Coffee with… Peter Topping

It’s Saturday afternoon, and Peter Topping, associate professor in the practice of organization & management, is outside the Executive MBA Program lounge in the Goizueta Foundation Center building. He’s preparing to explain the Birkman Method to a small but vested group: the partners of his executive MBA students.

This classic leadership and communication styles assessment is intended to provide insights into the students and their partners, who have taken it as well. Equally importantly, the exercise is intended to give them insight into the program to which their significant others have devoted so much time and energy.

This is important to Topping, who believes self-awareness is essential in business and in life. “We help our students view leadership as being highly contextual.

“We help our students view leadership as being highly contextual. We frame the context as a three-legged stool,” he says. “First, you must accurately diagnose the situation you are in at the business, organization, and unit levels. Then, you need to understand your followers—you don’t lead everyone the same way. Finally, and most importantly, you need to have self awareness—to be comfortable in your own skin, recognizing your areas for growth while still being confident.” Topping, who has a

Topping, who has a PhD in adult and higher education, originally thought he wanted to become a college president. “Ultimately, I came to realize I didn’t want to be a college president, but I did love working at universities. I’ve been lucky to be able to do so for all of my career,” he says.

Topping spent three decades working in administration at four universities, finally landing a position as head of executive education at Goizueta in 1999 and becoming a full-time faculty member in 2006. He has worked with managers and executives in a range of industries, with stints as a visiting professor in leading business schools in France and Mexico.

Along with Professor Rick Gilkey and (retired) Lieutenant General Ken Keen, associate dean for leadership development, Topping helped create and guides the Delta Leadership Coaching Fellows Program for full-time and evening MBA students. (See story on gift naming on page 3.) “All of our MBA students have to work in study teams as they progress through the program. The Delta LCF Program trains selected second-year students to coach the first-year students’ study teams,” he says.

The study team experience is “the best lab that we have for leadership development in the full-time MBA program, because the students have to work as a team of peers, with no designated leader,” Topping says. “We help students build skills in working effectively with diverse teams under duress, which can be quite challenging.”

Leadership development, Topping says, occurs through the combination of classroom, extracurricular, and life experiences: “We don’t use the phrase ‘teaching leadership,’ but we can develop it.”

Topping enjoys spending time with his wife, Therese; adult children; and grandchildren. “We are empty nesters, with the emphasis on nesting,” he says. Two of their six children graduated from Emory: Jason in 2009 with a degree in English, and David in 2011 with a co-major in economics and mathematics.

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