Not long ago, we received some advice about what not to say when delivering a commencement address that was coming up. First, don't bore the graduates with clichés, like the old "the road not taken," we were told. Don't blither on with buzzwords like "synergy" or "paradigm" either. And most of all, don't tell the graduates they're the best and the brightest, the future belongs to them, or how hard it was when you were young. They'll just laugh—or groan.
Instead, we were urged, just admit the economy is awful and give the students what they want to hear. Advice on how to succeed anyway.
Oh, just that?
Three years ago we wrote a column called "Dear Graduate," with a very simple message. "The way to get ahead is to overdeliver," we said. "Expand the organization's expectations of you and exceed them."
That advice, we firmly believe, still holds true.
But the current environment prompts us to add four "codicils" to the overdeliver credo, to bolster it (and you) for the tumultuous ride ahead.
And like the current environment, you may not like them very much.
Take the first of the lot: Get off your computer. No, we're not being Neanderthals. We love the wonders of the Web as much as the next geek. We live on our BlackBerrys, tapping away on them even as we talk with each other, eat dinner, and watch ball games. We're addicted to Twitter. We stalk our children on Facebook. Frankly, when it comes to technology, we're certifiable.
But we're not vying for promotions these days. When we were, we knew one thing for certain: Relationships matter. Real ones, perhaps maintained electronically, but not built that way. So next time you're about to e-mail a co-worker, hit the delete key, take the elevator or walk down the hall, and talk to them instead. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. And if you're thinking of working from home two or three days a week because "it's so easy" and "it doesn't really matter," slap yourself for being unrealistic. Because if you ever want to be a leader, being online is fine but being there is imperative.
Our second piece of advice probably sounds just as old-fashioned as the first, but we'd prefer to call it timeless: You've got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.
O.K., we stole that line, and from Ringo Starr of all people. But as the song says: "You know it don't come easy," especially these days. In this marketplace, if you're a new employee hoping to achieve work-life balance, we strongly suggest you hold that thought. Hold it, that is, until you've earned some chits with a nice, long run of great performance. In the brave new world of 9%-plus unemployment, flexibility is a reward, not an entitlement.
Our third piece of advice is to love everyone.
Yes, we're serious. We live in a culture of pervasive criticism and snark. We dismiss less-successful-seeming people as losers. We fall into the trap of office politics, aligning with one group or the other, hoping it's got the inside track. How pointless. Most people you meet at work—regardless of rank or title—know something you don't. Many people, again despite where they sit in the hierarchy, can be a mentor to you about something. So try to shed your cynicism and listen to every voice. It will make you smarter and more humble. And if smartness and humility end up being the two main traits people see in you, you're going to be a winner, no matter what the GDP.
Our final piece of advice to the Class of '09 is especially for those with business degrees: Please stop apologizing. Despite all the negative noise about capitalism of late, the vast majority of companies are filled with good and decent people, doing good and decent work. There's no need to feel shame. You are entering a noble profession. Business is a force for progress in the world, creating jobs, opportunity, and hope, and you'll be part of that. If nothing else in these complicated times, that alone is cause for celebration.
And we do suggest you celebrate. You are the best and the brightest. The future does belong to you. All you need to do is overdeliver—and then some.