Commencement 2024: Things They Probably Forgot to Teach You in Business School

By Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile
May 28, 2024 9:50 AM ET
Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile, in a cap and gown at a podium

Watch the full commencement speech here.

It was an absolute honor to be back at my alma mater to address the MBA Class of 2024 at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Delivering this commencement speech felt like a full-circle moment, not just for me, but as a celebration of the amazing journeys these future leaders are about to embark on.

As I stood before them, I thought about the sheer amount of anticipation, discovery and possibility that awaits each graduate. It gave me the unique opportunity to help connect the dots between everything they learned at Wharton and the lessons that can only come from just diving into the experiences that life brings.

Here’s what I shared:

Thank you for the great introduction, Dean James. Members of the faculty, families and supporters, and especially, to the graduates of 2024, thank you for inviting me to share this moment with you.

In a way, I come to you today from the future. As a Wharton grad who has been away from school for well over 30 years, I can represent in at least a couple of respects, a voice from your own future. And so with that perspective, I decided to title my talk today, “Things They Probably Forgot to Teach You in Business School.” Now, I know I do so at some risk, as I’m standing here in front of the dean and faculty and graduates of the greatest business school on earth, but what the heck, here goes. In all seriousness, these are FOUR things I wish I had appreciated when I was leaving this incredible place.

I’ll start with a simple one. Take a chance on yourself. No really — Go At Risk. It might sound obvious, but if you want others to take a chance on you, you have to go first.

They teach us management here at Wharton, and they do it better than anyone — but the first fallacy of management is the name. Managers aren’t here to manage things. Managers, at our best, are here to change things. Wharton grads are here to change trajectories. And in order to do that, you have to be willing to take a leap.

Think about it. Without people being willing to step up and step out, an organization will keep running, but it won’t keep getting better. For most organizations, just maintaining the status quo, or repeating last year’s then-successful results, would be considered a fail this year. Organizations are expected to successfully grow — and leaders are therefore here to bend the curve, not just manage it.

That is certainly the main lesson I’ve drawn from 12 years in leadership at T-Mobile. To me it is SO important to make sure that at T-Mobile, we are never satisfied with the status quo. This idea is codified in one of our five core values in our culture, and we call it “We Won’t Stop.” In the last 12 years, we’ve gone from a $6 billion market cap to $195 billion, and become the world’s most valuable telecommunications company of any kind, by doing one thing: constantly striving. Relentlessly finding new ways to grow, finding ways to be able to afford to do more for customers, to put them first, and to change the rules in their favor. To do that, we’ve had to step it up, and change some trajectories in our business, time and time again.

And listen, there’s only one way to do that. Take some smart risks — with your business, and therefore with yourself. Take your shot. Speak up. Raise your hand. Be the one who, day in and day out, jumps into the big, hard project, or blazes a new trail. When people see you taking a chance on yourself, an amazing thing will happen. They’ll begin to invest in you, too. It’s a simple formula: Take a chance on yourself, and inspire someone to take a chance on you.

Now, a quick caveat. If you talk to successful people my age, thriving at the top of their fields, whether in business or Hollywood or just about anywhere, most will tell you with some humility that LUCK played a big role in getting us here. Just plain luck. It’s true. But by stepping out, taking smart risks, not accepting the status quo, you can maximize your chances of being lucky. It often comes in the form of someone else being willing to take a chance on us, to give us an opportunity we wouldn’t have had otherwise. That comes from relationships. Take a chance on yourself, and find someone who will take a chance on you.

And that leads me to my second thought for you. If in doubt, reach out. Actively foster these relationships and connections you’ve made at Wharton and throughout life. Actively foster them. And no, “liking” somebody’s social media post doesn’t count.

It’s well known that business school is partly, and some would say perhaps even mostly, about the relationships that we make. But only YOU can determine the value of those relationships in your life, by actively fostering them.

The greatest highlight from my time here walked into my life on move-in day, first year. Suzanne and I became inseparable from that point on, and now we have been married more than 30 years! She’s the single best thing that ever happened to me, and she’s here with me today.

So, I can attest — the relationships you started here are important. It’s not too late to turn even casual acquaintances from your time here into lifelong friendships and relationships that matter. And I’m here, from the future, to tell you that this one thing will matter to you more and more as you go on.

I recently spent a fantastic weekend with four roommates and friends from my time here. We had a wonderful time, filled with meaningful conversations about the things that men our age experience, and about our time together back in school, and a lot more. And you know what, it was actually the first time all five of us were together for a non-wedding weekend since the day we left here, over 30 years ago. What a shame that is. I let long gaps in time emerge in these relationships, and I shouldn’t have. I would think about these guys often, but I didn’t usually reach out when I did. I always wondered if it would seem random, or even a bother. Daniel Pink, in his fantastic book “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward,” points out repeatedly that most of the regrets people experience later in life are regrets of omission. It turns out that we regret the actions we didn’t take, more than the actions we did. And that goes to building relationships more than anything. If in doubt, reach out. …

The third thing they might have forgotten to teach you: Stoke your successes, instead of fighting your fires. In life and in business, pay less attention to trying to solve what’s not working, and more attention amplifying what is. Double down on the things that are working. Stoke your successes.

When it comes to career advice, for me, the phrase “follow your passions” puts a little too much pressure on younger people to know what their passion is. An easier hack is to figure out what’s working in your life, and do more of that. Something you find you’re good at, where your contributions seem to come naturally. Do more of it. Get help and coaching on those things, not the problem areas. Do even more, and get even better. This is about following your competence. I’ll promise you this: You’ll find yourself enjoying the things that you feel yourself getting better and better at. One of them might even become a passion.

Business is the same way. We’ve all seen those red/green/yellow-light dashboards that companies use to measure progress against goals across projects. But here’s the thing: Most companies are fixated on the red, obsessing over what’s going wrong. I think that’s a big mistake. I’m interested in the red, and solving an obvious problem can be very productive, but I am much more focused on the green — what’s working — and how to replicate and grow that success. It’s far more productive and rewarding to stoke successes than to constantly fight fires!

Rather than getting sucked into what’s broken, great leaders invest more energy making the green projects, well, greener. They focus on building on the team’s strengths and wins. Moving winning projects along faster. Investing more in successful projects. Something interesting then happens: Others across the organization start feeling motivated to replicate elements of the winning project’s success formula, and more wins tend to follow.

Don’t get me wrong … there will always be day-to-day problems we have to solve. But often, the higher ROI option is to zero in on the thing that’s working really well — and invest even more in it! Stoke your successes.

The final thing they might not have taught you here at Wharton? All business basically boils down to storytelling. I’m here to tell you that the essential skill of all business is storytelling. I’m talking about the power of authentic and truthful storytelling to advance your agenda, whatever it is.

Think about it. If you are a hiring manager recruiting a candidate, you are a storyteller. If you are a manager working to motivate your team, you are a storyteller. If you are leading engineers to build a new product, you are a storyteller first. Good finance people can maintain great spreadsheets, but the best finance people can tell the story that those numbers portray. The startups that get funded? They aren’t just the ones with the strongest financial plan — they are the ones with the strongest story. In a negotiation, having leverage is helpful, but successfully using that leverage to your advantage will depend on how you weave the story to bring your counterparty along.

And graduates, I’m sure you’ve learned already, when you are speaking with recruiters or investors about your career, you become the author of your own autobiographical story. It’s a story of where you’ve been, where you might be going, and why. And that “why” — the core motivation of the central character, you — is one of the most important parts of any story, especially yours. YOU have the power to connect with people’s emotions and inspire action, to disarm people with a laugh, and to humanize complex ideas and make them relatable. And you’ll find that these skills will become your most important tools, in business and in life.

In a few minutes, they are going to open those doors and send us all back out in the world, ending your brief two-year time here in the cozy bubble of Wharton. When they do, remember the things they don’t always teach in business school. Step out. Take a chance on yourself, and find someone who will take a chance on you. When in doubt, reach out. You won’t regret it. Commit to fostering these relationships you’ve built here for a lifetime. Stoke your successes. There’s nothing wrong with solving problems, but you’ll maximize your personal ROI by doubling down on the things that are working, in your life and your career. And be a storyteller. It is the essential art of business.

So, when they do open those doors, go out there and write your own story. And graduates, I can’t wait to see where your stories take you!

Congratulations to the Wharton Class of 2024!