Building Leaders in the Age of Globalization

Mike Eskew (BSIE '72) is chairman and chief executive officer of UPS, the world's largest package delivery company and a global leader in supply chain services. This essay was adapted from his speech "Education in an Age of Globalization."

The world is changing. Business is changing. Our society is changing. And the way we teach and nurture our future leaders must also change.

In times of extraordinary transformation, it's natural to feel that we are unique and experiencing changes no one else ever had to deal with. But if you think back to what Abraham Lincoln and the Congress of 1860 were facing, that situation was remarkably similar to what we are going through today. No, I'm not talking about the Civil War. I'm talking about an often overlooked issue of that day: a transforming economy and jobs.

Then, sweeping economic change threatened a largely agricultural economy and a rural, insular way of life. In quick succession, steamboat service was introduced; scores of canals were constructed; thousands of miles of railroad track were laid; and countless telegraph lines were strung throughout the nation. Almost overnight, large numbers of what had been generally self-sufficient local economies found themselves caught up in a changing and expanding national economy. Competition came from producers in many parts of the country, and even from industries abroad.

There was tension then, too, but Lincoln's administration pushed forward policies encouraging Americans to own property and establish businesses, and assigned a role for government to support the economic, educational, and technological changes taking hold at the time. One of those policies was to pass the Morrill Act, which established land-grant universities, of which Purdue was one of the first. The administration also established a transcontinental railroad. The rest is history: a collection of states became a nation, and a climate for Americans to capitalize on innovation and emerging technologies was created. The stage was set for the American economy to dominate the 20th century.

Now we must compete in a 21st-century world economy. As a father, a citizen, and someone who cares deeply about global trade, global prosperity, and global harmony, I feel it is our mission to help prepare people for a world that is coming closer together through trade. Specifically, at UPS we look for six particular traits in future employees as we engage further in world trade.

We need people who are trade-literate, that is, people who understand the basics of 21st-century trade and economics.

We need people who are both sensitive to foreign cultures and conversant in different languages. In 1976, I was among the first wave of American UPS'ers to work in our fledgling international operations. During the buildup of our business in Europe, we were challenged with integrating 16 acquired companies. Unfortunately, our attitude was often, "You stand over there and watch how we do this, then do it exactly the same way." Well, that didn't work, and our business suffered. Things got better only when we found the right blend of UPS culture, capabilities, and local knowledge.

We need people who are technologically savvy. In the area of engineering alone, the U.S. ranks 17th in producing new talent. As a Sputnik-inspired engineer myself, this concerns me. We have more than 5,000 engineers at UPS, and that demand will only increase in the coming years. Technology is central to our mission at UPS of being able to serve every customer—whether they're in Boston or Bangkok—as if they're our only customer. Without these kinds of capabilities it would be impossible to compete in a global economy.

We need people who can learn how to learn, who are capable of managing complexity. While information is much richer today, complexity and uncertainty have not abated. In fact, they've increased.

Finally, we need people who are ethical. Business integrity and diplomacy have been under the microscope in recent years. That's too bad, because the vast, vast majority of American business leaders, like educators, play an essential and honorable role every day of their lives. Our actions and our beliefs are not only shaping the perceptions of our companies abroad, they are also forming impressions about our nation and the ideals for which it stands. It's a huge responsibility, one we must manage with care and diligence.

All of us play a part in succeeding in this complex, challenging, invigorating, and opportunity-rich world change. Purdue Engineering is doing its part by promoting international opportunities and thereby preparing future leaders. With a global perspective, these 21st-century Purdue engineers will not only function in the world economy but thrive.

—Mike Eskew