Commencement 2002

JUNE 22, 2002

Thank you for your very kind introduction.

President Kiss, graduates, trustees, parents and families, faculty, staff and guests, as a working professional naval engineer, one would be hard pressed to think of a more satisfying experience than to be asked to deliver the Commencement address at a Webb Institute graduation. The namesake and founder of this institution was a shipbuilder who cared a lot for his people, their families and their futures and as well for the intellectual basis of shipbuilding. He cared enough to invest much of what he earned, as a shipbuilder in the people that helped him succeed in his business and in the education of those who would come after him. He built ships and he built a future for his people and for you.

When Ron Kiss asked me to be your Commencement speaker, I felt honored and very excited. Recognition by your peers is the finest kind. Naturally, my thoughts turned toward "what to say?" I was properly instructed that only about 15 minutes was expected or desired. So, you needn't worry too much... I follow instructions reasonably well. In preparing, I reviewed what I remember of the some 16 or 17 Commencement speeches I have heard. That review took only a few seconds. I can't remember much of those speeches, even though some of the speakers were famous. One speech was in Latin... curious but not informative.

My children tell me I'm inclined to preach, so I'm going with my strength. You new graduates have a lot on your minds... with a new job, departing from close friends made in this kind of modern cloister, creating new relationships... your parents tend to be focused on their pride in your accomplishments. No one really needs to be too interested in this speech because there will not be a quiz and the problem set unfolds slowly over the next few decades. But, there needs to be a Commencement speech, like their needs to be a period at the end of a sentence.

Contrary to the training I've had in how to craft a speech; I'm first going to tell you what I'm not going to talk about. I'm not going to talk to you about how our perceptions of the world have changed so much in this last year or the responsibilities now on your shoulders as a result. You know that already, living here in the lee of the great city of New York. I'm not going to describe the awesome importance of our profession that provides the technical basis for American sea power. I'm not going to dwell on the importance of our Navy as a foundation for a new peace that only America has the power to underwrite. The role of our Navy operating around the globe in the national interest has been sharply reinforced by current events. I'm not going to remind you that naval architects and marine engineers, ships and the Navy are of a piece. I'm not going to tell you what percentage of international trade is transported by ship. Instead, I want to share with you some different thoughts, thoughts that I hope you will find to be less associated with current events and more connected with the fundamentals of a long productive professional life, one that will transcend the issues du jour.

Of all the Commencement speeches I've heard, only one really sticks in my mind. It was delivered by another working professional like me, not a famous person, not a person trying to make a political point, or a public policy point or explaining and justifying some noble accomplishment. This most memorable talk was given by a businessman, describing the roles he felt were important in defining and meeting his responsibilities. He was passing his ideas along to those just entering his profession. The individual is a real estate developer in New England, a very successful man, a doer like Mr. Webb. His name is Stephen Karp, the CEO of New England Development Corp. I intend to combine what I recall of Mr. Karp's remarks with some thoughts passed along to me by my father, Henry Firebaugh, who had a fulfilling career in business, and some wisdom from a great naval officer, Admiral Kinnaird McKee. Taken together, their thoughts inspired the next few minutes of your Commencement address.

You now have the advantage of an excellent education. Yours is extraordinary, having been acquired in the unique experience that is Webb. For someone like me, the principal subject of your education is compelling. Naval architecture and marine engineering combine the arcane science of hydrodynamics, the design of great and often beautiful ships to travel through the oceans, the practical arts of engineering and some sense of the underlying economics and national purposes that sustain our enterprises. You've learned to excel both as individuals and as teams. You've solved score upon score of engineering problems. You've completed your design projects. You've acquired the basics.

With history as a guide, we know that Webb graduates generally are very successful. Some succeed as naval architects, marine engineers, shipbuilders and some in other pursuits, because there is a universal utility to a fine education and because you had to be good to get here to begin with. The good people often succeed.

From now on, your lives become mainly about giving your time and talent to your work, your community, your profession, and in time, your family. In giving your time and talent to Work, Community, Profession and Family, certain personal attributes emerge as key in superior performance... Integrity, Competence, Awareness of the needs of those you serve, and Stamina.

Your work, your employment, is a big deal. Your work will occupy more of your time than any other activity in your life. One of the greatest gifts of your education is that it is the gateway to the kind of employment that will challenge your mind with complex tasks and interesting relationships. In return for income and the opportunity for a high level of intellectual stimulus, you will owe your employer the duties of loyalty and care... your best, thoughtfully considered efforts in your employer's interests. Your work will be the vehicle by which you will achieve some level of material success. Your work will be the chrysalis of many relationships that will transcend the workplace and become lifelong associations. Your work is service to yourself, your employer, your customers, your co-workers, and in time, to people whom you lead.

Beyond your work, you ought to plan on a role within your community. America depends on its citizens to be active in working for the betterment of our communities. Opportunities abound to serve. Some of you may be destined to render service in the larger context of state, or nation, or the global community. Experience you gain in community service will positively affect your work and your family life. Community service broadens your awareness of the needs and abilities of others and provides a basis for some objectivity about your own work and life. There are many ways to get involved with your community... kid sports, volunteering to help sustain community cultural institutions, political action, church work, caring for the unfortunate or enhancing education for children. Willingness to help often makes up for lack of experience. You can start at any age.

Your education has equipped you to enter a profession; an occupation based on the practical application of learning. Commitment to your profession means a commitment to a lifetime of creating new knowledge. Professions advance based on the contributions of working professionals. Your professional life can be a balance of work, continuing education and contribution to the activities of the professional societies that represent your field. Commitment to your profession in its highest form means exposing your original ideas to your professional peers and accepting the risks of their critical judgment. As with community service, professional activity has a beneficial effect on your work. You become increasingly effective for your employer if your professional contribution is known beyond the confines of your organization and you are bringing back to your organization experience gained in a broader context.

It is likely that most of you will be responsible for a family. Blending family life with a dynamic career presents frequent challenges to your priorities. In my experience those who handle those challenges the best, do so by having a clear commitment to their family as the highest priority, but who also do a lot of planning in order to minimize the situations in which hard choices, with possible adverse consequences must be made. For example, extra effort in your work at opportune moments creates a reservoir of good will with the boss that can be tapped when the chips are down at home. Likewise, an established record at home of being part of the important situations will ease those moments in which the demands of the job cannot be denied. Planning! It helps to keep the decision space positive. Both work and family life should be a joy. Resist the temptation to blame the job for a missed family commitment and visa versa. Your family knows that you need to be successful on the job. Indeed they are depending on you to achieve that success, but not at any price. Likewise, the boss has a family too. The boss knows that a strong family enhances your success on the job.

The attributes that bring out your best in fulfilling your responsibilities in work, community, profession and family can be summarized as integrity, competence, awareness and stamina.

Integrity needs to be your habit, so basic to your personality and behavior that it requires no extensive weighing or calculation. As your career develops, the importance of integrity increases because your actions will affect more people. For some of you the outcome of great issues may hinge on what you say and do. Lives, careers and fortunes can be affected. Your integrity is most tested when the truth hurts, when some string of events that you have advocated begins to succumb to adversity and you must deliver the bad news. Rear Admiral Tom Westphal used to preach to the young engineering duty officers in the Navy, "You have to get the facts, face the facts and do the right thing!" Diligence, objectivity and courage are all tied up in the concept of integrity.

Competence requires that you know your stuff. Competence is acquired. Competence develops when an inquisitive mind focuses on the knowledge required to make good decisions. Becoming competent also requires the courage to ask. There is a marvelous statement over the door in the Navy's enlisted submarine school in Groton, Connecticut. It says, "The only stupid question is the one that's never asked." In our field, competence develops most effectively when ideas are tested by transforming them into real working systems - ships or engines or controls. People who depend on you for leadership will rapidly comprehend your level of competence. Competence breeds success.

Awareness relates to your willingness to try to understand what is important to those whom you serve. What do they want? What does my boss want? What does my customer want? What does the person I'm helping want? What do my colleagues want? What do I want? I am amazed over and over again by the simplicity of this idea and the paucity of its application. You can get answers by observation, by questioning, and by listening. Sometimes it takes a good bit of dialog to get at these simple questions. And, sometimes you may find that what is wanted is not credible or proper. But, most of the time the answers to these questions provide the basis for effective action.

One morning in Washington, sometime around 1986, I went to an ASNE Flagship Section breakfast. The attraction was Admiral Kin McKee talking about leadership. He stated the four attributes I am talking about to you. The first three, integrity, competence and awareness were virtually identical to those on a slip of paper I had received years earlier from my Dad. What a validation. But, the fourth was new to me... stamina. I think my Dad would have been quite willing to add that attribute to his list. There are times in which doing your best puts great demands on your stamina. Some situations can only be mastered by having the stamina to just keep driving ahead. Another personal hero, Vice Admiral Ned Cochrane, who was the Chief of the Bureau of Ships all through World War II, dealt with the awesome task of building and equipping a huge Navy in a very short time. Admiral Cochrane said, "Of just three things in my life composed, me, my grindstone and my goldurned nose." Fortunately, few of us will experience such an enormous challenge lasting for years, so we may not have to make the deep narrow commitment expressed in the Admiral's assertion. But all of us will experience times in which stamina will be the key. Happens a lot to young parents.

There have been eight key words in this talk. Four relate to areas of activity that can make for a full and productive life, work, community, profession and family. Four relate to personal attributes that can operate powerfully to give you a great chance at succeeding in those activities, integrity, competence, awareness, and stamina.

Earlier in this talk I mentioned Stephen Karp, to whom I'm indebted for the discussion of the four areas of activity. He was addressing graduates of a business program in real estate. Other parts of his talk dealt with investment principles. Don't worry I'm not going there. But he ended with a catchy line, "There's never a bad time to be liquid." Somehow for naval architects and marine engineers, for Webb Institute grads, that has to come out, "There's never a bad time to be in the water."

Thank you for the honor or being your Commencement speaker and for listening.