Commencement Address 2015: Ambassador John Beale
Ambassador John Beale '71
May 3, 2015
Thank you Henry for your kind remarks. I must admit that I was worried when I heard you were introducing me. However, I realized that since I would have the final word, my fears were reduced!
Protocol having been established, let me start by saying “greetings and congratulations to the graduating class of 2015 — today is your day of celebrations. Congratulations fellow graduates — we have a common denominator as we are all proud graduates of Marietta College!! The difference of course is that my horizon line is limited and yours is wide open — it is unlimited!!
Permit me to reminisce a little and set the stage
I would like to thank the president of Marietta College for being so courageous to invite me to address the MC 2015 graduates. I hope there is some wisdom in his decision. I imagine he must have been thinking that I could serve as an example or inspiration for the graduates who never made the dean’s list!!! In other words if I could somehow accomplish a few things, then every graduate here today will feel assured that all graduates have potential and all can have successful careers!
Permit me to use myself as an example that proves that any graduate can have an accomplished future. Let me interject here that in life “aptitude” is important but what is more important is “attitude”! The ability to persist and to focus on the task at hand. Having talent is fine but what makes you succeed is hard work, dedication and determination. Bill gates did not succeed just like that, he spent numerous hours on the computer—he even used to go to the university in the early hours of the morning when no one was using the computers. Steve Jobs of Apple also worked and persevered and he also encountered failure. In fact history shows us that many great leaders encountered failure before they rose to the top. What I am saying is that your career is not a 50 yards dash—but rather more like a marathon. When I was in school I liked the 50 yard sprint—I thought that you either had speed or you did not whereas a marathon was something involving more of preparation and training.
My basic objective today is to convince you that anyone of you can accomplish a lot—naturally not everyone will accomplish the same things or reach the same level — but you can all have a sense of accomplishment.
I think it is important to recognize that the road to success in life involves some courage and the willingness to take a chance. In doing this one should understand that nothing is ever guaranteed and that we should not seek perfection—leave perfection to God. In making decisions, never expect to have all the answers—however you must be prepared to make decisions with sufficient information—never perfect information—it does not exist because when you think you have all the information, something happens to change the situation. All decisions also involve some element of risk. There is no such thing as no risk-it does not exist.
I suppose my first decision that involved taking a chance was when I came to Marietta in 1964 as an exchange student at 16 years on the American Field Service (AFS) scholarship. When I came here many people said that I was wasting one academic school year as well as missing a year of cricket-the game developed by the British that can last for 5 days and may end in a draw! (At the time I was a promising cricketer and losing a year would have been a setback). However, let me say that I did not lose one year, in fact I gained many years from widening my perspectives and understanding of the world. My AFS year in Marietta is certainly the most important decision of my life—the reason being is that it prepared me for the future. It was a watershed moment for me. I hate to think what would have happened to me if I had not decided to come to Marietta on AFS.
I suppose the craziest decision I made was to leave a job in Barbados and go to Brazil—a place where I did not know anyone and did not speak a word of Portuguese! I did however have a promise to get a job at Chase Manhattan Bank where I had been trained. My motivating factor however was love, as I was married to a lady who was born in Portugal but was raised in Rio and desperately wanted to return to Rio. At the time I did not understand why she had to return to Rio, but after living there I can appreciate why a person would wish to live in Rio. I suppose being in love made my decision more reasonable or perhaps even crazier! Because if I had stopped to consider all the challenges I would have faced, I probably would not have gone. But once I make a decision, I just go ahead and take things as they come. Sort of like the song “Que Será Será (whatever will be, will be)—the future is not for us to see.” And speaking about the future I have never worried much about it because in my simple mind, I do what I can in the present because I believe that the future is a summation of presents. In other words if you take care of your present times, you will take care of your future.
Interestingly enough and as my school records would show I basically took on two challenges that I had no “aptitude” for, namely languages and accounting/finance.
Just to put things in perspective for you, when I was in high school in Barbados I was terrible in Latin. In fact one day the teacher asked me a question as to what was the ending of the verb in a sentence. I had no idea and so I said “as”. The teacher looked at me and said “yes Beale and if I put another “s” on “as” I have you!!! Needless to say the class enjoyed the comment. I mean can you imagine what would happen today in this country if a teacher told a student that he was an “ass”—he would be dismissed! I later tried French at Marietta College and was lucky to get a “D”. So based on my experience in Latin and French I think we could all conclude that my chances of learning Portuguese were not good. I suppose I had a motivating factor when a director of the bank told me that while I could speak English with him he was giving me 6 months to learn Portuguese, if not, he personally would kick me into the street!! I was fortunate that the bank provided lots of Portuguese teachers to the extent that you either learn or go mad as I started with 8 hours per day. I must admit that I had a very good teacher called Ivan who one day disappeared and I believe that I believe that I was responsible—he must have gone crazy when he saw that I was not learning as fast as he thought I should!
The other thing I need to explain is that my other “D” at Marietta was in accounting. And so what do I do? I go and work for a bank that requires lots of accounting and finance and I do it in a Portuguese speaking country!! To my credit I graduated from one of the world’s best training programs at Chase in credit. The Chase program was considered equivalent to an MBA. Later on when I attended graduate school I took 3 courses in accounting and got “A’s”!
The point I wish to emphasize from this experience is that when you have the right attitude and you are motivated and focused on the task at hand, you will be surprised to see what positive results you can actually achieve.
Let me also be quite clear that anyone can learn a language. Naturally some people will have a tendency to learn faster because they have a better “ear” or are more motivated etc. But rest assured that we can all learn another language. On this note I will always remember that when I attended a conference in Geneva in 1966 on mutual funds at the age of 20 I was surprised to see that all the waiters in the hotel Intercontinental spoke about 4 languages. I also remember that at the conference one instructor asked the participants if everyone was going to London to do the course on insurance and one German said he was not going. When asked why, he said he did not speak English because it was difficult. The instructor then said to him the following; once upon a time there was a poor Mexican father whose son was learning English. One day the school teacher told the father that his son was not learning any English. The Mexican laborer then told the teacher that he really wanted his son to learn English because it was important for him so he could have a better future. The teacher agreed to continue trying with his son. Several weeks later the teacher told the father that he was finished trying to teach his son because his son was not smart and would not learn English. Whereupon the poor Mexican laborer said “tell me teacher, in the USA what language do they speak? The teacher said why English of course. The Mexican laborer then asked her “so are you saying that in the USA they only have smart people!!!”
My other personal experience related to having some courage and taking a chance is when my prime minister appointed me as ambassador to the USA and to the OAS. I had no previous training in diplomacy and Washington is recognized as the most important ambassadorial position as well as the most competitive post with some 190 embassies all vying for space/recognition. I accepted the challenge without knowing what I would be confronting. Once again my attitude was do your best and learn as you go.
I do have another story of being courageous and taking a big chance which I suppose in the end cost me my job but on that occasion I failed. It was my attempt to do a hostile takeover of the company where I worked. But that I will leave for another day—it is more suited in a business class.
I have a few words that I would like to discuss with you because I think you will encounter them in one way or another. They are experience, consensus, and strategy.
Experience is something you will all run into, especially as many of you may not have experience, or certainly not the kind employers want. Yet still they always ask you about experience. I mean if you are studying in school, how does one realistically expect you to have experience? You know that experience is about the only thing in life that money cannot buy! You can buy cars, houses, jewelry and while you cannot buy love and health, money sure goes a long way. The point is that the only way to get experience is through experience. Then again sometimes a person will say I have 10 years’ experience, but when you discuss his experience you find out that he has one year’s experience times 10!
When I was selling mutual funds and life insurance at the tender age of 20, I always felt that I lacked experience and I looked young so one day a very experienced person told me this story to help boost my confidence: once upon a time many years ago a famous king sent a young person to discuss a matter of importance with another famous king. When the young person was received at the palace of the king, the king was upset and asked him in a rather impolite tone “how dare your king send me a youngster like you. It is disrespectful and he asked the young person why did his king not send a wise old bearded man? The youngster replied that if his king wanted to send a bearded person, he would not have sent me. Instead he would have sent a goat!! So much for experience.
Regarding “consensus, this is a word that intrigues me because I always thought it meant a general accord but not necessarily 100%. However certainly in the diplomatic world it means agreement by all. Realistically speaking I think that if a couple of people discuss a subject that it may be possible to get total agreement but when the numbers in the discussion get large, for instance at the organization of American states (OAS) they are 34 countries and therefore it becomes very difficult to get 100% agreement. Furthermore, often to get 100% agreement the end result is something that has to be watered down and does not satisfy many countries. Moreover the time that is needed to get 100% agreement is often too time consuming. In fact what you may have is the wishes of 99% are high-jacked by the 1%! Let me now tell you what Margaret Thatcher, a former prime minister of Great Britain once said “to me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects!” Having said that I must tell you that at a heads of the commonwealth meeting in Australia, the heads were having difficulty in reaching consensus so PM Thatcher asked her fellow prime ministers what is the meaning of consensus? After she listened to them she then said “well for me consensus is like this “we can all have a nice discussion and then you do what I tell you to do”!!
The other word I would like to mention is “strategy”.
I am not about to discuss strategy except to give you a quote from the guru of strategy the Harvard Professor Michael Porter who said “strategy is choosing to run a different race”.
I am giving you this definition because I think it is one of the most interesting and important statements about business and strategy. What does Professor Porter mean when he says “strategy is choosing to run a different race?” He is really saying that if you and I are producing let us say widgets and we both have the capacity to copy each other as we improve our product, all we are doing is running faster---but neither of us really has an advantage over the other. What we need to do is to find a way that separates our product or service from other competitors and hopefully to do so in a manner that the competition finds it very difficult to match or will take a very long time catch up. An example of this was seen in the furniture sector before IKEA entered the market. Traditionally when people buy furniture they would visit a furniture store and they would have to order a piece of furniture and the furniture company would then deliver it to your house in the future. All the companies had the business model. However when IKEA entered the market they disrupted the normal way of doing business—namely they only sold furniture on the spot and did not provide any home delivery. IKEA disrupted the traditional way of doing business.
My point to you is this—always try to be seen in a different light than the other guy or competition—if you are part of the status quo you will never be able to stand out.
My last word of advice relates to your job, wherever or whatever it is. When I was working in Brazil, as I explained to you earlier, I needed the tools of Portuguese language and skills in accounting/finance. However those were just tools to perform my job. What separated me from the other relationship managers was in my delivery of service-this is where I choose to run a different race. I discovered that the key to being a successful officer was to get to know your customers and their needs. And above all to respond faster than they expected and faster than the competition—this builds confidence, respect and loyalty because they become dependent on you. The more you build this relationship, the more opportunities arise. Having a positive attitude that shows a genuine interest in your clients and providing prompt service is fundamental to a successful career. In addition, I am sure you would have discussed leadership qualities in some of your classes where you would have learned many things about leadership. But let me tell you one key aspect to leadership, it is having a positive attitude. Why? Because no one, I repeat no one follows negativity—if you wish to lead you must be positive!
As you move on from Marietta, I hope you will have fond memories to take with you and that you will keep in touch with a few friends and return to campus. You do not need many friends just a couple. A few quality friends are better than lots of acquaintances.
In closing I would like to share a personal story that I think is certainly unusual and funny. When I was an AFS student here in Marietta at the end of the school year all AFS’ers went to various locations and boarded a Greyhound bus with other AFS students from all over the world and we drove to various cities and stayed overnight with a family. Eventually we all converged in Washington and we got to go to the White House to meet President Johnson. I suppose we were sort of student ambassadors. Just to put something in perspective it was June 1965 and Barbados only became independent in November 1966. Well after President Johnson spoke to us, we were told to go and stand under our national flag. Since we did not have a flag I thought we would go and stand under the British flag. However someone in the State Department decided to take a white sheet and paint the word Barbados on it in black paint. At the time we felt a bit embarrassed but we were not concerned. Well, let us now fast forward to 2009, some 44 years later and this time I am returning to the White House to present my credentials to President Obama. But this time I have a police escort with sirens going off and the US and Barbados flags at the side of the cars. What a change of circumstances—I hope you all can have wonderful experiences as you proceed on your journey into the future!!
Graduates of 2015, I have one small reading assignment for you before you leave campus! Please buy the book “How to Win an Election”, written by Cicero, 64 BC. Yes 64 years Before Christ. It is only 76 pages and half of it is written in Latin, so you only have read about 38 pages and the pages are small.. Why am I giving you this last assignment? The reason is that the book could have been written TODAY, despite it being written 64 BC. No matter what you do in life you will learn a great deal from this book—it will help you win an election but also in your relationships with your bosses, husbands or wives, children and others. The reason is because although so much has changed since 64 BC, the one thing that remains the same, is HUMAN NATURE.
Lots of luck and remember that we all need some element of luck to succeed and of
course TIMING is so important! I THANK YOU!