Campus & Community

Former ADP CEO Josh Weston Gives Future Entrepreneurs Lessons on Leadership

On May 6, 2015, Stevens Institute of Technology hosted Josh Weston, former CEO and chairman of Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the leading provider of payroll, tax and benefits services, for the President’s Special Lecture on Leadership, “Lessons on Leadership They Don’t Teach You in Class."

President Nariman Farvardin welcomed the audience at Stevens’ DeBaun Auditorium, acknowledging the impressive turnout by students, faculty, alumni, staff and guests on what was the last day of classes. In his opening remarks, he described Weston as a “good friend” to him and the university, adding that Weston is a lead donor of the new Pinnacle Scholars Program at Stevens, which will launch in the fall with the new incoming freshman class.

What is extraordinary about Weston’s long tenure at ADP, remarked President Farvardin, is the 40 years of consecutive double-digit growth generated under Weston’s leadership.

In an hour-long presentation, Weston engaged audience members with colorful anecdotes from his storied career leading one of New Jersey’s largest employers with the hope that his experiences will benefit the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Weston’s talk opened with a brief history of ADP, going back as far as 1961 when the company went public, even though its total revenue was just $300,000. The year was momentous, he recalled, because that was when ADP's payroll operations switched from manual bookkeeping machines to an IBM computer.

While the Roseland, New Jersey-based company is best known for handling payroll accounts, Weston strongly points out that ADP is much more than a payroll company. With $12 billion in annual revenue and serving more than 500,000 employers in 100 countries, ADP is also a leading supplier of stock quotation systems, handles the back-office processing for many securities brokers, and provides a variety of computerized services to auto dealers as well as claims service support for auto insurers and repairers. Payroll is in fact the easiest and simplest facet of ADP's current operations, says Weston.

He then proceeded to outline a series of what he called “iceberg tips” for business success.

First and foremost, he says, people are the single most important asset of any company. And it was important for him to do more than pay lip service to that principle and to "walk the talk," according to Weston. As an example, Weston says he would visit all 40 ADP locations around the country so that he could be seen by “associates” (a term he always uses to refer to employees) and to learn from them.

He emphasized the importance of personal communication. Inviting large groups of ADP employees and their spouses to dinner, always answering his own phone, sending handwritten notes congratulating employees on their accomplishments and calling hospitalized employees to see if they needed anything were just some of the many ways Westin would connect with employees. These personal interactions presented an image to ADP personnel that the CEO was completely engaged, accessible and attentive, Weston explained.

One important business motto he shared was to “pilot before you pile-it." In other words, always test new programs on a small scale before unleashing them onto the public. Citing the disastrous release of the Affordable Care Act website, Weston says he is a firm believer in piloting anything that involves noticeable change to the “point of overkill.”

In describing his perspective on effective time management, Weston says he follows the principle that 39 + 1 is more than 40 + 0. The person who can accomplish tasks in 39 hours instead of 40, and routinely dedicates an hour for engaging in activities that will have a lasting impact provides more value to the company than one who commits 40 hours without addressing strategic priorities, he explains.

The role of Big Data in businesses is growing by leaps and bounds, he noted. But while technology is making it possible to collect large and complex data sets, Weston cautioned that “data is not knowledge.” Turning data into knowledge requires careful planning and analysis and should be the objective from the onset by the people who accumulate and disseminate data, he advised.

Finally, Weston shared a favorite business model he used to motivate his managers. Using the Olympic sport of pole-vaulting as a metaphor, his message to associates was that success requires continuously exceeding one’s best performance.

After being presented with a plaque by President Farvardin for his contribution to the President’s Special Lecture on Leadership, Weston expressed his admiration and high regard for institutions like Stevens that address the gross deficiency in STEM education in the United States.

Weston began his career at ADP in 1955, leading the company in a variety of capacities before being named CEO in 1982, a position he served until he retired in 1998. Weston holds a B.S. in economics from the City College of New York and a master’s in economics from the University of New Zealand (as a Fulbright scholar). He holds several honorary doctorate degrees, including one from Stevens (in engineering). Providing generous support to many arts and education organizations, and participating in humanitarian efforts, Weston is an active pro bono member of many nonprofit boards, including Liberty Science Center, FIRST Robotics, KIPP-NJ Charter schools, The International Rescue Committee and the Safe Water Network.