‘Make Time to Help Others’
Thank you, President Chrite and Chair Condrin, for that warm and kind introduction. And thank you to all of the members of the Bentley community for this terrific honor. I am grateful, and humbled, by this recognition. But the true purpose of this day is about celebrating you, the class assembled in front of me right now, for reaching this milestone. It is indeed a privilege to participate in your celebration, and to be able to share a few thoughts with all of you.
So rather than riff on your future responsibilities as titans of industry, or urge you to “follow your dreams”— news flash: you’re probably not going to be a professional basketball player anytime soon — I thought I would share with you six specific principles that I’ve come to appreciate in my professional and personal life, with a few stories that help make them real. And hey, props to you and me if you can remember them all by the end!
Principle #1: “Speed wins”
“Speed wins” is a business principle that has served me very well over the years. And to be clear, I’m not referring to fast cars or any illicit drug use that may or may not have occurred in my youth but rather the constant goal to turn a business idea, a thesis, a project, into an outcome as soon as possible. Whether you succeed or fail, how … quickly … can … you … learn? The faster you learn, the more shots at winning you get.
I’ll share an early Tripadvisor story to illustrate my point: After about a year and a half of building Tripadvisor, we finally had our first major distributor and we were expecting our first big check — maybe as much as $200,000. And look, when you are a startup, and you land your first big client, it’s a BIG deal.
What we got was a check for $500. Ugh. Not $200,000 but $500. Seems we massively overestimated our partners’ distribution capabilities. At any rate, our dreams of glory went poof, and our bank account said we had six months of runway left. In other words, we were about to go out of business.
What to do? I gathered our small team; we didn’t have time for a big plan, we had to get moving. We came up with a handful of ideas, argued about them and then ranked them as to which ones were most likely to succeed. But I credit our eventual success not to brilliant ideas or smart prioritization, but rather getting a bunch of totally different projects out the door in record time. The project that we ranked first — creating a listings business — that was our best idea; and it failed. The one that we ranked second, a direct marketing play, that failed as well. The ones that we ranked third, and fourth and fifth, you know where this is going: They also failed. The sixth one, generating leads for hotel reservations — that one worked, and it worked really well before we ran out of money.
The lesson that I want to impart: If we hadn’t focused on going quickly, the company wouldn’t have made it. The faster you go, the more chances you get to win.
I scribbled the phrase “Speed wins” on a piece of paper, and taped it to the door of my office at Tripadvisor, where it remained for 22 years. Everyone who came into my office would see my focus on speed. And I would share with everyone that going fast doesn’t mean producing junk; it means that we can learn more, and therefore help our customers more, if we can deliver faster.
Principle #2: “If it is worth doing, it is worth measuring”
This phrase was literally the other sign on the door of my office, and it also relates to this theme of constantly learning. It's not an original phrase, I can assure you, but it refers to the concept of figuring out what success looks like, and then taking the time to understand how you are going to measure it. The beauty of this process, of course, is that when you are constantly measuring, you can be constantly learning what to do better. The fun thing is that it can be equally applied to business situations, as well as to your personal life. Always wanted to learn how to play the guitar? Decide if you want to do it, and then ask: How are you going to measure your success? Hours per week practicing? Play three songs out of the songbook by the end of the month? Whatever it is, you have a goal, and you can measure how you are doing. On track? Keep going. Not working well? Change things up.
Principle #3: “Embrace change”
Ben Franklin is known for saying, “The only things that are certain in life are death and taxes.” I’d like to add the word “change” to that list. But with an important difference: Nobody wants to embrace death or taxes, but I’m standing here today encouraging you to embrace change. Look, it’s going to happen to you, like it or not. So the question I put forth is, why not reframe the change that is happening to you as an opportunity? Whether you initially think the change is good or bad, reframe it as an opportunity waiting for you to embrace it.
Here’s my story on embracing change: A good friend of mine was constantly complaining about work. He liked the company, but his boss wasn’t supportive, didn’t provide clear direction, micromanaged too often and, to my ears, probably should never have been put in management. At any rate, over our next coffee, my friend shares that he’s really worried about his job, because his boss is leaving and a new boss starts in two weeks. He’s talking about updating his resume and leaving the company. I point out how this is actually awesome news — and he just stares at me: “No,” he said, “you don’t understand, my old boss might have been lousy, but who knows what’s going to happen now?”
Let’s look at this situation from an embracing change perspective: He didn’t like the old boss, and now his wish has come true and he gets a fresh start. Yes, there is risk with a new boss, but there is also a real opportunity to excel. To exceed expectations, and to potentially have a great mentor who can help propel your career. The facts are the same, it is just the attitude of my friend that tells the story. Do you embrace change and try to make the most of it, or do you worry and complain? In this case, he gave his new boss a try, and it worked out well.
Let’s make this relevant to maybe a lot of people here today: Anyone thinking about whether Generative AI — and ChatGPT in particular — is a threat to your current or future job? Is it something to worry about?
Or, are you excited about how much more productive you can be leveraging this new technology. And then ask yourself... have you tried it yet? Have you embraced this change, or waiting, or just worried. Why not embrace and discover how awesome this could be for you, even if there are parts you might also have concerns about.
I have to share one more story about embracing change. This one is not about a job or technology change, but pivoting an entire company. About 10 years ago, I needed everyone at Tripadvisor to recognize that the company had to change. Not because we were financially threatened, in fact far from it: we were wonderfully profitable, but I believed our core revenue stream would be challenged in the future. I had to introduce the need to change, while the proverbial house was NOT on fire. So at the next all-hands company meeting, I launched into a speech about how competition was heating up, and we needed to change our business, etc., etc. I made several key points of how we planned to do this, and then I put up a slide showing just a picture of a crying baby. Not a cartoon, but a huge picture of a real baby in a diaper, who looked miserable. I could tell employees were confused. They were thinking, “What does this crying baby have to do with the change Steve is talking about?” Well, you are a smart crowd, and can probably guess where I was headed. I resumed the speech, I finished my rational explanation about why we needed to change, and then simply pointed to the slide and said: “And as we all know, the only person that likes change, is a wet baby.”
I’m not saying you will or should always like change, just suggesting that you embrace it and make the most of it.
Principle #4: “Don’t be afraid of hard work”
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” My favorite variation of this quote comes from Gary Player, the pro golfer, who responded to a fan exclaiming what a lucky shot he had just made, with the line: “The funny thing is that the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
I truly believe this principle about working hard is applicable to everything we do. In our professional careers it is pretty obvious: If you are 10% more focused during the day than average, and you work 10% longer, the math says you are 20-plus % more productive each week. That’s huge. Learning 20% more than the person sitting next to you, compounded week over week, year over year. Think about that, let that sink in … and then let me suggest it is an equally applicable principle for your personal life.
Take 10% more time to build relationships that are strong; take 10% more time to do fun things with family and friends. Maybe spend less time scrolling on Instagram or TikTok, or watching TV. We all do it, but these activities aren’t building something. They aren’t building your career, your relationships with others, your knowledge base, your reputation, your experience or insight or creativity … you aren’t learning anything new.
What I can promise you is that looking back, you’ll value your friendships, your relationships, the shared experiences with friends and family, and you actually won’t remember that hilarious TikTok or that captivating TV show.
Principle #5: “Own your own integrity”
This one is both professional and very personal. As the saying goes, the one thing you can’t buy is your reputation. Warren Buffett, in his most recent shareholder letter, said that you should write your own obituary, and then figure out how to live up to it. I know the quote didn’t originate with him, but it’s great to hear it coming from a business legend. Buffet also said, “Look for three things in a person: intelligence, energy and integrity. If they don’t have the last one — integrity — don’t even bother looking for the first two.” And again, I couldn’t agree more. No matter what you do, no matter the struggles you encounter, your integrity, your reputation, and whatever else you want written on your tombstone … let those be the guideposts for your life.
Principle #6: “Pay it forward — you’ll find it very rewarding.”
I get it, we’re all busy. We’re working hard. Lots of demands on our time, yet, we have a lot of time. A month has 730 hours in it. How you choose to spend each of those hours is a choice. I’m suggesting that if you spend a few of those hours helping others, you will be doing a good thing to help heal our world, and your life will be richer for the effort. Volunteer for a cause, be a mentor, help someone less fortunate than yourself — whatever you might choose to do, I predict you will find it quite rewarding. It doesn’t have to be a big thing or a huge time commitment, but I believe in the biblical proverb that states, “Give freely and become more wealthy.”
#1: “Speed Wins” — The faster you go, the more chances you get to succeed.
#2: “If it is worth doing, it is worth measuring” — Know what the goal is, and measure your progress so you can achieve it.
#3: “Embrace Change” — When change happens, try to leverage the opportunity to your advantage.
#4: “Don’t be afraid of hard work” — Working hard on professional and personal goals is a great investment; nobody ever looked back on their life and said they wished they had watched more TV.
#5: “Own your Integrity” — You control your reputation; live by the rules you believe in.
#6: “Pay it forward, you’ll find it very rewarding” — Make time to help others, and everyone benefits.
Thank you again for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you, and thank you to ChatGPT for making me a better commencement speaker. And once again, congratulations to all of you graduating today. I wish you all tremendous success in your personal and professional lives, and then I ask you to remember to pay it forward.