2005 Investiture Address by Thomas J. O'Neill '73 Th'74
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc.
June 11, 2005
Thank you very much Dean Lotko—
Let me first turn to all of you in the back and on the sides of the auditorium and offer you my congratulations. Yes, the day and the weekend belong to the graduates. But there can be no question that a large share of the credit for what these graduating students have achieved belongs to you. Clearly, you've done a fabulous job and you should be justifiably proud.
So now let me turn to the real honorees of today's ceremony. My remarks will be addressed to you. So you made it ... it's a significant achievement. The last time I was here in Spaulding Auditorium was 35 years ago. I came to watch a Marx Brothers movie. While I will be nowhere near as entertaining as the Marx Brothers, I hope that you'll find my remarks interesting, perhaps you'll remember them and you might even find them useful. At a minimum I hope you'll take my remarks as heartfelt advice from someone older than you, and advice that you might be more inclined to heed, because I'm not one of your parents.
First let me give you some background about myself. I'm 54 years old. I'm an only child. Neither of my parents finished high school. My father was a butcher and my mother took care of my father and me.
I am from a very small town just south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Just to tell you the kind of town it is there are less than 500 people, no traffic signals, but eight bars.
Today, I am the Chairman and Chief Executive of one of the oldest, largest and best consulting engineering firms in the world. I live near Princeton, New Jersey and my office is in Manhattan. I travel all over the world to see our company's clients and projects.
So, I've got to ask myself, how on earth did I get from where I started to where I am today? And I'm not saying I've been all that successful. There are any number of people who have achieved far greater success than I. But there have been several things that have helped me along the way.
A large part of it is luck. A large part of it is the values and work ethic instilled in me by my parents. A very large part of it is the support I've received from my wife and daughter who are with us here today. My daughter will graduate tomorrow as part of the Dartmouth Class of '05.
But I think a large part of what has helped me can come under the broad heading of "stuff you don't learn in engineering school."
So, in keeping with David Letterman and the way that a lot of speeches are currently made, and especially because you're engineers and engineers like to count, I'm going to give you a list of the "Top Ten Things They Don't Teach You in Engineering School"—
Your technical competence is a core strength. Never lose it. And the years in which you will have your greatest impact on the world will be dominated by technology. So your technical competence can give you a terrific competitive advantage. But others can be just as competent technically. So in the poker game of life, your technical competence is an ante—what you put on the table just in order to play. What you need is a differentiator.
One of the biggest differentiators you can have is an ability to communicate ... verbally and in writing. You especially have to develop your powers of persuasion and selling. Even if you plan to do purely technical work, you will need to persuade people to see your point of view.
You won't do purely technical work. You are all broad enough and talented enough that you will lead and manage and direct. That piece of advice was first given to me by Carl Long here at Thayer School, who was teaching a few of us a course in structures. We asked him to teach us about pre-stressed concrete. He told us "I don't know why you guys want to learn about that—you'll hire people to do that for you". We didn't believe him at the time. Turns out he was right.
Be on time—it's important. In fact get there early and stay late. If my daughter hears me say that one more time, she's likely to scream. Nevertheless, a 10:00 meeting means that the meeting starts at 10:00—it means you're in your chair, pad in front of you, pen in hand ready to take notes – not just walking into the room at 10:00. You'll be amazed at how far something like that can carry you – because it all goes to something called reliability. If the people you work with can view you as reliable, you've got yet another differentiator – not all people are reliable in that fashion—especially not architects.
You will all have clients—internally or externally. The three magic words in dealing with clients are scope, schedule and budget. Simply put, you've got to deliver what the client wants, when he wants it and for the agreed to budget. Clients can be unreasonable; they want perfection, they want it now and they want it for free. So you will have to find a way to manage client expectations—not necessarily lower them—because there's never enough time, there's never enough money and perfection is unattainable. You've got to find a way to deliver a product that performs the desired functions within the time and budget available. Balance is the key.
Understand the Requirements—It is vitally important that you understand the requirements of whoever it is assigns a piece of work for you to do. It's part of the whole reliability and communication themes. Let me illustrate this point by telling you a story from my career. I had just graduated from Thayer School and started work. One of my very first assignments was to examine three separate reports. Report C had been drawn in part from Report A and in part from Report B. My assignment was to go through Report C and determine which portions had been drawn from Report A and which portions had been drawn from Report B. I was confident that I could complete my assignment. After all, I was an Ivy League graduate. I knew calculus. So I hit upon a brilliant solution. I took Report C, and, everything from Report A I underlined in red; everything from Report B I underlined in green. I took my completed work to my supervisor. I told him I was finished ... that everything from Report A was underlined in red and everything from Report B was underlined in green. I eagerly awaited his praise for my cleverness. I was ready for my next assignment. My supervisor looked at my work, then he looked at me. He said, "This is really good. But which is red and which is green? I'm totally color blind." I was devastated. I thought I was going to be fired. It turned out OK, but I clearly had not understood all of my supervisor's requirements. And it's just as important to impart clear requirements.
Relationships – another differentiator—Much of business is decided upon relationships. Clients tend to believe that all technical firms can do the work. So when it comes time to make a decision as to who will get selected for a certain assignment, often times it comes down to who the client has the best relationship with – who is the most reliable, the most balanced and can solve whatever unforeseen problems arise without changes to schedule and budget. So work on building relationships.
Personal Life Matters. And for this one, do as I say and not as I do—I've talked about relationships and balance in a business context. Well those things are equally important in your personal life. Before long, all of you will have important positions that can consume all of your time, energy and emotion. For the sake of your own mental and emotional well being develop some outside interests. Also, most of you will have partners in life, and probably children. Remember that the family relationships are the most important. No one ever died and put on the tombstone, "I should have spent more time in the office."
It's a team effort. This one can be a little hard to learn. Throughout my whole education and maybe yours you had to do things on your own, with few exceptions. You competed with your peers to see who knew the most. It's different in the real world—it is a team effort. Collaborating on an assignment is encouraged—the result will be better if two minds work on something instead of just one mind. And no one knows everything, not even Ken Jennings. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. You should work with other people who have strengths where you don't. And asking for help is not a weakness, it's a strength. And if there's one thing to remember about this point, power comes from sharing knowledge—not hoarding it. You will be in the business of providing intellectual capital after all, so true power, true success will come from communicating your knowledge to others. Key is delivering successful client outcomes—you do it as a team—as a result you will succeed Hierarchy = 1) Client 2) Team 3) Self. And also remember that in a team setting, the process is just as important as the product.
Don't be constrained by arbitrary rules or limits which have no real significance ... which brings me to point number.
Get a passport – If you have a passport, get it renewed—the world is globalizing very quickly. Too many people in the U.S. think that this is the only place on earth.This is a distorted view. America is a major player in the world, but by no means can we ignore the global community.
- Learn to Use Chopsticks – There is no doubt in my mind that China will come to dominate the world economy. Talk about a rapidly changing place. I go there about twice a year and the changes that I see every six months are enormous. When I first went there I expected to see a very backwards country with dirt roads and ox carts and such. I was never so wrong in my life. China, at least in parts I see, is modernizing at light speed. The Chinese are enterprising, hard working and coming into the world economy very quickly. And once they really get their act together, we're all of us in trouble unless we adapt to this giant.
- Never give up hope. Even though things can look pretty bleak, never quit trying. And, again, I'll illustrate this point with a story from my personal life. In 1978, probably before any of you were born, I was discovered to have a tumor in my chest the size of a grapefruit. I underwent surgery. My entire left lung was removed. I only have one lung. The tumor was biopsied. It was malignant. I had cancer. The form of cancer that I had was particularly deadly. It had a mortality rate of 100 percent. Moreover, every single person who had my form of cancer had died within one year of diagnosis. Being a good engineer, I did the math. There was a 100 percent certainty that I would die within one year. That was 27 years ago, and I'm still here. So my point is ... even though things can look pretty bleak, don't ever give up hope. Don't ever stop trying. Don't ever quit.
This is the point in the speech where I tell you with some certainty, what the future holds. Very simply, the future holds uncertainty, it holds change. Things will be different. There are no facts about the future. The important thing for you to remember is that things will change—you should be ready for change and willing to adapt. And each one of you changed when you came here to Hanover. Most of you had to live in colder weather than you'd ever experienced. But you adapted. Your adaptation taught you that there's no such thing as cold weather, just inappropriate clothing.
One thing that is certain about the future is that you'll get to do great stuff—one of the best parts about being an engineer is that you get to produce tangible results. You'll be working on things that will benefit people for 50 or 100 years or more. It's very satisfying to be able to tell your family about or even show them. So you get a lot of what's called psychic income. And again, it's the best part of what engineers do.
Speaking of doing great things brings me to my closing remarks. You should strive to do great things and to change the world. You have the background, the training and the innate skills. Let me read something to you that captures the spirit of my message.
Our greatest fear is not that we are
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful
It is our light not our darkness that most
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are your not to be?
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about
shrinking so that other people won't
feel insecure around you.
And as we let our light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates
That was written by Nelson Mandela.
I want to conclude by saying that you have been given a great gift. You have received one of the best educations in the entire world—not just the U.S.—but the entire world. And along with that gift, along with that privilege, comes an obligation. You have the responsibility to utilize your education, your talents, your energy, to utilize everything that you've learned over the past 16 – 18 or whatever years to do things that will make life better for the people who come after you. And if those people who come after you can have a better life, if they have more stability, if they can stand above the crowd and see further and more clearly than others, they will have that stability and that far ranging vision because they will be standing on your shoulders. They will be standing on the shoulders of giants.
Good luck to you all. Thank you very much. And, Go Get 'Em!