Originally published on Linkedin Pulse.
Serving as the chairman and chief executive officer at Abbott for almost 15 years, I’m often asked for management advice: What was your greatest lesson? What advice do you give college graduates entering the workforce? How do you effectively lead a large organization? How do you anticipate future business needs? These questions all lead to great conversations and I hope to address many of them in this forum from time to time.
This past summer, Abbott held its annual internship program for undergraduate and graduate students – where more than 500 students from around the globe pour their hearts and minds into real-world projects for our various businesses. Each year, I spend time with many of these students and see the foundation of a future generation of leaders. Occasions like these remind us of our own educations, our early career experiences and – most importantly – the lessons we picked up along the way. And, the one lesson that stands out to me is a simple one – it’s the idea that has been most important to me over the years: Be A Builder. Use your experiences to build yourself and the world around you; to make all that you see and touch in your life as good as it can be.
My undergraduate degree was in engineering and I was going to build things. It turns out that was true – just not in the way I expected. The building I’ve done is less literal, but every bit as real. Looking at Abbott today and where the company is headed, building has been at the core of what our people have accomplished over the past 125 years. And it’s what we’re committed to for the next 125 and beyond.
Before working at Abbott, one of the first jobs I held was with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. There was a legend at McKinsey, named Marvin Bower. He was one of the founders of the firm and is widely credited as the creator of professional management consulting. He was with McKinsey for 60 years and led the firm for almost 20 of them. Every year, Marvin would have a session with the young employees who were new to the firm.
He talked about what mattered most – not about competition or profits. Marvin taught us about doing what is right and thinking and working for the long term. And one reason his words made such an impression on me was the way that he couched them. He talked about building – about building the company, your community, your family, and, always, the people they comprise. And, he encouraged us to be builders, too.
Marvin was a servant leader. He knew that by helping to build those around him – by raising and strengthening their abilities, their understanding, their confidence, their principles – they would help build the outstanding firm that he envisioned and the good community of which it would be part; and that this would help build him, as well – as a leader and as a person. Marvin put the goal, the principle, the value first. And he led people toward it. In doing so, he built the world’s leading business consultancy, and, by working with corporations and philanthropies and governments, that firm helped build the post-war world.
Marvin was a member of what we’ve come to refer as “the greatest generation” – the people who built the world of today on a set of strong, fundamental values. Life means more when you’re building, and when you participate in it more actively. When you build, you’re thinking of the future and acting in the present. To me, this is the essence of leadership: to see a goal, somewhere in the future; to commit oneself to making it real; and to change – often in difficult ways, at personal cost – to achieve it. You are willing to sacrifice to meet your goals – to invest in yourself in order to grow, personally and professionally.
As we’re speeding along in our careers and personal lives, it’s important to stop and look both ways – to see what we have already accomplished and where we want to go next. And the prospect you take in when you look across that vista will be much more satisfying if you bear that one guiding principle in mind: Be a builder.
About Miles D. White