Following is a transcript of Carly Fiorina October 24’s presentation to The Catholic University of America on leadership and the importance of civil society for problem-solving and advancing the public good.
Fiorina: Thank you so much President Garvey for that very gracious introduction, and good afternoon, good evening. Great to be with all of you. I’d like to tell you a little bit about the things I’ve learned along the way, because maybe they’ll help you as you start out in your life. Mostly what I want to talk about tonight is the choices that you can make to make the world a better place. I’ll begin by saying that I know you’re here, you’re here at Catholic University as opposed to somewhere else, because you’ve already figured out one of the most important things in life. What you’ve already figured out or you wouldn’t be here, is that a life based in values is a life with a foundation. What you’ve already figured out is that when we separate people from their faith and their families and their communities, that people literally become unmoored. We need to cling close to our faith and our families and our communities, regardless of what that faith is in so many ways.
You’ve already learned, you already know some of the real fundamentals of life. I have to speak briefly I must say as well in defense of a degree in medieval history and philosophy. I know we’re in the business school. How many of you are studying like history or philosophy or something where you think maybe you won’t get a job? Let me give you encouragement.
Several years ago I gave the commencement speech at Stanford and I said that the most valuable course I ever took at Stanford University was not Econ 101, or Poli Sci, or any of that. In fact, the most important course I ever took was an advanced course in medieval philosophy. Now this was a course many of you maybe don’t know all that much about medieval philosophy, but Thomas Aquinas was of that era and Maimonides and the Jewish tradition. In this course I was required, as were all the other students, to read a complete work of one of these philosophers each and every week. Now let me just say that the guys of the medieval times were not brief. They’d spend a lot of pages getting to what they wanted to say. Our assignment at the end of each week was to condense all those hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages, into two.
My process for doing that was first I would write 20 pages, and then I would write 10, and then I would get it down to 5, and finally I would get it down to 2 pages. While I don’t remember all the specifics of what made Maimonides and Aquinas different, beyond their obvious religious faith, what I do remember is this: that process of learning how to distill a whole lot down to its essence, that process of trying to figure out what’s the core, what’s the real meaning, was perhaps the most valuable skill I learned. For all of you who are struggling through courses, take a step back occasionally and think about what bigger thing you may be learning, what bigger skill you may be learning, because that skill that I learned, of taking a whole bunch of information and distilling it down to what I thought was its essence, that is a skill that has served me over and over and over.
Indeed I would argue that in the 21st century, a century defined by technology where you are bombarded each and every day by a tidal wave of information, much of it irrelevant, some of it interesting, but how much of it is really core? Really important. Really essential. That skill, I’m very grateful I learned. I’m very certain that you are learning incredibly important skills like that along the way, even if you forget some of the specifics.
For those of you in history and philosophy, I must admit I graduated from Stanford absolutely unemployable. Take heart. There is a future. Now by the way, because I was unemployable, I have to say I was kind of a unimaginative goody two-shoes sort of middle child. I was a parent pleaser. Maybe some of you are parent pleasers. That’s what I was. What my parents said I should do I did. I had a more beautiful and more rebellious elder sister, I had a more rebellious and quite athletic younger brother, and I was kind of Carly: unimaginative, I didn’t feel particularly courageous, I did what my parents wanted me to do, and because I was unemployable, my dad suggested Law School. Apologies to all the budding lawyers in the room. I went off to law school.
I hated law school. It wasn’t for me. My dad had a passion for the law, I had none. I had the presence of mind to decide to realize I hated it before the very first exam, but now as a young woman with a degree in medieval history and philosophy in the middle of a very deep recession, I decided to quit. I had the presence of mind to quit before the very first exam. Then I had to go home and tell my mom and dad I quit. It was probably the first adult decision of my life. It was no doubt the most difficult decision of my then young life, but I figured out somehow that if I hated something, if I had no passion for it, that I wasn’t going to be any good at it. I also figured out that I couldn’t live my life pleasing my parents, that I was going to have to start living my life, pleasing myself, or to be more accurate about it, doing what my mother had always told me I should do.
My mother when I was a little girl said to me, and said to the rest of her Sunday School class one morning, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” What my mother and my father always said to me is, “Find your gifts. Find your God-given gifts and use them to the fullest,” and that’s still the best advice I’ve ever heard, and so I needed to do something besides law school. I had helped put myself through college as what we used to call a Kelly girl. We don’t call them Kelly girls anymore, it’s not correct, politically correct that is. We call them Kelly temporary personnel, but Kelly girls were mostly women who were temporary office staff. I know you don’t even know what I’m talking about, but what I would do is type bills of lading on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and I would answer landline phones. That’s how I put myself through Stanford. In fact one of my best jobs was to type for the shipping department of Hewlett-Packard on that IBM Selectric typewriter.
Now with really nowhere to go, and no job, having just dropped out of law school, I decided I know how to type, and I know how to answer the phones. I went back to work, accepted the very first job I was offered, which was, as President Garvey said, to type for a nine-person real estate firm. I had no ambition. I had no thought of what came next. What I was thinking actually is, “Thank goodness I have a job. Thank goodness I can pay my rent, and I’m going to do the best job I know how to do.” The first pause that I would say is, when you leave this place, and it’s time for you to go to work, don’t worry about getting the perfect job. Just get a job, and do the best job you can, because if you do a really good job at whatever it is and there is dignity and honor in all work, if done well, if you do a good job at whatever you’re asked to do, someone’s going to notice.
In fact that’s what happened to me, someone noticed. Two men in that office noticed and said, “We think you could do more than type and file. Do you want to know what we do?” and that was my introduction to business. Eventually I would go off and get an MBA, not until I had run away to Italy to teach English for a year. You can imagine my parents concern at this point. Eventually I go get an MBA and I land as an entry-level salesperson in AT&T. This was when AT&T was a vastly larger company than it is today. There were literally one million employees at AT&T. I was a young woman in a man’s world. Not a lot of people looked like me, and in fact, the very first meeting I ever had with clients was in a strip club, in Downtown Washington DC, because that’s where men went to have lunch with their clients. If I wanted to do my job, I thought I needed to meet my clients. It’s a different time now in some ways, and not so different in other ways, as we’re finding out in the headlines. I’ll come back to that if you when we have questions and answers.
One of the things that … when I landed I wasn’t what you’d call credentialed. I wasn’t a guy first of all, I didn’t have loads of great degrees, and so one of my first challenges was to be taken seriously. A lot of people didn’t take me seriously, and everywhere I went I would find problems, problems along the way. One client in particular had a very pressing problem and I thought that we ought to be able to solve it, and so I went lots of places in the company and nobody took me seriously, but eventually somebody said to me, “You need to meet this guy, this technical expert. His name is Frank Fiorina,” and I went to meet him. That was about 36 years ago, and he took me seriously, he solved my problem. He was really cute I had to marry him, and he is here. My husband Frank is right down here.
Now I’m not going to drag you through point by point my entire long career. What I’m going to say is this: leaders, you know what my life proves? Leaders can come from the most unlikely places, the most unlikely circumstances, and you will hear people say sometimes leaders are born, not true. Leaders are made. In fact, I know, for a fact, that anybody, and everybody, can lead. I want to tell you about what I’ve learned about leadership along the way.
The first thing I learned along the way, I told you I wandered throughout AT&T, this big humongous corporation, but I’ve learned it’s the same no matter where you go. Whether it’s a government agency, or a university, or a nonprofit, no matter where you go, there are festering problems. Problems that have been left to fester for a long time. Everyone knows they’re there. Everyone in fact usually spends enormous amounts of energy working around the problems, pretending the problems aren’t there, bitching about the problems, but they fester. That’s part of it. Everywhere I went, everywhere I’ve ever been, I see festering problems. Here’s the other thing I’ve learned, the people who are impacted by those problems, they actually have some interesting ideas about how to solve them. It’s just most of the time nobody asks them.
Everywhere I went I found festering problems and I would ask the people who were impacted by them, “Well what do you think we should do about this?” and amazingly they always had really good ideas. I could tell you one story in particular about a guy named Jim. Jim was an engineer who worked for me. Jim, you would have never noticed Jim. Jim was one of these guys who sat in his cubicle all day long, he didn’t talk to anybody really, he brought his lunch in to work. He ate lunch at the same time by himself, came at the same time, left at the same time, nothing remarkable about Jim. One day, I went to talk to Jim and I asked him about his work and what he was doing, and Jim, this was back in the dark ages of telecommunications, but Jim’s job as an engineer was to design circuits.
He said, “You know Carly, I design circuits all day long and then we pass them off to a company to build those circuits, and then the company builds us, charges us for those circuits. You know, I’ve noticed that the bills that they charge us don’t match the designs that I sent them.”
I said, “Well Jim, do you think that’s a problem?”
He said, “Yeah. I do.”
I said, “Well what would you do about that problem?”
“Well what I would do is get a bunch of people to look at those bills and compare them to my circuit designs.
I said, “Well Jim, I think you ought to do that,” so we hired a bunch of temporary people, Kelly girls as a matter of fact, men and women, and they start checking the bills.
Jim saved our company $300 million in a single year. Nobody thought he was anybody, but he had the potential to see that problem and to understand how maybe to solve that problem. There’re problems everywhere. People actually do know what would make it better if someone will only ask, and everybody has potential, a lot more than they realize. Everybody is gifted by God. Somehow those two men all those years ago saw potential in me and because they did, I saw possibilities in myself that I didn’t know were there, and Jim was the same way.
I could tell you about a woman I met in India. As was mentioned, I was chairman of an organization called Opportunity International. Opportunity International is the largest private microfinance organization in the world. Microfinance as you may know is the process of loaning very small amounts of money to very poor people. You see people are not poor in most cases because they are not gifted by God. They are not poor because they have no desire to have a better life. They’re poor because they don’t have a chance, they don’t have an opportunity. Imagine for a moment if you literally could not get credit for anything. If you had to live hand-to-mouth on less than a dollar a day, it’d be tough to get ahead. Microfinance is the process of lending very small amounts of money, $100 actually, and accompanying that loan with training and entrepreneurship, and innovation. Opportunity International has lent about $8 billion $100 at a time, and we have lifted literally millions and millions of people out of poverty.
I was running a global board meeting in New Delhi, India, and at the end of that global board meeting I wanted to go meet with some of our clients, and so I traveled to the slums. Now I don’t know how many of you have been in the slums of New Delhi, but they’re pretty grim. Mountains of trash, marauding animals, sewage in the streets, people piled on top of each other, it is a desperate set of circumstances. As I climbed up a ladder to get to a rickety rooftop to meet with some of our clients, I was stealing myself, because I expected to see desperation in these women’s, they were all women, in these women’s eyes, because their circumstances were desperate. It’s hard to look into someone’s eyes and see desperation looking back.
When I sat down, that’s not what I saw. I saw pride, I saw focus, I saw determination, I saw hope. One woman in particular, I remember, she told me that she had been very afraid to take this loan. She came from a very traditional family in this region in India, and in her family, in her culture, women didn’t do this. She said, “For a long time my husband said I couldn’t do this, my in-laws said I couldn’t do this,” her in-laws lived with her, which was traditional in that culture, and finally she got the courage, somehow, to take this loan. I said, “Well what does your family think now?” and she said, “They’re happy they work for me.”
Now the truth is we had done much more for this woman, this nameless, faceless woman, in the slums of New Delhi who now employed her family, who had built a business, her business was car covers believe it or not; replacing seat covers in cars. We had done far more for her than give her a loan, that was really important, or train her, that was really important. The most important thing we had done, was say to her, and others like her, “You have value. You have potential. You have possibilities. You have God-given gifts and you can, with help, build a life of dignity and purpose and meaning.” You see, everyone is capable of that. Everyone is gifted by God and everyone, everyone, has more potential than they realize. People can solve problems that impact them if they are given the opportunity and the support to do so.
Now, we’re in America, so I have to say, those two things that I learned along the way, sort of are at the core of who we are supposed to be as a nation. If you actually read the Constitution, it’s about a couple of big ideas. One big idea is that everybody has potential. We talk in the Constitution, our founders talked about God-given rights, rights that cannot be taken away by a monarch or a sovereign or a government. In this country, citizens are sovereign. Citizens are sovereign. Not the government, not the president, not some bureaucracy, citizens, and we’ve had to work really hard to make sure that those God-given rights, that sovereignty that rests in a citizen, applies to everybody, regardless of who you are, where you come from, or how you start, regardless in other words of your circumstances.
Having studied a lot of history, having lived and worked all over the world, I think it is accurate to say that this is the only country, this is the only country, in history, and on the face of the earth, that was founded on such an amazing idea. That people are gifted by God, and that they have rights that come from God, and that therefore sovereignty rests with the individual.
The second thing of course that our Constitution says if you read it is that problems should be solved locally. Whenever possible, problems should be solved locally, and that’s smart because the people who are impacted by a problem probably understand it better than people thousands of miles away. Although we’ve forgotten that. I’ll tell you one other thing I learned in the course of my life. I don’t care whether it’s a company, a nonprofit, a government, a university dare I say, it doesn’t matter, in any institution if you concentrate too much power, for too long, in too few hands, power will be abused. The concentration of power leads to the abuse of power, and it also leads to money being wasted and decisions being generally ineffective.
The other thing in the Constitution is, guess what? If you read the Constitution what it basically is about, it’s a blueprint for how to avoid the concentration of power. It is a blueprint that says, “The federal government should only do certain things and actually not very many things,” boy have we come a long way from that, and the people who should be solving problems are who? Sovereign citizens, communities, civil society. In our history, civil society has been powerful. Our founding documents make it powerful and yet, I feel as though as citizens and civil society, we have chosen not to use our power. We have let our power wane, and we keep, and this is a bipartisan comment, we keep sending more and more and more problems to be solved by someone else.
I got involved in politics when I realized that politics, politicians, the policies they pursue, they impact every single person’s life, for better or for worse. I also believe that civil society and citizens, we need to step up to do our part, and that means I believe that each one of us needs to understand that we can lead wherever we are, and that we can make progress on the problems that impact us and those around us. We don’t have to wait for someone else. Let me say a bit about what leadership is, and I’ve learned this in the course of my life too. If you had woken me up as a young woman about to graduate from college and said, “You’re going to be a leader. You’re going to run for president. You’re going to be a CEO,” I would have laughed. I would have laughed relatively recently at the, “You’re going to run for president,” but I have no regrets about that.
In any event, what have I learned about leadership? The first thing that I would say is I think we’re really confused about leadership. I think we think … what I used to think. What I used to think was that a leader was whoever had the big office, the big title. I thought leadership was the same as position, title. If you have a big position, if you have a big title, if you have perks, if you’ve got a big budget, you must be a leader. Then I looked around and I noticed that there were people with big offices, big titles, sometimes big egos to go along with it, and they were not leading. Leadership is not about position or title. There are people with position and title who lead, but it’s not because of their position and title.
Leadership also is not the same as management. Managers can be leaders and leaders can be managers but they are not the same thing. Here’s what a manager is: a manager is someone who produces results, does the best they can within existing constraints and conditions. Very important management, but it’s not leadership. A leader changes constraints and conditions. A leader challenges the status quo. A leader does not allow a problem to fester. A leader does something about it, and that’s different than a manager. Leadership is not about position or title. Leadership is about solving problems. Leadership is about producing results that make a difference, that make a positive difference.
I talked all the way at the beginning about boiling things down to their essence, what’s the core. I believe the core of leadership is four things and they are … these four things are available to every single one of us as human beings. The first thing a leader needs to have is courage. Why courage? Not ego, courage. Well, the first reason you need courage is because it’s hard to challenge the status quo without it. The reason problems fester is because people don’t want to challenge the system, they don’t want to challenge the way things are. I don’t mean just rabble-rousing, I mean challenging the status quo for the purpose of making things better. The reason it’s hard to challenge the status quo is because no matter what it is, even if it’s incredibly difficult, even if it’s incredibly unsatisfactory, people are invested in it. There are people who have won in it, and people want to keep what they have, or they’re afraid of what they don’t have.
It doesn’t make people bad, it makes them human. The status quo is powerful because people are invested in it, and people want to keep what they have, or such as the woman in India, they’re afraid of what they don’t have. It takes courage to stand up against that. It also takes courage because what happens every time you challenge the status quo, every time you say, “Why is this problem festering? Why can’t this woman open a business to help feed her family?” you get what? Criticized. Someone is going to say, “Well, because we don’t do it that way. We’ve tried that, that’s not going to work.” There’s endless amounts of criticism and so a leader has to have the courage to try something different number one, that means taking a risk and the courage to withstand the ultimate criticism that will come.
In fact what I’ve learned is criticism is the price of leadership. Criticism is the price of leadership. If no one is criticizing you, guess what? You’re not making a difference, and you in this era of social media, boy you need to get courageous and get a thick skin, far more than I had to, because on Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of it, whatever you do somebody’s going to criticize. If you let what other people say about you define your life, please don’t let that happen. Criticism is the price. If you do anything you’re going to get criticized, so decide, decide, what you want to do, and let the chips fall where they may.
I don’t read stuff about myself, because if I read the stuff about myself, if I read the good stuff about myself, I got to believe it, and that might go to my head. If I believe the bad stuff about myself, I might believe it, and that will go to my heart, and neither one of those things are good.
Second thing I’ve learned about leadership, so you got to be courageous. The second thing I’ve learned about leadership is, you have to have character. You know about character, it’s why you’re here, but character is such an old-fashioned word these days and honestly, I think our culture writ large, celebrates anything but character. We celebrate controversy, we celebrate conflict, we celebrate outrageous, the more outrageous the better, but character, character is knowing there is a difference between right and wrong, and there is. Character is knowing that two wrongs don’t make a right. Character is knowing that the ends do not always justify the means. Character is knowing that how you get things done is as important as what you get done, and says as much about you. Character is also knowing the difference between a short-term win and a long-term victory, and leaders without character are focused on solving the wrong problems, or they’re focused on themselves, because the final aspect of character is a willingness to accept that there is something bigger than ourselves, more important than ourselves.
The third thing that leadership takes is collaboration. Collaboration. Working with others to solve a problem. There is nothing worth doing in this life that can be done with one person acting alone. Nothing. Everything worth doing is a collaboration. Everything. To collaborate, by the way, to solve problems, frequently means that we’re collaborating with people that might be different than we are. One of the things about human nature I think is we are all most comfortable with people like ourselves. We’re most comfortable with people that look like us, that have the same background as us, that sound like us. It’s just human nature it doesn’t make us bad, but unfortunately, when we hang out with only people like us or only people who agree with us, then we actually aren’t able to collaborate effectively to solve a problem. We have to reach out.
That’s certainly the case to solve any problem you can name in the community of which you are a member, and in this nation. People who are different have to collaborate, and in order to be able to collaborate effectively, particularly with people different than you, you need humility. Humility. Humility is knowing you can’t do it all by yourself. Humility is knowing you’re not the most important thing. Humility is saying, “Hey, I need help. I don’t have all the answers.” Humility. One of the reasons I think people of faith make better leaders is because our faith teaches us humility. We know there is something far more important than we are. Collaboration also requires empathy, and empathy is the ability to actually see someone else, not their circumstances, not their appearance, not their opinion, not their past, to see someone, and to hear someone. That requires empathy, and I think faith teaches us empathy as well because we know that any one of us can fall, and every one of us can be redeemed. Empathy. Without empathy there is no collaboration and without collaboration there is no problem-solving.
The final thing that a leader needs I think, and I actually think faith helps us with this as well, is … one word for it would be optimism, but the more accurate description of it I think is to say that leaders see possibilities. Leaders see possibilities. There are people you have met and will continue to meet along the way that walk into a set of circumstances and see all the problems and also see all the limitations and the constraints, “Yeah. I mean, this is really a mess, but hey, you know what? They’re not going to let me do this. I can’t do that. We’ve already tried the other thing,” in other words, they talk themselves into, “There’s nothing we can do.”
Then there are people who will walk into exactly the same set of circumstances and see possibilities, but we haven’t tried this. I’m going to go ahead and do that. Optimism is the belief that things can be better. Optimism is the faith that people will rise to the occasion. Seeing possibilities allows a leader to say, “Yes. In fact, we can collaborate and solve this problem together because we actually know how to make it better. We may not know it all but we know how to make it better.” Leaders see possibilities, and leaders sees possibilities by unlocking potential in people all around them.
All the way back to the beginning. When I was that secretary a long time ago, I thought the guy in the big office was the leader, but in truth, the real leaders in that building were the two men who came to my desk and said, “You can do more.” They were leaders because they saw possibilities, and they helped me seize possibilities, and that, seeing possibilities in others, finding the possibilities and the God-given gifts in ourselves, that is available to us all. Our country will not solve its problems, our country will not achieve its potential unless we, as members of civil society, we as citizens decide that part of what comes along with our God-given gifts is the gift of leadership. I believe we all have it, because courage is available to us all, and character is available to us all, and each of us have the opportunity to collaborate and can find humility and empathy, and yes we can all see possibilities.
I would close with this and then I will take your questions. Whatever your future holds, know that you have built a solid foundation. You have built a solid foundation, you are building a solid foundation here, not just of an education and a degree, but a solid foundation in knowing that values, and faith, and family, and community matter. As you go on in your life and build on that foundation remember this, you can lead. You can make problems better. You can collaborate with others. The highest calling of a leader is to serve by solving problems. The highest calling of a leader is to unlock potential in others. Choose to do this, because in the end it is a choice. What separates those who lead from those who don’t lead is not capability, it’s not education, it’s not background, it’s not parentage, it’s not appearance. It is choice. Choose to lead. Thank you so very much.