Charlie Baker’s Speech
Good morning everybody. President Wippman, trustees, faculty, coaches, administrators, my three fellow honorees, Adam, Nancy and John, family, friends, and soon-to-be graduates. I want to thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to speak with you today, and I especially want to congratulate all the graduates, and while we honor you and recognize your accomplishments, I hope you all know that the journey, the path that you took to get to this point here today, is what really matters.
Now true confessions, I’ve been to three of my own graduations: high school, college and graduate school. I have no idea who spoke at my high school graduation. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke at my college graduation and I have no idea what he said. And General Motors CEO Roger Smith spoke at my business school graduation and I have no idea what he said either. So I recognize the extremely high bar I have to climb over today to say anything worthwhile.
I know that most of the graduates got about three hours of sleep last night, and I’m all that stands between you and your diploma. So let’s start with this: I’m sure you’re wondering why the Governor of Massachusetts was selected to be your commencement speaker. The answer to this question turns up in a news story that was written in the fall of 2014, two weeks before the election. The candidates were asked to respond to something called the Proust Questionnaire. It’s not about issues, it was more of a personal survey.
One of the questions was, “What is your greatest regret?” I answered, “Not going to Hamilton College.” True. I doubled down on that answer by saying I was never really very comfortable at Harvard. Needless to say, in Massachusetts, this response created a bit of a stir. Hamilton over Harvard, holy cow. All the rest of the issues faded away for a day or two, as it reverberated around the Commonwealth.
Now shortly after that, a box of Hamilton College swag showed up on our front porch. It contained a note from the Admissions Department, “Thanks for the props” it said. “We’re benefitting greatly from your confession.” Now life went on, my running mate Karyn Polito and I were elected Lieutenant Governor and Governor in November of 2014. We spent most of our first couple of months in office dealing with almost 10 feet of snow, so much snow that we wondered if Massachusetts had simply frozen over because the voters elected a Republican. But unlike the national stage, we’ve worked well with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle. We built a bipartisan cabinet, we focus primarily on building stronger communities throughout Massachusetts, and we kept the partisan noise to a minimum.
People seemed to appreciate it. As Kevin Kennedy pointed out, according to a recent national survey of voters in all 50 states, we have the highest approval rating at seventy-five percent. But don’t worry about that going to our heads. My wife Lauren’s reaction to it pretty much said it all. “Seventy-five percent, congratulations honey. You got a C.” It’s true. It was not my first C, but thankfully the folks at Hamilton didn’t need to see my transcript to invite me. They simply knew that my fondness for this place has never wavered since I walked across the campus, talked to students, hung out with the basketball team, visited some classes and pounded a few beers at Don’s Rok over 40 years ago. And today as I stand before all of you as a fellow degree recipient, I would offer five observations that might help you with your next acts.
First, be soft on the people and hard on the issues. Good people can have honest disagreements. My mom, God rest her soul, was a diehard Democrat. My dad is a Republican. And the dinner table I grew up at was a laser light show of personalities, points of view, and lots of back and forth. I have friends who would not come to my house for a meal unless they were given a helmet. And my parents canceled each other’s votes out for sixty years. My mom was actually kind of sick by the time I ran for Governor, and I said, “So is this the year where you and Dad vote for the same person?” And she said, “You know, dear, it is a secret ballot.”
My parents could agreeably disagree, and I learned a ton from hearing all sides of them on almost everything they talked about. Fundamentally I learned that discussing differences is not a war, it’s a conversation. And if it’s going on among people who work for the same organization or the same cause, that’s even more problematic. Because it’s doubly important to appreciate that there can always be more than one point of view, and it’s important to hear them all.
And while this may sound a little unusual, most of the time people are debating means, not ends. And if I had a dime for every time someone changed my mind on what I thought was the best way to get something done, I could probably retire. Listening is also reciprocal. I listen because I want to be heard. These days too many people in public life want to be heard, but they don’t want to listen. And as a result, no one hears what anyone is saying, nothing gets done, and the vast majority of the rest of the public simply tunes the whole thing out.
My dad said one time — and this is going to be the P.G. version — that when people see two people in a fight they’re pretty sure one of them’s a jerk, they just don’t know which one. And it’s important for all of us to keep that in mind as we grow up. And my mom always used to say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen up.” I’m sixty, I know I’m smarter than I was when I was thirty, and much of that growth came from listening to people I thought I disagreed with.
Second, don’t confuse motivation with performance, or effort with results. In the end we get measured on how we perform, and that is as it should be. When I became the CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in the late 1990s, this venerable one million member New England non-profit health plan was nearly bankrupt. Nothing seemed to work but everybody was working hard. And everybody felt like they were doing the right things. And everyone was pretty sure the organization’s troubles were somebody else’s fault.
We pointed out to people that ships go down all-in. There are no survivors. And if you want to fix this place you need to be part of the answer. So we started drawing process flows. Boring, wonky and nerdy. I get that. But it helped people understand how we actually did our work. How did we actually sign up a hospital? How did we pay a claim? How did we sign up a physician group? A new employer? What happened when somebody called Member Services? At first there was a lot of loud disagreement about who did what when, because nobody really knew.
But eventually people would get to the point where they would understand, everybody would agree on the process, and then we’d all stand back and look at the way we did our work. And people’s jaws would drop. No wonder we can’t get anything done. No one could get anything done using the process that we were using in many cases. People could then focus on creating a process that made sense and worked. And while no one worked any harder after that, stuff got done. What you do is important. But how you do it is just as important, and an A plan with a C execution is just that, it’s a C plan.
Third, stretch yourself and don’t be afraid to fail. The great artist Michelangelo once said, “The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.” Anybody who does anything that matters fails at some point along the way. Failure is almost always an important part of ultimate success.
I also ran for Governor in 2010 against then-incumbent Deval Patrick and I lost. But Lauren and I learned a lot from that experience and we sincerely doubt that I would have won in 2014 if I hadn’t run and lost in 2010.
And early on in my career I got counseled out of a job, not because I was horribly bad at it but just because I wasn’t very good. I was down about it but a friend of mine said to me, “You know there’s a reason why the Germans make cars and the French make wine. It’s what they’re good at. This is obviously something that didn’t fit for you.” The great inventor Thomas Edison probably said it best, “I found 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. I didn’t fail.”
And that brings me to number four, your first job will rarely be your last. I had six jobs before I graduated from college. Paperboy, movie theater usher, landscaper, gas station attendant, loading dock jack-of-all-trades, bartender, door man, and sports writer for a local paper. And I’ve had fourteen jobs since I graduated, a clearly checkered career. And some of the jobs were really about figuring out what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at, and I learned a lot along the way. And for the record, if I could have had any job at all when I was young I would have wanted to be that sports writer, but for a bunch of reasons that didn’t work out either.
Number five, don’t settle for average, in anything. Work with people you like and respect. Do something you enjoy. No job is all fun and games, there are trade-offs everywhere. But if you do something you enjoy, the broccoli usually goes down right alongside the ice cream.
Be a great friend, a wonderful parent, a spectacular neighbor, a devoted partner. Tell funny stories, coach sports, volunteer, serve your community. Be present, listen, and laugh. Appreciate the gifts we’ve all been given and try to make the most of your time here on earth. We’re all just getting started.
The slate is wiped mostly clean (except for all that stuff on YouTube) and the next chapter and every chapter after that is up to you. Make the most of it. Don’t waste this precious chance that you have to make a difference. There are plenty of opportunities out there, in fact they’re everywhere, you just need to find them and go get them. God bless and good luck.