Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dave Kearns

I am not sure at what age the obit page becomes a section that you check every day, but as I was going through the NY Times today I realized that whatever that age is, I was there.

I also realized that when I read of the passing of David T. Kearns, former CEO at Xerox that aside from the respect I had for him when I worked at Xerox, I was reminded that some of the passion I feel around the need to fix our public education system (e.g. Trickle Down Education) came from Dave. The connectiion was something I had not thought about for a long time.

I also thought that if I were to do a word cloud analysis of the topics in these postings over the past five or six years, words/phrases like "education", "business leadership", "executive leadership" and "value systems" would show up a lot, and in reading Tom Zeller, Jr's article on Dave my memory was refreshed again as to why.

Now for sure Dave Kearns was not the only factor in how or why I came to be so concerned about the challenges we face on the education front. 

Certainly my parents played a big part (my father was a teacher and  research scientist while my mother a voracious reader).  In addition, I was lucky enough to have attended Hopkins School in New Haven at a time when someone with my suspect commitment to study could still get in and it was not until I was well into trying to earn a living that I came to realize just how important those years we in saving my "educational" and hence my "economic" life, but I digress. 

In 1971, the only thing Dave Kearns and I had in common was that we both came to Xerox in the same year.  Of course, he was bringing with him a very successful track record from IBM and I barely had a record, much less a successful one.

In 1977 Dave Kearns was the COO and he became the CEO in 1982 and for anyone familiar with Xerox history over the years, to say that Xerox was in trouble would be an understatement.  The Japanese were eating our lunch big time or as Kearns said at the time in a Times interview: "We are in the proverbial soup."

To this day, I vividly recall Kearns' quote when he became the CEO and was asked how he would like his tenure to be remembered in years to come and he said " the one who beat the Japanese."

Easy to say, but very hard to do as this was back in the day when Japan was leading the world in product design and manufacturing efficiency and quality.  Heck, it was Edward Deming who showed them how, but back in USA we were too lazy to make the effort.

Dave Kearns did lead Xerox back from the brink, and as Zeller points out in the article, one of the key things was that Kearns saw "...the Japanese approaches to both business and education as models for American reforms."

For someone to keeping pushing for what they think is important takes an enormous amount of passion and energy.  Dave Kearns had both as I had the chance to learn personally when I was at corporate headquarters for much of the same time Dave was there.  I saw that energy and heard the passion on many occasions as we often ran side by side on treadmills in the fitness center in the morning.

Now I don't know if Dave's passion regarding education came out of that his experience during that time or not, I never thought to ask him, but whatever it was, it stayed with him long after he left Xerox and this is well detailed in the Times article.  He stuck with it for more than 20 years including during the years when he was fighting sinus cancer which is what finally brought his life to an end.

Leaders like David Kearns don't come along all that often.  It was a privilege to have known him.

No comments: