This article was originally published on LinkedIN by ECI's CEO, Pat Harned. Follow her on Twitter at @PatriciaHarned
Many years ago when I worked in higher education, I looked forward to the commencement ceremonies held at the end of the academic year. They were my favorite events to attend. I loved the pomp and circumstance. It was fun to witness a new set of graduates joyfully celebrating their accomplishments, and anticipating — with hope — their entry in the workforce. I paid special attention to the faculty as they processed down the aisle wearing their academic regalia. Every gown and hood told the story of the institution, the discipline of study, and degree that faculty member had earned. I also looked for the students who taped messages to the tops of their caps…or the bottoms of their shoes.
I came to believe that the critical part of the ceremony is the commencement address. And having listened to a lot of them, I must say that now — as a public speaker myself — I hold a special place in my heart for the person who is bestowed that honor. That is one tough gig. After all, the commencement address must be engaging, pithy, and purposeful. Yet as brief as possible. The speech must capture the attention of — and impart lasting wisdom on — the graduating class. Even though a faction of them are sitting in their seats recovering from recent inebriation, and still others are texting each other across the aisle to make plans to achieve such a state as soon possible after the ceremony ends. Not to mention the parents who are crying and busy taking pictures.
This year campuses across the country have invited an impressive slate of speakers to deliver their commencement address. Politicians, business leaders, journalists, celebrities…and yes, even the Dalai Lama and Oprah (who arguably fit every one of those categories). Already the speeches this year have varied widely in their delivery – some speakers sang to the graduates; others cited classic literature. Still others waxed philosophical about their own days at school…or in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, the fact that he never finished school.
Yet no matter the speaker or the style of delivery, it is incumbent on the commencement speaker to offer advice to the next generation about how to succeed. And what strikes me, every year, is that to a person — the speaker always defines success in terms of being a person of good character. Sometimes they highlight a particular character trait. But they still get there. Take, for example, the advice offered by speakers so far this year:
- “Trust your gut; keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.” Will Farrell, University of Southern California. (Perseverance)
- “Don’t give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans.” Adam Grant, Utah State University. (Courage)
- “Comparing your success to others only slows you down from finding your own.” Octavia Spencer, Kent State University. (Excellence)
- “Treat people like people.” Dame Helen Mirren, Tulane University. (Compassion, Respect)
- “How will you respect your parents and honor your family? How will you share your success and serve others with dignity? And how will you lead with humility and demonstrate moral courage?” Howard Schultz, Arizona State University. (Respect, Stewardship, Humility, Courage)
- “…The future of America, indeed the future of the world, depends on brave thoughtful people like you insisting on truth and integrity right now every day.” Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College. (Honesty, Integrity)
- “I’m here to tell you that finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.” Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard University. (Excellence, Equality, Fairness)
- “An important way you serve and lead is by helping build resilience in the world.” Sheryl Sandberg, Virginia Tech. (Perseverance)
- “Ask the question: How can I be used?” Oprah Winfrey, Smith College. (Humility, Service)
- “Get good at failure.” Martin Casado, Northern Arizona University. (Perseverance)
- “Remember that character is destiny. Be men and women of integrity. People follow people they trust.” Mike Pence, The United States Naval Academy. (Integrity)
- “Not only is life of hedging your bets unsatisfying, it also means you are likely to unlikely to make much of a difference. You can either glide across the world, or you can impact it. It’s your choice.” Sally Yates, Harvard Law School. (Courage)
Perhaps the words of the folks above will serve as a marker in students' journey towards character, and the speakers themselves will have a lasting impact on the class of 2017. Regardless, these are some great quotes for our own communications with the current workforce!
I am thankful that universities provide commencement ceremonies, and they bring in influential people to impart a word of advice in the final moments of a student’s tenure. Character is developed over time and commencement marks a new beginning. Meanwhile, emerging research is beginning to show that it is more important for an employer to seek out an employee with strong character to fill a job than it is to find a potential superstar who could exceed performance expectations.
So for the class of 2017 and for the organizations that will employ them, it seems that once again the commencement speakers got it right. When it comes to success, character matters.