Commencement Address, May 25, 2008
Good morning. It’s an incredible day, it’s an incredible pleasure to be here. It’s a big day for all of you as well. After four years of hard work, of challenges, of success, it’s graduation day. It’s a real honor for me to be able to be here and present the commencement address to all of you.
Before I do that I would like to thank President Adams for bestowing this honor upon me, but also for the tremendous leadership he provides day in and day out and year in and year out for Colby College. Thank you very much President Adams.
When I began thinking about today and what I could say, I began thinking about what was important to me when I was your age. I’d love to be original, but when I look at what was important to me then, probably it’s the same as many of you—it was about my family, and in particular, my dad. My dad was a teacher. My dad was my hero, and he still is today. My dad was the smartest guy that I know.
There was something else that was really important to me at the time, and that was playing sports. I absolutely loved team sports. I loved competing, I loved the feeling that you got when you got out on the field and gave your all. I didn’t always need to win, but I wasn’t always willing to come off the field, I can assure you, until that whistle blew or sometimes a little bit after that.
I recall trying out for Little League when I was 8 years old, something that many of you probably did as well, and I looked at my dad at the time for some guidance—to ask him what position I should play. And I can hear it as clearly today as I did then. He said, “Bob, try out for catcher. No team has enough catchers.” And I thought about that and I think back now, and the truth is that no 8-year-old—not then, not now, not ever, not in the history in the world—no 8-year-old really wanted to be the catcher. Ever.
But I know now what my dad was really trying to tell me then. What my dad was trying to tell me was that I needed some help to make the team. It wasn’t going to be my skill that got me a position. It was going to be about attitude and hard work. And what my dad did was he suggested where I could best compete.
Now I quickly convinced myself that catcher was the absolutely most glorious position on any baseball team. I got to call all the balls and strikes, I got to tell all the players where to position themselves, I got to tell the pitcher what to pitch, I was that last line of defense before someone got home. I got to wear more equipment than anyone else on the team.
I turned out to be an okay catcher. But what’s really important is that I absolutely loved playing baseball and being a catcher and being on the team.
It was similar with football a few years later, actually many years later. I never would have made the football team as a quarterback or a running back or a wide receiver. When I heard the coach call for a pulling guard, I was the guy that went running out on the field. And again, my dad convinced me of what a fantastic position pulling guard is.
And you know what? It wasn’t about the position. I loved playing football in high school. I loved playing football here. It’s about the team. It’s about the bus rides. It’s about the camaraderie. It’s about the success of a team working together.
I was okay at football as well, but I think it was probably because I was the only guy that went running out on the field when the coach asked for a pulling guard.
During those years, my dad taught me two things. He taught me where to compete and he taught me about how to compete. He taught me that attitude was everything. He taught me that if you couldn’t have your dream, you made the most of what you had. He taught me that you never, ever, ever quit just because something is difficult. And he taught that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
And, you know, those lessons from the early years have stayed with me throughout my life. So today, when I think about talent as president of Barclays, I don’t just think about the senior people, the people at the most senior level at Barclays. I think about everyone, every position everywhere in the organization, no matter how senior or how junior, all one-hundred and thirty-thousand of them.
Our job, quite simply, is to find people in every position in every location who can perform in the very, very top tier. And it really doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a bond trader in New York, if we’re talking about a back office clerk in Singapore, if we’re talking about a call-center worker in Glasgow, or if we’re talking about an investment strategist in San Francisco. We have to have the best that we can hire. We have to have people that can perform in the top tier.
So here’s the question: What does this have to do with you, and why does this matter?
I think the answer is really quite simple. It’s because whoever you work for, if they’re any good at all, they’re going to be constantly measuring you against your peers. And in order to succeed, you’re going to need to be able to perform in the top tier. So it’s important to find something where you can compete. Don’t look for status. Don’t look for glory. Find a place where you know you can succeed. Find somewhere where you can make the most of what you have. And you know what? At the end of the day, that might mean that you’re going to be the catcher, not the pitcher. And that might mean that you’re going to be the pulling guard, not the quarterback.
But I know one thing for absolute certain. And as I look out at you, I know that each and every one of you, each and every one of you has the potential to be top tier in something. And I also know that if you find that something, that your contributions can make a big difference.
The second lesson I learned was about the willingness to take risk.
When I left school, after Colby, after I got my master’s, I remember taking the lowest paying job of anyone in my graduating class. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have a choice. I was offered a good role at IBM, and in those days IBM was the poster child of status. But instead I went with a small medical technology company, and I went with that company because I knew I could get more experience and I could get that experience more quickly. I think this might resonate with you because, I know, whether you’re going off to a job, whether you’re going off to more school, or whether you’re going to travel, how many of your friends have thought, how cool is the next thing that you’re going to be doing? How prestigious? How cool is it?
So that decision to work for the smaller firm was difficult, but it was the right decision when two years later I was recruited to Morgan Stanley. And if you put yourself, again, back in that time, that was when the Morgan Stanleys and Goldman Sachses only recruited people from Princeton, from Harvard, and from Yale. But even at that, the way to get to a Morgan Stanley wasn’t to follow my dream. My dream was to be a bond trader. I wanted to get on to the trading floor. There was no way to do it. So I took a position in information technology. Now I can kind of say it again: Who ever took a position in information technology to satisfy their dream to be a bond trader? But it was a way in, and it did happen. Three or four years later I did have an opportunity to move from that role on to the trading floor. It’s important to recognize that even then it took giving up seniority, giving up status, giving up all the things that I had accomplished and going back to starting at the most junior rung of the trading floor.
I think the moral of all this is that immediate reward is easy. The tough call is often a much better call.
I joined Barclays 12 years ago, and at the time I had the opportunity to join as a partner in a number of U.S. investment banks. In essence, the choice I faced was a U.S. investment bank or a U.K. commercial bank. A U.K. commercial bank that was hierarchical, that was bureaucratic, and it was slow moving. A U.K. commercial bank that had absolutely no history of success in the area that I was going to be working in. You have probably figured out what my decision was.
I did go with the U.K. bank. I think what’s important is why. I took a bet that the single currency in Europe was going to create a big, liquid, capital market that could compete with the dollar as a currency and as a capital market. I took a bet that the economic developments that we were seeing in Africa, in the Middle East, in the former Soviet states, and in Asia would mean that London was a better time zone for doing business. But the biggest bet, and the biggest risk I took, was that I would be allowed to change the culture of a venerable, 300-year-old British financial institution from one of hierarchy and bureaucracy, from one where rewards were based on tenure and position, to a culture that was based on meritocracy and performance, where rewards were more about innovation and talent.
So the same question comes up: What does this have to do with you and why is this important?
It’s important to be willing to take risk. The easy option is not always the best option. And I think most importantly, it’s important to have the courage to make mistakes. We don’t succeed, we don’t learn, unless we’re willing to make mistakes. And what matters is not that you make a mistake. What matters is that you have the courage to face up to them, the courage to correct them, and the courage to learn from them.
I’ve certainly made a number of mistakes in my career. In fact, I spent four years at a firm where I was really miserable. I just didn’t seem to fit in. But what’s important is that I learned then that some of the best lessons we get are from our most difficult situations. And that lesson, the third lesson, was that the reason I didn’t really fit was because I was in the wrong culture.
My dad, again, had a good way of putting things in perspective. On the tough days, on the days when things didn’t go particularly well, he’d reminded me that you never count a day as good or bad until all the days are counted. And he was right, because the experience I had, those four years of difficulty, without those four years, I wouldn’t have known that the most important thing in successfully building an organization or building a business is talent and culture. And I know what I mean when I talk about the culture of an organization, whether we’re talking about Colby College or Barclays. The culture of an organization is how people behave when they’re not being told what to do. It’s about behaviors and it’s about people. It’s inherently underpinned by values.
Values matter to me. Values started at home, again, values started with my dad. I saw how he treated everyone as equals. He gave everyone a chance. He put trust in everyone. He supported everyone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what my dad was teaching me then, was he was teaching me the kind of culture that I would want to work in. And when I think about the values that are important to me today, I think first about meritocracy. It’s about judging people on how they perform, not how long they’ve been there or who they know.
But here’s the rub about a meritocracy. A meritocracy promotes, it encourages—in fact a meritocracy demands diversity in the workforce. But it’s also about teamwork. If you work in an organization , it just doesn’t matter how strong an individual’s skills are—if they can’t work on a team, if they can’t work as colleagues, they’re going to have to go. I think you’ll probably learn as I have that success is a team game, it’s not an individual game.
But third, and most importantly, it’s about integrity and it’s about trust. It’s really easy to stand here and say this is just good sense and good business. And in fact it is. If we don’t take the high road on moral and ethical issues, we put our reputations at risk—reputations that can take decades to build. In banking, if we don’t take the high road on moral and ethical issues, we can put our license to do business at risk with the regulators. So it is good business.
But to me it has to be more than that. It just has to be more than that. I like the fact that I work with people that believe in integrity. I like the fact that I work with people that believe in trust. It’s important to recognize that we have a choice, and that’s what my dad taught me.
So what does this have to do with you? Why does this matter?
It’s important that you find a place, that you find a spot, that has values that match your values.
Those three lessons were invaluable to me 35 years ago when I left Colby.
But the world today is very different. I went to London with Morgan Stanley in 1988. I went to Tokyo with Credit Suisse in 1992. And in those days, America was truly ahead of the rest of the world. In those days there was a real advantage to an American education. There was a real advantage to American business experience. In those days, we were literally sent out to teach the world, to teach the world about free enterprise and to teach the world about open and honest competition. And you know what? The world has learned that lesson. The Berlin Wall has fallen. The emerging economies are developing, they’re emerging. And today you’re going out into a global talent pool.
Each year, I have breakfast with our top-rated college graduates. Twenty-five years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, it was predominately a group of males, it was a group of Anglo-Saxons, and almost all the kids came from U.S. universities. Well, I had that breakfast last week, and it’s very, very different today. There was a real balance between men and women, and the kids came from Brazil, they came from Turkey, they came from China, they came from Russia.
Each year we go directly to India to do recruiting. In Mumbai we’re looking to hire kids directly from the universities in India. And I will tell you, you would be absolutely amazed at the jaw-dropping academic qualifications of these kids. It’s absolutely stunning. But what’s more than that is the hunger. They don’t want to work in Mumbai. They don’t want to work in New Delhi. They want to work for the big global companies. They want to be in Shanghai, in Singapore, in Moscow, in London, and in New York.
So you are going out in to a tougher market. But it’s important also to recognize that you’re coming from Colby and you are very, very well prepared. Almost two-thirds of you have taken part of your study abroad. While you come from every state, you also come from 62 countries around the world. Colby knows that you need an international perspective. Colby knows that you need to understand the world and your place in it. Colby does have an international mindset.
Let me tell you something else. I know you can compete. I know you can keep up with this more difficult global talent pool.
Three of you, sitting right here, are joining Barclays as soon as graduation ends—I mean today. Our summer internship program in investment banking has five Colby juniors in it. We have over 20 Colby grads in offices around the world in our investment bank. We recruit from the highest ranking colleges and highest ranking universities in the world. I know you can compete with the very best. I know you can succeed at that level. I see it, and I see it every year.
When I left this campus 35 years ago, I left with a very, very special gift. A gift that was born of what we see right here. Look at the beauty. A gift that was born of Mayflower Hill, of Miller Library, of Johnson Pond, of Colby Green. A gift that was born of the incredible relationships. Relationship building is important in life, but the relationships we build here do last a lifetime. It’s not just the relationships that you’ve built with the fellow students. It’s also the relationships with the faculty, with the staff, the relationships with the professors.
The gift that I received as I left this campus is that, going forward, I recognize that each day, each and every day, would provide me at least one opportunity to learn and at least one opportunity to teach. Well, I have that opportunity right now.
Find somewhere where you can contribute, because if you do, your contribution can make a big difference. Always be willing to take risk. Always be willing to set yourself a challenge. But, most importantly, find that place, find that spot, find that organization that has values that match your values.
The world may be a tougher place. The world today certainly is a different place. But don’t forget—you’ve had the very best preparation in the last four years that you could get. Don’t forget where you’re from. Don’t forget, don’t ever, ever forget, you’re from Colby College.
Robert E. Diamond Jr. ’73 is president of Barclays PLC and chief executive of Investment Banking and Investment Management, comprising Barclays Capital, Barclays Global Investors, and Barclays Wealth. He joined Barclays in 1996 and has been a member of the Barclays Group Executive Committee since 1997. Earlier he was vice chairman and head of Global Fixed Income and Foreign Exchange at Credit Suisse First Boston and was managing director and head of European/Asian Fixed Income Trading for Morgan Stanley International. A trustee of Colby and of the American School in London, he serves on the advisory board of the Judge Business School at Cambridge University and on the board of directors at the Institute of International Finance.