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2017 Commencement at UIUC, College of Engineering

Before we get started, I would like to thank Professor Jacobi and the University of Illinois, College of Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering. This is both an honor and a privilege to speak during commencement for one of the top engineering programs in the country.

As geeky engineers, we love to tackle the biggest challenges. To that end, I’ve titled our short time together…

The Meaning of Life and How to be Happy and Successful.

How do you even prepare for something like that? Well, I asked myself two questions:

  1. What do I wish I heard at my graduation back in 1991?

  2. What important lessons have I learned since then?

In typical engineering fashion, I broke this into 3 phases:

  1. Career Trajectory

  2. Lessons Learned

  3. Look to the Future

So, let’s get started.

I had the good fortune of starting my career with 3M in product development focused on data storage. From designing ceramic read/write heads to manufacturing optical disks, the experience I received was phenomenal. I worked with brilliant people, lived in Europe, and got to work on innovative projects like developing the first 1 Gigabyte optical disc.

After 5 years in product development and operations, I wanted to build up my business acumen, so I left 3M and attended the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business full-time. I had the unique opportunity to learn from 3 different Nobel Laureates. Looking to have an immediate impact on the world after graduation, I joined PRTM (now PwC Consulting), a boutique consultancy focused on product development and operations for Fortune 500 technology companies. Although management consulting trains you to be the smartest person in the room, it was never as rewarding as I hoped because you never truly own anything.

I wanted to change that, so I began working with tech startups. From interim management positions to investing to M&A. Our largest deal was acquiring a $100 million financial software company and merging with the leading currency trading company in London. SAP ultimately purchased the company. Things could not have been going any better. Then the Dot-Com bubble burst in 2001 and decimated the tech industry.

Fortunately, I made a number of friends in the private equity world. So I got to take on some executive roles at some really interesting companies with a heavy emphasis on technology. Most recently I was COO of a global logistics company with a presence in over 90 countries.

So what am I doing now? Mostly my time and money goes into new ventures. Although not all are technical in nature, they leverage technology for a competitive advantage. My most recent investment is a company called Strong Leader. We recruit talent and provide leadership development to on-premise management. Restaurants, retail, automotive, anywhere you need a manager overseeing bricks and mortar.

So why did I invest in this space? There are some good lessons I would like to share with you when sizing up opportunities.

  1. First, these industries typically have high employee turnover (recurring demand).

  2. Second, management rarely has the time or inclination to find and develop the right people.

  3. Third, there were no industry leaders and very little intellectual property existed.

  4. Fourth, there were low barriers to entry and the business generates nice cash returns.

  5. Finally, I had experience recruiting and training hundreds of leaders throughout the world.

OK, so lets transition to Phase 2, Lessons Learned.

A lot of approaches to management involve the traditional carrot and stick. Although effective in certain situations, management is a game of chess, not checkers. There’s a great quote from Steve Jobs, “management is about persuading people to do things they don’t want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought possible.” That is a profound distinction that most managers don’t fully appreciate. I believe understanding the difference is key to driving real results. Regardless of the industry, the company, or your role, this knowledge will serve you well.

Second, there is no magic formula for success. Life takes twists and turns you can rarely predict. The best you can do is put yourself in a position to be successful when the opportunity presents itself. I’ve always found that the best outcomes occur when you have option value. In other words, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket…or in the business world, diversification.

What does this mean? Think of your career as a big supply and demand matrix. Your skills, experiences, and interests map to a set of marketplace needs. Both change over time and doors open based on circumstances often without your planning. The more points of intersection, the more doors/options present themselves.

Adams’ 10 Axioms.

  1. If you improve every day, you will eventually become the best. It’s called coming up the yield curve. The corollary is never stop learning or you will quickly fall behind.

  2. Be likable and respect others. You will accomplish a lot more when people want to be around you. Why? Because your success is not based on you alone…it will include many people along the way. Your family, friends, significant others, co-workers…even competitors. Surround yourself with top people. Something I learned early on is that “A” players hire “A” players. “B” players hire “C” player.

  3. Make those around you stronger and you will never fail. Are some people jerks? Of course, but don’t get too hung up on who deserves your time and who doesn’t.

  4. Life is just a series of problems to solve. There are always 5 general approaches to every problem. Adjust the timeline, reduce the scope, add resources, accelerate decisions (make assumptions), or do nothing.

  5. Do your best to combine work with your passion. People that are passionate about their job never work a day in their life. This becomes more and more important over time. If you’re anything like I was, you just want to get out there, buy a car, get a house, etc. That’s all great, but your priorities really change every 3 to 5 years. Happiness is the one factor you want to be constant, regardless of the changing priorities.

  6. Money relieves some stress, but it doesn’t make you happy. Big difference. My best year I made over $1 million. I wasn’t any happier than when I made $40,000 right out of school.

  7. School can sometimes be a zero-sum game. I want to get a better grade than you. The real world is much more efficient and everyone can win together. The truth always comes out in the end, so don’t be afraid to win together.

  8. Learn how to celebrate. I don’t mean go out to the bars and do shots. I’m talking about taking care of the people that helped you accomplish something important. It might be big, it might be small. Employees constantly say that recognition is more important than money….to a certain point.

  9. People say that money is the most important global currency. I disagree. The most important currency is trust, which is usually based on your reputation. Without trust, you cannot get money.

  10. Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. Having fun should be a major component of your career, or why do it?

Finally, Phase 3; Look to the future.

These are exciting times. Science fiction has become reality. The futurists have an ever-improving track record, so pay attention to what they are saying.

The world has never been smaller. Last year I traveled about 150,000 miles, around the world twice for business. At one point, I was in a different country each day for 10 days straight. We like to think as Americans that we have the best of everything. I hate to tell you this, but there is a lot to be learned from the rest of the world. And I’m not just talking about technology.

Charles Duell, the Commissioner of US Patent Office said "everything that can be invented has been invented."

He said this in 1899.

For as comical as that statement is, there is a kernel of truth to it. Like music, nearly everything builds on the work of others. My grad school classmates and I basically developed the concept of Uber in 1996 (I’m sure we weren’t the only ones)…the difference was cell phone technology wasn’t ready.

The great news is that assets play less and less of a role in success every day. Instead, great ideas and the ability to execute will win the day.

  1. The largest livery service doesn’t own cars…Uber

  2. The largest hotel company doesn’t own real estate…Airbnb

  3. The largest content provider doesn’t own content…Facebook.

  4. The largest retailer doesn’t have store fronts…Amazon.

That said, I get excited about cross-pollination. When a technology from one industry is used for a completely different application in another industry. Your opportunities are only limited by your imagination…and money.

In conclusion, you are all over-achievers. Don’t stress or beat yourself up if things aren’t moving at the pace you want…they never do. Stick to your knitting. Be aggressive, tenacious, and relentless…you’ll win the day.

Good Luck Class of 2017.

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