Hot Take: No One Remembers Commencement Speeches (Even Mine)

This past weekend, I gave a speech—one of the hardest I’ve ever had to deliver. 

Yet it wasn’t about the complexities of building generative AI strategies, and it wasn’t spoken to a conference room filled with CEOs. 

It was a commencement address to the graduating class of 2024 at my high school alma mater, Cranbrook Kingswood School

As a “Distinguished Alumni,” being invited to speak to this group of Michigan students was particularly moving. In an interview for the student paper, I didn’t mince words: I said that I found my voice at Cranbrook, and it’s the truth. It was there that I learned to think, to express myself, and to write.

I’m now an author of a half-dozen books.

It was there that I took on leadership roles for the first time. 

I’m now an advisor to some of the world’s top executives. 

There, I learned to balance the shifting needs of academic work and extracurriculars.

I’m now a go-to expert in disruption.

You see what I’m getting at, don’t you? The tenor of learning was the greatest I’ve ever experienced. It was the “best” education I had—and I went to Harvard University and Harvard Business School.

So, as I sat down to write my speech, I reflected on my time at Cranbrook—’80s haircuts and all—and thought about what I would have liked to have heard when I graduated. 

I could have tapped into the usual suspects: Finding courage. Embracing Failure. Striving for greatness.

These were, no doubt, the topics broached by speakers at my commencement ceremonies. Of course, I couldn’t remember a single piece of advice that was uttered. 

What could I remember? How I felt. 

I remember the tremendous joy, the sense of accomplishment, and the excitement about the possibilities ahead. It felt like being on the precipice of something extraordinary. 

And that's what I decided to focus on in my speech. Not the specific words but the feelings I hoped to inspire in those graduates. 

Because even if you don't remember what I say, I hope you will remember how I made you feel.

Still, I’d love to leave you with the closing remarks in the hopes they inspire you:

“Embrace your awesomeness, revel in the messiness, and always keep adventure close to your heart. The world is waiting for you, and I do not doubt you will make it more awesome.”

Your turn: What do you recall from the commencement addresses you’ve heard in your lifetime? Or, better, what did you feel?

— Charlene

What I Can’t Stop Talking About: 

  • A mother of a solution. If you ever want to discover the Next Great Big Idea and make a ton of $$$, just follow a parent around for a day and try to solve their problems. The fact is, those problems are usually incredibly complex and contextual. There’s no app or software or tech that’s capable of solving them. This may change with the rise of AI agents. Read this for a preview of what these agents could do for you.

  • In my leader feelings. Think about the best leader you’ve ever worked for. Next, think about how they made you feel. See, I’ve always believed that leadership is a relationship, and the biggest learning we take away from our leaders is the feeling they evoke within us. Want to know who my exemplar leader is and the feeling he evoked? Find out.

  • Chaos vs. bureaucracy. One of my favorite quotes at the moment is from my co-author, Katia Walsh. “If you have structure without flexibility, that’s bureaucracy. But flexibility without structure is chaos.” How do you have both?

My Latest: 

  • Catch up on my latest webinars! You can still review the slides and recordings of my two new webinars. In “Unlocking The Power of Generative AI,” I explain how to set up a generative AI “playground,” three ways to elevate your leadership with step-by-step instructions, and the broad outlines of creating a strategy. In “Developing a Winning Generative AI Strategy for Competitive Advantage,” I walk through the steps needed to create a cohesive AI strategy. 

  • My upcoming book. If you’re reading this, you are the target audience for my new book, Winning with Generative AI. Sign up for updates and early access and join my exclusive LinkedIn launch community.

  • AI’s impact on culture. If navigating generative AI feels like walking through a rainstorm, then your company culture is the umbrella. Is your umbrella flimsy? Or is it secure enough to keep you (mostly) dry as you make your way? Sami Hassanyeh, the SVP of Digital Strategy at AARP, knows what makes for a good umbrella. In Leading Disruption, I’m sharing the biggest learnings from my conversation with Sami.

  • Communication is the key. Effective strategy begins and ends with good communication. If you can’t communicate your generative AI plans—internally or externally—with clarity, you can’t expect those plans to get very far. Join me on Tuesday, June 18 at 9 a.m. PT / 12 p.m. ET on LinkedIn and Facebook Live for a frank conversation on the importance of communication! 

My Upcoming Appearances:

If you want me to speak at an upcoming event or conduct a workshop with your executive team, please drop me a note at [email protected]

Thank you for subscribing to The Big Gulp Newsletter, which goes out to thousands of disruptors every other week to help you on your disruption journey—plus a curated recommendation list of the things I can’t stop talking about. 

Want more? Check out my weekly publication, Leading Disruption, on LinkedIn.

If you found this note helpful, please forward and share it with someone who needs the inspiration today. If you were forwarded this, please consider subscribing.

Charlene Li

If you found this note helpful, please forward and share it with someone who needs the inspiration today. If you were forwarded this, please consider subscribing.