Monday, June 11, 2012

Commencement, 2012: "Avoid Monday Decisions"

UVA Darden's Dean Bruner: "Moral Courage is an all-the-time thing."
Before they ventured into the land of consulting, banking, finance, and product management, MBA graduates sat through commencement--one last chance to gather noisily with classmates and then ponder what lies ahead.

They sat through an on-stage commotion of deans and queues of speakers--some from from the highest rungs of business, some students like themselves. What parting words did they hear?  What taps on the back did they receive, as they set off beyond the campus cocoon?

In 2012 during the MBA graduation season, some themes are prevalent everywhere. Most graduating classes endure orations describing frail economic times and the responsibility they have to clean up the messes in the financial system or to assist others who face hardships.

MBA graduates are often admonished to seek achievement beyond the corporate bottom line: Don't just rush out of here, they are told, to join a 10-year race to accumulate titles, prestige and net worth. Contribute to the community, speakers advise--including speakers who have accumulated titles, prestige and net worth in bundles. Appreciate the support of family, and be mindful of others, as you make the arduous journey to senior management.  Take a breather along the way, too.

Some graduates are offered a dare: Dare to be different. Look beyond Wall Street. Start a company. Work in manufacturing. Spend time on the operations floor. Take an assignment abroad. Dabble in non-profit activity. All graduates are reminded to keep their addresses up to date and make yearly contributions to the b-school fund.

Consortium business schools, just like the rest, welcomed speakers to tell them something they may recall years later or share one last parting bit of advice, wisdom, or funny, leg-shaking one-liner.

At Consortium school Berkeley-Haas, the CEO of Adobe, Shantanu Narayen spoke to the MBA graduates.  Students, especially those with interests in finance and accounting, had been buried in finance models, spreadsheets, balance sheets and cash-flow statements the past two years. He knew that. But at the podium, he spoke about how the answers are not always in the spreadsheets, the numbers, or the financial ratios--no matter how useful the tools are.  He reminded them to "trust their gut," not the numbers, when they confront tough business, personal, and career-related decisions.

Steve Roth, a Tuck alumnus and now the chairman of  Vornado Realty Trust, spoke to Dartmouth's MBA graduates.  He skipped some conventional commencement platitudes and provided a laundry list of astute, wise-beyond-years business advice. At the Tuck Graduation, he told the graduates to do the following:  (a) Avoid making major decisions on Mondays, (b) be mathematical in analyzing businesses, and (c) access the bond market and interest rates more than equity markets in assessing the economy.

"My career was marked by a few really good decisions," Roth said. "That's all it takes, three or four
good calls in a lifetime."  Many graduates hoped the first good call might have been their decision to return to school for the MBA.

Yale's new dean of its School of Management, Edward Snyder, spoke to the Class of '12. Few careers, he reminded them, will follow "straight lines."  Snyder is in his first year after leaving the business school, Booth, at the University of Chicago.

Yale MBA grad Dan Magliocco received the honor to speak to his classmates. "We've been taught that transparency is better than secrecy, and alliances are better than enemies," he said "It forms the backbone for a smarter way to compete. It's our greatest advantage."

Virginia-Darden's MBA ceremony was marred by rain. Its dean, Robert Bruner, avoided a lengthy speech as graduates dodged the threat of pelting rain. He posted his speech on "Moral Courage" in his own blog. "Moral courage is not a sometime thing," he wrote. "It's an all-the-time thing. You acquire moral courage by doing it. Moral courage is like physical conditioning. You must work at maintaining it.

"I wish you moral courage to get after the problems that really matter, whether they be in your companies, your communities or your nations," he told the Class of '12. "Whether you succeed or fail, make us proud of your efforts."

Robert Zlotnick, the CEO of StarTex Power, spoke to the MBA grads at Texas-McCombs. Zlotnick told them they should plan life with the same vigor they do in a business setting (in a deal, a project, a branch expansion, an analysis, or presentation to board members).  He urged graduates to have a strategic life plan that encompassed family, life, career, community service and health. "In a sense, I planned how I wanted my obituary to ready," he said.  "You should treat your life as an entrepreneurial venture."

At Cornell Johnson,  Dean L. Joseph Johnson told the assembled group of MBA graduates, "Go out into this messy world and manage that privilege with integrity and purpose."

From b-school campus at Berkeley to Tuck and from Michigan to Texas, what did MBA grads actually hear and absorb, as they jostled in their seats, in the rain in some places, in searing heat in others? Wonder confidently into the messy world, dare to be different, expect non-linear career trails, trust your gut, maintain moral strength and courage, have a plan for life, write the check annually, and, yes, please don't make big decisions on a Monday after a long weekend. 

Tracy Williams

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