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Q&A With Commencement Speaker Roger Ferguson, President and CEO, TIAA-CREF

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On Friday, TIAA-CREF President and CEO Roger Ferguson will deliver the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business graduate commencement address. The following is a Q&A with Ferguson about advice for the Class of 2014.

What connection do you have to Georgetown?
TIAA-CREF has a long history with Georgetown and has been partnering with the university since 1969 to provide lifetime financial well-being to employees of the university. TIAA-CREF is currently entrusted to manage and protect over $1 billion in retirement assets for Georgetown University faculty and employees. This is a responsibility we take seriously to create successful retirement outcomes.

In addition, the McDonough School commencement address that I’ll deliver on May 16 isn’t my first at Georgetown. In 2009, I had the honor to speak at Georgetown’s Executive MBA program commencement. Finally, as a Washingtonian and former Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman, I’m keenly aware of the important role that Georgetown – and especially McDonough School graduates – play in the policy and business worlds.

What advice do you have for graduate students as they prepare to enter the ‘real world’?
Georgetown’s MBA graduates are among the best and brightest. They have the knowledge and skills to solve real-world business problems and to lead successful careers. But as recent graduates enter the workforce, they should always be looking at that first job as a continuation of their education and a start of a very steep learning curve. The world that a young graduate is going to live in, working for the next 40 years, is unknowable. The skillset that graduates have today is just the baseline for what they will need going forward. Success is about the ability to keep learning and to figure out what it is that really motivates you.

Additionally, as CEO of a financial services company and retirement provider, I cannot stress the importance to graduates of not overlooking their own personal finances. As they enter the workforce, graduates need to understand the concepts of personal finance. They must know how to use credit wisely, and they need to have a long-term financial plan. Even though graduate students have so many competing financial demands, they also must start saving for retirement early in their lives. If graduates ignore their personal finances, their energy to make a difference in the business world will be severely diluted. You can’t really change the world if you’re if you’re worried about your own financial future.

Through your career experience – working as attorney in New York City and as Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System – what is your greatest piece of advice on leadership?
The key to being an effective leader is inspiring others to follow you. I believe that a true leader can inspire others by employing these four characteristics:

  • Expertise: Whether you’re an engineering professor or a lawyer or an administrative assistant, you better have a rock-solid command of your discipline.
  • Appeal: People have to like you, not because you’re charming or because you’re everybody’s best friend, but because you earn their respect.
  • Empathy: Effective leaders understand that people have lives, responsibilities, and demands outside of work.
  • Fortitude: Effective leaders are their organization’s shock absorbers – they’re the calm in the storm when there’s chaos and they’re grounded in the midst of euphoria.

The truth is that good leadership is rarer than we’d like it to be. But when it’s there, it can be the difference between the success or failure of any organization.

Coming out of the financial crisis, there’s been a great deal of conversation about business ethics. In this regard, what advice would you offer to the next generation of business leaders as they enter the workforce?
The truth is that we haven’t seen enough progress on the corporate governance front. With the lessons of the crisis still fresh and clear, it’s imperative to change that now. And those best positioned to change the system are those who weren’t part of it when it collapsed: today’s business graduates.

By good corporate governance, I mean more than simply improving rules and processes. Good governance ultimately comes down to how people behave, which is driven by the software of governance: a company’s culture, leadership, and values. These are the keystones of good governance, and they will lead people behave ethically – even when no one is looking. Companies can have the most extensive processes and procedures, but if they have the wrong business values and the wrong people as leaders – people who behave without transparency and integrity – they won’t have a culture that promotes doing the right thing.