10 Ideas I Shared with Exec MBA Graduates

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

3 July 2015

On Friday, June 26, I had the honor of speaking at the 20th anniversary commencement of the Executive MBA program between the University of Rochester and the University of Bern.  The remarks by the students and the professors and the alumni were excellent.  What follows are the remarks I shared as the commencement speaker (my first time delivering a commencement address!).  Since my post-graduate education came from the school of life, I thought I’d share with them some of what I learned in that school.  Here are my specific remarks:

As Leaders – 10 Ideas for Your Business Repertoire 

Thank you so much to the University of Rochester and the University of Bern for the invitation to be here with you all on such a special and important occasion!  It’s especially meaningful for me to be here at the graduation of an institution that is based on a collaboration between our two countries because everything that I do and all of the success we have had or will have from the United States Embassy here in Bern stems from a bilateral collaboration.

As the rising stars and future – or even current – leaders of your respective companies and as people who’ve just finished an executive MBA program, what can I share with you that will equip you even more than this esteemed institution has already done?  Or that will enable you to have more impact?  What can I say that will make you pause and think?  Or – along the lines of the program’s vision: Change the way you think?  Or – that will simply, at times, make you and those around you happier?

When I finished University in 1993, I knew that I wanted to have an impact and make a difference, but, armed with a great job at a great company, I assumed that my path would be relatively straight forward.  God-willing, I’m not yet half-way in my career, but looking back on what has transpired thus far, what I see is anything but linear. In fact, there are times when it didn’t even go forward and went a little in reverse.  I started out at Microsoft on operating systems like MS-DOS and Windows 95.  After 5 years, I rotated to Expedia – which was inside of Microsoft – but then spun out as a separate company, allowing me to experience a startup IPO.  I stayed at Expedia for 7 years – after which time I stayed home with my kids for almost 4.5 years.  During that time, I started a couple of non-profit organizations and got involved as a community organizer.  Then – in 2009, I went back to work at Microsoft in the education area.  I continued with my volunteer commitments, but then left in 2012 to be home with my kids again.

And here I stand before you now as the United States Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Again – what a winding road it has been – and I suspect it will continue to wind, twist, turn and go any which way!  But all with the north star of impact.

So – today, what I will share with you are 10 ideas for you to consider adding to your business repertoire as you go forward from this point.  These all stem from my very non-linear career.  Some are mundane and some are worldlier – but all are meant to fundamentally help you have greater impact in your career and your life.  They are also meant for you as employees as well as managers now and in the future.  My hope is that these are both practical as well as thought-provoking.

Here goes:

1) Live by the three-email rule – at work and even at home.  Email, social media, and other digital communication tools do not have intonation – no matter how many emoticons get included.  They cannot take the place of voice or especially of face to face connections.  How many of you have had that experience of escalating frustration as emails fly back and forth and you hit send with a little too much vigor when you reach a boiling point?  If you find yourself about to hit send on a fourth email in an exchange.  STOP.  Pick up the phone or walk down the hall and go speak with that person directly – because clearly, the digital exchange is not serving your purpose.  Note – you don’t have to wait until three emails are sent – you can always reach out before that happens if you sense some electronic angst.

2) Embrace the fact that feedback is always a gift, whether or not you like how it’s wrapped.  When I was a Vice President of Marketing and Sales at Expedia in Luxury Travel– there was a situation where I drove my team as well as the service teams very hard for a long period of time to get the results we needed.  When review time came around, the President of the Division, rather than praising me for getting results despite tough conditions, gave me a negative review because the team was burned out.  I still believe that he should have recognized the results I got and not just the downside of burning the team out – and I REALLY didn’t like how that feedback was wrapped, but I also learned a lot about recognizing operational load and that – any time you are creating new products and/or new work streams, you HAVE to consider the resources you have, the load that you’ll generate, and whether the outcomes are reasonable to expect given those other factors.  So – while I didn’t like the delivery of the feedback, to this day, I still internalize and consider that feedback in my work.

3) Look beyond what’s on the page when hiring people.  One of the things I loved about Microsoft, Expedia and now in the State Department is that great people come from lots of different places and have really diverse backgrounds.  Ones’ schooling is in no way an arbiter of their abilities.  I’ve had great candidates from the most obscure schools and terrible candidates from the most prestigious – and vice versa. It’s also important to recognize that, for women especially, some of the very best candidates for a position might be too humble to really tout their accomplishments and capabilities.  In fact, from a gender standpoint, it’s often said that women will wait to have the qualifications to apply and men will apply in order to get the qualifications.  Now – that said, if you are looking for a copy-editor or someone who needs to be detail-oriented and they have type-os, or grammar errors, then you should move on.

4) Start with objectives.  Whether it’s in the workforce or in life, it’s easy to get distracted with lots of good (and bad) ideas and options.  And there are usually far fewer resources available than there are things to do.  SO – if you start by creating your objectives or with thinking about “what is the action you want coming out of this meeting or presentation” – then it’s easier to stay on target and to meet those objectives.  For example – you would make very different decisions as a business leader if your objective is revenue vs. sales.  So – let me apply this to the decision for me to be here today.   Our vision for our embassy is fundamentally to ensuring the safety, security and prosperity of US Citizens.  Our key goals to achieve that vision are to

  • Promote our shared prosperity.
  • Improve collaboration on shared security and global development
  • Enhance understanding of our shared values
  • Keep American citizens safe
  • Ensure a safe, supportive, productive and inclusive workplace

Being with you here – I hope to contribute to several of my objectives – namely – to our shared prosperity and our shared values.  And then, separately, what I want you all to think or feel as you leave here – I want you all to know that you and your respective companies gain value from the US relationship.  So – if you don’t feel that way, then please share that feedback!

5) Take risks – and foster risk taking among your employees, your friends, your kids, and even your parents.  Some of the greatest successes have started with failure.  Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln having lost many of his races prior to getting elected President, Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team and missing 9000 shots in the pros, or any number of tech leaders having been through myriad failed startups, the key to innovation is to learn from failure and to take risks.  To bring it closer to home, in the major pharmaceuticals here, they celebrate failure and support risk – I understand that one executive takes the team with the biggest failure out to a meal.  Along those same lines, I worked in one team at Microsoft that had an award for the person with the biggest failure each quarter.  And the key was not focusing on the failure, but deconstructing what happened and identifying what one can learn.  In the US within the startup culture, the line often used is to fail fast and fail cheaply.

6) Keep in mind that Corporate Social Responsibility IS good for business.  Business after business will testify that their decisions to do good for the world have helped them improve their bottom line.  So – as you head off into the business world, I ask you to add a lens to your business decisions to look at how that decision might impact the world – or, better yet, how might it make the world a better place if tweaked slightly?  Maybe by using slightly more expensive building materials up front and bearing the burden of a short term hit to your capital expenses budget, your new facility might be better for the environment and, when amortized over a 10 year period, actually save you money in energy costs.  Or maybe sourcing materials utilizing fair trade practices might cost more up front, but perhaps that will expand your markets and allow you to sell at a higher margin.  Or maybe you should incur the extra costs and forego a little bit of margin because it will simply help save the planet – and not necessarily earn you any more money – but also not drive you out of business.  One of my favorite lines that I’ve heard among businesses here in Switzerland is from Ulrich Spiesshofer, CEO of ABB when he said that they want “to run the world without consuming the earth”.

7) Advance global fluency.  As many of the companies for whom you work demonstrate – the world is increasingly interconnected and more and more corporations have some aspect of their business abroad.  Even my husband’s Internet Company has half of its users outside of the United States.  That means that, as you think about your current business or a job in the future, you will increasingly need people who think and act globally.  It also means that, if you have the opportunity for yourself or members of your team to work in another country – you should go for it!

8) Remember that you and your health come first.  In addition to setting work priorities, I set life priorities. Imagine, if you will, several concentric circles.  At the very center – is me. The next ring is my family, the ring outside of that is my community, then my nation, and then my world.  If I am not healthy or my family is not well, then the outer rings collapse.  In other words – in order to have the energy – both physically and mentally – to do my job well and to serve my country – I have to be healthy and I have to have a have a healthy family life.  In fact, my personal goals during the term of this job are quite simple: that I’m still married at the end, that my kids still know my name, and that I keep the same clothing size.  Even though your employers may want you to work 120% of the time and give 150% of yourself, remember that they ultimately want you to be productive and effective.  Thus – the only person who is going to manage your health is YOU.  So the onus is on you to find that balance – or at least that continuum of work and life.

9) Give people the benefit of the doubt, ask questions first, and don’t assume.  How often have you come into a situation where something has been messed up and where you know the person who was responsible?  It’s tempting to get mad, blame them, and then try to fix it.  But what if they actually had already fixed it from something much worse – and had already gone through the iterations you would have to fix it?  Or what if the person you thought was responsible had been sick and only came back at the last minute?  If I have learned nothing else in this job, it’s to recognize that there are always at least 2 sides to a story and that often, when we hear or read something, we really are only getting one tiny view into what has happened.  I also have learned that coming in to a situation with answers and dictates doesn’t empower the team.  Rather – it’s helpful to find out what’s already been done and/or needs help.  If you’re a manager, this is especially important for developing your team.

10) And last but not least: recognize that diversity of all kinds equals productivity.  Study after study now focus on how increased diversity in boards and leadership yields better corporate performance.  But let me make it more relevant to you.  As you look ahead at your careers, keep in mind that, even though you each are incredibly brilliant, if you only speak with and brainstorm with people just like you, you will have a limited set of solutions and ideas.  Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for NASA, described it well when she visited Gymnasium Neufeld in Bern.  She described that, right now, we are using 1960s propulsion technology for Space exploration.  But – to get to Mars and back in a reasonable amount of time (the back part being the more important), we need new propulsion technology.  However, to discover that, we need more creativity – we need 100% of the brains in the room.  Not 50%.  However, generating diversity doesn’t just mean putting people into senior positions.  It means growing talent and making your working environment a comfortable and welcoming place for people of all shapes, sizes, races, genders, backgrounds, etc… It means challenging status quo and moving beyond your comfort zone.

So there you go – 10 recommendations based on the wide-variety of my experiences for you to consider using in your business practices in the future.  At a minimum, I hope that they spur you to think.  At most, I hope they help you make the world a better place as you head off into the future!

Thank you and, again, congratulations!