Photograph by John Zoiner/Getty Images

Commencement 2012

  1. For a Generation Adrift, Pearls of Wisdom

    For a Generation Adrift, Pearls of Wisdom

    With every commencement season comes a bevy of speeches by the high and mighty, full of advice to those just starting out. This year the advice from business leaders to both college students and MBAs revolved around themes of leadership, personal integrity, and the challenges confronting a generation facing severe unemployment and a growing mountain of college debt. What follows are excerpts from some of the best commencement speeches of the season.

    Photograph by John Zoiner/Getty Images
  2. Prem Watsa

    Prem Watsa

    Title: Chairman and CEO, Fairfax Financial Holdings (FFH)
    Commencement: University of Western Ontario, Ivey School of Business
    Date: April 4

    "As you go into the business world and you’re going to be working, keep in the back of your mind that you don’t want to succeed at the expense of your family. It’s never going to be worth it. Finally, if you want to really be happy, do not forget to give back some of your time, talents, and money to help someone. As the Chinese proverb says, ‘If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for one day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone.’"
  3. Norman Johnson

    Norman Johnson

    Title: Chairman and CEO, Clarcor (CLC)
    Commencement: Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management
    Date: May 11

    "Not every day will go perfectly. There will be ups and downs. Everyone has their peaks and valleys, their good and bad days. The real leaders bounce back from bad days quickly and have the ability to inspire their people and create hope in any environment. I had a very experienced and wise plant manager reporting to me who walked into the factory every morning with a big smile on his face—even bigger when the economy was bad. He told me, ‘If they see me afraid, they will lose confidence about the future.’ He said he had to give his people hope and assure them everything would be OK. His people would have followed him off a cliff, and they did make him successful. That is leadership."
  4. Maria Bartiromo

    Maria Bartiromo

    Title: Anchor of CNBC's Closing Bell
    Commencement: New York University, Stern School of Business
    Date: May 17

    "A few years ago I thought I had seen it all, having had this front-row seat to so much happening in business globally. But then I received a call that led to one of the most exciting days of my life. It was the New York Yankees calling. They wanted me to throw out the first pitch in the last game of the season. I immediately said yes. ... Then I hung up and said, ‘What did I just do?’ I don't even know how to play baseball. I don't know the first thing about a pitch! Never mind throwing it 60 feet to get it over the plate! And with 60,000 fans in the stadium. There was no way I am getting booed in my hometown. So I practiced for a month, every night and every weekend. I perfected my pitch. On the day of the game, right before they called me to the mound, I turned to my trainer. I said, ‘Dan, what am I doing? I can't do this. I am not a baseball player.’ He turned to me and looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Maria, we have been working on this. You have been doing it. Now go do what you are supposed to do.’ He said, ‘Maria, when you are out on that mound, remember one thing: You are exactly where you are supposed to be.’"
  5. Richard Simmons

    Richard Simmons

    Title: Chairman Emeritus, Allegheny Technologies (ATI)
    Commencement: Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business
    Date: May 19

    "To survive in a global economy, it is essential to field your best team. Anything less will inevitably lead to failure. This is affirmative action at its best, fielding your best team regardless of who they are or where they are from. This is one of the most difficult challenges of a CEO. How do we select the right people for each key job? And the answer is we don’t always. We make mistakes. Recognizing this fact simply means that we must constantly reexamine our ‘best team,’ making changes where required."
  6. Michael Ward

    Michael Ward

    Title: Chairman, President, and CEO, CSX (CSX)
    Commencement: University of Maryland, Smith School of Business
    Date: May 20

    "Personal integrity is the most important asset you possess. It is invaluable and almost impossible to regain if you lose it. You need a strong moral compass to guide you through life's inevitable tough decisions. Here are some questions to consider: How would you feel about telling your family and friends what you did? Would you like to see it written about in the Wall Street Journal? Most important, can you look at yourself in the mirror? Never sacrifice your personal integrity at any cost or for any benefit. You will know in your heart what is the right thing to do. Follow your heart."
  7. Greg Brown

    Greg Brown

    Title: Chairman and CEO, Motorola Solutions (MSI)
    Commencement: Rutgers University
    Date: May 13

    "Every time you think you’ve made it, there’s often another crisis and another set of challenges. ... Motorola had lost its way. It was hemorrhaging cash and losing customers at an alarming rate. Many thought the company could not survive, so I became CEO. We decided to split the company. We decided the future of the company was going to be best served by exiting the very business—cell phones—that we had invented 30 years earlier. This was the mother of all decisions and the most important one in the company’s 80-year history, and certainly the biggest one in my career.

    "That was hard enough. Then came the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, the second-worst economic calamity in our nation’s history after the Great Depression. … Motorola’s stock price went to about $3 per share; the financial markets almost failed. The credit markets seized up. We froze pensions, cut bonuses, laid off employees, dealt with activist investors. In my terms, this was a code red in the cockpit. When things are going well for any organization, the people in charge, deservedly or not, are often treated like geniuses or visionaries. When the ship has hit an iceberg and is perceived to be going down, it’s quite a different story. Then the fingers point, the critics harp, and the rumors fly. I wish I could say I wasn’t stung by the criticism or haunted by doubts."
  8. Dan Akerson

    Dan Akerson

    Title: CEO, General Motors (GM)
    Commencement: Columbia Business School
    Date: May 13

    "What is leadership? It’s character, integrity. It’s competence. It’s hardwork. It’s making the right decisions, not just the easy ones. It manifests itself in your relationships, your marriage, your family, your community, and your company. And to lead effectively you must serve your family, your community, your country."
  9. Muhtar Kent

    Muhtar Kent

    Title: Chairman and CEO, Coca-Cola (KO)
    Commencement: University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School
    Date: May 13

    "Every generation faces challenges. And generations are often judged by how well they meet the great challenges of their time. And yours will be no different. What is different, however, is your generation. Where you’re from. What you’ve experienced. And how you think. Yours is the most engaged, most altruistic, most informed, most technologically advanced, most entrepreneurial generation in history. Just look at what’s already happening with social entrepreneurship—young leaders like yourselves solving problems through business. For the future, your generation will achieve growth as people always have: through innovation. Creating new advances in energy and food production and technology and more. And you will lead the way. In fact, the world is counting on you."
  10. Eric Schmidt

    Eric Schmidt

    Title: Executive Chairman, Google (GOOG)
    Commencement: University of California at Berkeley
    Date: May 12

    "No graduating class gets to choose the world they graduate into, just like you don’t get to choose your parents or your siblings. Every class has its own unique challenges. Every class enters a history that up to this point is being written for it. This is no different. What is different is the chance each generation has to make that history and write it larger, or in my business, to program it better. On that score, your generation’s opportunities are greater than any generation in modern history. You can actually write the code for all of us as a society. You’re connected to each other in ways those who came before you can only dream of. And you’re using those connections to strengthen the invisible ties that hold humanity together and allow us to deepen our understanding of the world around us. You’re the emblems of the sense of possibility that will define our new age.”
    Photograph by Peg Skorpinski
  11. Charles Ergen

    Charles Ergen

    Title: Chairman and Co-Founder, Dish Network (DISH)
    Commencement: Wake Forest University
    Date: May 21

    "One must try things that you may think you don’t really want to learn. As an example, I didn’t think I really wanted to give this graduation speech, but now that I’m up here in the shade and see you guys out there in the sun, thank you, thank you. … Fresh from failing in the corporate world, I was encouraged to try something new: actually start my own business. It wasn’t something I knew I’d like, but I knew I didn’t like the alternative. I spent the next two years traveling, asking questions, reading, playing poker, but most definitely learning. When [Dish Network co-founder] Jim DeFranco called one day saying he’d seen a big satellite dish getting signals from outer space, I knew that was the business we were looking for."
    Photograph by Kim Kulish
  12. Joo Boe

    Joo Boe

    Title: Director, Credit Suisse Private Banking USA (CS)
    Commencement: Indiana University, Kelley School of Business
    Date: April 4

    "My plan was clear. I was going to be a concert pianist, marry a surgeon, have two children, and travel the world as a soloist. You might be scratching your head wondering what happened. Well, let me tell you: Life happened. I think this is best explained by a quote from John Lennon: ‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.’ First, the surgeon was replaced by a violinist. The only explanation for this is the four-letter word that makes me feel silly even saying up here, so I will spell it: l-o-v-e. ... Next, the story behind the music-to-business transition. This is a little more complicated. After my last international piano competition, several friends and I sat around and had a conversation about what we were going to do when we grew up. ... It was during this discussion that I had a life-changing epiphany. I realized that while I truly enjoyed performing, I did not want to teach, so being the practical person that I am, I decided to go back to school again, this time for my MBA."
  13. Sheryl Sandberg

    Sheryl Sandberg

    Title: Chief Operating Officer, Facebook (FB)
    Commencement: Harvard Business School
    Date: May 23

    "I graduated from HBS in 1995, and I thought it was completely clear that by the time someone from my year was invited to speak at this podium, we would have achieved equality in the workforce. But women at the top C-level jobs are stuck at 15 percent or 16 percent and have not moved in a decade. Not even close to 50 percent. We need to acknowledge openly that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership. The promise of equality is not equality. We need to start talking about this. ... We will not close the leadership gap until we close the professional ambition gap. We need more women not just to sit at the table, but as President Obama said a few weeks ago at Barnard, to take their rightful seats at the head of the table."
    Photograph by Neal Hamburg
  14. Javad Hassan

    Javad Hassan

    Title: Chairman and CEO, NeST Group (Private Company)
    Commencement: New Jersey Institute of Technology
    Date: May 15

    "All along my underlying passion was to become a successful entrepreneur. Never give up on your dreams. Be prepared to take risks even though you may have setbacks in life. Persist and persevere. Now having the ability to pursue my passion without any constraint while still in my late 50s, I plunged into entrepreneurial life with full vigor and with the full support of my life partner. I took control over a publicly traded company [that] was languishing on the stock market with a stock trading for 3¢ on the Nasdaq exchange. With my own software resources, I rejuvenated the company and the stock went up to $3 from 3¢. I could have sold all my 35 million shares for over $100 million, but my passion was to build a $1 billion enterprise. The Internet bubble burst, and the company went bankrupt. But I did not give up. I made the company private and reinvented it."
  15. Reid Hoffman

    Reid Hoffman

    Title: Executive Chairman and Co-Founder, LinkedIn (LNKD), and partner, Greylock Partners (Private Company)
    Commencement: Babson College
    Date: May 19

    "Entrepreneurs are massively important for society. Not just because they create companies and jobs—although those are both seriously important. Not just because entrepreneurism is the toolset for how all of us should pursue our work and careers—although the toolset is essential for modern professional success. Entrepreneurs are massively important for society because they help build the institutions in which we live. And as the modern world continues to accelerate, adaptability and invention become even more important."