The Commencement Speech Every Leader Needs to Hear

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gradOver the last few years, I have sat through my fair share of commencement speeches.  From my perspective they were inspiring – filled with stories and examples of the importance of a college education and how hard work and perseverance will someday pay off.  Those speeches painted a “picture” of what every graduate imagined life would be like after graduation except that the “picture” isn’t even close to the reality they face.  

Their reality is:

  • a high student debt load that, in the last year alone, has grown by 10%;
  • a 12% unemployment rate for new graduates; and
  • a workforce where a generation of managers have already formed a negative opinion of their commitment, work ethic, and tendency to ask questions and seek feedback.

An article I read in HBR, The Commencement Speech Parents Need to Hear  gave me pause and made me realize that maybe we, as leaders, need to face a little of our own reality.  The “kids” we will be hiring; those we need to hire quickly as baby boomers start retiring in droves, may be our own kids (or at least raised the same way).  If we want these “kids” and our own to succeed in the workplace then perhaps it’s time to be on the receiving end of the advice. After all, our kids have been urged to speak up throughout their lives, but never has it been so important for other generations to listen. “Before the 2014 graduates embark on their collective journey into workplaces still struggling to adapt to changing demographics, senior generations would benefit by heeding advice from the Millennials’ perspective.”

What I found most interesting was the concept of looking at new hires as I would my own children – accepting and embracing all the values I had given them.  WOW! 

The commencement speech which I would recommend for leaders would be written by Millennials (hereafter referred to as “kids”), and directed primarily to one particular group in the audience: “the parents who raised them at home but cannot understand them at work.  And that speech would likely go something like this:”

“Parents, as you come here to celebrate your child’s graduation milestone, remember that the young person whose accomplishments you celebrate will soon be in the workplace – which also means that the “kids” raised by those who surround you will be in yours. Remember that each time you form a stereotype or paint the entire generation with an unnecessarily broad brush. And in that spirit, consider these six principles as guidance in your interactions with young people at work.”

1.  Think of each new hire as a future leader, set aside preconceived notions and, instead, pay attention to what truly will motivate young employees.

2.  “Recognize that the “entitled” label you tend to attach to “kids” is not entitlement at all, but rather the self-confidence and self-respect that you have instilled in them since birth. You raised your children to believe in themselves and to believe in their future success. Embrace this generations’ confidence as a building block of future leadership.

3. “Workplace navigation skills are critical to career success and advancement, but do not assume that all young workers arrive adept at steering their way forward. But if you are willing to invest in the process of meaningfully integrating young employees into the culture of your workplace, you will maximize the likelihood of optimal performance.”

4.  Replace clout with mutual respect. An open exchange of ideas invariably leads to a better result and a more engaged workforce.

5.  Pay greater attention to workplace dynamics, particularly around technology. Formalized reverse mentoring programs can help “kids” develop stronger relationships with their more senior colleagues, which has the added benefit of making older workers more technologically proficient.

6.  “Kids” value work-life flexibility and its availability leads to workplace loyalty and engagement.

I hate to say this but we may need our “kids” more than they need us.  We need them to fulfill our dreams for their future but we also need them in the workplace.  The number of future retirees is staggering and we will have no choice but to welcome them into our offices.  Our future, their future and our economy, depends on it.


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Anne has been leading consulting and financial management organizations for over 25 years. She has extensive expertise in Strategic Sourcing, change management, contracting & contract management (both the buy side and sell side) organizational design and supply chain management. Anne has a passion for collaborating and educating her clients while helping them to uncover hidden value in their organizations. In addition, Anne has been named by Supply & Demand Chain Executive as a “Top 100 Provider Pro to Know” every year since 2007 and a 2013 Top Female Supply Chain executive.

1 Comment

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