Words of Wisdom for the Class of 2021
In honor of this year’s graduates, I’m dedicating this post to the class of 2021. It offers some advice and words of wisdom from the commencement address that I delivered to Northern Illinois University’s (NIU) Executive MBA Class of 2021.
Don’t let life just happen to you. Be deliberate. Now that we’re developing our future normal as we come out of the pandemic, we’re presented with a big reset. It’s a great opportunity to look at the last year and ask yourself, “What changed because of the pandemic that was good?” Take hold of this great opportunity here to reset — to move beyond habit and to be intentional.
Importance of Taking Risks
The difference between super-smart people who just get by and those who may or may not be smart but are very successful is their willingness to take smart risks – the kind of risks that cause you to go out of your comfort zone. But with smart risks, if the worst happens, chances are you won’t sink the ship, right? So, look at things through this prism: what you have to gain versus what you have to lose. Too many people focus on the “lose” part and don’t take risks toward the “gain” part.
Be mentored and be a mentor. Formal education is great, but it’s foundational and you’ve just started learning. We start our career with some book knowledge and over the years through the school of hard knocks, we gain much experience and wisdom, but by the time we get all that experience and wisdom, it’s often too late. By having mentors and making a commitment to learn from them, you can get the wisdom and the experience earlier, which allows you to apply what you learn to create your own ideal future. Invest time in mentors — in coaching — and make it a point to learn from other people’s successes and failures.
Fire Yourself and Rehire Yourself Regularly
I’ve learned a great deal about how Savant has been able to grow and expand to create more value for our clients and our team. Every three to five years, I’ve said, “The business has changed and what it needs from me has evolved.” Since we’ve doubled, there are new capabilities that we need within the organization, and either nobody else has the expertise or I’m not comfortable hiring someone else to come in to fill that need.
This means I had to stop doing things that had made me successful, that I was good at, or comfortable with. I had to do something different—strengthen one of my skills that I might not have been very good at. But I learned new skills and became more specialized. Over time, if you fire yourself and rehire yourself (and this can be in the context of working for a company or in the context of your own business — it can also be in the context of running your personal life), if you’re willing to do that — fire yourself and rehire yourself — it puts your perspective in a place that’s better aligned with your interest and your skills sets. I really encourage you to say, “Where am I? Where have I been?” But as importantly if not more, “Where do I want to be three to five years from now? Where does my company, my career, my business, or my family need me to be three to five years from now to be successful?”
Getting my MBA was critically important; it served as a foundation. As you grow, there’s learning you can’t get from a textbook or a classroom. With that in mind, be open to lifelong learning – to continue sharpening the sword, if you will. For the first 25 years, I was laser-focused on learning all I could about my business. I’ve come to also realize it’s not limited to business. The question became: how can I learn outside of business?
In the pandemic, my wife and I became level-three sommeliers. You’re not going to see me pouring wine in a restaurant anytime soon, but it’s fun. It’s made me a more interesting person and given me something to talk to my team and my clients about, which helped business. And because I’m a more interesting person, it provides balance, which is so important in business and in life.
The Importance of Giving Back
It had been about 15 years since I received my MBA, and I hadn’t returned to campus or become involved with the university. One day I noticed that Professor Jensen, one of my finance professors, was doing some outreach where I live and I thought, “Wow! That’s the guy who helped me build the business plan I created and later used to build my company.” So, I went to that event and had a great chat with him. Professor Jensen said, “You know, you would be a great member of the Foundation Board. And also, would you speak to my class?” I did both of those things. That was about 10 years ago, and I’ve been involved ever since. At first glance, you can think of this as giving back, but here’s the secret. I assure you I’ve gotten back way more from my ongoing relationship with NIU than I’ve put into it. I can point to senior advisors at the firm who came to Savant because of our relationship. I’ve expanded my network and made new friends.
In conclusion, you’re at the point where the world is your oyster. You have a solid foundation. Remember to be deliberate about life and your career. Take smart risks. Mentor and be mentored. Fire yourself and rehire yourself on a regular basis. Commit to a lifetime of learning and giving back.
Congratulations, Class of 2021!