Excerpt from a high school graduation speech

In 2011, I was privileged to speak to graduating students of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. Following is the main content of that speech:

I’m going to tell you two stories. They’re related, and each of them will illustrate a point. I’ll then close my remarks by making a request of you graduates.

Here’s the first story. After they won the state Class A championship, Indy Met’s basketball team was invited to Washington D.C. They visited a lot of the places tourists usually visit – the U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, part of the Smithsonian. They also visited Ben’s Chili Bowl and learned of its history and the history of that part of the city. Bens Chili Bowl

Ben’s is a little restaurant near the intersection of 12th & U streets. It was started by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 – an exciting time on U Street, which was then known as “Black Broadway.” A lot of famous people frequented the area and many of them ate at Ben’s from time to time: people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King Jr, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby. Times were good.

Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Then came 1968 and the assassination of Dr. King. Riots broke out in many cities, and U Street was in the middle of the riots in our nation’s capital. Businesses closed down or were burned down. That part of Washington was a war zone, and it looked like it. I know. I moved to Washington in the fall of 1968 and drove through that area – once. That area – in fact, much of Washington – was no longer safe. I found that out the hard way when, a few months after moving there, I was held up at gunpoint about a mile from where Ben’s is located.

1974

1974

Obviously, I survived. And so did Ben’s. It stayed open. But then in the 1970s that part of Washington was taken over by drug dealers and the entire area suffered. Still – Ben’s survived. Business began to improve, but then in the 1980s construction began on the Green Line of the D.C. subway system, the Metro. That part of U Street became a big hole – the construction went on for five years. Still – Ben’s survived.

1987

1987

Gradually, the area came back. Business improved, and Ben’s became increasingly well known. Barack Obama ate lunch there a few days before his inauguration. Ben died in 2009, but two of his sons continue to operate the business, which has expanded and is thriving.

Many times it would have been easy for Ben to quit or move to another part of town. But he what he started has become a Washington institution. And that leads me to the second story.

There’s another institution in Washington D.C. that started four years after Ben started his restaurant. It’s called the Community Club, and it operates in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. Volunteers come there every Thursday evening to tutor young people. During its first 40 years, the Community Club had only two directors. They, too, were volunteers who made long term commitments to try to make a difference in people’s lives, and thousands of young people benefited.

 

I attended that church, and shortly after I moved to Washington I started volunteering in the Community Club, where I tutored two boys one-on-one for over a year. They seemed to benefit, but so did I. In fact, it changed the course of my life. I got so much personal satisfaction from that experience I started searching for a place where I could use my educational background, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid at least enough to live on. That search led me to Goodwill Industries and started me on a career that lasted more than 40 years, during which I helped start a school – Indianapolis Metropolitan High School – that educates a lot of students very much like those I tutored in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s.

 

Here’s my point. The greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments. It might be a commitment to go further with your education or to start and grow a business; it might be a commitment to a job or a career or some cause you deeply believe in. Or it might be a commitment to another person – a spouse, for example, or a kid you mentor or tutor. Nothing really worthwhile in life comes quickly or is easy, and no job is fun all the time. But if you make the commitment and stick with it – like Ben Ali did – through the inevitable ups and downs, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish and how full your life can be.

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So here’s my request of you graduates. As you enter adulthood, and if you really appreciate the people who have helped you get to this point in your life, make it a point – and a priority – to do something good for someone else. It might be a kid you tutor or mentor or an elderly person who needs some help. Regardless, do something good for someone else – not just once, but over an extended period of time – at least a year – and don’t expect anything in return. You’ll make someone else’s life a bit better, you’ll get a lot of satisfaction from the experience, and you just never know where it might lead you in life.

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How and why I went to work for Goodwill Industries

In the last piece I wrote for this blog, I offered some reflections upon retiring from a 45-year career as a Goodwill Industries executive. In this piece, I will write about how that career began.

I joined Goodwill four years after I graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Industrial Engineering. However, if anyone had told me then that I would spend all but a few of the next 50 years working for Goodwill Industries, I would have considered them delusional. Yet, I cannot imagine a career that would have been a better fit for someone who’s wired the way I am.

Most successful careers are not planned. Peter Drucker put it this way: Most successful careers are a result of understanding what your values are, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, what kinds of situations you work well in and what kinds of situations you don’t work so well in. Then you try to find a fit with all of that. That’s not necessarily easy to do and sometimes it comes only after a succession of not-so-good experiences.

But a good fit can also come from being open to possibilities you never really thought about before – perhaps as a result of a part-time job, a volunteer experience, or just by getting to know people with backgrounds and experiences different from yours. And then, when you do find a fit that seems promising, you continue to learn as much as you can through whatever means you can. The results can be tremendously rewarding in a number of ways. At least, that’s been the case with me for over four decades.

My career path started with a volunteer experience. Two years after I graduated from college, I was living in Washington D.C. while completing my military commitment. I was single, had a lot of free time, and attended a church that was heavily involved in community service. Every Saturday morning, they had a two-hour program for children with disabilities. Nearly all of the kids lived in low income households, and they relied on the church for transportation. I volunteered, and every Saturday morning I went to the homes of some of the children, picked them up, took them to the church, then took them back home again. They were great kids, and I got a lot of satisfaction from doing that.

The church also offered a tutoring program on Thursday evenings for teenagers who lived in low income neighborhoods. I volunteered and for more than a year I tutored two boys 13-14 years old, one-on-one. I had never done anything like that before, and I got so much satisfaction from the experience I started wondering if I could find a place where I could use my industrial engineering skills, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid for it. I called several not-for-profit organizations that were headquartered in the Washington area, described my background, and asked them if they had any jobs for someone like me. Goodwill Industries was one of those organizations.

That initial conversation turned into a six-month process that included numerous meetings with national Goodwill staff and several Goodwill CEOs, interspersed with visits to two local Goodwills and a Goodwill convention. After much procrastination, I eventually decided to enter an executive training program offered by what is now Goodwill Industries International. It meant taking a 25% pay cut, accepting the lowest of three job offers I had at the time, and making a four-year commitment to work in a field that was totally foreign to me and that certainly carried no prestige with it – at least not in those days. I was 26 years old at the time.

The decision to go to work for Goodwill was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life and was, at its core, a faith-based decision. Simply put, I believed this was what I was supposed to do. Over the past forty-five years, that belief has been confirmed in ways I never would have imagined.

Some thoughts upon retiring from a long career

The “farewell” tour I’ve made during the months leading up to my retirement has been one of the highlights of my entire career. Listening to the stories and hearing the comments of hundreds of employees and students, I’ve never felt better about the organization – our people, our culture, and what we are doing.

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There’s no doubt that the impact Goodwill is having is far greater than ever. The way we are linking services internally and with other organizations in a holistic, multi-generational approach is, I’m confident, going to have lasting impact and help begin to reduce some major social problems. And yet, there’s so much more that needs to be done.

My career has been a constant learning and growing process, but the learning really began accelerating in 2004 when we became directly involved in public education by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

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Since then, Goodwill has evolved at a rapid rate that has further accelerated the learning throughout the organization. And while we don’t claim to have all the answers, based on our experiences as well as what we’ve learned from others during the past decade, I’m convinced that if we are ever going to substantially reduce a lot of the social problems that are plaguing U.S. society today, we must:

  • Continue working vigorously to raise education attainment levels, and we must ensure that at every step along the way we’re preparing students well for what comes next.
  • Greatly increase the number of affordable, accessible, high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households. Because of the way the brain develops, the years 0-3 are even more important than ages 3-5. The earlier we start, the better.

In addition, to break a cycle of poverty, we need to take a long-term, holistic, multi-generational approach that leverages the resources and capabilities of multiple organizations within and across the sectors in focused ways designed to prevent problems, help kids develop, strengthen families, and make much more effective use of existing resources.

Goodwill in central Indiana is taking such an approach with a growing number of families and organizations, and that approach is attracting a growing amount of national attention. But while others can learn from our experiences, we must also continue to learn from others.

And while Goodwill’s board of directors and new CEO, Kent Kramer, will determine the organization’s direction going forward, there’s a strong base of knowledge and experience to build on and a lot of resources that can be deployed to further increase impact.

I don’t know what the organization we’ve built will look like ten years from now, but I know it will be different. Goodwill must continue trying new ways to grow its businesses and accomplish its mission; it must continue to learn; and it must continue to adapt as the world around it changes. Yet while I can’t predict what the organization will look like a decade from now, I do hope to be around watching from the sidelines, and I fully expect to be amazed!

Reflections from a “farewell tour”

32-greenfieldWith my retirement date rapidly approaching, I have been spending a good bit of time on a “farewell tour” of our stores, schools, and commercial services sites to thank our people for helping make the organization what it is today and to wish them well. I’m now two-thirds of the way through that tour, and listening to the stories and comments from many of our employees and students has been incredibly uplifting.

Many people have told me how thankful they are to Goodwill for having given them a second chance they never thought they would have. Countless employees and students have told me that Goodwill has changed their lives. A few examples:

  • A young man who dropped out of school to help support his siblings after their father died told me that without a high school diploma or even any high school credits, he had no future. He enrolled in one of our Excel Centers and is now about to graduate. He said, “I now have a future.”
  • A young woman in one of The Excel Centers told me she has severe autism and this spring will become the first person in her family to graduate from high school.
  • A mother of five convinced her daughter to enroll in an Excel Center. Shortly thereafter, two of her sons enrolled, and then the mom, who had dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and another family member enrolled. Three of the five have already graduated, and the mom and youngest son will graduate in May. She told me that at The Excel Center, “Everyone strives to treat everyone with respect – no matter who you are. We are pushed to become the best we can possibly be and to continuously look for ways to grow.”
  • A Goodwill retail store employee who is an alcoholic told me he had lost everything and no one would hire him – no one, that is, except Goodwill. We’ve employed him for five years, and he does a great job. He said, “Goodwill gave me a chance for a new life.” And he’s made the most of the opportunity.
  • Another employee told me that when she was hired by Goodwill she had no place to live, no car, no money, and no future. She is now an assistant store manager and is nearing completion of requirements for a bachelor’s degree in business. She definitely has a future.
  • An employee who has been with us one year had been a medical professional before he developed a disability that rendered him “unable to do what I had done before.” One of our store managers gave him a chance, and he told me he loves working for Goodwill. “Everyone is so nice and treats everyone else with respect.”

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The dedication of management personnel to our mission and the way they embody our culture has been evident in a variety of ways everywhere I’ve gone:

  • A store manager, when asked by her supervisor what she needed for her store, replied, “I don’t need anything for the store. What I want is something for our employees – a financial literacy course on site. Our employees need it, and they want it.”
  • A regional director took a personal interest in a store employee after she suffered a devastating personal experience. He saw to it that she got the help and support she needed to put her life back together, and she has since been promoted.

Finally, many of the staff in The Excel Centers, stores, and distribution centers have told me Goodwill is the best place they’ve ever worked.

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Organizational culture can be fragile. From my observations, ours is deep and ingrained at every level. It exemplifies what Goodwill is all about as we strive to provide opportunities, maximize positive impact in the lives of people and the communities where we operate, and still maintain a financial position that enhances our long term viability. That’s not easy to do, but our people seem to always find a way.

Thanksgiving

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As this is my last Thanksgiving while serving as president of Goodwill in central Indiana, I am a bit more reflective than I usually am in the early days of what is typically the busiest time of year for me. And when I start thinking of all of the reasons I have to be thankful, the list just keeps growing.

Of course, all of us at Goodwill are grateful for the hundreds of thousands of people who donate goods, shop in our stores, give money, or hire our graduates. We’re grateful for those in many other organizations and units of government who work with us to make opportunities available to thousands of people who haven’t had a lot of opportunities. We’re grateful for the good business relationships we have with companies and other entities that enable us to provide jobs for people with significant disabilities or other barriers that limit their options.

We’re also grateful for those who take advantage of the opportunities we can offer – individuals who put forth much effort – sometimes overcoming major obstacles in the process – to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

I’m particularly grateful for our 3100 employees who do their work so well day in and day out and who work well with each other to help our organization have significant impact. And I’m grateful for the leadership, guidance, and support we have received over the years from boards of directors that have given us the freedom to try many different ways of growing our businesses and accomplishing our mission. And I’m especially grateful that those boards have also given us the freedom to fail at some of what we try and learn and grow from the experiences.

And, of course, it was a board of directors who took a chance and gave me the opportunity to be CEO of this organization when I was only 30 years old and had only three years experience in a management role. I’m grateful to them not only for that opportunity, but also for being patient with me as I made many mistakes trying to learn how to do my job reasonably well – most of the time, at least.

And now, after 40 years, I find myself even more grateful to have been in a position where I can honestly say I cannot recall a day in my entire career when I woke up in the morning wishing I didn’t have to go to work.

Of course, I have much more to be thankful for. I’m thankful for good health, friends, and family. I’m particularly thankful for my wife, who’s put up with me for nearly 35 years and willingly done so many things that have made my life easier and much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise. And I’m thankful for our two grown children, who are good citizens engaged in vocations where they work directly with many people who haven’t been dealt a good hand in life.

And on Thanksgiving Day and the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I’ll also be grateful for the wonderful desserts and other foods I seldom let my disgustingly disciplined self enjoy at other times of the year.

If I keep thinking about it, I’ll add more to my list of reasons to be thankful. But you get the idea. And if you haven’t already made your own list, I recommend you do so. It’s a good way to help bring a bit of perspective as we deal with the problems and hassles we frequently encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Happy Thanksgiving!