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Rite of passage

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November 20, 2011

Once upon a time, a young, gifted, hard-charging Ernst & Ernst executive learned a lesson the hard way.

It was early in the career of this high-potential UGA Terry College graduate. He was responsible for bringing in the numbers for an accounting operation in Greece, and he burned to impress the right people. One afternoon, his blood pressure surged. An international accountant had missed an important deadline.

"I gave the fellow unmitigated grief," the Terry alumnus recalls, "for missing that deadline."

The accountant in Greece politely apologized. It wasn't enough. Determined to make sure such an error never happened again, the caller continued his tongue-lashing. Finally, after more blistering criticism, the accountant offered an excuse for the late report.

"My son died."

Doug Ivester, today age 64, then paused and said, "That young executive who called the accountant," he confessed, "was me."

Ivester's audience – a group of exceptional Terry College students who happen to also be 2011 Deer Run Fellows – sat motionless. Ivester's point was, of course, perfectly clear. These Fellows will soon be young, gifted, hard-charging young executives themselves.

Ivester's candor stunned his audience. Before these select students stood a great commercial chieftain, a man smart and hard working and lucky and politically adroit enough to have climbed clear to the top of a corporation many consider the Everest of enterprise, The Coca-Cola Company. Now this leader stood before them, sharing a personal failure with brutal honesty. Some of the students dropped their eyes.

"It would have been really easy for me to get some data, get some facts," Ivester went on, his face darkened, "instead of jumping to conclusions and thinking this man's priorities were the same as mine at that moment. It was a huge, hugely impactful mistake."

"When he said those words – my son died-there wasn't a hole anywhere deep enough for me to disappear into.

"I had four years of college and a fine Terry college education. But there weren't any classes that taught what I learned that day."

True enough. Until now.

Imparting wisdom, story by story

A few miles from Albany, Ga., at Deer Run Plantation where this story unfolded, Ivester and his wife, Kay, operate a diversified business, farming and selling various crops.

"Storytelling is how we pass along our culture," says Ivester. "It's one of the most important things we do as leaders and as human beings."

Today, at a beautiful spot in the woods, on two magical weekends in spring and fall each year, newly minted Terry College Deer Run Fellows soak up time-honored knowledge from a handful of men and women who have blazed trails beforehand. These students receive, almost ceremonially, the shared communal wisdom of an elite tribe ... a tribe called successful people.

The tribe imparts its wisdom through story telling. Ivester, for instance, spins his cautionary tale of the earnest Ernst executive. Chuck Lingle, a beloved retired veterinarian from Albany, contributes charming family and animal reminiscences from a rural lifetime. Robert Guido, former vice chair and CEO of Ernst & Young's assurance and advisory practice, describes the importance of ethics, detailing quandaries faced by business people who conducted their affairs with not enough awareness, with not enough attentiveness ... or with worse.

The stories told here spark awareness, attentiveness. During the three-day download of acquired wisdom, new lights come on in already-bright young eyes.

Bree Randall, a junior from Macon, captures the experience.

"This program is not about spending time at a plantation," she says. "It is much deeper. It is about being removed from your daily routine – friends, technology, etc. – and being given the chance to think and question the business world in a whole new setting.

"For 72 hours, you are a sponge, learning all you can from the wise people around you."