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Business@Large – One More College Commencement Speech…

Some points to ponder for young college grads entering the workworld.

Mr. Obama’s University of Michigan speech last week is on the first wave of the commencement speech season at the colleges and universities.  Some of those orations will be amusing, a few will be amazing.  Some speeches will focus on attitudes, others on platitudes.  Some messages will sound right, others will sound trite.  There will be inspiration about taking stands and perspiration for those in the stands.  I’ve sat through a few myself.

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My phone hasn’t rung yet with a commencement speech invite from some distinguished bastion of higher learning, but it always helps to be prepared anyway.   So here they are – 10 points, in no particular order, that would be part of a commencement speech that I would give, focused on those graduates who are planning to enter the business world.  I published an earlier version of some of these points 8 years ago in a newspaper column and as I reviewed them, many of the themes have not changed, thankfully, even with all of the turmoil in the business world.  Hopefully, my cliché firewall is operating.   

These are things I’m sure the new graduates didn’t get in school, despite all of those tuition payments.  But they are things I’ve learned in the work world since my own graduation back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  And who knows – maybe even not-so-recent graduates who have been in the work world for a while might find something here that resonates.

Life is full of choices.  Some jobs are lousy.  And some companies are crummy and de-energizing places to work, with poisonous cultures that will make you crazy if you let them.  Don’t let them.  Get some experience and build the resume, but also plan your exit strategy.  Find yourself a good employer – there are many of them.  Read about the best places to work – there are many lists out there.  Life is way too short to hate what you do for a living.

Social networking is not the same as business networking.  Yes, Facebook and social networking tools are fun and interesting and help you to stay in touch with all of these “friends” you have.  Well, business networking is absolutely important for getting things done in the biz world and maybe even getting ahead.  But the rules of engagement are different in social networking and business networking, with the latter being more purposeful, more intentional and more reciprocal.  Be a master at both kinds of networking and good things are bound to happen.        

Just say no!  You might get asked to do something in your job that doesn’t feel right.  It might be dishonest.  It might be unsafe, illegal or unethical.  Take the higher road, and ignore the voices that claim that everybody fudges their expense statements or their time sheets or whatever.  That higher road avoids many of the slippery slopes.  Calibrate your moral compass and then pay attention to it.  Give yourself the headlines test – would I want friends and family to read about this action I’m taking or decision I’m making.

Just say yes!  Take on new assignments.  Gain the reputation of a “go-to” person.  Put your hand in the air early and often.  Step up.  Avoid saying, “It’s not my job.”  If it’s really not your job, do it anyway, but make sure your boss knows that you are going above and beyond.  Of course, get another opinion if your think you are being taken advantage of.    

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Don’t always be a “team player.”  Someone, sometime, just might remark that you’re not a “team player.”  Ask him/her what that means.  Some bosses confuse surrendering the right to think with being a team player.  For things that count, don’t be coerced by the tyranny of the majority.  At the same time, not every issue is worth falling on your sword for.  Business isn’t generally like the military or the medical field, where daily decisions could literally mean life or death.  Know when to acquiesce and move on.  Again, life is full of choices. 

Be an addicted learner.  Learn about your business and your industry, not just the department or function in which you toil.  Sign up for training.  Seek rotational assignments for development.  Learn from others.  Be curious.  Ask the dumb questions.  Stray from your comfort zone.  Challenge assumptions, but in a way that is neither hostile nor arrogant.  You will soon find that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.  That’s good. 

Be not a cynic.  Don’t become known as the office cynic.  Constant negativity is unhealthy and makes people want to avoid you, even outside the workplace.  It’s okay to be occasionally skeptical about workplace changes if you channel that skepticism into productive dialogue.  But it’s almost never okay to be cynical.  Avoid the constant references to “them.”  It’s a finger-pointing cynic’s favorite word.

Take care of the customer.  The customer is your real boss.  Customers pay your salary, even if some of them are ornery, demanding and unreasonable.  Don’t try to satisfy customers, try to delight them.  Customers who are merely “satisfied” aren’t very loyal, but those who are “delighted” will usually keep coming back.  When they go away, so does your job.

Eschew entitlement.  Many twentysomethings want to be vice president by age 30 and that might be a fine goal to have.  However, there’s a distinct difference between ambition and entitlement.  One usually requires hard work and focus and the other doesn’t.  Promotions are earned, not owed.   

Have some fun.  Make sure you bring some laughter and good humor to your job.  The workplace needs it.  Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.  A well-known – and very successful – CEO once danced on Wall Street in a hula skirt to fulfill a promise he had made if his company exceeded some particular goal.  I’m not sure you have to do the hula thing at the office or at the plant, but there will be times when you can lighten the load by lightening up.       

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Your generation brings a lot to the workplace and I’m pretty sure you’ll make that workplace and the world itself a better place.  Congratulations on your graduation.  Get started.  Stay awake.  Leave a wake.

Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm
and can be contacted at
business-at-large@sbcglobal.net

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