Croswell to UT Grads: 'Don't Be Afraid of Failure'
Bennett Croswell, president, Military Engines, was the commencement speaker at the University of Tennessee College of Engineering.
Thanks very much for that introduction, Dean Davis. It is truly a privilege and an honor to be here today to give the Commencement Address to the spring 2017 graduating class of the College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee.
I want to start by saying congratulations to the graduating class. I know from personal experience that the long hours and hard work you had to put in to make it here today were not easy—so you should be very proud to reach such a significant milestone in your life.
Congratulations to the folks in the stands, too. The parents, grandparents, friends and relatives who have helped make this day a reality for these graduates.
In preparation for this, I did a little research to determine some common characteristics of people who give commencement addresses to see how I might compare.
I found that many times they were alumni so check, I meet those criteria. Many were, let's say, advanced in their age, and I think it's fair to say that I'm at least a little guilty as charged there as well.
Some were quite famous, and while I'm sure many of you were hoping that you'd get an Elon Musk or Colin Powell or even Oprah, I certainly have failed you in that regard. It seemed that nearly all were quite accomplished in some field of endeavor. I'll leave it to the audience to draw their own judgments there.
But nearly without fail, they all leaned on their experiences to provide some words of wisdom or some sage advice in an attempt to either inspire their audience to greatness, or to provide lessons learned from their careers or life to hopefully better prepare the graduates for the next phase of their journey. I intend to do the latter with you here this morning.
But before I get to that, let me tell you a little about myself to give my comments some context. As the dean said, I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed my entire career with Pratt & Whitney.
Pratt & Whitney is a world leader in aviation. We are the largest provider of business jet, general aviation and helicopter engines, and we are revolutionizing modern commercial air travel with new engines that drastically cut emissions and noise levels – we're making the skies greener (in a good way!)
And I'm proud to say the military engines division I lead is powering the U.S. Air Force's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46A Tanker and the B-21 Bomber. Our work spans an incredibly broad range of programs and technologies.
All that is well and good, but what we are really famous for is being the company that Josh Dobbs interned with for two May sessions! In all seriousness, I know that for those of us who had an opportunity to interact with Josh, it was a great experience, and I hope he found the opportunity beneficial as well.
For me personally, I am a product of the South. My father was in the textile industry when that existed in the country. We lived in several cities before we settled in Huntsville, Alabama, where I attended high school. And while we never lived in Tennessee, I knew at an early age I wanted to attend the University of Tennessee.
My mother was from Bristol, and I had always been a huge Volunteers fan. And once I decided I wanted to be an engineer, it certainly didn't hurt that the UT College of Engineering was such a fine one. In fact, UT was the only school I applied to, so you can imagine my relief when I was admitted!
Then came the hard work, and as you well know, there's nothing easy about earning an engineering degree from UT. It certainly wasn't easy for me. Thirty-eight years ago, I sat where you all are today - well, I was in Stokley - with my 2.7 GPA. I share that little detail of my academic career so I can offer some of you encouragement and hope that you don't have to be an honors student to achieve some degree of success in your career.
Also for me, my life changed when I met my wife Stephanie here at UT where she is also a graduate.
So I am all Vol! I think I demonstrated that when our oldest daughter went off to college. We live in Connecticut now and because of ladies' basketball, I can tell you, being a Vol in those parts isn't easy.
My oldest daughter, Caitlin, actually decided to attend the University of Connecticut. Our neighbor found that out and said, "So, now that your daughter is at UCONN, I'm sure you'll be rooting for the Huskies basketball team over the Lady Vols."
I told her: "Even if my daughter played for UCONN, I'd still be rooting for Tennessee!"
So you can imagine what a pleasure and an honor it is for me to be here today.
My own career has had its share of twists and turns, so, today, I want to offer a few thoughts and some practical advice as you embark on the next chapter of your lives. As I look back, I've gained a few insights that I think are absolutely crucial to success in life and in all professional endeavors, and I hope they will be helpful to you.
Let me start by saying that I feel strongly that we all strive to live our lives and conduct our business with character. With a strong moral and ethical code. And to have the integrity to live according to that code.
Don't compromise your integrity in order to achieve personal gain or to bend to popular opinion.
Set high standards and stick to them, even in difficult situations and even when no one is watching you.
You can spend your life building a reputation as a person of character and integrity and lose it in only a moment with one bad decision. You should always strive to model integrity in your words and in your deeds. Sound character and integrity is the foundation of all you will do in life.
Thomas Paine said it best: "Character is much easier kept than recovered."
I think you'll find to that conducting your business with character will also serve you well in your career. That was borne out by a study of chief financial officers that was conducted by the job placement firm Robert Half.
When asked what characteristic other than functional or technical expertise you most look for when grooming future leaders, the one most mentioned was integrity.
Next let me change gears and talk a little about how you might chart the progression of your career once you leave Rocky Top. I have many people come to me and ask for a formula of what will take them to the top of the corporate ladder. They want a checklist. They believe the path to promotion is as simple as following a recipe.
My advice to them and to all of you is to not view your career and your assignments in that way. Instead, I have an approach that has served me well and I believe will do the same for you. That is to work to do four things.
First is to take assignments that are important to the organization you serve.
Second, look for ways in your work that you can make a difference and a real contribution.
And third, find work you enjoy. Because think about it, if you are doing important work, you are achieving excellence in that work, and it is work you enjoy – what can go wrong?
Lastly, when you find a job that meets those criteria, do everything you can to stay in that position long enough to accomplish something substantial. Build a reputation of being someone who can be counted on to accomplish something significant.
In engineering, you've chosen a competitive profession — one where continuous improvement and innovation are the keys to success.
That means complacency is a dangerous thing, and I would encourage you to set both goals that you think you can attain, but also stretch goals — goals that will push you farther and that won't be easy, goals that will keep you sharp, ambitious and energized about your work.
More importantly – don't let failure derail you. Failure happens. And when it does, rather than beating yourself up, find the cause and fix the problem. Then assess where things went wrong and how you can do better next time.
Of course, nobody likes to fail. But failure teaches us to get better. If you know someone who has never failed, it's probably a sign that they aren't doing anything remarkable.
History is filled with the names of people who did not have success initially but came back to do remarkable things. For perspective,
Steve Jobs could have given up after he was ousted from his own company, but he didn't. Instead he came back to Apple, became their CEO and now over 1 billion iPhones have been sold around the world.
Only a few years ago, Elon Musk was on the verge of bankruptcy with his electric car company, Tesla. All the critics said, "He'll never be able to make the electric car work, and he has a lousy business model." Now all the headlines say market valuation for Tesla is higher than even the Ford Motor Company, at more than $48 billion!
In the world of politics, you might be surprised to know that one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, lost eight elections before winning the presidency.
Heck, even Michael Jordan was cut from the high school varsity basketball team.
Now, these are clearly all extremely driven individuals, but I touch on their stories to remind you that some of the greatest accomplishments have been born of failure.
And just so you know, I've had my own taste of failure, too. Let me share with you an experience that was probably the most difficult one in my career.
On June 23, 2014, an F-35 fighter jet was seconds away from taking off when the pilot suddenly heard a loud bang from behind him – and it wasn't a good kind of bang – it was the sound of a third stage fan blade from our engine failing and being "liberated" from the aircraft. The blade severed a fuel line, which triggered a fire. The pilot was ok, but trust me … it was not a good day.
To make matters worse, the F-35 was only three weeks away from making its international debut at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK. This is the world's largest airshow – the Super Bowl of airshows. Billboards were already posted all over London in anticipation of welcoming the F-35, and now all of the magazines, newspapers, websites, and Twitter were wondering if the F-35 would show up.
The Pentagon suspended all flight operations for the fleet until we could get to the bottom of what had happened. To make a long story short, our stretch objective was to identify what went wrong and get a fix in place ASAP. While it took us less than a week, the Pentagon ultimately decided to cancel the F-35's trip across the Atlantic.
As the president of the military engines business, it was my job to meet with our disappointed customers and to stand on the stage at Farnborough in front of hundreds of reporters to explain what happened and what my team at Pratt & Whitney was doing to fix the problem.
In the end, our military customers saw how quickly and how hard we worked to implement a fix for the entire fleet, and we made sure that fix didn't cost the taxpayers a dime. While it felt like a failure at the time, in retrospect, it made us better, it made our engine better, and it made our relationship with Pentagon customers even stronger and better, too.
You'll be happy to know the F-35 made it to Farnborough last year and our engine was the star of the show, and now operational squadrons of F-35s have even been deployed to Japan and back to the UK!
When you're developing cutting edge technologies like the world's most powerful fighter engine – things that have never been done before – you're bound to make mistakes, and those mistakes will have consequences. That comes with the territory. Just try not to make the same mistakes twice!
I heard someone say once that ego and ambition are great servants, and I've found that to be true — being ambitious helps us strive to even greater goals and gives us the ability to work through setbacks when they occur.
That's especially true if you have passion — where your love of what you do is what fuels your ambition and desire to be the best. I was fortunate to have found this for myself at Pratt & Whitney right out of engineering school.
But while it's true ego and ambition are great servants, it's equally true that they are terrible masters. If you are overly ambitious you can be overly sensitive to criticism and experience constant dissatisfaction or frustration.
And if left unchecked, ambition can cross the line and turn into arrogance and avarice, two very destructive human impulses.
Finally, if you are too egotistical, you run the risk of others dismissing you or shutting you out.
So be confident of yourself and look to advance in your career, but careful to keep your ambition and ego in check.
Engineering is a competitive field. And that's a good thing — there's an old saying that "iron sharpens iron." Competition can push you to be your best.
That said, one of the biggest mistakes I see some people making early in their careers is taking that natural and beneficial competitiveness to the extreme by treating their colleagues as enemies to be vanquished, instead of as teammates to accomplish great things with.
So when dealing with people at work, follow the golden rule – treat them the way you would like to be treated.
And by all means, treat everyone, no matter where they are in the organization, with respect and kindness. Recognize and appreciate the contributions of all.
Always remember to give back to your community and others. Giving back is an acknowledgement that none of us have gotten to where we are by ourselves.
Look around at the friends and family who are here with you today. Think about the people who aren't here today, but who you wouldn't be here without — the teacher, the coach, the mentor.
Now think about the people who didn't have the support you did, the child who may be growing up without the advantages you had.
Trust me on this — if you find a way to do something for others, you'll live a richer, more fulfilling life.
You don't have to be a Bill Gates – it doesn't take billions, or even millions to make a difference. But it does take something, and I'm confident each and every one of you will figure out what that something is for you.
In closing, don't ever forget about this place. UT is a part of you now, and you are just as much a part of UT. So stay connected to the UT family, not only in rooting for the Vols or wearing our gear, but in doing your part to make UT an even greater university and college.
In the long run, that won't only give you the satisfaction of being part of something greater than yourself, it will say something about the kind of person you are, and confirm what UT signaled when it admitted you as a student here—that you are something special, and someone who will do the University of Tennessee proud.
As you take one more walk past the Torchbearer's Statue and prepare to leave UT and head out into the big wide world and all it has to offer, I'd encourage you to take one more look around at the campus, and at your family and friends. Then look to the future with optimism.
Now, to you my fellow Vols, go find that job that's the perfect fit for you, and don't be afraid of failure. Even if you do fail from time to time, trust me, you can learn from it and move on to the next big challenge.
Live every day with integrity and passion, and be ambitious about doing good and being good.
Assume the best from your colleagues and give them the benefit of the doubt. You can't do it all alone, so be a good teammate.
Give back to those that helped you make it to this wonderful day, and don't forget where you came from.
Be confident. Be bold. Be excited. I know I am excited for you and very, very proud of you, my fellow Vols. Thank you.