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2004 Commencement Speech: Wayne Sanders, President and Chief Executive Officer of Kimberly-Clark

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

I am really delighted and excited to be here. It is an unexpected honor to be your commencement speaker. When Father Wild called to ask about a commencement speaker, I thought he wanted me to call someone I knew. Then it became clear he was asking me and I was quite surprised.

I said, “I'm unemployed; you want someone unemployed?” He noted that I had a job for a long time. I said “OK, but despite my wife and children being Catholic, I'm a confirmed Methodist- how about that?” He said we've been through this before when you were asked to be vice chairman and then chairman of the Board of Trustees - we like diversity.

At this point, I said, “You leave me no choice; I have a confession to make.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “In my time as board chair and vice chair, I was always traveling to the Far East or Latin America or wherever during Commencement and I left Milwaukee to start work at Ford in 1972 before Commencement. I've never been to Commencement.” He thought it was about time, so here I am and I'm honored.

And before I go on, I'd like to thank the Marquette Tribune for their glowing endorsement of my selection.

You are the stars of the show today. All of us here are extremely proud of you, so I'll try not to drone on on your big day. After all, do any of you remember who was the commencement speaker at your high school graduations (four or six years ago)? Or what he or she said?

OK, I'm going to spend the next few minutes sharing what I've learned in the last 30-plus years since leaving Marquette as an MBA; my life's lessons and an amazing array of coincidences. Like your high school commencement, I don't know how much you'll remember. Years from now, when you get the trivia question who was your Commencement speaker at Marquette, you'll probably answer, “I don't remember his name, I just remember that he was an unemployed Methodist attending his first graduation.”

Let me now try to help you see what is coming at you called adult life better than I did as a young graduate. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting out there - well, actually could have been sitting out there, because with a pregnant wife and less than zero money, we took off for my job in Detroit with Ford Motor Co. so I could start on Monday morning 32 years ago.

I've spent a lifetime doing everything the “hard way” to gather the wisdom I want to share with you now.

First, let's put this moment in time in perspective. Prior to Marquette, I was an engineering graduate in 1969 and my view of graduation was that of breaking out of the academic cocoon to become a young carefree butterfly. I had become an engineer not because it appealed to me, but because my high school counselor told me that I could be anything I wanted to, except maybe avoid spatial relationships like architecture or engineering. Four years of academic misery later, I was an engineer. I showed him.

I started as a consultant engineer in Chicago. Wow, this will be great, a big paycheck, finally not having to always worry about the test I hadn't studied for, and a real car to drive. Three months later, I didn't feel like a butterfly; I felt like larva.

Here's what I surprisingly learned in my first year after graduation:

  1. You spend a whole lot of time at work - eight or more hours everyday with people you don't choose.
  2. I didn't like engineering and probably wasn't going to be good at it. Why? Because I didn't like it; it wasn't fun.

After one year of a job (meaning a paycheck) as opposed to a career (meaning something I'd like doing and would be proud of), I did what any impetuous and impoverished person would do. I proposed to my high school sweetheart, and the only woman I've ever loved, and enrolled in the MBA program at Marquette with the intent of getting out of engineering and into finance, which really did appeal to me.

This was amazing coincidence No. 1. How did I choose Marquette? Well, first they would take me and more importantly, my wife, Kathy, worked at Boston Store in Milwaukee and could support us (barely).

So here is the first batch of wisdom to ponder:

  1. If you are not having fun in your chosen field, you won't be good at it. You'll have a job, but not a career. Find something you like doing if you want a happy life.
  2. This ain't like school - you'll spend more time at your vocation than doing anything else and you don't get to pick who you hang around with.

OK, let's move on - Marquette, two years as a full time MBA. Ironically, I was drawn to finance, but my wife and I ran out of money at the end of year one (budgeting was not a year-one course). Amazing coincidence No. 2, Dr. Ralph Brownlee liked me (and I was hard to like). He gets me part-time jobs and a scholarship for year two.

Why? No institution ever treated me like anything but an ID number. What is it about this Marquette place? Being young and totally focused on survival without money, I wrote it off as some strange stroke of luck.

In two years, Kathy's pregnant and again using these financial skills that would drive my future, we opted for single health insurance plans at Boston Store and Marquette (because they were cheaper). Only thing not covered? Maternity. Hence, we're off to Ford Motor Co. for my finance job before the graduation ceremony so I could start Monday and get the health insurance.

I really loved working at Ford. Long hours, great co-workers from similar backgrounds, exciting products, and a little strange culture (nobody wants those little Japanese foreign cars). I stayed three years knowing I did not want to raise a family in Detroit (proudly proclaimed murder capital of the world in 1970s). The end of my tenure at Ford happened because of really amazing coincidence No. 3. I was going to the bathroom and Ed's phone was ringing on his desk. Ed left Ford the week before to work for Alcoa in San Francisco. I decided to pick up Ed's phone - they said, “Where's Ed?” I said, “Left last week for Alcoa in San Francisco.” He says, “Who's this?” I say, “Wayne.” It's Ed's headhunter and he asks, “ever heard of Kimberly-Clark?” For the next 28 years, I worked at Kimberly-Clark- the last 11 years as chairman and CEO.

Now, this is not wisdom, but for me it is great learning to share with you. If the phone's ringing on the way to the bathroom, it might be worth answering it.

I enjoyed my career at Kimberly-Clark very much, even in the last two years when everyone in business had become “bad guys” as a result of Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson, et al. The 64,000 employees of Kimberly-Clark would ask me in my world travels, “What's going on?” How does this happen in business? I'll give you the same answer I gave them.

I've known/worked with literally hundreds of CEOs around the world. The vast majority (75 percent) are great, ethical people you'd love to go to dinner with. Unfortunately, there's a smaller group (15 percent) hooked on power and dollars. These are people that don't know their limitations and generally people without a sense of humor. People like that eventually sink any ship (i.e., enterprise).

These are people you will encounter in life and you don't want to become one: My key learnings in 30-plus years about people in leadership positions were:

  1. The most dangerous people to any enterprise (government, business, academia) are those people who don't know their limitations (job promotion does not add IQ or give you experiences you've never had. I know that I better have good engineers and listen to them).
  2. Take your job/role seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.

All of the bad actors (Enron, WorldCom, etc.) took themselves too seriously and did not know their limitations. Telltale trait: At the end they had no sense of humor.

To be successful in whatever you choose, avoid these traps. If you're lucky like me, you'll have a spouse and great friends who will never let you take yourself too seriously. Now, let's shift focus and talk about the real value of your education from this day forward.

You will succeed or fail in your chosen endeavors based on two things: skills and behaviors. The mistake I made was thinking that skills were 90 percent of success. Here's a reality check if you're thinking like I did.

For perspective, there were barely electronic calculators when I left Marquette and no personal computers. The high tech tools I used to run international finance for K-C were a fax machine and a telephone. In reality, the vast majority of the specific skills I learned at Marquette were obsolete in five years.

So, life after Marquette is about continuous learning because the world's changing faster than ever. I'm on the Texas Instruments board, which gives me insight into technology change. Soon the blind will see in a similar manner to the guy on Star Trek. Digital cameras outsold film cameras for the first time this year. What's amazing is that the largest selling digital camera is part of your phone. The world's pace of change and skills required is accelerating. When one of you goes to work for K-C, on your first day you will push the enter key and see the international earnings that it took me a week to compile as a mid-level manager in the late '70s. The good news is that all employers know that they have an obligation to keep your skills current.

So the mistake I made was that skills weren't 90 percent of what I came to Marquette for. Behaviors were. Your behaviors will be most critical to your future success. (You're all smart enough to continuously learn new skills; it's a lot harder to change behaviors). Here's what you need to know: The world is “team-based.” Whether you choose government, charities, business, academia, you'll work as part of a team. The critical factors for your success will be how you communicate, motivate your team members, replace your obsolete skills, and get along with the team.

In the great world of the NFL, all teams start equal - same money, same draft - yet some teams, like the Packers, are consistently good and others, like the Arizona Cardinals, are consistently bad. It's about how the individuals work together to get results.

I talked to Marquette classes a couple years ago and got the question, “How do you decide who to hire?” I know the expected answer was that we wanted a 4.0 grade point, and some extracurriculars. My answer was, we hire people we like. We're a team and we're going to spend more time together than in any other activity. We want to be with people we like and can have fun with while working hard to get results. We know that we have to continuously make sure your skills are current. We want competitive, fun, talented people. The person who asked (4.0 grade point) was clearly dismayed, but the two guys with the hangovers 20 rows back really came to life.

OK, let me finish the career learning. Among my favorite groups to talk to every year at K-C were the returning co-ops and interns (300) and the new employees group. They always wanted to know the key to my success. “How'd you become CEO by 44 years old?” I'd ask, do you think it was because I was smarter than anyone else? They'd barely contain their laughter- no. The luckiest maybe, I was lucky with a great mentor (Bob Ernest) and my amazing coincidences.

But, no, the reason I succeeded was because when the alarm went off at 5:25 a.m. for 30- plus years, I couldn't wait to get to work. I loved what I was doing, the people I was working with (my team), and the competitive game - trying to beat P&G, a world-class competitor.

That's the key to success. Find something you love doing with people you really like and the career success and money will just come with it.

Having said that, let me get to my final point. What about life's satisfaction?

You heard a story that sounds like unhappy childhood from tough family background finds a great job and achieves all life's goals. Wrong!

I was driven to succeed in business as my chosen vocation. I was not a great athlete, student, chick magnate. I was determined to be a great businessman. And I truly believed that it would give me the joy and sense of accomplishment that was missing in my life. Clearly, the most joy and biggest accomplishment in my life is my family - wife of 34 years and three great adult kids. Being a business all-star (CEO of one of the world's largest companies by 44) did not, in fact, give me the personal satisfaction I expected. One promotion after another, I just went to work the next day focused on the next business challenge but without a sense of personal joy.

Unexpectedly, it came from an unusual source. In a string of great coincidences, who was a board member of Kimberly-Clark when I joined? Father John Raynor, then president of Marquette. As I rose in K-C, he recruited me to the Board of Trustees. I also became active in Boys & Girls Clubs of America as a trustee about the same time (early '90s).

In the relatively little time (vis-a-vis K-C business) spent on Marquette and Boys & Girls Clubs activities, I felt the sense of joy and accomplishment that I did not get as expected from my meteoric rise at K-C. It took me 20 years to “get it” but giving back gave me great joy and sense of accomplishment. I know why Dr. Ralph Brownlee helped me now. I hope whatever you do from this day forward that you can share the feeling of accomplishment when you see the kids in a Boys & Girls Club who have hope, feel safe, and trust somebody for the first time (like I did at Marquette).

You know what it means when you chant: “We are Marquette.” We are different. Giving back is part of our culture because it is a great part of our lives.

So let me sum up:

  • If you're not sure of your game plan and the first try doesn't work out, start again. Find something you're good at and enjoy doing.
  • Take your chosen vocation very seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.
  • No matter how busy you are, remember: “We Are Marquette.” there's a big world out there that needs us.

Once again, congratulations. We're all very proud of you and your accomplishments. Go make the world a better place. God bless you all.


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