University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 132: Rich Lawrence on Lifelong Learning and Boundary Spanning in Industry and Higher Education

July 22, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

Share this via:

In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Rich Lawrence, vice president of special markets at Helen of Troy and adjunct professor of leadership in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, to discuss being a lifelong learner. Matt and Rich explore boundary spanning in industry and higher education.

Episode Transcript


0:00:10.7 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.


0:00:30.3 Matt Waller: I have with me today Rich Lawrence, who is Vice President of Special Markets at Helen of Troy, and he is also an Adjunct Professor of Leadership in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. His teaching evaluations are off the charts semester after semester, students love learning from him, and he is a life-long learner. So he has a lot of responsibility. He is in charge of sales and marketing, and across Mass, Club, Dollar, and C-Store channels, including trade marketing, marketing research, business development, and personnel development. He was with Idelle Labs for 11 years. He was with Crossmark for over seven years. He's worked with Conagra and Norfolk Southern, a rail carrier.

0:01:26.2 Matt Waller: So he has lots of experience, but the other thing about Rich that I will point out, he's always continuing his education. When he graduated, he didn't just stop there, he is continually getting certificates in executive education from Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, MIT Sloan School of Management. He has studied leadership, strategic persuasion, how to manage complex business issues and building customer-centric teams, and more. As I said, I've known him for many years, and he's always sending me interesting articles, and it just seems like he's always trying to expand his knowledge. And so that's something we're gonna be talking about today, is knowledge and learning. Rich, thank you for taking time to visit with me. I really appreciate it.

0:02:25.8 Rich Lawrence: Yeah, likewise, thank you. I wanna take you wherever I go, Matt, after that introduction. [chuckle] Thank you. Thank you. It's a grand collaboration. I'm so happy to be associated with Walton College and you and the team that you've put together.

0:02:40.3 Matt Waller: So Rich, you and I over the years, a lot of times, you send me Wall Street Journal articles, Forbes articles, all kinds of newsletters and so forth that you think are interesting, and I'm glad you send them, in fact, I keep them and read them, but I wanna talk a little bit about boundary spanning. And boundary spanning is a term that isn't used a lot, but it has a very specific meaning, and it means what it sounds like, spanning the boundary. So for example, you run a team selling CPG, but you span the boundaries, you're always trying to learn new things, sometimes in areas outside of your area of expertise, but have you always been a boundary spanner or is that something you learned to do as you were going through your career?

0:03:37.4 Rich Lawrence: I've always been curious. I'm curious why people believe what they believe, but you and I have talked before, in business, you get paid for perspective, and so your value is really how broad a perspective can you bring. And so I've always gravitated to people in the industries that were broad thinkers that would narrow things in and not rush to closure. There's many facets to this, and, Matt, I think you actually the one that told me this, the triangle defense of you, me, and we. I think when I met you over 20 years ago, I remember having this kind of a discussion with you, and that's kinda how I triangulate to say, "It's okay. How do I get the full picture here?" And then I'll step back and realize there's something I don't know, that's why I love talking to people like you, and Molly Rapert and John Cole, and Jeff Murray, and there's always an angle that I don't see. I never really fully say, "Oh, you know what? I know that," because there's somebody smarter than me in it.

0:04:48.8 Matt Waller: A lot of people don't realize this, but one way you learn is through teaching, right? 'Cause when you teach, you not only have to master the material, but you have to explain it to others, and as you're educating others, you wind up learning a lot. I know when I was a senior, actually as an undergraduate, I took a class called Mathematical Economics, and I really liked it, but there was a graduate student there from another country. He was struggling with the language, I mean, he didn't have trouble with the coursework, but it wound up being difficult. So after class every day, I would go through my notes with him, and that was the first time I realized, "Wow, that's how you learned hard material."

0:05:38.2 Rich Lawrence: Yeah, so I wanna ask you questions too, 'cause I think you're one of the best learners. In college, we typically stumble across how we learn, and I would love... You just kinda outlined how you learn, and I think that's huge, is to be able to, as you're encoding something to think about it in terms of, "I've gotta teach this, I'm gonna listen at a different level," but I'm curious, Matt, on for you... When I talk to you, your level of attention is unmatched. So when you're encoding new information, do you listen for it as though you are gonna have to take that information and teach it? Is that how you process it?

0:06:22.7 Matt Waller: Exactly, and part of the reason, Rich, is that I think effective conversations require sometimes you to restate what someone's saying, especially with difficult conversations. And so it's really become just a practice of mine, but I also learned that a little bit when I was... Back when I had a software company, when I was on a sales call, for example, listening carefully, what are they interested in doing with my software? What are they not interested in? And then if you pay close attention and you restate it, 'cause they may say it in a different way. But I also think when I was an undergraduate, I wanted to get straight As for some reason.

0:07:07.9 Matt Waller: And I read a book called 'Getting straight As.' It's probably out of date, but one of the ideas... There were few ideas that the book said, "Sit in the front of the class, take copious notes, before you go to sleep, re-copy those notes. And every day, review the notes, and so it gets longer to learn." And I remember thinking, "Oh, I won't be able to review all these notes because it's gonna get too long," but what happens is the longer it gets, the faster you get at the earlier material so you can start flipping through it more quickly. But it goes into your long-term memory, and then by the time finals come, you really don't need to study 'cause you've already reviewed the materials so much. But where it gave me an advantage in graduate school was I remember details, details from things I had learned many, many years ago even though there was a gap there. I've learned some things worked, some things didn't, I created frameworks for all kinds of things, and I turned it into a book and just came out actually...

0:08:19.7 Rich Lawrence: I'll need an autographed copy of that by the way. [chuckle]

0:08:24.6 Matt Waller: The target market is so small, it's for department chairs and associate deans that wanna be dean some day or current deans that wanna hear a perspective on how to lead in this kind of role, but the benefit of writing it was probably more to me. So to answer your question, part of the way I learn is through writing and explaining things to other people, just part of the way.

0:08:47.0 Rich Lawrence: Just listening to your narrative there, what struck me is the... What you gleaned from that book to be a straight A student, it's the focused approach to learning, but then also the diffused learning of re-looking and meditating on those notes before you go to bed. What strikes about it, I know the genius of it 'cause you live it, and then I see the manifestation of that. What intrigues me is when you tell kids, "Hey, this... " If you wanna do this, this is a process and it takes a mental intellectual rigor. I'm not gonna make a blanket statement that there's a lot of people that are intellectually lazy, but there is a percentage, they won't bring that energy to it. It's like when you talk about leadership, leadership takes energy, and when you teach leadership, you see some students get afraid because it's like, "Man, that's a lot to do." If I wanna be... To develop a skill and it's incremental over years, your consistency is what makes you excel.

0:09:57.4 Matt Waller: Wow, that's so true. I know when I was going through my cancer treatments, the radiation and the chemo really brought my energy level down, it was very hard to get up, but now of course, that's four years behind me, and I still struggle sometimes. What do you do to get your energy up?

0:10:21.8 Rich Lawrence: So I've surrounded myself with people like you, Molly Rapert, I always tell the students I wish when I was in my 20s, I would have recognized to surround myself with inspired, excited and grateful people. 'Cause I know those are the people I get energy from. Some people are energy vampires, so now I just... I back away from it. So when you and I have lunch, I leave energized. Uche when I have lunch with him, I leave... Jeff Murray. Learning energizes me as I know it does you. So if people say, "What do you do in your spare time?" I try to learn. When you read books, there's an escape to it. I grew up on a farm, and so my natural alarm clock goes off at 4:00 in the morning, and I usually read from 4:00 to 6:00 in the morning, but it is weird, it's like I'd say, you and I are both middle-aged now, and it's... You learn energy management. And I really think that's the key, it's not time management, at least at this stage in our lives, it's energy management. So I'm very intentional who I'm gonna go to lunch with, and that I know that they're gonna give me energy 'cause I can... I feed off it. So when I have lunch with you, I feel like I just plug into your shoulder and say, "Okay, juice me with some new ideas," and then I come away from that, yeah.

0:11:48.0 Matt Waller: Well I've taught undergraduates, master students, doctoral students, executive education programs and so forth. And I think how it comes in varies a little bit, and it's changed over the years. But I try to be fairly transparent and kinda like, "This is who I am with my personality." There are certain things that make me unique, and so they come through when I teach, it doesn't necessarily work well with everyone, just like you don't always click with people, there's some professors that you click with and some you don't. But when you're teaching something that big, it's hard to give a personal touch in some ways.

0:12:33.2 Rich Lawrence: It is.

0:12:34.1 Matt Waller: But then I will sometimes... I try not to tell too many personal stories because I think it can get boring, but I will try to give some, just to let them know I'm a human being, and I care about them, 'cause I really do, and I know you do too, and that's why you teach. So I think there's actually been some research done, that shows that when students feel the professor cares about them, they learn more. And I find it to be true, but Rich... I also remember, I know of stories of students where we've had conferences here, and one thing unique about the Walton College as you know is we're so integrated with the business community here, 'cause there's so many business people here. And so we'll have these conferences sometimes. But a lot of times we have extremely high-level people at these things way more than you would expect, C-level people from the biggest companies on Earth. And you've been to many of those. But I remember you told students before, "You need to go up and introduce yourself to so and so, the CEO of whatever." You do that. It's scary for a student to do that, but it's such an important growth experience.

0:13:51.3 Rich Lawrence: It is. That's one thing that I've loved about the Walton College is that opportunity... And I didn't go to the Walton College, and I... There were very few C-level executives that came through our U. If I had had this opportunity when I was you... They're not gonna hit you. And you're never gonna be able to say "Hey, I just met Doug McMillon!" or Lee Scott or where else in the world. Northwest, Arkansas, my goodness, CEO of JB Hunt, or... Yeah. Can I ask you a question on how you process your knowledge intake. There's so much stuff that bombards us with LinkedIn, Twitter, 'cause you do an amazing job of putting forth the positive Walton College brand. How do you parse out everything that's coming at you? 'Cause I think this is one of the things that a lot of students struggle with is "How do I actually know what I need to pay attention to in news?"

0:14:53.4 Matt Waller: That's a tough one. You know, Rich, I read so many sources, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New York Times, The Barron's, I like Barron's a lot. There's all kinds of sources of information. And I love LinkedIn. One of the reasons I like LinkedIn is because you can throw out ideas out there and get other people's input. And you start getting communities like... I know there's a group of people that I interact with them a lot, and they interact with me a lot, and we share information that we know one another would like through LinkedIn. But we make it public as we're sharing it so that anyone could comment. You can learn so much about people. I think it's good for students to get active in it quickly because they may see Rich Lawrence's running this company and doing all these great things, and it can feel intimidating. But they can look at your LinkedIn profile and see "Oh, he took steps like everyone takes in their career."

0:15:55.2 Rich Lawrence: Yeah.

0:15:55.5 Matt Waller: "I can get there too." But I guess... I know your question is "How do I figure out what to focus on?" So I do try to delve into things that are of importance to me, like I'm leading the Walton College, I need to be studying leadership all the time. But I also make sure I boundary span. What I mean by that is, sometimes I'll be reading the newspaper, say, The Wall Street Journal as an example. I will intentionally read articles I'm not interested in. I just go down the list. I might read the first five articles. Maybe only one of them is of interest to me personally, but I've found that by doing that, you learn more about things that you're not aware of, and you wind up liking it. I remember... So when I was an undergrad, one of the professors I had he said, "If you're gonna go into business, you should read The Wall Street Journal every day." And so they had a deal like we do, where you could subscribe at a really low rate as a student, and I did that. And of course it wasn't online back then, so I read it, the paper copies. But I remember the first time I started reading The Wall Street Journal, I thought I wasted money 'cause I can't understand anything here.


0:17:10.3 Matt Waller: And so I went up to the professor, I don't know, a couple of weeks later, and I said, "I don't understand any of this. You told me to read... " He said, "Well, if you just keep reading it every day, you'll be able to read more and more of it as you get older. But don't give up, just keep trying." And then I would read things, the... We learned about GDP and foreign direct investment, and etcetera, etcetera... Interest rates. Well, we'd be studying that in class and I'd see it talked about in The Wall Street Journal. And I'd start to know... And I noticed by the end of my senior year, I really... I understood a lot more, still small. I bet it was less than 5% that I could understand even by that point. But now that I'm 56, there's a lot of it that I can understand. I'm not an expert in it for sure, but in terms of filtering, I think the more foundation you have... This is everything from understanding terminology, to processes, to how things work together. I think it allows you to filter things out more quickly, and to know what's relevant to me and what's not. I think the more you learn, the easier it is to filter out content, and focus on what's relevant or what you need, but on the other hand, it helps you see what's missing. And that's where I think people that are not life-long learners come to a disadvantage at some point in their career.

0:18:48.0 Rich Lawrence: Yeah, there's an intellectual humility that I always appreciate about you, and I always wonder how you're able to sit in a room and people come in because you have a broad perspective and you're an intelligent person, how do you emotionally disconnect when you're in a room where people have the illusion of understanding and you know they have this slice of the pie when they should be looking at the rest of the pie to really understand what it is, how do you encapsulate in that moment? 'Cause a lot of times I find myself, I'm just... I get angry. Students, I don't get angry, 'cause they don't know what they don't know, but when you're in a group of people that have the illusion of understanding and they don't know it.

0:19:34.3 Matt Waller: Many times I'm amazed where I'm like, "I've got a lot to learn here," so that helps. I think sometimes where it does get frustrating, it's more when there's either consultants or software companies trying to sell a solution that doesn't make sense. And it's like artificial intelligence is really popular now, and people say, "We can apply artificial intelligence to store level demand. So we're gonna be able to predict how many units of Brut are gonna be sold in a store per day." Artificial intelligence, neural networks will never solve that problem. But there's people that come along and say, "We're gonna be able to do this." And people fall for it.

0:20:22.6 Rich Lawrence: That's why I want guys like you in the room. Part of perception is to recognize when you're talking to one of those charlatans. The sales pitch itself is limiting your knowledge, if I don't have somebody that has the broad spectrum of it, they get you. So I love that, 'cause I've seen you do it and you do it in a way that is... You allow people to leave the situation with their personality intact, that's a skill. I love it when I see it 'cause it's... I don't do it well. I don't suffer those fools very well.

0:20:55.5 Matt Waller: I think you are very good at it, actually, I've seen you do it too, and I just try to think, this is a human being and they're extremely valuable, how can I encourage them? The Walton College has our values of excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. And professionalism includes things like making feel like they belong, that they're included, but collegiality does as well. I always like to think... It's like you and I, when we get together and talk about a topic, we're able to come up with things we couldn't have come up on our own.

0:21:35.1 Rich Lawrence: I have a question I wanna ask you.

0:21:37.3 Matt Waller: Okay.

0:21:38.1 Rich Lawrence: In your mind, what is the most overvalued asset and what is the most undervalued asset? What are those two things?

0:21:48.4 Matt Waller: I would say that the most undervalued asset, and I hate to think of it just as a pure asset, but human capital. And some people may say, "No, it's valued." I've never seen it valued as much as it should be valued.

0:22:08.9 Rich Lawrence: Same here.

0:22:09.4 Matt Waller: I hope I keep growing in the degree to which I appreciate and value human capital. But the other thing I would say most overvalued asset, it's probably cash, liquid cash. And the reason I say that is because people say, "Well, no, cash is great because cash gives you an option value." What I mean by that is if something comes along and it's a low price, under value and you can buy it low, and then sell it high, I always like to think that if you're really knowledgeable and you're really strategic, then your cash should be invested somewhere, you should be able to find those opportunities. And so the question then is, how do we get more cash so I can take advantage of that? And I always think when I see companies buying stock back, they don't know what to do with their cash. So I'm always looking, do people know how to use their cash? And I say cash, I mean that in the broad sense.

0:23:18.9 Matt Waller: It doesn't mean literal cash, but if we keep our eyes open, there's just so much around us. It's easy to see it in hindsight, we can look back over five years or 10 years and say, "Gosh, I wish I would have bought more Bitcoin or other kinds of cryptocurrency," or I wish I would have bought more real estate or whatever the case may be, but there's cases where the opposite happens. When Bitcoin was at 50,000, there were a lot of people buying it 'cause it's going up so much and then it went down, went down like 30,000, I don't know where it's at right now. Those kinds of things are not what I'm talking about so much. Rich, I know you've invested in executive education quite a bit, that means that you recognize that that investment is good for you long-term and your company. Your company has obviously benefited as well, but those would be my two answers, I don't usually have guests to ask me as many questions as you do, but...


0:24:20.6 Rich Lawrence: No, you fascinate me, thank you for allowing me to do that, 'cause I want people to know you the way I know you, and there needs to be more Matt Waller. Yeah.

0:24:31.4 Matt Waller: Well, thank you, Rich it's been wonderful. I really do appreciate all of your investment in the Walton College, you've done so much, and you continue to do it, and I'm very grateful for that, and I hope more practitioners out there will do that as well.

0:24:47.1 Rich Lawrence: Thank you, appreciate you.


0:24:51.1 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching, beepicpodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

Ways to Listen

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts
Listen on Amazon Music
Listen on iHeart Radio
Listen on Stitcher