The following was a speech I delivered to the University of Georgia’s MIS students, faculty, and advisory board members at the 2013 UGA MIS Scholarship Dinner.
When Dr. Watson asked if I would speak at this dinner, my first thought was, “last year we had the CIO of a global company with thousands of employees and billions of dollars in revenue. I’m the director of a consultancy with 42 employees and a few million dollars in revenue.” So of course, I said “yes.” As soon as I hit send, I naturally panicked and sent a follow up email that said, “Um…what exactly should I talk about, Dr. Watson?” His reply was, “something relevant to the industry or that you think the students should hear before they embark on their careers.” Right…that’s not vague.
Now I was committed, and I thought about topics like cloud computing or platform integration or mobile app development or the user experience before I realized that you all could Google any of those subjects and are probably discussing them in class. I found myself at a loss for words, which NEVER happens and over the course of a long run (22 miles to be exact), I thought back to the advisory board meetings of the past 18 months. One of the topics the board members regularly discuss is what our current, more experienced selves would tell our 22 year old, about to graduate from the UGA MIS program selves. I thought about all the things I learned when I was at Georgia, what was relevant, what I use today, and decided that a literary reference would be the ideal way to create a career roadmap.
Enter Dante, The Divine Comedy, and Prudentius. Right about now you are probably thinking, “Is she about to preach to us?” or “how on earth does a book we read in high school relate to our careers?” or “yup, she’s lost her damn mind.” However, the story of Dante’s adventures through heaven and hell provide a nice example of a journey and the characteristics that can make you succeed or fail on that journey. The seven heavenly virtues begin with your moral code, good behaviors established in childhood, and then continue along a path resulting in divinity…or for our purposes a successful career. With most of the graduates in this room heading into careers in consulting, internal IT, or product development, I would like to spend a few minutes ascending the circles of Dante’s Paradise to explore how the virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility can become the roadmap for your career.
We start with chastity. Chastity, as a virtue, is described as embracing a moral compass with boldness and courage. For most of us, our moral compass is influenced by our parents who raise us to share our toys, be nice to our brother, and be polite to adults. In the South, we refer to these behaviors as good manners. We are learning to do unto others, as we would have them do unto us. In the business world, we see many examples of leaders whose moral compasses failed…Enron, Arthur Anderson, and the collapse of the financial industry. In fact, Edelman, one of the largest public relations firms in the world, releases an annual trust barometer. The 2013 barometer showed that while trust in corporations is rising among the public, trust in business leaders is declining. This statistic is not surprising given the headlines of executives making millions while the corporations they lead receive government bailout money. I would like to think of these disappointing stories as the exception, not the norm and have a story about a CTS customer whose leadership made hard choices based on a strong moral compass. We did work for a company that wrote software for credit unions, and the recession hit that industry particularly hard. To combat declining revenue, the management team had to cut costs by one third and a layoff seemed imminent. The executive committee opened up the dialogue company-wide and offered two options: trim a third of the workforce or everyone takes a third less salary while keeping their jobs. The second option won, and the entire company from CEO to security guard took a pay cut to ensure everyone had a job. That story highlights a management team guided by a moral compass and not just the bottom line.
That is a heartwarming story, but how does it apply to you about to embark on your career? I can sum it up in one sentence…do not be the jerk that everyone remembers from the company party. Behave in a way that would make your mother proud. Likely, you will start your career with a group of similarly aged and educated people, and I caution you to make your own decisions based upon your moral compass, and not fall into making decisions with a group think mentality of ‘everyone is doing it.’ You will earn the respect of your bosses, your co-workers, and your peers when you make chaste decisions even if they are not the popular ones.
While making these decisions using your moral compass, remember to practice temperance, which is defined as moderation in action, thought, or feeling. President Lincoln, arguably the greatest leader of the modern era, learned the virtue of temperance in an extremely public way during a political gathering where he mimicked and ridiculed an opponent to tears. Lincoln realized the power of his words to weaken opposition yet felt he had gone too far, offered an apology, and refined his communication style to one of moderation, gracefully fending off personal attacks for the rest of his career. This exercise in temperance is not to say that Lincoln no longer felt extreme emotion. Upon his death, a stack of angry letters were found in a desk drawer, never signed, and never sent, and here is where we find the career lesson. Do not send an immediate reply to an email, IM, or text that rubs you the wrong way. If a phone call or meeting goes completely awry, ask if you can follow up tomorrow and excuse yourself. You will be remembered for an immediate response that is harsh, terse, or rude and that will become your reputation. You will likewise be remembered for a calm, cool, and collected response that proves to be constructive for the business. I am the poster child for learning the true value of temperance as the first to hang up during a phone call, fire off a snappy reply to an email, or storm out of a room at the beginning of my career at CTS. Not only did I have to practice moderation to move into a leadership role, I had to overcome the impressions of years of less than ideal behavior. First impressions matter. You don’t want to be the jerk everyone is talking about for years to come after wearing a lampshade on your head at the holiday party!
Moving on to charity, defined as generosity and a willingness to give. Winston Churchill said, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” There are numerous examples of charity at a corporate level. Microsoft matches individual charitable donations up to $12,000 annually while Southern Company, Coke, and Wells Fargo all have internal volunteer chapters that organize community service days, allowing employees to make a positive impact in their local communities. As part of the CTS mission to provide growth in our communities, every member of the team is encouraged to volunteer locally with 40 hours of billable time every year that counts towards promotion criteria. Our Atlanta team has packaged meals for homebound adults through Open Hand, sorted clothes for Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry, weeded at historic Oakland Cemetery, and boxed up medical supplies at MedShare that will go to developing nations around the globe. Giving generously of your treasures, time, and talents to the community is easy as there are many worthy causes. Where I challenge you is to share that generosity of spirit throughout your career within your various corporations. Don’t forget the help you get from more experienced co-workers as you start your career, and don’t forget to help others. While I have worked plenty hard throughout the first decade of my career, I have been incredibly blessed by a wide variety of mentors and opportunities to grow, stretch, and succeed. The only way I know how to pay back all the individuals that helped me thus far is to pay it forward by mentoring, spending time with employees to discuss ideas, strategies, and career development, or just grabbing coffee to let someone talk through personal and professional challenges. We are ALL limited by the 168 hours we have in a week, and your time is the most precious thing you can give to someone. So give freely yet wisely, and accept that form of charity graciously.
We are at our virtuous halfway point where we appropriately find diligence or stick-to-it-ness or the actual definition being that you have a decisive work ethic. Woody Allen receives credit for saying 90% of success is just showing up. At a fundamental level at work, you show up on time, call if you will be late, return phone calls promptly, respond to emails, and fulfill your obligations. One could argue that is your job description. I implore you to go further than just showing up…show up and then excel. On a personal level, I was at a crossroads 4 years ago at CTS and was not sure that I wanted to stay in consulting, in IT, or even at CTS. An opportunity presented by now managing director, Brendan Thompson, to move to Atlanta and assist him with the first CTS startup office seemed as good as anything else going on at the time. On a wing and a prayer, I packed up all my stuff and moved to Atlanta where we were nine employees, one anchor account, and a break room fridge with a burned out light bulb. For the next two years, every day was an adventure, and the first step of any adventure begins when you show up, which in my case meant changing that light bulb on day one. By the end of the first full year, we had a few customers and a few more employees, and now 4 years in, we have quadrupled our revenue, customer base, headcount, and office space. A former recruiter with no ability to write code now manages a team of consultants and will support them to deliver approximately a third of our company’s revenue in 2013. What did I do differently? I took a chance, a leap of faith, and I showed up in Atlanta. Then I kept showing up every day even when I was not quite sure how to do my job…I practiced diligence. You show up, and success will show up for you.
Patience, my favorite virtue, has several definitions, and the definition that I feel is the most apt at the start of your career is an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint, and when you reach the end of it, you will be judged on the entire body of your career, the portfolio of your jobs, titles, companies, failures, and accomplishments. A recent article in Forbes cited the concept of “career math.” Take the number 62, deduct your current age, and the remaining number is the number of years you have left until early retirement. For most of you in the audience, your number will be around 40, and this exercise should show you that your career is a long journey. While you may feel quite qualified to become a vice president or an associate partner six months into your career, exercise patience and realize that while you may view slower progress as a delay, others view it as growth and an opportunity to expand your skillset. Over coffee while discussing this presentation with Lee Crump, the CIO of Rollins, he reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule: it takes ten thousand hours of practice to be considered ‘successful’ in any field. The number of hours you can work in a year if you work 40 hours a week and do not take any vacation days is 2080, which equates into almost 5 years of work experience without a day off before you are considered good at your job. My advice? Take the vacation days, and enjoy the journey. To quote Muhammad Ali, “I learned that tough times are part of our journey in this life, but the challenges make life interesting. Even though it can be painful and frightening at the time, the greater the obstacle, the more glorious the moment of success.”
On to the sixth virtue of kindness described as compassion, friendship, and sympathy without prejudice and for its own sake. Kindness is the Golden Rule. The best way to express this is to treat the receptionist exactly the same way you treat the CEO and act that way because you want to, not because you have to. As you progress through your career, never forget where you started, the people that championed you, promoted you, backed you up in various situations, and showed you kindness. It’s not always easy to maintain your kindness, but it’s critical. Kindness isn’t situational. It’s permanent. It doesn’t stop when you’re disappointed about being passed over for a project, promotion, or raise. To borrow from Sam Walton, “Appreciate everything your associates do for the business. Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.” Mr. Walton should know about fortunes considering he was a billionaire! Small acts of kindness will take you so far, and many times a simple thank you is enough.
Often times, showing an act of kindness is a form of humility, the seventh and final virtue in our quick ascent through Dante’s Paradise. Humility, defined as modest behavior, selflessness, and the giving of credit where credit is due, could be the hardest virtue to achieve as you progress through your career and feel pride in your accomplishments. The CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, is well noted for his personal humility as well as the humility he inspires in his employees. When asked whether humility, hard work, or excellent service is the most desirable trait when hiring at Southwest, Kelleher replied that it is humility because if you do not have humility then working hard and serving your customers well probably will not happen. You have to be humble and not get carried away with your own title or position in order to accomplish the other two….wise words from a man who ranked #5 on the USA Today 25 Most Influential Business Leaders of the past 25 years list. My humbling moment came last year after receiving an award. During the awards ceremony, the successes of the CTS Atlanta office were announced, and the realization struck me that every increase in every growth metric was the result of the team, the A-Team. While I have the distinct honor of leading the team, my success is based solely on the success of each team member, designing solutions, persevering through challenges, and bringing their best day in and day out. In that moment of humility, the realization struck that I must make chaste and temperate decisions, possess a charitable and diligent spirit, and practice patience and kindness to allow all the members of the team that I support to reach their pinnacle of success.
In closing, I’d like to reiterate that although the virtues build on each other, one doesn’t become less important as you achieve another. Your success depends on a foundation that encompasses all of the seven virtues. Chastity. Temperance. Charity. Diligence. Patience. Kindness. Humility. Seven heavenly virtues or seven words that I encourage you to use as a roadmap for a successful career.