As spring turns to summer, college students turn to graduation, the ritual celebration that signals the end of formal university education and the beginning of a professional career. A key aspect of this ceremony dating back to the Middle Ages is the commencement address.
The speeches themselves are often examples of memorable oratory. I’m thinking in particular of Winston Churchill’s address to Harrow School in 1941 (“we have only to persevere to conquer”) or Martin Luther King’s Springfield College address in 1964 (“No nation can live alone. No individual can live alone. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”)
My working assumption is that emulating the commencement address in person and in the office as newbies arrive could be rather a good model for leaders who want to recruit and retain talent. According to data from consulting firm Mercer, annual turnover rates are rising to nearly 25 percent in the U.S. across businesses. So, something needs to change there.
I view the commencement speech — whether valedictory in educational terms or welcoming in corporate terms — as a key cultural moment. As Kevin Ellis, PwC’s UK and Middle East chairman, told me, “The only long-term advantage of any business is its culture.” The new recruits are increasingly not all graduates, by the way — PwC dropped its stipulation that they would only employ graduates in certain roles in 2022 in a bid to boost diversity — but the principle applies irrespective of who is “commencing” the work.
Work itself features often in great commencement speeches. King invoked it several times as he exhorted his audience to push for social change. Perhaps most famous in this genre was Steve Jobs (himself a college dropout), who in 2005 told his audience at Stanford University that “the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” And in Michelle Obama’s 2016 commencement speech as first lady, she cited how her father’s “blue-collar job helped to pay the small portion of my college tuition that wasn’t covered by loans or grants or my work-study or my summer jobs.”
The value of an inspiring, well-delivered commencement speech — and lucky Harvard University, which has bagged the actor Tom Hanks as its principal speaker this year — is to set out values themselves. This is both a challenge and tremendous opportunity for corporate leaders. The challenge is partly one of oratory itself. Let’s face it, not everyone can be media trained to perfection or has natural public speaking abilities. So, don’t be afraid to invite someone who is able to be the best messenger, and let that person make commencement memorable at companies, too.
This challenge in itself can create an opportunity, especially as leaders continue to be vexed by the best way to bring people more into their office buildings. It’s not limited to speeches, either. Why not see the initiation of new recruits into your workplace as an initiation ceremony every bit as vital and memorable as a college commencement itself?
Remember the commencement ceremony is just that: a ceremony. It can become a way to introduce alumni, to unveil the team, to launch a whole series of initiatives which also build trust, camaraderie and networks — the all-important cultural glue of any organization.
The human resources and people management industry is full of ideas for addressing the “recognition revolution” wrought by hybrid working — a way to keep the peace with restless teams as the balance of power swings somewhat in favor of employees in tight labor markets. This both maximizes recruitment and retention potential but has another benefit. In doing what McKinsey calls “continuous listening,” a new set of signals is being sent to employees: that they matter.
Don’t worry about convention. It’s better to design your own, integrating the corporate culture and location of the business as universities often do.
Let leaders use commencement ceremonies to introduce new workers as triumphant standard bearers for the next generation of corporate life. Let them enjoy a commencement ceremony, too: not to mark the end of an era, but the beginning of one.