2013 Commencement Address

May 28, 2013

“Behaviors of Excellence”

By Rory Cowan ’71

I would like to issue an apology: I am not Tina Fey. I am really sorry that I am not Tina Fey. In fact, it would be a lot of fun to be Tina Fey! Every year there are rumors: Steve Carell, Jim Carey, Tina Fey… But never any rumors about Rory Cowan. Wonder why?

This weekend, podiums all over this great country are dispensing advice to graduating classes. I’m not going to do that. But I would like to give a little advice to Margarita Curtis. What do you think ’13? Think that’s okay?

This winter, I received a call on the first Sunday night following your return from long winter weekend

Now, you’re all good kids–but even good kids make bad decisions. And on the first weekend following a vacation, all the bad stuff that has been stashed in backpacks comes out of hiding and some of you make some bad decisions on a Saturday night. What does that mean? Discipline committees are often convened on Sundays, and calls to parents are made later that evening. Of course, I am a father of a senior boy and the phone rang on a recent Sunday night.

“Hello Rory. This is Margarita. Do you have a few minutes? We’ve just been meeting with Thomas.”

I quickly covered the phone, mouthed to the family dinner table, “It’s Margarita.” Our collective hearts sank. An after-dinner call from the Head of School to a parent of a senior boy on a Sunday night only means one thing: a good kid making a bad decision! I composed myself and asked Margarita to hold the phone while I retreated to my study. Holly followed to watch my face through the doorway.

“Okay Margarita, I’m sitting down!”

“Rory, we’ve been talking, and we think you’d be a great graduation speaker!”

Relieved that Thomas was still on track to graduate, I blurted out “…But I wanted to hear Tina Fey!”

So, Margarita, if you ever again call a parent of a senior boy on a Sunday night, I urge you to start the conversation with, “This is Margarita, and everything with is okay with your son. He hasn’t done anything stupid!”

This is a very, very special moment for me, because well over 40 years ago, I was a mess of a kid who was sent to Deerfield. I was a free-spirited nerd who had spent the summer as an exchange student in Stuttgart, Germany, where I bolted from my host family’s disciplined routines and hitchhiked alone through Europe at age 16. My parents were very pleased.

When I arrived on Albany Road, I knew that Deerfield’s straight jacket was going to be a tight fit. I soon was installed in Scaife One. At the end of the hall lived the royal couple at Deerfield: Jay and Mimi Morsman. Jay cut a dashing figure and Mimi was the hot young faculty wife. Everyone was in awe of their confidence, humor, and style. By the way, we still are!

One of Deerfield’s legendary hockey players roomed across the hall. Jay was the Varsity hockey coach.

Because I was a perpetually hungry young man, and because my Mom didn’t know the rules of this “Pocumtuck Prison,” she obligingly sent me an illegal hot plate and weekly cans of Spaghetti-O’s buried in care packages. The star hockey player wasn’t the best student, so the night before an exam, we plugged in the hot plate, took out my Teflon pot, and settled into two mugs of Spaghetti-Os, and tackled Pythagorean theorems.

Back then, discipline at Deerfield was really quite tribal: swift, local, and unquestioned. Jay’s nickname was “The Screamer!” Suddenly, there was a loud knock on my door (Jay’s a gentleman), it burst open and there he was, towering over the two of us with Spaghetti-O’s and Algebra books. I froze. The Hockey Player and Mr. Morsman didn’t.

In a booming voice that the entire corridor could hear, Jay screamed, “Cowan, what in the devil is going on here?” Then, in a softer voice he told his hockey player “to get out of this room and get back across the hall. We’ll talk later.” The seemingly impervious hockey star calmly stood up and ambled to his room. He even took his unfinished Spaghetti-O’s with him!

Returning to a booming voice, Jay then announced to the entire hall that discipline would be forthcoming. Jay kept speaking loudly as he entered my room and closed the door behind him. I knew I was toast! Immediately, his demeanor changed and he said, “Cowan, what the devil are you doing? You’re too smart for this. Thanks for helping him, but he’s hopeless, and you need your sleep. I am confiscating the hot plate. Do your dishes and leave them outside my door. Get some sleep. We’ll talk after your exam.”

With that one well-orchestrated encounter, Jay:

  • announced his public authority to the entire hall,
  • kept his hockey player on the ice,
  • and won the lifelong trust of a terrified nerd!

Jay, after over 50 years, and thousands of students later, I am certain you don’t remember that moment. In that one instant, you communicated both the ethic of Deerfield and your concern for the individual well being of kids.

Sharing this tent with you 45 years later is something neither of us could have imagined. And for me, it’s one of the most meaningful moments of my life.

Jay, you’re “The Real Deal.”

Ok, ’13, let’s turn to the reason I am here.

I’m not going to tell that the world is at your feet. It is.

I am not going to tell you that a Deerfield education places you among the most privileged kids in America. It does.

I am not going to tell you that your web of relationships–with teammates, with hallmates, seatmates, classmates, and teachers– will remain relevant for the rest of your life. They will.

Rather, I thought I would share with you some observations about what makes people–and institutions–successful.

By success, I do not mean financial success. In the culture today, there is just too much darn emphasis on money. As you have experienced here at Deerfield, real success is all about being authentic and honest; about learning, growing and engaging those around you; about maintaining a life-long curiosity.

I did agree with Mitt Romney when he said, “corporations are people, too.” Institutions–be they corporations or non-profits–have character, just as people do. That’s why I think these four observations apply equally.

In my career I have been fortunate enough to work in the United States and extensively in twenty or thirty countries. I’ve been in the executive suite of a Fortune 200 company, worked in small, venture-backed start-ups, and in family businesses. I’ve been in technology companies and industrial companies. You may think I couldn’t keep a job, but life just took me in many directions–just as yours will.

Across these countless experiences, I have observed four behaviors that make people and organizations successful.

The first behavior is: LOOK OVER THE HORIZON and AT THE END OF THE NOSE.

In the fall of 2006, when Dr. Curtis joined our community, there was a relaxed attitude on campus, born of a decade of success and comfortable economic model. Remember, just seven years ago, in 2006 the great recession was nowhere to be seen and Facebook was barely off the Harvard Campus. Excited by what she saw in day-to-day life at Deerfield–“at the end of the nose,” so to speak–Margarita convened a strategic planning process, titled Imagine Deerfield, to take a look at what lay ahead–over the horizon–for the School. She wanted to make sure that we cultivated “intentional behaviors” that would push Deerfield to stay competitive, sustainable, and innovative, without sacrificing the capabilities and traditions that were the cornerstones of the Deerfield we know and love.

Phil Greer and I were honored to serve on that Strategic Planning committee. We spent time establishing “In-violates.” Those things that couldn’t be changed; sit down dinners, dress code, school size, and many other rituals deemed foundational. Only then did we move to the future.

Tom Heise then committed his considerable intellect and communication skills to the synthesis of all the quantitative data, qualitative values, opinions, and aspirations into an elegant manifesto. This over-the-horizon document forms the basis of much of the success we enjoy today, and the capital campaign, which ensures our success tomorrow.

While that was going on, I would bump into people on campus and ask, “Well, how is it going? How’s the new Head?” Everybody gushed about Margarita’s over-the-horizon ideas: Innovation! Interdisciplinary Classes! Globalization! Summits! Technology! The academic experience!

I wouldn’t let them go. Soon, end-of-the-nose comments like “Rory, do you realize that she’s worried about when the clocks strike? She’s concerned that the Main School Building Bell and the classroom building buzzers don’t sound at the same time.”

 I smiled.

Or “Rory, do you realize that she’s telling all of us that we need to be more vigilant about showing up at sit down dinners?”

 I smiled.

Another comment was, “Rory, do you realize she’s asking for syllabus alignment among all the sections of Algebra so we can stop the “teacher shopping?” And the list went on.

I smiled and thought to myself, “We’ve got a good one!”

This demonstrates the first behavior I see in successful or vibrant communities. As leader of this campus, Margarita aligned everyone around a vision (a horizon) and re-enforced the details (the nose) that were getting us there. Doing so helped us all sidestep the comfortable mushy middle ground.

This is not a concept unique to Heads of School. Those of you who are accomplished athletes know that you worry about your foot work, or grip, or stick work (end of the nose) while visualizing the entire team’s play (over the horizon). Those of you who are real writers also understand this parallel reality. You hang onto important themes throughout a ten-page essay, but you also labor tirelessly over commas.

These bimodal examples of excellence are endless.

I guarantee you that the end-of-the nose conventions you have chafed under (first waiter, second waiter, hats in buildings, two layer dress codes; Ms. Creagh’s famous “Young lady, is that a skirt…or a belt?”) are the exact rituals you’ll celebrate when you are under this tent in ten years.

The first behavior of great people and organizations is: LOOK OVER THE HORIZON, and at THE END OF THE NOSE.

The second behavior of excellence is: MANAGE THE BELL CURVE.

For those of you who didn’t take FST, there is a concept called the bell curve. It is also called a Normal Probability Distribution. Apologies to the math department. But, basically if you observe the same event or attribute enough times and then plot it, a curve that looks like a “bell” emerges. And either side, with the fewest data points, is called a “tail.” So, if you plotted Height in the class of 2013, basketball centers would be under one of the tails and coxswains under the other, and the rest of you arrayed in the middle, under the bell.

Height can’t be changed, but behaviors can–and that’s my point. There are times in life to be under the bell, and there are times to be under the tail. Often skills are obtained under the bell (as that’s where all of the training tends to take place) and those skills are applied to great effect under the tails.

But if you don’t oscillate between the tail and the bell, opportunities are missed. If you’re under the tail for your entire life, you can lose connectedness with people and the isolation of idealism can creep in. Conversely, if you spend your entire life under the bell, by definition, you’re just like everyone else.

This puts math to Oscar Wilde’s great quote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Knowing when to play it safe and when to take a risk is essential.

Think about Bill Gates: He went to Harvard…under the bell. Dropped out of Harvard…under the tail. Went to IBM as a distribution partner…under the bell. Partnered with Steve Ballmer, his social and skill antitheses…under the tail. Befriended Warren Buffet…under the bell. Retired with a vision to eradicate polio…under the tail!

For you, this oscillation is going to be harder than any generation before you for a few reasons.

First, no other generation is as influenced by the power of a “brand” as you are: Vineyard Vines ties. Hunter Boots. Patagonia. Everything! The list goes on. But when I was at Deerfield, it was harder to find a “polo shirt” with a logo, than without. Ties were ties. Beanboots were still beanboots, but mostly, today’s fashion-industrial complex has conditioned you to wear and want what others wear and want. So think about it: For your generation, brands are under the bell. For mine, they were the ultimate tail.

Second, since Facebook is only six years old, you’re the first generation in which you are overwhelmed with technology-aggregated and quantified peer pressure. Every action of your life is “voted on” with “likes” or “dislikes”–from a photo to a song to an off-the-cuff post. Mark Bauerlain, who wrote The Dumbest Generation comments on this fact when he says, “Never before in history have people been so dominated by peers by the time they reach age 23.”

Third, you get most of your world news from “preference-engine” web sites. Those are web sites that monitor your browsing behavior and push more like-minded content your way.

Here’s an example.

In my line of work, I worry about currency relationships, so my news feed is filled with stories about the Yen and the Euro and the Rupee. A few weeks ago, I stupidly clicked on a story about some young celebrity doing something foolish. During the next few days, more and more stories about Taylor Swift, the Kardashians, Snooki, and every other member of the celebrity-industrial complex began to crowd out financial news. I was beginning to think Selena Gomez was our next Treasury Secretary! Long story short, I learned that even though Google apparently knows “what I want,” I need to manage my own bell-curve so that Lindsay Lohan is always–always!–very far under a tail.

Your news realities are increasingly determined by preference engines. Since you essentially live online, how will you determine your actual reality?

So this combination of brand supremacy, likes and dislikes, and preference engines will color your crucial career-building twenties. How are you going to get the confidence and the knowledge to step out, to develop your own gyroscopes, to create an accurate bell curve of your own opportunities?

Mark Bauerlain (The Dumbest Generation author) has an answer: “To develop intellectually, you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17 year-olds never grow up if they are just hanging around other 17-year-olds.”

Good news, Class of 2013: Deerfield has you covered! Where else do young people like you spend so much time learning from, and living with, “old people” and fawning over antique doors and “old things,” in a centuries’ old village?

You spend a lot of time with old people and old things!

Deerfield has “bell” and “tail” attributes. Academic excellence: BELL… Sit-down dinners and dress codes…TAIL. As you navigate between the tail and the bell, you have to be authentic and aligned with your own skills and desires, and pace of life. There’s a time to be safe and a time to take risks…and Deerfield has demonstrated that behavior, and given you that knowledge.

So, two great behaviors are: LOOK OVER THE HORIZON and at THE END OF THE NOSE and MANAGE THE BELL CURVE.

The third behavior is the ability to DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN THE CYCLIC and the SEISMIC.

Great individuals and institutions are able to separate the fads, or the cyclic, from truly seismic changes. The resurgence of Denim and Diane von Furstenburg (DVF) wrap dresses as fashion statements is cyclic. The need for enhanced quantitative education: Seismic. Making the academic offerings relevant and aligned through interdepartmental, team teaching: Cyclic. Periodic assaults on sit-down meals and the dress code, cyclic.

An example of recent seismic shift that required a response by Deerfield is co-education in America. By the 1980’s, in spite of decades and generations of glorious accomplishment, all the accomplished boys wanted to go to school with girls. Totally fair, right? At first, Deerfield didn’t think so. In spite of a shrinking applicant pool and a sharp reduction in program quality, Deerfield didn’t recognize co-education as a seismic change–with the notable exception of Phil Greer, that is.

Phil began his first stint as President of the Board at the peak of this controversy over co-education. For those of you who don’t know him, Phil is ever the conservative and loyal son of Deerfield: I’ll bet he sings “The Evensong” in the shower. Phil saw that co-education was not a cyclical craze–it was a seismic shift within independent schools and Deerfield needed a fundamental shift in outlook. Despite some severe opposition from tradition-minded recent graduates and nostalgic alumni, Phil fought hard–and eventually achieved–the seismic change that enabled Deerfield to sustain its tradition of excellence into the 21st century: Co-education.

Phil took a decade off from the Board, but his instinct for and courage to swiftly address seismic change has also been a hallmark of his second stint as President of the Board. In 2009, he saw how deeply the “Great Recession” reverberated through Deerfield. Fighting the common refrain that the recession “was just another bad business cycle,” Phil led a swift, and deep, internal financial review. So, we have smaller Christmas trees, and Mrs. Gimbel gave up her Green and White M & M’s, and we had to initiate some very difficult cutbacks in our facilities departments. But, like any family managing their budget in a tight year, we lived within our means and didn’t touch our savings. This preserved Deerfield’s commitment to “intergenerational equity,” and promised that Deerfield would still be “Deerfield” for the Class of 2020!!

Phil knew that this wasn’t a business cycle, it was a seismic shift.

What’s on the horizon? Now, I can’t claim to have quite a sixth sense for the seismic that Phil does, but I do think the next one is the combination of the Internet and “Big Data.”

I have a belief that this combination will restructure the services industries in the coming decade just as it did the goods industries in the past decade. By services, I mean armed services (think cyber warfare and drones), legal Services (think eDiscovery and email), Consumer financial services (look how different checking and mortgages are), and educational services (billions of dollars invested in eLearning opportunities by venture capitalists).

Anything that is place-based, with lots of real estate and lots of human capital is under attack by the twin warriors of the Internet and big data analytics. Human capital and place-based physical capital? Does that describe prep schools?

We all know that both the travel and retail industries have been changed in the past decade. Both have essentially bifurcated into an elite group and a commodity group. There is little left in the middle. In retail, Sears and JC Penny middle-level retailers are struggling while high-end Niemen Marcus and mass-market Walmart flourish. In travel, high-end, exclusive agents focus on safaris, and low-end package-tour companies focus on Disney. Those in the middle have been supplanted by airline web sites, crowd-sourced forums, and Trip Advisor. We must remember that both of these industry restructurings were initiated by companies from outside the industry: Amazon and eBay; Expedia and Orbitz.

Now education, likely, is next.

Throughout history, there have been what software geeks call “point solution” technologies: Ms. Ellis’ French classes survived two generations of Language Labs, and now Rosetta Stone. Mr. Marge’s Math classes survived hand-held calculators, and recently Mathmatica. Mr. Carey’s English Composition survived spell check and auto-footnoting. Mr. Heise’s History survived Wikipedia. Those are normal technology cycles. So it would be easy to treat this coming assault like all the others: a cyclic technology evolution, filled with point solutions. Transformations in other industries tell us otherwise.

In five to ten years the combination of wall-sized and pervasive HD video, a proliferation of Kahn Academy-like videos, MOOC’s, Skype, iPads, near infinite data availability, enhanced search, and falling Network costs will create an alchemy we can’t imagine. This combination is seismic.

Falling technology costs are colliding with the ever-rising place-based costs of human capital and real estate. Will increasing tuitions and more frequent capital campaigns fill the gap? What about Financial Aid? Will it be five years? Will it be ten? How will we respond? Will there be an eight-school consortium creating a prep school version of Coursera or Ed-X?

It is not if. It is when. The burning question is: Do we ask Phil Greer to come back for a third, 10-year, term to help us through this seismic change?

 So, Horizon/Nose; Bell/Tail; Cyclical/Seismic and …

My fourth, and last, observation is that vibrant people and organizations produce, rather than consume, energy. As people, “energy producers” are catalysts; using a clear set of personal values. They look for opportunities–whether academic, professional, or social–to bring about meaningful change within their community, organization, or the wider world. Most importantly, “energy producers” are unafraid to empower other people!

In my experience the most successful institutions are the ones that come out exothermic. All successful institutions rely on a diverse mix of energy producers to propel them forward.

To give you a sense of exactly how diverse “Energy Producers” can be, I want to introduce you to protagonists in two of my favorite movies: Colonel Frank Savage in 12 O’Clock High, a WW2 film, and Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, a 2001 rom-com.

The first, 12 O’clock High, is a WWII movie in which a young Gregory Peck, playing Colonel Frank Savage, turns around a dispirited squadron as they struggle with the path-breaking challenges of daylight bombing. Publically focused, yet privately uncertain, the young colonel exudes discipline and confidence while seeking support from his staff. He is an “energy producer” cast in the military model. Success is obtained by a persistent focus on the collective goal, and on professional behavior.

The second, Legally Blonde is a rom-com in which Reese Witherspoon, plays valley girl-turned-Harvard-law-student named Elle Woods who manages to stay true to her inner values. Even in the face of a small clique of east-coast establishment kids who deride her, in an effort to maintain their self-perceived superiority. Her exaggerated Beverly Hills dress, intonation, mannerisms, and independent beauty habits evidently threaten them. However, Elle’s sheer hard work, smarts, unwavering personal values, inclusive friendships, and persistent energy, propel her to succeed–and, importantly, to help others–like a downtrodden hairdresser–to succeed as well.

Gregory Peck manifests positive energy production through tough, hierarchical leadership. Reese Witherspoon creates positive energy through open, honest, and facilitative leadership. These cinematic constructs demonstrate that energy and optimism come in many packages.

Fortunately, energy producers exist off the silver screen too, and assume a similar variety of shapes and sizes in real life. One of my favorite journalists from the nineties was Mary McGrory of the Washington Post. She drove this point home in an inspirational column about three ex-convicts. Who were those three ex-cons, those energy producers, those great leaders?” Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela.

Even within this very specific category of energy producers–political leaders with apparent criminal records–there is huge diversity. “It isn’t appearance that determines esteem. To be sure, Mandela, scion of a royal family, walks like a king, but Walesa is stocky, and Havel is slight. Moral stature comes in all sizes.” If “Moral Stature”, to borrow her phrase, is the first ingredient in an exothermic leader, then it stands to reason that the energy producers here at Deerfield also take on many shapes and sizes.

  • The Deans who maintain a collective social order, while leading us by example through their family-centric, healthy, and athletic lifestyles.
  • The drum-playing classics teacher who led the swim team to win the New England’s;
  • The coach who “gets you focused” by pulling a superior athlete from the field to send you a message to “up your game,” as she knows you have it in you.
  • The Faith-filled physics teacher who reconciles “The Particle that is God” and “Particle Physics,”
  • The Husband and Wife team from the Dining Hall and the Library, who cheerfully support our daily needs, while quietly raising their severely disabled child with love and optimism;
  • The teams in the stock rooms and the mail rooms who greet you with a smile, facebook you on your birthday, and go out of their way to see if you’re having a good day, or to be sure you get your Mom’s care package before the weekend.
  • This community is filled with too many public and private “energy producers” to name. However, they all lead in their own quiet ways, and demonstrate an inclusive moral stature. You have been surrounded by that special breed of mankind; the energy producer.

So: Horizon/Nose; Bell/Tail; Cyclical/Seismic; Energy Producers/Consumers.

These are but four of the behaviors possessed by great people and great organizations; around the world; in small teams and in large organizations.

And Deerfield is deep with these behaviors. They don’t just happen. They take hard work, reflective moments, bold commitments, personal confidence, and community strength.

Graduation is a day of looking to your next horizon, while embracing what’s under your noses.

Graduation is a day of being under the bell, as you are seated with your classmates for one last time, and being under the tail, as you reflect on the extraordinary experience you’ve enjoyed.

Graduation is a cyclic event for the school, yet a seismic event for you.

Graduation is a moment of energy production – the hugs and songs and accomplishments – and it foreshadows of the dynamism that the class of 2013 will release into the “real” world in years to come!

Deerfield Graduation is not a “Leave-Taking exercise.” It is the final fusion of Deerfield’s behaviors and values, with your unique character and skills. You have been infused with this special privilege called Deerfield.

In closing, a decade from now, you’ll not remember what I’ve said. But I have every confidence that you will remember the people who have dedicated their lives to your learning and development. And without a doubt, you’ll remember an individual without whom the majority of this tent would not be present; Pat Gimbel. She lives these values every day. Think about this task of building a Deerfield class:

There are over 6,000 enquiries which yield over 2,000 applications from which we have to cull the right combination of quarterbacks, oboists, swimmers, artists, Deerfield loyalists, Asian adventurers, African superstars, academic winners, actors and actresses, legacies and siblings, and a big dose of good old fashioned “glue kids” who keep all of these individualists joined as a community.

Now, remember that this applicant crowd is divided among three classes and PG’s, as well as boys and girls. And we’re competing with five other schools. Yet Pat has to land the plane within +/- five students, or the classroom, athletic, and residential program just doesn’t work. All of this has to be handled on a near need-blind basis–in booming and challenged economies, with diverse domestic and international representation.

Oh, and did I mention that we have to give special consideration to faculty and administration kids, as well as maintain our century-long commitment to the town of Deerfield and the day student population?

One of her “awestruck” peers has commented that Pat “builds a fabric of families, rather than a class of kids!” Think about that: “A fabric of families!”

And this has to be executed with elegance, optimism, and end-of-the nose grit, as NO is said a lot more then YES. One class would exhaust me, but Pat has done this more times than I can count!

Pat, where are you? Could you please come to the edge of the stage? I want to do what everyone in this tent would like to do: Give you one final hug of appreciation!

Congratulations, Class of 2013!

Trust the gyroscope that you’ve developed here at Deerfield.