SMITH SCHOOL OF BUSINESS AT UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND COMMENCEMENT SPEECH DECEMBER 2005
Robert G. Isaman '85
V.P. Integration, UTC Fire & Security
I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, one of the finest and most respected business schools in the world.
My sincere congratulations to the graduates assembled here today. I understand that you are justifiably excited, hopeful, reflective, and a little anxious. For many, a healthy dose of the fear of the unknown is present, as you leave known surroundings, and strike out on your own. Let me be one of many today to assure you that these feelings are a normal and are a necessary part in your growth as a person. The fact that you are surrounded today by your parents, your spouses, your siblings, your mentors, and your friends in essence... the people who love you is a testament to our belief in you and your future. We are all very, very proud of you.
As I prepared to talk with you today, I was astonished to learn that I am getting older at the same rate as everyone else on the planet. Before today, I had never really stopped to calibrate that it has been over 20 years since I graduated from the business school at the University of Maryland and began working for United Technologies Corporation. Over my two decades of working in line and staff leadership positions in established and emerging markets, I have met thousands of outstanding leaders across the172 countries that I have visited. Reflecting on the best of those outstanding leaders I have met in business, academia, and government, I have observed that they all share four common attributes for success, which I will focus on today.
First, successful leaders are ambitious and have formulated a career roadmap that they follow with great vigor; second, they are curious by nature and pursue a continuous learning posture throughout their lives by investing in their education; third, they are proactive, personable, approachable, and optimistic; and fourth, they have a great support structure from their faith, their families, and their friends.
One needs to look no further than the Apprentice television shows for validation in American pop culture that there are many ambitious people in the world, but not all of them are successful. I have observed that the best leaders clearly understand where they want to end up in the organization, and have carefully thought through each position they will need to take (line experience, staff experience, international experience, headquarters experience, outside experience, etc.), to position themselves for future success. Unfortunately, in today's culture, too many people move through jobs quickly and without a sense of their ultimate career destination, which is like being on an aircraft where the pilot comes over the intercom and says, I have bad news, and I have good news. The bad news is that the avionics are not working correctly we've strayed over the ocean and we don't have enough fuel to make it back to land. The good news is that we are making excellent time.
I talk frequently with emerging leaders inside and outside our corporation, and you would be surprised how many of them, who are on the cusp of a significant leadership role, have no idea where they want to end up. This makes it very difficult to add the right kind of value to these people and accelerate their learning curves. Simply put, the more information that you can provide on where you want your career to end up, the better the help and advice you will receive, and the better your chances of winding up on the ascension charts that will eventually get you to your destination. You, and no one else, control your destiny on this issue.
What should you do now? If your goal is to someday run multi-billion dollar business or a corporate-wide functional area, know that on average the soonest that people hit this career plateau is in their mid forties. So, if you are 22 years old, and allow for the minimum time to show results in each position you take, you have, at best, eight job rotations over about 20 years to learn all the functional, cultural, and leadership skills that will be required for success. You need to make each one count, and learn as much as you can in each of them. Talk to people to get an understanding of the skill-sets you will need at that level, and plan your eight stops to gain that knowledge. As you move through your career, periodically benchmark your assumptions and progress against any new knowledge or success requirements. You will need to be flexible, because timing may not align in such a way that it falls perfectly into your timeline. Sometimes the path forward will look like a jungle trail and not a six lane highway, but keep moving forward. If you do this you will significantly increase your chances for success in your career.
If you don't do this, or if you trust someone else to do it on your behalf, like the airline pilot, you may think that you are making great progress, only to find out too late that you are seriously off course, and in an unrecoverable position. I've spent a lot of time on this point because this is the area where you can significantly out-distance your competition, many of whom will be flying blind as their career progresses, and well on their way to an emergency water landing.
The next common attribute for success is an inquisitive nature and a commitment to life-long learning. Interested people are also usually interesting people. I have observed that successful people have a great capacity to listen and learn from others, and can hold up their end of a conversation on almost any subject. I remember when we were living in St. Petersburg, Russia in the early 1990s when I was working as a general manager for one of our defense start-ups. I had gone to Moscow for an air show where we were showing off some of our hardware, and one of the events on my agenda was a dinner with industry, government, and technical experts. This was generic enough that I didn't have very high hopes for a productive evening, but I went anyway. As it turned out, it was a big formal dinner with lots of tables, food, and vodka toasts, and predictably, as it was breaking up there was a mad rush to the exit. There were so many people clogged at the exits that I hung back and went to get one last cold drink.
I was reflecting on my uninteresting evening, when into the room walks the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Thomas Pickering, and one of his security team. Now, as you can probably imagine, this poor guy was surrounded all night by people, and he looked very happy to be almost alone, so I decided to respectfully keep my distance, content to be able to tell people that I was at least in the same room with him. What happened next was truly unexpected, he started a conversation with me, and for about 15 to 20 minutes we talked about what I was doing in Russia, and about his career in the State Department and his prior postings before Russia. His command of facts on any subject was mesmerizing. This is a trait that I see in the best leaders, and also a trait that I saw in almost every Chinese government leader that I have met. They read extensively on a wide variety of subjects, and they stay current on critical information and facts.
I say this not to dissuade you from adding to your formal education, which is also tremendously important, but to highlight to you the importance of being well-rounded in your knowledge, and to emphasize that this is a required skill- set in many markets, particularly outside of the United States. It is also to counsel you to plan your schedules to stay that extra ten minutes at the end of a meeting, because you never know who will engage you in a memorable conversation.
The third part of this equation is that successful leaders are personable, approachable, and optimistic. Ill tackle personable and approachable first, with a brief story that I attribute to some advice that my mother, also a Maryland graduate, gave to me when I first became an executive. As a bit of background, let me say that my mother had been watching senior executives at IBM for years, where my father worked for over 30 years, and had formed some strong opinions. She counseled me that, There are two kinds of executives in business. The first are those at a dinner that approach the wives or significant others of the employee while they are in the salad bar line and introduce themselves. They have done their homework. They have memorized the names of the spouses who goes with whom and know how many children you have and the approximate ages. They say many very nice things in a very short time, and end by telling you how much they appreciate your sacrifice on behalf of the company, and by thanking you for your personal support of the company. The other type of executive takes a position standing against a doorjamb near the end of the room, and waits for people to come to them. She looked at me and said, I want you to be a salad bar executive. And I will tell you that without exception, the best ones are salad bar executives proactive, personable and approachable, as well as optimistic.
Optimistic leaders look for ways to make things work, frequently take calculated risks, are passionate about making sure their teams are well trained and successful, and could care less about their job preservation because they believe in their abilities. People gravitate to them because something is going to happen, and they want to be there when it does. If this describes you... good... because I have seen very few pessimistic senior leaders that survive and prosper.
Lastly, successful leaders have a great support structure from their faith, their families, and their friends, which helps to ensure that work doesn't become the only thing in their life. Balance in your life will be essential for success, but despite even the best advice from Oprah and Dr. Phil, it will probably be an area of opportunity for most of you throughout your life. Great leaders have an ability to laugh at themselves, to listen to advice from those that they love, and include those that they love in their success. When I was awarded the Friendship Award by the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, my largest satisfaction was that my wife, Linda, was at my side, and that my family was as proud my success as I am of all of them. Even though your central role over the next 20 years of your life will be that of of intense activity; working, forming your reputations, starting families, serving institutions, testing values, identifying your passions it is important that you don't forget the people here today. In life, you can never have enough people that love you. They will be your source of strength as you start this era of endless possibilities in business and commerce. Successful leaders know that no one does it alone.
If you keep these four criteria attributes for success in mind, understand that there are few shortcuts to learning your craft, and work consistently hard at every task you are given, I have no doubt that you will all be great successes.
Your careers will be a wild ride, as the world, and the business community, changes frequently in ways that cant be foretold. The Smith School and your life experiences to date have equipped you well to succeed. We have every confidence in you and your abilities. Good luck. Were counting on you.
The commencement will be available on DVD from Kitay Productions.
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