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Convocation address by Ian Friendly, BCom83, retired Executive VP & COO, U.S. Retail, General Mills, Inc., member of the Queen’s School of Business Advisory Board

Posted on July 1, 2015

Convocation address by Ian Friendly, BCom83, retired Executive VP & COO, U.S. Retail, General Mills, Inc., member of the Queen’s School of Business Advisory Board

Mr. Friendly delivered the following address on May 21, 2015, to the graduating classes of QSB’s Master of Finance, Master of International Business, Master of Management Analytics programs, and to Queen’s Master of Public Administration, Master of Industrial Relations and Master of Urban and Regional Planning graduating students.

Chancellor Leech, Dean & Vice Provost Brower, Dean Saunders, Rector Michael Young, faculty, families and friends and our graduating Masters Classes of 2015!

Good morning to you all.  Looking at your faces, I can read what you must be thinking right now:  “Gee, I thought he’d be a lot taller than that!

Okay, maybe not. But, what I do see is tremendous dedication and smarts in all of you.

Dedication—to the pursuit of knowledge, as many of you did your Master’s degree while also juggling jobs and families.  This was not the easy road to take.

Smarts—to be able to tackle the rigors of Queen’s University. 

To the parents and loved ones in the audience: congratulations to all of you— your support was critical for us to get to this moment. 

I am deeply honoured to be in your company.

As I thought about what I would say today, I reflected on the thousands of Master’s graduates I’ve met over the years, especially those I mentored at work, who often asked about the secret to success, to getting to the top.

And, so, let me tell you—there is no secret!  As a matter of fact, a single-minded focus for the top is a big mistake as it confuses the means and the ends.  It’s both the quality of your work and your character that will propel you, not blind ambition. 

So, there’s no secret formula.   But, upon reflection, I think there were two important things that have made a difference in my career, as well as in my life.  They will sound simple—as most good advice does—but the road is never simple.  You will be tried and tested at various junctures. These two things, though, have guided me and served as my true North.

The first is to:  “Feed and pay heed to the little voice inside you.

My path, and I think that of many executives, was neither planned nor expected. I often say that I’ve somewhat stumbled through life, with a pattern only obvious in the rear-view mirror.  Now, just because there wasn’t a grandiose master plan doesn’t mean it was pure luck either.  As the old adage goes:  “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”

I did work hard.  I had to work hard. I grew up in Ottawa, the middle child in a loving family, who was quite unfamiliar with the workings of college or the world of business.  My father worked as a clerk in a government mailroom, and I came to Queen’s expecting to become an accountant or possibly a lawyer.  And frankly, I almost didn’t come to Queen’s as I was offered more lucrative scholarships elsewhere.  Thankfully, I did pay heed to that little voice inside of me and attended what I considered to be Canada’s best university.

It was here that I experienced my first class in marketing—a field that I had never heard of. It was here, where I met a very special mentor, the late Professor Monieson, who unlocked for me a lifelong passion for marketing.  And it was here that the foundation for my career was laid —all because I listened to that little voice that said I should come to Queen’s.

 In truth, when I look at all the milestones in my life, they were often accompanied by that little voice inside telling me to zig when others said to zag. These were not overt acts of rebellion or risk-taking—in fact they often felt intuitive or obvious—but they invariably led to unforeseen and quite remarkable outcomes.

So when I say, “Feed and pay heed to that little voice,” both parts of the sentence are important.  To feed your instincts, or to see as natural what others see as risky, requires curiosity and the willingness to experience and experiment. Whether it turns out as expected, you end up learning something new, or meeting people who then help you in unpredictable ways.  Have faith in yourself, sip from the cup that is offered, and your collected experiences will not only move you forward, but make you valuable, unique, and, I suspect, happier.

One of the most important turning points in my career took place when I went overseas in the start-up years of General Mills’ joint venture with Nestlé in Switzerland.  At the time, I was a Vice President at General Mills, reasonably successful, but among a fairly large cohort of accomplished executives.  The accepted wisdom among my peers was to strive to lead the biggest and most profitable U.S. business units, those that would raise your visibility even if some didn’t seem as interesting. “Run the Cheerios or Betty Crocker business,” said the heavyweights, because that was the proven, advisable path.   “Certainly, don’t go overseas. You would be out-of-sight and out-of-mind in a risky start-up phase of a joint venture.”

It was sound, proven advice except I really wanted to do the opposite.  I wanted the challenges of a start-up, where decisions can make or break a business.
I wanted to live an expat’s life with my family; I wanted to travel around the world and learn how to market to consumers who were hugely different from me.  Instinctively, I knew this assignment would make me a better businessperson, and it would be fun, even if it didn’t advance my career. 

But it did.  In this riskier environment, the CEO got to see me in a different way, in what he called “running in the open field.”  Upon my repatriation, he promoted me to President of the Yoplait Division, a highly coveted role.

I want to stress that feeding the little voice applies more broadly to life. In volunteering in the community, whether it was serving in the student government at Queen’s or at community non-profits, I did so with a purity of purpose and altruistic intent.  And, yet, when I look back, it always led to something else as well.  Whether it was developing leadership skills, or cultivating valuable contacts and lifelong friendships, these experiences helped shape much of the so-called luck that followed.  Give, and you will invariably get.   And let your little voice inside help guide you.

This leads me to my second piece of counsel, which is related to the first:  “Be generous of spirit.”  It may well enrich your career, but it will undoubtedly enrich your life.   In my experience, generosity of spirit stems from gratitude and caring. 

Being grateful allows you to appreciate what you have, and it will serve as a valuable salve when you are tested with hardships. 

Caring is a compass that will always help you find true north and do the right thing.  Caring for those you work with, caring to develop those who work for you, caring about your consumers and customers, caring about your community.   A great fiction is that caring and kindness are not virtues in the hard knock world of business. That’s not been my experience, as long as both are accompanied by candor and clarity.   But caring and kindness will allow you build trust, motivation and commitment, especially when facing tough decisions.   So be generous of spirit—it will enrich your life in all ways.

In closing, I’d like share a favorite quote of mine from my time as student government president here at Queen’s. It’s by James Baldwin: “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

Graduate Class of 2015, be proud and confident in what you’ve learned, be kind and generous of spirit in all that you do, pay heed to that little voice inside of you, and you will make your mark in the world.

I wish you all great personal and professional success.