Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Agent of change

For more than 30 years, Paul Friga has used strategic planning to make a difference in people’s lives. He began with his own.

Man gives presentation with his fingers curled
Paul Friga leads a class at Kenan-Flagler Business School September 7, 2017. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Paul Friga credits actor Michael J. Fox for igniting his interest in business. Or more precisely, Alex P. Keaton, the brash, pro-business prodigy Fox played on the ‘80s sitcom Family Ties.

The root of the show’s humor was Keaton’s attempt to explain his passion for business to his befuddled, ex-hippie parents.

The show opened a window in Friga’s imagination into the world of business that his parents could not – his father was a psychology professor and community college president; his mother, a nurse turned social worker.

His interest in strategy comes from a totally different source. In 1984, after reading The Perfect Joy of St. Francis, a book from his mother, Friga was moved by the manner in which St. Francis gave up his wealthy, worldly possessions to pursue a mission for the poor and underserved. This led to a decision to pursue his education at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

It was in this small college town, two hours from Pittsburgh, where Friga was able to connect his passion for business, desire for impact and appreciation of mission-centered strategy.

That connection was forged in a class called Management by Objectives taught by Randy Frye, his biggest mentor and motivator in college. In the class, Frye explained how companies think about the future they want to create, then work backward from that vision to set measurable objectives and targets to reach it.

“A light bulb went off in my head that I could employ that same process to me as an individual, and that meant I had to figure out what my mission was going to be, just like St. Francis did,” Friga said.

Before that class ended, he knew. “It became very clear to me what my mission in life should be, which was to combine my love of education and my appreciation for business to positively impact as many people as possible.”

And this led to his vision statement, “to become a college professor in a top university.”

Expanding impact

More than 30 years later, he remains committed to those same missions and vision statements as a clinical associate professor in the Kenan-Flagler Business School who teaches courses in management consulting and strategy.

And his impact – on his students, on Carolina and on organizations around the world – continues to expand.

This past year, for instance, when he won a Chapman Family Teaching Award, a student who nominated him described his Consulting Skills and Frameworks class as one of the best courses he had ever taken. “It throws you into the fire pretty early on, so you learn by doing,” the student wrote.

He and his students have consulted with various schools and departments within Carolina – from the athletics department to the Ackland Art Museum to the School of Dentistry to the entire College of Arts & Sciences – to engage in strategic planning. He developed a methodology that derives best practices
from the corporate world but in the unique mission-oriented culture of a university.

Friga has also been involved in the campus conversations that led to The Blueprint for Next, Carolina’s strategic framework. As part of that effort, Chancellor Carol L. Folt appointed Friga, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions Stephen Farmer and Gary Marchionini, dean of the School of Information and Library Science, to lead an initiative to “Extend Carolina.” The focus is on dramatically expanding Carolina’s quality educational footprint by increasing the number of online degrees and certificates to non-traditional students across the state and nation to help meet future employment needs.

Plans of action

Friga said strategy is often misconstrued as a waste of time because people do not do it well. The aim of strategic planning is not to make it more complicated. The aim is to make it clear.

“When strategy gets too complicated, people can’t remember, much less understand it, which means it can’t affect action,” Friga said. “It has to be top of mind. It has to be something that is easy to get your arms around.”

According to the dictionary, the strategy is “an elaborate and systematic plan of action.” Action, Friga believes, is always the operative word. His plan to become a college professor, for example, took a deliberate series of actions.

He graduated from St. Francis University magna cum laude with a double degree in management and accounting. That enabled him to get a job as a management consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and McKinsey & Company.

He tapped into that experience to write two books – The McKinsey Mind (McGraw-Hill, 2001) and The McKinsey Engagement (McGraw-Hill, 2008) – that both sold more than 100,000 copies, translated in more than 10 languages, and continue to be used by academics, corporate executives and consulting firms around the world.

His success allowed him to get into his target school, Kenan-Flagler, where he earned both his master’s and doctorate and where he has taught since 2008.

Paul Friga leading class at Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“It is important to have a vision of where you are headed because that gives you a sense of priorities about what has to be done to get there,” Friga said.

Friga said one mistake he made in his strategic plan for his own life was not updating it after he became a college professor. That became alarmingly clear to him seven years ago when he was diagnosed with latent autoimmune diabetes. He was overweight, not exercising and was not proud of his diet. This may have served to trigger the diabetes.

“That’s when my mission changed to ‘living as long as possible for my wife and son,’” Friga said.

His vision became beating diabetes, and his priorities shifted to working out three times a week, eating moderately and taking his medication. And his metrics of success, which he continues to monitor, are to keep his weight below 200 pounds and his blood glucose near 100 mg/dl. All along the way, his wife, Meredith, also a Carolina graduate, has been a source of constant motivation and guidance.

The power of story

As his own life reveals, there is a hidden power to storytelling, Friga said.

People draw meaning and direction by understanding and appreciating their own life stories. Organizations do, too. In fact, the power of story is an inherent part of effective strategy.

“Stories are important for an organization because they help people to be passionate about why we are here and where we are going,” Friga said. “Strategy serves to guide decisions, and it increases your morale because there is clarity about why you are here and what you are working on and how things fit together.”

In this way, The Blueprint for Next and Extend Carolina should be seen as part of Carolina’s unfolding story. It is also a key to survival in an ever-changing world.

That is why Friga equates strategic planning, like his religion inspired by St. Francis, to “walking up a down escalator.” “The competition is always moving forward. That is why it is important to have a clear vision and to keep the energy going to reach a higher goal.

“If you ever stop, you don’t stay where you are. You fall backwards.”