Helen Manich delivered this speech at the George Mason University commencement ceremony on May 17, 2002.
Honored guests, graduating students, families, and friends – Good Afternoon.
In my career, I have had the fortunate opportunity to travel extensively around the world and have been introduced to many different foods. Sometimes I ask what I’m eating – sometimes I don’t. One rather brave moment in the Philippines I inquired about the meat and was told that we were eating monkey. I asked curiously, well, given that monkeys tend to run, climb and swing all over the place I can’t imagine that monkeys are raised. “Oh no” was the reply. “We catch them.” I asked, “Well how does one catch a monkey”? I was then invited out the next day to find out.
What the hunters did was to throw long ropes over the tree branches. Coconuts were then threaded and knotted to the rope. A small hole was carved in the coconut and inside was placed fruits and nuts. The hole was only large enough for the monkey to get his hand inside. Upon grabbing the apparently easily available fruits and nuts in its fist, the monkey could not get his fist-filled hand out of the coconut. The only path to freedom, from the apparently easy loot, was to let go! Most monkeys don’t let go – and the hunters come along and bonk them on the head.
As I was thinking about this convocation address and the topic of business ethics, this story struck me as a great metaphor for the life and adventure on which you are about to embark.
Success in Life, however it is defined, is to look at the price we pay for our attachments.
Corporate America has tons of fruits and nuts – but some are in coconuts with small holes. And here’s the problem: if you put your hand in and keep it there – you will not be able to move beyond the end of the rope. It is in the letting go of the apparently easy fruits and nuts – that we earn freedom.
This morning I invite you to join me in a great adventure. Adventure means, “to arrive”. Your new adventures, whether it be business, politics, or community begins with…
How do I get what I want? How do I lead an adventurous life that exceeds my dreams?
This morning I will share with you some of my adventures including:
- Passing groundbreaking legislation that changed the paradigm for many of you in the audience
- Participating in changing the landscape of the modern era of telecommunications
- Building a number of +$1B businesses
- Participating in winning political asylum for the leaders of the House Church Movement in China
I share these adventures so you too can build your own extraordinary list of adventures.
“We came equals into this world, and equals shall we go out of it. All men are by nature born equally free and independent.”
– George Mason, Author of the Bill of Rights.
“Endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
– Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
The adventuresome life begins with understanding what it means in life in “The Land of the Free”. The universal Land of the Free means to live unattached to limiting ropes. This requires an understanding of the human nature of people in any circumstances, spanning any country or culture.
The words describing The Land of the Free are not mere statements – they are a directive to act.
There are four road signs in the land of the free to guide you and me:
The Land of the Free – Road signs
- Create – What is it that I want to create? What legacy will I choose to build?
- Stand – Where do I stand in any moment, in any situation?
- Attach – What are my fruits and nuts– of which I don’t want to let go?
- Decide – How do I choose to act?
Let us begin with creation. It is never too early or too late to begin to build your legacy.
Create a Legacy – it is never too early to begin building and creating your own legacy.
Let’s have a little audience participation. Let us see a show of hands.
How many of you were born after January 1, 1979?
How many of you were born in the US?
How many of your mothers were working outside the home when you were born?
Since January 1 1979 – How many of you (or your spouse) have borne children and were employed outside the home during this pregnancy?
Create a Legacy – Change the landscape
In 1978, working with the National Women’s Political Caucus we successfully passed through the US House and Senate, the Pregnancy Disability Act. This legislation made it illegal to fire a pregnant woman. If her company provided disability insurance, maternity disability benefits were now to be provided. Since January 1, 1979, more than 4 mm babies a year have been born in the US. (92mm+), half of them to employed women. Many of you, your mothers and your families are beneficiaries of this legislation.
Because People took time out to create a new environment and to change the landscape.
In changing the landscape society moves from one paradigm to a new one. Today we can hardly imagine that a woman would be legitimately fired from her job for being pregnant or that she not be provided maternity leave.
Create a new industry – Change the landscape
One of the infamous landscape business changers was a great curmudgeon, the late Bill McGowan. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Bill and MCI filed two anti-trust lawsuits – to break up the federally mandated Telecommunications monopoly of AT&T. These two successful lawsuits dynamically altered the landscape of the past and provided the legal foundation for creating an entirely new telecommunications industry.
For two years I pestered people at MCI to hire me. After 7 weeks on the job, I received a very interesting phone call. Bill McGowan wanted to know why I disagreed with his residential marketing strategy. With great enthusiasm, I replied, “Well Bill, if you had the information we have, you may draw a different conclusion.”
“Great,” he said, “ I’ll see you in 15 minutes.”
I gathered up our information, the colleague who had worked with me on the new strategy and our CMO.
Take a Stand
Willing to risk it all – Every moment
Safety is often the riskiest position
Upon walking into Bill’s conference room, I entered a high stake poker game. Fortunately, I grew up in an Eastern European immigrant neighborhood on the south side of Chicago and had played poker since 5. During this three-hour poker game, Bill bent the tree every possible way. I realized that – Yes we have the right strategy here – even Bill can’t find the hole. Terrified of making a mistake my colleague said nothing during the entire meeting.
As the 3+ hours wind down, Bill takes a dead aim look at me and says
“Young lady, we are about to bet $40mm that you are right.”
“You realize that you are betting your job if you’re wrong.”
“Yes. What I want to know is what is in the pot for me when I am right.”
Bill bursts out laughing stands up and puts out his hand and says – you’re on.
This was the beginning of a great relationship and career.
Several things went on in this meeting.
As a great leader, Bill was open to learning and was curious about new ideas to beat AT&T. He wasn’t attached to negative ego about the need to always be right or to always be the smartest person in the room.
Second, he loved the give and take of ideas and knew how to reach into the organization and nurture creative talent.
Take a Stand
Believe in Yourself
Third, both my colleague and the CMO were not willing to take the risk to own the strategy we all developed. They were playing it safe and were very happy for me to walk out on the limb all on my own.
At MCI, I with my teams built two + 1-2b businesses – the launch of the residential business and the Partner Marketing business. Taking the risk of being authentic, taking the stand of believing in the strategy developed, and willing to take the risk to forge new, innovative marketing programs, provided the opportunity to build an important part of MCI’s business in the 1980’s.
Taking a stand is not easy – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Another’s behavior – 100% about them and 0% about you
My behavior – 100% about me and 0% about them
Bill McGowan had semi-retired from the business after a heart transplant. A new Sr. Executive was brought in and was very direct – he did not believe that women could lead. Taking stands with him was never easy and certainly did not turn out well. I was still the same businesswoman who led teams. Now, I was dealing with a Sr. Executive who had another agenda. This Sr. Executive was going to see me with all of his filters and life experiences – and that had nothing to do with me. I learned this very important aspect of attachment– (read slide above behavior lines). The most important attachment to let go of is being because of another.
Attachments – Stay stuck or move into creation
In a rut, it was time to dynamite my way out. I picked up and moved to Seattle.
The 1990’s were comprised of turning around US West Cellular and taking 10 ppts of acquisition market share from McCaw Cellular. This share shift captured the attention of the COO of McCaw Cellular, Jim Barksdale. Many of you may know of Jim from his role as CEO of Netscape. Jim inquired one day as to what it would take to get me to cross the street. I crossed the street to work for Jim. The business grew dynamically and was later acquired by AT&T, now AT&T Wireless.
By the age of 40, I had worked for two of the best business leaders in the telecom industry and had been apart of creating two major segments in the telecom industry.
The question was now – What’s next?
Attachments and Velcro – To desire something so strongly, that “pretzel” behavior follows.
Taking a stand is rarely popular.
Let’s talk about attachments for a moment.
In a recent interview with George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars Trilogy’s, he described the character development of Anakin Skywalker, AKA, Darth Vader.
“In this film, you begin to see that he has a fear of losing things, a fear of losing his mother, and as a result, he wants to begin to control things, he wants to become powerful, and these are not Jedi Traits. And part of these is because he was starting to be trained so late in life, that he’d already formed these attachments. And for a Jedi, attachment is forbidden.”
As I and other friends had reached Sr. Executive positions during the explosion of technology in the 1900’s – we had also seen a growth in the attachments – of Fear, Greed and the search for personal power. All of us had to take very unpleasant stands within corporations regarding the behavior, activities and financial reporting of the respective businesses. Several Sr. Executives, across financial, sales and marketing roles resigned their positions, rather than be part of questionable activities.
We were met with the tactics of bullying, threats, or statements that we were standing in the way of the business. We were told to get in line, or my personal favorite – don’t worry, the company will pay your legal bills. Well, now that is an interesting thought. Who in the company is going to do the jail time and resurrect a tattered reputation?! I and other executives know exactly how Ms. Watkins of Enron felt. We have walked in her shoes.
Thomas Friedman, in his book the Lexus and the Olive Tree, notes that a key strategic advantage of the United States is the integrity of the political and legal system and the reliability of the Financial Reporting System of public companies. For short-term personal gain, dozens of executives have placed at risk both the national strategic advantage of the US and the lives and financial security of millions of people, in the US and abroad. Rebuilding this trust will take significantly longer than it took to destroy.
Decide – New Creation – Manich Strategic
The Path to the Revenue Stream.
Within this evolving business environment, I decided to create Manich Strategic, a –strategic consulting firm focused on “The Path to the Revenue Stream” sm. The Path to the Revenue Stream focuses on defining specific target prospects, delighting those prospects by meeting their needs, profitability. Manich Strategic as a firm is organized around integrity, balance, and inclusion. May 1 was the beginning of our seventh year.
Running one’s own business is the riskiest, scariest, yet most wonderfully satisfying experience. I wanted to travel to different parts of the world and cultivated clients in those countries. One jet-lagged morning while standing in the conference room overlooking Sydney harbor, with a beautiful view of the Opera House and the Gardens, I mutter to myself, – “Wow, this great view, working on a really interesting project, working with very interesting people – and all because I went after this business. Very cool!”
There has also been the roller coaster of the burst of the technology bubble and the business cliff walk after the attacks of 9/11. Despite the setbacks, the entire team has pulled together and we have managed our way out of this slow down, realigned our businesses targets and successfully gone forward.
One of the benefits of running my own business is the ability to take on interesting adventures unrelated to business – to have diversity in my life.
Decide to view life with Open Eyes – New Eyes
One such adventure landed on my door in 1999. I was asked if I would take in and sponsor a dissident family from China. I do not speak a spec of Chinese, Mandarin or otherwise. Fortunately, they spoke fluent English.
The father, was a cardiologist for 14 years in Shenzhen, and owed a medical and instrument supply business. His wife was degreed in pharmacy, acupuncture, nursing and was a qualified translator of 5 western languages. Their daughter was 7 years old, sharp and precocious.
The family arrived with only the clothes on their backs. These dissidents were the leaders of the House Church movement in China. As background, in China, people can attend government sanctioned church services, monitored by the Public Security Bureau (PSB). This couple with support from many inside and outside China established 2000 House Churches. The government views anything of this size to be a political movement therefore considered anti-government.
In the evenings, the father and I would read aloud the NY Times to improve his diction. He took immediately to the political stories and the Op-Ed page. He inquired as to what would happen to the editors and the authors for writing against the government. He wanted to know the location of the camps. Our concepts of the bill of rights, civil liberties and the four freedoms were new concepts to this very educated man. He was intrigued by our readings and discussions and I was given the gift of seeing the concepts of freedom through a very inquisitive set of eyes.
Securing Political Asylum required a federal court trial. Only 5% of political asylum cases are granted each year in the US. In building the case, the challenge was to deal with the family’s fear of courts, laws and evidence based on their experience with China’s judicial system vs. what was needed to win their case in the US. Taking the fathers deposition fell to me. In the late evenings, an hour at a time, slowly the story of arrest and torture was taken down. The INS requires a very detailed description.
The day of the trial arrived. This was a closed courtroom. 12 hours of testimony had been prepared and only 2 hours given. At this point, the INS attorney stood up and made a motion that the INS would not oppose an order of asylum. The husband, unclear about what was happening, frantically asked me what is going on, and I turned to him and said,
“Welcome to America”
The joy of that moment is almost indescribable. It was as though I was supposed to be in Seattle to “catch” this family…. to be an angel-in-waiting. To be a part of the long heritage of people, who, through the millenniums, have stepped up to the plate and aided others fleeing oppression is an honor. All they were seeking was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While I have accomplished much in business, there is nothing that ranks with the gratitude of that moment.
In summary, there are a few other legends on the map of the Land of the Free that may be of use to you.
Live in the moment
Let go of the past
Let the future worry about itself.
Nelson Mandela, upon his tour in the US after his release from prison, was asked how he dealt with feelings of rage. To paraphrase, he said that you cannot hold onto the past even with a fingernail – otherwise, you are not free to grab on to your future with both hands.
Decide to Build Relationships
Being right and being in a relationship do not coexist
Whether in business, politics or our personal lives, it is easy to argue for the “rightness” of our own view. This is not about building a relationship. If you choose to create, you will be creating with people who do not agree with you – guaranteed. The question is; How does a group of people who disagree, create? The answer lies in building a relationship.
Acknowledge the others point of view and discuss what is next. Being right doesn’t get you to your end goal.
Between 9/11 and the scandals of today’s business environment, we have seen once again that it takes years to create and just hours to destroy. Create anyway. Because it isn’t about the destroyers – you can’t control them– it is about each of us deciding to create a world in our own vision.
Take a stand for what you believe in.
In closing, I invite you to join me on my favorite evening run here in DC. Park at West Potomac Park. Cross Independence and run up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, read the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural speech. Turn around and stand dead center at the top of the step and look across the reflecting pool. Go back to West Potomac Park and through the FDR memorial – read the quote from FDR’s speech of the four freedoms. Move on along the tidal basin to the Jefferson memorial and read about religious freedom and the fight against tyranny. Look toward the clear sweeping view of the White House – and out the south wing, across the Potomac to the hilltop of the Custis-Lee Mansion of Arlington Cemetery.
These memorials are to people who choose to create, dreaded the consequences and created anyway. They wrestled with attachments, took unpopular stands and had many doubts along the way.
Decide to make a difference
On this day of your convocation from the School of Management of George Mason University, I invite you to join the adventure – and that through your individual actions, through the businesses and governments you build, you will see to it that a government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.
Congratulations and thank you!