Monday, June 6, 2011

Thinking big

This column originally appeared in Capital Business on June 6:

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

That’s a rhetorical question we toss around the house, to inspire our kids to aim high and take chances.
Of course, the difference between being fearless and foolhardy can be small.

I was thinking about that threshold last week while attending an awards banquet for the region’s chief financial officers, hosted by the Northern Virginia Technology Council. (Capital Business was the media sponsor.)

More than other corporate officials, CFOs often have to assess risks and confront difficult choices. The good ones seem to know how to help their companies do the spectacular while avoiding the reckless.

I’m fascinated by how companies manage that push and pull. Executive engagement is often key.
At the NVTC event, Nigel Morris, one of the co-founders of the McLean financial giant Capital One, was honored for his contributions to the region’s technology business community.

“I’ve often wondered,” he said, “how much of Capital One’s success is due to luck and how much is due to being good.”

One piece of good fortune: The former Signet Bank out of Richmond was willing to take a chance on some no-name business strategists who were tinkering with ways data could be used to inform lending decisions.

Morris also credited the business acumen of his co-founding partner Richard D. Fairbank, who started in 1988 and remains the chief executive today.

Fairbank, he said, was a tireless “advocate for the best of human capital.”

And the secret for hiring the best? More than benefits and salaries, Morris said he learned that what most people want is “to be part of something bigger.”

Capital One certainly became that. When Morris retired in 2004, his start-up had become a public company valued at more than $20 billion. He now occupies himself with his family foundation in Alexandria and serves as managing partner of QED Investors, a firm that invests in companies that are trying to “solve a pain point for consumers.”

Morris is no passive bystander in the companies he assists.

“We are operators masquerading as investors,” Morris said.

Pushing them to think big, no doubt.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A graduation story

This column originally appeared in Capital Business on May 30.

It’s graduation season, which explains why I found myself in the stands of the auditorium at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore County campus recently watching a parade of caps and gowns happily clutching their real or faux diplomas.

Graduations can be inspirational stuff, and this one was no different.

One candidate for a master’s degree had to overcome serious affliction to claim her parchment.

Another got hers at the ripe young age of 70.

A third crammed his work into 18 months to get it all paid by the GI Bill, all the while holding down a full-time job and adjusting to life with an infant son.

Then there was one woman who spent eight on-and-off years working toward hers.

She too had a full-time job.

With two kids to raise, and an husband who kept long and unpredictable hours.

She found her education interrupted not once, but twice, by unexpected trips to the hospital. And her pursuit of a degree in Instructional Systems Development represented a shift in career plans from her days as an undergraduate.

But she persevered.

I know a bit about her because she is my wife, Valerie.

The example she set made it difficult for me to slack off in my own work. But more than that, watching her absorb knowledge and then apply it at home or on the job taught me just how magical an educational journey can be.

I seem to know a lot of women like that. My own mother did not get her bachelor’s until after she had given birth to four boys. She steadfastly kept after it until she realized her goal of becoming a teacher.

My mom is like that. She could barely run a lap around the track when I was in high school and ended up a marathoner and triathlete, racing in competitions up and down the East Coast.

It helps to be passionate about what you are doing, as serial entrepreneur Renee Lewis reminds in her interview this week with staff writer Steven Overly.

“Without passion, perseverance is hard to find, and perseverance is key to success.”

There’s a lot a business person can learn from advice like that.