President Alan Merten recently sat down with long-time Mason supporter Milt Peterson, principal and founder of the Peterson Companies, one of the largest privately held real estate development companies in the Washington metropolitan region. The two talked about leadership, their careers, the region, and, of course, George Mason University.
How has being a leader changed during the course of your career?
Alan Merten (AM): There are certain things about being a leader that haven’t changed. To be a leader, you have to be a people person. You have to have a certain amount of passion and a caring attitude. You can’t fake it. What has changed is everything from the technological revolution to the global aspects of things. When I was a lot younger, if you knew something about global, you got extra credit. Today, if you don’t understand the global dimensions, you can’t even play. So in education we were talking about global aspects of today’s working world earlier.
Milt Peterson (MP): The transformation of Washington was probably the biggest thing I’ve seen during my career. Very few people early on recognized how important Washington, D.C., was going to be. When I came here, Washington was a place where people worked for the federal government, and they wanted a house in the suburbs, in Fairfax, with a picket fence. That was the big transition. The nation’s capital was very small—it only had government, but it had the potential to be a world capital. If you look at London, Paris, and great cities in the world that are capitals, they had huge economies. George Mason University is one of the big things that helped the region make that transition from being a bedroom community to a dynamic economy. The university helped Northern Virginia realize its potential.
AM: So much of leadership is taking advantage of potential. When I look at what you and your colleagues did and what Dr. [George] Johnson did, there was so much here. When I came to Northern Virginia to work at the Pentagon in 1964, it was pretty primitive. But by the time I left in 1967, you could already see something was happening. So our goal after Sally and I left was to come back some day. In 1996, the Washington Post ran an article about me becoming the new president of George Mason University. One of my friends called another and said, “Look at the front page of the Metro section.” My friend’s response was “They’re back.” No emotion, no surprise. People knew that I was going to try to find a way to come back. A couple years before 1996, I took some time off from Cornell to be an advisor to American Management Systems, a local technology company. One day, Sally and I were driving down Rt. 66 and saw the big George Mason University sign. She said to me, “Why don’t you step down as dean at Cornell and become a professor at George Mason so we can live in Virginia?”
AM: [laughter] Within a year and half after that, I was selected to be president. I tell people that Sally had a crystal ball—it was just a little cloudy. She thought I would be a professor.
MP: I came here in the Army. What was I going to do after the Army? My wife was teaching school. So I went and started selling houses. Well, I had a meeting at the Country Club of Fairfax, and because I was the youngest and the newest member of the group, I got to go to the airport to pick up the guest speaker for the meeting. It was a Dr. Weiss. I was very interested in success. So on the way back from the airport, I asked him, “Dr. Weiss, what is the meaning of success?” He made a profound statement that affected me and is very germane to what you and George [Johnson] have done at Mason. He said, “Success is the degree to which you meet your potential.” Wow. That means you as a teacher, as a president, as a parent, as a student, as a coach. Anything you do. We all have different potentials.
George Mason University facilitated Northern Virginia fulfilling its potential because the university was able to bring together all of the different factions. People fear and hate change. Change is an enemy for most people. Most people don’t want to take risks. But with the great potential we had here, Mason was able to bring together business, some of the political elements, and the citizenry under the auspices of an organization because the university had credibility. What was the group we had?
AM: The Northern Virginia Roundtable. Business executives.
MP: But there were also political people. The great thing about [the roundtable] was political parties went away. It was all about what was good for the county, the region, the state. And that was good for the nation’s capital. So the political parties didn’t fight about decisions. They were really united, and that was done through the university.
AM: When I had the opportunity to be a candidate for the presidency, I remember thinking about the potential that was in this region. I had some friends who had been on the faculty, and I had seen what had happened here over a relatively short time. What was key from my perspective was that there were some building blocks in place. I didn’t have to do everything. There were groups like the Roundtable and similar organizations like the Fairfax County Economic Authority, so I could build on what other people had done. And maybe I could move faster because I had been other places and seen other activities happen. So those first couple of years, particularly the first year, I found it was important for me to be the face of Mason. Even today people will come up to me and say, “I remember that first year. You were at every meal.” I went to every event possible. I wanted people to know Mason is important; it is part of this community.
MP: How I would say that, Alan, is one word: attitude. In order to meet your potential, you have to have the right attitude. How many times have you met people who had great potential but who had the wrong attitude? What you were able to do is find people who had potential. A lot of people have great potential but can never use it because their attitude stinks. I don’t care if it is a professor, a college president, or an athlete. Look at the Redskins. They paid Albert Haynesworth millions of dollars and he didn’t play. Why? He had an attitude that stunk. I think attitude is more important than intelligence. When you came here, you had the attitude that you were going to take what was here, be positive about it, and encourage other people share your attitude. Mason has always had an attitude that was forward thinking and risk taking. What you realized was Northern Virginia needed education, it needed it fast, and it needed it big. And you have to recognize that all of the other institutions in the state wanted to be static. They wanted to stay the way they were. So Mason needed an entrepreneurial, business-type president to make the gains that were needed.
AM: I thought it was important to have a positive attitude and to say the glass is half full—let’s fill it up. Let’s get a bigger glass.
MP: Glass? You went from a glass to a pail.
AM: [laughter] When I came here, we had a little more than 20,000 students. Initially, we didn’t grow for a couple years. I said, “Let’s get our act together. Let’s make sure we are doing the right things, planning the right facilities. First things first.” Once we did that, then we said let’s grow. But we knew that as we grew, for a while at least, the quality would go down a little. So we started to grow, and the quality kept going up. So we grew bigger and bigger and got better and better at the same time.
MP: What I also noticed was that you didn’t come off saying I know everything. What you did was say, “I have so many goals, so many plans for expansion, so much potential. I have the self-confidence to ask other people for their ideas.”
AM: We were able to attract the right people. When I interview someone for higher-level university positions, I have just two questions. It’s very simple and I now have a reputation for doing this. The first question is, Why are we interviewing you, what makes you special? And I don’t want to know their resume. I want to know what is distinctive about them. The second question is, Why did you come in to interview for this position at Mason, what is special about us? I have learned more over the years from those two questions. The frightening part is the number of people who can answer one but not the other. Either they know what their distinctive competency is, and they don’t know ours. Or even scarier, sometimes they know our distinctive competency, but they don’t know their own. We ended up looking for people who understood the uniqueness of Mason and how they were going to fit into it. Then we got rolling.
MP: I’ve watched you come into a situation, find the most talented person, and ask, What do you think? What you do is find the best and convince them to join you. As broad as the university‘s scope is, one person can’t know everything.
AM: Every day, percentage-wise, I know less and less about the university. Many times when we have friends or visitors in town, Sally and I will take them for a campus tour in the car. Usually one of the guests will ask, What are you doing over there? And Sally will say, “Don’t ask him. He’s just the president.” [laughter] Because I don’t know what’s going on in some cases. You hire people who know what’s going on. I wrote something the other day about surrounding yourself with people who are willing to support you and willing to tell you when you are wrong.
MP: I usually tell people my general ideas about something and then ask, What do you think? What does that do? That helps me get a range of ideas about one subject. But it also helps the person gain confidence in himself or herself. One of the nicest compliments you can give a person is to ask what he or she thinks. What I’ve seen you do is say, “This is a program that I need to develop. You are an expert in this. Tell me how you would do this.” And you are not only complimenting the person, they then want to help to the fullest extent possible. If you are growing in four directions, in five different categories, you have a tough job. And you are only as good as the people you attract. It is like being a coach. You can’t be on the field so you are only as good as the quality of player you can attract.
AM: What I’ve learned about being the leader—and some of this I’ve gotten from watching you—first, you build the institution. Make it better every day. The second challenge is to make the individuals better and better every day. It has taken me a while to understand that. And while these two things are interrelated, they are also somewhat separate. You need to give people more responsibility, more authority. You need to force them to make decisions and counsel them when things don’t go exactly right. There is a story about me from Cornell [University, where Merten was dean of the Johnson School of Business]. People will tell you, “When you are in talking to Dr. Merten, if you start getting too detailed, he stands up and walks toward the door. You can stay as long as you want, but he’s out of there.” I don’t apologize for it. I’m actually proud of it. I want people to know I can help them through situations, but if I do it for them, I’m not helping them. I find myself wanting to help but also wanting them to improve. As a result, I’m known for short meetings.
MP: By doing that, you are giving them self-confidence—then they have the attitude “I want to accomplish this. I know what the goal is.”
AM: I love my job. I’ve loved it for all these years. A couple of things stand out in my mind that I enjoy thinking about when looking back on these 16 years. One of them that I started from the first year—I participate in Freshman Move In. Every year, I’ve been out there. I wear this T-shirt. It says: Alan Merten, President. For two days, for about three to four hours a day, I go to Move In. I enjoy doing it. But people will look at the shirt and say, “Are you kidding me?” or they will joke around: “Can I get a shirt like that?” The people I meet through that process are incredible. Then four years later, they will come up to me at Commencement and tell me how they met me the first day. I feel the same way about Commencement. After the ceremony, we have a nice luncheon over in Mason Hall, but before I go over there, I spent 45 minutes to an hour walking the concourse of the Patriot Center and getting my picture taken with the students and their families. Another one of my favorite things has been basketball and being able to shoot the T-shirt gun. Now the students expect me to do it. They lobby me ahead of time on where to shoot the T-shirts.
The reason I look back at those three events and others like them is that if you are going to lead something like Mason, you have got to enjoy it. It is an attitude and style. You have to be there. You can’t send out memos about it. You have to do it. You have to make it happen. It is the relationship you have with people who work for you that makes things happen. It’s hard. But I also feel sorry for people in leadership roles who are afraid to get down into the hierarchy.
I had an instance recently where a faculty member said, “You know you are being talked about on Twitter.” I said, “I am? What’s going on?” He said, “You picked up some trash on campus.”
A student saw me pick up trash and throw it away, and he tweeted about it to all his friends. And people were talking about it on Twitter. I couldn’t even remember picking up the trash, but the message to me was it meant a lot to people. And second, you better watch what you are doing because everyone is going to know about it right away.