May 19, 2018
Stephen M. Smith '92
President and CEO of L.L.Bean
First, Congratulations to the class of 2018! You did it; you made it; you are on your way! Congratulations. I remember this day 26 years ago.
I would like to thank the Committee on Honorary Degrees for selecting me, and I would like to personally thank Judge John Jones, our chair of the Board of Trustees and my new friend. Also, thanks to the entire Board of Trustees for their welcome and embrace of me as a new member, and finally to President Ensign—not only for this personal honor but for bringing her energy, intellect, vision and experience to this great college. The best is yet to come with Margee in charge.
So, with that out of the way, hi, I’m Steve Smith, class of 1992, four-year basketball player and captain, fraternity member and officer, art history major, physics minor, plus or minus 3.0 GPA graduate—who loved every minute of Dickinson.
My collective experiences—from building deep friendships (that are still my most cherished), learning, listening, leading, thinking, exploring, and building confidence—have served me well through a cool and diverse career.
You may know me, and Dickinson now really likes me, because of my title, I am president and CEO of L.L.Bean—but I have had an interesting and varied career that got me to this awesome role I now I have. And I credit Dickinson College for the foundation.
Before I get going on my actual message, I do have a quick personal shout out. My wife, Lynn, and our two daughters, Meghan and Sarah, are here in the crowd, and without them I am nothing. We have travelled the world together, and we are each critical to each of our own successes.
And my mom is here, for the first time since I walked out of Old West in 1992, and ever since I graduated with a bachelor’s degree 26 years ago, my mother has been asking me when I was going to go back to school to get a Master’s degree. Even when I was named to this decent role, she congratulated me and then said, “Now that you’re back in the U.S., do you think you might go and get your M.B.A.?” So, thank you, Dickinson. You have no idea how much this honorary degree means … to my mom. And to me!
When I was preparing my thoughts for this special occasion, I was of course wanting to impart some words of wisdom onto the class of 2018 that you could carry out into the world, so I have a story—my own story—that I hope fits the bill.
This is my backpack analogy.
This analogy has guided me since I was 25:
Take a moment for some visualization. I picture myself climbing a mountain, the Presidential mountain range in New Hampshire to be specific, just below the tree line, on a rocky, craggy trail, with the bare mountain ahead. I am trekking up the mountain, but I cannot see the summit, just the next few straights, turns or cairns marking the trail. It’s a little chilly, the sun is bright and the trail is wet from morning dew. On my back is a handwoven, wooden pack basket with an open top and with inch-and-quarter-wide leather shoulder straps that are wide enough to carry the load but are thin enough that you can feel them dig into your shoulders when the pack is getting full. And I imagine that as I am climbing this mountain, I am throwing things into my pack—experiences, skills, and knowledge—along the way.
Periodically, figuratively, I stop hiking, take off the pack, empty the contents and review what skills and experiences are in there, and I think about what skills or experiences I want to add or where I am qualified and ready to go. I have used this thought process for every major career or life event since I was 25, and it continues to serve me well.
Before I share a couple of transformative examples from my backpack story, let me share with you how I have used this analogy in building my career.
In 1996, at the age of 26, I moved from marketing at AT&T to sales at a small business in Portland, Maine. At that time, when I looked at the contents of my backpack, I saw marketing skills in a comfortable environment, and I could see that I had not tested myself with a job that rewarded effort and skill directly with compensation, like sales.
After 9/11 in 2001, I reflected on what changes I wanted to make in my life, and when I took off my backpack I saw a lot of travel experiences that had taken me away from home and my young family, and so I made the move to my first retail job, in Maine at Hannaford.
After several years of loving retail as a marketer, and looking forward to a long career in retail, I took off my backpack and saw years of marketing experience, but I did not see in my experience, what I saw in the leaders that I respected—merchandising and operations experience to give them a more holistic and well-rounded view of retail. So I pushed for merchandising and operations roles over the next few years.
A few years later, when I reviewed the experiences in my backpack, I realized that I needed general management experience. All of my experiences had been very task oriented and strategic, but I was missing the ability to manage, motivate and lead a large, diverse group. And so I pursued general management roles.
Through my work experiences, I threw into my backpack things like resilience, fortitude, humility, empathy, transparency; and I used my backpack to be sure I was building a diverse, interesting set of skills and experiences that I knew I would be able to use as my career progressed into bigger and more complex roles.
Now let me share the first of a few transformative experiences.
The first to share is from 2007. I had joined the Belgian retailer, Delhaize, first working for their Maine business Hannaford, and then moving to Florida for four years, creating Sweetbay Supermarkets.
One day, I was sitting in my office in Florida, and I was thinking about the future and wondering how I could distinguish myself later in my career. I emptied out the backpack and saw a common set of work experiences, homogeneity in work and life, but no real distinguishing feature, by another word—no diversity.
I recognized that if I stayed where I was, I was going to be just another middle-management, middle-aged, U.S.-centered white guy. I had no truly distinguishing features. And I thought, if I wanted to distinguish myself, maybe I could provide the diversity to another organization. If I was the one who was different, I would learn a new set of skills and experiences, I would develop a much stronger sense of empathy, an appreciation of the challenges and opportunities from being different, and I could differentiate myself in business with a new perspective.
So, I talked it over with Lynn, the girls were 5 and 7 and seemed OK with it, and this led to the decision to move from Florida to Belgium. I became the only non-Belgian in the Belgian business, learning the intricacies and complexities of their company and country cultures, learning and working in French and Dutch, figuring out how to live, work, survive and thrive in a foreign land—as a family.
And into the backpack went many deep cultural, business and international learnings, and the development of my deep empathy for being different in a place that is not your homeland and is fully unfamiliar. And equally a very deep appreciation for how diversity and diverse experiences can dramatically improve solutions and decision making.
My second example is from the 2008 Mumbai bombings.
In 2008, we were living in Brussels, and a horrible terrorist attack occurred at several hotels and community centers in Mumbai. That morning, we had the BBC on, and they were covering the tragedy. My daughter, Meghan, came downstairs and watched the news for a bit while eating breakfast. the general coverage was that this attack originated in Pakistan. At one-point Meg said, “When I get to school, I have to ask Asaia (ahhh-see-ahh) what Pakistan is really like.” Meghan and Sarah were enrolled at an international school with only about 20 percent Americans, and they had dozens of nationalities in class with them.
A lightbulb went off for me: She was not just processing the news; she was connected to the world and not simply willing to hear something on the news and believe it. Meghan and Sarah were becoming world citizens. I realized that I was now throwing their experiences into my backpack. I was seeing the world through their eyes, and that was starting to add to the weight of my backpack.
A few years later, my employer was offering to promote me to my first COO role. But it was in North Carolina. Once again, I emptied my backpack to see what skills and experiences I wanted to add, and what did I see? Tons of amazing family experiences from living and travelling in Europe and the Middle East. And at that moment, I decided I would be willing to move laterally, and even switch companies, if it meant that we could keep the international adventure alive; we were creating world citizens out of our daughters, we were bonding deeply as a family and their growth and our bonding was more important than my career.
Into my backpack went our shared experiences and the responsibility to enrich all of our lives through my work, if possible. And that reflection moved us from Belgium to Shenzhen China to Northern England and back to Shanghai China, eight years of adventure and learning.
And my final story …
It’s now 2015, we were living in Northern England—cold, dark and miserable—and the weather was even worse. I was chief customer officer at ASDA, working incredibly hard in extremely challenging circumstances: intellectually, politically, professionally. And I was miserable. I was a poor husband, poor father, I wasn’t working out regularly, and I had no friends outside of work because I was at the office from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.
And so, I turned to my backpack and I emptied it out on the kitchen table on a quiet Saturday.
And this time, I didn’t look for skills that were missing or experiences that I wanted to add. I looked for the things that made me happy. What gave me joy. When and where was I last happy at work? When was I psyched to get out of bed and go to the office?
I looked at a couple of my past work experiences to find these moments of joy. I then took the time to deconstruct those experiences to see what the component parts were. I found things like mission, values, alignment, transparency, collaboration, laughter and respect to be the things that I was craving to get back into my work experience.
There is an important lesson here: Don’t always be obsessed with adding new skills and experiences to move ahead; also take the time to reflect on what you have, when you were happy and truly had joy, when were you at your best and what were the conditions that brought that out.
And now, the pack basket comes full circle.
Today, I am in my dream job. I was lucky enough to get it thanks to the merit of the skills, experiences and learnings I’d thrown in my pack along the way. And thanks to the Bean board for choosing me.
I love the Bean brand, and always have. L.L.Bean is a company that has a passion for the outdoors, a mission to inspire and enable people to enjoy the outdoors, a commitment to serve customers and to sell great products, and to adhere to a powerful set of core values, doing great things for employees, customers and the world—all of which resonated with me very deeply.
Shortly after I got the job, I made another discovery.
L.L.Bean sells a product called the Allagash Pack Basket. It’s made of woven wooden strips, with an open top, and it has carry straps that are sturdy enough to carry the load but that are still thin enough that you can feel the weight of the pack as it fills.
The L.L.Bean Allagash Pack Basket is identical to the one in my imagination since I was 25 years old.
An Allagash Pack now sits in my office. It reminds me to continue adding new and different experiences from many different perspectives. It reminds me to reflect and pause. And it signifies my journey—past, present and future—and will continue to guide me.
And for a little surprise gift, I’ve also got a pack basket for all of you. They are hand made in Maine and we have over 500 being made. They will be distributed to you at your address on file some time after you throw your caps in the air.
The lessons for you, I hope, are obvious: Think about your life as a journey, and actively think about adding experiences as you move through the next exciting chapters of your lives as Dickinson graduates. Don’t be afraid to move forward, backward, sideways to add new skills, experiences and fulfillment.
Equally important, don’t always be on a quest to add. Slow down sometimes. Take the time to reflect upon what you already have and how you want to use old skills or find moments when you had an experience you want to replicate.
And most importantly, you already have a metaphoric Allagash pack on your backs right now. Dickinson College has provided you with the knowledge, skills, experience and relationships that have already begun to fill up your packs. Specifically, the Dickinson curriculum and approach has given you the ability to see issues and challenges from multiple perspectives and through many cross-cultural domestic and international experiences.
In addition, the Dickinson faculty have distinguished themselves by teaching you through an incredibly valuable interdisciplinary approach: teaching language through art or theatre, ethics through physics, international business through climate change, social issues through math, Roman history through computer science and so on. This approach will allow you to solve problems from multiple perspectives.
Your packs are already loaded.
So pick a destination, start moving towards it and start filling your pack with more. And when you hit a crossroads, don’t freak out—just take off your pack, look at what’s inside and decide how you want to navigate from there.
Congratulations once again to the class of 2018. We expect great things from you, and we hope that you will change the world!
I wish you all the best in your journey. Thank you for listening.