Business Schools

What I Learned From 27 Commencement Speeches


What I Learned From 27 Commencement Speeches

Illustration by 731

When he was about to speak at a graduation ceremony at the Wharton School’s executive MBA program, California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari asked his staff if they could remember the speeches at their graduations. Almost none could. “I hope five years from now or 10 years from now, maybe I’ll leave you with something you remember,” he told the new MBAs.

If retaining one commencement speech is a challenge, maybe you have to consume them in bulk to fully appreciate their impact. Over the last three days, I watched, read, and listened to more than two dozen (mostly) business school commencement speeches to see what the future leaders of the corporate world might be missing.

The wisdom bestowed on would-be CEOs and game-changers, consolidated:

It only takes three things to make it, but nobody agrees on exactly which three. Success is the product of hard work, tenacity, and patience, says Tory Burch.

Or, depending on whom you ask, passion, people, and perseverance. Or skill, hard work, and luck. That last trio resonated with me. I was, in fact, applying a combination of the three to changing my daughter’s diaper as I watched the speech.

The modern career track, meanwhile, isn’t a ladder but a climbing wall, says Roger Ferguson, chief executive of retirement plan manager TIAA-CREF. No, it’s a jungle gym, says Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.

Either way, job security is personal, says Cathie Lesjak, CFO at Hewlett-Packard, which is supposed to mean that you can always get a job with the right skills and experience, but also sounds like an admonishment to maintain an updated résumé.

If you get knocked down seven times, get up eight. Don’t fear failure, unless it’s the kind of fear that drives you to succeed. Strive for humility. Be a fool. Your spouse is always right. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. It’s easy to make a buck, it’s hard to make a difference. Diversification doesn’t work for your dreams.

If you want to succeed, be hard-core, says Steve Ballmer, who is buying the Los Angeles Clippers for a hard-core sum of $2 billion, or work “super hard,” per Elon Musk. In Musk’s case, that meant sleeping on the office couch and showering at a YMCA. For Visa CEO Charles Scharf, it means spending more time at work than at home. It’s better to come home late from a job you love, says Thomas Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, than to come home early from a job you hate.

But what sort of success should you seek? On this point, the exalted speakers were less inclined to presume. Salman Khan, founder of the online education startup Khan Academy, told new Harvard Business School grads to emulate innovators such as Musk—the CEO of carmaker Tesla and rocket maker SpaceX—but reimagine health care, transportation, housing, and finance. We’re living in a time when “humanity went from being a fragmented, provincial, unconnected, sometimes petty proto-civilization, to being a multiplanetary, connected, sentient one,” he said. Naturally, the fate of humanity is in HBS grads’ hands.

Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein named one common goal at a ceremony for Wharton MBAs. “Here’s all you need to know in five minutes or so in order to make a great deal of money,” he said. And then proceeded to tell them to work hard, work long, be humble, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a little good luck. Also this nugget: “Learning how to persuade others to do what you want is the essence of a successful business career, and the essence of life in many respects.”

When clichés fail you, fall back on the dictionary (“the definition of passion is …”) and fun facts (the economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “entrepreneur,” apparently). Or just take away the salient insights from the single best commencement speech that ever was:

It’s probably wise to name-check your boss on a big stage (Staggs touted Disney CEO Bob Iger; former NBA star Grant Hill couldn’t say enough about Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski at Fuqua’s MBA commencement); and heed outdated cultural touchstones like the band Styx and movie Thelma and Louise (favorites of former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Ballmer, respectively).

This has been the year of the commencement speech protest. Christine Lagarde canceled on Smith College amid student rancor. Condoleezza Rice decided not to speak at Rutgers amid student discontent about her planned appearance. Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of University of California at Berkeley, bowed out of a gig at Haverford College after students criticized his response to police violence at a student protest in 2011.

It has also been a year of protest backlash (protest protest?). Former Princeton University President William Bowen, speaking at Haverford in place of Birgeneau, scolded students for their arrogance. Michael Bloomberg, the majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, criticized intellectual intolerance on campuses across America in his commencement speech at Harvard.

All of this is a little bit baffling to those of us who take after U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, who confessed during his commencement speech last month at the University of Texas at Austin that his memory of his own graduation day was obscured by a throbbing headache: “I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was that evening and I certainly don’t remember anything they said.”

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering small business and entrepreneurship.

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