Know your "why" (SHS ABM Strand commencement 2022 speech)
08 Jun 2022 | Albert Cuadrante
This was the speech delivered by Albert Cuadrante (BS ME '93), Chief Marketing Officer of UnionBank of the Philippines, during the commencement exercises for the Senior High School class of 2022, ABM Strand, last 3 June 2022.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that it’s great to be back in campus and to be able to witness this milestone and historic event in-person, because truly, this batch is making history. The Ateneo campus, particularly the high school campus, always brings back great memories for those of us who used to roam these halls. There’s a weird sense of things being and feeling almost the same as they were over 30 years ago, even if many physical changes have already happened. In fact, I’m happy that some of the legendary teachers who taught me are still around and have also taught my 2 sons as well! Shoutout to Ms Meng De Guia, Mr Jojo Ayson, and Ms Christina Galban to name a few! Sorry if I just dated you.
I want to begin by being thankful. Thankful for the opportunity to gather today as a community. Thankful that our children can walk on stage to claim their hard-earned diplomas. Thankful that we can celebrate today with family and friends with minimal restrictions. And lastly, thankful that we can express our deep gratitude, in person, to the school administration and faculty who made sure that our children still got the quality education and formation Ateneo is known for despite the immense challenges that the pandemic posed in the last two years.
I am a Marketing professional and teacher at the Loyola Schools under the JG School of Management. In fact, some of your teachers were once my students (shout out to Mr Kynan Del Rosario); now I think that dated me. I’ve been in this field for almost 30 years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the Marketing challenges during the last two years. There was no “How to Market in the Pandemic” in any of the textbooks we used. The disruption caused by this global crisis brought even the biggest brands to their knees. Suddenly, it was no longer business as usual.
I was involved in a research project that studied different ways companies and brands responded to the challenges brought about by the lockdowns, safety and quarantine limitations and drastic changes in consumer behaviors. We tried to understand what ultimately separated those who survived, and are now recovering, versus those that continue to struggle or were forced to shut down. Let me share some of those learnings with you today because they are also valuable lessons that can help you navigate through life’s inevitable changes.
The first characteristic of those who stayed afloat, and even thrived, during the pandemic is that they were not afraid to step out of their comfort zones; to try something they’ve never done before. Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This seems so obvious yet there were many companies who stubbornly stuck to what they knew, thinking that this health crisis will be all over soon, so they felt there is really no urgent need to change anything. For instance, there were those that resisted making a quick move to digitally transform their businesses because they just didn’t have the appetite to understand how to do it and were also afraid of the cost of failure. Some insisted on cash transactions only because of the perceived risks of online payments. The only problem was people had a hard time accessing cash during lockdowns, compounded by the safety concerns that bills and coins were virus carriers. This type of what we call “legacy thinking” was, unfortunately, the common denominator of those that eventually had to close shop.
Sometimes it saddens me to still hear statements like, “But that’s not how we’ve been doing it” or the famous, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” spoken in the workplace as a way of quickly dismissing a new idea or concept. These statements are innovation-killers! You will be surprised; you will hear this even from millennials and digital natives.
A formerly dominant brand became a victim of this kind of “legacy thinking” -- Kodak. Kodak was synonymous to photography. In fact, that’s where the term “Kodakan” to refer to taking pictures came from. Kodak, for many years enjoyed unmatched global success. It’s business model relied on selling films. So, when one their engineers, Steven Sasson, invented the digital camera technology back in 1975, he was promptly dismissed by his bosses because it would disrupt their very profitable business model. A Japanese company called “Fuji Films” eventually took digital photography technology and implemented it on a large scale. And the rest, as they say, is history. Kodak had the chance to remain big and relevant, but their unwillingness to explore something out of their ordinary cost them to file for bankruptcy back in 2012.
Today’s top brands like Google, Coca-Cola and IKEA espouse and invest on continuous improvements, whether through small incremental innovations or big game-changing inventions, to make sure they remain relevant to their consumers. They create a culture in their organization that encourages people to throw in wild ideas and challenge the status quo, not changing for change’s sake, but actively looking for ways to be better, even if it means stepping into unfamiliar territory. One of my favorite quotes is by John D. Rockefeller when he said, “Do not be afraid to give up the good for the great.”
I learned that when I was willing to try something outside my usual, that I could actually be good at some of them and add them to my skill sets or, if not, at the very least they form part of my experience. For instance, I would never had discovered I enjoyed teaching if I said “no” to my former boss’ invitation for me to take over his class even if I had no previous teaching experience.
Closely related to the appetite to step out of the comfort zone is the attitude towards failure or rejection. The companies that were able to weather this storm did experience failures, in fact for many, quite a number; but, instead of being defeated, they saw these mistakes as invaluable learnings on how NOT to do things. They were then able to iterate and refine their plans until they got it right, and sometimes ended up with something that was even much better than their original plan.
Most of the apps that you use today are products of constant iterations from bug fixes and failed features. How many of you here are on Twitter? Show of hands…
Back in June 2020, there was a notable change people noticed when they logged on their Twitter accounts… Twitter introduced Fleets, its version of Instagram’s Stories. Their objective was to further increase user engagement inspired by the success of this feature on Instagram. However, it never really took off because it didn’t create a new experience among Twitter users, who were already sharing pictures and short video content. As a user, it just felt like it didn’t belong; that Twitter was trying too hard to be something it wasn’t.
So, Twitter decided to discontinue Fleets last August 2021. They have since focused their attention and efforts on Twitter Spaces, where you could share live audio messages and engage in conversations. This was a more promising feature because hearing people’s voices brought a whole new dimension to Twitter conversations. Twitter users’ rejection of Fleets redirected Twitter to focus on and improve Spaces, which is proving to be highly engaging to its users.
UnionBank helps and supports many small and medium enterprises or SMEs, some started by those who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. It’s so inspiring to see how these new entrepreneurs picked themselves up and are now earning even more than what they used to earn when they were permanently employed. One even told me that he can’t believe he’s thankful he got fired.
Some of you here probably didn’t get accepted to your first choice of school or course that you applied for. Later on, you may not also get the job you really want. At that moment, it’s okay to feel bad. But, I can tell you, I would not be where I am today if didn’t experience similar failures and rejections that forced me to take different directions.
In my first year as a college student, I got a D in our first departmental math exam. I was called by the Program Head and was highly encouraged to shift courses because she said I would likely not make it as the course became progressively more difficult. That served as a wake-up call for me that, if I wanted to graduate in my chosen course, I needed to change my study habits drastically. That was my pivot moment, which thankfully worked. I was able to still graduate in my chosen course.
As a fresh graduate, I wasn’t accepted when I first applied at Procter & Gamble, which was my dream company to work for because I really wanted to pursue a career in brand management. That redirected me to work for a small advertising firm, where I handled P&G as a client and got to know their culture and way of thinking in the process. I applied at P&G again the following year, got accepted and spent a good number of my foundational years of my Marketing career there.
Lastly, most of the businesses that were able to hurdle the pandemic stayed true to the higher calling – their purpose. That became their North Star; the beacon that guided them to make the necessary short-term sacrifices and profit hits in order to stay committed to their mission.
Successful businesses are clear on their “What”, which pertains to the products and services they provide, and their “Why”, their purpose – the fundamental reason they are in their chosen field of business. Apple aims to enrich people’s lives through its technology. Nike’s purpose is to unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all, UnionBank is about inclusive prosperity through digital and open banking.
What do you notice about the examples of purpose statements I shared? All of them do not do business for mere profit, which by the way, is still very important so they can have the resources to fulfill their purpose. They have articulated their commitment for the greater good. Their purpose serves as a good unifying mission for their employees too, who feel good knowing that their work aligns with their personal values and have a positive impact on society -- something which became very important during the pandemic.
As individuals, it is also important for us know our “Why”, the purpose that motivates our choices and actions. Knowing your purpose helps clarify your definition of success, which shouldn’t only be motivated by money. It helps you make life decisions more confidently, like what career to eventually pursue. It gives meaning to your efforts and work, especially during very challenging times.
At this stage in your young lives, I don’t expect you to have the this all figured out. In fact, many full-grown adults are still struggling to sort this out themselves. But, as you enter “adulting” it is important that you already start thinking about your “Why”.
Where do you start? Let me share some pointers that I’ve used when guiding companies, brands and individuals in writing-out their Purpose Statements.
First, keep in mind that we are all works-in-progress. That means you may not get it right the first time. Very few do. So don’t worry if you can’t determine this right away.
Which brings us to the second point – self-awareness. Think about the top 3 to 5 strengths that set you apart from others. What do you feel you do well and really excel at? What allows you to strive for Magis? Are you good with numbers? Do you like solving complex problems? Do your friends like going to you for advice? Do you like creating things? Are you a natural speaker?
Once you have determined your strengths, ask yourself how you can use these to positively impact others. Our purpose is never about ourselves. We develop ourselves to make our world a better place. To be men and women for others. To help those who don’t have the same means and resources. To do our share in taking care of the environment. To create opportunities that can help equalize people’s chances to succeed. To defend those who cannot defend themselves.
Your graduation is also extra memorable because you are graduating during an Ignatian year, where we commemorate the 500th year anniversary of the conversion of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, after being hit by a cannonball. The pandemic is our cannonball. It disrupted our lives and forced us to pause and made us realize what truly mattered in our lives. We are now beginning to recover. Let us take inspiration from St Ignatius who came out of his injury a better version of himself.
To our dear 2022 ABM graduates, I ask you to:
Step out of your comfort zone and be Magis.
Treat failure and rejection as forms of redirection.
Find your Purpose to make humanity better.
Do everything For The Greater Glory of God.
And, in the words of St. Ignatius, “Go forth and set the world on fire!”
Thank you and have a good rest of the morning.
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