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Mendoza College of Business Graduate Commencement Address

General Motors Chairman and CEO Daniel Akerson's graduate commencement address to faculty and students

May 18, 2013

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Daniel F. Akerson, Chairman and CEO, General Motors Address to Mendoza Graduates

Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business

Commencement Address

Saturday, May 18, 2013

[Speaker’s Words are Definitive]

Thank you.

 

Dean (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.

 

As a graduate of Annapolis, I’ve always felt a special connection to Notre Dame because the two schools share so much history. 

 

The 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. 

 

That’s 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 very much.

 

I promise to use these few minutes wisely.

 

Let me start by congratulating everyone who put in the time, effort and resources to earn a degree from the Mendoza College of Business. 

 

This 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 word… leadership.

 

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 leadership. 

 

For 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 perspectives. 

 

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 example.  

 

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 world.

 

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 capital program.

 

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 particular. 

 

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.

 

Thank you.