by Joseph Master

Recently, former CEO and successful business consultant Anne Long took the helm as chair of the College of Liberal Arts Board of Visitors. Here’s what she had to say about taking chances and the power of serendipity.

First of all, congratulations on your recent appointment as chair of the College of Liberal Arts Board of Visitors. There are a lot of students in this college who probably don’t know what a “board of visitors” actually is. Can you tell us what the board does?

Well, first, thank you! My take on it in discussions with Dean Deeg is that our job is to provide advice and feedback, to raise money, and to be visible in our communities — particularly for those of us who work farther away from Temple. We have some West Coast and Midwest board members and I’m in Austin, Texas. And to also really be observant in our communities about what our competition is doing. To be aware of what other schools are doing to attract people to what is a difficult field now, liberal arts, in some ways. The challenge for us is, “how do you prove that you are going to get a job?”

So, I think it’s our job to be passionate and vocal about how the liberal arts have informed our careers and how it has made us better professional people, better people in general.

As someone who went from financial services at Merrill Lynch Insurance Group and pivoted to consulting, I’m really interested in your current line of work. How can the Board help to prove the value of a liberal arts education? How have you proven it?

Well, I was the first in my family to go to college. I’ll date myself, here [laughs]. In 1981, I graduated with my political science degree. I went to the Philadelphia Inquirer and looked under “P” for political scientist and they didn’t have job listings. It was a rude awakening to find that out, because no one in my family knew how to help me with what was next. I just wanted the degree and wanted to study political science. I always knew I was going to go to college. I don’t know why. So, I scrambled to find a job because I had paid my way through college on a credit card. My bills were due and I found a Canadian life insurance company that only hired liberal arts majors, and they had a training program where they said: “We will teach you the business. We think business majors think they already know everything about business, so we like to hire liberal arts majors because we can mold them.”

We’ve heard that a lot from employers. This idea that spreadsheets and basic accounting principles can be taught. But those creative skills that allow someone to persuade and engage are in demand.

Right. So, in my job interview — and I still can’t believe I got the job — the head of the regional office here said, “Anne, tell me: What’s the difference between a stock and a bond?”

I said, “I have no earthly idea, but I know how to get the answer.” And he loved the honesty of it. My parents didn’t have investments. They had bills to pay each month and there was an envelope that was for the mortgage, and groceries. So, stocks and bonds were not a thing I grew up knowing anything about. But, in pretty short order, I knew what they were and I thought I’d do the job for a year and I kept progressing in my career and got the opportunity to manage people and do more interesting work.

It could have been any career, quite frankly. It just happened that the insurance industry saw something in me and helped me develop a profession.

There is this old saying: “Any path won’t get you there. You have to pick one.” Do you agree with that? Do you believe that you picked your opportunity and it opened up more paths for you?

I think I didn’t know any better, to be honest.

I didn’t have a group of mentors or some social system where, you know, my dad was in the country club and knew a guy or gal. I didn’t have that, and so what I had was — all of a sudden  —successful adults in my life in my business life who were helping guide me to make choices within a narrow frame. I was doing good work, and they didn’t want to lose me, so no one was saying, “Well what’s really in your heart? What did you think you were going to do as a kid?” I don’t know that I looked any further because I was having success. Now, I have nieces and nephews who I mentor, and I tell them, “if you are going to be poor, and likely you will in your first job, be passionate.”

So, really love what you do.

I didn’t necessarily love my career but I loved building and mentoring teams. I loved the success that came with it and how I felt about myself and that I was exceeding all the expectations that I thought life was going to afford me. You know, I was adopted, and so much of my life had been random in a way, but it is probably part of some bigger plan. To end up where I have ended up I attribute a lot of it to coming to Temple, quite frankly.

What’s your Temple story? How did you find your way to the College of Liberal Arts?

I was accepted to Villanova, and it was my first choice, being a good Catholic girl from Northeast Philly. I got the acceptance letter and my mom said, “How much did that cost you to apply?” And I said, “$35.” And she said, “Why did you waste that money?”

My mother had never burst my dreams before that day. I said, “What do you mean mom? I got in.” My guidance counselor told me I could never get in and I was going to prove her wrong. And she said, “Well, we can’t afford to send you to Villanova.” And I said, “You haven’t been saving since I was a baby?” I had no idea how this all worked. So I scrambled a couple of weeks before the semester started to get into Temple and to figure out how to make it work, including the commute.  I walked to high school. So it was a life-changing event. It really was. I think I learned more about life at Temple than I learned about any subject matter when I think about it now. I didn’t know people of color. I didn’t know people of different religious persuasions. I lived in a bubble and my bubble got burst when my mother told me we didn’t have the money.

It was the best thing to ever happen to me.

Many of our students find incredible jobs in fields so far outside of their major. For instance, the philosophy student who gets hired by a financial firm, because they’re looking for that particular kind of mind that isn’t going to solve a problem, but is going to look ahead to foresee the next problem. So, can you speak to that, as an employer and as somebody who traversed a more picaresque path?

I have hired a lot of people in my career, and I don’t discriminate against business majors, but I find that, because I often don’t know what is going to happen five years from now in my own industry, that I need thinkers and problem solvers.

I need people who know how to approach a problem, ask the right questions, and interact well on a team of people who might come at it from a different point of view. And I found that when I put five business majors on a project, there’s a lot of groupthink that happens. When I intersperse the teams with people who come from a lot of different disciplines — for instance, creative arts —I have had marketing teams where you tend to get more graphic design folks, and you put them in a room and the dialogue is a lot more interesting. There’s not often consensus about what the problem even is, which is good because then I think you don’t go down the rabbit holes that can catch you up when you are trying to solve a problem. I just find that I can get teams to value the diversity a little more of what each of us bring to the problem-solving situation.

So, I guess I do have a bias towards liberal arts majors, having been one. I just think the critical thinking skills are really all you have when you’re solving problems. Unless you have a very specific skill set, like you’re an architect and it’s a design problem or you’re a software engineer and you are trying to write code. I think solving business problems and running businesses require you to take in a lot of different information.  Having good business acumen I think you’re positioned well when you have good critical thinking skills.

Tell me about consulting. What has that been like for you? I mean, you worked, I would say, in Corporate America. And now you’re running your own shop.

My clients in Corporate America, interestingly, were entrepreneurs. So I was on the corporate side, but my clients were independent entrepreneurs building their own businesses. I love their lifestyle. I love their ability to think about what they want to, when they want to think about it, with no restrictions. In the corporate world you stay in your box and you think about things on a schedule that is not your own. I was curious about whether you could be an entrepreneur or you had to be born an entrepreneur. And I had been defying the odds so far, and I thought, “what the heck?” I’m going to hang my shingle and I am just going to see if I can create value in the world for a group of clients. I knew who my clients would be, financial services the businesses I knew, and I would get asked a lot of times to solve problems and I would have to say, “I am sorry but I have this mission here at the corporation and it doesn’t involve actually helping you grow your business. Love to help, but that is not what we do. That is on you to grow your business; we provide all of this other support.”  

So I did have a financial opportunity. My company had gone public so I had the wherewithal to take the risk. So I did. I literally hung my shingle. I had my first client right away and I loved it. I did it for eight years and I got called back by the company I had left to come and run a division and be a CEO. So I posed the same question: “Could you be a CEO?” I had never been a CEO. I have been number two but I would like to see what it is like to call the shots. Because I had always been mandated kind of what the mission was and I was great at executing on it, but now I had wanted to see if I could do that. So, I did that for three years and we went from public to private and I choose to go back to being my own boss.   

You have used the words “startup,” “corporate” and “entrepreneurship.” These are words that are commonly accepted as the vernacular of the business school. I want you to think back to 1981, when the Phillies were good. Would you have ever thought that you’d be in this spot now where this is your vernacular? Where you are talking about partnering with startups, and consulting, and volunteering your time to help your alma mater?

Never. I mean, I was going to go to law school and I was probably going to be a prosecutor because, well, they’re the good guys, right? I was a political science major and I did some work interning with a city councilperson and with the Department of Welfare, so I always thought it was a government career that I was headed towards. That’s until I started getting those paychecks. I took the law boards and I did okay, but I thought, “Just one more year to save a little bit more money and you make your deal with the devil.” But no, I never would have thought I’d be here.

I think, in some ways, timing and my life has been serendipitous. Who I ended up with as parents and where I ended up. That first employer, I think the Canadian mentality, it was a much more welcoming environment for women in 1981 working for a Canadian company than had I ended up with a U.S. insurance company. It was more liberal, it was more forward thinking. It was a great fit for me. I met some of my dearest lifelong friends at that job who I still see. We have all gone off to interesting and different careers. Most were liberal arts majors, which is interesting now that I think about it, and they’ve gone back to doing what they originally wanted to do in the first place.

The College of Liberal Arts sees tremendous opportunity with a professional consultant as the chair of its Board of Visitors. Someone who understands how to look from the outside of an organization and provide solid feedback. Is that something you are looking forward to working on with Dean Deeg? I can see the passion every day on his face about new initiatives to reach our students, faculty and alumni.

Yes! I think the timing is great to come in with a new dean. I think it’s great that he is from within the college because this is probably, from my short time on the board, not an easy organization to maneuver through, and we have seen that with other deans who have come in and you either beat the system or it beats you. I think he is the perfect guy at this time. So, I think that any time there’s someone new, there is that early honeymoon period where you can try some new things and you can take some risks. I think that is why I was interested in stepping up at this point.

We should add here that Edward Buthusiem, the Board’s outgoing chair, did an incredible job as well.

Absolutely. Let me say this. Ed and I were classmates in the Honors program, so I knew Ed in the late 70s and early 80s. He has done a phenomenal job. He’s enthusiastic, passionate about the school, just like he was back in the 80s. So, yes. He did a fantastic job.

You mentioned risk. What advice would you give to someone right now who is entering into his or her final semester at Temple about taking that jump? About the power of risk? What risk would you perhaps challenge a graduating senior or even underclassman to take?

I’ll paraphrase a quote for you: “The biggest risk is not to take the risk.” The biggest risk is to play it safe. You have got nothing to lose when you are coming out in your first job. I just finished the first couple chapters of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat Pray Love. She talks about the disservice we do to people to say follow your passion. She says that passion flames. It comes and it goes and it is hot, it’s heavy and then it’s gone. But if you follow your curiosity, you will have a friend for life. What I would tell people, as I tell my nieces and nephews who are college age and a little older, is try a lot of things. Be curious. Don’t look at things as failure, because it is all part of the path.

Now, my situation was more desperation. I needed a job. In 1981 the Phillies might have been, good but the economy? Not as much. So, I took what I could get. Again, I didn’t have an infrastructure of people guiding me to the kinds of jobs to look for or how to apply and that kind of thing so I felt really lucky to get the job.

I would tell students now is that when you’re not sure, try lots of things until you might something that feels right. It may surprise you where you will find it. That is the gift of curiosity that gets nurtured from a life in the liberal arts.

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