Companies & Industries

Graduation Wisdom for Future CEOs


While commencement speakers at top B-schools dodged the recession issue, one imperative was stressed: Leaders will have to adapt

Commencement speeches are a perennial opportunity for business luminaries to look outside the walls of their own company and dispatch advice, relay personal experiences, and hold forth on current events. In 2005, Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates to "stay hungry" and "stay foolish." In 2006, Michael Bloomberg advised University of Chicago graduates to "maintain a healthy skepticism."

Absent this year was any discussion of the current economic climate or the challenge of graduating into recession (BusinessWeek.com, 4/3/08)—perhaps this was too somber a note to sound on a day of celebration. Instead, many big-name speakers from various parts of the business world talked about how the major challenges of the day—including environmental sustainability, globalization, and social responsibility—will change the role of the leader in the 21st century.

Business Must Act Locally

Speaking at University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business, venture capitalist John Denniston told graduates they should be ready to adapt in order to lead during periods of "unprecedented economic transformations."

He spoke of the great wealth of opportunities in green initiatives, an area in which his company, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has invested heavily. "I'm convinced a tsunami-sized wave is forming—right now—in the world energy markets," he said. "It is surely worth some thought, as you embark on your careers, as to how you might play a leadership role in this new green industrial revolution."

Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business invited Symantec (SYMC) Chairman and CEO John Thompson to its commencement ceremony to speak about the challenges and opportunities he has discovered navigating an increasingly global economy. As his business has expanded to new markets, Thompson has found it imperative to "act more local"—learn the customs and peculiarities of every culture where he does business. In marketing, for example, "things that may seem a bit hokey to us as Americans quite frankly drive real demand in Japan and the U.K."

But this can be an advantage rather than a setback to a smart leader who "explores those things that have real meaning to them and therefore represent real opportunity for you."

The boldest call to action was likely the one delivered by Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank. He urged the student body of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to think of social prosperity, and not profits, as the end goal of our capitalist economy. "You can be the socially conscious creative generation that the world is waiting for," he said. "You can bring your creativity to design brilliant social businesses to overcome poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food crises, depletion of non-renewable resources, etc."

The message from Yunus, like so many of the speakers from commencement ceremonies in 2008, was simple in expression, ambitious in scope: "Each one of you is capable of changing the world," he said.

MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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