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May 11, 2011

A Refreshing Change

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The fourth chief executive officer of Walmart, and Georgia Institute of Technology graduate Michael Terry Duke has challenged the Spring 2011 graduating class of Georgia Tech to follow three key ingredients to leadership and use three guideposts as they embark on their lives and careers.


Last Sunday I had the privilege of witnessing 2,300 proud graduates of Georgia Tech receive their diplomas in the midst of approximately 10,000 of their closest family and fans at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta.


For me the four-hour ceremony was worth it and the sage and well-prepared remarks by Mr. Duke were almost secondary to the pride I felt as I peered over a sea of black caps searching for my nephew, who received his undergraduate degree.


The opportunity to attend Georgia Tech’s 239th commencement ceremonies was certainly collateralized by being able to tour the campus of the proud institute that was founded in 1885, in the depths of Reconstruction following the Civil War.


It also gave me an opportunity to visit Atlanta, arguably the proud capitol of The South, and to gain a greater insight into the storied traditions of Georgia Tech, one of our nation’s best science, math, and engineering institutions of higher learning.


As for Mr. Duke’s background and address, the Georgia Tech news room pointed-out: “Since joining Walmart in 1995, [Mr.] Duke has led the logistics, distribution and administration divisions as well as Walmart U.S…”


Mr. Duke, who graduated from Georgia Tech in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, said that “you can be the most learned… and the best speaker… but you cannot be effective as a leader unless you are trusted…”


He continued that the three key ingredients to leadership are caring, performance and trust; and he emphasized the importance of living one’s life as best as one can every single day in an effort to make a difference and contribute to the greater good…


Mr. Duke professed that the guideposts to making a difference in the world are integrity, live with purpose, and set high expectations of oneself – and then exceed them.


“Do what’s right every single day,” Mr. Duke said as he held forth that one of the most important classes he took at Georgia Tech was a course in business ethics.


“It’s not just about the money. It’s about doing good. Never sell yourself short. Set the bar higher, then higher…”


The presentation by Mr. Duke – and the graduation ceremonies – was the icing on the cake; and seeing my nephew graduate was the candle on top, lighting the way to the future, equally reassuring my adventure south visiting Atlanta and Georgia.


I have not had the opportunity to visit Atlanta since I attended the 1996 Olympics. Although it is difficult to draw broad sweeping conclusions based on the experience of a visit of only five days, first impressions count and what I saw I thoroughly enjoyed.


I was particularly impressed with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) mass transportation system, which easily and efficiently gave me access to downtown Atlanta and all my destinations and appointments throughout the week from my temporary headquarters at a “gateway” hotel and conference center complex adjacent to the enormously busy Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.


According to information found on the MARTA Facebook page, the transportation system is the ninth largest transit system in North America. It serves a population of 1.65 million in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties and provides service for nearly half a million passengers each weekday.


MARTA, which has its roots in the 1950s, continues to expand and plan for the future – but most importantly, it is actually in the business of moving citizens to places they want to go. I mean, like you can actually travel easily from the airport throughout the downtown and out to the outskirts of the metropolitan area on a train. What a profound idea!


According to its website, the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport dates back to 1925. Today it has a direct economic impact of more than $32.5 billion for the metro-Atlanta area economy and is the largest employer in the state of Georgia.


In Maryland, the largest employer is government. Think about that!


Most of all, the airport and the city continually gave me the impression that it was happy that I was visiting and wanted my business.


Atlanta, whose population is just over 400,000, commands a metropolitan area with a population of over 4.24 million. “The metro Atlanta area,” according to City of Atlanta website, “is home to 13 Fortune 500 and 24 Fortune 1000 headquarters,” such as UPS, Turner Broadcasting, Home Depot, AT&T, Delta Air Lines, and Coca-Cola.


In Maryland there are almost no Fortune 500 companies left with a meaningful presence, much less headquartered here.


My week’s visit was a success on many fronts.


I found Atlanta to be a modern, well planned, welcoming, and people-friendly metropolitan area that encourages businesses and attracts American refugees of the last number of years of national economic turmoil and visitors alike.


It was wonderful to hear a national leader of Mr. Duke’s caliber emphasize values, principles, personal responsibility, hard work, and vision as a springboard to making a difference.


And it was inspiring to witness literally thousands of young adults excited about math, science and engineering and willing to benefit from working hard to make a better life for themselves, their families, and our nation.


However, the lasting practical takeaway to bring home was this. As a lifelong Maryland businessperson and public policy wonk, who is keenly interested in seeing our state provide economic opportunities, quality of life and employment opportunities for all our citizens – and a veteran of decades of writing about the consequences of legislative public policy, visiting Atlanta and Georgia was a refreshing change.


. . . I’m just saying…


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