My Commencement Speech Advice for New Graduates

It’s graduation time!  Caps will soon be flying as a new crop of graduates join the work-a-day world. My youngest graduates from high school this year. Time for commencement speakers to encourage and offer advice for new graduates.

I remember a lawyer spoke at my graduation from law school. He told us that while we fantasized about the luxurious life of a lawyer, the truth is that we didn’t know how good we had it as students. We would soon be longing for those bygone days when we had no court deadlines, client demands, irritating opposing counsel, and judges overruling our objections.

My first day of starting work as a lawyer, a seasoned attorney expressed a similar sentiment. He said, “You guys have it made. This is the richest  you’ll ever be in your life. No mortgages, no wives, and no children.”

I haven’t been asked to speak to a graduating class, but if I ever am, I would try to pass along some tips for their first job, like this:

 1.  Ask questions.

Your boss will give you assignments and tasks. The instructions will not be clear.  My niece interned in my office. Her first day in the office, I was meeting with a client. I called my niece on the intercom and asked her to bring two coffees to my office. She told me later that she had never made coffee before and didn’t know how to work the coffee machine. Now she has a PhD.

When I clerked for the Public Defender in law school, I was sitting next to him at counsel’s table taking notes, when turned to me abruptly and whispered urgently in the middle of a trial and said, “Run back to the office and draft a motion to suppress evidence.” That was my first motion and I had no clue how to draft it. That’s something they don’t teach you in law school. I was saved by Marjorie, the long-time secretary, who calmly pulled up an old one on her word processor and changed the names. Find the “Marjorie” in your organization and make friends with them.

Tom was the draftsman assigned to me when I worked as a chemical engineer at P&G. I designed, on paper, a tank to hold Toluene, which is a flammable liquid chemical used in making soap. I used pressure, volume, humidity, and temperature in my equations to calculated the size of the tank needed. But it was Tom who told me about the quick-connect flanges that would help the truck drivers load the tank so they wouldn’t be cursing the engineers who designed it. They didn’t teach that in engineering school.

The guys at the P&G plant in Hamilton, Ontario, wanted an air pressure line to deliver a soap making slurry to them so they would not have to move it across the plant in wheelbarrows. I designed a system that would do the job theoretically according to my equations. But again, it was Tom, who pulled out the blueprints for the plant to make sure there was room for me to run the pipes.

2.  Make a To Do List Each Morning.

I had a great boss at P&G. He was a quintessential engineer. When he assigned a job to me, he would pull out a little blue-green sticky pad, and in a very log key, calm manner, make a neat numbered list of the tasks that needed to be completed.

If you’re good, you will soon find yourself overwhelmed with too much to do. I had a paralegal who was very good at her job. But she suffered because she always wanted to give everything 100%. Perfection became the enemy of results.

Don’t lose sight of the 80/20 rule. That is 80% of the value lies in 20% of the things. So if you have a list of 10 things to do today, and you accomplish the two most important tasks, you have finished 80% of your work. The rest is out-plant. Out-plant means try to delegate it to someone else.

3.  Attack Your Work. 

You can learn things from bad bosses. One of the meanest bosses I ever had taught me this. He would call me at home about a contract of tax issue I was working on. He didn’t just work, he attacked his work, with a vengeance until it was completely defeated. We all have those projects that we just don’t want to do.

Try this. I take the case file and put it in the center of my desk. I clean everything else off my desk. Then I sit on my hands and do nothing else for 20 minutes. At the end of the 20 minutes, I attack the file. It works for me.

4.  Get Your Points on the Scoreboard. 

I recommend you keep a log of the projects you work on and the completion dates. You can  turn the log into a memo at the end of each month to give to your boss as a “progress report.”  Your boss is usually not aware of everything you are doing. It is important that you not only score points, but that your points get on the scoreboard so everyone sees them.

5.  One Word.

My high school commencement speaker was Scott Zimmerman, a local disk jockey on the radio. Scott started his speech by saying he was going to give the graduates one word that would be the secret to success in whatever they wanted to accomplish. At the conclusion of the speech he said he would now reveal that one word. At his signal, two students unfurled a huge banner that had one word written across it.  That one word was “UGOTTAWANA”.