Media & Speeches

University of Newcastle Graduation Address

It's pleasure to be here today on the land of the traditional custodians. 

I want to acknowledge their elders, ancestors and continuing connection to this place. 

I grew up not far from Newcastle on the central coast. 

I consider this university to be an icon of educational innovation, and also a symbol of what a great regional university can do for a community. 

There's the economic contribution of some five billion dollars over the decade from 2013. 

And the fact that the university is the second largest employer in the Hunter. 

But there's also the incalculable contribution the university makes to the region's cultural vibrancy. 

So it truly is a great honour to be here, and in my short address I want to cover three themes. 

  • Firstly, I want to outline how important this day is for you and your families. 
  • Secondly, I want to challenge you to think creatively about applying what you have achieved in the world of work. 
  • And, finally, I want to talk about the vital importance of the disciplines you have undertaken to our wellbeing as a society. 

Why today is important. 

So to my first theme – celebrating your achievements. 

When I graduated from the University of NSW, it was a proud day. 

I was the first person in my family to graduate from university. 

I recall my extended family of aunts, uncles, grandmothers, mother and sisters somehow by-passing the restrictive ticketing arrangements of the university (which I'm sure are still in place) so they could all attend. 

So whenever I hear people saying they couldn't be bothered going to their graduation – I say what a missed opportunity to celebrate. 

  • To celebrate your hard work
  • To celebrate the patience and support of your friends and family, and mostly
  • To celebrate the fact that we live in a country where our societal wealth and prosperity has made it possible for more than half the adult population to acquire a tertiary qualification. 
  • In my role with the Business Council, I can tell you that we are obsessed with educational attainment. 
  • We know that the education and skills people acquire are not just of value to the individual, but are a comparative advantage for the country. 

Education is the principal vehicle for shoring up equality of opportunity. 

It is the great enabler, the great equaliser, a capacity builder, a cohesive force in our society. 

The extraordinary value of education comes at both a technical level in terms of the specific skills you have acquired. 

But perhaps even more important, are the capabilities you have developed on a more generic level – the capacity to think, to problem solve, to collaborate and communicate. 

I don't wish to offend your learned teachers but it may well be, as our economy undergoes an unprecedented level of change and disruption, that these generic skills will serve you best.

When I think back on my time at university, I'm not sure whether it was the nature of the qualification that afforded me to the professional success I've had in life or the generic skills and capabilities I acquired. 

I very much enjoyed delving into Karl Popper's logic of scientific discovery, for example. 

And while I don't remember a whole lot of the detail, I haven't forgotten the main lesson of the work:

Assumptions that all swans are white can be overturned in a second. You have to be open to other ideas, the counterfactual. 

University has given you a discipline, but hopefully what you've really gained is the power of the enquiring mind. 

Nothing will serve you better than to question, to read for pleasure, to think issues through and to be open to a contest of ideas. 

Which brings me to my second theme – applying what you have acquired to the world of work, and to society. 

I don't know whether many of you have jobs lined up or how you think that might play out. 

I suspect a good number of you would be sitting here today wondering what position you are qualified for now. 

My advice is not to fixate on finding the job that will put you on the path for whatever career you have in mind...

Instead, I suggest you consider how best to nurture the skills and capabilities I've just spoken about, and the values and the relationships, through a life that will most likely involve many jobs, some of them unimaginable to us today. 

What you have learned and practiced here: 

  • team work and collaboration
  • insight
  • research
  • evidence gathering
  • argument
  • how to structure thoughts and ideas...

These are things that will equip you to adapt and thrive in a work environment undergoing near constant discontinuity. 

Chances are, you will all have multiple jobs, multiple careers, and experience workplaces that look and feel and operate utterly differently from each other. 

Based on current trends, many of you will freelance, work from home, and in very different settings through working lives that could extends into your 70s. 

You will be employed in novel ways that allow businesses and their workers to be nimble and innovative in a vastly competitive global economy. 

This will challenge you also to think about mobility and risk taking. 

You will not realise your full potential unless you are willing to move. 

Many of you will be excited by that, some will be uncomfortable. My strong advice is: be open to it. 

The generic capability you gain from mobility is something employers will increasingly value. 

As for risk taking, you cannot be successful in business, or frankly in life, without it. 

As Business Council President Catherine Livingstone says, the greatest risk a company can take is to not to take a risk. 

That is the same for you –

I spent a good deal of time in Silicon Valley last year and I was struck by the gaping difference in the whole concept of risk and failure being seen as essential ingredients of success – failure, of course, is only a problem if you don't learn from it. 

Keep in mind also that sometimes it can be a good idea to move sideways, or even backwards, to achieve the forward momentum you're ultimately looking for. 

Not everything in life is vertical, linear, or headed forward. Qantas, one of our member companies, had to go backwards and sideways to go forward. 

At two key moments in my professional life, I chose to move sideways, and it was those decisions that afforded me the chance to make sustained progress because I learned from them, and matured. 

The relationships shaped here at university are also invaluable – they will allow you to thrive as a person as well as a professional. 

Keep them all your life. 

I have found through my professional life that whenever I've experienced difficult challenges, it's been the people with whom I have had these long, trusted relationship who help me find my way through. 

These enduring relationships are enriching in and of themselves, but they will also be enormously important to you in your professional lives, often in unexpected ways. 

Another piece of advice from my own experiences is to think about what your qualification and capability allow you to put back into the community. 

Don't dwell on a job title. Think about what you want to influence – what change you want to bring about. 

I would encourage you to examine roles in public and non-government sectors as much as you think about private sector roles. 

For me, it's been the public sector roles I've had that have been among the most challenging and rewarding. 

Your decisions and all that you do should also be consistent with your values. 

Values matter - ethics, integrity, honesty, and the celebration of shared success. 

A commitment to adhere to your personal values will be enormously important to your work and in your life. 

Which brings me to my third and most important theme – the disciplines you are leaving this university with, to go out and practice. 

When I think about the disciplines this cohort of students are leaving with today, which focus on:

  • Business
  • Business administration
  • Commerce, and
  • Human Resources management...

I believe you are among the most important people to the future wellbeing of our society. 

I don't just say that because I am head of a business organisation. 

I say it because I passionately believe that social progress is driven by economic progress, which is driven by businesses, be they large or small. 

It is business that creates the jobs, the wherewithal for our country to reinvest in the things that are important to us – education, skills, health, the environment and infrastructure. 

I represent CEOs who run large businesses, and I hope you will all get the chance to work in one or more of these businesses at some time in your career. 

I want you to experience up close how well managed they are, how well governed they are, the values they hold. 

As graduates of business and business related disciplines, you must be ambassadors and champions of business. 

Because in being a champion for business, you are a champion of a job for a young person, of a service somebody needs, of a tax dollar paid, and of a better society. 

When you hear people spouting cheap, easy criticisms of big business, think about what this country would be:

  • without the world's two largest mining companies
  • without four of the strongest banks in our history, and possibly in the world
  • without some of the most innovative retailers, who are the biggest employers in the country
  • without the 20 billion dollars in tax paid by just 12 of the largest companies – that's one third of Australia's total company tax take
  • without businesses that employ 1 in 10 Australians (and that's just member companies of the Business Council!) 

Why are these companies referred to as big business - the "big end of town"? Because:

  • they employ a lot of people
  • they have a lot of customers
  • they pay a lot of tax
  • they have a lot of shareholders, and pay them a whole lot in dividends. 

It's scale that creates that wealth, and without it our society would become moribund - bankrupt and bereft. 

I am proud to serve this community, knowing that it doesn't always get it all right – no sector does. 

To those of you who are graduating from Human Resource courses, I want to impress upon you the fundamental importance of people in everything I've said. 

It's people who innovate, people who take risks, who collaborate and create successful workplace culture. 

And it is the quality of our human capital that gives Australia a huge comparative advantage. 

There is no more responsible job in a business or government organisation than the people who work with the human capital. 

So, to finish, let me return to my first point and say that it is only by unlocking the full potential of people - their skills, capabilities, and values - that our national will realise its full potential. 

Go forward from today with pride, confidence and a sense of great achievement. 

Build on what have learnt, and consider how it equips to put back into our society. 

Go forward and commit to unleashing your own full potential. 

I wish you well.