October 11, 2015

Reflections on Graduations and Fathers’ Day

On Friday, June 19, our younger son graduated from high school. As I listened to the various speakers and the roll call, I thought back to my own high school graduation in 1966 from a Catholic high school in Rochester, New York. Many thoughts came to me during our son’s two-hour ceremony.

I was angry and disappointed that I was not selected as valedictorian. The school had consistently manipulated and changed grading rules to give the advantage to my rival, who actually was a lifelong friend of mine. They did so because he had gone well beyond any other student, including me, in supporting the school and his classmates, and deserved the award as the award criteria should have been designed. However, the school had locked itself into a set of rules in which the valedictorian was the person with the highest grades.

Had the school administrators come to me and said that, although I earned the highest grades, they wanted to give the valedictorian award to my friend, I would have been disappointed, but would have understood and accepted the result as fair in the ultimate sense. Instead, they clumsily manipulated their rules to get the right result, and acted belligerently toward me when I questioned the decision.

Why do I reflect on this? Governments and other firms often makes the same mistake. Government officials get caught up in writing detailed rules into laws and regulations, and then find that they do not work as intended. They also clumsily manipulate these rules, or try to fix the problem with even more detailed rules to deal with unintended consequences. The better approach for my high school, for government or for any other organization creating award criteria or bases for any decision and leave it to experts to craft decisions that accomplish these goals, rather than micromanaging those experts.

A second observation was my short and long-term reaction to what happened. My dad was unsympathetic and said to me: “It’s your fault this happened. If you were several points ahead of your rival, no manipulation would have been possible. You would have won, in spite of what the school administration might have wanted to do. You did not work hard enough and you left too much to chance. This is unimportant in the overall scheme of things. However, when something matters to you in the future, leave nothing to chance. ” From that moment on, I approached important challenges, including college courses, very differently. I relied less on my natural talent, and was far more disciplined. I also did not take my teachers’ reactions for granted, but worked harder to understand what needed to be done.

My dad gave me phenomenal advice, which was consistent with our relationship throughout his life. He died almost eight years ago, but I have exceptionally fond memories of him and my mother, who died in 1994. They were both unbelievably supportive and insightful parents, and I have tried to emulate how they raised me in the way we have raised our children.

The longer-term reaction to what happened was that I really tried to figure out what I cared about most. My rival and friend had a lifelong quality of selecting an institution to join, and giving it his undivided focus. He went on to Notre Dame, and eventually was employed by Princeton University, and was beloved by people at both places.

I was different. I did not find an organization to which I could commit myself until I joined Pitney Bowes in 1979. Over the years, I felt a tremendous emotional commitment to the Company. I felt the same about the National Urban League, Catalyst, Eaton Corporation, and the other boards I joined. I was late to the party as far as finding institutions and causes to which I could make deep emotional commitments, but, when I did, the rewards were tremendous in many ways.

I was blessed to marry a woman, my wife Joyce, whose family and who, on her own, exemplified the same deep emotional and spiritual commitment to institutions and causes, and who inbred those qualities in our children. My father-in-law William McNagny was a fourth-generation attorney in a Ft. Wayne, Indiana, firm his great-great grandfather formed, and he and my mother-in-law Joan McNagny were both deep supporters of a bank at which her father Charles Buesching had been a President for many years. They also exemplified the old-time values of loyalty and commitment that I have tried to emulate.

As Father’s Day comes to a close, I hope all of us remember the critical help our fathers gave us at important points in our lives.

I am highly confident of the long-term success of all of our children, but I also expect that, out of his graduating class, will come some wonderful surprise success stories. I also expect that, beyond those stories, we would see very supportive fathers.