Mark C. Nolan, class '81, UCC Address
Where are they now
Mark Nolan, class '81, is our key man in Munster on all matters dinners and reunions, but when not being plagued by his Union, he is also Managing Director of Charles Nolan & Sons, in which capacity he was recently asked to address the 2011 BComm graduating class in University College Cork. Congratulations Mark on this honour, and below for benefit of all is a copy of his address.
Good afternoon, President, Dr Murphy, Head of the College of Business and Law, Professor Lynch Fannon, Heads of Schools,lecturers, distinguished guests, and most importantly, my fellow ‘Comm Graduates, your families and guests.
When I was invited to speak at your graduation ceremony I initially thought what advice would I have liked to have heard at my graduation in July 1985 , but I quickly realised that in the summer of 1985 I wasn’t really amenable to advice from any source. Therefore, I beseech you to understand that anything that I may recommend this afternoon, in my short address, is asserted as personal suggestions from a small family business practitioner’s experiences, rather than as self-congratulatory or know-all type of advice. My suggestions are in turn based upon the insights of exceptional people that I have found helpful in my career.
Before you finish today though, it is vitally important to note and remember not only what course you have graduated in this afternoon but indeed to note and remember what course your college friends have graduated in. I tell you this in the context of a UCC with 4,000 students compared with today’s almost 19,000 full time students. Last September, I telephoned one of my old college friends who lives in Dublin and invited her and her husband to stay with us in Cork for our BComm class of ’85’s twenty-fifth re-union due to be held in the Aula Maxima. I was shocked when my friend informed me that she wouldn’t be permitted to attend our BComm class re-union. When I enquired why not, she told me that during our time in UCC that she was actually enrolled in the faculty of Arts …not Commerce ………!
Congratulations to each of you and of course to your families who are sharing in your success. Some of you are perhaps embarking on further courses or new careers which may necessitate emigration. I do not view emigration by young Irish graduates as a societal failure, but rather I view emigration as an opportunity to enhance one’s life-experience compared to previous generations of Irish emigrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority of whom commenced at the very bottom rung of the economic ladder in their host countries. Compared to those emigrants, we are bombarded every day with information, from innumerable and different media sources. This information is regularly advanced by opinion leaders who wish to influence and shape our attitudes and beliefs. Renowned French poet, essayist, epistemologist and philosopher Paul Valéry, wrote in his diary six months before the start of The First World War that “political conflicts distort and disturb the people’s sense of distinction between matters of importance and matters of urgency”.
Always try and distinguish between what really matters and the disproportionate, sometimes hysterical, pronouncements and frenzied claims by so-called opinion leaders whether in politics, business or economics. As you have learned from your lectures, manipulated facts and statistics are often used to support whatever agenda is being postulated by the intelligentsia, but please be wary of supposed objective and impartial facts. There is no such thing as unprejudiced or unbiased facts. As Stephen J. Gould wrote, “facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information” they are invariably influenced by selective interpretation to support prior conclusions. Try to avoid an unquestioning reliance on ‘facts ‘and ‘statistics’ by being aware of the source’s agenda, or biases. Supporting evidence is invariably the subjective and selective moulding of facts to favour the opinion leaders’ assertions, a phenomenon known as ‘Confirmation Bias’. I like to think of ‘Confirmation Bias’ as a tendency to seek evidence that increases confidence in one’s preferred ideology or viewpoint , regardless of whether your preferred beliefs provide any confirming evidence, while at the same time ignoring any evidence that disagrees with your preferred beliefs.
Three extremely insightful and perceptive men one a judge the second a palaeontologist, and the third man, the winner of the 1960 Noble Prize for medicine, each concurred that pure objectivity is probably unattainable.
In 1921 Judge Cardozo incisively wrote that “We may try and see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.”Stephen J. Gould observed that “ Impartiality (even if desirable )is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds ,needs ,beliefs and desires .It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality ,for one then stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences-and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice” Dr. Medawar in his 1964 BBC Radio talk succinctly said, “there is no such thing as an unprejudiced observation. Every act of observation we make is biased. What we see or otherwise sense is a function of what we have seen or sensed in the past.” So try and be more conscious and vigilant of your own personal subjective prejudices, by trying to see issues from another’s perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the opposing argument or empathise with the person, or be reading their mind. It simply means you should at least try and understand the argument from their perspective.
Identifying our own preconceptions, assumptions and biases which tenaciously behold us, will help you avoid potential duplicitous conflicts of interest or conflicts of duty. A conflict of interest exists when a person’s private interests interfere or have the potential to interfere in any way, with the interests of their employer or organisation, including one’s duty to a client or patient. Pervasive conflicts of interest or conflict of duties are, in my opinion, the root cause of corporate malfeasance which undermines trust, the bedrock of business. It is not just the ethical harm caused by conflicts of interest but the huge consequential financial cost that harmful conflicts of interest cause. Doctors who are hired as consultants by pharmaceutical or medical device companies failing to disclose their financial relationships, to their patients when deciding to prescribe a drug or choose a medical device for them. Accountants mesmerised by lucrative consultancy fees failing to robustly audit their client’s books ,politicians appointing friends and supporters to state bodies without any regard for the appointees’ suitability or competency, the same lawyer or firm acting for both sides to a transaction.
So how do we identify our preconceptions and biases to enhance our awareness in order to become better business practitioners?
Essentially, we have to know ourselves which is very hard work, because invariably as the philosopher Kierkegaard contended, we view ourselves subjectively whereas “the real task is in fact to be objective towards oneself and subjective towards all others.” Knowing oneself is not a new idea, inscribed over the entrance to the six thousand year old Temple of Apollo in Greece is the famous aphorism or maxim “know thyself”. Sun Tzu, the 6th Century BC Chinese military strategist, similarly wrote: “ know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.”
We must try to firstly know ourselves. We must try to cultivate a deep understanding of ourselves, of our strengths and our weaknesses, of how we listen, of how we learn and most importantly, an understanding of how we interact with others and the company we choose to keep. According to Peter Drucker in his paper titled ‘Managing Oneself’, written in 1999 when he was ninety years old, knowing oneself involves both hard work and feedback analysis for you yourself, plus taking responsibility for relationships and the company you choose to keep. On a lighter note, may I now suggest a few practical tips from a business practitioner’s experience?
Unfortunately, I continue to encounter presentations let down by avoidable punctuation and typographical errors compounded by either indecipherable or over elaborate prose. If you are not absolutely sure when to use a possessive apostrophe or confused between the contractive version of “it is” -“It’s”-or “the possessive version “its”, which has no apostrophe, or you want to ensure people actually read and understand what you’re attempting to communicate, then purchase a good style guide. The incorrect application of these apostrophes is compounded by reliance on automatic ‘spell check’ type programmes which give a recipient the impression that the writer is either sloppy or indifferent, rather than giving the impression they’re professional and conscientious.
First impressions really do matter, so when addressing a letter, ensure you get the name and title of the person and the formal name of their company or organisation to which you are writing to are correct. If it is a CV that you are sending, don’t forget to contact any referees you include in advance so that they won’t be surprised if a prospective employer contacts them. My last practical suggestion is to request that you please don’t forget the non-profit sector, preferably those organisations whose ethos is primarily voluntary. Organisations founded on volunteerism are always available to welcome new young enthusiastic volunteers and I assure you the work will be both stimulating and rewarding.
Life is uncertain, nobody can predict the future but as long as you continue to act in good faith, never diminish your desire to continue the learning you’ve commenced during your time in UCC, treat people equally and always refuse to be indifferent throughout your professional careers, you will preserve the most valuable asset you or any organisation can ever have...your reputation. I sincerely wish you continued success and remember as Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, maintained; that just because you are unable to control what happens to you in life, you yourself can always control how you react and what you do about whatever happens to you in life.
Congratulations again to each of you, your families and your friends. Enjoy the rest of this special day and thank you for the opportunity to be part of your memorable day.
- Drucker, Peter F., “Managing Oneself ”,Harvard Business Review, January 2005
- Frankl , Viktor,E., “Man’s Search For Meaning” , Beacon Press, Boston, 2006
- Gould, Stephen J., “The Mismeasure of Man”, W.W.Norton & Co., New York 1996
- Kierkegaard, Soren , “The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard”, The New York Review of Books, edited by W.H. Auden,1999
- Medawar, Peter, Sir, “Is The Scientfic Paper a Fraud ?”, BBC Radio Talk, 1964
- Nickerson , Raymond S., “Confirmation Bias”, Review of General Psychology,Vol. 2, No. 2, 1998
- Pagonis, W.G. Lt.Gen., “Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War ” Harvard Business School Press,1992
- Val éry, Paul , “On Political Parties”, This Quarter, Paris ,Vol.IV, No.4, June 1932
- Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth ,“Why Arendt Matters” Yale University Press, 2006