Jim Goodnight receives inaugural Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership

What are the keys to success for the world’s largest private software company? Environment. Empowerment. And “really good software.” Jim Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of the North Carolina-based SAS, reflected on his career and offered advice to Elon students in an April 9 presentation that preceded his acceptance of the first ever Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

The medal was given to recognize an entrepreneur who is a leader in his or her industry and who exemplifies the values of Elon University. These values include integrity, innovation and creativity, passion for lifelong learning, and a commitment to building a dynamic community.

“People have learned to trust our software,” said Jim Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of SAS.

“Dr. Goodnight nurtured an idea from a spark to a reality. His leadership has resulted in the recognition of SAS as one of the world’s most respected companies,” said Elon President Leo M. Lambert as he presented Goodnight with the medal. “He’s a legend. Jim and his wife, Ann, are leading citizens of North Carolina. They have done so much to transform education around the state and around the world.

“We are deeply honored to be awarding the inaugural Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership to Dr. Jim Goodnight,” he said. “The awarding of this medal to Dr. Goodnight sets a high bar indeed for the Doherty Center and for Elon University.”

Goodnight co-founded SAS in 1976 and since then has served as the company’s chief executive officer. A worldwide leader in business analytics, SAS has more than 11,000 employees in 54 countries. In 2008, the company’s revenue was $2.26 billion, its 33rd consecutive year of growth and profitability.

In 2004, Harvard Business School named Goodnight one of the “20th Century’s Great American Business Leaders,” recognizing his impact on “the way people have lived, worked, and interacted in the 20th century.” Goodnight holds a Ph.D. in statistics and speaks internationally on leadership, education and innovation.

On Thursday, Goodnight spoke of the conditions that have led to that success.

“I’ve never been a really hands on, top down manager. I don’t really believe in it,” Goodnight said. “It works for some CEOs, but what I like to do is find really good people, give them the ball and let them run with it.”

Jim Goodnight, left, and Elon University President Leo M. Lambert

That creative freedom for employees is fostered on a beautifully landscaped campus in Cary, N.C., with workers who have their own offices and thousands of pieces of artwork and sculptures that adorn the buildings and grounds.

“Everything that we create comes out of the minds of the developers. It’s a situation where you want to figure out, what’s the best environment for these kind of creative people?” he said. “One of the best things to do is have an environment that’s extremely enjoyable for people to be in.”

He added that empowerment and environment mean a company creates good products. Goodnight pointed to Microsoft and Oracle, two developers that he says ship software before all the bugs are worked out of programs. At SAS, he said, that doesn’t happen.

“When we develop our software, it’s tested for months and months,” he said. “We believe in getting the bugs out first. And people have learned to trust our software.”

And his hardest challenge as a successful CEO? When a student asked Goodnight that question, rather than talk strategy or business plan, the executive offered a more heartfelt answer.

“It’s always been that decision when you have someone you’ve worked with for many years, that you’ve become very close to who you like as a friend, who just isn’t cutting it, and you’ve got to make the decision that this person needs to move on,” he said. “That’s the hardest decision for me.”

About the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership

Under the direction of executive director Gary Palin, the vision of the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership is to cultivate entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurial leadership among Elon students, positioning alumni for success in the pursuit of exceptional economic and social progress on a global scale. The center is housed within Elon’s Martha and Spencer Love School of Business.

The Doherty Center was established by a generous endowment gift from Ed and Joan Doherty, entrepreneurs from Saddle River, N.J. Their company, Doherty Enterprises, Inc., is one of the nation’s leading franchisee operators of quality family restaurants, including Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, Panera Bread, and Chevy’s Fresh Mex. They are parents of Kerry Doherty ’07 and have served on the university’s Parents Council. Ed currently serves as an Elon University Trustee.