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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Richard Cavanagh

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-14

Richard Cavanagh wears his humor as only an Irishman can.

"To have a sense of the absurd, to look at the lighter side of life, to lighten others' burdens by making them laugh - I get great satisfaction out of that," the president and CEO of The Conference Board said.

"My humor springs from observing what people are sensitive about, what they're embarrassed about, what they find ironic. What I find most fruitful is conducting myself in a happy and nice way. I avoid being mean spirited," he said.

Few would assign mean spiritedness to Mr. Cavanagh. He is, after all, Irish, a scion of four grandparents who came to America because, as he puts it, they were "persnickety," a dutiful son who helped his widowed mother look after his older brother Joey who'd suffered all his life with cerebral palsy (and who died two years ago at 62), a man who makes no bones about being emotional at the drop of a shamrock.

He is also shrewd. He's a superb judge of individuals and institutions. He's capable of sizing up situations and offering practical solutions to problems. He's able to deal with mandarins and mountebanks alike without losing the common touch, as he puts it. And as Mr. Cavanagh also puts it, "I'm non-threatening to people - I can get along with most everybody."

Those qualities won him important assignments during 17 years with the storied consulting organization McKinsey & Company.

They included the rehabilitation of America's railroads, after most of them went bankrupt in the 1970s; the reorganization of New York City's municipal finances, also in the 1970s, after the city nearly went belly up; and the rebuilding of the country's Federal air traffic-controller system, after President Reagan fired controllers who went on an illegal strike.

Those assignments were all the more impressive because Mr. Cavanagh had once been turned down for an internship by McKinsey. (He framed the rejection letter, and it still hangs on his wall.)

"For a long time after I was hired by them upon getting my degree from Harvard Business School, I lived in fear that someone at McKinsey would discover I'd been rejected once - and that I'd have to leave the company," Mr. Cavanagh said.

He said that with - what else? - a laugh.

There had never been any danger of his being booted out by McKinsey, of course. For one, he'd hit the ground running. For another, the longtime managing director of McKinsey had adopted him as a protege.

"Even though I wore my hair long at that time, and was the only Democrat in the place, Marvin Bower took an interest in me," Mr. Cavanagh said of the managing director. "Marvin was the soul of the company - he'd been its guiding influence since he joined the company in 1933. He was also the founder of professional management consulting."

Mr. Cavanagh smiled, as if at a sweet thought.

"He liked me. He made me self confident. He taught me to be independent. Marvin also taught me how to deal with important people, the sort who'd retain McKinsey as consultants for their companies. He taught me to understand that even important people - CEOs, political leaders, business barons - are just human beings. They have the same hopes, ambitions, fears and insecurities as the rest of us," Mr. Cavanagh said.

Important people like Bower - who died in 2003 at the age of 99 - and the management guru Peter Drucker mentored Mr. Cavanagh after his undergraduate days at Wesleyan University in Connecticut (where he majored in philosophy, political science and economics); at Harvard Business School, in Washington during the Carter administration (where he served as director of cash management in the Office of Management and Budget), and at the Kennedy School of Government, where Mr. Cavanagh was executive dean.

"Why did people warm up to me? Why did they help create opportunities for me? Well, I was non-threatening to them. They felt good about helping me. But I also enjoyed being a genuine friend to them," Mr. Cavanagh said.

He emphasizes the importance of making friends and sustaining friendships.

"If I look at all the good things that happened in my life - all had to do with friends," Mr. Cavanagh said. "It's really important in life to have friends who care about you - and about whom you care. Friends and family should matter most. That's the first lesson I would draw from my own life."

And the second lesson?

"Take advantage of good luck," Mr. Cavanagh said.

Good luck in his case came early in the form two high school teachers in New Jersey - where he grew up in Metuchen - who exhorted him to aim for elite colleges. One teacher, Anthony Capriglione, actually drove him to schools like Yale, Wesleyan and the University of Pennsylvania. Another teacher, Martha Morrow, relentlessly drove home the necessity of acquiring a full education.

"They inspired me," Mr. Cavanagh said of his teachers.

Good luck also came in the form of advice offered by a professor at Harvard Business School at a time when Mr. Cavanagh seemed uncertain what to do after his MBA.

"Sounds like you have no idea what you want to do - why don't you go and work for McKinsey?" the professor said. He embellished his advice by making discreet calls that ensured an interview for his student.

"McKinsey allowed me to re-invent myself as often as I wished," Mr. Cavanagh said. "But I'd never have gotten in had it not been for that professor. That was good luck - and I took advantage of it. To be a successful consultant, you have to have incredible passion and stamina for solving other people's problem on their own deadline."

And the next lesson of his life?

"Be independent - tell it like it is, but do it in a friendly, non-threatening way," Mr. Cavanagh said.

He lived by that axiom during his McKinsey years, of course, and also in Washington. When he arrived there to join the Carter administration, Mr. Cavanagh found that cash flow management in government was poor. He spoke out for reform in town that valued the status quo. But he succeeded in instituting better systems control - and he saved the government more than $12 billion.

His accomplishments eventually fetched him the presidency of The Conference Board, a 90-year-old membership organization of 2,400 top American companies and an annual budget of $60 million. It flourished under Mr. Cavanagh's stewardship as he expanded the institutional menu to include publication of influential economic indicators and also widen the not-for-profit organization's global presence. He also helped craft standards of better corporate governance for America's business community.

Now it's 11 years later, and time to move on for Mr. Cavanagh.

What next?

"My wife Patricia says she's too young to be married to a pensioner," Mr. Cavanagh, who's also chairman of the Educational Testing Service, said. "So maybe there's a leadership position somewhere in the foundation world. Or something in higher education. The issues of class, race, merit, and access to opportunity - these all interest me.

"Well, I've been a lucky guy. It's been said that I'm the king of networkers. Something good will come along. I'm Irish."

What is it they say about the luck of the Irish?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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