During the first four months of my MBA program (the notorious “core” module), our organizational behaviour professor asked us to draft a retirement speech. The purpose of the exercise was to give us perspective on what we wanted to accomplish after the MBA. The following is the retirement speech I submitted:
When I first started my career forty years ago, I thought I had all the answers. Like many of my peers, my undergraduate education in engineering had made me an arrogant know-it-all. I had unrealistically high expectations. In my first few years in industry, I was both disappointed and frustrated to discover that companies and people never seemed to do the right thing. In my youthful impatience I attributed these failures to a lack of intelligence rather than my own inability to negotiate the facets of business that extended past the cold, hard facts.
It wasn’t until I got involved in small high-tech startups that I started to notice the abilities that created business success (or lack thereof that bred failure). These companies provided a fertile ground for conflict, their small size compressing and accentuating the personalities and confrontations that prevent businesses, or even societies, from being successful. Though many of these companies had the people, the finances, the technology and the ambition to succeed, they inevitably faltered. In this environment I learned the culprit behind these failures was a lack of three important skills: the ability to listen, the ability to be honest with yourself, and the ability to build a true team.
Once I discovered these keys to success, I constantly worried about how I would perform if it ever became my turn to lead a company. I was sensitive to criticism. I talked over other people. I was obsessive about details, and always wanted to do it all myself. I was lucky enough that, unlike many people, I managed to be honest with myself and realize these shortcomings, a realization that prompted me focus on learning not only to listen, but to hear. Through hard work, and conscious effort, punctuated by a self-deprecating sense of humor, I constantly worked to improve myself in these areas.
Most people start a business of their own to “be their own boss”, accountable to no one, ultimately in control of their own destiny. This is nonsense. You’re always accountable to someone, whether it’s your shareholders, your customers, your employees, or society at large, and you’re never entirely in control of what happens. By the time I started my first company, I had learned the only way to be successful was to bring people together, to understand their individual needs through thoughtful consideration of what they have to say, to keep improving yourself, and, when all else fails, to do the right thing.
I pass this experience onto you in the hope that you will be as lucky as I have been. On retirement from this company, the final of many business ventures I have created, I hope these pearls of wisdom will guide you to your own success. By doing this I hope I will be remembered not as the guy who signed the checks, or the man who got the job done, but as a leader who turned colleagues into teams; a visionary who turned ideas into businesses; a manager who listened with patience; a friend.
Oh, and that guy who signed the checks.