Kellogg Commencement

Yesterday, I had the profound honor of addressing my graduating class at the commencement ceremony for the Kellogg Executive Masters Program. It was an incredible — and incredibly humbling — experience. Here, apart from a few side comments, is what I said.


Dean Jain, Assistant Dean Cisek-Jones, distinguished faculty and staff, honored guests, graduates of EMP 74, and of course, classmates of EMP 73:

Thank you.

There are so many people in this room who have impressed and awed me over the past two years. I am honored and humbled to speak to you today on behalf of EMP 73.

I had a reputation – probably merited – as being one of the most talkative people in our class. Whatever the topic, I had a question about it, or a comment about it, or a question about my comment. So it is quite incredible to me that anyone in my class believes I have anything left to say. I’m sure that they figured that if they didn’t let me speak, I’d find some way to add a comment anyway.

In any case, I’ll do my best to exhibit a brevity that was absent during my two years as a student.

Please allow me to convey three messages.

First and most importantly, on behalf of my entire class, I want to thank everyone in the audience who is not wearing an academic robe. To all of the family and friends who are here today, thank you. As our wives, husbands, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, parents, and friends, you went through the experience with us. But your part was much more difficult than ours. In many ways, you bore all of the hardships – the long days and nights, the studying, the stress, the awkward weight gain! – and yet you received few if any of the benefits. You became accustomed to eating alone, or caring for children by yourselves – and a few of you even gave birth while you shared your marriage with the EMP program. You did not embark on the experience to learn new skills, or make new friends, or expand your business networks. You supported us only because you care about us. Thank you. We want to let you know that we are profoundly grateful for your love.

And specifically to the children in the audience: We hope that you do not mistake the times we were absent from dinners, and school concerts, and swim meets, and soccer matches, and games of catch, and stuffed animal tea parties, and Lego battles as anything other than our desire to make you proud through our effort. Do not think for one moment that you are not our most important priority, because you are. Among all the marks we received during our two years, by far the most important is the grade we receive from you. We hope we ended the program with a High Pass. Thank you for being here, because you are the reason we do what we do. (And to Matthew, Johnny, Ellie, and Danny – I love you, I’m proud of you, and yes, we can finally go to the aquarium now.)

Secondly, to everyone who teaches and works at Kellogg: Thank you. Your work is superb in intent and in implementation, and you shared it selflessly with us. Thank you for shouldering our inexperience, our overconfidence, and our impetuousness with professionalism and grace. Thank you for seeing something in us that we only hoped to see in ourselves; thank you for inviting us into your circle. We hope that we make you, and the school, proud.

And finally, to the graduates in the audience, and in particular to my fellow graduates from EMP 73: So here we are. It is amazing to think that something that took so long could go by so fast. Less than two years ago we gathered for the first time in a room just half a mile up the road as the frightening realization dawned on us: The program is not only going to involve numbers, but there’s actually going to be math. And, they’re really going to test us on it.

But we overcame our fear, and soon we got into a routine. It was a routine that was hard not to like. It involved new books every six weeks, books that were labeled with our names neatly on the top. It involved weekly group meetings, and lots of lecture notes – but it also involved omelets, and quite a few more meals than normal, healthy people should eat.

It’s true that there were exams and assignments and papers, but it also turned out that there was something else – there were good people, the kind of people you’d always wish and hope that you’d meet, people who were smart and funny and challenging and inspiring. And though we came into the program thinking that the people were a way to understand the coursework, it soon became clear that the reality was just the opposite – that the curriculum was just a door into the real value of Kellogg: All of you.

And after all your effort, after all our time learning about marketing mixes and weighted-average cost of capital and the theory of constraints and pricing strategies, our reward is to be turned loose into the worst economy the world has seen in seventy years.

It would be absurd not to mention current conditions, because the impact of those conditions has been keenly felt by our class. Our classmates have seen their salaries cut, opportunities eliminated, relationships strained, and for some, jobs lost. In a better time, discussions around the dinner table might involve decisions between new career opportunities – now, the discussions are just as likely to concern loans, and mortgage payments, and dwindling retirement accounts. The news from both Wall Street and Washington doesn’t inspire many warm feelings, and it is hard not to wish for a third year of school as a refuge. One has a sense that though the exams have ended, the biggest tests are still to come.

I think, however, that this is not the right way to view the situation. We are not the next round of cattle being led to the stockyards; perhaps we – though not completely aware that we are up to the task – perhaps we are the cavalry. Perhaps we ourselves are the solution that we are looking for.

In school we talk repeatedly about Ps – about price, promotion, place, product, and of course, the biggest of all, profit. As we leave Kellogg in these uncertain times, I have a sense that we will need to focus on two more important Ps: Passion and Perspective.

Right now, the world needs people who care – people who care enough to look beyond band-aids and sound-bites to create lasting, meaningful solutions.

And the world needs people who understand that success in business is simply a tool. It is not the end goal. The end goal is prosperity and peace for our great-grandchildren. The end goal is long-term relationships that are made of respect and integrity. The end goal is workable, sustainable methods for encouraging initiative while discouraging exploitation. The end goal is less hate and more light; decreased ignorance and increased understanding; less suffering and more healing. The end goal, quite simply, is a better world. We must have the passion and the perspective to focus our businesses, our careers, and our lives on those goals.

It is true that we are leaving Kellogg with newfound knowledge. But your biggest asset is not your head, it’s your heart. Over the last two years I have had the joy of experiencing that heart first-hand, and it fills me with optimism and hope.

There is a lot to do. The world needs you. And what’s fortunate for all of us is that you are ready.

Godspeed friends. Let’s get to work.