Spring Conferrings 2009
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 27 Márta 2009
Mr Martin Cronin, Chief Executive, ForfásIt is a pleasure and an honour to be here in one of Ireland’s leading universities to address a group of people who will play a huge role in building this country’s future.
The first thing I want to say to you is well done and congratulations on your achievement in earning these advanced qualifications.
This is a great demonstration of how focus, commitment and hard work can achieve things of great value that will stand to you for the rest of your life.
Being the age I am, I am conscious of the support you will have received from your families along the way. When I graduated, I had no idea that I was in the lucky 10% of kids who got to university back then. I was unaware that the fees were a substantial sum for my parents to find, and one of my most embarrassing memories is of taking a cheque from my Father for my fees with barely a word of thanks – so do make sure you show your parents that you appreciate what they have done for you.
I am conscious that you are graduating at a time of national and international economic gloom, so it may seem strange to you when I say that you will encounter exciting opportunities on an unprecedented scale during your working lives. Economic cycles come and go at random intervals, I have lived through several of them at this stage, but the onward march of human knowledge and technology will not only continue, but will continue to accelerate.
Consider how much has changed during my working life….
I graduated in 1971. That was the year of the first pocket calculator, the first microprocessor and the first CAT scanner. We thought we were really cool! We had no idea how many more amazing advances would come about during our working lives, and the range of opportunities that would open up for us in Ireland and around the world.
The social changes have been as radical as the technological ones. In 1971 it was a big deal if you did not go to mass on Sunday or if you had a child out of wedlock, but if you succeeded in cheating the taxman it was no big deal. Society takes an opposite view today on all these counts.
Change has been equally dramatic on the world stage. In 1971 China was admitted to the UN, the US supreme court upheld the bussing of school children from low income areas to prosperous areas, Switzerland granted women the right to vote - in most if not all cantonal elections, Greenpeace was formed, Disneyland opened in Florida, Qatar and Sierra Leone gained independence from Great Britain.
Over your working life you will have to navigate your way through a world where many of the things you take for granted today, and regard as certainties, some of them things you currently rely on to form judgements and make decisions, will change out of all recognition.
However, many things will not change, because human nature does not change, and many of the events of 1971 have parallels in recent events.
- Military events such as the invasion of Laos from South Vietnam
- Social change such as a new immigration bill enacted in the UK in response to public concern about immigration which restricted access from commonwealth countries
- Heroic events such as the Apollo 14 astronauts reaching the moon, undeterred by the near disaster of Apollo 13.
- Vested interest events such as the protesting Belgian farmers who brought 3 live cows to crash an EU meeting in Brussels
- Demonstrations of human solidarity such as the 40,000 people who attended a concert for newly independent Bangladesh whose new government had been forced to flee to India.
Understanding the things that don’t change, and having a moral compass that enables you to respond appropriately to what is changing is, in my experience, a key ingredient of achieving fulfilment in life.
I recall hearing Dan Kehoe, an Irish American now in his 70’s who used to run Coca Cola, describe how they used to run the company with the clear objective of building long term shareholder value; and how they would not even speak to the Wall Street analysts. Over the years, they were pressured to engage with the analysts and move towards a focus on the next quarters results. A step backwards in his view because their ability to take decisions with short term costs which may have been in the long term interest of the firm was weakened.
I remember meeting the top team in IBM at the height of the Dotcom bubble. Dotcom shares were soaring in value, while IBM’s shares were languishing. I asked had they considered getting into the dotcom business. They looked very uncomfortable, but their response was that they just could not see value in the dotcom business. It was a great example of keeping your bearings and sticking to your values in the face of huge pressure from stakeholders and others caught up in the latest fad or hungry for short term advantage.
I therefore believe that it is best to prioritise your own goals for long term personal fulfilment and avoid being diverted by opportunities for short term personal gain. It will stand to you in the long run.
One of life’s many paradoxes is that the achievement of a major goal often marks the start of a new challenge.
I started school in a class called low babies. When I graduated to high babies I felt really sophisticated. It was a short lived feeling, as on reaching first class, I realised how babyish the high babies were.
As I moved on to each stage there was this mix of satisfaction at my achievements followed by a realisation of how much I had yet to accomplish.
You will realise when you take up your career that you have a lot to learn. I was fortunate to get to know a man whose father was a coal miner in Philadelphia, who had to fund his own college education and who came to run an organisation of more than 200,000 people before he retired. He recently advised graduates in DCU at a commencement address to spend more time listening than talking because he doesn’t remember ever learning anything while he was talking.
Another key factor in doing well at whatever you do will be your attitude.
I met a senior manager once from a firm that had made many successful acquisitions. Acquisitions that look good on paper often fail because of differences in organisation culture between the acquiring firm and the firm being acquired, and the literature indicates that it takes of the order of 10 years to substantially change the culture of a firm.
I asked this man what was the secret of their success. He said “when you go into a newly acquired firm, you will meet 2 kinds of people. One group will have the attitude “who’s this guy, and why should I listen to him”, and the attitude of the other group will be “here’s our new boss, I wonder what can I do for him. It’s important to fire the first group immediately”.
In short, the attitude you take to whatever you do will be hugely important, and for that reason, it is also important in my view to do something that you enjoy. I changed jobs every two years or so until I found one that I enjoyed – it was my fifth job.
One of the most impressive speeches I ever heard was given by a man who set out to become a concert pianist because music was his first love.
He noticed that many other students were better pianists than he, so he gave up the music and went into business. By the time he was 50 years old he had made a lot of money, and he still loved music, so he decided to go back to being a concert pianist. At the time I heard him speak, he was in his ‘70’s, and was recording chart topping classical CD’s. His message was, don’t ask the teachers what your child is best at: ask what they like best, because if they take that up they will do really well.
Finally, don’t be overwhelmed by all the economic gloom in Ireland at the moment. We achieved a superb period of export led growth in the 1990’s which brought us a diverse, modern, sophisticated enterprise base, and we have one of the best demographic profiles in Europe.
What is ebbing away today is the unsustainable growth of more recent years which was driven by unrealistically low interest rates and unrealistically high asset prices, particularly property prices. We still retain our modern enterprise base. It continues to evolve with more R&D and more traded high value services and it has the capacity to drive future growth if we keep our heads and pull together through this downturn.
There will be lots of opportunity for people like you to take this country forward to heights it has never scaled before. I know you can do it and I wish you the best of success in every aspect of your lives.