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Daniel Vasella | April 11, 2005

Daniel Vasella, Chairman and CEO, Novartis AG. Photograph: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Vasella, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, delivered the Graduation Day Speech for the Class of 2005 at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad on April 2.

He gives wise tips to the graduates to help them become great managers and better human beings.

We reproduce his speech here:


Dean Mendu Rammohan Rao, Dear Faculty and dear Graduates, Family Members and Guests,

I feel deeply honoured to be here today with you celebrating first and foremost you the students and your terrific accomplishments.

You are the living proof of the success of this school, which a few years ago still was just a vision and today is not only a reality, but a tremendous success.

When Rajat Gupta, the chairman of ISB's Governing Board, asked me if Novartis would provide some financial support to build this school there was no way I could be sure that it would be a successful undertaking, but I trusted Rajat, his competence, his determination and his luck.

My instincts were right.

Many people have made this school what it is today and you all should be proud of what the India School of Business has accomplished and is accomplishing. It is nothing short of amazing that ISB, through the diligent vision and tireless efforts of faculty, students, and others involved, has achieved so much in so little time.

When I considered what thoughts I would share with you today, I decided to start with a metaphor.

As the fourth graduating class of ISB you are in many ways pioneers. First, I wanted to comment on the new territory that you will enter and add some of my own learnings.

The drawbridge has been lowered today and you, the students, as you leave your educational activities, are about to cross over a large river to discover new lands.

You will to undertake a journey -- which is the continuing journey of your work life. Some of you have already experienced a great deal -- and returned to school, feeling that you needed and wanted to master additional skills.

These learnings that you take with you will help you to take full advantage of all the opportunities waiting for you.

You are entering a wonderful land, full of pastures, creeks, fields of crops and fruit trees, and in some places one may -- with some luck -- even find some minerals and gold.

What you discover and learn and how you master the terrain will depend on you. It is a hilly region and the horizon often limits the view, so when you cross the bridge today, you will not be able to see it all, and the best may be neither visible nor close.

Some of you may find your personal field close by and you will spend a life time on it. Others among you may have to walk and search for a long time, working on the way, improving your skills and gaining experience.

And if you ask me if this journey will be easy, I would have to tell you that for most of you there will be many crossroads, some with dead ends. You may even be tricked, finding that distant marshlands which looked like fields of the richest crops are barren after all. Or your path may suddenly end at a precipice, invisible until you reach it and are forced to turn back.

In your quest you may be faced with disappointments, but don't have doubts about whether you should ever have passed the bridge onto these unknown lands.

Despite feelings of disappointment or fatigue, you will always have the individual choice to move on. Have confidence in yourself.

As you continue on your path, start to work and you will discover and learn how to best cut the grain, your arms will become stronger and your movements more agile and faster.

Never be a passive observer, actively engage. Others will help you to harvest. Some of these strangers will become increasingly familiar, you will rely on them and they will rely on you. When you work with the sickle don't get too close to each other, if you hurt each other both of your work will suffer.

On some fields you may work alone because you discover them first, for some trees you may not need a ladder to get to the fruits, but in most cases you will depend on others as others will depend on you. You will have to make the choice regarding what crop to harvest and which fruits to collect.

It is occasionally better to walk for a longer distance until you find the right place, avoiding fields which are worked in an undisciplined way -- with too many people or too much disorganisation, fraught with people who fight against each other. The fruits of these fields will never provide an abundant harvest.

When you choose a place look to the sky and check the elements, as this will influence your performance. Work will be easier when the conditions are right -- more productive during mild days, more limited when it is hot and humid.

There are days and weeks with glaring sun at which time vulgar stones may shine like diamonds. Hours and money may be spent to get a claim -- just to find out in the evening, after a hectic day that you have filled your pockets with gravel.

Which path you take and if you are successful in navigating will depend on you. Take your steps calmly, with enjoyment and with a sober mind. The compass and the map are in yourself, they will guide you, although the map may not yet be complete.

Occasionally someone will provide you with a point of orientation, an initial segment of a new road, but nobody can complete the map for you, nor can you immediately get a fully detailed one.

Over time you will fill in the roads that are not marked, charting the paths that cross your terrain as you consult your map and complete it. There can be no doubt that you will master your course, if you watch your inner compass and analyse your environment and the effect of your actions.

Irrespective of your starting point and irrespective of the choices you have already made, you must go forward with open eyes and an open mind. Train and observe, evaluate, learn, choose and continue to build your experience.

As (India's first prime minister) Pandit Nehru said, 'Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism, the way you play it is free will. . . There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.'

As I wrote this down, I began to also think about the lessons that I have learned that I might share with you. I wanted to understand your aspirations. I double-checked the statistics of your class.

I discovered that on average your class has already spent five years in a job that your average age is 27 and that 25 per cent of you have even had international experience. Nevertheless you went back to school. Why? Just to learn more? To have a better chance at becoming a successful businessperson or to enter general management?

Have you ever asked yourself what your deep motivations to go into business really are? Irrespective of what you have told others and what you may have told yourself, you should probe to truly understand your motivations.

Why did you choose to go into business -- for money, for influence and power, or for reputation and fame? Or did you know someone you admired who was in business and who you aspired to become or even to surpass?

It really does not matter. These are all legitimate reasons as long as you acknowledge them, understand them and master them instead of their mastering you.

You now have gained the skills necessary to be successful in business.

I have no doubt that ISB taught you everything on economically sound behaviour: how to create wealth, how to use resources productively, about revenues, profits, assets and liabilities, gains and losses, free cash-flow, markets and NPV, ROI, RONA, ROE and EVA.

I have no doubt that you assimilated skills to properly analyse and diagnose a problem -- forging plans and options for solving it, resulting in effective decision making and formulating actions with appropriate communications and control systems.

I have no doubt that you have the intellectual strength, the capacity to work hard, the interest, the motivation and the imagination needed to graduate from a top business school.

And I have no doubt that you learned to work in teams, to listen and to speak up, to teach and to learn from your peers.

But what are your views on ethics and values? With all the corporate scandals ranging from Enron to WorldCom to Tyco and so many others, every business school today must also talk about laws, regulations, ethics and integrity, personal values, right and wrong.

I am sure that you have developed a perspective of your own about these matters.

To be successful in a firm this is still not enough. You will have to demonstrate ambition, competence, great work ethics, speed, flexibility and discipline with the willingness to contribute to others and be dependable.

And you have to be competitive as in the end you must show results. You will have to build trust.

And I have to push you even more. We in the corporate world will want you to demonstrate judgment and empathy, to be open and transparent, especially about mistakes and omissions, we want you to be a realistic optimist, have a sense of humour and on top of all of this, be lucky as well.

By now you are -- no doubt -- either thinking that I am too demanding or you are beginning to wonder about your ability to fulfill all these criteria to the utmost degree.

But I bet that some people would even add more to this list of skills and character attributes they expect from others, especially from their leaders.

However, let me reassure you that I have not yet met anyone who has all of these qualities. We all have strengths and weaknesses. But over the course of our business life you and I can continue to learn, correct, change and assimilate new insights.

In my life, I had great teachers, some taught me lessons intentionally, some by chance -- and the learnings may not always have been the intended ones.

Let me share with you one personal experience. In the last year of my medical training I was working in the emergency room, when an old man with an unexplained abdominal pain came in.

I did the initial work up, taking the medical history and doing the physical exam when the chief of medicine arrived and started asking questions about the case. He briefly talked with the patient, examined him silently while I stood beside him, hoping for his advice and instructions. The professor then looked at me and began to enumerate all possible diagnoses, why the pain could be this or that.

He was like a perfect textbook. Then he turned to the patient and without a further word took the blanket, pulled it further up and. . . left. I was speechless. I had no clue what to do.

This professor, who knew everything, had left without doing anything. He simply rearranged the blanket. Luckily for me, and the patient, a resident who had observed the interaction came over, gave me instructions on the blood work to order and on necessary X-rays. He placed the patient on an infusion, and later when the patient felt better, sat down with me to discuss the case, quizzing me on details.

That day I learned that knowledge without action is useless. I realised that a good young trainer is sometimes more helpful than a well-known authority. I am sure that the professor did not realise what real lesson I learned from him.

During your career look out for good immediate supervisors, who are willing to give you responsibilities and train you. Seek out the opportunity to work with demanding people, you will learn more from them.

Lessons, which stress you, and even hurt, are in the end more memorable. It is good if your immediate supervisor is a fine tutor and you need many of those, but it is excellent when you also have a mentor.

This individual may be someone more removed from your daily work, either inside or outside the company, willing to advise you, someone to whom you can turn when you have a problem or a joy to share. While tutors change and should change, mentors remain more stable.

If you are lucky enough to find real mentors you must work to keep him or her motivated. Mentors give you their time, you have to give them something in return. It may be your fresh ideas, your energy, your idealism, your loyalty and your trust.

As you know there is often a lack of clarity in life, and there is a tension which pulls into opposing directions.

  • Ambiguity is something we have to learn to live with, without it creating discomfort for us.
  • We must be able to make decisions and act -- even with incomplete information, accepting this imperfection with quiet self-confidence.
  • We have to lay-off people while having empathy with the individual.
  • It is important to remain confident and optimistic when taking risks hasn't paid off and conversely be cautious when everything goes well.
  • We have to strive to create wealth, while we see great poverty around us.
  • We have to press for short-term results while focussing on the long-term, and we have to invest for the future even while we cut costs today.
  • Be comfortable with seemingly contradictory situations, feelings and actions. You will of course encounter many people who can not deal with ambiguity, people who always want simplicity and clarity.

So, you as leaders will have to create the clear direction for them. This is an act of will and part of leadership. Your instinct and judgment will indicate the right actions and timing for you, as Alexander the Great knew when he cut the Gordian Knot, finding a stunningly simple solution for a complex problem.

As leaders you will have to make a real difference showing the direction, guided by an implicit or explicit vision.

This will allow people and organisations to achieve more than they ever dreamed they could. Ordinary people will become extraordinary people, realising together extraordinary things. This is leadership.

Let me leave you with some additional points.

I hope that you join a firm that inspires you by the purpose it fulfills for society. Work should not just be about money or power, but about an aspiration to contribute.

As leaders, people will expect more from you than from others and they should. Accept this responsibility and act accordingly.

Remember that money and power can corrupt. There will be temptations to misuse your knowledge and influence. You will need strength and character to resist. In any case you will know if you fail, although it may be invisible to others. This will undermine your self-assurance.

Finally, I'd like to share with you some thoughts that are very important, but which you probably won't hear a lot about in your career.

There will be days when you feel the pleasure of accomplishment. But the truth is, there will be times when you are disappointed, angry or sad. This is normal.

  • Have the confidence to accept these feelings, trust your self, be genuine, and also transparent with others.
  • Be yourself and don't try to play a role. Tough days never last forever and after follow the good days. Your family and friends will support you in difficult times, therefore understand and respect also their needs and strike the right balance for yourself and for them.

Dear students, today I shared some of my beliefs and insights with you. I would have liked to pass on all my knowledge and experience, which of course I cannot.

I wish you success, financial rewards and a great job, but above all I wish you wisdom, the ability to respect others, the fortitude to resist temptations, the generosity to help those in need, and the awareness that we are all humans, with all our human strengths and weaknesses.

The new land is yours -- at least for some time -- make the best out of it, it's up to you. As Mahatma Gandhi said, 'You must be the change you want to see in the world. Infinite striving to be the best is man's duty, it is its own reward. Everything else is in God's hands.'

God bless you.


Design: Rahil Shaikh
Photograph: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images


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Number of User Comments: 4




Sub: Good Article for Aspirants to Become Manager.

This is one of best Lecture which I never came across. Thanks to one and all who made this possible. cheers, Chakradhar.A


Posted by Chakradhar





Sub: IBO passing out speech

Highly inspirational. A long time since I read one. This is what great leaders are made up of.


Posted by Prakash





Sub: Is Rural Buzz word.

Great article- from industry leader. Well we can see dog bite posters at rural places from this companies. I just pressed Cntrl F on this ...


Posted by Avinash Murkute





Sub: How to be a Great Manager...!!

Indeed mere knowledge without putting the same to action is useless...!!!. I think this is also the difference between good managers and great managers. - ...


Posted by Ravishankar S Aiyar




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