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Speakers at the Leadership Conference Credit: Muyi Li

At the 15th annual Wharton Leadership Conference on Wednesday, leaders aspiring to better themselves looked to the best in their fields.

More than 200 leaders filled Huntsman Hall’s Ambani Auditorium to full seating capacity for the conference, to listen to speakers ranging from Vanguard CEO William McNabb to Deloitte Senior Partner and former Global CEO James Quigley.

“[This conference involves] people talking about challenges and how to overcome them,” said Peter Cappelli, Management professor and one of the hosts of this year’s “Leading in a Reset Economy and Uncertain World” conference.

Taking into consideration the uncertain environment, many of the speakers emphasized the importance balancing conflicting ideas.

McNabb, a 1983 Wharton graduate, acknowledged the importance of “the will to win, competitive attitude and individual achievement.”

“You need to embrace that individual drive and competition, but there’s a team element,” he said.

McNabb pointed to the culture at Vanguard as a model. “One thing we do with leadership is rotating [the leaders],” he said. “We take people out of IT and drop them into the call center. It helps develop a sense of the overall business and it also helps relationship management.”

After the presentation, McNabb sent a message out to the aspiring student leaders on campus. After college, he took up a job teaching at an all-boys school. “In hindsight, I rely more on the lessons from that [teaching job] than with my first business job,” he said. “There’s no specific career path.”

Another speaker, senior research scientist at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership Jennifer Deal, specializes in the study of generational gaps.

Deal spoke of the “gray ceiling” — the worry that younger employees won’t be able to move up into executive level positions if baby boomers refuse to retire. But “people of all generations want a job with the same characteristics,” she said.

Management professor Anne Greenhalgh said she enjoyed Deal’s presentation. “Jennifer Deal always strikes the right note about working effectively across generations,” she said. “She takes into account differences but puts them in perspective.”

Also speaking was Kenneth Feinberg, the so-called “pay czar” appointed to delegate top executives’ salaries following the financial collapse in 2009. Feinberg recounted personal stories about his experiences with the families victimized in the Virginia Tech shooting, the Sept. 11 attacks and the BP oil spill.

Marilyn Kraut, a Human Resources director at Penn, said the conference related to what she does for a living. “We notice different parts of the workforce have different issues,” she said. “This is probably my sixth or seventh [conference] and every one of them is life-changing.”

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