The Winter Convocation of the College of Business was held on December 19, 2004, at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Alumna Norma J. Lauder delivered the address to the graduates. Her remarks are below.
David Gilmartin, president of the College of Business Alumni Association Board, also spoke to the graduates.
Thank you, Dean Ghosh. And congratulations to each graduate here today!
Years from now, you will likely come to regard today's degree as one of your most treasured holiday gifts. And for good reason. It's a custom fit, it will last a lifetime, and it can help transport you to places you cannot yet imagine.
You have received a world class education here at Illinois. One that has given you outstanding technical skills, as well as a broad-based understanding of the issues that influence and ultimately drive business. Both will serve you well as you enter the workforce, and in the years to come. But the real value of your education here is more than just the accumulation of techniques and facts. The University of Illinois has afforded you an education that - in the words of B.F. Skinner - "will endure when what has been learned has been forgotten."
You have studied business during a dynamic era of re-definition and re-focus. The real world of the 21st century has presented a spectacular background to your classes and books, providing you with a living laboratory of experiences - rich in the lessons of finance, accounting reforms, and ethics, to mention just a few.
It is important that you have learned not only to figure costs, but to measure values, as well. And there are two values - two personal traits - that , in my three decades of experience, seem to distinguish and sustain successful business leaders throughout their careers.
These qualities are:
To begin, adapting to change should be the mantra of contemporary business for it is a management challenge that crosses all sectors of the economy, and impacts workers at every level of the organization. Yours is a generation immersed in change - from the technology explosion to the emergence of a truly global economy - you have grown up learning to thrive on change. But, be prepared for continual change to take on even greater meaning in your business life. Let me share a couple of my experiences with you.
My first job after college was in the tax department of a large public accounting firm. About the fourth year into my career, I was asked to work for a partner who was both disliked and feared because of the demands he placed on the people who worked for him. While he was respected for his business savvy - and his ability to land and keep clients - he was viewed as a tyrant. By the time every manager in the department had refused to work for him, they had to come down to my level to find someone who would take the job. I was terrified of him and literally everyone told me that working for him could actually hurt my career.
But, after thinking it over, I decided to take the risk anyway. I became the "acting" manager on some of the most complex clients in the firm, and what followed was an incredible experience. To my surprise, we developed a great working relationship. And he became a good friend as well as an outstanding mentor who helped me develop my skills as a tax professional and as a business person. I continued to learn from him - even after I became a partner at the firm - and will always be grateful for his guidance, support and confidence in me. Had I not accepted that challenge, I may never have had the opportunity to gain the invaluable experience that came from working with him. So, always be open to change, so you don't miss any unexpected opportunities that pop up along the way.
Another experience with adapting to change came in a broader context. During the last 18 years, I've worked for one company that has merged three times and been taken over once. What started out as First Chicago, became First Chicago NBD, then Bank One, was then "taken over" by a new chairman, and finally , merged again to become JPMorgan Chase this past July. All of these situations occurred within the last 9 years - about one every other year!
Whether you are the acquired, the acquirer, or an equal partner in a merger, these transactions inevitably bring significant change into your life. In our case, every employee (ranging from 35,000 people in our first merger to 175,000 in our last) felt the uncertainty and insecurity brought on by the unknown - "What does this change mean for me?" and "What's it going to do to my future?"
Most of us consider ourselves reasonably flexible, but what I've found is that we are pretty well committed to historical practices and perspectives. It's very difficult to switch gears and work differently. Yet when you find that your company now has two diverse approaches to the same task, something has to give, so adaptability is a must.
Accepting the uncertainty of these situations often presents unexpected opportunities. For example, when First Chicago NBD merged with Bank One, each company approached taxes quite differently. So, rather than waiting for this to become a crisis, or for other events to dictate our fate, we sat down with our counterparts, took out a clean slate, and together came up with a resolution that gave us better capabilities than either organization had before. Being proactive - even though it was personally very uncomfortable - quickly put our group ahead of where we needed to be.
Very talented people often perform poorly in a changing environment just because they are unable to let go of their old patterns. So even at an entry level, you should seize the opportunity to contribute by figuring out how to get the job done and working with others to make it happen. Volunteer to do whatever it takes to foster progress toward goals. Embrace change with the view that you can adjust to it and benefit from it, and indeed you will!
The other essential characteristic I believe you need for success is an unwavering commitment to doing the right thing. That sounds pretty simple, and I'm sure many of you are thinking "Why would she even talk about something that obvious?" Well, it's because business situations are complex and doing the right thing isn't always as obvious as you may think. Ethics can be a slippery slope sometimes - often just varying shades of gray.
You've all read and studied about the corporate scandals over the last several years -- Enron, Worldcom, HealthSouth - you know the names. You might think that the people who participated in the events creating these scandals were just "bad seeds," and you'd never follow their lead in the first place. In some instances that might be true, but not necessarily. Believe it or not, many of these people are just like you and me. They worked hard and tried their best, but at some point, for some reason, they chose to ignore their moral compass, they dismissed that little voice inside that keeps us honest.
One experience that brought home to me the powerful impact that doing the right thing could have on the culture and performance of a company, came when Bank One brought in a new chairman, Jamie Dimon, in 2000 (before Enron or any of the other scandals had been exposed). His arrival was viewed by most of us as a "takeover," albeit a nontraditional one, because he brought so many of his own people with him. Bank One was struggling, still trying to digest its last merger. When Jamie arrived, he made it clear from the outset how he wanted things done: we all had to take ownership of our areas and "do the right thing." That meant identifying and dealing with problems head-on, making difficult - often painful and sometimes costly decisions - because it was the right thing to do. While he'd said these things consistently in public forums, I experienced early on exactly what he meant. My team and I were responsible for all corporate taxes, including the tax treatment of certain corporate expenses that sometimes impact an employee's individual situation. This is especially true in the case of the chairman. I met with Jamie shortly after he arrived to discuss the tax treatment of these types of expenses, and how it could affect him.
Like any of us, chairmen seek to pay just the amount of tax they legally owe, and no more. With this in mind, I presented him with several alternatives. When I finished, he looked at me and said "What's the right thing to do?" I told him and he said "Then let's do it." The right thing in this case cost him more tax personally than the other alternatives, any of which could have been justified. But, often things that are perfectly legal or within prescribed guidelines aren't necessarily the right thing to do - they aren't really within the spirit of what was intended.
That conversation was a defining moment for me. I saw that his behavior was completely consistent with his message. Many others in the organization had similar experiences and in a very short time his culture of doing the right thing was instilled in each of us. By his example, he raised the bar for all of us, and as a result, the company successfully turned itself around and was viewed as one that faced and fixed problems quickly and openly. In fact, Arthur Leavitt, former chief accountant of the SEC, referred to Jamie Dimon as "Mr. Unenron" - a real complement in today's environment!
So, do the right thing, even when it's not the easy thing, maybe even especially when it's not the easy thing! This will make you a leader no matter what level you are in the organization, whether you are dealing with paper clips and staplers or structuring a multi-million dollar transaction. I test myself by asking - "Is this something I'd be proud to tell my Mom about?" or "Is this something I'd like to read about in the Wall Street Journal?" Simple filters like these can do wonders to put a situation in its proper perspective.
I'd like to close with one final thought. In 1971, when I graduated in accounting, Illinois was the #1 accounting school in the country. Today, 33 years later, it is still ranked among the very best! That fact is no accident! So do your part to make certain your Illinois education serves you as well as it has served me over the years, by giving back as early and often as you can.
I wish each of you health, happiness and a long, successful, and rewarding business career! I hope your road takes you to the most interesting corners of our world, and that your education never ends. It's certainly an imperfect world that you inherit from us, but it is a cherished and fascinating creation. In the words of writer John Updike - "You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumb prints on it." Be sure to leave a few of your own.