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Thinking Outside the Cubicle:
Business Skills in a Wider World

Nicholas Johnson

Alpha Kappa Psi Business Fraternity
University of Iowa

November 9, 2005

I am honored by your invitation to share some thoughts with you this evening.

Especially is this so given that you future business leaders normally want to hear from those who have already achieved their fame and fortune in the cause of ever-increasing corporate profits. That has not been my career path. I've never attended  a business college. I have never run a for-profit business.

Oh, I did spend some time in one of our nation's best corporate law firms. I suppose I was then working on matters designed to further increase corporate profits. Clients included our nation's largest steel and cement companies, and a couple of airlines. But the tasks involved the application of legal rather than management skills.

As a young boy growing up in Iowa City I had a paper route, and I helped put myself through college by selling door-to-door. And along the way I found myself elected national president of something called Hi-Y, the high school branch of the national YMCA, which automatically put me on the board of directors of the Y -- my first board membership, and first role as a troublemaker. My insistence that the other board members -- most of whom were four to five times my age -- had an obligation to come up with some goals for Hi-Y ultimately led to their commissioning a $100,000 study.

Aside from those minimal experiences, my professional life has not involved what we normally think of as "business" or "commercial."  Indeed, I sometimes explain that the reason my Web site is a "dot-org" is that I have never done anything that was a "com."

Your Options

And yet, thinking about this evening, I came to realize that much of what I have done with my life has involved many of the techniques you learn, and the skills you are developing, in the University of Iowa's College of Business. In sharing some of those experiences with you I hope to persuade you to "think outside the cubicle" that awaits you in some high-rise office building.

After a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Hugo L. Black, I began a law teaching career at the age of 25 as a professor in the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. During the past 45 years of teaching law I can tell you that not every one of my former students has ended up in a law firm. Many have, and have done so with great success. But there are also law grads who end up as trust officers in banks, agents in the FBI, elected public officials, government employees, law professors -- and, yes, businessmen and women.

There is an equivalent range of professional opportunities awaiting business graduates. The for-profit corporate sector is attractive to you, of course; but there are many other options. Some may be suggested to you by my stories this evening. Some are alternatives to the for-profit life; others are things you can do at the same time you're pursuing your business career.

Called to the White House

While practicing with that Washington corporate law firm I got a call one day in early 1964 to come visit President Lyndon Johnson's assistant Bill Moyers. President Kennedy had been assassinated the previous November, and the new team was only beginning to be formed. I was not then very politically sophisticated. I had never met President Johnson, knew no one on the White House staff, including Bill Moyers, no senators or members of congress, no Party leaders or wealthy campaign contributors. I'd never even been in the White House, except for a brief, public visitors' tour.

Even the process of being cleared by the Secret Service and just entering the West Wing that afternoon was exiting enough. But as the afternoon wore on, and Bill Moyers never appeared, the excitement began to fade just a tad. Suddenly a man appeared who was not Bill Moyers, and who told me I should follow him. We walked along some hallways, he opened a door, indicated a chair and told me to sit there. I did.

I would later come to know this man as Jack Valenti. He had formerly worked in a Houston public relations firm, and when he left the White House became president of the Motion Picture Association of America -- the Hollywood studios' trade association -- and perhaps the single most effective lobbyist in Washington. During his time in the White House some Washington insiders would joke about his all-purpose role at President Johnson's side: "Jack, get me a Fresca. And say, while you're up, why don't you write me a draft of my State of the Union message."

Their relationship was reflected in another story, at least reported as true. Someone calling the White House for Jack Valenti suddenly realized he was talking to the President. Flustered, the caller tried to blurt out an apology. "That's OK," the President said, "Jack's busy this afternoon, so I'm taking his calls."

As I looked around the room to which Jack Valenti had taken me, it began to dawn on me that I'd seen that room in photos and movies. I was about to have an experience similar to that of Jack Valenti's caller. Apparently Bill Moyers was busy that afternoon, so the President was taking his callers. I was having a private conversation with the president of the United States in the oval office.

The (President) Johnson Treatment

At that stage of my career, although I had majored in political science, and was focusing on administrative law as a law professor in Berkeley, I had never heard of the agency the President wanted to talk about: the Maritime Administration. The more he told me the less interested I was in working there. I explained that I had taken leave from the University of California to get more practical administrative law experience at Covington & Burling, that I had not yet finished my tour there, and that, when I did, I intended to return to California. Apparently my reluctance set me apart from others on the President's short list. Only later would I come to realize what the President then knew: Anyone who wanted to be Maritime Administrator was clearly unqualified. After a few minutes of what was known around Washington as "the Johnson treatment," I did the only thing anyone receiving "the treatment" could do: I accepted.

The President was solicitous, and sophisticated about the symbolism useful in launching the salt water career of his new, 29-year-old Maritime Administrator. He arranged for the swearing in to be performed in the Cabinet Room outside his office, with my family present. He had me sit in on a cabinet meeting. Both were unheard of for such a relatively lowly presidential appointment; the Maritime Administrator was then located in the Department of Commerce and reported to under-secretaries at that. As I later discovered, the President had made a point of telling a number of Washington's leading elected and appointed officials about me. And he must have talked to the members of the Senate Commerce Committee who held the hearings on my appointment -- as well as giving me the seasoned advice to pay a call on each of them before the hearing, which of course I then did.

At the hearing some senator asked what shipping experience I had had. I responded that I had once operated a canoe on the Iowa River, but not very successfully. Apparently that was enough experience to satisfy them, because the hearing was not painful, was relatively short, and my memory is there were no votes against my confirmation from either side of the aisle.

"Read these books and do what they say"

By the time I was 29 I had already found it necessary to learn some basics about broadcasting, the oil and gas industries, and the steel, cement and airline industries I mentioned earlier -- along with a number of law courses my colleagues had assigned their young law professor at Berkeley, and the numerous fact settings of the hundreds of cases that had come before the U.S. Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court when clerking for Judge John R. Brown and then Justice Hugo L. Black.

So I was either self-confident, or stupid, enough to think that I could quickly learn enough about the shipping and ship building industries as well. I gave myself a concentrated two weeks of reading day and night until I felt I knew at least enough to ask intelligent questions.

But I needed to know a little more than something about shipping and ship building.

The President had handed me an agency with thousands of employees world-wide, thousands of merchant ships from World War II that needed maintenance, billions of dollars in shipping and ship building subsidies, a four-year college academy for merchant marine officers, the chairmanship of a classified, international NATO organization, a nuclear-powered merchant ship that was supposed to immediately set sail on a world tour as a part of our "atoms for peace" program, and -- with the equivalent of three-star admiral rank, my own flag, and the additional title of "Director, War Shipping Authority" -- a working relationship with the Secretary of Defense, and Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, and Military Sea Transportation Service in providing the sea lift to Viet Nam.

In short, I needed to know something about management and administration. My experience in that department was even less than my ability at paddling a canoe. As I put it, "I've never administered anything more than a single secretary, and not that very well." The only advice I could get out of the Secretary of Commerce, Luther Hodges, as to what presidential appointees need to know was that I should make a point of going to the rest room every chance I got -- a little more colorfully expressed. As it turned out, that was good advice, but it was scarcely enough to manage what the President had put on my plate.

So I finally, at long last, turned to your field of study. I wrote some friends at the Harvard Business School: "Help. What do I do now?" Back by return mail came a box of books with a handwritten note on top: "Read these books and do what they say." I read them, and I did what they said -- along with a few ideas of my own.

The Monthly Marad Review

No more ship yards flying Marad employees to ship launchings, with diamond necklaces for their wives. No more liquor truck deliveries to the agency at holiday time. No more lunches at ship operators' expense. I'd meet with anyone from the industry, but only in my office.

I tried to meet every employee in the agency, including some for whom I was the first Administrator they'd met in 20 or 30 years there. Instead of meeting with the office chiefs in my conference room we held our meetings in an auditorium, with as many employees as we could fit in there. There was a comparative evaluation of employees at each GS grade. No more automatic promotions. Some were fired -- that's right, civil service employees can be removed. Some stayed where they were. Positions were created so others could be advanced. Everyone, including the office chiefs, was kept alert and involved by rotation into new positions and responsibilities.

No more every office chief signing off on every agency action. We identified the agency's programs and projects and selected one person to be responsible.

Most significant, this led to the creation of what we called the "Monthly Marad Review." You can still find the government report describing it on my Web site at "The Marad Management Information Reporting System,"

These were the charts, projecting progress on nearly 100 programs, that we displayed and discussed at those meetings in the auditorium with all the employees.

There are many more stories I could tell, but you get the idea.

From FCC to NCCB

From the Maritime Administration the President transferred me to the Federal Communications Commission as one of the-then seven commissioners. This also required a bit of quick study, learning enough to ask intelligent questions about a range of telecommunications industries including what was then the AT&T absolute telephone monopoly, the Western Union Telegraph Company, Intelsat and its communications satellites, under-ocean cables, business radio, citizens band and amateur radio, and of course commercial radio and television -- which was then pretty much limited to ABC, CBS and NBC.

But while I needed to know enough not to do those industries any harm, the primary responsibility for running the FCC was shared among the Executive Director, the Chairman, and the six other commissioners.

Following the FCC experience, with the exception of a few months spent campaigning for congress from Iowa's old Third District, the exercise of my management skills was limited to running a citizens' public interest group primarily focused on reducing violence in network programming. I was chair of something called the National Citizens for Broadcasting, or NCCB.

Many public interest activists make the mistake of thinking all they need to run an organization is a clear head and a pure heart. But as those of you here know, that's not enough. A non-profit organization needs individuals with virtually all of the same skills found in a for-profit: some system of reporting against goals, management of human resources, accounting, public relations, purchasing and sales, and so forth.

There were over 2000 studies documenting the relationship between violence on television and violence in our society. That was the easy part. The hard part was how to get the networks to produce less violent programming. A little systems analysis produced the answer -- and the first time in history, before or since, that there has actually been a reduction in TV violence. We simply monitored the programming, identified the companies most closely associated with violent programming, and then I presented them the awards for being among "America's 10 bloodiest corporations" -- following which their sales declined. That did it.

It wasn't exactly door-to-door sales, but the principle was similar. Find a need -- or create a need -- and fill it. Don't expect your customer to have a real enthusiasm for satisfying your needs. My study of broadcasting revealed that it's not about selling programs to the audience. It's about selling the audience's eyeballs to advertisers -- at a "cost per thousand." That being the case, there wasn't much point in asking broadcasters to reduce violence in programming. Violence attracted eyeballs. "Follow the money." And the money trail led to the advertisers. Reduce the advertisers' sales and you have their attention. Tell them to reduce the violence in the programs in which they advertise or their sales will decline further and they're ready to take action. And when the broadcaster's boss, the advertiser, says he wants less violence in the programs the broadcaster salutes smartly and says, "Yes, sir." To borrow the President's phrase, "Mission Accomplished." But in our case it really was.

Back Home, and Rain Forests

Back in the 1920s and 1930s there was a columnist and speaker named Will Rogers. You may know him only for the beach that bears his name north of Santa Monica, and his ranch on up the hill from there. He once described his political party affiliation: "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat."

So the Democratic Party remains to this day. And so it was in the 1980s when I served on the Johnson County Democrats Executive Committee. Frankly, I didn't even try very hard to bring any basic management skills to that assignment. But there is certainly room for them with the national Democratic Party these days -- if you could ever get anyone to listen.

Any political party that relinquishes the U.S. Senate, and House, the White House, most of the judiciary and state houses to its opponents, and continues to take brickbats from them for anything that goes wrong in government, could use a few management skills. Any political party that doesn't have a mission statement, a set of goals in the form of a platform, a business plan for funding it -- a political party that doesn't even have a cynical plan for winning elections without any of that -- is clearly in need of assistance from someone with your skills.

Another bit of non-profit service for the local community involved what the City then called its Broadband and Telecommunications Commission. It was nowhere nearly as disorganized as the local Party, but I was never able to get my colleagues to look beyond the myopic focus of "cable television" to the broad horizon that I saw for Iowa City during the telecommunications revolution of the 1980s and 1990s.

The proposed indoor rain forest for Coralville is yet another example of where and how you can use business techniques outside of the conventional for-profit sector. As a part of my general Web site,, I maintain a separate Web site regarding the rain forest project, It is now probably about one hundred pages of text, with links to the full text of many hundreds of comments by others. I mention the Web site in part because it may be of interest to you, but also because in this case the Web site is all there is to my involvement in this project; the Web site and an occasional published op ed column in one of the Iowa newspapers.

I am not on the staff of the rain forest project. I belong to no organization that either supports, or opposes, the project. In fact, while most people who know of my interest assume I am opposed, I contend that I'm not. What I am opposed to is public money being put into a project that is not well thought through -- from a business perspective.

There is no end to the possible benefits that might flow from a project that in some way involves a covered rain forest. But this proposal has been around for nine years. It started off as a $300 million project; then $225 million; and now $180 million. Notwithstanding Senator Charles Grassley's delivery of $50 million in federal taxpayers money to the promoters, and the skilled professionals this has enabled them to take on board, they have not raised an additional dime during the two years since then.

The deal breaker, what I have called "the elephant in the rain forest," is that they have remained $90 million short on a $180 million project -- a rather significant shortfall. Worse, there is no there there. They have no focus. As one blogger commented, "it's a floor wax, it's a desert topping, it's whatever they want it to be." It has been promoted over time as a scientific research center, a K-5 school, a tourist attraction, a teacher training facility, an IMAX theater, and a display center for environmentally friendly technology. Obviously, as the old saying has it, "If you don't know where you're going the odds are pretty good you'll never get there." Without a specific focus, and some detailed plans, it's impossible to even attempt to create a business plan that might project necessary cash flow, costs, and reserves. Needless to say, you go about funding a scientific research facility differently from the way you fund a tourist attraction. All I know is that, as a tourist attraction, it would have to have an attendance made up of every man, woman and child in Iowa -- from new-born babe to terminally ill nursing home resident -- paying the rain forest admission fee every two years for the entirety of their lives.

Why did I get involved in this? That's what my family and friends would like to know. Mostly because when I ask questions I like to get answers. When I have the sensation I'm being stonewalled I get a little stubborn. That's what happened here.

But what we're talking about, in this instance, is what Ralph Nader calls the role of the "public citizen." He may be able to persuade you that you have a civic obligation to pick a project like this and track it on behalf of your community. I won't make that argument. I'm just here to tell you it's one whale of a lot of fun, and an opportunity to use your business skills in a way that costs you nothing and may benefit your community enormously.

Full Circle and "Ends Policies"

After the local Democratic Party and the Broadband and Telecommunications Commissiono, my third effort at a non-paying job in community service was a little more successful.

Iowa City's beloved public librarian, Lolly Eggers, had served as the treasurer of my school board campaign. She recommended I read some of the books by John Carver that have to do with re-thinking the role of boards -- boards for Fortune 500 corporations, boards for non-profits and NGOs, and school boards. By your standards it's pretty basic stuff; sort of a no-brainer. But as is so often the case with no-brainers, they are only obvious to most folks after the idea is explained to them. Fortunately, we had enough open-minded, progressive school board members who were willing to work hard that this time a proposed reform of mine actually fell into place. Rather than micro-managing our school superintendent's job -- or, at the other extreme, rubber-stamping his every proposal, with little thought or discussion -- we began setting the long term goals for the district. I kept asking my colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?" And together we worked out the measures for those things we considered our top priorities.

As it happens, my stories this evening are about to come full circle.

One of my school board colleagues, Don Jackson, was an Iowa City Proctor & Gamble executive. We hit it off, got to discussing management information systems one day, and Don invited me to see the P&G management information system room -- something about the size of your high school gymnasium, with walls covered with charts.

Why "full circle"? Because those P&G charts, it turned out, were in many respects almost identical to those I had created 35 years earlier as Maritime Administrator after following some business school professors' advice to "read these books and do what they say."

The universality of business school insights and skills was brought home to me once again, back in my old home town.


And that's the message I want to bring to you with these stories this evening. What you are learning in business school can be used to further enrich corporate executives and shareholders, for sure. It can help you to help them enjoy not just a profit but an ever-increasing profit, quarter after quarter. You can live well financially. Moreover, many of those for-profit efforts also provide a genuine service to the communities in which they are located, and beyond.

But what you have learned, and the skills you have honed, can also help you to help others far beyond the conventional for-profit world.

Establishing and reporting against goals with management information systems, ferreting out cost and revenue centers, improving efficiency of operations, are all things just as necessary for non-governmental organizations and other non-profits, religious institutions, governmental agencies, and other civic undertakings.

These won't -- usually -- bring you great wealth. But they can bring you great satisfaction; what Iowa's Sandy Boyd described earlier this week as "the importance of psychological income." [For the quote and a review of University of Iowa non-profit courses, programs and opportunities, see generally, Nicole Riehl, "Love Over Money; Young Adults' Involvement in Non-Profit Work Rises," The Gazette, November 7, 2005.]

As someone else has said, "happiness consists of using one's powers and skills in the pursuit of excellence." Our College of Business is providing you great powers and skills. You can use them to increase your financial income; but you can also use them to increase your "psychological income," your happiness.

But don't think you need leave your College of Business behind when you engage in volunteer activities of various kinds. They are needed there more than ever.