24 Most Successful Leaders – Commencement Speeches
Graduates today are entering a workplace more competitive and threatening than ever. As they graduate, after years of significant investment, Students face more questions than answers.
Where to turn? LinkedIn asked top professionals, from Fortune 500 CEOs to media icons what the graduates needs to succeed. They explain everything from how to create your own company to how to overcome what seems like constant rejection from employers, because they’ve all done it before, and succeeded wildly.
Jim Kim, President at The World Bank
“I’m sure many of you are more than a little concerned about what the future will bring. I just want to say to you today that not only is your future uncertain, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it’s far more uncertain than you think.
“Uncertainty means that nothing is predetermined. Uncertainty means that the future is yours to shape — with the force of your will, the force of your intellect, and the force of your compassion. Uncertainty is freedom. Take that freedom and run with it. And make sure to fuel up with glucose along the way.”
Part of the commencement address delivered at Northeastern University in Boston in May 2013.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group
“The best advice I could give any graduate is to spend your time working on whatever you are passionate about in life. If your degree was focused upon one particular area, don’t let that stop you moving in another direction. If college hasn’t worked out for you, don’t let that put you off.
“You may decide to take a break and consider your options. I would urge you to travel, take on new experiences and draw upon those when it comes to making the decisions that will shape your future. The amount of business ideas that people pick up from traveling the world is enormous.”
Arianna Huffington, president and Editor-in-Chief at The Huffington Post Media Group
“Commencement speakers are traditionally expected to tell graduates how to go out there and climb the ladder of success, but I want to ask you, instead, to redefine success. Because the world you are headed into desperately needs it. And because you are up to it … what I urge you to do is not just take your place at the top of the world, but to change the world.
“But it’s time for a third metric, beyond money and power — one founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back. Money and power by themselves are a two legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And more and more people, very successful people, are toppling over. Basically, success the way we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies.”
Part of the commencement address delivered at Smith College in May 2013.
Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE
“Success in the 21 century will come to those that that can get in front of the trends, move quickly, innovate, and work together to deliver results. And our ability to contribute to the century in which we live will come down to our willingness and ability to do five things: Change,Learn, Risk, Persist, Lead.
“We can’t wait for the economy to stabilize. We can’t wait for a time when there is more certainty. It used to be that you only had to manage momentum. Today, you have to create your own future. And that means change.”
Part of the commencement address delivered at the University of Connecticut’s Graduate School in May 2013.
Jacki Zehner, CEO Women Moving Millions
“Whatever you choose to do, whatever the level of responsibility you have, commit to learning all you need to in order to do a job well. If given the opportunity to leap into something bigger, leap. Before you do, know who your boss will be and make sure she will be committed to your further development. Be in touch with your values and live them out in your work.
“Lastly be both reflective and self-aware, which will lead you to the career you were meant to pursue, whatever that may be. In all of this, add a touch of superhero, which means caring about and for others. Hold yourself to the highest possible standard. By doing that, I promise success is inevitable.”
Scott Belsky, co-founder and head of Behance, VP Products – Community at Adobe
“We’re obsessed with the Present Tense. We want real-time information — all up to the minute — just because we can … by constantly tuning into what is happening with others, we’ve become less aware of what’s happening to us.
“I would go as far as saying that the loss of presence is our greatest hurdle in the modern day when it comes to living the life we aspire to. But on the flip side, learning to manage this 21st century challenge may be the most important thing you can do. Your greatest opportunity to succeed professionally and personally will be your ability to make the most of presence – of the here and now – amidst a non-stop world of constant connection and overwhelming amounts of stimulation.”
Esther Dyson, chairman at HICCup
“I’ve always tried to take jobs that I would have done for free… After Forbes, I spent five years learning the ins and outs of Wall Street as a securities analyst. Once I felt I understood the business, I left. To me at least the companies were much more interesting than their stock movements. I took a paycut to join Ben Rosen, also a former Wall Street analyst, who had a newsletter and a conference focused on the emerging personal computer market.
“So, as you consider your own career, don’t think so much about what you want to do as about what you can learn. For example, when I had the choice between working in the library at Merrill Lynch and heading the one-person (i.e. me) research department at New Court Securities … the moral: Always choose more responsibility in a small firm over less responsibility in a larger. You’ll get to do more and learn more … and if the firm is growing, you may well grow with it.”
Emily Chang, host of “Bloomberg West”
“It sounds obvious, but my advice is: Don’t pursue a career because you think you should or because you think it will make you rich. It only means you’ll have less time to try to find something you love down the road. Rather than doing what you think you should do first, make what you really want to do Plan A.
“If it doesn’t work out, you can always move on to Plan B. But, if you are lucky enough to find something you love, chances are better you’ll be good at it, you’ll make money doing it, it will lead to new and exciting opportunities, and you’ll most certainly be happier. Take the big risks now. Take that leap of faith now. It only gets harder to take risks and leaps further down the line.”
Guy Kawasaki, advisor at Motorola Mobility
1. Pusue joy, not happiness. Pursuing joy, not happiness will translate into one thing over the next few years for you: Study what you love. This may also not be popular with parents.
2. Challenge the known and embrace the unknown. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in life is to accept the known and resist the unknown. You should, in fact, do exactly the opposite: challenge the known and embrace the unknown.
3. Don’t get married too soon. I don’t know one person who got married too late. I know many people who got married too young. If you do decide to get married, just keep in mind that you need to accept the person for what he or she is right now.
4. Play to win and win to play. “If you are going to fail, you might as well fail at a difficult task. Failure causes others to downgrade their expectations of you in the future. The seriousness of this problem depends on what you attempt.”
Part of a baccalaureate speech, delivered to Palo Alto High School June 11, 1995.
Geoff Yang, board member at TasteMade
“Life is short. As you embark on the rest of your life, consider what you want it to be like and what you want to accomplish. Pretend for a moment that rather than graduating, starting your career, and moving on toward the rest of your life, you are at the end of it.
“How would people remember you, as both a person and a professional? Write your eulogy now. Think about how you want to be remembered by your family, friends, and colleagues. Let this shape you.”
Wendy Kopp, founder for Teach For America
“Today I want to try to take some of the pressure off by debunking a few of the myths that I’ve encountered and heard so often. I’m completely confident that if you start now and ignore the hype, there’s no problem your generation can’t solve:
1. The first myth is that changing the world is about coming up with a big idea. “Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t set out to revolutionize the Web. They were just Stanford graduate students trying to figure out how to prioritize library searches online. … so if you’re waiting for your Eureka moment to get started — don’t. Or you’ll be waiting a long time.”
2. Myth number two is that having an impact is about being first … what our world really needs is more copy cats.
3. The final myth about changing the world is that it’s better to wait until you have more experience. The world needs you before you stop asking naïve questions, and while you have the time to understand the true nature of the complex problems we face and take them on. Don’t put your desire to change the world on hold. Start now.
Part of the commencement address delivered at Boston University on May 19, 2013.
John Batelle, founder and CEO of Federated Media Publishing
“My advice to you, insofar as I can give any, is simple: Hold onto this feeling you have right now. Rinse and repeat as often as you can. Get used to it but don’t take it for granted — it’s how the world is evolving. Every few years, if you’re not leaping into a new project, a new and challenging startup, or a new challenge at a larger company, then you’re not really exercising the skills you all so clearly demonstrated with your Masters projects.
“The world wants more projects like yours, and it stands ready to fund them, tweak them, embrace them, and inspire you to build them again and again.”
Joel Peterson, Chairman, JetBlue Airways
“As you leave the world of campus life, classes and final exams, things will get a lot less simple – fast. Beyond college’s neatly-drawn borders, you’ll get used to wrestling with many kinds of contradiction, paradox and duality.
“Here are a few ideas that may help you to embrace life’s opposing forces, to confidently navigate the next phase of your journey:
1. Setting goals is vital; ignoring them is key. Don’t do anything that matters without first setting a goal.
2. Master the rules; master breaking them. Know the details – cosmic and quantum – of how your business or field works. That knowledge will enable you to spot the most glaring weaknesses in the old model, so you can be the person to create a new one.
3. Soar and “strafe.” Agility in moving from big to small and back again allows you to stay flexible, and to keep strategy in line with tactics.
4. Be generous and self-interested. Make your self-interest of the long-term variety and try to forgive others who are more concerned with what they can get right away.
5. Trust, and expect betrayal. If you never get burned, maybe you’re not lighting enough fires.
Maria Shriver, author and activist
“It’s like what we’re doing at this precise moment doesn’t even exist. Everyone is focused on the next thing. Everyone is racing to the Next Thing. Well, I got caught up in that for a really long time — so much so, that I could never really enjoy what I WAS doing, because I was always worried about what I was going to be doing.
“It’s like what we’re doing at this precise moment doesn’t even exist. Everyone is focused on the next thing. Everyone is racing to the Next Thing. Well, I got caught up in that for a really long time — so much so, that I could never really enjoy what I WAS doing, because I was always worried about what I was going to be doing.”
Part of the commencement address delivered at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School on May 11, 2013.
Michael Fertik, CEO at Reputation.com and Owner,
“Starting a company is hard, and it always involves difficulty and failures. All new companies — tech startups, restaurants, hardware stores — are in a permanent state of risk for quite some time. That’s why this intersection of expertise and enthusiasm is an essential lifeblood for your new venture; when the chips are down, this is the juice you’re gonna need to get up and keep going.
“Remember, when the going gets rough — and it will — you need every ounce of extra power to be able to get up in the morning and dominate your day.”
Charlene Li, founder Partner at Altimeter Group
“Silicon Valley is filled with people questioning authority — it’s the foundation for what we call the “hacker” mindset, where you are dedicated to finding a better way to do something. But in Silicon Valley, we don’t just innovate — that’s too safe and frankly, too slow.
“Instead, we disrupt and set our sights on upsetting entire ecosystems. To challenge authority is to dream of a better future, and I for one, love that the people in technology pick really big authority figures to question.”
Dan Sanker, president & CEO at CaseStack, Inc.
“If you really want to ‘be anything you want be,’ it’s not enough to just do what you love. There are lots of talented people in the world; those who succeed will be multi-functional, collaborative, motivated and perpetually inquisitive.
“There are many ways to measure success in this life. Hopefully, it’s a no-brainer that you’re supposed to leave the world a better place than you found it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be graduating anything.”
“But, I know that more than a few graduates have the practicalities of careers and finances on their minds on graduation day. On that note; I would say, Work hard. Moreover, I doubt the folks at the top of the big money lists spent time burning through the pages of: ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ or ‘Really Fast Money.’ ”
Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana
“As I have done more personal growth and studied the nature of man as a social animal, I realized that the way we achieve deep satisfaction and joy is ironically by giving of ourselves. And I don’t mean giving of yourselves all day all the time. There is an inhale and there is an exhale. I spend about half of life being a hedonist, and about half of my life contributing back, trying to do everything I can to help others to manifest love in the world, and to try to reduce suffering and create joy and explore consciousness, but in partnership with all sentient beings.
“We’ve looked at different ways that you could, given a very ambitious vision, work with a team of people or even just be the leader of yourself to have these different tools and techniques and tactics to be able to work more efficiently, work more effectively, be able to achieve these visions.”
Jon Steinberg, president and COO at BuzzFeed
“The only business advice I was given that proved useful was about how to treat people, operate, and behave, and it was not ever given in the form of advice — I just observed it in my mentors.
“For example, I learned that once I stated an offer or price, I was stuck with it regardless of whether or not I changed my mind; that my word is my bond. I learned that without your reputation you basically have nothing in business. I learned that you need to be straight and direct with people even when it make you uncomfortable. I would later hear Bill Campbell describe this as being ‘kind and direct.’ I have a list of things like this that I learned from my mentors. I am forever indebted to them.
T. Boone Pickens, founder and CEO at BP Capital and TBP Investments Management
“I gave the commencement address to the graduating class at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia when my grandson, Alexander Cordia, was a member of the Class of 2007. “Before we go to lunch, I want to make you a thought provoking offer,’ I said. ‘I hope you realize where you are in life today. You have the best seat in the house. I would trade you everything I have for it.’ “
” ‘My Gulfstream airplane. My 68,000-acre ranch. I would gladly give it all to anyone of you to be where you are sitting right now. There’s only one catch. If you make the trade, you have to be 79 and I get to be 18 again.’ ”
“In the end I got no takers. They all decided that no amount of wealth could persuade them to change places with a man about to turn 80 … the truth is it was a bad deal … for them. I would have traded it all for another shot at 18.”
Adam Lashinsky, Sr. Editor at Fortune Magazine
“When you read the professional bios of successful people, keep in mind that they are written in a way intended to fool you. As you ponder one triumph after another you can be forgiven for thinking that one success flowed easily into the next. Life doesn’t work that way. It is almost always three steps forward, one step back—if you’re lucky. Don’t be discouraged by this.”
“Be informed. My first boss advised me not to come into work without having read The Washington Post. It was good advice. Get out of our comfort zone. ‘You are only young once’ is even more true than ‘youth is wasted on the young.’ Don’t waste it. Do things you won’t have the opportunity to do when you’re older, more settled and have more responsibilities than you can imagine today.”
Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist
“If you can, stick with small companies, no more than 150 people. At that size, there’s a strong tendency for folks to strive for promotion and power, rather than getting the job done.
“There are exceptions, like Google, where they’re working hard building a new kind of large corporation culture, but that’s the exception … big or small company, you’re responsible for your own career, and a really big part of that is how you’re perceived. You really do have a personal brand, and in a small way, you’re a media thing. That means lots of work on Facebook, Twitter, and internal social media. Your boss might help you out, and maybe not.”
Ilya Pozin, founder of Ciplex Inc.
“Simply having a college degree will not get you hired. We need to break away from this idea. In all reality, most employers could care less about your GPA or where you went to school. Today, getting hired in entry-level positions requires experience and fine-tuned skills, not a 4.0 GPA. This probably isn’t what most new grads want to hear, but it’s the truth.
“So the real question for new graduates to consider is this: What can you bring to the table that makes you worth hiring? Here’s some food for thought for those entering the workforce:
1. Your degree isn’t a golden ticket.
2. It’s all about experience.
3. Passion will help you succeed.
4. Companies hire the person who is certain to cause the most positive impact.
5. Go the extra mile.
Adam Bryant, Corner Office columnist at The New York Times
“The CEO [I interviewed] who best hit the sweet spot for me — packing a world of wise advice into a memorable expression — was Joseph Plumeri, the CEO of Willis Group Holdings when I interviewed him in 2009 (he’s now non-executive chairman).
“His tip? ‘Play in traffic.’ Yes, it’s the opposite of the stern warning we all heard from our parents when we were younger. I’ll let Plumeri explain, in this excerpt from our interview :
“Everything that I have done I’ve done because I went out and I played in traffic and something happened … it means that if you go push yourself out there and you see people and do things and participate and get involved, something happens.”