'Find your career sweet spot'

More than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students participated in the fall commencement ceremonies. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

More than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students participated in the fall commencement ceremonies. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

'Find your career sweet spot'

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Commencement speakers share gems of insight and wisdom as more than 1,000 UM students graduate in two ceremonies.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. didn’t know quite what to make of the phrase his ninth-grade foreign-language instructor uttered to a room full of his classmates at Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High School when he was a student there: Veni, vidi, vici.

“This was the first day of Latin, so I had no idea what she was talking about,” Taylor recalled. 

He would learn seconds later what the phrase meant: I came, I saw, I conquered. 

That instructor told Taylor and the other students that by the time they graduated from high school, she wanted each of them to be able say those words confidently, not as a demonstration of their proficiency in Latin, but as a statement of accomplishment. “This was at a point when only 30 percent of Broward County students were graduating from high school,” said Taylor. 

On Thursday, Taylor, who is now president and CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society, repeated the phrase “I came, I saw, I conquered” to more than 500 University of Miami undergraduates as the speaker at the institution’s fall commencement. It was the first of two ceremonies held this day at the Watsco Center on the Coral Gables campus. A graduate-degree exercise followed, featuring Richard D. Fain, chair of the UM Board of Trustees and chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., as speaker.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for me to say today to the Class of 2018 that each of you did that,” said Taylor, who attended UM as an Isaac Bashevis Singer Scholar, earning his communication degree in just three years and then going on to get his law degree from Drake University. 

 

“All of you had other educational opportunities. You could have gone to any number of schools—one of the four- or five-thousand in this country and, indeed, the world, where there are tens of thousands of higher educational institutions. But you made the decision to come to the University of Miami. Then you saw the Miami experience, and that was a critical part of it,” said Taylor, recalling his own college days of attending his first UM football and basketball games and of going to the on-campus Rathskeller. 

“Today, you are here because you conquered. You achieved your goal of leaving this university with your degree,” Taylor told students. “Celebrate—you deserve it. Take a victory lap. This is the one day when it’s going to be all about you.” 

Taylor, who last year was appointed to UM’s Board of Trustees, spent more than two decades as a human resources executive and CEO at a myriad of non- and for-profit concerns, among them: Viacom’s Blockbuster Entertainment and Paramount Pictures; McGuireWoods HR Strategies LLC, the Compass Group USA; IAC/Interactive Corp., and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. 

The Fort Lauderdale native frequently testifies before Congress on workplace issues ranging from sexual harassment to paid leave and writes a weekly column, “Ask HR,” for USA Today. He is coauthor of the book “The Trouble with HR: An Insider’s Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People.” 

As president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, he was instrumental in helping to raise more than $100 million over nearly eight years to ensure the non-profit that represents the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities could continue providing “a robust and diverse pipeline of talented workers and future leaders.” 

At Thursday’s undergraduate ceremony, he left students with “pearls of wisdom,” urging them to find their “career sweet spot.” 

“God gave each of us an amazing set of strengths. Figure that out,” he said, encouraging the students to discover what they do best and what they love doing, and to determine what others will pay them to do. 

Taylor also talked of the importance of living a meaningful life, reciting a quote from the famous African-American inventor George Washington Carver, who once said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong, because someday in your life you will have been all of these.” 

For 23-year-old Beth Markowitz, who accepted her Bachelor of Fine Arts on Thursday, graduation day was “exemplification that my family bleeds orange and green,” she said. Her mother, Elizabeth Markowitz, program manager at UM’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, her father Gary, and sister Megan are all UM alums. 

Seeing her second daughter graduate from UM was a “lifelong dream” for Elizabeth Markowitz. “I was blessed once,” she said. “Now I’m blessed twice.” 

Zakiya Rashid, a thrower on the UM women’s track and field team, said she owes her success in earning her degree in exercise physiology to the many people who supported her throughout her academic journey, especially her family. 

“This is for them,” she said.

At the afternoon graduate ceremony, Fain gave advice to more than 500 students, sharing anecdotes of his climb up the corporate ladder.

Before Fain’s remarks, however, François Baron Englert, the 2013 Nobel Laureate in Physics, received an honorary Doctor of Science degree. The son of Polish Jews who emigrated to Belgium before he was born to escape anti-Semitism in their homeland, Englert was honored for his co-discovery of the mechanism by which subatomic particles gather mass—and thus hold the universe together.

During Fain's address, he told graduates the story of how he once worked in the lowest ranks of a shipping company as a “deputy assistant nobody.” 

But one day, Fain’s boss told him that the assistant treasurer, Larry, had assigned him the important task of preparing a financing proposal for the firm. “That was really a big deal. It was a great honor,” said Fain, recalling that he worked on the report day and night for two weeks, putting his heart into it. 

Through the assistant treasurer’s secretary, Fain learned that Larry had rebuffed his report, telling him on two different occasions that he thought Fain could do better. 

After his third revision, Fain turned in the report personally to Larry, who, it turned out, hadn’t even read the previous submissions. “The eye-opening part of this story for me is that it actually did get better. The final product was substantively better than the first versions…The fact that he got me to do better without even explaining why was an important lesson to me.” 

Fain also recalled the advice many people have shared on what helped them to become successful. 

Everybody gave a great deal of credit to dumb luck, admitting that pure chance played a big role in their success and that they took advantage of their good fortune when it surfaced. “In my own case, I had the good fortune to be very wrong but in a good way,” explained Fain. “In that same company I was offered a promotion to a new job working in their cargo shipping subsidiary.”

The pay and title were better, but Fain knew the job was a thankless one and would ruin his career. He wanted to turn it down, but his boss, noting that Fain was the low man on the totem pole, promoted him anyway. 

Fain bemoaned his fate for six months, wondering what he should do. But then, an upheaval in the oil markets occurred, and the shipping company Fain worked for needed to take some major steps. “Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a great opportunity,” Fain said. “It turned out that this new job positioned me absolutely squarely in the center of what our company needed to do for its future. My position was fortuitous, indeed.” 

He landed in the right place at the right time, eventually becoming head of that shipping company.

“Luck opened a door for me that I could have never opened on my own,” said Fain. 

Working like a “son-of-a-bitch” and knowing a topic better than anyone is another characteristic of success, Fain said. “Hard work is what keeps the door open.” 

He said that whenever he walks into a meeting, he may not be the smartest or the most eloquent or the most insightful, “but I can be very sure that no one in that room is better prepared than I am.” 

“Fast thinking and a persuasiveness tongue are really helpful,” he explained, “but they lose every single time to knowledge and preparedness.” 

Fain’s other secret advantage: having a partner who helped make him to become more than he could become by himself. He recalled how he and the woman who would eventually become his wife shared books at the University of California Berkeley 50 years ago. He said that sharing has never ended and that his partnership with his spouse has been “as integral to his success as any other advantage I have enjoyed.” 

Work and life are not binary, he told graduates. Finding the rewards of both is a goal worth setting.

With a world plagued by problems such as poverty and climate change and one facing challenges in diversity and inclusion and the persistence of racism,“you can’t be successful if the world is failing,” said Fain. “I can’t begin to tell you how much of success is rooted in simply doing the right thing.” 

Acting ethically is not enough, he said. “It means being the kind of citizen that steps up to help face the challenges that all of us face today.”