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Stanford GSB | Mr. Failed Entrepreneur
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Columbia | Mr. Oil & Gas
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McCombs School of Business | Mr. Microsoft Consultant
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Stanford GSB | Mr. Future MBA
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Our Favorite B-School Commencement Address Of 2017

best business school commencement speech 2017

Class of 2017 MBAs at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management

Skill number four. Be the optimist in the room.

This should be pretty obvious, but nobody wants to work with a dour pessimist. Who would want to work with someone who is constantly saying “we’re doomed!”?

When Abraham Lincoln was president, he had a small sign in his office that read, “this too shall pass.”

These words reminded Lincoln to be humble in good times and hopeful in bad.

They speak to an understanding that though change is inevitable, the future is ours for the making.

Some people hear the word optimist and assume it denotes an unrealistically happy view of the future. That is not an optimist. That is a dreamer.

The kind of optimism I’m talking about isn’t based on an unfounded hope that things will work out on their own.

A true optimist sees the world for how it is – and how it can be and has conviction that we can and will work our way to a better day.

An optimist can see a future of opportunity rather than get bogged down by the challenges. An optimist tends to look forward rather than get stuck looking in the rearview mirror.

During your career, you will face daunting tasks. You will have failures. But an optimist dusts him or herself off more quickly than a pessimist. A positive attitude is also contagious; if you are optimistic, the people around you will be, too.

And, finally, skill number 5. Be the brains, but also be the boots. In other words, value execution.

This one is perhaps the most important of all. You can be a great collaborator, communicator, learner and optimist. But at the end of the day, what puts “’points on the board” — what counts the most – is being able to execute and manage others to do the same.

I admit to being a bit concerned that we’re moving into a culture that values ideas too much and execution too little.

‘AMERICA BECAME WHAT IT IS BECAUSE BENJAMIN FRANKLIN WAS INSPIRED IN A LIGHTNING STORM’

Don’t get me wrong: big ideas have the power to move mountains. America became what it is because Benjamin Franklin was inspired in a lightning storm, Steve Jobs in his parents’ garage, and Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm room.

But for each of these visionaries, the idea was just the tip of the iceberg. Countless great ideas have died on the vine because of lack of focus on execution.

Let me tell you one final story that ties the five principles I’ve outlined together.

When I was 28, and 4 years out of Owen, I was put in charge of my first product at Nasdaq. It was not glamorous.

In fact, it was kind of a dog at the time – it was called the Mutual Fund Quotation Service, an antiquated system with a neglected client base that no one more senior than me at the company seemed to think had much of a future.

I was told to try to go make something of it. Looking back, it was probably because someone had a good sense of humor.

But I went all in and adopted this product with energy and excitement. I started by conducting my own little “listening tour” of clients to understand what they needed, andtolearnasmuchabouttheproductanditspurposeaspossible. Then,Istarted to assemble a team that could re-build the product. And, here’s where it got interesting.

I quickly found that nobody in our tech organization at that time – Nasdaq was a very different place back then – wanted to work on such a small product.

Finally, I convinced a veteran from the IT department – a grizzled older guy who had seen it all before — to take a flyer. He called me “a suit” from the day we met, and I’m pretty sure he joined the team at first just to for the entertainment value of my certain failure.

For a while, my “team” was just the two of us. But I was able to recruit a few more people and I then scheduled our first planning meeting.

Using the only skill I remembered from my Owen Operations class, I planned out the entire project on a Gantt chart, laid it out step-by-step from beginning to end.

I laid out an optimistic vision about how the new product I envisioned would make much more money once we were done than it was currently because it would finally meet or even exceed the clients’ expectations.

At the end of the presentation, the IT guy said, “Holy Cow, I think she actually can get this done.” Instantly, his attitude had changed and he became a champion of the project.

I should tell you that the product continues to exist and thrive at the company today. That success got me noticed within the organization, and set me on the path to run Nasdaq’s data products division.

And, looking back, it was a lot of work but we actually had a lot of fun doing it.

Now, that story had a happy ending. But keep in mind that I had the benefit of hindsight while I was thinking about what to tell you today. There were plenty of other stories that I could’ve told you that didn’t end as well.

There were plenty of times in my career when I made the wrong bet or when things just didn’t go right despite all my best efforts.

Naturally, your careers will be the same – a collection of ups and downs, triumphs and occasional disappointments.

Maybe you’ll go all-in on a promising new technology, only to see it become disrupted shortly thereafter.

Maybe you’ll be lured to switch jobs by the promise of a bigger salary, only to discover you don’t fit in as well as you thought you would.

Or maybe you’ll send an email with a misplaced comma. But no matter what comes your way, it’s going to be okay.

Because the truth of the matter is that life is long. Your career will likely span decades. You get to have lots of ups and downs. You get to make mistakes and learn from them.

My career path started when I sat where you sit today. That was the beginning, but I am still far from the end. I continue to focus on Nasdaq’s mission and my own career mission – growing and learning and striving every day –every bit as much as I did when I was a brand-new Owen graduate.

And today, you are ready for the challenges and opportunities that are before you. You’ve earned your MBA at one of the best business schools in the country.

And with your Owen degree, you now have a set of tools that will guide you through the toughest of decisions.

As I look out at all of you, you are facing your own beginning, heading into your career with your own passions and optimism for the future, and I have every confidence that Owen has prepared you well to achieve your mission in the years to come.

Best of luck to each of you, the Owen class of 2017! Thank you!

DON’T MISS: WHARTON GRAD BRINGS DOWN THE HOUSE or ATLANTIC MEDIA’S DAVID BRADLEY AT HBS ON HOW TO LIVE A HAPPY AND HEALTHY LIFE

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.