As I prepare for a return to the alma mater a week from now, I think of a question often asked of me: How did West Point help you on Wall Street? The question is how it helped "later" in life because most people understand the place sucks while one was there. I should say that "Suck" is really the mean for the four year experience. It sucks worse than Dante's 7th level of hell the first year then improves to a general impending sense of doom by the last year. It is a well publicized fact that the best view of USMA for any graduate during their time at the Academy is in the rearview mirror.
"How did West Point help me on Wall Street?" The answer to the question is the two words I learned on Reception Day (the first day of summer training when one arrives on Post):
As a plebe (freshman) at West Point one is allowed only four different responses when asked a question by any upper class person.
1) Yes, Sir (Ma’am),
2) No, Sir (Ma’am),
3) Sir (Ma’am,) I do not understand and,
4) No excuse, Sir (Ma’am).
Those two simple words, “No excuse” advanced my career more than anything I learned in economics or finance. I learned what those two words meant and their universal application the hard way when preparing for an inspection my first year at USMA. I shine my shoes for an hour. As “Billy Batts” would say, “they looked like mirrors." (It didn't work out so well for him.) I march out to formation and the cadet next to me steps in a puddle of mud and splashes the brown water all over my shoes. I go from rage to fear quickly. I pray to the inspection gods that it will go unnoticed by those up the chain of command. Those gods turn a blind eye to me. If I had known about the "Many-Faced God" back in 1992, I may have had a different experience.
Like a crow seeing their pray from above, the squad leader notices my shoes. He asks me “Winer, what happened to your shoes?” On a separate note, "Winer" is not the last name you want at West Point. I respond: “Sir, the cadet next to me stepped in water and splashed…” The squad leader interrupts me: “No Winer! The answer is 'No excuse!'"
I never have to be told again. Anytime I screw something up in my 22 year career, there is "No excuse." Even times when I don't screw something up, but the overall team fails, it is “No excuse.” The same applies to the floor of the NYSE, various trading desks, and Equity Divisions. Every time I screw something up I say "No excuse." The person on the other end of the phone often goes silent. They never hear anything like that. People have grown accustomed to all kinds of excuses and for people to point fingers the second there is any issue. When I say “No excuse,” the conversation ends and we move on to face a new challenge. I impart that advice on anyone who works for me. I typically ask them to explain a mistake. They usually begin with some reason or excuse. I pass along what I learned at West Point about "No excuse." (Not always in the most elegant manner, I admit in any post mortem of my career.). Soon enough, everyone on the desk incorporates the phrase "No Excuse" in their vernacular.
I tell people to try that approach at work the next time a boss asks why there was a mistake. Instead of launching into an elegy laced with reasons and blame, simply say "No Excuse." Measure the response you get and decide if that may be a better way to make your company more efficient and extend your career longevity.
In my life, those two simple words, "No excuse", as Frost would say, “have made all the difference.”