An Afternoon of Honest and Unadulterated Wisdom at the Alumni Achievement Awards

An investor knighted by the Queen of England, a former SEC chairman, one of the most powerful female CEOs in America and the steward of Singapore’s economy offered words of wisdom to a Burden Auditorium full of eager, young MBA students.

“You can’t learn to swim by doing exercises on the beach.” -Sir Ronald Cohen

This line could not have been more succinctly put to many of the ECs in attendance at the Alumni Achievement Awards, with the majority having just returned from summer internships all over the world. For many of us, who can no longer contemplate working in big corporations, consulting firms or investment banks, this was not only music to our ears but also common sense.

This was indeed one of the many slivers of wisdom that Sir Ronald Cohen and his fellow distinguished panelists, William Donaldson (Bill), Ann Moore and Philip Yeo, offered to a Burden Auditorium full of eager, young MBA students Thursday, September 28.

The format of this year’s Alumni Achievement Awards differed from that of last year’s, with Professor Bill Sahlman leading a casual but focused discussion of several simple questions with panelists. Questions like, “What is wisdom?” elicited responses that ranged from philosophical to lighthearted, but all with serious lessons for the audience. Yeo summed it up in the most concise way with his response: “I like to listen to others and pick their brains, steal their ideas actually,” which drew a raft of laughter from the audience.

Moore highlighted to the audience how pursuing one’s passion can be rewarding. She shared her personal example of accepting the lowest paying offer from Time Inc. among 13 other more conventional offers from consulting firms and investment banks upon graduating from HBS-all because her passion was to work for Sports Illustrated. At a time when many of the ECs (and soon RCs) are debating the risks and rewards of accepting “safe” but conventional offers versus pursuing “riskier” but enterprising opportunities, this again, is another enlightening tidbit of advice.

The next predictable, but seemingly unavoidable, question, “What is your greatest achievement?” brought out a range of responses that many of us can only dream of now and aspire to later. From Moore’s answer about witnessing her 22-year old son transform into an adult to Yeo’s modest response of having created 275,000 jobs for the Singapore economy, the feeling of awe was evident in the audience.

The entrepreneurial spirit was well and truly alive among the panelists, with both Cohen and Donaldson sharing their perspectives on having established Apax Partners and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), respectively. DLJ is part of Wall Street folklore, not only because of having produced many successful bankers, but also because of the cult-like reputation the intense culture of the firm generates. Donaldson shared with the audience the few factors that created the esprit de corps of DLJ, all of which seemed to spring right out of LEAD. Value your employees, create a culture and establish norms of commitment and excellence, and so on-sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Given the current environment of intense scrutiny on big business, the discussion proceeded to the panelists’ perspectives on what can be done to restore confidence in business. As much as we read the press and dissect our LCA cases, Yeo summed it up best by saying that only by maintaining the highest level of integrity and honesty can confidence be restored going forward.

I guess it should have been expected that we would be beneficiaries of an afternoon of honest and unadulterated wisdom. What else could we have expected from an investor knighted by the Queen of England, a former SEC chairman, one of the most powerful female CEOs in America and the steward of Singapore’s economy?

October 10, 2006
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