2019 Carlson School Commencement Keynote Speech – Jim Weber


– Dean, Vice Provost
McMaster, Regent Simonson, members of the faculty and administration, families and friends, and most importantly, you, the graduates, thank you for allowing me to
participate in your great day. What an honor to be back
on campus to celebrate your commencement and
Carlson’s 100th year. As you will learn in the years ahead, returning to campus is going to bring back a flood of memories. 37 years ago, I sat
right where you are now, and I can say that Carlson school truly was a launch pad for me. Back in 1979, I joined Sigma Nu fraternity literally just down the road, and I was elected chapter chair. It was really a first
business turnaround for us as we grew membership from
40 to some 80 members. We had fun fixing up the house and creating great experiences, and I remember well hiking to class on those cold winter days, finding every tunnel you could
before you hit the bridge, the Washington Avenue Bridge
over the Mississippi River. That bridge box felt like a freezer. I think it was colder inside than outside. But today, Carlson’s 100th
Commencement is indeed about celebrating your moment. You made a key life decision when you enrolled at the U of M. After many years of
work, focus, and effort, and in many cases, with the support of your
friends and families here today, you find yourself closing this chapter, turning the page to the
next chapter in your life, and that’s exciting. When I look back at my graduation moments, I distinctly remember the ceremony and holding that diploma in my hand. It was well-earned and paid
for with 7% student loans. But I must say, I don’t recall a riveting
commencement speech. Not a word. I have to come completely
clean with you all, I’ve never done one of these before. But nevertheless, I am determined today to honor the moment you have. So my goal is to share what
it means to me to be a leader and more specifically, to
be an authentic leader. For me, it distills down to three things. Focus, curiosity, and trust. Today, I want to challenge you
to become an authentic leader because I believe the world
needs them now more than ever. It’s relevant for all, whether
you’re an entrepreneur, a team leader, heading a non-profit or a community organization, a CEO, or a CEO of your own household. How you behave and play your role impacts your team that you lead every day. And, of course, it’s ultimately going
to impact your success. My personal leadership
journey has introduced to me many, many people who are
so good at what they do. These seemingly natural
and authentic leaders fascinate and impress me. I’ll admit, I’ve been a shameless thief of their wisdom all along the way, from the highly talented
Pillsbury executive, Jerry Levin, who I worked for for 10 years, I witnessed his quick, conceptual brain, his strategic clarity on things, and his calm-under-pressure
management with people, just the way he dealt with people. To then the oracle, Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire
Hathaway, who so impressed me. He has a genius business mind but this immense capacity for people. Immense capacity, very generous. With Warren, the opportunity
for me to work with him on one hand seemed destined to be, but on the other hand, an
opportunity almost lost. So I’m going to share my
Warren story with you. It began in 1985 when I came across Warren
Buffett’s annual letters, and I became a voracious
reader of them every year. And I went to school on
how he looked at brands and how he looked at businesses. It was just, he thought differently. Fast forward to 2012, when
I was now CEO of Brooks, and we were on our third
owner since I’d been there. And it was Fruit of the Loom, which was a Berkshire-Hathaway company. On Monday, January 2nd, at seven a.m., I returned for my desk
from a family holiday trip, ready to kick off the new year. While out, I’d been checking
my email but not my voicemail. That was actually a big mistake. It was about the time voicemail was going back in the rearview mirror. But that Monday, I got to my desk, and the red light on
my phone was blinking. And it was a voicemail
from Warren Buffett. “Jim, I’ve got an idea. “Call me when you can.” Well, my heart sank because
I had just left a voicemail sit in my inbox for five
days from Warren Buffett. Ugh, this was not good! I captured myself. I picked up the phone, called the number, and he instantly answered, “Hello.” And again, I stopped. Warren Buffett answers his own phone! He answers his own phone! So he went on, “Jim, I’ve been thinking. “Brooks is doing well. “I’m going to spin you
out of Fruit of the Loom “and set you up as a standalone
Berkshire subsidiary.” And, being thoughtful, I
said, “You know Warren, “I think that’s a great idea. “I think that would work well.” So on we went, and I told him that he’d been mentoring me from afar for 25 years and it really felt like destiny to me. To work with Warren at
that point in my career, in my leadership journey,
was perfect timing. He exemplifies, to me, authentic
leadership in so many ways and really reinforced
what I was focused on. And as I mentioned, authentic leadership, I think is synthesized
into these three key areas, focus, curiosity, and trust. So I’m going to start with focus. It was here at Carlson
where I would be introduced to the importance of focus. The highlight came in
the last quarter of 1982, in the Management 5101 advanced
topics course on leadership. It featured different CEOs
from the best companies in Minnesota at that time. It included 3M, Target, Cray Research, Marvin Windows and others, and the course was taught
by Wheelock Whitney. Wheelock was the former
CEO of Dain Bosworth, now RBC Wealth Management, and had actually run for
governor in Minnesota. So Wheelock was super
smart and insightful, but he was oh so human. His manner was gracious, generous, unpretentious, and inclusive. As students, we were invited to his home. He played guitar and sang
songs around the campfire. He was the closest thing I’d seen to a Renaissance man at
that point in my life, and I’ll never forget his
closing speech on the course. In the end, he made it clear
that to be an effective leader, you’ve got to have good judgment because you’ve got to
create clarity of focus on mission and strategy for your team, or you’re going to risk
that they won’t follow you. And I took that insight
with me everywhere I went from that day forward. In fact, I used it in my
first big job interview with my boss-to-be. He asked me that big question point-blank, “Why should I hire you?” Literally like that. And I quickly responded, “You should hire me because
I have good judgment.” And it worked! I got hired! And later, when I took the
helm of Brooks Running in 2001, I found a leadership truth that, for me, was just foundational. It was Benjamin Disraeli, and
I put this on my whiteboard. “The secret to success
is constancy of purpose.” I believe it’s just a truth, and it’s still on my whiteboard today. “The secret to success
is constancy of purpose.” My business experience to that point had led me to the conviction that purpose with sustained
focus wins the game. But what was Brooks’ focus? Back then, we were a small, broad-lined, athletic footwear and
apparel company competing with all the brands you all know well. And we were trying to be
everything to everyone and hence, were really
meaningful to no one. So with loads of debt,
bankruptcy was around the corner if we couldn’t find a
focus that we could win at. So we made the judgment
that Brooks would focus on building a brand with
runners and go all-in with them. We burned the boats on everything else, on basketball, family
footwear, tennis shoes. Only running. And against some of the best
brands in the consumer world, we planted our flag on a singular purpose, to inspire everyone to run and be active, and it was a unique position then that I thought could save the company but also had a chance to
stand the test of time. And now, 18 years later,
we’re a leading brand in the performance running category and having lots of fun building
a brand and growing it. So I think focus is key
for authentic leadership. Focus with good judgment. The second attribute I think is key to authentic leadership is curiosity. And for me, curiosity
is about solving puzzles in a constantly changing world. To avoid being a one-hit wonder, you’ve got to develop a
great radar as a leader and then be willing to recalibrate because nothing ever stays
the same for very long. A curious attitude often reflects humility of your understanding
of the world around you. Early in my career at Pillsbury, I had one of those humility moments. I was a junior analyst
and had the opportunity to present to the executive committee strategic analyses and
competitive company profiles. Being in the restaurant business at the time with Burger King, the committee was always looking at innovative, new concepts, and so I was often pitching
these ideas to the top execs, including the CEO, the CFO,
and all of the business heads. This time, it was a profile of
a hot, new restaurant concept with three stores in
Dallas called Chili’s. Having never eaten at a
Mexican food restaurant, as I couldn’t find any in
the Twin Cities back then, I intensively researched the company. All pre-internet, if you can imagine. And I went on to describe Chili’s on acetates and an overhead projector. You’ve got to visualize
pre-PowerPoint on this. So I explained that Chili’s
success was being driven by this hot, new menu item,
this thing called a fajeeta. And I was pitching this
innovation with enthusiasm as these fajeetas were selling like crazy, driving premium margins, revenue growth, and I was selling it. Well, the room started
to chuckle and laugh and finally, Jeff Campbell,
the head of restaurants said, “Weber, you need to
get out a little more.” I also should have taken
Spanish language class and learned how to pronounce fajita. But I powered through the
rest of my presentation, and the lesson learned was to forge ahead but with humble curiosity. Solving for customer needs
takes an intense curiosity. And it’s crucial to what I’ve come to call competitive strategy. And my first experience
with that concept was here at Carlson in one of our
many case-centric courses. It was in Professor Gometz’s Management 3004 public policy class. And it was a strategy case
in this mature industry with a brand new entrance,
a small David brand, who had caught the market leader, the Goliath brand, sleeping. And the small insurgent
brand rocked the industry with product innovation
that captured a major share of customers in the market place. That looked like so much fun to me. Literally, I said, “I want to do that.” That just looked like such fun. So many today call that
disrupting a category. But that’s really, when you
think about it, just an outcome. It’s actually about solving for customers’ wants and
needs better than anyone else, and you can only do that by being curious. You can only do it by being curious. By learning faster, executing
boldly against insights, David can beat Goliath. So at Brooks we think we’re
creating brand affinity in the minds of customers every day, and I think a huge part of our success is actually a curious mindset. I’m most proud of our
recent strategy reset to navigate the absolute revolution in consumer behavior and
retail this last five years. Our revenue stalled in
2015 and the radars we used for reading market trends
were no longer working. We went into a learning mode
and we began the process of reevaluating all of our assumptions on the market, the consumer,
the industry, our competitors. We then made choices and
committed to boldly execute on behalf of the customer. And it worked! Our success was earned in 2018. We were up 26% and attracted nearly two million
new runners to our brand. At Berkshire Hathaway, Warren’s partner, vice chairman Charlie Munger, reminds us regularly to avoid the ABCs, arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency. Others with capital and brains
are always going to be trying to breach your moat and
take away your customers. And so staying humble, remaining curious, avoiding complacency is essential, especially following great success. A final point on staying curious. Reevaluating and
recalibrating doesn’t mean you lose sight of your
constancy of purpose. This truth really was
captured best by, I think, one of our greatest leaders
of all time, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “In matters of
style, swim with the current. “In matters of principle,
stand like a rock.” I think that’s powerful,
but it’s also, I think, one of the hardest things to do in the fog of competitive disruption to discern where to bend
with industry trends and where to stand anchored
in your brand principles. These are good judgment-required puzzles that you’ve got to solve
where your curiosity has got to be integrated with
this constancy of purpose. These calls require courage, but I can vouch that at Brooks, those calls have been moments where we have really created
a foundation for our brand. They’ve been brand-defining
moments for us, and we’ve worked with them that way. So the third attribute that I want to tie to authentic leadership is trust. Life in business is absolutely
still all about people. Happiness and fulfillment in
your life is going to come from your relationships with
the people that matter to you. For me, it’s my wife,
my kids, my grandkids. It’s my family and close friends and my teammates at Brooks with whom I share our
brand-building journey. However, I didn’t start out
with all of this wisdom. Early in my career, I was pretty wonky and intensely searching
for the right answers, and for me, that usually
meant looking at the numbers, definitely more IQ than EQ. In hindsight, how I won
over my wife, Mary Ellen, is still a bit of a mystery to me. We dated through our years here at the U. She’s a gopher, too, and given my lack of
emotional intelligence, I can only credit her with having tremendous
vision and patience. And she’s here today, so
thank you, Mary Ellen. Upon graduation, I got an offer from Norwest Bank Minneapolis
in John Lindahl’s group and embarked on a path to
become a commercial banker. And at the bank, analyzing business strategies
and financial statements, led me to a key insight that human behavior was seemingly behind every number and everything in business. It’s one thing, as you now have all done, to look at an income statement, but when you look through it, you can see that revenue actually reflects
customer’s buying behaviors. And when you look at gross margin and through that, it’s reflecting what customers are actually
paying for products and what prices they’re willing to spend. Likewise, a negotiation isn’t
just winning or win-win, it’s actually relationship-building plus persuasion skills
and a poker game attached. And even great algorithms
often simply mimic or predict human behavior at scale. So in the end, even banking required creating relationships with people and that meant generating trust. It all came back to trust. I went on to develop
conviction that brands, and I was in the branded
consumer business, are built over decades on a foundation of trust and shared values
with their customers. At Brooks, we aspire to
be a trustable brand. It starts with a product experience, but it goes much deeper. We’re a purpose-driven
brand around the fact that a run will make your day better. You get out and move in the morning, it’s going to make your day better. We compete with our culture and values, and we think if we can express them consistently in everything we do, over time Brooks will resonate
with like-minded people. They’ll trust us
rationally and emotionally. So I want to challenge you to think about yourself as an authentic leader. It’s a white space out there
that is absolutely fillable. Over the last 30 years,
I’ve watched so many of our leaders, institutions, businesses, governments, religious organizations, all suffer from a loss of trust. The stories are sadly all too common and current examples
today of respected brands where trust has been compromised unfortunately include
Facebook and Wells Fargo. It’s a time of increasing
transparency and scrutiny. People are looking for who they can trust and part of being trusted is embracing diversity and inclusion. Not only is it fair and respectful, but it makes for stronger teams. I think most businesses are focused on it, especially in the consumer world. I don’t know a brand that can
afford to lose one customer. But I think, also, you need
to mirror, as an organization, the diversity of your customer base because if you don’t, over time, you’re going to miss the mark
and lose trust again that way. We feel fortunate at Brooks because running is one
of the most approachable and inclusive sports the
world has ever known. It welcomes all ages,
backgrounds, abilities. All you have to do to belong is run. And I’m a little older now, so I think walking counts as slow running. Everybody’s in. So as you walk or run today and hold that diploma in your hand, you have an incredible opportunity to become an authentic leader,
to become your best self. Find your focus. Use good judgment to
identify your purpose. Ideally, it’s going to be one
that reflects your superpowers and something that gives you energy. Second, stay curious. Be a learner, not a knower. Be open to recalibrating your radar, stay humble, and avoid complacency. Finally, be trustable to
the people on your team, as well as the stakeholders who
matter to your organization. Your behavior is your
most valuable currency. In the end, you’ll be authentic
to yourself and to others. And that will be a leadership uniform that will always fit you well. So congratulations again
on your achievement and Godspeed to you all. Thank you. (audience applauds)

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