By STEVEN NALLEY
UPS Chief Operating Officer David Abney directs a transportation network serving more than 220 countries and territories with more than 90,000 vehicles and more than 500 aircraft. But, when he started his career in 1974, he said he was nothing more than an 18-year-old loader with UPS in Greenwood, fresh from high school.
“I also swept the floors and did everything the bottom person does in that business, but I learned the business from that aspect,” Abney said. “That’s how you learn the business at UPS ... from the ground up. My story is not a story about instant gratification.”
Abney shared five skills to help Mississippi State University’s business students find their own paths up company ladders Thursday at McCool Hall’s Taylor Auditorium as part of the Leo W. Seal Jr. Distinguished Executive Speaker Series.
Abney also serves on the Executive Advisory Board for the MSU College of Business, and its dean Sharon Oswald said she discovered Abney as a prospective speaker through that connection. The five skills Abney shared were self-discipline, relentlessness, being a team player, continuous improvement and integrity. Oswald said she considered integrity most important among those.
“That, to me, is probably the most important thing in business,” Oswald said. “Right after I got to (MSU) I went over to Atlanta to meet (Abney) and learned a little bit about his story. (As) someone who grew up in Mississippi and (came) from a family where he was the first one to graduate from college ... I just thought he would be a great inspirational speaker.”
Abney said self-discipline meant setting high standards and not accepting failure. He said he was grateful to a supervisor he had 10 years into his career with UPS who would not allow him to do just enough to get by and instead forced him to meet his potential. He said it was also critical for professionals to remember the “self” portion of “self-discipline.”
“How many times, in your day-to-day interactions, do you see people act differently if the big boss is around? How do you act when your boss, your professor, your family member, whoever it is that helps hold you accountable ... (is) not around?” Abney asked. “You think no one pays attention. They do. People notice a lot more than you can imagine.”
Abney used track runner Latipha Cross as an example of relentlessness, of refusing to give up no matter the circumstances. Cross was abandoned at birth, her sister was killed at age 7 and she was abused by her foster family and then by her biological father, he said. She also fought battles with melanoma and then lymphoma, he said, and she simultaneously won all her races, including the state title.
“You’ve got to be relentless,” Abney said. “You can’t let things stop you.”
Being a team player was a key value at UPS, Abney said, and anyone at UPS who highlighted their own accomplishments and blamed others for failures often faced difficulty. He said if an employee performed well, he or she did not need to draw supervisors’ attention to that performance, because supervisors would notice and reward it on their own.
Abney said continuous improvement meant that learning should not end in college, but that students should remain lifelong learners throughout their careers. Professionals should also identify and overcome their weaknesses, he said.
“You’re never good enough,” Abney said. “If you ever feel like you know it all, then I can guarantee you (that) you don’t know enough.”
Finally, Abney said if a professional mastered all four other skills but did not have integrity, trouble would be bound to follow. He said he did not believe the business professionals who got in trouble for lack of integrity were necessarily bad people. Rather, he said anyone was one small misstep away from starting a series of missteps that led to big problems.
“If you don’t want your family reading about it (in a newspaper) then you just can’t do it,” Abney said. “One small step can lead to another ... and before you know it, you’re past the point of no return. You just never put yourself in that position.”
John Willcutt, a junior in MSU’s international business dual degree program, is also founder and CEO of Risen 3D Marketing, a small start-up launched in January. When the time came for audience questions, Willcutt asked Abney if he had additional advice for entrepreneurs, and Abney said innovation was a sixth skill he had cut from the speech for time constraints.
Willcutt said he found Abney’s presentation inspirational.
“I plan on taking a lot of what he said and incorporating it into my business,” Willcutt said. “It’s also really nice to know that there’s people high up in the biggest companies that are so keyed into integrity and working with a team instead of pointing fingers.”