In the 1970s and 80s, Borden, Inc. was a $5 billion conglomerate with headquarters in New York City. Eugene (Gene) Sullivan, a great friend to my parents and my family, served as Chairman, and Joe Saggese, was a close colleague. (Joe Saggese’s son, Ken, is a longtime close friend of Maureen and me). While Gene was Chairman of Borden, he contacted a St. John’s Prof. Henry Ruhnke, a business strategy professor, and invited him to bring his class to the Borden offices to do a “real world” strategy project. That was the beginning of St. John’s Executive-in-Residence Program. Gene Sullivan, Joe Saggese, and Prof. Henry Ruhnke are the program’s founders.
Gene Sullivan recently died and at the funeral a friend of Gene’s relayed the following to my parents. Upon Gene’s retirement from Borden, he served for many years as an adjunct professor at SJU, team-teaching business strategy with Prof. Erach Munshi. Gene has given back to St. John’s in numerous ways, including serving as Chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees.
At the end of every academic year as his students were approaching graduation, Gene sent each of his students the letter below to serve as words of encouragement and advice. We hope that you find Gene’s letter as inspiring as we do. Please pass the letter along to people you know entering the workforce.
Soon you will be going through a ceremony that you have been looking forward to with a mixture of excitement and expectation for many years. You’ll get into a cap and gown, sit on an uncomfortable chair, perspire freely and be subject to enough advice to last you through your entire career.
That ceremony, of course, is known as graduation exercises or commencement exercises. Why it’s called an exercise I don’t know, unless it has to do with fanning oneself with the program to keep awake.
But, whether it’s called a “graduation” or a “commencement”, the clear message of the ceremony is that it’s just a beginning. As of graduation day, you’re on your own.
Your diploma isn’t a passport into the business world. It’s a hunting license, entitling you to work the same territory and go after the same targets as any of your peers. This applies not only to going after a job, but in advancing once you get it.
If I had to single out the biggest mistake that talented, qualified young people make in coming into business, I’d say that it’s “freezing in place”. They do their jobs well – superbly well – but they grow in their jobs instead of out of them. For some, the reason is lack of confidence. For others (for most others) it’s a false notion of the learning experience – as though knowing all there is to know about a small subject is somehow better than trying to know more about a larger subject. An expert in the use of the comma doesn’t necessarily make a good writer; and an expert in budget forecasting, if he or she stays only an expert in budget forecasting, doesn’t make a good business manager either.
If you find yourself frozen in a job, you should plan a strategy for your advancement. The initiative to grow out of the job has to come from you.
How is this accomplished?
First, there has to be a basic realization that education is an ongoing process. Don’t mistake sharpening your skills for adding to them.
Second, set reasonable goals for advancement. Give yourself the time and opportunities to qualify. Aiming too high too soon leads to disappointment and, worse, discouragement.
Third, know your organization’s long-term objectives, and the role of your group in helping to achieve them. Too many new employees see themselves as a cog in a gear in a machine. Take a look at the gear and the machine.
Fourth, involve yourself in the work of the whole group, not just in your assignment. Ask questions. Offer suggestions. You’ll be turned down lots of times, but they’ll know you’re interested.
Fifth, accept dull assignments willingly, and do your best with them. Sometimes they’re used to test one’s ego, or one’s ability to put the corporate good above personal job satisfaction. Fortune magazine tests its reporters by assigning them to compile the Fortune 500 list.
Sixth, go outside the organization for ideas and information that will help you in your job, and in the job you aspire to. Read the business and trade publications. Find out what your competitors are doing. Think about the ways that political and social issues might affect your organization and your industry.
Seventh, broaden your perspective on how you look at a problem. Far too many employees, even at high levels, look at a problem from too narrow a viewpoint – their own. Ask yourself: How would my group head see this problem? Go even further and ask: How would the Board of Directors see this problem? How would the Chief Executive Officer? I’ve passed over many an otherwise promising candidate for promotion because his or her perspective was too narrow.
Eighth, separate yourself from your peers. How? Do more than anyone expects of you. If the work day is 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, work 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM. If you are expected to do five of something, do six. Stand out from the crowd.
Ninth, if at all possible, continue your formal education. Go for that MBA or another advanced degree, even if it takes you years to get it. The years will pass by anyway. More schooling may not expose you to more or better theories and techniques, but it does provide them within a disciplined framework and that improves your ability to think.
Tenth, wear the uniform. Dress like a successful business person.
Finally, two important issues. The first: Be proud you are from St. John’s. You are the reputation that is St. John’s now and will be in the future.
The second, and more important (if you forget all of what I’ve said, and remember only this, I will be amply rewarded): Never sacrifice your integrity for anyone or anything. Your integrity is so valuable, nothing could possibly compensate you for sacrificing any part of it. Integrity is personal. Many times you are the only one who knows you have compromised it, but you are very important, and knowing you have given up a part of yourself will influence your self-esteem. Be true to yourself!
Professor Munshi and I wish you all the best for your future success and thank you for giving us the pleasure of knowing and teaching you.
Prof. Eugene Sullivan and Prof. Erach Munshi
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