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This summer Kim Taylor-Thompson will take up what is potentially the best and the worst of jobs; or to be more precise, the most exciting and the most frightening.

She will take over from the mercurial Blair Sheppard as chief executive of Duke Corporate Education when he moves over to become dean at the Fuqua school of business at Duke University. Ms Taylor-Thompson’s challenge will be twofold: to step into the shoes of the founder of Duke CE, one of the most widely-respected individuals in the world of business education; and to turn Duke CE from a fast-growing start-up company into an established yet continuously-growing business. She is only too aware of what she faces.

“If you see your role as filling those shoes (of Prof Sheppard) then the role is not fillable,” she says with a smile. “He is unique in being able to capture your imagination. If there’s something I can learn and steal from him it’s the ability to excite people round what we do.”

This means both corporate clients and the teachers she employs. One of the most controversial aspects of Duke CE is its use of business school professors selected from the world’s top institutions. Many of these schools have banned their faculty from working with Duke; they say there is no other industry which would allow its employees to work for a competitor.

Duke’s response is that if the work is exciting and challenging enough, then the faculty member will take that back to the employer and the business school will benifit. Moreover, the flexibility will enable business schools to retain their star players.

It is an argument that has yet to be won. Meanwhile Ms Taylor-Thompson is playing a shrewd hand. To continue to attract top faculty, she says, you have to manage and handle them in the same way as you manage top corporate clients. “It is incumbent on us to make people feel welcome,” she says. “The faculty love being part of the network. They love being part of the community.”

Indeed, it was what attracted the amiable Ms Taylor-Thompson to Duke CE in the first place. Though she joined the organisation only in July 2006, she had worked on Duke CE programmes since 2001 as one of the teachers in the global learning resourse network, as Duke CE calls it. “I loved it from the outside,” she says. “I tend to follow my passion and my heart.”

In some ways Ms Taylor-Thompson is an unlikely choice as chief executive for an organisation which teaches business skills to corporate clients, for she is lawyer, not an economist nor a marketing specialist. Prior to joining Duke CE she was professor of clinical law at New York University and prior to that professor of law at Stanford. She also taught ethics at Georgetown and Yale.

As a teacher she learnt the value of what she calls “Socratic dialogues”; that is, creating a situation which enable students to participate in the discussion. “It allows the audience to feel the issues are being addressed,” she says. “It allows you to unfreeze the thinking of the group. No one person is designed to be the expert.”

However, it was in her role outside academia, as a public defender – she worked in the public defender service in the District of Columbia for a decade – that she learnt many of the other skills she believes will be valuable as a chief executive. “It was a great place to think about how you sustain an environment that allows people to be innovative and creative.”

Creativity and innovation aside, Ms Taylor-Thompson also has focus on the bottom line. When the company was spun out of the Fuqua school at Duke University in 2000, the fledgling company had an annual turnover of $8.5m. Last year the company brought in $50m of business and by the end of June 2007 she believes the revenues will be $60m. “We are shooting for $70m next year,” she says.

To do that the company has to expand globally and is doing so partly through partnerships – it already has deals with Enterprise LSE in London and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Just how to manage these relationships across distances is part of the challenge of the growing company, which is growing from Blair Sheppard’s “baby” into something more like an adolescent or a teenager, less dependent on the parent.

“There’s a lot of responsibility to take care of that baby and move it into adolescence,” points out Ms Taylor-Thompson. “We have a lot of people to put in place and really be the drivers of the culture.”

Expanding internationally creates its own cultural problems. “What we’re trying to do is to extend our reach globally and strategically....these are the same challenges our clients face. We have to be sensitive to the issues of the region, understanding cultural depth....Finding the right blend is the challenge.”

At the same time Duke CE needs to move up the organisations of client companies, she says. “We need to be part of the boardroom conversation. Our clients need to see us as helping to solve real business issues.”

She will have her work cut out. But she gives a real sense that it will be a journey she will enjoy.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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