Thursday, April 19, 2018

Speech at University of Texas staff awards ceremony

I had the chance to give a speech at the 2018 Staff Awards ceremony at the University of Texas.  Here is the text of my remarks.

           Thank you President Fenves.  Thanks to you, Debra Kress, and your staff for giving me the chance to speak to you today.  Congratulations to all of the award recipients and welcome to all those who have come to celebrate their accomplishments.
            The wonderful thing about awards ceremonies is that it gives us a chance to recognize people who have put in extra effort to make the University of Texas function so effectively.  One of the most important things that they do is to strengthen our community.
            Sociologists have spent a lot of time studying the kinds of relationships that people engage in.  It turns out that we can sort the people we encounter in the world into three groups:  Family, Neighbors, and Strangers.
            Most of the people in your life are Strangers.  You don’t know them, and they don’t know you.  You don’t have any kind of trust built up with them.  When you engage in transactions with Strangers, you have to settle up in the moment, because you don’t know if you will ever see them again.  If you are driving down Mopac and you get a flat tire and someone with a truck pulls over and helps you change your tire, it would not be embarrassing to pull out a twenty-dollar bill as a way of saying thanks.  The person might refuse saying they just stopped to help, but it wouldn’t be an inappropriate gesture.  Likewise, you can’t borrow eggs from HEB.  You are a Stranger to your grocery store, and so it is cash on the barrel for each purchase.
            At the extreme other end are Family.  You have lots of interactions with Family.  You engage in rituals with them.  You celebrate holidays and birthdays.  And—as a result—you have a highly trusted relationship with them.  So much so, that when you engage in transactions with family, you don’t really keep score.  Parents do and do and do (and do) for their children without ever sending them a bill (much as they might like to sometimes).  Children may take care of their aging parents without sending in a time sheet.  And every family has a ne’er-do-well uncle who has never made much of his life.  The Family takes care of him—even if he is the butt of the occasional family joke.  (I also tell people that if you can’t figure out who that uncle is, it might be you…). 
            In the middle, we have neighbors.  Neighbors are people we know reasonably well.  We have conversations and parties, and do favors.  We see them often.  We have developed some amount of trust.  You even have some rituals.  In my old neighborhood, at the end of October every year, we had Hallowine in which we put all of the candy from the block on one driveway while the adults drank wine and watched the costumes.  When we engage in transactions with neighbors, we don’t’ settle up in the moment.  But, we do keep score.  A neighbor who takes and never gives is eventually kicked out of the neighborhood. 
            If you wake up one morning and see that you have a flat tire, your neighbor might come out and help you fix it.  But, you wouldn’t thank him by offering a twenty-dollar bill.  That would be embarrassing.  Instead, you might bake a banana bread or drive his kids to school one day.  You don’t have to settle up that day, but you do in the long-run. 
             Most healthy organizations create neighborhoods.  Our co-workers are our neighbors.  UT is a big neighborhood. 
Each of us puts in effort at our jobs to help make the university a better place.  We get to know our colleagues.  We try to make sure that the people around us are able to achieve their goals.  Of course, we are keeping score.  Anyone who routinely takes things from others, but never gives back is eventually taken to task for it.  Other people will not band together to help solve a problem without payment when they do not trust that a particular person or group is part of the neighborhood.
We forget the importance of the UT neighborhood at our peril.  No important job can get done here unless everyone works together.  When one of our sports teams makes the playoffs, we all come together to ensure that an unexpected event is handled smoothly.  We bring together parking, facilities, UTPD and emergency services and more.  If we were all strangers, then each unexpected thing would have to be handled with a change order.  We would have contracts that specified the letter of what had to be accomplished. 
Neighbors don’t have contracts, they have covenants.  They agree on a set of principles that guide what they want to accomplish and then they work together to make it happen.  They know that some days their unit may have to bear the brunt of a new task, but that at other times, other members of the community will step up to do their share.
But, a neighborhood requires energy to keep up.  It does not happen on its own.
You who are here today—particularly those of you who are being honored at this ceremony—are the builders of the UT neighborhood.  You take it upon yourselves to welcome new employees into the neighborhood and to show them what it means to be a Longhorn.  You help to develop people’s careers and to let the people who work here know that UT wants them to succeed.  You lead by example, letting your commitment to the institution influence the attitudes and actions of the people around you.   You get to know your colleagues and develop a trusted network.
And we all must continue to tend our neighborhood.  Staff, faculty, and administrators must recognize how important—and how fragile—our neighborhood can be.  We must look to develop our future leaders and supervisors.  We must take care of each other when times are bad.  And give of our time, expertise, and wisdom when times are good.  We must all live up to the ideals of this great university.  And—most of all—we must continue to serve as an example to our students, to Texans, and the world beyond that what starts here changes the world only when we work together as neighbors.
Hook ‘em.