Friday, June 8, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Carol Bartz's commencement speech "Embrace failure"

Close to the start of this commencement speech to the 2012 graduates of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Carol Bartz laid it out plain, as is her habit: "I do feel like my remarks today should come with a warning label...Attention! Attention! The advice you are about to receive comes from a 63-year-old unemployed former CEO whose language is frequently described as salty." It's no mistake that Business Week asked Bartz for advice on "how to speak your mind"--she's an expert.

The ex-CEO of Yahoo!, Bartz was scrutinized from her first speech in that role, and has publicly discussed getting talked over in meetings by men who later claimed credit for her stated ideas. She isn't known for holding back with her opinions or her shyness--her advice for women when men take credit for their already stated ideas is to say, "I just said that!" But on this commencement day at her alma mater, the forthright speaking was mixed with fondness.

One reason may be that Bartz missed her own graduation ceremony because she'd already started her first job, and another is motherhood. She gives mothers many shout-outs in the speech, poking gentle fun at how they like to sign their texts "Mom," which their kids don't understand, since they can already identify who's texting. Her use of humor is an artful tool here, helping to bridge the multiple audiences and generations that are always present at a graduation: She makes references to what the students are really doing on Thursday nights instead of studying and acknowledges the older generation's adjustments when college grads move back home.

But the best of the speech comes when Bartz addresses failure, a brave topic choice for a woman who has failed so publicly. She turns failure on its head here, suggesting that the graduates "embrace failure" and view it as an essential part of their careers:
Everybody has failures of many kinds but how do you take advantage of failure? I think the greatest strength that we have in the us and especially in Silicon Valley is that we actually view failure as a sign of experience. We view failure as a way of life and those people are willing to take on risks to the road to innovation. I have a saying that I have used at my companies. Fail. Fast. Forward. Take risks. Fail. You're not going to get hurt by that. Try and figure it out as quickly as possible that it is not the right thing. That's the fast part. And move forward. Fail. Fast. Forward.
The speech drew plenty of attention in the hall where it was given, and beyond, as business observers took note. What can you learn from this speech?
  • Refresh that tired commencement content: Instead of waxing eloquent on success, Bartz focuses on failure, and she tosses out the career ladder idea, urging grads to build "career pyramids" instead. Rethinking and reworking tired cliches can only help the audience, commencement speakers.
  • Use humor to unite, not divide: Notice how Bartz uses humor when referring to herself as a mother or as a student--both an effort to build a bridge to the different age groups in her audience the very best way, by sharing what she has in common with them.
  • Be honest: Another refreshing quality of this speech is Bartz's willingness to address failure head-on, instead of using the platform to reshape her image. It's a breath of fresh air that's also likely more useful to the grads than any number of platitudes.
You can see a partial transcript of this speech here, and watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?