What could I say about Dennis Slattery that you might not know already? Of course you know that he has served as an Ashland City Councilor for the past 4 years. He is an accounting professor at SOU, community leader, mentor, and friend to many. You might also know he is married to Ashland’s very own Sandra Slattery, Executive Director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. But did you know that Dennis likes to count and has a keen awareness of time?
Yes, I know he is an accounting professor but what I mean is that Dennis actually actively counts and measures choices in his life in a very interesting way…and he does this counting naturally… not just because he is a professor. Dennis can track a large array of variables in his day-to-day life. Then mix this in with an interesting awareness of time; not just of the immediate moment but of a future perhaps many years out, and you end up with someone who can entertain a wide array of choices, while stepping forward to choose the best possible choice.
What might this look like, you ask? I would say it is the difference between a person who makes choices for long-term gain, versus the allure of the short-term benefit… also someone who has a great memory, patience and endurance. Dennis mentioned to me that he offers a “lifetime warranty” to all his students and my head turns. This is interesting. There he goes again talking about “time” …and while most people can’t follow through with basic friendship maintenance … this guy is offering a lifetime warranty? I ask Dennis if he would like to have lunch with me and he immediately pulled out his phone, “Alright, when do you want to meet?” At our lunch we discussed Ashland having a high number of people who have identified their values and how this has helped to bond and hold us together as a community. Dennis calls it having a value premium and I think he is absolutely right.
As Ashlanders many of us have made a very consciousness choice to live and work in this town, and sure, we could probably make more money elsewhere… and for many of us we simply won’t compromise. A 2-hour commute to work or rush hour traffic? NO WAY! Having grown up in a variety of small Alaskan Native American villages with adventurous parents, Dennis painted a picture of his life in a world in which continual awareness of the local environment and a reverence for community was essential. Everyone depended on one another and deviation from a local swimming spot or slip on the ice could easily result in the loss of a life.
I won’t attempt to tell Dennis’ story, you’ll need to ask him yourself. What I will attempt to do today is to interview an interesting individual, someone I have observed who counts, measures and makes choices in an interesting fashion. On top of this, we honor a long-term community member who actively seeks forward motion and positive outcomes in any situation.
Dennis, thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me today and thanks for all you have done for our community. Let’s jump right in by starting with this “lifetime warranty” idea. Tell us about this.
My lifetime warranty is something I give to my students for the rest of my life as long as they can get a hold of me. They can ask me questions about material we covered and how they might apply it in their career. It also applies to life choices and just general advice. It is my version of “value added” education. Once you have taken one of my classes I never stop helping you improve. It has the added advantage that I get to stay in touch with a lot of students. We say learning is a lifelong pursuit, so I think educators and mentors should be ready and willing to support life-long learning. By the way, the warranty extends to everyone no matter what grade they received in my class. I am always willing to help students deal with the challenges and issues they face for as long as they find my advice useful.
I know you say that you offer this to your students but I think you have extended this warranty far beyond your SOU duties. Why is this? What does this really mean to you?
The philosophy of a lifetime warranty is we just keep working to make things better, helping each other to do so because for one generation to hand off to the next requires a certain amount of mentoring. I have had those who have had a positive impact on my life and I wish to have a positive impact on the lives of others. That is why I teach and that is why I serve in the community.
Dennis let’s talk about your relationship to time in regards to your own decision making process. In our conversations together I get the sense that you are not just looking at choices in regards to immediate benefit, rather how the consequences will play out over a much longer course of time. Please say more.
I think we have become a society based too much in the short term and not enough in the long term. Growing up in the environment of the Alaskan bush, being subsistence hunters and living the way we did, required long-term planning and careful execution. The effectiveness of your short-term decisions is impacted by the quality of your long-term preparation. There wasn’t a lot of room for mistakes in planning, preparation or execution. This was an early influence in my life. My father was an adventurer who wanted to explore all over Alaska, in places where we had to be self-reliant and self-contained. There were no “emergency” numbers to call if something went wrong. You had to get it right the first time. In the Alaska I grew up in, mentoring and teaching occurred in a very natural fashion. The elders taught the young how to deal with the challenging environment in which we lived. I think I’m just paying it forward.
Dennis as a city councilor you were often known for heading into the pressure rather than simply avoiding it. Can you please say more about your process and actions?
I tell my students one of the keys to success is to find the toughest jobs and step up to them. I don’t shy away from difficult jobs or challenging issues, in fact, I embrace and welcome them. I think along with our short-term vs long-term issues we also tend to leave the hard choices for someone else. I think we are obligated to tackle the serious issues of our time and find at the very least some incremental improvement. We cannot always “cure” the problem but we can find ways for improvement. So each and every step along the way during my time on council we have taken up the tough issues, at times issues beyond the reach of Ashland, and tried to find a seam for improvement. I am exceptionally proud of what the councils I have served on have accomplished and the people with whom I have served. Also, it is why I now turn my attention to SOU. I believe the best work I can do for the community, and perhaps one of the most challenging things to accomplish right now, is to do everything I can to help SOU be a sustainable entity for generations to come in Ashland.
Often times you had some very harsh critics. Was this difficult for you and what conversations were you having with yourself to deal with some of these challenging situations? Quite frankly many of us would have a difficult time being patient in some of these situations.
Patience has not always been my long suit. I have had to learn patience and perhaps have gained a certain amount of wisdom because of it. Everyone has critics, the best critics make you think and add value to your understanding of issues. The worst critics just make noise and get tuned out. The difference is in how people approach issues on a community level. Intelligent and mutually respectful discussion is a part of Ashland’s values. Negative “partisan” and demeaning speak are not. I often seek out people who think differently on the issues than I do for discussion. If both sides of an issue care about the community and have the best intentions in their hearts, we will only gain. The only thing I would not want to be criticized for would be to not have listened to all sides of an issue before making a decision. When you are on a city council at some point the best possible decision must be made on behalf of a community. Not everyone is going to agree with the decision made, and nor should they. One of the dynamics of democracy I believe is the most powerful is the perspective of differing points of view. Generally speaking they tend to make our decisions over time better.
In my introduction I describe you as individual who continually seeks the positive step forward. Can you please say more about this and how you learned to orient this way?
Thousands of life experiences have taught me to expect good and have confidence in the ability to make good. I think that is what we are here for; to move things forward and make good things happen. It is important to me (us) to leave the campground better than we found it. Sandra and I have been dedicated for many years to helping make Ashland a better “campground” for the next generation. Many take what Ashland is and the special place it has become for granted, and that is actually a good thing as long as we are also mindful to be good keepers. What Ashland is today, and what it will continue to be, is a special place, built with quality, over a long period of time. That is why so many are so passionate about preserving the essence of Ashland and I think that is one of our most positive attributes.
My guess is that for you to be able to track if you are making progress in any type of process you need be counting. What do you count and how do you remember what you count?
I believe progress is iterative, built layer upon layer. So you learn to pay attention to foundational issues and try to make sure the right things are in place for the next decision and the decision after that, and so on. Back to how I was raised – I was taught to navigate a river in a boat in the summer or with a team of sled dogs in the winter. There are no road maps and the rivers of Alaska are always changing, one has to learn to “read” the river. There are no mileage markers; time is how you measure along with knowledge of place. Often there are not trails, just points along the way that tell you if you are headed in the right direction. You have to keep track of what is happening around you at all times and what is coming ahead. You are completely on your own and there is no safety net. You have to be equipped for all the potential possibilities. So it is not so much a matter of counting in the traditional sense, more a “making sure,” being certain you are equipped correctly and in touch with where you are at any given point. It is awareness and a confidence in decision-making. It doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to be really good.
Let’s get back to choice-making process. I am curious to hear more about how you isolate and work through your own internal choice process.
What I did as a management executive, what I teach my students and people will tell you what I bring to the table, is I try to drill down to the core issues in order to be able to examine the parts of a problem when making a decision. I want to break a “problem” into its separate parts and then examine them for their relationship to each other. Then I know what I have and what I don’t have to make a decision and what information I need to make a good decision. I find people too often want to make a decision before they have all the facts. I think this applies to business decisions as well as personal decisions. For example, the decision I made to stay in Ashland. For the first ten years I lived here I thought I was leaving in six months. But I measured where I might go to how I felt about Ashland. I have always been happy in Ashland and came to love Ashland and everywhere else paled in comparison. I had the big, lucrative job offers in other places – Chicago, Santa Barbara, Montana for example – but my decision to stay in Ashland was always based on happiness and the people who were around me as the major driver. Dollars and career advancement issues became secondary drivers, and as such were not the reasons I would trade the happiness I found in Ashland. I came to realize that I lived in a place where everyone else was trying to get to, figuratively or literally. I came to appreciate the values of Ashland and why it meant so much to me, and that is when I realized I had found a home.
I’m glad you mentioned values. Tell us more about how one can go about creating a values statement, and then what that might look like. Also what concerns do you have about communities and individuals who have not fully defined their values?
I tell my students it is important to know what one is about. If you do not know what you are about, you can be about anything. And, that can be dangerous. My advice to them is to align career goals with their values. Too often I have seen the consequences of decisions made by people when their values are out of sync. It is important, I think, for people to actively state their values, to know what they are “about.” Values dictate our decisions and our actions. When people make decisions that are not in alignment with their values this can lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness, in my opinion. Knowing your values is one of the key ingredients to happiness; it gives you great confidence in your decision-making. I know who I am and I know what I am about. Ashland is like that for the most part, it knows who it is and what it is about. Those who love this place take great care in preserving Ashland, in defining Ashland and protecting the essence of Ashland. It is at the core of most all of our debates and community discussions. It is also, I believe, what makes Ashland special.
I think it’s kind of funny, that here you are an accounting professor and you are essentially operating as a life coach or mentor for so many.
Accounting, or numbers in general, simply exist to inform the discussion. So understanding numbers and how they relate to each other is not any different than anything else in life; it is actually about the quality of their relationship to each other. I pay a lot of attention to relationships. Accounting is also simply a sophisticated communication tool. It is therefore designed to help us communicate in a more effective manner and to assist in building positive relationships. What I try to help my students learn to do is communicate, to ask good questions and learn to take direction, to think critically and apply knowledge. This requires a basic understanding of numbers and accounting, certainly, but it also takes a developed understanding of what part they play in decision making. In essence, what I teach is much more about communication than it is about accounting. Communication is one of the keys to success in any endeavor. My students are important to me. How they do in life is then important to me. I think the greatest honor I can have is when one of them tells me I had a positive impact on their life. As a mentor I think one of my most important roles is to help young people understand how to communicate and navigate throughout their careers so I try to help them with this every step along the way. I should add, I am not terribly unique in this endeavor at SOU. I have many great colleagues who do this in their own special way. I think it is what makes our roles as educators special and is part of the calling to be teachers.
It’s true I am fortunate to be surrounded by a community of amazing individuals. I just happen to think I married the most amazing individual I have ever met. Sandra is as good and beautiful on the inside as she is one the inside. She is beyond any expectation of good I could have ever imagined. Her impact on my life simply cannot be measured or the spoken word – do it justice. She is simply the person I most respect and admire in this world and I happen to be married to her. She and I share a deep love and commitment to this community.
You also have strong friendships with many local business people, community leaders, etc. What are some of your pre-requisites for having great friendships and relationships?
I tend to like people who care about the good things that make Ashland what it is and are willing to work on it in a positive manner. We don’t have to agree, in fact, we shouldn’t agree on all things. Discussion and debate is at the very heart of democracy and what makes a community a vibrant place. So my friendships generally come from the work of community; some are colleagues at the university; some are from the business community and others from the community at large. All are people who want to create a better place while retaining the specialness of Ashland. Trust is a key factor of my relationships. I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to trust you. I have to trust that you want what is best for Ashland. At the same time I like humor, I like to laugh and I like to hear laughter. I seek joy and peace. I think while we tackle very serious issues and challenging times we should be able to find the enjoyment in our purpose.
Looking forward as the community of Ashland, what pre-requisites would you like to see us have as a community?
I speak to a values premium. I believe in my rough personal estimate that 80% of the people in Ashland agree on 80% of the issues we face. We all love Ashland for many of the same reasons. Many of us could do what we do somewhere else and make more money but we don’t. We are here because we value this place, place matters to us. It is why we have such a robust discussion on many different issues and many different levels constantly. People care. We do not suffer from apathy. That is our greatest asset as a community. We must never lose that and as long as we have that and it is focused on caring about the essentials of community Ashland will remain a special place.
What’s the question I forgot to ask you?
Are you kidding me? You have asked me more questions than anyone except maybe Sandra! Thank you for helping me to verbalize and communicate these thoughts and ideas. I appreciate it. If somebody reads this and scratches their head and says, “What the heck did he mean by that?” I encourage them to look me up, I am very easy to find and I love having these kinds of conversations.
Dennis in conclusion to our interview I would like to thank you for your service to our community. I would also like to congratulate you on the great attention and positive influence you share with all your students and beyond.
I appreciate the kind words. I tell my students if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Simply being a problem identifier holds no value. You need to find and be involved with solutions. It is not easy, nor is it a perfect world. Nor was it meant to be. That is another reason why I give my students a lifetime warranty. I have had my share of successes and failures and I have learned a few things along the way, so if that helps others have more success and less failure that is as good as it gets. I’ve been doing this long enough now that my students who have graduated, some who have married each other and had children – we call them my grand-students – expect the lifetime warranty to transfer to their children. And I’m good with that.