Advice to the Graduates

Another graduation season has passed and, once again, nobody asked me to speak at their commencement. I went through college, the army, stayed married, raised a family, welcomed grandchildren, kept a job forever, survived two acquisitions, two mergers, countless reorganizations, a couple of heart attacks, stayed happy, and am now a self-anointed philosopher in retirement. Maybe if someone asked, I would share the Great Truths that I observed and learned about starting out and surviving in the working world. What the heck, I will anyway:

1. You must create your own game plan: How will you judge success? What matters to you? Is it money, marriage, power, fame, family, church, friends, and in what order? It’s your life, so you get to establish the priorities.

2. Understand that every organization has the same goal: To perpetuate its own existence, and to grow. They reward people who contribute to this goal, and neutralize those who don’t. After this, Increasing Profits is next on every corporate values list. Additional Services is next on every non-profit values list. Evangelization is next on every religious values list.  All other organizational goals are further down the page.

3. Get everything in writing. Companies merge, get acquired, change staff, and go in and out of business. As you get older, you may find that how hard you worked, and how long you were there, matters less than the deal you signed going in. Say: “Of course I trust you. It’s just good business to write it down. I watch my personal interests just as I watch the corporate interests.” Then write it down and get it signed.

4. Don’t confuse courtesy with interest. People with good manners will hear you out, suggest they will get back to you, and disappear forever. Ask specific questions. “When may I hear from you?” “Would next Tuesday be a good time for me to call?” Pin it down. Follow up. If there’s no chance, you might as well know it today.

5. Find a mentor. There are few ladders from one management level to the next higher one, and they are narrow and congested. Someone has to pull you up. Get a mentor whose values you share, and work loyally for them. Display your talents and show initiative. Be trustworthy and balanced. People hire and promote in their own image. It might as well be you.

6. Follow policies and procedures, but watch what the boss does too. Privates and generals don’t have the same perks and privileges, but it helps to know how the top gun thinks.

7. Try for a piece of the action (e.g.: Equity). Stock is good, if you believe in their future. If you don’t believe in their future, start looking around. When a firm succeeds, it’s not always the people who made it succeed that get rich. When a firm fails, it’s not always the people who made it fail that get hurt. Be on the right list.

8. Stay in touch. If you don’t make calls, you won’t get calls. You will learn more from social interaction with your peers and superiors than from any  business book in the HR library. Say:  “The coffee’s on me.” Ask, listen, and never betray a trust.

9. Pursue what you believe in and don’t take “no” from anyone who can’t say “yes.” Some people use policy instead of judgment, and everyone is authorized to say no. That’s just a screening process. Talk to the boss. A company can do anything legal that it wants. Policy is just what they prefer.

10. If you start a business, pick one that you understand. Know your product and market better than anyone else. Add value. It’s hard to sell the same stuff as everybody else, only cheaper. Someone will always make it cheaper. Look to the great  fortunes and learn how they did it. There is no single way: Henry Ford did it with automobiles. Bill Gates did it with software. William Wrigley did it with chewing gum.

Personally, I’ve always admired a business like Wrigley’s, where a great many people give you a little money each. You’re better off than with a few big customers who want to run your show. Big customers are pushy.

Here are a few bonus thoughts: Keep your priorities straight. It’s easier to get a new job than a new family; rich and lonely is just a little bit less lousy than poor and lonely.  Keep your values intact. You can con others but not yourself, and sooner or later you will catch up with you. Listen to people and don’t be defensive. Keep yourself healthy. Good things can’t happen unless you can make them happen. No matter how much you love a company, a company can’t love you back. It’s all about today’s performance. Stay current. Remember Watergate and Enron: It’s not always the bad deed that brings you down, it’s the cover-up. Be the first to call for an Audit. Work smart. Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment.

And – Don’t fight the Establishment unless you want to commit yourself to some non-traditional life style. I’ve never seen anyone win that battle. The Establishment is too big, too smart, too rich, and too powerful. Besides, the Establishment won’t fight you unless you start it. The Brits tell the tale of the Tugboat and the Queen Mary: If the Tugboat tries to turn the Queen Mary by stopping in front of her, the Tugboat will be run over and sink without a ripple. But – if the Tugboat stands off to the side, and throws frequent and gentle shoves in the right direction, the Queen Mary will eventually respond.

And, by the way, don’t believe that the Establishment is just the Top 1%. They may be in there, but The Establishment is also the guy who owns the lumber yard in your own home town, if that’s where you intend to apply for a job.

Finally, if you make it big, pass on what you learned to interested others, and leave something on the table for the next guy. If you just want to use money to keep score, play Monopoly. People don’t get hurt in Monopoly.

That’s my short list of what I think you need to know to succeed in business. Your real education is about to begin.

Now get out there – and survive.


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