Few corporate leaders have as rapt an audience as they do when they speak at commencement, that great rite of spring when graduates get to reflect on the academic life they're leaving behind and the challenges and opportunities ahead. And this year's crop of B-school graduation speakers is no exception. With the job outlook for both college business majors and MBAs improving, the tone this year was generally optimistic—with a healthy dose of reality thrown in for good measure.
The thread that brings together many of the recent graduation speeches is a call to action, a suggestion to look long and hard in the mirror, take stock of the post-crisis world, and move forward as the type of leader who does not seek followers but rather helps cultivate new leaders. From Bob McDonald, CEO of Procter & Gamble (PG), who told graduates of University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School (Kenan-Flagler Full-Time MBA Profile) that there is no surefire formula for making a difference, to John C.Cushman III, chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, who apologized to those at the commencement for University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business (Marshall Full-Time MBA Profile) for the errors of his generation that are costing Americans dearly, there seems to be less sugar-coating and more tough talk than are typically heard in such addresses.
Still, earning a business degree brings with it joy and a sense of accomplishment. Speechmakers urged students to embrace this milestone in their lives as a chance to wipe the slate clean and set forth on a greater mission.
"Whether you choose business, the not-for-profit sector, or government, be passionate about what you're doing," said Henry R. Kravis, founding partner of the private equity firm KKR at the May 15 commencement at Columbia Business School (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile). "In the current economy, this may seem idealistic and impractical because most of you need to earn a living, reimburse student and other loans, or support or help your families. In this labor market, you might not find a job immediately, but the important thing is to get started, acquire experience, and make connections without losing sight of your longer-term goals. Whatever job you take, be the best at what you do and work harder than everyone else."
Simple but Powerful Question
The virtues of hard work aren't limited to getting ahead, though. Doing good counts for something, too. Doug Conant, the CEO of Campbell Soup Company (CPB), is planning to focus his June 17 speech to graduates of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile) on assisting others and being thoughtful about how you influence them, according to his spokesperson, Anthony J. Sanzio.
"Doug strongly believes that as these MBA graduates are entering the corporate world, they should ask themselves a simple but powerful question in all their encounters. 'How can I help?'" writes Sanzio in an e-mail. "In Doug's view, the more helpful you become to a supervisor, a project team, a company, the more effective you will be in your career."
At the graduation ceremonies on May 19 for New York University's Stern School of Business (Stern Full-Time MBA Profile) newly minted MBAs will receive a lecture on grappling with industry-rattling change, from someone who knows about it first-hand.
"NYU Stern is one of the most well-respected business schools in the nation, and at its convocation I plan on sharing my thoughts on the need to deal with rapid and dramatic change, the corresponding business challenges, and the critical choices business leaders must make to ensure sustainable success," writes Janet L. Robinson, president and CEO of The New York Times Co. (NYT), in an e-mail.
In Praise of Single-Tasking
In a business world where multi-tasking has become standard operating procedure, one speechmaker asked graduates of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile) to put down the BlackBerrys, tablets, laptops, and all the rest so that they can zero in on what matters.
"I'm going to champion single-tasking," said Barbara J. Desoer, president of Bank of America (BAC) Home Loans and Insurance, at the Haas commencement on May 15. "Focus your mind, time, and energy to bring the full value of what you have to offer to the task at hand, to your passions, your family and your community, to be fully present in all your endeavors, to make conscious choices—deciding in the face of competing demands where you will get and give the most value."
The question of value—what graduates should be bringing to the table as they forge their new careers—came up in many graduation speeches. Most of the speechmakers seemed to agree that kindness of heart, humility, and a thirst for knowledge should be at the top of every businessperson's résumé.
"Here's a little advice on how to advance your career and become a leader. Work hard. It's a very competitive world now that demands hard work to insure reaching your goals," said Albert W. Niemi Jr., dean of Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business (Cox Full-Time MBA Profile) at its May 14 graduation. "Maintain your ethical values. You only get one reputation in life, so guard it well. Never stop learning. Education is a journey that never ends. And treat folks right. Treat the custodians like you would treat the CEO."