7 Imperatives for Highly Successful Business Revolutionaries: 2012 INSEAD Convocation

This is the full text of my convocation speech to the 2012 class of INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

Graduates, parents and other family members, INSEAD Faculty and distinguished guests:
Please accept my heartfelt congratulations to all of you. INSEAD is such a great Business School and I do confess to have special knowledge about at least one of your graduates (several actually): and if they are any indication of the rest of you I have full objectivity when I say: “Of all the classes to graduate from the esteemed institution, this surely must be the most distinguished ever!!”
It’s usually the job of convocation speakers to give solid and motivational advice on how to be successful and have a happy life. So let me dispense with that task:
“Today is the first day of the rest of your lives.  Work hard.  Nothing comes easy. The world goes to those who show up, not those who are asked. Be prepared to fail and learn from you failures. Turn lemons into lemonade. Follow your dreams, but have balance in your life.  Oh and on the practical level, always use sunscreen, never wear a bad fitting suit and be sober when you show up for a job interview.”

There.  That felt good for me and I hope you’re all duly inspired.

However today I have a different goal.  For starters, you don’t need advice on how to succeed in business.  Everyone one of you is already enormously accomplished.  You’ve succeeded as undergraduates and you’ve each done something important in the workforce.  You’ve each got through the grueling process of Business School Standardized Testing and the applications marathon, and you have triumphed by being admitted to one of the best schools in the world.  In the last year you’ve mastered one of the toughest curriculums anywhere and (from what I can tell) you’ve also mastered an intense and deeply stimulating social life.  (Personally my wife Ana and I are looking forward to experiencing our first Chateau Party tonight to see what all the fuss is about.)

You’re fully prepared and ready for the next phase of your life, many of you having already scored prime jobs or are launching hopeful new ventures.

So by all means, use your enormous smarts, knowledge, pedigree and connections to be prosperous:  “Live long and prosper”(as Spock would have said).

But today I’d like to try and convince you that the world needs more from you.  Your generation and this class in particular — as the cream of the crop — are being called upon to bring about some important and even historic changes in business, government and society.  In fact I’m convinced we’re on the threshold of nothing less than a new era in human civilization and your generation is ushering it in.

Let me explain.

If you stand back and look at the world — this class is graduating at a very important time in human history.  It is time of great upheaval, uncertainty and of danger.  But fundamentally it’s a time of renewal, rebirth and possibilities.

Sure, if you look around the world today it’s no revelation to you that my generation is handing you a bit of a mess.  The Sovereign debt crisis in Europe.  The weird “great recession” that keeps “double dipping” and refusing to end.   Youth unemployment everywhere is astronomical and many refer to the “Jobless recovery” – an oxymoron if ever there was one.  The gap between rich and poor is growing in many parts of the world including Europe and the United States.

The world is too unequal, unstable and unsustainable. At the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum last year, Bill Clinton gave evidence to a group of us that if we reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent in the year 2050, it will take a thousand years for the planet to cool down. In the meantime bad things are likely to happen – like a 1.5 billion people will lose more than half of their water supply in the next decade.

Politicians can’t seem to get things done and leaders of institutions everywhere have lost trust.  Who would have imagined 4 years ago that in 2012 a popular theme of business and economic books and magazines is “How to Save Capitalism?”

Many economists are predicting a depressed, volatile global economy and a divided world.

Now at this point you’re probably thinking: “Yikes. What a downer!  Why couldn’t I be in a graduating class where Stephen Colbert or Woody Allen was the convocation speaker?”

But my message is a good news story. We can all be enormously hopeful – even cheery about the future.  Why?

Well, I’m of the view that the future is not something to be predicted.  It’s something to be achieved.  And we can achieve a very different future than the one the economists describe.

But to do this, we need to understand what the problem is.  To me this is not a cyclical change we’re going through but rather a secular one.  Arguably, the industrial age is finally running out of gas.

Many of the institutions that have served us well for decades—even centuries—have come to the end of their lifespan. The old financial services industry, industrial age models of governments, healthcare systems, newspapers, the media and our institutions for solving global problems like the UN are all struggling.  Our energy and transportation systems are spewing enough carbon to threaten our biosphere.

At the same time, enabled by the digital revolution humanity is beginning to reinvent these institutions around a new set of principles of collaboration, openness, interdependence and integrity.

Everywhere you can see the contours of new models for prosperity, social development and a just world. This is a time of old versus new, atrophy versus renewal, stagnation versus renaissance.

Networked approaches to innovation are replacing traditional models.  Entrepreneurship is exploding around the world because the Internet enables little companies to have all the capabilities of big companies.

We’re transforming healthcare with PatientsLikeMe, where 100,000 patients are crowdsourcing their data to help doctors, scientists and their own course of treatment. With GalaxyZoo, 275,000 teachers and students are reinventing science and education by helping astronomers discover new galaxies. Communities like Kickstarter are raising funds for entrepreneurs where traditional Venture Capitalists cannot.

Teachers, professors and students are using the Internet to reinvent education from the industrial model where students are passive recipients of knowledge, to student-focused, collaborative learning customized to the needs of the learner.

There is even a revolution taking place in revolutions. The upsurges sweeping the Middle East are harbingers of change.  Social media didn’t cause the Arab Spring, injustice did.  Social media didn’t create the revolutions – they were created by a new generation that no longer wanted to be subjects.  But just like the Internet drops collaboration costs in business, so it drops the costs of dissent, rebellion and even insurrection.

Change is in the air, perhaps like never before.

So I am enormously hopeful.  And the biggest reason?  You! Your generation has unprecedented power, intelligence, will, and tools to change the world and its institutions. And I am hopeful you are up to the challenge.

To begin, you’re the biggest ever.  You have the demographic muscle to bring about change. Because of your sheer size alone you will dominate the 21st century.  Size does matter when it comes to demographics.

You are also the smartest generation ever, as evidenced by all time high IQ, SAT and other test scores and extraordinary university graduation rates.  You believe in fairness, justice, freedom and protecting our biosphere. More than other generation you favor diversity.  You find racism, sexism, and other vile remnants of bygone days as both weird and unacceptable. Integrity is part of your generational DNA. You have power in your intelligence and your values.

But you have unprecedented power from another source – you are the first generation of digital natives. I’m a digital immigrant– I had to learn the language and culture.

And to top it off, you are the graduating class from INSEAD – the most diverse and global MBA class on the planet.  You’ve had an intense learning experience, with extraordinary faculty in a magnificent setting. You’ve debated everything from the global economy to business ethics as part of community of peers unlike any other in the world.

Over the last year you’ve had the front row seats on today’s unprecedented business and societal upheaval.  And now you’re moving back onto the stage.

What does this mean concretely?
Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that each of you work for an NGO or become a candidate for the leader of the world or something like that.  Rather, each of you will have a role to play in this historic transformation whether you are an entrepreneur, consultant, business executive, educator, researcher, public sector manager, politician, social innovator or parent. Change will happen in every home, community, business, school, organization and every nook and cranny of society.  It’s an opportunity for each of you if — you will it.

Let me end by giving you some very unconventional wisdom.  Seven siboleths to be challenged. Call it the Seven Imperatives for Highly Successful Business Revolutionaries.

1. Don’t aspire to be a good manager.  As Peter Drucker said years ago, stable times require excellence and good management.  As we transition to a new age, our organizations need more; they need leadership. Don’t manage the status quo. Lead the change.  Think of yourself primarily as a leader rather than just a manager.  Don’t simply seek to make improvements in your organization. In the past tinkering could do the trick.  These times require deep innovation and transformation.

2. Don’t accept any assumptions about the status quo.  If “it’s always been this way” it may be time for a review. For example, don’t accept hierarchies: think networks. Understand that talent can now be both inside and exterior to your enterprise.  Whether running a bank or a fund, a manufacturer or newspaper, the uniquely qualified minds to accomplish anything may be outside your boundaries: and organizations that harness peer collaboration and new business models will be those that succeed.  Never use the term “my people” to refer to those you manage. Always emphasize teamwork and knowledge sharing, rather than hierarchy.

If you’re on the public sector, don’t deliver good government.  Rather this is a time when we can reinvent the business of government and the nature of democracy for a new era.  Open up your government and create a platform for others to innovate public value.  And lead us to a second era of democracy where we can all be involved.

3. Don’t be expedient. Rather always do the right thing.  Build integrity into the DNA of your business.  Figure out how to make your firm a sustainability leader, as green businesses will be lower cost, perform better and have better trust and market success.  Get your organization to join the “Green Exchange” – the wonderful initiative launched by Nike to share intellectual property on sustainable business practices. And when someone proposes a dicey or questionable initiative ask yourself “What’s the right thing to do?”

If your organization is facing a public relations crisis, don’t hunker down and circle the wagons.  Take a page from J&J during the Tylenol crisis.  Transparency is your friend, perhaps even radical transparency – as it builds trust – the sine quo non of the networked world.  And sunlight is the best disinfectant.

In fact I’d even say, don’t focus on creating shareholder value.  Society has created corporations to do more than create wealth for their shareholders (and executives.) If you work for and eventually lead a company, understand that companies have multiple stakeholders including employees, customers, business partners and the communities within which they operate.  Besides, the best way to create sustainable value for shareholders is to focus on customers and other stakeholders anyway.
In the past Corporate Social Responsibility advocates argued that companies “do well be doing good.”  I don’t think this was true.  Many companies did well be doing bad – by having bad labor practices in the developing world, by externalizing their costs onto society such as pollution etc.  But increasingly because of transparency the old adage “do well by doing good” is becoming true.  We know for sure that companies “do badly by being bad.”

If the financial crisis tells us anything it’s that we live in an interconnected world. In an age where everything and everyone is linked through networks of glass and air, no one — no business, organization, government agency, country — is an island.  We need to do right by all our stakeholders.  And one thing is for sure – no organization can succeed in a world that is failing.

4. Don’t have work-life balance – at least in the sense of trying to escape from work so you can have a life.  Work should be fun – so make work enjoyable and satisfying for everyone – among other reasons because it pays off.  For your generation, work, learning and having fun will be the same thing.

During a one-day session with the management of a Fortune 20 company, I brought in a panel of new employees.  One executive asked them “what could we do to make our company more attractive to your generation.”  Without missing a beat one new employee replied “the first thing we should do is make this place more fun.  It’s just not fun to work here.”  Around the room the body language was not good. “Fun?  What is she talking about?” You see, my generation has this view that work is work and fun is fun.  “There’s a period of the day when you work and then you go home and you have a martini or something – and that’s fun.”  Your generation has it right – work should be integrated with learning and it should be enjoyable. You can be the generation to put the Dilbert cartoons out of business and in doing so transform the nature of work.

5. Don’t stop being a student. Take the time to develop a strategy for being informed as a citizen.  Knowledge is exploding so you need to commit yourself to a plan for lifelong learning – and I really mean this.  When I left graduate school I figured I was set for life.  Notwithstanding your great INSEAD degree, today you’re set for about 15 minutes.  You’ll need to reinvent your knowledge base multiple times.  And as you leave here, it’s not only what you know that counts – it’s your ability to think, solve problems, research and collaborate that matters.

Your generation also has some new challenges about keeping informed in a word where the old ways of doing so (old media) are collapsing. Yes the web is a great platform for learning. But don’t wait for the news to find you.  As much as I love twitter you can’t be informed in 140 character tweets.  So click on that twitter URL and read it.  Don’t just scan: spend time every day reading articles – from beginning to end.  Read points of view that you don’t agree with.  We need to avoid ending up in self-reinforcing echo chambers where we only hear our own point of view.  And make a point of trying to remember things – we can’t count on google for everything and the process of remembering is tied into the process of creating meaning.

6. Don’t just be a student of the world.  Take action. Figure out how you can affect this transformation outside of work.  Even though it doesn’t directly contribute to your immediate prosperity, make a deep commitment your community, to politics, to an advocacy group.  Get organized to bring about change. Doing so will enrich you and teach your children well about the responsibilities we each have to help less fortunate and to improve the state of the world.  You are the first ever global generation so bring your legitimate aspirations and hope for the future to the table. Join in with millions of others form around the world to make this an age of promise fulfilled.

7.  This may be the toughest one – Happiness.  Of course we all want it. But when it comes to your own life goals, don’t seek happiness per se. With a little luck happiness will come to you and deservedly so.  But from my experience happiness is best seen as a bi-product of living a meaningful and purposeful life. Especially today. In the decades ahead you will see staggering changes in the world, changes that are unimaginable today. You will be happier and more fulfilled if you participate fully in these transformations rather than being an observer or recipient.  View happiness as one result of living a good life and doing the right thing.

If luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity, I have a good feeling that all of you will get lucky.  You’re prepared as well as can be.  And the world is full of opportunity – endless possibilities for sparkling new approaches to innovation, weal creation, democracy, and every institution in society.

Change will be challenging, exhilarating and sometimes agonizing. But if your generation, this class and you personally don’t do this, who will?
Hundreds of years ago Martin Luther called the printing press “God’s highest act of grace.” With today’s communications revolution your generation has been bestowed with a second great act of grace.  You have an historic occasion to rebuild business and the world.  Because each of you can participate in this new renaissance, it is surely an amazing time to be alive.
Hopefully you will have the wisdom and the will to seize the time.

Godspeed to each of you.

 

Author: Don Tapscott

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