On Saturday, June 14, 2008, Northrop Grumman President and Chief Operating Officer Wes Bush gave the commencement address at the College of Engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Below are his remarks.
Values-Based Guideposts An Important Decision-Making Tool
Chancellor and Ms. Yang, Dean Tirrell, distinguished members of the UCSB community, the graduating Class of 2008, and family members and friends – Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to help celebrate this special occasion – this milestone day of high achievement.
Let me congratulate the College of Engineering for graduating another fine class – with your world-class program you’ve equipped these graduates to make important contributions to society as they move ahead in their chosen careers.
Let me also congratulate all family members and friends – you should be very proud of what you have contributed to today’s successes.
And most of all, let me congratulate the class of 2008 – you have successfully completed a demanding program and will soon be putting it to productive use in academia, industry, government or some other sector of society.
At Northrop Grumman we’ve had the good fortune to employ a number of outstanding UCSB graduates over the past few years. They have risen quickly to become key contributors in many areas of our company.
Now that you graduates have done such great work in your science and engineering studies, you will certainly be taking some time off to celebrate and reflect on your accomplishments. But I know that you are also looking forward to the new challenges that your education has prepared you to take on.
Today I’d like to offer some brief perspective on one aspect of this challenging future – your role as decision makers. Specifically, I’ll talk about how you can use personal values as a key guidepost for decision making.
I’ll start with the premise that each of you, given the determination and ability you’ve shown thus far, will likely move to positions of increasing responsibility as you progress through your careers. With this increasing responsibility will come an increasingly difficult set of decisions that you will need to address.
Let me give you a few examples.
As scientists or engineers you’ll be advancing to increasingly complex projects – and finding it more challenging to decide which approaches yield the best solutions.
Some of you will be leaders of university research projects or industry engineering teams – in these roles you will face many decisions about what goals to set and what means will best motivate your team to reach them.
Some of you will work in government agencies, or as consultants to policymakers; in these situations, you will have decisions about how to advance the sciences or bring technology benefits to various sectors of society.
In coming years, all these decisions are certain to become more difficult as scientific fields proliferate, technologies grow in complexity, and societal problems that require science and engineering solutions become more severe.
The discipline that you learned in your course work here will help you take on these tough decisions with a strong analytical framework that can be used both in technical and management contexts. Utilizing science and engineering methodologies will ensure that you have all the facts, and that you really understand how any one decision can impact many different things across an enterprise, as well as in the wider world beyond.
In addition, however, you will often be relying on an important personal component of decision-making. Over time each of you, from your own unique experiences, will develop certain guideposts for decision making that reflect your own particular outlooks – guideposts that are based on your own values.
I have learned that a solid set of values-based guideposts is a critical element of any decision making process, and I would encourage you to establish your own set of guideposts that you can rely upon to help you address the tough challenges that your success will bring.
Understanding values, and applying them in your life is a very personal effort, and we all bring our own way of approaching this. So your guideposts need to reflect your own priorities – your most deeply held values. I’ll share some of the key guideposts that I use – hopefully some of these will be useful to you.
My first guidepost for decision making is my belief in the importance of establishing and maintaining trust in relationships.
To inspire trust you certainly have to be honest and act with integrity. But it is also vitally important for you and your enterprise to meet your commitments. Those who depend on you – whether family members, friends, teammates or people you work with outside your organization – need to have confidence in your reliability.
In the business workplace, I find that considering whether commitments are being met is a great way to get real focus on what a team is doing. The connection between meeting commitments and building trust is a very tight connection.
The importance of building trust gets even more emphasis in today’s information age than it did in the earlier industrial age – because today, our way of organizing tasks gives priority to getting the maximum out of teamwork. In a highly collaborative business environment, for example, science or technology leaders need to build ties of trust with multiple stakeholders – interdisciplinary teams, globally diverse team members, a variety of public officials, and a global customer base.
Building trust into these tightly knit teams is absolutely critical for successful outcomes – and it creates a personally rewarding work environment for all involved.
You can clearly see the difference in teams where this trust and integrity is a foundation – these are the teams that accomplish the most amazing things.
A second guidepost I rely upon in decision making is my personal commitment to encouraging innovation. I strongly believe that keeping one’s mind open to new approaches and embracing change when it looks promising will bring vigor and real value to an enterprise. In fact, I find that those who naturally possess this mindset make the most remarkable contributions, not only in the workplace but in private life as well.
I don’t have to tell you that innovation is an indispensable quality for science and engineering. In fact, innovation continues to grow in importance, given the sophisticated knowledge and technology solutions we must utilize to deal with many 21st century issues. The kind of innovation needed to address these challenges requires synthesizing a broader range of interdisciplinary knowledge, and giving more emphasis to systemic solutions.
While it is a promising time for innovators, I also must warn you about an obstacle. The innovative spirit is frequently suppressed by large organizations, where there is often much invested in the “as is” condition. In fact, I have seen organizations that practically chase good talent out, in order to minimize the inevitable disruption that comes from bright, innovative ideas. These organizations usually don’t last too long, thank goodness. If you find yourself in such an organization, my best advice is to seek a better place to invest your talent.
Some of the best advice I ever received regarding innovation was from my thesis advisor in engineering school. I was very fortunate to have an advisor who had worked in industry for a number of years, as well as having a very accomplished academic career. Just before I graduated, I asked him what advice he would offer as I made the transition from graduate school to industry.
His advice was very straightforward. He said that he fully expected me to have some new ideas that I would want to try out and about which I would be passionate. He also said he expected that I would seek input from more senior folks in the organization to test whether I should pursue my ideas.
His advice was to seek out the most experienced talent I could find, and fully explain my ideas. If they thought that what I proposed could be done, my advisor said he would bet that they would be right, and I should work hard to make it happen.
But if they said it could not be done, and yet I felt passionate about it, my advisor said he would bet even more strongly that it could be done, and that I should not be deterred in making it happen.
As I said, it was some of the best advice I have ever received, and I think about it often as I see innovative ideas put on the table by those who have done their homework. Oftentimes pursuing their ideas means that things will have to change, and some risk will be taken, but that is the only way that real innovation can thrive, and there is an extraordinary value in that spirit of innovation.
A third very important guidepost for me in making decisions is a commitment to creating value. Naturally, working in a company, value creation is often tied directly to profits for shareholders – but it means much more in really good companies. For my company, it also means creating value sought by our customers who often stake their lives on our products, as well as value for our employees, and for the various communities in which we operate. I apply this guidepost in making sure we deliver value to all the constituencies whose support we need for the long-term health of the enterprise.
The concept of value creation is pretty clear – it simply means using resources, such as your personal talent and hard work, in such a way that you actually get more out than you put in. The concept of “return on investment” captures the notion very well.
This is why for-profit businesses exist – to deploy resources, like financial and human capital, to create more value than is invested. We even set up metrics to see if we are doing this in a business. We measure the implied cost of the resources that we use – call it “cost of capital” if you will – and we determine if a business is providing a return greater than its cost of capital.
Those businesses that return less than their cost of capital typically don’t make it for very long. In contrast, those that routinely return substantially more than their cost of capital thrive and grow. The same concept applies to other organizations as well – whether they be academia, government, or non-profit institutions.
No matter where you choose to work, you’ll have exceptional opportunities for creating value in your work in science or engineering.
A recent report by the National Academy of Engineering listed some of the most critical issues that must be addressed through new technology solutions in coming years; these include global warming, shrinking supplies of energy and water, aging infrastructures, communication system vulnerabilities, and threats to security.
There are clearly many opportunities to make a difference for the future.
This notion of value creation can be applied to your own personal life as well. We are each given a certain amount of human capital, each with a little different portfolio of capabilities. And we are only given a certain amount of time to deploy this capital.
It is up to each of us to figure out how to deploy this gift of human capital to create real value for the world around us – and I would suggest to you that the units of measure on the returns are not dollar signs.
Let me summarize today’s message. Much of your future success will depend on the quality of your decision making.
What makes this task inherently difficult is that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.
You have to defeat this paradox by using all the quantitative information you have, the skills you have learned in your education, plus all your intelligence and judgment. And a key part of judgment, I am arguing, is your set of value-base guideposts.
Perhaps the three examples from my own set can be helpful to you as you move forward in your careers.
I believe there is almost no limit to what any of you can accomplish if you act with trust and integrity, stay committed to innovation, and determined to contribute real value to fellow citizens.
As I noted, however, my guideposts are very unique to my own outlook, and each person must define his or her own values-based framework.
I encourage you to give it some thought, and to consider how your values shape your decisions – it will significantly increase your capability and confidence as you take on roles as engineers and scientists.
Again, my congratulations on your admirable accomplishments and sincere best wishes as you take this exciting next step in your life.