McCann’s philanthropic work in America is similarly focused on empowering young people to thrive. “I always say the two things that really have allowed me to succeed were that I came from a great family and I had education,” he says. “I can’t do anything about somebody’s family, but I can try to make it possible for them to access education.” At his own alma mater, Bethany College, McCann has founded the McCann Learning Center and the McCann Investment Fund, as well as serving as vice chairman of the board of trustees and as chair of the college’s investment committee. The learning center provides support for students with learning disabilities or other difficulties, and the investment fund is based on a course that McCann took in graduate school, at Texas Christian University, which involved managing actual money in the stock market.
He is also a member of the advisory board of the No Greater Sacrifice Foundation, which funds the education of children of military personnel who have been wounded or killed. “I was never in the military, but I've come to develop a very healthy respect for military people and the sacrifices that they make. To me it’s not about politics, it’s not a statement about how I feel about this war or any other.”
With the amount of time Bob McCann spends on philanthropic pursuits, it’s stunning to recall that he expends the majority of his energy heading a top investment company in what is still a trying economic time for our nation. “The economy is better than it was a year ago, but I think it’s still fragile,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a long, slow recovery and there are going to be fits and starts in this recovery. The last three years have been very hard on people in all kinds of ways and I think their confidence has been shaken. Their confidence in the U.S. economy, their confidence in our place in the world, how they invest and where they invest.” McCann, a self-described pragmatist, exercises a delicate balance of optimism and specific criticism in most of his views. “I think we’re going to come through it; I still believe in this country powerfully. The very same things that have allowed us to succeed for the two hundred and thirty-four years we’ve been here; those qualities are still in place but we’re being tested in a way that we haven’t been in quite some time, at the same time that we’re fighting two wars, so the country is being challenged in a host of different ways.
“I think financial regulatory reform was necessary; it was appropriate. The process to get here at times has been too politically charged. I don’t like to see people trying to divide and conquer; you can’t have financial regulation that’s driven by popular politics at the time. … I think it’s also important to note that in the end, regulatory reform will always have gaps. What fills the gaps is leadership. It comes down to running the companies, running the institutions in the United States, behaving and leading in the right way. Regulation will tell you what you can and can’t do, but leadership answers the question of what you should do. And what we need right now in the industry that I’m in, I would argue in big business period, we need leaders that are going to step up and lead in an honorable way. We have to earn back the trust of our clients, of our employees, of our shareholders, because, let’s face it, we let some people down. We have to earn that back. And I think the firms that do earn it back will be the firms that will have a competitive advantage into the next 10-20 years. Because it’s a challenging time, but progress is being made and there’s more to be made in the future.”
It’s clear that McCann refuses to see institutions, from Wall Street to the American government to the Catholic Church, as faceless and uncontrollable beings to be blamed for America’s challenges. He believes that good leadership by individuals in positions of power can overcome the most daunting of issues on large and small scales. Some of this philosophy comes from his two years under the mentorship of David Komansky, former chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch who grew up in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants and Irish Catholics. “There was a time in my life when I was trying to decide what direction to go. I was 33 years old. I’d been a trader up until that point in my life, and I loved it, I loved the action, I loved the markets. I had taken on some management responsibilities. I was a producing manager, and my definition of managing at the time was that I yelled louder than other people on the trading floor. Komansky worked with me over a two-year period and he helped me cross the bridge from being a producer, but one largely responsible for myself, to being a leader and an executive and being responsible for other people, and the joy and frustration that can come from that… I lost my temper on the trading floor, and he said, ‘Leadership is a privilege, not your right.’ I think all of us have to remember that people don’t have to follow, so we need to treat people in a way that they want to follow, and to create a vision for them to want to follow. Then we also need to explain to them where they tie into that.