A Preacher, A CEO and Stereotypes

Day 2: Just after noon, James Dimon on Baker Lawn

Published: Jun 4, 2009 12:06:31 PM IST
Updated: Aug 21, 2009 06:19:59 PM IST

It was lunch, and I came across some reassuring stereotypes. Stereotypes often can put people to ease in slightly alien environments. There were the Indian-American families complaining about the hot and polluted Indian metros, the Indians born and bred could often be heard complaining, "Summer? You call this summer?"

The Spaniards and Brazillians who have come in droves (aunt, uncle, grandmother, cousin, cousin's aunt and grandmother's brother) it was what one could safely say a mixed crowd. The atmosphere was jubilant, excited classmates hollering at each other, dragging bewildered parents back and forth to introduce them to their favourite professors, close friends and their families.

Finally it was time for the Class Day ceremonies to begin (the day before the Harvard University Commencement exercises), on Baker Lawn. It includes a welcome from the presidents of the MBA Class of 2009, faculty awards, and a student speaker. The ceremony was to conclude with Jamie Dimon's remarks.

The day has thus far been glorious. The air is crisp with just a hint of rain as we take our seats out on Baker Lawn, amongst hundreds of students and their families. Soon things calm down and HBS Dean Jay Light welcomes everyone in attendance. And then comes Thomas Rajan, the Class Day keynote speaker, he was selected by a student committee where 28 students wrote and submitted speeches, each with a different message for the graduating class. Thomas won.

Rajan came to the US in 1999 after completing high school in Dubai, has had numerous roles in the aviation industry from the age of 18 - everything from working for the Boeing Company to Network Planning for US Airways and aviation related projects in Malaysia for McKinsey & Co.  
At HBS Rajan is Co-President of the Christian Fellowship and organized the India Trek for the students in December 2008, he also moonlights as a preacher in various churches across the world.

He emphasized the ways in which many have lost faith in the business community due to the financial crisis. He added that despite this, students could use their knowledge and experience to help improve the world. He quoted Abigail Adams who wrote a note to her son, the future President of America John Quincy Adams during his first semester at Harvard in 1786, "These are times in which a genius should wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues."  Rajan lectured that as long as we remain hungry (for success, though I was eyeing the tables), we can achieve great things. "May we give more of ourselves to our communities, to our workplaces, to our families," Rajan said. "Let it go forth from this time that we are a class that is ready to serve."

The Co-President of the Christian Fellowship even managed to squeeze in a reference to the Middle East Conflict. I looked around me and the crowd was lapping it up, students nodding their heads in vigorous approval and grandmothers with bright smiles. The one thing you can't fault HBS for is not responding to the times we live in. The lawn echoed with claps, when Rajan walked off the stage. Overwhelming.


Was this really a Harvard Business School graduation ceremony? Or was I attending a UN Peace Conference?
Did i hear right or was one of the most capitalist institutions in the world promoting the values of faith, love and harmony?

Finally, the person we had been waiting to hear from all day, it was James Dimon's turn. Movie star looks with salt and pepper hair, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase resembled a late night talk show host rather than a financial wizard.

His opening remarks set the tone: pointed, with a touch of humour. "I just want to make it absolutely clear that I was at Citigroup 10 years ago."

In machine-gun fashion, Dimon proceeded with a mixture of practical career advice and reflections on what it means to be a responsible and ethical business leader. He encouraged the graduating students to be true to themselves, to cut across hierarchies in their business relationships, and, most of all, to exercise humility. "If you want to be a leader it can't be about money and it can't be about you," Dimon said. It was a proud moment when he mentioned the Tata Group in his speech as an example of a company that is mature and well respected, "A far cry from a Shakespearean tragedy." Amazing how Indian businesses have come to be regarded in the eyes of the developed world, when only a decade ago we were considered insignificant in the global scheme of things.

And of course Dimon had to touch upon the compensation issue. I will give him this, he was certainly honest and direct throughout his speech - maybe its those values that have ensured his company is the only one left standing even as all the giants fell. He stressed on how compensation at his company is awarded on the basis of performance, and that measure isn't taken from the P&L books, it depends on how hard you worked, how you trained others, built systems - a full range of performance parameters. Mr Dimon conveniently forgot to sling out numbers...  but he just sounded so sincere!

Dimon wrapped up his speech by encouraging the students to try to use their business careers to help make a better world. And with some frank admissions, including the odd barb here and there - "No I didn't 'leave' Citigroup in 1998. Let's be honest here, I was fired. They told me to go, so I went. My boss (Sandy Weill), he did the right thing for Citigroup, one can see that now."

Immediately after Dimon, graduates had to dash off to another part of their campus where the MBA Oath ceremony was scheduled to take place. Unwilling to sign their names in blood or something equally dramatic, they decided to keep it simple and recite an oath out loud, in front of each other (about 400 now who have signed).

HBS continues to surprise.

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