Is This The Commencement Speech You’ll Never Hear?
During the Internet bubble from 1997-2000, you might have heard one of those glorious commencement speeches where nothing could go wrong. In the largest drop of the stock market in history from September 2007 to March 2009, you might have heard a very different commencement speech.
Now that we live in a virtual world, I want to weigh in on some key issues for MBA graduates. I don’t have to appear on a podium in a nice gown in front of 5,000 grads. I don’t need to be a former president of the US. But having graduated from an Ivy League, top ten business school, and experiencing the economic ups and the downs first hand, I’m here to tell you that what you learn in school doesn’t have much to do with life.
I helped start a company in the heat of the Internet’s first moments and made money in the $300 million sale of our company to eBay. Penguin published my book on marketing, which was translated across the globe in 15 different languages. I had a drive for business profit, and it wasn’t always healthy.
It’s what I didn’t learn at Business School that helped me the most. It took more than a decade to figure that out. The most valuable thing the university experience won’t teach you is reckoning.
As in: R.e.c.k.o.n.
If there’s one characteristic of anyone I hire that’s most important, it’s resourcefulness. Business isn’t easy. That’s why they call it work. To complete a project, you will encounter obstacles. Those obstacles will be: people, committees, regulations, and established behavior. But the people who overcome obstacles with better results or fewer resources have one skill in common: resourcefulness. When I was charged with launching a brand (half.com) at the peak of the Internet craze, it seemed like every ad was for a dot com. The marketplace was too cluttered. I couldn’t advertise. Something different was required. So amidst the snickers of my ad agency, I trudged to Halfway, Oregon (population 350) to see if I could convince them to rename the town to half.com, Oregon…literally putting the brand on the map.
There’s no top ten (or even bottom ten) business school that teaches you how to do that. You simply have to be resourceful and bring that game every minute of every day. We landed on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and every major news organization covered us from Taiwan to Texas. Time magazine called it one of the most memorable coups in history. It was resourcefulness that got the job done, capturing the attention of eBay, who took notice and bought our company for $300 million. Resourcefulness pays.
In order to do a job well, to innovate and to solve problems of the workplace, you need to escape. If you have a boss who thinks that work happens 9-5, don’t work there. Modern work happens at many times of day and night. In order to out-think and grow, you need to detach from the static of business. Allow yourself to not be chained to a desk. Work can happen while you’re climbing a mountain, breathing through yoga, and while you’re kayaking. Steve Jobs was famous for his long walks of escape. The mind needs to detach, rest, recharge, and experience different navigational stimuli–in order to be stimulated. 9-5 makes Jack & Jane dull boys and girls. Escape creates new ways of thinking.
Although we did countless group projects in business school designed to foster cooperation in the workplace, the workplace doesn’t consist of cozy 3-4 person groups that self select each other to accommodate idiosyncrasies where like people work with like people. We are not all alike. The workplace is filled with groups of 15 people, 7 people, or any number of people, who, unfortunately, are not always marching in same direction or for the same bosses. Cooperation of this sort isn’t a skill that’s taught. Business school often fosters a sense of “what’s in it for me?” and perhaps that never goes away. But the better questions asked first should be: “Why are we doing this?” and “What would be in it for you if we cooperate.” “What is the greater purpose of why we should cooperate?” Ironically we need to think less like leaders and more like servant leaders. How will this serve our customers, how will this serve our community, how will this make tomorrow a better day? Cooperation begins with a servant-like perspective.
Days will suck. Life will suck. But life is a mirror: when a baby smiles, you can’t help but smile back. Imagine that! When someone else brings a smile, it can make you smile. But many days, our coworkers or clients are dealing with sucky situations: divorce, physical ailments, depression, oppression, death of a friend or family member. This chaos of life will throw wrenches into your workplace. But kindness is not just a disposition, it is a choice. A choice that requires energy and effort. Effort to overcome the gravity of negative comments and negative people. Kindness is antigravity, and it is a choice that can be brought to email, to the meeting, and to the conference call. In mathematics, sensitivity analysis means numeric outcomes of multiple scenarios, but perhaps we should re-think sensitivity analysis. Corporate America needs more kindness–more antigravity.
I have a friend, who is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s a former mafia associate who found faith and spirituality, and he used to dine with the Gambinos (heading the New York mob) every month. He lived to escape that world, and he told me something I’ll never forget. He said to me, “You know what the secret to a great marriage is?”
Of course I wanted to know.
“Always tell your wife you’re sorry.”
I thought, if I’m right, why would I ever say I’m sorry? I thought it was the dumbest thing my friend ever said. But after a day of reflection, I decided it was the smartest piece of advice I’ve ever gotten. Because it’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s about the relationship.
I remember one client meeting where the VP made a royal mistake and had it coming. It was the first item on the agenda. She said, “This is my fault. I dropped the ball, and it’s entirely my responsibility.” It defused the situation instantly, and everyone including me was amazed that no sparks flew. Sometimes it’s hard to apologize, and what we need to do is put ourselves in a state of humility, ready to admit failure quickly and wholly.
At the end of the day, we owe it to ourselves to put forth our very best game at work. No question. I have a friend who sold his company for $140 million. Faith began to come into his life in a genuine way, and he sought out a recognized spiritual leader. He said, “I want to change the world…what can I do to change the world?”
The answer was this:
“If you want to change the world…be a better spouse. If you want to change the world…be a better parent to your children. This is how you change the world.”
We have our nest, our home, our family. To change the world, focus on your nest. Better spouse. Better parent. It is not easy, but it will change the way you think.
Change: isn’t this what life is about? Desire to change…to master whatever transition you face.
When you enter your new role, reckon.