Business lessons can be found in notable graduation speeches

By June 6, 2017 Blog No Comments

It’s graduation season, and with it comes the annual parade of commencement speakers. Some speeches are more entertaining than others, but there can be bits of wisdom throughout most addresses. Here’s a look at several recent speeches from notable names, and how those lessons can apply to business leaders.

Will Ferrell

The actor and comedian spoke to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, as reported by Time. Besides offering a brief rendition of the Dolly Parton classic “I Will Always Love You,” he touched on the fear that often lined his path to success:

“And yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech? But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?”

Business lesson: Facing fear is part of the process. Though there are plenty of success stories about conquering fears in business, some elements of it stick around for many. In a story for, Neil Patel writes, “Your fear should never erase your goals.”

“As real as fear is, your goals and dreams are just as real and just as big,” he explains. “Once you’ve accepted the fear will happen, have a plan for getting back up. Another business to start. Another objective to conquer. Another challenge to overcome. The minute you start doing something audacious again, those fears will come back. But by this time, you’ve learned the lesson that your fears aren’t worth being afraid of. And even if your worst fears come true, you always have goals to pursue.”


Pharrell Williams

The Grammy-winning rapper-singer-producer spoke to a graduating class at New York University, as reported by Time, and emphasized the importance of continued education.

“I am forever a student,” he said. “… I believe it is a trait we all share. Yet we live in a time when a great education is harder and harder to come by. But like anything in life, if there is enough demand, somebody will supply it. To the graduates, you might think your time in education is done, but after you leave here today, I am asking you to let your actions out there in the world … fuel the demand for better education. Engage and inspire — whether on an individual level or loudly within your communities. Talk about your accomplishments. Be humble, but not too humble. Don’t be invisible.”

Business lesson: Learning continues for us all. Continued education, whether it’s through academic degrees or specific job training, can be an enormous boost to anyone in business. Pat Wadors writes about the importance of being willing to learn in a story for Harvard Business Review, and how it also is crucial in finding the right people to hire.

“As a leader, when you’re hiring, look for lifelong learners,” he notes. “Look for talent who has demonstrated the ability to learn new skills to advance their career, which shows they have the ability to learn. It means they can learn new skills — which they will need to do continuously to be successful. If they can’t show their ability to learn something new, they may not have the interest or desire, which means they might have the relevant skills today but won’t be able to acquire the skills they need tomorrow to stay relevant.”


Kumail Nanjiani

The actor and comedian spoke to his alma mater, Grinnell College, in Iowa, as reported by The Huffington Post. Part of his speech tackled inclusiveness and diversity.

“We cannot expect others to understand our point of view if we don’t understand theirs,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable and awkward and infuriating and it hurts your brain, but with that pain can come growth and real change.”

Business lesson: There are benefits to creating an inclusive culture in business. In a story for Harvard Business Review, Boris Groysberg and Katherine Connolly interviewed 24 CEOs of companies “that had earned reputations for embracing people from all kinds of backgrounds.” The goal was “to understand not only why they had made diversity a strategic priority but also how they executed on their goals and what that meant to the organization and its practices.”

“The CEOs we spoke with did not see diversity as a once-and-done initiative, nor did they hand off the responsibility for it to others,” the authors write. “Rather, each of the 24, in his or her own way, approached inclusivity as a personal mission. When we asked these executives why advancing diversity in their organizations was so important to them, the aggregate answer was twofold: They believed it was a business imperative because their companies needed it to stay competitive, and they believed it was a moral imperative because of their personal experiences and values.”


Mark Zuckerberg

The Facebook founder returned to Harvard, where he became perhaps the university’s most famous dropout. Part of his speech focused on learning from career mistakes, as reported by CNBC.

“Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built,” he said. “I also built games, chat systems, study tools and music players. I’m not alone. J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times before publishing ‘Harry Potter.’ Even Beyoncé had to make hundreds of songs to get ‘Halo.’ The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.”

Business lesson: Mistakes are going to happen, but learning from them can put us on the path to success. Ron Burr examines the potential good that can come from failure in a story for Entrepreneur.

“Failure is very real, but it is not an end destination — it’s another event in the course of life,” he writes. “Experiencing one failure or 100 does not make you a failure. Failure is an external event that happens. It is not a personality characteristic. One who fails a lot, we could say, takes a lot of risks. It’s important to separate the events of failure from the personal characteristic of being a failure. Failure is an opportunity to learn.”


Octavia Spencer

The two-time Oscar winner spoke at Kent State University, as reported by Time. She emphasized following your passion and the importance of hard work.

“Define success and define your best years by every day that you work hard towards achieving your goals,” she said. “Your talent and efforts got you here today and that talent will continue to open doors for you. And luck will play its part, too. But a strong work ethic is vital, and it will get you farther than talent and luck ever could, trust me, I know. Little talent, lot of hard work. So keep moving forward. And don’t be frustrated when your path gets messy, because it will get messy. You’ll fall and you’ll fail along the way. Wildly. Embrace the mess. Say it with me, embrace the mess, as Nora Ephron used to say. Get ready for it. And don’t let the potential to fail stop you from moving forward.”

Business lesson: Dedication and drive will always be essential. Having a real commitment to the work itself goes a long way to establishing trust with supervisors and peers. In a story for, Erin Schreiner discusses how this can lead to an increased workload, but also an increased payoff.

“Those with a good work ethic are dedicated to their jobs and will do anything they can to ensure that they perform well,” Schreiner says. “Often this dedication leads them to change jobs less frequently, as they become committed to the positions in which they work and are not eager to abandon these posts. They also often put in extra hours beyond what is expected, making it easy for their employers to see that they are workers who go beyond the rest of the workforce and truly dedicate themselves to their positions.”

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