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Reflecting on a life in business

Steve Cumbie Standing In UNC Kenan-Flagler Hall

Stephen Cumbie (BA ’70, MBA ’73), CEO officer and principal of NVCommercial Inc., NVRetail Inc. and Metro Management Services LLC, gave this keynote address when UNC Kenan-Flagler celebrated the 2019 graduation of 333 working professionals from the evening, weekend executive and online MBA programs.

It’s been over 40 years since I sat where you sit and, as I think about the next chapter in my own life, it is helpful to remember my time in business school and the benefits it provided.

Most of my classmates were headed for jobs in accounting, banking or at Fortune 500 companies. During my years at Kenan-Flagler, I discovered that I wanted an entrepreneurial career, which was unusual in the mid-1970s. John Pringle, my professor in finance, recommended me for my first job in real estate development. His recommendation, and my acceptance of that job, changed the course of my life. Not long ago, I was an adjunct professor in the MBA program. I was pleased to observe the growth of entrepreneurial careers paths as a part of the current Kenan-Flagler curriculum.

Business as a change agent

Your generation is making a large impact on the nation and on the world. The large size of your cohort makes you the key determinant of values and culture over the next 40 years. It appears that millennials are committed to creating a global culture that includes equitable social values, fairness, minority acceptance and cultural openness.

Some of your generation will find jobs in the nonprofit world or other socially contributing fields. Most of you will seek opportunities in business. You may have a chance to combine the two. Whatever the mix for you, I believe your generation will lead the way. The most successful businesses gravitate quickly to what works, discarding outmoded traditions. You are living in a time of rapid change, requiring nimble responses to pressing issues. It will not be enough for you to be profitable. A successful career requires moral and social leadership as well. I believe you have the determination and skills to respond to the challenges you are facing.

You may have seen that the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of large public companies, issued a statement that companies should make it a priority to satisfy all of their stakeholders, including customers, employees and the areas where they operate, not just shareholders. One of the leaders of this effort is Marc Benioff, CEO SalesForce, who has said, “To be truly successful, companies need to have a corporate mission that is bigger than making a profit,”

SafesForce has had meteoric growth since its founding in 1999 and now is valued at $130 billion. Benioff puts values ahead of everything else at the company and is known for his 1-1-1 commitment, that is the charitable contribution of 1% equity, 1% of employees time and 1% of production. This, for them, has resulted in contributions of $300 million and 4 million hours of employees’ time. This is truly a new business model.

Personal risk

One of the on-going dynamics of business is risk vs reward. Typically, those in business seek to avoid risk and stay in the safe zone in their activities. I would like to make a case for “be willing to accept personal risk where warranted.” I am not talking about continually putting yourself in risky situations, but frequently you may encounter opportunities to advance your career or a business opportunity by taking a risk with your ability to perform. Such opportunities may well be worth taking the risk and, even if a failure occurs, it may lead to valuable experience or other opportunities. Many venture capitalists are not willing to fund entrepreneurs who have not failed at least once.

The Carolina Way

Among my contemporaries, there is a recognition that graduates of our business school are different from those from most other schools. They are just as smart, motivated and prepared, but their approach is different. In general, Kenan-Flagler graduates display a more collaborative, “win-win” approach toward their work and careers than most business executives. They are just as ambitious, but not as willing to succeed at someone else’s expense. Over time, I have discussed this with other graduates and come to call it “The Carolina Way.” I was imbued with this ethic in my two years in the MBA program, although it was never discussed directly. This attitude was simply an assumption that was evident from the faculty and staff.

I trust this has come through in your program as well. Now, it is entrusted to you to continue to carry forward this ethic into the workplace – which makes our graduates more valuable, not only to their organizations but also to the broader collective. As Richard Branson says, “I think if the people who work for a business are proud of the business they work for, they’ll work that much harder, and, therefore, I think turning your business into a real force for good is good business sense as well.”

Intuition, instinct and insight

Over my career, the business world has become ever more analytical and quantitative. There is an increasing tendency to reduce everything to numbers. My guess is that this trend will continue and thus we will continue to utilize these analyses to our best advantage in understanding business issues and decision-making.

Nevertheless, numbers will not provide all that you will need. Seeking to expand your knowledge and experiences, learning to listen to your intuition and inner guidance, taking the risks that push you beyond your habitual behaviors – these will help you reach a level of success that goes beyond financial wins.

In this regard, as my career has developed, I have also come to trust my intuition and instinct to a greater extent. This is a seaming paradox but, in fact, it is the case. I still believe that analytical research is critical to business decision-making, but have learned that the correct decision often does not drop out of a computer spreadsheet – that work is necessary but often not sufficient.

Ironically, the more important the decision, the more I have learned to trust my intuition, instincts and insights. Perhaps my mind has learned to synthesize all the data, analyses and non-quantitative information to arrive at a conclusion but, whatever the process, I have found that this has become a more trustworthy process than just analytics.

At the moment you are heaving a sigh at having completed your education, I am advocating that your life be one of continual learning – that you do not ever expect to be “finished” with your education. An ever-changing world requires that you seek new information, that you develop new skills, and that you push yourselves to grow beyond your current levels of understanding.

I also would suggest that you develop new interests and invest in things that have no apparent relation to your work. You will find parts of yourself that have gone dormant and you will revive the joyousness of life as you expand your scope.

You may surprise yourself, like I did, if you hike the Camino de Santiago, join a rock band called Mama Didn’t Drown All the Ugly Ones, serve on a board for a healthcare not-for-profit, house an MBA student working in D.C. for the summer, pay for a sports field at the orphanage where my father grew up, create an award in honor of my mother, endow a chair in Women’s Studies at Carolina in honor of my wife, AND – perhaps my crowning achievement – creating a French braid that was the envy of my daughter’s fifth grade class. These are a few of the things that I have done since I was where you are today. They have made me wiser, but also more humble.

Embracing the unexpected has made me a better entrepreneur, but also a better person. I have habitually surprised myself. To quote, Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre, “At the end of the day, you want to be profitable, but that’s not the meaning of life.”

The second mountain: The quest for a moral life

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times and political commentator for the PBS NewsHour. He is the author of six books, the latest being “The Second Mountain: The Quest for A Moral Life.” I always find him insightful and considered, but this book truly resonated with me.

Brooks makes the argument that our Western society has long focused on an individualist world view, where we are encouraged to develop our self-reliance to achieve the goals and results necessary to be a success in the eyes of the world – job success, financial success, community respect and honors. He makes the point that this is not bad, but simply not sufficient to satisfy the longings of the heart and soul.

Most of us, myself included, tend to have had this focus in the first half of our adult lives. As I was able to achieve many of these goals, it became clear that it did not make me feel the self-satisfaction that I expected. The successes were good but not enough. As Brooks described in his book, that led me to search for more meaning which I have found by giving back, largely through my church, my schools and my community. For me, there is deep satisfaction in helping others and I have made it my focus in this last chapter of my life.

Although I am not suggesting that you take your freshly minted MBA and devote all of your efforts to community service or philanthropy, I do think if you start early looking for small ways where you can help others, you will establish a habit which is rewarding and may become more of a focus in later years.

I would hope that includes Kenan-Flagler. I have always been so grateful for the difference this school has made in my life that I want to help it continue to grow and thrive. This is what led me to return as an adjunct professor and teach real estate development in the MBA program, and, with my wife, establish a fellowship for real estate students.

Although I can never fully repay the gifts I received from this school, I continue to do what I can to help it. I hope you will join me in this effort.