Ruth Porat the CFO of Alphabet, Pete Carroll the NFL head coach, and Marry Barra the CEO of General Motors © Bloomberg and Getty Images
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Graduation season is one point in the year when the power of a strong alumni network provides a helping hand to those running business schools rather than their students.

During the past month, hundreds of thousands of successful MBA and masters degree students will have had to complete these formal ceremonies to collect their scrolls from the school dean.

The guest speaker is usually the only moment of relief between the rigmarole of dressing up in gowns and sitting through a long official ceremony. So the business school better find the right person to take to the podium.

For those institutions at the top of the FT rankings tables, this task is made easier by the number of A-List senior figures from business, politics and sport that have attended classes on their campuses over the years.

Stanford Graduate School of Business, for instance, this year booked former student Mary Barra, chairman and chief executive of General Motors, the world’s first female head of a global carmaker.

Her links with Stanford GSB go back to 1988 when she received a GM fellowship to study at its Silicon Valley campus, completing her MBA in 1990.

Upstate at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Carrie Dolan, chief financial officer at peer-to-peer loans start-up Lending Club, gave the graduation address.

Ms Dolan is a two-time Haas graduate, having completed her bachelors degree in finance and accounting in 1987 before working as an accountant at Chevron, the US energy group, and then returning to study for an MBA that she finished in 1997.

Overcoming adversity

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has also been able to call upon a former alumna, Ruth Porat, who received her MBA from the school in 1987.

She is now chief financial officer at Alphabet, the company created as the parent group for online search company Google. Ms Porat used her speech for the current crop of Wharton graduates to explain that behind every successful career there are likely to be several bad experiences both inside and outside of your work life.

In her case this included being diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease she has been able to beat, fortunately.

“Whether it is starting a business or starting a family, don’t put it off,” she told her audience. “The worst that will happen is that it will not work out.”

What to say in a graduation speech is no doubt a challenge. Judging from a selection of the addresses given so far this year, sharing the pain of failure seems a popular choice.

Presumably this is a way to win over audiences, who might believe that the top flight of business leaders have been blessed with a greater degree of luck than the rest of us.

The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business invited Pete Carroll, the former coach of the college’s American football team, the USC Trojans, to address the MBA graduates. The 64-year-old is not only the National Football League’s oldest serving head coach, he is one of only three managers in the history of the sport to have won both a Super Bowl and a college football national championship.

Rather than talk about his many achievements, however, Mr Carroll mentioned the 27 years he spent “struggling” as a coach before taking the role at USC.

During that time he had 12 different jobs, four of which were unpaid and five from which he was fired, Mr Carroll told his audience at Marshall. “The media were on my butt,” he added. “Fortunately it was all BS.” That is to say “before social” media.

Keep it simple

Orlaith Carmody is a former journalist who started a business helping business executives communicate better. Preparing people for public speeches is a key part of her work.

The best speeches are those delivered in normal language by those who have taken time to understand their audience and put them first, she says.

“Less is more. Give me a couple of messages I can really understand and remember, rather than lots of complex ideas that I can’t possibly absorb.”

One of the worst things a business school graduation ceremony speaker can do is talk about his or her own qualifications, according to Ms Carmody. “If you try to use the opportunity of a graduation speech to ram this down the throats of your audience, your speech will die on its feet,” she says.

Ms Carmody claims that one of the best speeches she heard was delivered by Brian MacCraith, the president of her alma mater, Dublin City University, shortly after he was appointed to the role in July 2010.

“With extraordinary humour, self-awareness and openness, he shared his vision for the university using really clear imagery and simple language,” she recalls.

“He spoke of his love for his wife and family and the support they have given him throughout his career and left us all very impressed, moved and completely of the view that the university was in safe hands.

“What more can a speaker do?”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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