An Open Letter to the Class of 2015

Last weekend, I heard two very good commencement speeches at my son’s graduation from Boston University. The first was from A&E CEO Nancy Dubuc and the second was from television journalist Meredith Viera. What would I have said if I were in their place?

Graduates of the class of 2015,

At thousands of colleges and universities today, graduates are hearing advice designed to help them succeed in their lives and careers. You should focus on work you love, not just on work that will make you the most money. You should recognize that failure is a key step on the road to success. You should believe in yourself and your own ideas, and not let the opinions of others drive your beliefs.

It’s all great advice, and it’s all true.

And, I want to share with you another critical factor, not only for your success but for your happiness as well.

If you assessed the advertising skills of people working in an advertising agency, the people at the top of the organization might not have the best skills.

In an IT services firm, the best technical skills won’t be found at the top of the company.

Consider any department of any major corporation. The department head won’t have better technical skills than many of his direct reports.

I have met thousands of executives in many hundreds of companies, and I have seen, unequivocally, that technical skills are rarely the reason people make it to the top.

And, I have also seen that the people at the top usually deserve to be there.

So what is it that helps these people rise to the top, if it is not their technical job skills?

During one consulting project, I met a young executive who had climbed to the top ranks of his company at a much earlier age than any of the company’s other executives. As I got to know him, the reason for his success became clear; he had the broadest, strongest set of relationships throughout the company of any of his colleagues. It was as if all of these connections buoyed him, lifting him up from one promotion to the next.

I once advised a company that has 100 dental offices around the country and employs about 300 dentists. One dentist, Dr. Joti Johal, consistently had the highest revenue production of any dentist in the company. I asked Dr. Johal’s office manager what her secret was, and she immediately responded: “When Dr. Johal speaks with a patient, the patient can tell that they are the most important person in the doctor’s life at that moment. She is completely focused on them, and nothing else matters.”

Is Dr. Johal a better dentist than her colleagues?  I don’t know, and I guarantee that her patients don’t know if she is a more technically proficient dentist than any other dentist they have ever met. What her patients are able to notice and understand is her ability to have a one-to-one human connection with them. Her patients don’t feel like she is working on them, they feel like she is working with them. They feel they have a relationship with her.

We humans are collaborative, social animals. Our ability to work together has driven our success as a species. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t able to slay mastodons because of sheer brute strength. Their success depended on their abilities to coordinate their efforts, to work together and to help each other.  The same holds true for you. Your success depends on your ability to collaborate and build relationships with the people in your work life.

So as you start your career, you certainly need to use all of the skills you gained as you earned your degree.  But don’t ignore the skills you honed outside of class, while you were hanging out with your friends, or while you were meeting new people. Your ability to create strong relationships with the people is the ability that will likely have the biggest effect on your success.

Leave A Reply