If I was asked to give a commencement speech……
When universities abruptly shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, the graduating seniors lost their chance to cross anything but a virtual commencement stage. If I had been asked to give a commencement address, what would I say? Would it be inspirational? Would it offer insight? Would it offer some wisdom? I’d like to think so. Let’s just call it “sharing my perspective.” No pressure!
My experiences have offered me a front row seat to witness success (some mine but mostly others) and the impact of leadership. So, here I am opening my heart with some perspective for the Class of 2020 and the beginning of their tomorrow.
Over the latter part of my career I was interviewing students for summer internships or full-time employment. I never asked a question about their course of study. I knew that the student had received an outstanding education. That’s what got them to the interview. My questions were always geared to understanding what made this student “tick”. My interview questions were along the lines of “What are you curious about”? “What are you passionate about”?
What was the purpose of these questions? I wanted a student who would come to our firm with an ever-expanding view of the possible, who was curious about the world before them, and was willing to seek answers.
Truth be told, I’ve had a diverse career with zigs and zags along the path. With curiosity I placed some bets. Some worked out and others did not. I changed careers early on. I went from a career in sports to finance. I was comfortable with both decisions, pursuing a career in sports and abandoning it. I didn’t want to look back years later and wonder if I could have made it.
What’s the lesson in this? Graduates, you have your lives in front of you. Your career choices will not be fatal. There are no mistakes to be made, only learning experiences. My tenure with that financial services firm was both tough and exhilarating. I worked hard to prove myself. I worked long hours, sometimes around the clock. Through it all I learned that hard work and dedication pays off. Every step on your path will add a memory that you will use again.
After several years, my interests were increasingly curious about technology and telecommunications. It was the dawn of what was known as the “Information Age.” I chose to pursue a career in a large corporate environment. Through those exciting years my roles took me through sales, operations, marketing, the institutional and the retail markets, the unfolding of wireless and many more new things.
What can I pass along to you?
- Find your mentor. Find someone you trust, someone who cares about your experiences. My mentors counseled and coached me on both my work and my career. Their influence on my growth as a professional and as a person was invaluable.
- Find an additional mentor. You are developing your story and you will have a much better story with a variety of inputs.
- Take some risk. You’ll be remembered more for your successes than your failures. I learned that life really begins at the edges of your comfort zone. It is easy to stay the same, but it is not rewarding.
- Every employer provides both “key experiences” and “enhancing experiences” for you to learn from. If you leverage those opportunities your learnings and experiences will compound.
- Determine your style. Define how you want to be a leader and how you will make an impact. I tried to take one or two of the best qualities of everyone I ever worked for, bundle them up, and make them my own. Conversely, there were some negative traits I witnessed that I carried forward so as to never repeat them.
- Earn the trust and respect of the people around you. Win their hearts and minds for the vision you have for the team. Create an environment where people feel good about themselves. Where they feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. If they know you have their back, that you care about them – positive results will follow.
- Decide how you want to be remembered. Success is not measured when you are doing it, but after you stop doing it. Did you make a lasting impact.
The title doesn’t make you a leader.
I transitioned to a new career after twenty years in tech and telecom; it was both easy and challenging. Easy in the sense that the new corporate culture was quite similar to what I valued, it was team-oriented, collaborative, and provided respect for the individual. Challenging in the sense that I was not managing anything like I had with my prior company. Now I was doing. I was producing results. I was an individual contributor. I learned that leadership is not defined by how many people you manage. The job title doesn’t make you a leader – it’s the qualities that you bring to the job, no matter what the job level is.
Looking back, it wasn’t the jobs I had that were my proudest moments. It was the experiences I had; it was the ups and the downs. It was the friendships I made and the lives I impacted that were the most gratifying aspects of my career.
What are some of the traits I’ve observed of great leaders?
It is the context of that question that I want to give you both a glimpse of the world you are about to enter and my thoughts on what it will take to succeed.
- Great leaders challenge their own beliefs. They are humble enough to recognize there are smarter people in the room and that they can learn from them. They are so comfortable in their own skin they surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are and those with diverse perspectives. This circle helps them answer tough questions.
- Traits like “thinking outside of the box,” and “connecting the dots” cropped up as requirements when I was coming up in business. Now, there’s “no box!” Flex your creativity muscles as much as possible. Help build the new box.
- Great leaders are radically transparent and model it for others. Transparency has a way of creating a culture of respect, openness, and dignity while backstabbing, gossip, and throwing people under the bus is left behind. It’s about the team — about strong relationships, collaboration and getting results. Transparent leaders allow others to voice their opinion and they encourage open and honest communication.
- Great leaders are curious. They develop their own competency by continuously learning and gathering expertise across multiple fields. They also champion a culture of continuous learning for everyone in the organization.
- Great leaders have mentors and they pick them carefully. Mentors that they can approach for wisdom and honest feedback. They find tried-and-true mentors who have a high degree of integrity that they, and others, admire and would like to emulate.
- Great leaders build strong relationships. I can’t stress this enough. You will need to become savvy about how to build networks and relationships. All of us will need better skills in listening, communicating and facilitating groups, because these are the talents that build strong relationships.
- Great leadership is about serving others. Leadership is not dictating, commanding, or imposing your views on others. It is empowering others to achieve their goals, putting their needs ahead of your own, and helping people reach their highest potential. I call this “followership.” You may be designated the leader of a team but is anyone following you?
Today you are embarking on a new leg of your adventure of discovery. Most discovery is re-discovery. Your best discoveries will be very personal. I’ve given you some insight into my discoveries. I am confident that the future holds great opportunities for you.
As you begin a new chapter in your lives, my wish for each of you is:
Challenges worthy of your time – they’ll bring out the very best in your abilities and stimulate your creativity.
Exciting technology – regardless of your chosen field, it will help you change the way people work and live.
A little luck – it always helps.
A few tough times – they help us appreciate the good times even more.
Persistence – the ultimate deciding factor for success.
A long list of personal and professional achievements – you will earn each one.
A few good friends and someone special to share these moments with – in the end that is what it’s all about.