Skip to main content

Convocation address by John Prato, MPA’89, MBA’91, Canada’s Consul General in New York

Posted on July 15, 2015

Convocation address by John Prato, MPA’89, MBA’91, Canada’s Consul General in New York,

Thank you Chancellor Leech, Provost and Vice Principal Alan Harrison, Dean Saunders, Rector Michael Young, and faculty. And a warm welcome to the families and friends of our graduates—this is your day as well. You have supported these excellent graduates.

Congratulations to my fellow Queen’s graduates.  From this day on, we share a common bond for the rest of our lives.   We have graduated from one of the most outstanding universities on Earth and we must never forget how fortunate we are. Our Queen’s experience provides us with an incredible path forward, but it also places a burden of responsibility on our shoulders.  I will touch upon this shortly.

I want to particularly recognize your hard work.  You certainly faced more time constraints than I did.  Completing an Executive MBA, with all the responsibilities of a career and spouses and children in many cases, and within an intense time schedule, was much harder than my experience as a 24-yr-old. You earned your degree with hard work and toil and today, above all, is your day.

Some 24 years ago I found myself in your position having graduated with a second degree from Queen’s and never EVER would I have thought that I would be standing before you delivering a commencement address.   I have had the privilege of speaking at the UN, State Legislatures, Radio City Hall and other prestigious places, but this morning I feel humbled, honoured, privileged, and fortunate more so than at any other time. Deciding to attend Queen’s was one of the most important decisions I have ever made.  Lesson #1: Fasten your seat belt.   I would never have dreamed of being here and the same unexpected great events are going to happen to you if you dream.

Today, I want to counsel you on what I have learned over the last 25 years.  It is based on my experience.   Some will be applicable to you, and some of it may not, only you can decide if it is relevant.  This exercise was therapeutic and reflective for I have made many mistakes during a successful career in the private and public sectors.  I want to divide my talk into 3 parts: (i) work life; (ii) personal life; and (iii) public life.   My goal is not to entertain you, nor to motivate you.   I am not a motivational speaker.   I don’t want to leave you with sound bites, feel good statements or something that sounds good, but rather something that is sound in thought and principled. 

Let me start with your work life.

First, your trajectory to success—a success that only you can define but you will know when you get there, will be filled with disappointments, bad days—days when you will doubt yourself and some days when you experience outright failure. I had most of those in my early years.   What I didn’t learn in class, was that it was never going to be a clear road moving forward, there were going to be bumps.   The good news is that you will learn more from failures than you will from your wins (successes).   Why?  Because the skill that is most required in senior positions is good judgment.   Leadership has many qualities, but judgment is indispensable. You will learn quickly not to make errors twice and your judgment will blossom.  When in turbulent waters remember PM Winston Churchill’s words in an address to his school – Never give in, never give in, never, never, never in nothing, great or small, large or petty – NEVER GIVE IN EXCEPT TO CONVINCTIONS OF HONOUR AND GOOD SENSE. (Oct. 29, 1941).   What he is saying is to fight for what you believe in and be persistent, but I would add a qualifier, know when the obstacles that organizations place in front of you are going to stymie you.  Time is fleeting, it is ephemeral.   Use your time wisely. 

Second, enjoy your successes small and large.  Celebrate the significant ones, but remain grounded, the biggest lesson I learned in capital markets was that you are most vulnerable when you think you are invincible.  Ed Clark, the recently retired CEO of TD Bank and the greatest banker of his generation, always mentioned that Hubris is what kills markets.   Familiarize yourself with the word “hubris” — it indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competences.

Third, this was the most difficult concept for me to comprehend, it may not apply to you so I say it with caution:  In my first year, I really dropped the ball.  Part of the reason was I wanted to be liked.   I wanted to be the manager who people really liked.   When I look back at my career, and think of the people who I learned most from, the people who inspired me the most—they were the one’s who I respected the most, though not necessarily liked.  They were more demanding and difficult, but they were the one’s I admired and influenced my career.   My fellow graduates, it is more important to be respected than to be liked in your career.  The good news is they are not mutually exclusive.

Fourth, surround yourself with smart people, and do not be afraid of hiring people who are smarter than you or telling them that you recognize their value.  Never be intimidated by someone talented.   Embrace them—this will demonstrate your strength.  Help them become better and more talented—it will come back to you.  Your team and company will prosper and it will be the best way of raising everyone’s performance.

Finally, from a career perspective this is the most important item I can tell you.  I believe it is more important today than in previous generations.  Furthermore, it becomes more important as you progress in your career.  Everyone here has a franchise or brand, coming to Queen’s further enhanced it by augmenting your functional skills, but functional skills form part of the necessary but not sufficient equation.   The most important part of your franchise is your character, your ethics your moral fiber.  Let it be known to whomever comes into contact with you that a Queen’s graduate is synonymous with the highest ethical standards possible.  In western societies today, we have witnessed leaders of all stripes, be they business—(particularly bankers), political or religious leaders—exhibit serious shortcomings in their conduct.  Our societies are asking us to be better in the exercise of our authority as leaders and that conduct is vital to the further generation of wealth in our society.  A more ethical, trusting society creates wealth easier.  Relying on compliance departments is insufficient—develop your own ethical barometer and let it lead you.

Your work life is your work life, but there is another part of your life.  And I don’t believe they exist completely in isolation, but the truth is your work life will be better, the more time you focus on your personal life.     

First, give your spouse, your family, your siblings the best of your time.  Not you’re tired or hurried self.  Recognize their importance.  Make sure that your aging parents, if they are alive, have a place in your life.  I recently lost my father and I am so happy I spent time with him.   The most important time was the time when he was dying.  It was peaceful, revealing and touching.   You can never get that back, ever.  There is a finality in death that is striking, painful and liberating.    

Don’t ignore your friends. They will be your support and they know you well.  They will bring you even more joy over the years.  

Try to make a new friend, but not just any friend, a much older friend.  They will give you a perspective on life, a serenity you will not find in someone of a similar age.

Second, read.   Not just the news.  Not just your annual or quarterly reports.  Read about history and read biographies.  If you like history—great; if not—make an effort.  Clients will want to know you are well-rounded.  Your perspective will be enhanced.  History will give you perspective, help you conceptualize challenges and problems.  And, as the leaders that you are, it reminds you how what often appears as innocuous actions on your part, if they are multiplied and left to chance, they can create catastrophes.  Henry Kissinger stated, “But history punishes strategic frivolity sooner or later,” as he described the period that led to the great catastrophe of the 20th century’s World War I, a war in which Canada, a nation of  less than eight million, had 650,000 men and women in uniform, with 66,000 dead and 170,000 wounded.   Kissinger continues, “It arose from a series of miscalculations made by serious leaders who did not understand the consequences of their planning, and a final maelstrom triggered by a terrorist attack occurring in a year generally believed to be a tranquil period.”  Now I am not saying you will be in a situation of war, but what I am saying is knowing the past will help produce better outcomes and give you a better appreciation for your actions large or small.

Third, you are fortunate, you are bright, talented and equipped with all the tools required to succeed, to give a voice to those whose voice should be heard but is not.  It may be those who are poor or marginalized in our society.  Perhaps it is recent immigrants to our country.  Or, it may be those in your company who are shy, introverted or in a profession that requires diligent work but does not garner the headlines.  Raise their voices and you will find talent, a quicker path to progress and, more importantly, it will raise your humanity.

Finally, I want to inspire you to look beyond your private sector careers and consider public life or the public service.  All of you are leaders.   You will be very comfortable in the monetary sense and from a material perspective.  You will be in positions that will reward you well financially.  There will be a time to make your contribution in creating a better society or country.  This may shock you, but the most interesting jobs are in government.  And the people you will meet in government are among the most dedicated and smartest people you will meet.   You may be helping to negotiate an international trade agreement, re-designing the energy infrastructure of the country, working in cybersecurity or helping to alleviate poverty.  

Why do I feel so passionate about it?  I start with the following perspective.  You are a success.   But it was not due to all the great training you received at Queen’s or the God-given talents you were born with.  It was the great fortune, the fluke of living in the greatest country in the world—Canada.   There are many that are talented and increasingly have access to education in the world, but they do not have the same opportunities as we have in Canada.  A great Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, declared that the 20th Century belonged to Canada.  He was partly right, but slightly off.  It will be the 21st Century that will be Canada’s century, but only if you continue in building this wonderful civilized and diverse nation.

Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario is the most ideal place to reflect on public life and what you can do to make your mark on the nation.  First, we have great role models.   If you look at the names of the buildings on campus you see names such as Charles Avery Dunning—Dunning Hall—a former university Chancellor who was also a Premier of Saskatchewan, a federal Minister of Finance, a federal Minister of Canals and Railways.  James Alexander Corry, of Mackintosh-Corry Hall, a former Principal who was a consultant to the Justice department;, or William Mackintosh, also  of Mackintosh-Corry Hall, a former Principal who, during WWII was recruited to Ottawa and  applied his skills to the war effort, rising to the Deputy Minister level.  He was also the principal author of a white paper on employment and income which mapped out Canada’s postwar economic strategy.  Second, this year—2015—we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth—a father of Confederation and our first Prime Minister.   A young immigrant to what is now Canada and someone who called Kingston home.    And I stress immigrant. 

Two Queen’s University professors have recently compiled a book on Sir John A. Macdonald’s speeches, and I take a few quotes from their book attributed to Sir John A. 

In 1864 he (Sir John A.) said, “For 20 long years I have been dragging myself through the dreary waste of colonial politics.   I thought there was no end, nothing worthy of ambition; but now I see something well worthy of all I have suffered in the cause of my little country”.   Approximately three decades later, (1891), addressing the nation, he stated ,“The Canadian Pacific Railway now extends from ocean to ocean, opening up and developing the country at a marvellous  rate.”  “The dream of our public men was an accomplished fact, and I myself experienced the proud satisfaction of looking back from the steps of my car upon the Rocky Mountains fringing the eastern sky.”

Class of 2015: How will you build your country?  How will you build Canada?  What will you do for your country? 

As I end my time with you, I want to return to the beginning of my talk to address the responsibilities and burden on your shoulders that you have as a Queen’s Graduate.  If I am fortunate, you will remember one item from my talk and I hope it is this.  Everything can be summed up in this biblical phrase: ”For unto whomsoever much is given, of him/her shall much be required; and to whom men/women have committed much, of him/her they will ask the more.” 

I am so proud of you.  Congratulations and go fulfill your destiny!