Our World Needs You (Keynote address at INSEAD MBA Graduation, 2018)

Lucy Quist delivered the keynote address at the 2018 INSEAD MBA Graduation. As an alumna of INSEAD and an International business leader, Lucy Quist shared her experiences in leadership while highlighting key issues on global leadership today.

Transcript of the speech:

It is a privilege to deliver this year’s graduation speech at Fontainebleau and I thank the Dean for this honour.

Being here today brings back so many wonderful memories. That glorious graduation day of the 7th of July 2005 is fresh in my mind. Congratulations to the class of December 2018! You made it!

As I excitedly prepared for today, I cast my mind back to my own INSEAD experience. I arrived in Fontainebleau on the 20th of August 2004. I arrived with a few cases, my 5-month-old baby and my mother. My husband joined us a few days later to support our settling in before he had to return to London. Such was my arrival – it took a whole army to get me here because I needed my baby by my side. Most of the time our progress is tied to the people who form our support system.

I came to INSEAD for a specific reason – as a teenager, I had made a decision to run a business.  I had witnessed first hand some of the challenges faced by Ghana in the mid-1980s and I had become convinced that business was key to creating sustainable prosperity. After a number of years of building my career as an engineer, I realised that I needed an MBA to specifically learn how to run business end to end. My global and varied outlook meant that INSEAD was top of my list of choices. It ended up being the only business school I applied to because once I was in there was no looking around. INSEAD is finite. The great business school that only a few get to attend. We should never take our participation for granted.

So now we know why I came to INSEAD but what happened while I was here?

I am sure we have many shared experiences that we could exchange notes on. The groups! I was in a diverse group with a Belgian (never to be confused with being French he would say), a Korean, a Turk and a Swiss-German guy whose name was Spanish. Add me to the mix and you had a team that only INSEAD could possibly create. For the most part, we were a great collective but there is always one in there who pushes you beyond what you knew were your limits. The same person INSEAD ensures you are with again in P2 (because you gave the game away in that wonderful essay you wrote in P1). So I spent 4 months working with great people and just one whose biases would not let him see what I contributed to the group. At the time it felt tough. I recall actually shedding tears out of frustration. Yet I am thankful for the experience. I believe we both grew through it and it left me more prepared for the bias-based challenges that were to come as I grew my career.

I still wonder how long it took me to realise that every class at INSEAD was laced with ‘strategy’. I suspect it dawned on me in Kevin Kaiser’s Corporate Finance class. For the life of me, I was not sure why I would join a corporate finance class. Maybe I did so to stretch myself even more – as if I did not have enough on my plate with a baby in tow. It turned out to be one of the most valuable classes. Every INSEADer is a strategist. It comes in many guises but if there is one thing we are great at, it is strategic thinking.

I cannot talk about lecturers without mentioning Erin Andersen. She taught me Gaining Market Access – a class that would prove pivotal as I later worked to develop sales and marketing models in telecommunications. She was an exemplary intellectual woman. She juggled her life with such humility and patience. She took special interest in me. I loved her class but was baffled about its relevance to my future plans. Erin, ‘I don’t think branding and marketing are needed in Africa’ I said. I want to work in Africa, I need to know how I apply this. She sat me down. She told me about some of the evolution of business leadership and marketing communication in the USA. She told me that the African brand has been completely mismanaged and that Africa needed marketing more than anywhere else! How true her words would turn out to be later in life! After INSEAD she sent me a Christmas card and a signed copy of the latest edition of her book ‘Gaining Market Access’. Losing her has been a deep loss to both the academic and business communities and most certainly her family.

Life is ultimately about human connection. Bruce Kogut taught me Corporate Governance. He has remained in my corner to this day. It was in his class that we discussed the case of the mining industry and the spread of HIV in South Africa. It was a case study on ethical and moral leadership. Should the mining company take responsibility, at least in part, for the fact that their policy of separating black male workers from their families and housing them in dormitories led to a lifestyle where they were more likely to contract and pass on HIV? How will you, as business leaders in a world that needs to progress together, make decisions that go beyond growing the bottom to include growing your communities?

I left INSEAD with a completely different lens through which I view the world. Over the last 13 years, that lens has sharpened in focus as I build on the knowledge acquired. INSEAD also heightened my sense of responsibility. So if there is nothing you remember from my speech today, please remember that

you are stepping into a new world. It will look new in part because you now have a greater responsibility to it.

I left INSEAD excited that I had secured a consulting job. We all leave thinking our continued success is tied to our immediate new role. It matters, but our choices and decisions matter more. Soon after leaving I realised I was due to have my second son. What do you do as a young mother with a toddler about to have a new baby? The law says the company cannot renege based on your new status but what do you think it is best? I reflected on the requirements of starting a new role. There would be a lot of travel,  I had been told. How would my colleagues feel about the new lady who arrived pregnant? What would be the implications for my family? I decided not to go through with the role. In as much as this sounds like a woman’s dilemma,

we all, male and female, face times when we have to decide what balance we want to strike between family and work.

Of course, I was fortunate to have the support of my husband but I was professionally gutted to turn down the role. So in that time, I decided I would volunteer. I volunteered for a start-up that was fundraising. I could work at home and I could go to important meetings whenever necessary. It was the first time I had the opportunity to speak to a large group of people I did not know! I have come a long way in the public speaking aspect of my career since then.

The second thing I want you to remember is that if you are fortunate to already have a new role, enjoy the ride and be open to change. If you haven’t got a role yet, be kind to yourself. It will happen. INSEAD is a valuable calling card. I continue to benefit from an alumni network that is more like a supportive family. So if you apply what you have learnt to yourself it will all work out well.

It is my prayer that in time your personal needs will fade into the background as you seek to use the power you now wield to positively impact our world.

Never has our world needed more astute leadership. And by astute, I am not just referring to your undeniable intellect.

Our world needs you to astutely demonstrate empathy for your fellow human being as you make decisions as a business leader. That you will use your positions and privilege to positively drive progress wherever you find yourself in the world.

Despite what you may read, our world is not making progress quickly enough on critical issues of economic equity, environmental protection and the assurance of peace for all in future, to name a few areas.

It is as though for all our smarts we cannot accept each other as worthy of the basics of human life. The excess of a few at the expense of many is unacceptable.

Yes, our technology is booming but we are leaving too many behind on every continent. There are many reasons for slow progress but perhaps the most important is that we do not have enough of a critical mass of decision-makers who care about these things. The superstar leader with hubris, who in my view does not count as a leader, has come to dominate our airwaves causing many of us to lose sight of the fact that in most cases when faced with real tough calls they respond with ‘it wasn’t me’.

Leadership shines or wanes when faced with true adversity. Your participation as ethical leaders is imperative. Deliberately choose your leadership!

My graduation day on the 7th of July was a joyous occasion for my class. It was also a day of great anxiety for people in London who experienced bombings on the public transport system. That is a picture of two parts of my world – a joyous day of relief and a day on which I could not reach friends and family to confirm that they were ok. For too many people in our world today, the anxiety that people felt in London that day remains real. A reality that should not be our normal.

That is why our world needs you. Our world needs your commitment to change. Our world needs your belief in better. Our world needs your new visions of the future. Our world needs your commitment to re-create the future. 

Our world has many managers. Many innovators. Management and innovation are a great starting point. But more than anything else, our world needs YOU to lead.

Thank you.

Lucy QuistOur World Needs You (Keynote address at INSEAD MBA Graduation, 2018)