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A Sense of Direction (2013 Fall Commencement Ceremony Friday)

  • Date: 12/16/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Well before many of you were born, an interesting business concept began to take shape.

    Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad wrote about “strategic intent,” which they defined as "an ambitious and compelling ... dream that energizes ... that provides the emotional and intellectual energy for the journey ... to the future."

    Thus, "strategic intent" conveys "a sense of direction ... a sense of discovery ... (and) a sense of destiny. "

    Over time it has become clear that this concept works equally well for individuals as it does for companies and corporations.

    In short, strategic intent asks you to state what it is that you or your company want to be, and it insists that you do so in powerful and ambitious terms!  It is a form of the old question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

    But, why is "strategic intent" so important to you?

    I suggest that strategic intent can be the key to your future success and happiness.  A few stories will help illustrate why that is so:

    After London's Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren -- England's great architect of the 17th century -- was commissioned to rebuild 53 of the city's churches and many of its public buildings.

    When beginning the mammoth task, which would take more than 30 years to complete, Wren surrounded himself with a team of accomplished craftsmen -- many of whom would work for him for the rest of their lives.

    Still, the projects required so many workers that quite a few did not even know the great architect.

    One day, while Wren was overseeing work on St. Paul's Cathedral -- he took a walk among the workers and talked to them.

    Wren approached one stonecutter and asked, "What are you doing?" The man replied, "As anyone can see I'm hewing stone!"  Wren put the same question to a second stonecutter who said, "I'm earning five shilling two-pence a day."  Then Wren asked a third stonecutter, "What are you doing?" And the man answered, "I'm building a great cathedral."

    That statement, my friends, is one of strategic intent!  It is a statement of a vision that guides individual actions.

    Within each of you, there are great dreams, "cathedrals" that you want to build.  Yet, sometimes it is all too easy to focus on the chore of "hewing stone", or earning our "five shilling two-pence" a day -- instead of seeing the great cathedral.  But why would anyone consciously opt to adhere to such limiting views, when, instead, they can go about their daily lives with a powerful sense of purpose.

    More importantly, which of these three men had the potential to take on greater responsibilities, to rise in his craft, perhaps even to eventually earn some degree of respect and fame? Is it the fellow who is focused on his wages?  Is it the man who sees his job as drudgery?  Or is it the person who sees the big picture, and his contribution to it? 

    In the early 1920s, Thomas Watson Senior became general manager of a small company that manufactured meat slicers, time clocks and tabulators. But, he had a vision for a machine that could process and store information -- so he renamed his company to match his grand vision.

    The new name . . . International Business Machines Corporation.

    Years later, near the end of his lifetime, Watson was asked, "When did you envision IBM becoming so successful?"  His reply was simply, "At the very beginning."

    IBM, which is today a large part of our information age, was born out of Mr. Watson's strategic intent...his dream…his purpose.  Sir Christopher Wren and Thomas Watson were more than dreamers, more than just an architect and a businessperson; they were more because they dreamed, and dared to do.  Their strategic intent, their bold vision, guided deliberate actions to create great opportunities.

    Dreaming and daring to do are fundamental to success -- whether in architecture, business, or in life.

    Think back to Christopher Wren's stonecutters.  Their actions without a vision were merely chores. But, the same actions -- accompanied by a vision -- were works of joy. Just as Mr. Watson’s small company was transformed by his vision.  Strategic intent can be a powerful driver for opportunity, success, hope, and determination . . . and daring to do.

    Now is the time to take the first step, to now begin to live your lives with strategic intent, and to be guided by your dreams, to build your own "cathedrals."

    You should know that St. Paul's Cathedral became Christopher Wren's masterpiece, a masterpiece that we can witness to this day, and that as a tribute to his accomplishments, he was laid to rest in that same place where a plaque commemorates his efforts for posterity.

    And near his plaque, there is another that reads, "Remember the men who made shapely the stones of St. Paul's Cathedral, 1672-1708, (master masons) Edward Strong and Thomas Strong and all who laboured with thee..."

    Some 300 years later, those simple artisans are remembered alongside their architect . . . because they, too, shared the vision of a cathedral.

    Perhaps nothing says it better than the words of the great German poet, Goethe:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

    “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now.”

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Akron family everywhere -- I salute you, the Fall 2013 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.




  • Topic Category: Commencement Address
  • Tags: strategic intent, Christopher Wren, Thomas Watson, IBM, St. Paul's Cathedral, Goethe
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