Speech: Steve Harris, 2012 Legacy Honoree

TONY CERVONE: Good evening, everyone. It’s good to be a first. Keith stealing most of the thunder there, and what I was going to say about Steve. Not really, actually. Actually, when Steve called me to ask me if I could introduce him, he said, well, I’m not really sure why anybody would want to honor me for something like this. But if it’s going to happen, I’d really appreciate it if you could do it. But I understand how busy you are. So, if it’s a problem, don’t worry about it. I’ll find somebody else to do it, et cetera, etcetera.

And really, that’s typical Steve– humble, unassuming, Deferential and if you read the bio in the program that we have, really, he’s got every reason not to be any of those things. He’s had a phenomenal career. But in a very large way, that really, I believe, is Steve secret.

I was recently asked at an icebreaker– I was at an off-site meeting where they have these icebreakers when you start. They said, who’s the most influential male in your life? You couldn’t pick your father. And there was absolutely no hesitation in my voice. I said Steve Harris, of course.

Steve taught every single day he worked. Never in a demeaning way, always in an extremely constructive way. But he mentored in everything he did. He led by his actions. He relaxed you. He made you want to do more. He made you comfortable taking a it’s risk.

And he always had your back. You know, Steve is a lot like those rare athletes that just do it. They just live it. And they don’t have to say a lot. They don’t cheer-lead. They don’t do it. They just – it’s kind of like Michael Jordan or Walter Payton. For those of you here in Chicago, maybe Detroit people would say Steve Yzerman or something like that.

But there’s a time when you actually do need to talk. And those athletes always knew when that time was. And Steve was exactly like that.

I can remember when we were at Chrysler. And Bob Eaton was going to be named the successor for Lee Iacocca. And the conventional wisdom was that the guy who didn’t get the job wouldn’t show up to the press conference, and probably would find a nice, easy way to exit the company.

But Steve spoke up and said, no, no, You, Bob Lutz, need to be at this press conference. And I am absolutely convinced that while Steve was arguing for that– against, at that time in his career, people at a much higher level, saying, no, no. We don’t think we should do that. I’m absolutely convinced, though, had Bob not gone to the press conference, Chrysler would have been a very different company in those glory years in the mid-90s before it merged with Daimler. And Steve had a huge piece to do with that.

But it was not just those kinds of situations that Steve took a Pressrisk. It was in everyday situations. I also remember when we would, at Chrysler, brainstorm for auto show ideas. And one of the big things that we always wanted to do is be extraordinarily creative. And Steve, inevitably, would start the conversation with, you know, this is probably a dumb idea, but– and then he would lay out this great idea that he knew, if we had to settle for that, it would have been just fine. The press conference, whatever the event was, would have been just fine.

But he actually believed. And the way he did it was, he allowed you to challenge that idea to come up with another idea, and another idea. Because he believed that in doing so, by giving that permission, better ideas would come up. And he always said that great ideas can come from anywhere. And he really believed it. And he coached it, and he encouraged it.

For me, personally, Steve molded me into the communicator than I am today. He showed me how to work with media, and gently corrected me when I’d screw it up somehow. And I often did that. Sometimes not so gently. But most of the time, very gently.

And he’d give me the attaboy when he knew, intuitively, that I really needed it. And we laughed. We had fun. And no matter how dire the situation, we always found it fun. And we smiled at work.

More importantly, or most importantly, Steve gave me the confidence to manage people, to offer guidance without being domineering, to try to be a real leader. And I often say– and I mean this sincerely– I want to be half the leader that Steve is. And if I get there, I’ll be better than most.

Steve always gave credit, took blame. He has that rare quality that makes you want to do better. And when you didn’t, you felt like you let him down. And when he gets praise for things that he’s done in his career– and he gets a fair amount of that now, deservedly so. He always says, as Keith pointed out, well, I just hired the right people. Baloney.

We became better by working along with Steve and working for Steve. He didn’t fill the workforce with Mensa communications candidates that knew every answer to every situation. In fact, if Steve were honest, he’d tell you that he would prefer to hire somebody with a better attitude than somebody who had the requisite experience that might be on a piece of paper any day of the week. Because he believed that when you brought people together, the goodness in people, and the capability within those people, was there. And he knew the chemistry within the team was important to getting the best out of people.

So is it any wonder that his numerous proteges include the top communications leaders at GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, BMW, VW, Audi, Hyundai, United Airlines, Pepsi, L’Oréal, the Kellogg Foundation, numerous agency lead positions, and I’m leaving out a ton. Steve, you had a profound impact on many, many people.

And I’ll end by saying this. Thank you, Steve. Thank you from thousands of people who have worked for you over the years. You taught us. You molded us. Indeed, you mentored us.

And thank you from me, personally. I wouldn’t be where I am today without your guidance, as a communicator, as a leader, as a person. So, congratulations on this honor. You deserve it more than you’ll ever know. Welcome, Steve Harris.


STEVE HARRIS: Thank you very much.

– Move to the center for the photographer. Yep. There we go.

STEVE HARRIS: OK, everybody else take notes.


Thank you very much, Tony. I really appreciate you being here. And for those very, very kind and overwhelming remarks.

Tony touched on something that I was going to mention, as well. I don’t think there was ever a time, in the 20-plus years that Tony and I got to work together at Chrysler and Daimler Chrysler– the marriage made in heaven– and GM on two different occasions, that we didn’t learn from each other. So, to me, that’s really what mentoring is supposed to be all about, is you need to be continuously mentored yourself.

And as you’re mentoring somebody else, you should be learning from them. And I learned a ton from Tony. And most importantly– he took the words out of my mouth– we laughed every day. We just had a great time while we were doing it. Even in the worst of times, we could find something to laugh about, and to move on

I certainly want to thank the Plank Center and the Board of Trustees for this honor, and for including me in such great company. So many of the group tonight are friends that I’ve known over a long period of time– Nick, and John, and Marge. And I’m glad to also be in the company of Dr. Toth and Shane. But it’s just really an honor to be included with some of those other names. I really mean that.

And while I never really got to work with Betsy Plank, I was around Betsy towards the end of her career. And I saw the way that people revered her, and respected her, and had such great affection. So that adds a lot, also, to the meaningfulness of this award for me.

I had the opportunity to work with some legendary people in automotive communications. And this may be my only chance to say thanks to them, because I’ve never had the opportunity before. The names won’t mean much to many of you, but they were special and very giving people to me. Tony DeLorenzo and Jim Towley at General Motors. Jim was also at Chrysler and American Motors with me. [INAUDIBLE] Kingman, who Nick mentioned early on. Jerry Sloan, at American Motors Barron Bates and Bud Leibler at Chrysler, who Tony and I both worked with. These were great people who I learned a ton from. And they were just very kind and very giving to me.

Of course, about 38 years ago, I picked up a volunteer mentor, my wife, Roddy, who’s here tonight. And she has taken me on as a special project for my personal mentoring.

Again, I just want to thank the Plank Center for this award. It really means a great deal to me. I’ve been blessed to work with outstanding communications people. And I hope to get the opportunity to do that for the next several years to come. Thanks very much.


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