Strive for technical excellence, former Board of Governors chair tells graduands

Paul Cantor speaking

Paul Cantor speakingPaul Cantor, former chair of York’s Board of Governors, told graduating students Thursday morning that what they need to do now is strive for technical excellence in everything they do.

Paul Cantor

“Some of you are already leaders of your communities, some of you will become leaders of our broader community, and some of you instead will be influencers,” said Cantor, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree at the first Fall 2012 convocation ceremony for the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “But whether you’ll be a leader or an influencer, one of the critical things you must do now at this stage in your lives is to strive for technical excellence. Leadership may or may not come later, but striving for technical excellence will make all the difference in the world to how you look back on your own careers 50 years from now.”

Cantor, a senior adviser at Bennett Jones LLP, encouraged the graduating students to adopt three personal goals toward achieving technical excellence in their lifetimes – pay attention to detail, strive to be the best in the world at what you do and make a commitment to lifelong learning.

This is important, even if it is difficult. He said that although he truly excelled at university in a course on estate tax law, that didn’t work out so well for his career because the state tax was abolished shortly after he graduated. “So that left me with no useful technical skills,” he said, although he did land a job in the Canadian government’s Department of Finance where his attention to detail found the one piece of relevant paper, a letter, in a four-foot high pile of the Ming Sung Ship file that enabled the Canadian government to request payment from China for certain “missing” ships.

The ships were built on credit, but disappeared up the Pearl River sometime after and the Canadian government was stuck with the $30-million bill. Twenty or so years later, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, armed with the letter Cantor found, brought the issue to Chinese officials who responded that they always said they would pay, but as it took so long for Canada to ask, they weren’t going to pay interest. It was a good lesson, said Cantor, in paying attention to detail on both sides of the negotiating table.

“You must personally strive to become respected for your own attention to detail,” he said. At the same time, he urged them to take nothing for granted and not to blithely accept common wisdom. “We can only be confident in our generalizations when we are confident in the facts on which they are based.” Those who become leaders, however, will no longer have the time to check the facts themselves and they will have to find people they can trust with the details.

Even though the graduating students should strive to be the best in the world at what they do, they may not get there, but in the end it is like a game of horse shoes – close often counts, he told them. They should also recognize they cannot be the best in the world at everything. Whatever their career choice, however, they should continue to learn.

“The need for lifelong learning applies to all of us,” he said.

“How we educate our students at York University, to learn, to work and to live with each other will determine how Canada is governed in the future. That’s because our students, as a result of being educated here at York University and especially here in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies will be among the most experienced leaders and influencers of our community,” Cantor said.

At the end of his speech, Cantor requested that the students “help us to strengthen our University, our community and our world. That is a big ask, but the way must be tried.”

York University’s convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Cantor’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website. To read the full speech, click here.