What They Don’t Teach You in Business School: The Commencement Speech I Wish I’d Heard 30 Years Ago

Starbucker Graduates, 1982

Dear Business School Graduates of 1982:

Congratulations! It’s graduation time, and I always get a bit nostalgic this time of year, remembering my good old days at college.   For me, college was this cool utopia, where I had all the trappings of adulthood, but not quite all the responsibility that came with it.

The professors tried to teach us as much as they could about business and #leadership, and in turn, I tried to absorb as much as I could.  By the time I got to graduation, I thought I had just about every tool I needed to go out into the big ‘ol world and make my mark.

Turns out, I was (very) wrong.  I had only scratched the surface.

So I can tell you, without any hesitation – you have so much more to learn!  There are so many things that you can’t find in any college textbooks, case studies, or business simulations, that will make the difference on whether you achieve your professional dreams.

First and foremost, please, above all else, never lose your desire to learn – that intellectual curiosity that can never be satisfied.    In truth, you all are just jumping from one classroom to another.  But this next one has a lot more at stake for you.

Let me give you a quick example – in college, we all had deadlines, right?  Well, in business, there are DEADLINES.  It’s a different kind of pressure, and when I felt it for the first time in the working world, it was overwhelming.

But over time, you learn to handle it, use it, and leverage it, to the point that pressure becomes your friend, not your enemy.  Because it’s where the most brilliant ideas and innovations come from.

And then there’s the “people learning.  What I mean by that is we spend a lot of time in school looking at a business from the outside the fishbowl,  so to speak.    Once we dive INSIDE the fishbowl, there are all kinds of complex and different humans that have hearts, minds and souls that need to be attended to.   How we interact with them, listen to them, teach them, coach them, inspire them, hire them and perhaps even fire them is a whole set of skills that can only be honed and perfected by the wisdom gained from experience.

This isn’t going to be easy – you’ll lose more sleep from people problems than anything else.  But take the time to watch and learn from those who do it well.  Find a mentor that can help you and provide valuable insights.  Listen more than talk.

By becoming a “people person” you’ll pick up another valuable thing that you can’t acquire in school: influence. A job title doesn’t mean much unless you learn how to build and channel influence.

You might learn the hard way, like I did many years ago, that simply barking out orders backed up by a process manual does not guarantee that those orders will be done well, or even carried out at all.

They need to trust you.  They need to believe in you.  They need to know you care about them and their welfare – that’s all influence.

It’s an intangible that can’t be ignored – learn how to build it as soon as you can, and it will serve you well.

And here’s the last learning I’ll pass along before I wish you all the best in your life’s journey.  In college, you spend 4 years learning how to succeed.  Out in the business world, you need to learn how to fail.

That’s right, learn how to fail.    Because the fact is, you WILL fail.   You will hit brick walls.   You will crash and burn.  What will separate you from the rest of the pack is how you deal with these failures, and what you take away from them.

Because when you learn how to fail, you learn not to fear it – at least not enough to hold you back.  Because (and here’s one last bit of learning), a little fear is actually a good thing.

So there you go, a little real world wisdom for you.   Oh, and there’s more, but remember  – learn, learn, and learn.

Good luck, and lead well!




  1. Jessica says

    I love this rambling. I work in a financial institution and we are currently working on a program that helps individuals migrate from an employee to a manager. These are helpfull tips for someone just starting out and for someone that is in transistion from one position to another. I will be sharing this with my fellow co-workers.

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