Thinking globally

Last Saturday, Tom McCraw, one of my instructors when I attended Harvard Business School, passed away at the age of 72. He had retired in 2006, after a distinguished career that included receipt of a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Prophets of Regulation.

Professor McCraw taught "Business, Government and the International Economy", abbreviated "BGIE" (and pronounced "BIGGIE"). It was a required course for first-year students, one that some (perhaps most) of us joined thinking that we'd rather be somewhere else.

McCraw was a meticulous teacher, serious but not humorless. Assigned cases often tackled subjects that at first seemed arcane, and I seldom volunteered an answer. Eventually, Professor McCraw noticed, suggesting that I might step up my involvement a notch or two.

A few days later, we were examining fiscal policy in France in the 1960s, a topic second only to dental work on my "least interesting" list. But I knew I had to start somewhere, so I put up my hand. Professor McCraw saw it immediately and called on me.

I was more than a little nervous – participation was a critical part of all first-year classes, and less than a week earlier, I'd been told that my engagement was noticeably lacking. I blurted something out, with McCraw focused only on me for what seemed like minutes. He walked up to near where I sat and asked, "Mr O'Leary, are you saying that the French are deliberately holding their exchange rates where they are to protect their own businesses?"

A lifeline. I'd probably meant to say something like that, but I'd barely hinted at saying it. His question gave me a second chance. I started to open up about my views of France, fiscal policy, balances of trade and the risk of trying to forestall the inevitable. It started a halting series of contributions, and I eventually demonstrated enough comprehension to pass the course.

McCraw's style was always inquisitive, and while he was critical of poor thinking, he delivered his assessments with the collective sense that "You need to do better than this, and I know you can." His approach didn't make me love the international economy, but he left me open to learning more about it.

A decade later, I was given a chance to work with Strobe Talbott, then an editor at TIME, on a new magazine idea. Talbott saw an opportunity to launch a monthly magazine that he called Globe Review. Its organizing principle: "What happens over there, matters here."

The original mock-ups were fascinating. I remember reading the introduction to a story about an airplane that had crashed in the Sahara. Its remnants had been harvested for spare parts that wound up in the planes we were flying every day. When I finished the lead and reached the dummy copy, I was dismayed. I wanted to know how it all turned out.

Over time, I wound up making business-side colleagues like Robert Pondiscio and Martin Bounds excited about the idea, as well. We thought this was exactly the kind of magazine that Time Inc. could and should launch.

Unfortunately, our test of the idea did not turn out well, and the project was eventually shelved. Talbott left TIME not too long after, but Robert, Martin and I would still spend some lunches re-thinking Globe Review and wondering what we might have done differently.

At one of those discussions, Martin suggested that the name Globe Review felt "too much like homework". He thought we needed a title that conveyed risk, exploration, relevance and reward. His contribution: Magellan.

Along the way, I learned that, by pursuing a path of discovery around the southern tip of South America, Magellan and his crews had unexpectedly discovered new constellations (ones visible only in the Southern hemisphere). I liked the idea of finding new things and being open to new paths, even if the magazine version of Magellan might never come to life.

Our lunchtime ideas never made it out of the folders they were filed in, but a decade after we closed the book on Globe Review, I was looking for a name for my emerging consulting practice. I didn't have to look too far.

I'm not sure that I'd have been quite so interested in Globe Review if Professor McCraw hadn't thrown me a lifeline and tried to teach a bored first-year the relevance of things global, past and present. McCraw lived a full and rewarding life, one that leaves the world a bit less rich for his passing.

I doubt that he'd have had even the slightest recollection I had even been one of his students. But here I am, 30 years later, thinking globally and writing about the risk of trying to forestall the inevitable.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.