Graduation Day Advice: 5 Steps to a Great Career

A stirring commencement speech in the heartland lays out the path to business success. Keep learning and just do the right thing are a good start. But there is more.

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In the past few years I’ve read and heard my share of commencement speeches. Some were dull and predictable; others as stirring as you would hope. This past weekend in Oxford, Ohio, came the latter type—at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University. The highlights seem worth sharing in this graduation season, as we prepare to send another class into what remains a tight job market and difficult work world.

David Calhoun, CEO of The Nielsen Co., spoke of five critical components of career success:

  • Keep learning throughout life Globalism means the world is changing so fast that no one can rest on what they already know.
  • Never compromise your integrity A decade of corporate scandal has laid bare temptations that can shred a career.
  • Listen to internal signals that you are becoming bored Boredom leads to stagnation or a know-it-all attitude that will destroy you. “Stay paranoid about the currency of your knowledge,” Calhoun advised.
  • Be willing to take on the tough jobs Only by continually challenging yourself can you stay motivated. “Difficult situations bring real purpose and resolve to our decision making,” Calhoun said. “Don’t avoid them; ask for them.”
  • Build a global perspective The world is shrinking at a fast pace. Employees who understand foreign cultures will have the most opportunity.

These aren’t new themes. But they merit attention now. Calhoun especially emphasized the first two points. He said:

“Learning is the single greatest source of competitive differentiation in the business world and the single most important ingredient to a successful career and fulfilling life. … Making that commitment to lifelong learning … requires enormous personal resolve, a big dose of self-awareness, and a comprehensive view of self. … Whether it be intellectual pursuits, spiritual, technical, athletic or moral, resolve to grow.”

He was speaking to young people, who will have to navigate fast-changing technologies and upstart competition from a steady flow of diverse and developing nations. But his words apply equally well to people of all ages. That includes retirees whose biggest challenge may be staying engaged and relevant, which in turn promotes mental and physical well-being.

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His most powerful words were on the subject of integrity. Calhoun alluded to the past decade of corporate scandals, which included CEOs back-dating their stop-option grants to get a better price; accountants shredding documents and signing off on bogus earnings reports; Wall Street analysts hyping stocks while they were selling the same stocks for their personal account; mutual fund managers “front-running” big stock purchases that were sure to push prices higher; among others.

He was the anti-Gekko. Greed is not good. Calhoun said well-meaning business people get caught up in scandal by degrees. They inch into questionable actions by skirting a few seemingly harmless rules at first, but wind up in deep trouble with the law—or with their conscience at the least. The only safeguard is personal integrity—not crossing that first line no matter what others are doing. In his words:

“With the parade of disgraces—indicted CEOs and CFOs, accountants, and men and women and families caught up in the things they never would have initiated on their own, you have to wonder when it was—exactly what day it was—that these people whose lives are now in ruins came to work and decided to do something that was probably wrong. On what day, at what moment does this begin?  When does that first bad cell split?

“There may come a day in your career when you are asked to approve or go along with or wink at or ignore something that if you go along with it will have a positive impact on some measure or metric that you, your institution, or your friends will be judged favorably for. You may know that day that you and your colleagues are closer to the edge.  The lawyers or compliance people may say it’s okay or that it shouldn’t be a problem or that’s the way they do business in China or Mexico or in the insurance industry or wherever.

“It is not the way of global business. Integrity will win. So understand that when you approach the edge, that line in the sand, that line in your soul is moving closer to you, not farther away. There is no safe distance. You must have the confidence and the courage to say, ‘No, we are not doing this.’”

It won’t be easy. But one day you’ll be glad you did.

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