Mendoza College of Business Graduate Commencement Address
Published: May 18, 2013 / Author: Mendoza College
Transcript below of
F. Akerson, Chairman and CEO, General Motors Address to Mendoza Graduates
Dame Mendoza College of Business
May 18, 2013
Words are Definitive]
(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.
a graduate of Annapolis, I’ve always felt a special connection to Notre Dame
because the two schools share so much history.
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.
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
I promise to use these few minutes
Let me start by congratulating everyone who put in
the time, effort and resources to earn a degree from the Mendoza College of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.