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Cesare Mainardi spoke about lessons learned at Kellogg and shared lifelong career advice at the 2015 Executive MBA Commencement.
Cesare Mainardi spoke about lessons learned at Kellogg and shared lifelong career advice at the 2015 Executive MBA Commencement.

Cesare Mainardi ’86, CEO of Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company) presented the keynote address at the Executive MBA Commencement on June 13, 2015. Read his full address below, learn more about his Kellogg journey in an exclusive interview. or relive the excitement in the EMBA Commencement Storify

Let me add my own congratulations to the EMBA graduates of June 2015.

You have accomplished the extraordinary:

  • managing a demanding workload at your job…
  • …while dealing with pressing family obligations…
  • …all while meeting the academic requirements of the world’s best business school.

I commend you. I especially salute—as Sally did—the unsung heroes in the audience—the husbands and wives, parents and children and bosses and employees—who made this day possible.

But just wait until next Friday comes, and they realize…you’re not going… anywhere. My wife Wendy is here with me today, and she can tell you what that’s like. Two months ago, my appendix burst, and last week, I had surgery to remove the offending organ. So, I’ve been effectively grounded for 10 weeks and counting, which is a lifetime for a management consultant and an eternity for his spouse.

I kid, but the truth is—my appendix bursting was a wake-up call.

I have been on planes, trains, and automobiles—traveling away from my loved ones for nearly every week of the past 30 years. As a consultant, you live with your clients much of the work week. There’s a reason we call each project an “engagement.” But it doesn’t substitute for the real thing—for enduring personal relationships. A successful life is one that achieves a healthy balance.

So, I am joining you today in embracing a new chapter—one that makes more time for the people who matter most.

I’m proud to say I’m a third generation Northwestern grad—and like my mother and grandfather before me—I could not get enough of Evanston, Illinois. (This after growing up in Rome, so that’s saying something!) My grandfather, after fighting in World War I, earned his B.S. and Master’s here in 1919. In fact, he was introduced to my grandmother at the nearby Orrington Hotel. My mother got her Master’s in English Literature here and worked for the rest of her career at Northwestern’s Medill school of journalism. I collected a couple of engineering degrees here in addition to my Kellogg MBA. So, we’re lifers!

Dean Sally Blount with commencement speaker Cesare Mainardi.
Dean Sally Blount with commencement speaker Cesare Mainardi.

It has been my profound privilege to return to campus many times over the past several years, not only to teach a class in business strategy, but also to work with Sally on Kellogg’s strategy to reinvent management and leadership education for the 21st century. It has been one of the most rewarding projects of my career.

So, I can assure you that you are both the beneficiaries and the ambassadors of the most innovative, courageous, and passionately collaborative business school in the world today. Your Kellogg degree will take you far — it certainly made all the difference for me.

When I arrived at Kellogg, I was an uber-engineer with degrees in industrial and manufacturing engineering. I was linear. I was logical. I was extraordinarily analytical. I was a team of one. It was here at Kellogg that I learned to collaborate…and discovered the true and exponential power of teaming. I learned how to unravel big, messy, complex problems that did not submit to the rules of logic. I arrived an engineer…I left a strategist.

Let me paint a picture of the before and after. My very first job out of school was a consulting assignment with General Motors’ Diesel Locomotive division in LaGrange, Illinois. Massive machines, made in America, and young Cesare Mainardi pulls into the GM factory lot on his very first day in a bespoke Italian suit and a shiny, white BMW. And it only gets worse. By the end of that very first day, I had used my extraordinary analytical abilities to recommend to management that they close the plant. Forecasted demand was insufficient, and their other plant in Canada could far more efficiently meet the need. It was the obvious and right conclusion.

The desk clerk at the only motel in LaGrange Illinois, however, did not agree with my assessment. Having heard about my confidential recommendation only minutes after I’d made it, he had come to his own obvious and right conclusion—that there were no more rooms at his inn. I believe his exact words were “We don’t like you around here.” The client—GM—reacted in a similar fashion. That’s when the lessons of Kellogg kicked in, and I was reminded of the power of teaming and partnership.

I was on the verge of being “counseled on”—which in consulting-speak means “fired”—when my colleague on the project—a fellow Kellogg grad named Ivan Menezes—stepped into the fire with me and helped me reframe the issue in more strategic and human terms. I’ve survived and thrived at my firm because I was able to round out my strong analytical capabilities with the lessons of strategic leadership that I first learned here. And Ivan? He is now the CEO of Diageo, the $14 billion dollar global spirits conglomerate. More evidence of the power of a Kellogg degree!

Recognizing that I am one of the final barriers between you and your hard-earned degree, I have spent many hours trying to abbreviate these remarks. But, today, you are my client and you have a party to get to, so here is my five-minute take on how to succeed in business.

It boils down to 3 rules—an almost distressingly simple formula when you consider the decades of consultant hours that went into figuring it out. [Tweet]

  1. Differentiate
  2. Commit to that unique identity
  3. Translate the strategic into the everyday

First, Differentiate.

In the days of the robber barons, scale mattered. bigger was better. He who had the most assets won, and business strategy was a matter of asking where will we grow and where should we go. No longer.

Now it’s who do we want to be?

The new basis of competitive advantage—as a company, as an individual, as a business school—is ­capabilities, not what you have but what you do with what you have…better than anyone else. If you step back and think about it, you can trace any winning institution’s success to a consistent focus on differentiating capabilities.

Kellogg is no exception—and it’s that longstanding success formula—inspiring growth through a focus on markets and a culture of collaboration—that Sally and her peers have chosen to double down on. It’s what Kellogg does best.

Each of us in this chapel today has capabilities that differentiate us. If we are bold—or just plain lucky—we find a career path and a life partner that reinforce and accentuate those strengths.

Second, Commit to that Identity.

Find True North. As individuals, everyone in this audience—not just those getting an MBA today—readily understand this. Over time we’ve all developed a moral compass that guides our personal decisions and actions.

It’s harder for companies, but still surprisingly intuitive. But it requires leaders to commit to an honest and in-depth assessment of their inherent strengths and weaknesses and then focus their strategy and its execution on the strengths. The problem is: This flies in the face of conventional wisdom.We’re taught as business students and practitioners that agility and adaptability are the keys to success. Dynamic strategies that can turn on a dime are celebrated. And anything that smacks of “sticking to your knitting” is derided.

I’m here to tell you: “Stick to your knitting.”

I’m saying: Have the courage of your convictions…and stay true to who you are and what you are exceptionally good at. Keep following that North Star.

Let me tell you from recent personal experience, that this is easier said than done. A year and a half ago, I led my partners to the reluctant conclusion that we should sell our storied firm—on the eve of its 100th anniversary—to PwC. It was certainly NOT my life’s ambition to be the last CEO of the world’s first premium strategy house. It was a gut-wrenching decision. But I have no doubt it was the right one.

In a rapidly changing consulting landscape where clients demand full-service strategy-through-execution expertise across the globe, we were no longer fulfilling our mission. We simply didn’t have the reach. So we made the bold decision to build the next-generation industry winner with PwC—the pre-eminent strategy-through-execution firm. In the transaction, we lost our independence. We lost the Booz name. Most painfully, we lost a number of clients because of PwC audit conflicts. But it was the right thing to do…and the right time to do it.

…which brings me to the third lesson of success:

Translate the Strategic into the Everyday.

This is the hardest thing for leaders to do. We have been confidentially polling senior executives for the past 15 years on what keeps them up at night, and “in the truth room,” more than half confess that they don’t have confidence in their ability to execute their strategy. That’s an alarming revelation.

The solution? A practical strategy based on capabilities that can actually be translated into the everyday, taken from paper to pavement.

Where do you start? Flip strategy on its head: Don’t chase the market. Look inward and identify the few things your company does better than anyone else. Match these unique capabilities to market opportunities and build your strategy from there. Then focus ruthlessly to ensure every investment and resource is directed to what matters most – your differentiating capabilities.

When every employee from the mailroom to the board room understands what makes your company uniquely great, when every person understands the job he or she has to do to bring your strategy to life, then you will succeed.

I know I’m preaching to the converted. So much of what I’ve applied as a strategy consultant are lessons I first learned here. Now your challenge is to go forth and do the same—apply the lessons you’ve learned at Kellogg. By completing this rigorous program you’ve already demonstrated the restlessness and ambition that drive the leaders of winning organizations.

I have every confidence you will achieve great things.

I’ll leave you with Michelangelo’s challenge first articulated some 500 years ago:

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving the mark.”

Thank you for letting me be a part of your celebration and my heartfelt congratulations to all.

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