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Universities are right now trotting out Grade-A commencement speakers to motivate this year's graduating class of collegiates to change the world, or at least vacate their parents' property before the age of 30. Some of the most inspiring commencement speeches of all time include the one Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005, and this year's address du jour is one given by the late David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2008 (watch them both below).

Automaker executives are often invited to the podium to speak as well. Former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner spoke in 2011 at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne just recently addressed graduates at Walsh College. Over the weekend, current GM CEO Dan Akerson took to the podium to inspire students embarking from the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame.

Did Akerson, who graduated from Annapolis in 1970, motivate the next Jobs, Musk or Gates to lead us all into a bright and promising future? We'll let you read the transcript below and judge for yourself. His message had to do with what constitutes a good leader, those qualities being the ability to define reality by setting priorities, allocating capital and resources to meet those priorities, a willingness to serve and leading by example.

Speaking to a room full of business school graduates, Akerson also remarked, "If all you intend to do with this knowledge and influence is see how many points you can score on your personal wealth scorecard... then something is terribly wrong." An interesting, if convenient, revelation from someone whose salary topped $11 million in 2012.



Dan Akerson Commencement Address at Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thank you.

Dean (Ed) Conlon, Father (Mark) Thesing, distinguished faculty, family and friends and of course, the Class of 2013... thank you for allowing me to share this very special day with you.

As a graduate of Annapolis, I've always felt a special connection to Notre Dame because the two schools share so much history.

The bonds were strengthened immeasurably just last month, when Father Hesburgh was recognized as an honorary Navy chaplain. He has truly lived the chaplain corps motto, which is "vocati ad servitium," or called to serve.

That's a theme we'll return to in a few minutes.

It is an honor to be part of this wonderful event. And every time I go to a graduation ceremony, I'm reminded of a piece of advice from Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

He said a graduation speaker is like the corpse at an Irish wake: his presence is required to justify the occasion, but no one expects him to say very much.

I promise to use these few minutes wisely.

Let me start by congratulating everyone who put in the time, effort and resources to earn a degree from the Mendoza College of Business.

This is a terrific achievement and one certainly worth celebrating.

I'm sure each of you has high expectations for yourselves and your careers... and why not? You are obviously bright, energetic, motivated and ambitious men and women.

That is all well and good. But as much as this day is about you... and your expectations... I want to spend these few moments talking about what we expect from you.

I can sum it up in one word... leadership.

Every institution that we rely on... whether it is business or government or academia... demands effective leadership to deal with complex issues, now more than ever.

Indeed, everywhere you look in our society, there is a demand... a hunger... for authentic leadership.

For example, a recent Gallup poll revealed that almost three-quarters of Americans don't particularly trust "big business."

We did score better than Congress and HMOs, but that's a pretty low bar, isn't it?

Don't believe the polls? Try this.

Go to Google Books and enter the word "leadership." Wait all of three-tenths of a second... and you'll get more than 6.3 million results.

The tomes come in all shapes and sizes... written by people with vastly different experiences and different perspectives.

Many of these are books written by "gurus," including one who dissected leadership into 155 behavioral descriptors clustered into 21 scales.

Now, I earned a degree in engineering. I have worked in finance for much of my career. So I have an affinity for facts, figures and detailed analytics.

But slicing leadership into 155 behavioral descriptors strikes me as slicing things a bit too thin. I think we can simplify it.

From a business perspective, what a leader does is relatively easy to define.

First, a good leader defines reality by setting priorities.

Next, he or she must allocate capital and scarce resources to meet those priorities.

Third, good leaders know that to be effective, they must be willing to serve as well.

And finally, there are the career-defining tests of character, where you must be prepared to lead by example.

Luckily, these kinds of tough calls don't occur every day. However, a single misstep can undo a decade or more of hard work in a day, so it's encouraging to know how thoroughly ethics have been integrated into the curriculum here.

Now that we've framed the subject of leadership, let's look at how we practice the science at GM.

Our first step is to always put an issue or pending decision in the context of our four operating strategies.

We adopted these after bankruptcy to provide focus and instill a sense of urgency to everything we do, and we've stuck to them religiously because they work.

The pillars are to design, build and sell the world's best vehicles... differentiate and strengthen our brands... maintain a fortress balance sheet... and pursue profitable growth around the world.

These all may appear simple on their face, but they've served us very well.

For example, we know through benchmarking that we need to establish Cadillac as a true global luxury brand to achieve margins on par with key competitors. That has made Cadillac a priority in our four-year, $11 billion China capital program.

Similarly, it was starkly evident that our outsourced information technology model was inadequate for the 21st century, when every single link in the automotive value chain is wired and connected – from the design studio to the showroom floor.

So now we are in the process of building our second state-of-art data center and hiring more than 4,000 high-tech workers around the country to design proprietary software.

In addition, we realized there are not enough U.S. high school seniors pursuing college-level science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees to support American manufacturing and GM in particular.

That led us to create the Buick Achievers program, which has awarded nearly $12 million to more than 2,100 college-bound students since 2011.

These are just a few examples of the path we are following at General Motors today, and though we are in the early innings of our recovery, it is working for us.

We've delivered 13 consecutive profitable quarters, we're on the cusp of regaining our investment grade credit rating and before too long I expect we'll rejoin the S&P 500.

So, define reality. Allocate resources. Serve as well as lead. That's what leaders do. And our society needs this from smart, capable people like you... in every walk of life.

It doesn't matter if your road leads to corporate America, the non-profit sector or government service.

You will leave here today with freshly minted degrees that show you have mastered challenging business courses... from one of the best schools in the nation.

If all you intend to do with this knowledge and influence is see how many points you can score on your personal wealth scorecard... then something is terribly wrong.

Frankly, I doubt that's the case. I doubt that anyone who chose to pursue a degree at this university... with its storied mission of service to others... would come away focused solely on himself.

This school's mission is carved in stone above the East door of the Basilica. It reads "God, Country, Notre Dame."

Regardless of your religion or politics, the meaning is clear. Notre Dame exists to shape leaders for a higher calling... for something bigger than ourselves.

The Mendoza College then distills these values into a simple business dictum: economic enterprises serve people, not the other way around.

These are powerful ideas, and if you can live up to the values of the school, success and satisfaction... however you care to measure it... will follow.

Today, we need you... the best and brightest citizens our nation can produce... to do more. You can do so well... and you can do so much good too.

Remember, being good is commendable. Doing good is remarkable.

I urge you to put your country's interests above your own. Get involved in your community. Serve your fellow citizen.

Bring your intellectual firepower, your ambition, and your energy to making America the country we know it can be.

Congratulations again on a wonderful achievement. Everyone in this room is proud of you.

Meanwhile, everyone in this country is counting on you. We can't wait to see what you can do.

Thank you.



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  • 30 Comments
      Polly Prissy Pants
      • 1 Year Ago
      "Indeed, everywhere you look in our society, there is a demand... a hunger... for authentic leadership." This is true, but only because we've somehow confused "good politician" with "good leader" and filled our corporate ranks with the likes of Akerson who actually believe a) they are good leaders, and b) they know what a good leader is. A true leader would be steamrolled within the GM bureaucracy or that of any large multinational. These modern day business "leaders" lament a situation that they deliberately created, all the while unable to see that they are railing against the very things they've become.
      CadiVetteFerrari
      • 1 Year Ago
      I hate these graduation speeches. It's the last sliver of BS before these people get out in the real world and see how hard it is. They are not told there will be hard times, they are told every single person in the room will be a success story. Just tell it how it is: Some of you will be going to jail for multiple DUIs, some of you won't be able to get a job in your field and will have to work in fast-food or Walmart. I didn't say EVERYBODY will fail. I'm just saying not everyone will turn out to be a millionaire or hundred-thousand-aire. You don't have to say it in a Rodney Dangerfield way. But just say you will fail multiple times in your life and you may not be as successful as you think you will be and you have to come to terms with it. Just cut the BS and tell the truth about life. Don't paint a pretty picture with flowers and rainbows. When they give these speeches, it's as if they think current graduates all have jobs lined up. Just be real with them and their expectations. I understand the point is to motivate. But there's motivate and then there's lying through your teeth when you know that everyone graduating today will not be a success.
      gop.hates.america
      • 1 Year Ago
      Here's the official Mitt Romney speech Graduates, You might be wondering why this university chose me as the speaker for your graduation. If you look at my history, I have achieved nothing – most of the companies I managed filed for bankruptcy, I have lost almost all the elections I ran for and General Motors is doing very well despite my doom and gloom prediction. I even ran away to France so I don’t get drafted into military. I am here to tell you that you are all wrong. First look at all the companies I took over. Even though most of them filed for bankruptcy, I didn’t let it happen until I drained their retirement accounts. Sure, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, but I needed money for the $100 million IRA I am leaving for my sons. The best part: I didn’t have to pay any taxes on the profit I made. Now look at the presidential election. You might be thinking that this was the worst election in recent history and I was the most clueless candidate you have ever seen, but you are wrong again! You remember those billion dollars we collected for the campaign? Guess where it all ended up. I hired my buddies for all the high paying jobs in the campaign. I gave contracts to companies owned by me and my friends. While those teabaggers were working hard for free, we were raking in money like there is no tomorrow. Who do you think is the real winner here? Lastly, even though I wrote the article Let Detroit Go Bankrupt, I loved the bailout and made millions of dollars from it. I am here to tell you that whatever you have learnt in college is wrong. America is not a free market economy. Me and my fellow Republican lawmakers have made sure of that. If you think you can make it by hard work and college degree, think again. The only people who are successful here are those born with a silver spoon in mouth (like me) or those with connections in Congress. Now if you excuse me, my two hundred foot yacht is waiting for me. If you can’t find a job, you can always work on it as wait staff. That’s one job I haven't outsourced, yet.
      550PlusX5
      • 1 Year Ago
      "Graduates, vote for Obama...Because if at first you don't succeed....whine whine whine, until you get your bailout..."
      Jake Laird
      • 1 Year Ago
      Graduates, Everything that my company has done in the last 35 years...do the opposite.
      gop.hates.america
      • 1 Year Ago
      If Mitt Romney gave speech "graduates, Believe in America, but outsource the jobs to China, and hide the profits in Cayman Islands"
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        delsolo1
        • 1 Year Ago
        Vietnam draft dodger Dick Cheney made millions off the blood of our soldiers in Iraq. And cried all the way to bank.
        transam
        • 1 Year Ago
        What an incredibly naive statement.
        The Wasp
        • 1 Year Ago
        Many people here would be totally incapable of forming a coherent commencement address.
        knightrider_6
        • 1 Year Ago
        "our sweat and blood" says a conservative who lives on welfare funded by liberal's tax dollars! The only blood you have shed is when you accidentally fired your gun at your foot.
      Luis A. Martinez
      • 1 Year Ago
      The joke of the century.....Amen!!
      whofan
      • 1 Year Ago
      These CEOs are so full of themselves. Just like Ed Whittaker writing a book on GM. He wasn`t there long to be doing a book on it. big egos.
      Trist
      • 1 Year Ago
      I wish I had someone inspiring for my graduation yesterday at Saint John's University here in NYC. Instead, we had congressman Peter T. King who's notorious anti-muslim remarks had a large amount of muslim students literally stand up and turn their back to him while he was speaking. Quite a tense and awkward moment.
        delsolo1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Trist
        Well King supported the IRA during their terrorist period.
      IBx27
      • 1 Year Ago
      If any of those students follow his 'business model,' we are going to see a lot more malaise products in every sector they go into die to abhorrent cost cutting measures.
      Thipps
      • 1 Year Ago
      this class envy stuff has got to end. I mean he has done pretty well making GM profitable again right? they are making better cars right? millions of jobs are effected by his decisions right? Look im not looking for everyone to bow down to CEO's but i really hope everyone understands their roles and responsibilities. THey are some of the smartest people making massive decisions that effect millions of jobs. The Yes they get paid well but honestly if they make a company billions with the right decisions and the free market value for someone like that is in the millions then why do we have a problem with that. If he makes one poor choice he would be fired. And why bash a successful guy speaking to graduates with words of wisdom?
        dukeisduke
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Thipps
        Akerson came out of the telecom industry (AT&T), and doesn't have a clue about the automobile business.
          sossegado001
          • 1 Year Ago
          @dukeisduke
          Akerson never worked at AT&T lol get your facts straight! You are confusing him for Ed Whitacre, previous interim GM CEO.
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