Five Lessons from Rex Tibbens, MBA '98, to 2018 Graduates

Posted 5.30.2018

Weatherhead alumnus and President and CEO of American Home Shield, Rexford J. Tibbens, was the distinguished speaker at Weatherhead’s 2018 Diploma Ceremony on May 20 in Severance Hall. Watch the ceremony (keynote remarks begin at 23:00) or read the full transcript below :

Thank you for the lovely introduction.  I would like to thank Dean Malhotra for his gracious invitation to speak with you today.  I am truly honored to be here with you today.  A day you will always remember and cherish for years to come. 

Twenty years ago, almost to this day, I was sitting in your shoes.  I was a newly minted MBA from Weatherhead.  My newborn daughter, Kathryn, in my wife’s arms as we all walked the stage as a family to receive my diploma.  Now, my youngest daughter, Emily will be attending Case in the fall.  I guess that means I am now funding my first full ride scholarship to Case! My how the time flies.  While the days may seem long, the years certainly fly bye quickly.

In the twenty years that have passed, I have filled a passport or two, moved around the country, and have been blessed to work for some pretty innovative and disruptive companies across varied industries.  

I have to tell you, I’ve given several speeches and talks, but nothing prepares you for a commencement speech.  As I was racking my brain to come up with something profound—something that would blow you away.  I realized something… I’m not that profound!  So, today’s discussion will be a practical one.   

You have spent the better part of your life building the foundation for your future.  Every decision you made was geared towards the right bricks and mortar to cement your future.  

I have thought of five key principles that will help you build your house—your house of success.  

Number One:  Erase the friction from your customer’s lives.
Twenty years ago, we had to go to the computer lab to finish assignments.  My cell phone was a company phone that only made calls.  A “text” was something you found in a book.  You couldn’t record your shows, you had to tape them.  You paid shipping for everything and you certainly couldn’t order a car from your phone to take you from point A to point B.  The level of innovation and technological change has been nothing short of amazing.  All these changes can be boiled down to removing friction from customer’s lives.  

There are still many areas of friction in our lives today.  Start with the customer and work backwards.  As you are building your house of success, every ground floor opportunity will revolve around making life easier for your customers.  Whether you choose to go to a start-up, a non-profit, or a Fortune 10 company, those who win will be thinking about removing friction.  Air travel, your daily commute, and how you interact with your home will all be radically different in the next twenty years.  Your world will be transformed through technology.  

In the African country of Rwanda, the rainy season makes travel by automobile almost impossible.  It takes several hours to go only a few miles.  This creates a friction of a different sort.  Many mothers were losing their lives from post partum hemorrhaging.  Today through the use of technology, specialized drones are being used to dispatch emergency blood supplies to make deaths from post partum hemorrhaging a thing of the past.   That same service will be coming to remote areas of the United States soon, where a healthcare desert has been slowly forming over the last twenty years.

Imagine a world where we use technology to give our children a better education, no matter where you live; help those who need help; and make the world a better place—that is your journey. 

Class of 2018—Erase friction for customer’s lives.

Now that we have the ground floor in place, lets move on to our second principle.

Number Two:  Be an Owner!

It’s very easy to be a bystander, but very difficult to be an owner.  An owner paints the house, mows the lawn, is kind to the neighbors, and always fixes broken windows.  A renter calls foul when something goes wrong.  They ignore broken windows and often are heard saying, “that’s not my job.”  Owners take pride in being a part of something, while renters prefer to focus on themselves.  If you want to be successful, you need to surround yourself with people who want to be owners.  They want the team, the project, or the business to be successful.  They are deeply committed to seeing everyone succeed.  If you choose to be a renter, you will never experience what it means to do something larger than yourself.  

Class of 2018—Be an owner! 

Number Three:  Take the roles that make you queasy.

Most of you in this room have played it safe.  After all, you didn’t want to jeopardize your chance at success.  You’ve made good grades, studied hard, and did the work you needed to get you to Case.  Once here, you figured out the formula for success to be sitting in your seat today.  Congratulations again, but what it took to get to today, may not be enough for success in the future.  

In order to build the house of success, you need to find the roles that make you queasy.  That’s right, the roles that make you a little sick to your stomach are the ones that are going to make you successful.  The roles that have you questioning, “can I really do this?” or better yet, “I’m not sure I can do this.. “ are the exact roles you should be pursuing.  These roles aren’t about titles, they are about experiences that will give you the tools necessary to be successful, whether that is leading large groups of people in a discipline where you aren’t the expert or developing a new way to remove friction from people’s lives.  The path to success isn’t a straight line, but rather a path of ups and downs and sideways motions.

Look for those roles that stretch you in ways you have never been stretched.  Look for the roles where you just might fail.  Failing is actually a great teacher.  All successful people have failed.

Class of 2018—When it comes to your career, don’t play it safe!

Number Four:  Don’t be a brilliant jerk—leave the world a better place.

As a leader, you can boil down the wants and needs of those you lead into two categories.  People want someone to believe in and something to believe in.  The “something” revolves around your ability as a leader to paint a picture of the strategy and objectives the organization needs to achieve to get to their desired outcome.  The “someone” to believe in is much harder.  You have to win the hearts and minds of those you lead.  In short, if they won’t follow you, it doesn’t matter how smart you are how great your strategy is…it will fail.  The business world is full of brilliant jerks.  They use their intellect to belittle others, always having to be the smartest person in the room.  In short, brilliant jerks are the “renters” of leadership.  When the chips are down, they don’t rally the troops—they surrender them as the scapegoats of the problem.  As our next generation of leaders, you have the responsibility to use your intellect for kindness, not cleverness.  It’s easy to be clever, but much harder to be kind.

Class of 2018—Don’t be a brilliant jerk!

Number Five:  It all boils down to being resilient. 
Success always has you questioning yourself, always making you feel you could be doing more, and always wondering if you have done the right thing.   Success can be lonely and it is usually hard.  That’s what makes success so sweet.  You look back at the journey and you say to yourself, “Wow…we did that.”  

I wasn’t supposed to be here.  I grew up in a small town in Kentucky.  We didn’t have money, but I was rich in other ways. I was an avid reader, but not a star student.  I graduated high school “rudderless” and spent the next several years bouncing between odd jobs and part time school.  It wasn’t until I landed a job at Toyota that I learned the most valuable skill of my life—resilience.  Resilience makes you a grinder, a person who will out work anyone, because they want it badly.  When they fail, they figure out a way to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and just find a way to make it work. 

In the next 20 years, you will be misunderstood, told you’re wrong, and have people who have zero context, but much influence, question your resolve. You will experience the “highs of the highs” and the “lows of the lows”—sometimes in the same week.  Embrace it and learn from it. 

I have a favorite poem from American poet Edgar Albert Guest entitled “Don’t Quit.” The last verse encapsulates your next 20 years. Success is failure turned inside out - the silver tint of the clouds of doubt, and when you never can tell how close you are, it may be near when it seems afar; so stick to the fight when you're hardest hit - it's when things seem worst, you must not quit.

Just as finding ways to remove the friction from customer’s lives is the foundation of success, being resilient is the roof.  The roof that protects you from the sun, the snow, heavy rain and even hail.

Class of 2018, I congratulate you and look forward to each of you building your house of success.

Thank you.


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