Graduation Address to MBA Students at UAlbany

During this academic year (2014-2015) I had the opportunity to work with a team of 2nd year MBA students at UAlbany on a project for one of my start up clients. Working with another of the company’s consultants with the students turned into a productive addition to the company’s resources and fun to boot. Now these students are all employed, about to graduate, and be off to mostly big cities and big companies to start their careers.

Without invitation I began to think about what I might say to them that might actually be useful on this parting . So, here is my graduation speech.

Graduation Address to UAlbany MBA Students

Soon, a year, two, or three, you will be promoted to be the Manager of….. The first morning you walk into your new department, team, or whatever, it will strike you that you really are not prepared to manage anything. You have spent many years in school and will continue for some time to develop and hone technical skills. But when you become a manager you will increasingly occupy your time with organizing, leading, and helping others to accomplish tasks.  The set of day-to-day management skills and tools that allow a manager to get the right things done are not taught in business school and very few companies provide even rudimentary guidance. 
 
How do I give direction, engage staff, assure that we are headed in the right direction, what is important and trivial, how do I select, develop and prune staff? Who are the customers of my department? How do I know what they want/need or not? Who are the suppliers? How do I make meetings, every one of them from hallway conversations to formal ones, productive? Where is the company going and how does my group support this? What does my group need to be doing in two years or more to succeed? What is it that should occupy most of my energies?
 
Learning to be a manager is one of the more complex tasks you will ever face in life. It is daunting and never ending, yet also enormously rewarding. Let me make just a couple of points about what I have found during my life as a manager.
 
Above all, managing is about people. The financial and technical resources at your disposal are inert without them. Your people create the value of your organization. This may sound like a sermon at the local corporate church, but when you are actually in charge of a group, it becomes painfully clear that this is actually true. You are the boss and inescapably you provide direction even when you think you are not.  Your people are watching everything you do. There are the explicit messages you send but in most ways the most powerful messages are the ones you send by how you behave.
 
A single powerful concept is what I want you to take away from this address. 
 
Take responsibility, full responsibility, for your management tasks. Treat your very first assignment, and every one that follows, as though its success or failure depends on your full attention. Take action to the full extent possible. 
 
Most significantly take responsibility for your people. Remind yourself and embrace the fact that when one of them is not meeting up to the performance level required, the first place to look for a solution is you. As manager, you have the power to select, develop and prune your staff. You determine the work to be done, the methods and approaches, the other resources and tools that are available, the metrics of success. When a person is not performing well the first questions to ask are have you chosen the right person, have you properly trained them, have you provided the tools and processes required and the correct amount of time. Answer and respond to those questions first.
 
In all my years of working with people I have seen only one or two true malingerers. If you watch people and talk with them you will quickly confirm that people come to work to succeed, to feel a sense of accomplishment and to belong, and, by the way, to earn a living (but many studies show that money is not a good motivator so don’t put too much stake in that).
 
If you approach your people with this sense of humility about your responsibilities and respond to the fact that people come to work to contribute and succeed at it, you will not be disappointed in the results and along the way you will experience many successes.
 
A final note about how you approach your people is to extend fact based management to them. One of the central wonders of the work environment is that it is about the work. When dealing with your people focus on the facts of the work. Your job is not to make them better people, solve their family problems, or love life, your job is to help them become more successful (just as part of their job is to make you more successful). By focusing on the facts of performance not personality, you and they can work on how to become more successful, not on your or their feelings and emotions. By focusing on the facts of the work tasks and how to improve performance you can transcend the worries we all have about fear of failure, our own arrogance, ego and so on. You are performing a central metaphor for the organization of focusing attention on the facts that are out there between us about what needs to be done and how to do it.
 
To learn the practice of management find a mentor (usually an informal process), observe how others manage, network with other managers and access them regularly, read.
 
Have fun and good luck on your careers and life.
 
Let me close with a couple of references for you. There are not many books about how to manage, especially compared to the tsunamis of books on strategy, financial management, etc. Peter Drucker, one of the original thinkers about the practice of management, wrote The Effective Executive: the definitive guide to getting things done in 1967. The book is terribly dated in its vocabulary and examples (many from before WWII).  It never references women or really anyone but those who actually ran everything back then, white men. Despite these shortcomings it has never gone out of print in the ensuing five decades. It is still in my mind the best single book about the practice of management. Read it slowly and think. I have written quite often Drucker’s Effective Executive here.
 
Just to give a taste of Drucker’s wisdom is his take on the need to say No. Many feel that saying No is a negative act. In reality it affirms the choices and priorities of the organization. It concentrates the mind on the strategies and tasks that we have already said Yes to. It is a positive act by a manager to say “No, we are not going to pursue that opportunity because……”
 
Since all of us have bosses, read the 1980 Harvard Business Review classic, “Managing Your Boss” by John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter.