The way 77-year-old David Morris sees it, he’s in the final quarter, the last season of his life. Yet unlike so many others his age, Morris isn’t counting himself out. A true believer in the power of education, he’s currently an Executive MBA student at Yale School of Management and most likely the oldest MBA student in the world.
His reason for getting an MBA just three years shy of his 80th birthday? Morris is CEO and president of a small firm that develops employment tests but like many entrepreneurs he has never had formal business training. Morris, who once played football in college, views the game as a metaphor for life.
“I’ve got all my time-outs left, and I can still throw a long pass, so I can win this game,” he tells Poets&Quants. “As to my greatest motivator, I have a responsibility to the members and staff that worked with me to build my company. If I time out too soon, I fear that we are still in a business model that’s limited for sustainability. I would like to make sure that the company goes on for a long time. To do that, I knew that I had to change the business template, and to do that I needed professional training in business.”
President of Morris & McDaniel Inc, Morris has traveled across the globe in his work helping to develop employment tests and supporting public safety, and has earned his Juris Doctorate and Ph.D., more than many can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Morris is currently earning his EMBA at Yale, ranked a top five program by Poets&Quants, as the next addition to his extensive list of accomplishments. Poets&Quants had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Morris about business, education, and his advice for leading an accomplished life.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your career and credentials before going after your EMBA?
So simply, I’m the CEO and president of a small firm with a large footprint. What we do is develop employment tests. I began early on in the field becoming interested in public safety. We develop tests for lots and lots of cities, both big and small, including the city of New York, Chicago, and Houston, in the big categories, and Selma, Alabama, and Waterbury, Connecticut in the small categories. For example, for the City of New York, I think we’re the only one that develops their employment tests for positions all the way from plumber’s helper to police captains. But we have a primary focus on testing for public safety. I believe there are two main pillars of society, education, and public safety. I’ve spent my professional life trying to improve public safety one hire at a time and one promotion at a time.
I’d love to hear more about your hobbies. I know that you’re interested in retracing iconic trails, including Marco Polo’s route from Venice to Mongolia and the Silk Road, I believe. And you’ve taken on some great swimming feats as well.
To paraphrase the prophet Mohammed, “Don’t tell me what you know, tell me where you’ve been.”
I think that life is a journey, and where you have been brings value to the journey. You learn a lot from traveling. My work has given me an opportunity to travel, and seeing the world is fun. I’ve also always enjoyed studying history. I’m fascinated with the journeys that famous people have made and think maybe that their journeys influenced their thoughts and perspectives. Whether it is a long journey such as the one made by Marco Polo along the ancient silk road, or just daily treks. I did all the research I could on where Pericles walked and spent time in Athens, walking what is believed to be some of the paths Pericles walked I retraced part of the river trip of Mark Twain and went down the Mississippi River on a raft from Memphis to New Orleans.
Also, I am fascinated with iconic swims. I’d always wanted to swim the Hellespont. I’ve done that two times so far. The Hellespont is the point that historically separated Europe from Asia. I swam across the Mississippi River. I tried to swim the Nile. I first tried right outside of Cairo. I got there and was told, this water, it’s too polluted in Egypt and especially in Cairo. So when I was working with the National Police in Uganda, I thought it would be a great opportunity to try the swim, since it was the source of the Nile and could not be polluted. While I was standing there on the banks of the Nile drinking a cup of coffee, planning the swim, the Uganda police who were my escorts asked what I was doing. I told them and asked their permission to try it.
And they said, “Well, there are lots of dangers out there. See those hippos?” I saw the hippos, but they were a considerable distance downstream. And I said, “I can swim to the other side before the hippos can reach this spot upriver. I know they’re fast, but I can get across before they can catch me. They said, “Well, we can’t let you, Dr. Morris.” I said, “Yeah you can, just watch me. Would you lose your job?” And they said, “We might lose a lot more than our job if we let you do this.” I did not want to get these fine officers in trouble, as the hippos did look formidable, and I had heard they were great swimmers. I tried again when I was in South Sudan, a very troubled nation. But I was not able to swim it there either…Crocodiles were the problem in South Sudan.
Tell me more about that.
I was in South Sudan to try to help them strengthen their police. My invitation to go to Uganda and to South Sudan stemmed from a presentation that I had given in 2013 at the General Assembly for INTERPOL in Cartagena, Columbia. While we were on break and I was waiting to give the invited address, Ron Noble, the Secretary-General at the time, was talking with me and said that to his knowledge, I was the only non-government person who had ever been asked to address the INTERPOL General Assembly. I was honored by the statement, but also humbled and knew I had a responsibility to say something more important than what I had planned.
So I went back and started scribbling down some notes, and I started my address off with, “the top leaders of public safety are gathered here from around the world. And you have a challenge before you. It’s not just a plus for public safety to be diverse, it’s necessary that public safety reflects the diversity of the population that it serves. Because Public Safety is the face of government, and if people do not see themselves represented in public safety then it is a psychological certainty that the government is courting dissension from those people who are not represented.”
Diversity is more than just race, ethnicity, or gender. In Africa, oftentimes it’s tribal diversity. When I was in Uganda, I knew that they had eighty-plus different tribes. Because our work in Uganda had been successful, I was asked to come to South Sudan to assist their police.
You have a very impressive background, both in terms of your credentials and your career. What was your greatest motivator when you decided to take this next step and apply to EMBA programs?
I used to play college football. In American football, there are four quarters. I know I’m in the last season of life. I’m comfortable with it. However I’ve got all my time-outs left, and I can still throw a long pass, so I can win this game. As to my greatest motivator, I have a responsibility to the members and staff that worked with me to build my company. I didn’t build this company alone, the employees in the company built it with me. If I time out too soon, I fear that we are still in a business model that’s limited to sustainability. I would like to make sure that the company goes on for a long time. To do that, I knew that I had to change the business template and to do that I needed professional training in business.
I thought, “Well, I’ll apply to a bunch of quality schools. Maybe I can get into one.” However, I wondered if I could really get in. Last year, I had challenges applying to the top EMBA programs on my own, I became much more confident when I sought and received the right advice. This year I was thrilled to make it through the application process and gain acceptance into all of the three EMBA programs to which I had applied. The difference and success I had were clearly due to the expert guidance and motivation from Rebecca at Menlo Coaching.
I believe more in education than most people do. And I believe that there’s a difference in the quality of education. I’ve only been at Yale for a little while, but the things that I’ve learned that I didn’t even know existed are amazing! To paraphrase what has been described as three elements of knowledge: what you know; what you don’t know; and the third one is the most important for most of us, what you don’t know that you don’t even know. Yale has opened up my eyes to so much, and it’s been such a fascinating journey.
Were you concerned about your age when deciding to take on this next step of your education? Did you see it as a barrier, or were you not quite as concerned about it since you already had all these great credentials?
Age is a factor. It’s not just a number. It is a factor. Like most factors, there are pluses and minuses. And age does have its effect on some things. One’s reaction time is definitely affected. My reaction time may have slowed for sure. I may not be able to box as well as I used to; in fact, I just recently took a blow that I should have been able to block in my younger years. My whole arm was bruised up. So, while there are things that you lose along the way, one of the positive effects of age is that if you work at it, you can increase your judgment. I always looked at age as a positive because of that increased judgment and age has given me the opportunity to learn more.
The more I’ve learned, the more I am humbled because I realize there’s so much that we don’t know that we need to know. And I would like to use that learning to address some of the testing and selection problems that are important. I’d really like to have a bigger impact on solving some of these problems that we have about diversity. It’s really important for us to get that right. America’s truly the melting pot, so it’s really, really important here.
I still lift weights and still work out, I still swim a lot, and I’m healthy. With medical science, I think I’ve got 20 years and that is almost a career! So I don’t see age as negative. I do have to work harder to learn than I did when I was younger. And learning is a struggle. That struggle is part of learning. But I’ve always been willing to work, so I’m okay with that part. the struggle part.
From your personal accomplishments to your impressive education and career, you seem like someone who has always strived for great things. Would you agree? What has motivated you to take on these great accomplishments?
I’m not sure about great things, but I know there is much to be done in the world of employment testing and I would like to help. Because of my age, I fear I’m running the risk of becoming a character, but if so I hope it is an interesting and good one. And while I don’t want to become a character. I do want to have character.
On what has motivated me, I think it’s important to make sure that you plan what your goal is and with that in mind work hard to pursue it. I think improving the way we test for employment is a worthy goal worth pursuing. This is especially true for public safety, which is truly one of the cornerstones of society. If I had my life to go over again, I might pick education which is another cornerstone of society…I believe helping both are worthy goals, but I’ve spent my whole career trying to help public safety and at the same time, the world of employment. I think that’s what motivates me. Really.
Is there anything that you haven’t done that you’d still like to accomplish?
I am particularly interested in what I can do after Yale. . I believe that as I said earlier, there is a caste system in the world, and it’s called education. And that education is available to all willing to work for it. I think that with the degree from Yale, I might be able to have a bigger impact, and I would love to serve on boards and actually help them do a better job of hiring people so that employment is a diverse workforce. And they don’t just lower the cut scores. They need to redesign the assessment metrics.
I believe there’s a possibility I can have that impact with the time I have left with a degree from Yale. It’s a respected degree. Most HR people are so worried about just filling the slots that they go to the lowest common denominator, almost always. You just need to make sure that the way you design the tests is equitable and purposeful, so it is merit-based and that underrepresented people are in the final group. I know that’s a doable deal.
Is there any advice that you’d like to share with someone embarking on a new stage of their life, education, or career?
Do it. Do what you can within your means. Education is so important, and you learn things and it’s a struggle. Learning is always a struggle and essential to make it work, but it’s worth it. And then when you get the education, try for the best that you can. Try to be the best you can. That means getting the very best. There’s something to ratings, I’m not saying they’re always perfect, but there’s something to them.
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