Och Tamale Magazine

Fall 2020 Volume 96 Issue 3

‘You’ve got to be flexible, roll with the punches, duck the wads of paper …’

Rosanne O’Brien ’78 gave this keynote speech at the University of Redlands School of Business commencement ceremony on May 29, 2004.

It’s wonderful to be here.

This is a great day for all of you. Congratulations. You’ve earned the right to feel very proud.

And congratulations to all the parents, spouses, significant others, and friends who lent their support, financial and otherwise—you’ve earned the right to feel very relieved.

It’s a tremendous honor and privilege to be invited to address the graduating class of one’s alma mater, and there are a million things I’d like to say.

But I also know you’ve been working hard for years to get to this point and that right now, I’m all that stands between you and that diploma.

And I’m beginning to realize that It can get pretty hot under these gowns.

So as Britney Spears said to her ex-husband, I promise not to keep you long.

What I want to do today la talk about the diploma you’re about to receive, give some practical advice on how to make the most of it, describe some of the great changes coming in the world and how they will affect your careers, throw in a bit of deep philosophy about the meaning of it all - and wrap it up In under 15 minutes so you can go out and celebrate.

In business, as you know, we call that “time management.”

It’s a fact often expressed that the one constant in life is change. And in our time, the pace of that change seems to be constantly accelerating.

It was different—or at least it felt so—in my time.

I was a child of the ’60s and spent several years before my first real job knocking about San Francisco, following the maxim that “it’s better to waste one’s youth than do nothing at all with it.”

After that, I got a job with Flying Tigers, an air cargo company—and, like many of you here today, realized that I needed a degree to break through into the next management level—the one with no fixed ceiling.

So some of you already know the business world. Some of you are entering the job market for the first time.

But I think we all realize that the world you’re now graduating into is, to put it mildly, a moving target.

It will demand that you adapt to change and embrace the uncertainty that comes with it.

That’s not easy, of course. It’s natural to feel a certain degree of apprehension about what those changes will bring. And not everybody embraces our changing world with the same degree of enthusiasm. But the point I want to make is that rapid change also means rapidly expanding opportunities.

Let me give an example.

Since I graduated from Redlands in 1978, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States has doubled in constant dollars, while our population has grown by less than a third.

That means an economy twice as large and much more than twice as much opportunity.

I say much more than twice because the economy is so much more diverse and flexible than it was back then.

In 1978, old smokestack industries like steel and automobiles still ruled the economy, while the industry that would transform the world—computers—was still in its infancy.

Yogi Berra once said prediction is a difficult art, particularly when it has to do with the future.

But one prediction I can make with confidence is that scientific advances in biotechnology, nanoscience, superconductivity, and virtual reality—to name a few—will transform the landscape in the next thirty years even more dramatically than the information revolution did over the last thirty years.

And in the process, they’ll be creating businesses, career paths, and specialties that don’t even exist today and probably couldn’t even be imagined.

And this is where I get to the practical advice.

In my career, I’ve done a lot of interviewing of job applicants, and I can say that anyone hiring in the market today is looking for far more than specific skill sets -because those skills will likely have to evolve over time.

I’m not saying skills aren’t important, just that any prospective employer will be looking for something more: Things like critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and leadership abilities.

They’ll be looking for people who, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, don’t just solve problems but pursue opportunities.

Indeed, they’ll want self-motivators who make their own opportunities.

They’ll want employees who are flexible, who can adapt to the sure-to-be changing demands of the job, and who can work well in a team.

And that means working well with all sorts of other people: diverse not just Incolor, culture, and background but also—and believe me, this is the hardest one—personality.

An example from my own experience—sort of a negative example of what I’m talking about—would be the day I started one of my jobs.

I think of it as the First Day from Hell.

When Glendale Federal Bank went public, I was hired to start up its investor relations and public relations department from scratch. This was a great opportunity.

Unfortunately, the CFO who hired me had neglected to inform anyone when I was starting, so there was no office for me when I arrived.

I managed to find an empty office, but then the CEO/president—an articulate, personable man with whom I was looking forward to working—announced that he was resigning that day.

And, oh, by the way, they tell me, we need our first quarterly earnings report out by the end of the week.

Needless to say, I was not up to speed yet on the company’s financials.

But the bigger problem was the comptroller, who was the only one who had the numbers. He had what you might call a few quirks in his personality. For one thing, he didn’t like women—or at least working with them. His feelings ran so deep on this point that he not only refused to work with me; he refused to give me the numbers I needed for the report.

Finally, with the intercession of the CFO, he was convinced to hand them over.

This he did by stomping into my office, crumpling the papers into a wad, and throwing them at me.

So you’ve got to be flexible, roll with the punches, duck the wads of paper ... and you’ve got to be good at communicating.

It’s said that talk is cheap because the supply so greatly exceeds the demand. But good talk—the ability to clearly and concisely communicate ideas—actually carries a high premium and will raise you above the pack.

I’m not just talking about people who are in communications or PR departments.

Kent Kresa, who recently retired as chairman and CEO of my company, Northrop Grumman, is widely regarded as one of the most visionary executives in the defense industry. Kent used to say of his success that he wasn’t necessarily brighter than all his peers or even harder working. They were all bright and hard working. But one of the big reasons he got promoted was because he could express himself better than others, so people naturally turned to him to lead.

This comes more instinctively to some than to others, but like everything else, communicating well is 10 percent talent and 90 percent sweat. It can be learned. Learn it.

It’s the same with leadership. Some people are natural leaders, others not, but as you move up, you’ll have to learn to lead those working under you.

How? As they say, you can learn a lot just by observing.

Find someone who is a good leader and observe how he or she does it. Take those qualities that set them apart and try them out on yourself. At first, the new clothes may not seem to fit, but over time you’ll grow into them.

More advice: Get a mentor. I can’t stress this strongly enough. Find someone with whom you click and who will guide you in your career.

I would bet that every successful person at one crucial point or another was taken under wing by someone with the experience and wherewithal to help them along.

Sometimes this will be your direct boss. Sometimes someone else in the organization. Find that person and cultivate the relationship; it will be invaluable to you.

With the recent spate of corporate scandals, ethics is at the forefront of everybody’s mind. That attention may diminish as time passes—at least until the next big scandal—but the absolute, compelling necessity of ethics will never change.

Mark Twain said, “Always do the right thing. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

But the fact is that the vast majority of people in business are honest and principled. The basic currency of the marketplace is trust. Nothing is more corrosive to business—and nothing more potentially damaging to your career—than unethical behavior.

If you find yourself in a company that doesn’t value ethics or find yourself working with people who don’t take ethics seriously—leave. Find another job. Get out of there.

Everyone will tell you to be ethical. Everyone today also talks about balancing one’s personal and professional life ... and that’s a wonderful goal to strive for. Just don’t be surprised if it’s something of a struggle at times.

In my experience, those who move up in business are those who put in the extra hours, work weekends, and travel when necessary.

As the economy becomes more diverse and flexible, I believe it will also become more accommodating to different approaches, different arrangements of work and family. In fact, that may be one of the great cultural changes your generation will be able to bring about. Some companies are already moving in that direction. But know that it will take time, and in your own careers, there still may be some hard choices along the way.

Finally, let me just congratulate you again on the degree you’re about to receive. My degree from Redlands made all the difference in my life, and I could never have accomplished what I have without It.

Your degree la a great launching pad. Make the most of it.

Be open to opportunity. I imagine most of you graduating today will work at five or six different companies in the course of your career. Embrace that change.

And this is important: Think highly of yourself.

Try to objectively estimate your abilities, and then stretch yourself to go beyond them.

Take jobs that seem beyond your reach.

Always listen to the voice of reason, but never to the voice of self-doubt.

Samuel Johnson said that nothing in life would ever be attempted if “all possible objections must be first overcome.”

Optimism is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

In contradiction to Larry David, I would say instead: Don’t curb your enthusiasm. Nurture it. And then let it loose upon the world. You will accomplish marvelous things.

There’s a statement attributed to the late-1811, early-19th century German writer Johann Goethe that, for me, sums it all up. Of course, he wrote in German, so this is a somewhat loose translation.

“So many great ideas and splendid plans die in infancy because people forget one central truth: That the moment you definitely commit yourself, providence moves too. All sorts of positive things happen that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events emerges from the decision, bringing help and assistance where none was before, and creating opportunities that no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

“Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it.

“Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

“Begin it now.”

I guess that Is why they call these events commencements. You are starting on a whole new exciting stage in your life.

Whatever you dream of doing, be bold. Begin it now. Good luck.

Thank you all very much.

And, once again, congratulations!