key lessons I have learned during my journey, I hope to give you some valuable advice that will increase your probabilities of achieving great career success and personal happiness.

Stay true to your moral compass.

Never lose sight of your core principles and personal philosophy.

What is your true north? What are your core principles? What is your personal philosophy? Don’t fall prey to pragmatism.

Choose the right people to be on your team.

Steer clear of people who lack optimism, integrity and resilience. Look to work alongside those who respond to failure not by blaming others, but instead by getting right back up.

In building a team, look for strategic and decisive people who lead change and grow others. Great team members have excellent personal insight and are extremely adaptable. Strive to work alongside people who value teamwork and collaboration—people who are able to work with a diverse set of colleagues.

One benefit you have from attending UNC Kenan-Flagler is the training you have received on teamwork and collaboration. This will serve you well. Thriving in a matrix environment in these large institutions and big businesses is very challenging. If you are a natural collaborator and work well on team constructs, you will be very successful.

Stay connected.

As you gain new work experiences, stay in touch with the professionals that you most respect.

Seize opportunities.

I grew up in West Virginia by the railroad tracks in a steel mill town. My parents put themselves through night school after they had kids and pushed me to go to the best college I could get into. I worked hard, I seized opportunities and I competed well. I pursued productive achievement and worked to deliver value for the enterprises where I worked.

I would argue that you are as well positioned as I was at your age. You can have what I had that differentiated me if you want it badly enough: integrity, grit, determination, a strong work ethic, an analytical mind, a strong desire to compete and an intense focus on the priorities that matter most for your enterprise.

Do not compromise on having both a successful career and personal life.

To quote Ayn Rand, “Do not let your fire go out… The world you desire can be won. It exists. It is real. It is possible. And it is yours.”

You have what it takes. What mark will you make?

Make it a great one.


Adapted from remarks by 2015 Full-Time MBA Program commencement speaker David Simmons, chairman and CEO of PPD. View the video here.