While Blugolds leave college with a specific first job or graduate program in mind, RG Conlee advised UW-Eau Claire’s newest graduates that acquiring new knowledge should be a continuous process, and reinventing themselves will be necessary sooner than they may realize.
Conlee, it turns out, is living proof.
The 1978 UW-Eau Claire music education graduate delivered the “Charge to the Class” Dec. 16 during the university’s morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies. He also received the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association’s President’s Award during a midday event between the graduation ceremonies.
Conlee said many people assume he’s “185 in career years” given the varied directions he has taken since leaving UW-Eau Claire. For the first 20 years he was a music educator, teaching junior high school and high school band, mostly in a small town in southeast Iowa. During that time, he founded a private school and a non-profit corporation, administering both and seeing the school grow to 215 students. The school is still in operation today.
In 1998, Conlee’s career began to pivot. He developed an interest in software development, taught himself computer programming and then started a small computer business focused on scheduling and accounting.
“I developed the initial application for scheduling music contests in the state of Iowa as well as small business applications,” Conlee said. “Come June 1998, I decided to leave my education career behind and launch out in the world of corporate IT.”
It was a successful launch. Conlee and his family moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he first worked in the utility industry until he was named the first development manager for a new division of a company called Affiliated Computer Services. He wore many hats at ACS over more than a decade and then worked on the acquisition team when the company was sold to Xerox, at which point he was named Xerox’s chief innovation officer.
Conlee served as CIO for Xerox from 2011-2017 before retiring and has started yet another venture, a consulting firm specializing in automation and analytics.
Conlee shared with graduates four takeaways from his career, which he described as a “long, wild ride — but fun” and driven by his desire to continue making a difference.
‘Don’t stop learning’
What graduates know today is not nearly as important as how they will learn what they need to know tomorrow, Conlee said.
“Your professors have not only taught you the content for your major, but they have taught you ‘how’ to learn,” he said. “Leverage the content you have learned for the moment, but continue to build your learning skills into your prime asset.”
Conlee, who has hired thousands of people, said he looks for people who are “superior in learning” when interviewing job candidates.
“I don’t look for people who can just perform a job today, I look for those who can invent the job for tomorrow,” he said.
‘Don’t quit until you win’
Conlee, who just after college lived in a one-room basement apartment with his wife, Wendy (also a UW-Eau Claire music education alum), told graduates not to “look down on small beginnings.”
“Don’t be concerned with where you are starting,” he said. “Dig in, work hard and don’t quit until you win. I look for people who have a tenacious perseverance and persistence. A pit bull mentality. People who refuse to fail and draw on every ounce of their being to succeed. Those are the people I like to hire, mentor and watch grow.”
‘Don’t evaluate your success with money’
While his IT career has been lucrative, Conlee said his education career was equally or more rewarding and successful. Students he first taught as seventh-graders turned 50 three years ago, and he’s enjoyed following the lives of those he’s stayed in contact with through social media.
“I’ve had the intense pleasure of seeing the fantastic people they have become and feel extremely proud and rewarded in knowing that I had a part to play in their development,” Conlee said. “Teaching is a poorly paid profession, but one of the most important. If you are entering the teaching profession, take it seriously. You have a very important job ahead of you.”
‘Invest in people, not things’
Had it not been for another person’s investment in him, Conlee might have chosen another university besides UW-Eau Claire. As it happened, Dominic Spera, a former UW-Eau Claire music faculty member who taught jazz studies and trumpet, encouraged Conlee to attend the university and “would become a second father to me and a forever friend,” Conlee said.
“He invested in me. He poured into me many of the key principles that I have taken forward over the last 40 years. And I credit my success both to him and the world-class teaching that I received here in the middle of Wisconsin.”
In contrast to his lasting relationships with former professors and with his wife, most of the possessions Conlee had in the late 1970s are either thrown away or no longer useful.
“People are a better investment,” he said. “Don’t spend your time, effort and money chasing fame, riches and things. Invest in the lives of the people you meet. Watch them grow. Use your talents and abilities for good. You’ll reap more success than you can imagine.”