The Plague-Ground – “Some day, you will screw up royally. In public. Then what will you do?”

Commencement Speech season started this weekend with Barack Obama delivering two of them online: one to high school students and one to the graduates of historically-black colleges, where he said:

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

Obama falls into the very small campsite of great commencement speakers. He’s smart, articulate, humane and not America’s 45th President, but its 44th. The commencement speech is a tired and dreary art form, and the ones we remember, like Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’, stick with us because they violated the norms of the genre.

Over the years, I’ve helped a dozen or so friends and clients write theirs. I’ve been surprised by how many of them ask: “What do you think I should say?”  I say surprised because the commencement address, much more than the sermon and the eulogy, is all about: “Here’s what I think.” Of you. Your parents. Your future. The future.

In fact, only once has someone said: “I know exactly what I want to say. I just need your help with the words.”

He was a majordomo on Bay Street and his business school had invited him to speak to their freshly-minted MBA students.

We met and he said: “These kids are all smart, hard-working, and ambitious as hell.  They’ll never be more cocky than on their graduation day. So I’d like to teach them one more lesson before they come to the podium for their degrees. The lesson is that they will fail, because we all do. And because they’ll have such big lives, odds are they’ll fail big too. But how will they learn to handle failure?  Especially big, public failure?”

He then told me his story. Back in 1998, he and his colleagues strongly advised their clients to invest in Russian banks, which were growing rapidly. On August 17th that year, Russia’s central bank devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debt. His clients’ Russian investments quickly fell between 20% and 40%.

The next day, as he and his partners sat glum-faced around the board table, a few said: “We might as well close up shop now. Our clients are furious. They’ll desert us. We’re screwed.”

My friend didn’t disagree. But he also said that they owed it to their clients to contact each one of them personally and meet with them to apologize. These clients were not mom and pop investors, but some of Canada’s wealthiest families and biggest institutions.

So they figured out who should contact whom and set up those meetings, even though some clients refused them.

A couple of weeks later, by the time they returned from these painful encounters, they reviewed their client list – and their future.

And not a single client had left.

Not one.

They were annoyed, for sure. But they admired that their investment manager pushed them to meet personally to apologize and explain.

My client and his colleagues had made an error in judgement. And because Bay Street is a village, everyone knew. So it was a big public error in judgement.

But who hasn’t done that in our professional lives?  Maybe not as public or embarrassing as this one.  But you don’t get to work past 40 without making A Big Mistake.

And my friend wanted to tell that story to the Baby MBAs on that sunny June day years ago.

It’s hard to think of a more valuable lesson for any new graduate as they advance from the school of business, or medicine, or law, into the school of life.

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14 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – “Some day, you will screw up royally. In public. Then what will you do?””

    1. Catherine — these are both wonderful!
      I had seen nor heard of neither of them.
      Thank you soooo much for sending.

  1. And…or though….even if some clients did leave, the investor managers did the right thing! Integrity. Missing in some leaders!

  2. I agree with Charmaine’s observation. More than anything, what the investment firm did was display integrity. And if the necessity for integrity isn’t an important thing to remember as your graduate, nothing is.

  3. ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ A post card with these words on it hangs in a well-used room in my home and I read it every day.
    In a world where moving forward and upward and often brushing things aside or under the rug, the suggestion that failure is okay and to own up to it, in a public way (in other words with a sincere apology) – hey we are all human – is an important gesture. Of course we are not talking about : oh I am sorry I hit you so hard or shot you, oops.
    However, for other transgressions, speak up, speak out. Fail again. Fail better.

  4. Richard Powers

    Hi Bob – a great story and so true. I try NOT to screw something up every week, and sometimes I am successful. But just sometimes! Hope you are well, healthy and happy!

    1. Thanks, Richard. It’s when I think I can go an entire month without screwing something up, that I get into big trouble!

  5. Michael Chase

    Resilience. Resilience. Resilience. Loved your piece Bob. Things will happen. Things that are beyond our control. Even though we believe we can control it ALL. Learning from the trials and tribulations of failures is the stuff of great stories. Great lives. Clearly the stuff of great figures, who make great speeches – like Jobs, Gates, and Obama. Fail brilliantly. Fail forward.

  6. Helga Stephenson

    Thank you for another excellent column….you should have a regular spot. It’s been great especially during this strange time, Keep them coming please xx

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