Karen Kaplan speaks at spring 2013 graduation ceremony

April 25, 2013

Karen Kaplan, President of Hill Holliday and Chairman at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce delivered a poignant speech to over 1,100 graduates – the largest graduating class ever – at the College of Professional Studies 2013 spring graduation ceremony held in Matthew’s Arena on Sunday, April 21, 2013.  Following is a transcript of her speech:

Karen Kaplan:

Thank you very much, Dean LaBrie. I want to thank the University very much for extending this invitation to come and share my thoughts with you. In particular, I want to acknowledge the College and University leadership, Provost Director, Dean LaBrie, Executive Director Kevin Currie, members of the Dean’s Advisory and Academic Counsels, esteemed College faculty and staff, honored alumni, accomplished graduates, and proud friends and families. Congratulations to you all on reaching this important milestone and achievement. Give yourselves a hand. You all have earned it. (Applause)

Well, ladies and gentlemen, if you ever needed proof that America is still the land of opportunity, you’re looking at it. I graduated from college a French lit major in the middle of back-to-back recessions, when unemployment rates were even higher than they are today. I started at Hill Holliday in 1982, as the receptionist. My prior work experience included baby-sitting and waitressing, both of which have come in surprisingly handy. And I’m not kidding. At the time, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to work at Hill Holliday or even in advertising, as much as I wanted to meet the then President, and founder, Jack Connors, who had personally interviewed and rejected 40 candidates before me. He’s very particular. I fully intended to go to law school the following year, just as soon as I had saved up enough money to pay for it. But as my boss of 25 years, Jack Connors, likes to tell the story, he never paid me enough to actually go to law school. So here I am, 30 years later. And during my time at Hill Holliday, I’ve had the same 12 jobs everyone my age has had. I’ve just been lucky to have had them all at Hill Holliday. I raised my hand for every opportunity. And I never let the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing stop me. And along the way, I was recognized and rewarded and allowed to grow, which really says more about the specialness and the uniqueness of Hill Holliday than it does about me.

I spent most of my career in account management. And in January of 2001, I was promoted to Managing Director of the Boston office. 2001 was not the most pleasant year of my career but it was probably the year that I learned the most about management and responsibility. I inherited someone else’s revenue forecast. And that someone else was no longer at the agency. And when I saw the forecast, I knew why. It was totally unrealistic. But, of course, we’d committed to it and therefore we were obligated to do our best to deliver it. In February of 2001, the dot-com bubble burst. In June we lost one of our largest clients. And then, on September 11th, the unthinkable happened. So 2001 was my management boot camp. At the end of that year, I was promoted to President of the Boston office and then, in June of 2007, to President of the network.

And I’d like to share just a few of the observations I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned during my journey, a sort of navigation system that I believe can help anyone be successful in life, while staying true to who you are, or, as I like to call it, how to get where you want by being who you are. The first lesson is that originality requires attention. We live in a world where everyone is connected all the time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that multitasking has added six hours of media time to the average person’s day. But we still have only 24 hours in a day, which means we aren’t fully paying attention to any one thing. Digital natives, many of you, switch media format 27 times an hour. Yet we live in a world where there is a premium placed on the creation of original ideas. And it’s my experience that the act of generating original thought is virtually impossible when you’re busy transacting with your head down. So just make sure you pull up every once in a while, because the ability to create something original out of absolutely nothing will serve you well in whatever career you choose.

The second lesson is to always be confident and optimistic. Just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out as easily as the next person. In this country, it doesn’t matter who you were or where you came from. It only matters where you want to go. And anything truly is possible. I would encourage you to think of confidence as another word for the absence of fear and as optimism as another word for hope, and approach everything believing you can succeed — and eventually, you will.

The third is to embrace what makes you different. We’re all unique. From an early age, my parents taught me to be proud of my uniqueness, that personal differences should be accentuated and can be our competitive advantage in life, that, if you know who you are and you’re proud of who you are, you can very easily turn perceived liabilities into assets.

The fourth is to always work hard. Personally, I’ve found that it is remarkably easy to out-work most people. When I started out in the advertising business, I knew that, if I worked a few hours a day longer than most people, with a couple hours thrown in on the weekends, that in a few years I would pass by people who had a ten-year head start on me. One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

The fifth is to keep your eyes wide open. My mother taught me to be a lifelong learner, to retain the natural curiosity that we all have as children. Successful people are inspired not by how much they know but by how much they don’t know. So they never stop learning. And they give change a big warm hug. They know they can always be better and do better, that smart is what you get, not what you are.

The sixth is to go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated. One of the keys to being successful is finding the right environment that will allow you to succeed. Not every environment is right for every person. I tell people not to be afraid to make a change if they feel their unique talents and contributions aren’t being appreciated or acknowledged. The right environment can make a world of difference.

The seventh is about humility. Or as my boss used to say, today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster. Growing up, my father always used to remind me that a pat on the back is just six inches from a kick in the butt. I used to think that he wasn’t being very supportive. But now I realize that he never wanted me to be too impressed with myself or to get too accustomed to success. Truly successful people don’t take themselves too seriously. When they get to the top, they don’t forget where they came from. We all know how important it is to be nice to people on the way up, because what goes up eventually comes down.

The eighth is, to whom much is given, much is expected. Never forget how lucky you are. And always reach out to others, who deserve just as much. I have found that most people have no idea what they’re capable of and a little bit of love and encouragement goes a long way. This past Thursday, at the interfaith service of healing after the marathon bombings, our Governor Patrick quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., to remind us that, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive hate. Only love can do that.” And I think that is something very powerful and important to always keep in mind. Never underestimate the power you have to influence others. And remember that your candle loses nothing when it lights another.

Finally, the ninth lesson I’ve learned is that you’ve gotta believe. Successful people believe they don’t have to become someone, because they already are someone. They wake up in the morning believing that they can and will make a difference. And you know what? They do.

Looking out across the arena at all your beautiful, proud, smiling faces, I can’t help but notice that you don’t exactly look like a traditional graduating class. In fact, you are representative of what I would call a modern graduating class. Demographically, you are more female than male. You are diverse and global. Many of you are first-generation college participants. And your average age is 31. Many of you are parents, many single working parents, who have completed your first degree or earned a professional master’s degree that will make you more employable. Most of you are completing your degree on a part-time basis. And a large number of you speak English as a second language. All of which makes you a superb example of a modern graduating class and, I believe, better prepared to succeed and to drive much-needed change in our country.

For those of you in the world of business or considering going into the world of business, and I would strongly encourage you to do so, because corporate America needs you… We need your diverse perspective, background, and experiences. We need your thoughtfulness. We need your ability to balance and empathize. We need you. When I look out over this arena, I am encouraged and optimistic. I believe that we are reaching a critical inflection point, because the leadership composition of most American companies has not kept pace with the environmental forces driving change. Gallup has been measuring trust in American society for over 40 years. And their data shows that trust in institutions of all kinds, organized religion, healthcare, big business, and government, has been declining for decades. And when we look at the disruptive dynamics modern companies face today, from competition to collaboration, from secrecy to transparency, from individual success to community success, and from the institutional era to what we now call the human era, and we ask are we seeing a corresponding amount of change and innovation among the leadership of corporate America, the answer is a resounding no. In other words, we live in a digital world but we have an analog leadership culture. We know that change agents and innovators always come from the outside. Clay Shirky, a prominent thinker on the social and economic effects of digital technologies, contends that it’s instinctive for institutions to try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution. And when the status quo is threatened, their goal actually shifts to self-preservation. So when institutions are told they have to change, they go through something like the Kübler-Ross stages a person goes through when told they have a fatal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. And then, when I think about how you all will lead, as modern leaders, and how much better suited your leadership style is likely to be relative to the challenges and opportunities of modern, human-era companies, I’m even more optimistic.

Modern leaders are values-based. Their values are the filter through which they view decisions and determine the right action to take, whether in business or in their personal lives. They have the moral courage to apply their value not only to everyday decisions but also when confronted with big, difficult choices. Modern leaders view the world holistically. Their definition of success is multifaceted. So they think about career, family, personal, and community success. In problem-solving, they go beyond the numbers. And as a result, they are likely to identify opportunities, risks, and gaps traditional leaders may not recognize. Modern leaders are collaborative and inclusive. They build productive relationships and encourage everyone to contribute to discussions. And they focus on synthesizing all ideas into a common solution that is stronger and more creative than the solution any one individual might develop. They are non-hierarchical and they judge ideas on merit. For modern leaders, the goal is not to get their idea adopted. It is to get to the best ideas. Modern leaders invest time in consultation. They pull together those who will be affected by a decision and those who will have to implement the solution. Modern leaders are open to considering alternatives and are willing to adapt their ideas to achieve the overall objective, resulting in better decisions and buy-in that can dramatically reduce the time it takes to get to implementation. Modern leaders create shared goals. They bring a commitment to a purpose greater than themselves to the way they lead. They place a high priority on defining and communicating goals for the business. And they help employees understand how each can contribute to the success of the company. By creating an environment where achieving the company’s goals also contributes to employees achieving their personal goals, modern leaders generate increased commitment and motivation. And finally, modern leaders generate trust from employees. They realize people do not park their personal goals and responsibilities at the door when they come to work, that life can be messy, and that things don’t always happen in a straight line. Modern leaders get to know their employees. They see potential in the people they work with and help them develop that potential. When employees believe leaders understand what they are facing in their lives, this level of trust reinforces employees’ commitment to the success of the business.

So congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. I can’t wait to see the impact you will all make as you ascend to the top of your chosen professions, as modern leaders. As long as you’re curious, open, and collaborative, you pay attention, you’re confident and optimistic, you embrace what makes you different, you continue to work hard and remain humble, you pay it forward, you believe in yourself, and you don’t forget to have some fun along the way, the sky’s the limit. Thank you for the honor of addressing you and for allowing me (applause) to share this important day. Congratulations!

More about graduation

The College of Professional Studies celebrates two graduations, fall and spring, in keeping with the College’s flexible approach to education offering an array of options to students including part-time and full-time studies, Fast-Track, online, and hybrid formats. To learn more about graduation, visit our 2013 graduation web page.

To read about the College of Professional Graduation Ceremony on April 21, 2013, visit: “A superb example of a modern graduating class”

To read about the recipients of the Excellence in Teaching Award, please visit:

An “Inspiring Instructor who Encourages Intellectual Risk-Taking”

An Instructor who “Encourages Students to Attempt Challenging Problems without Fear or Failure”


Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) is committed to providing career-focused educational programs that are designed to accommodate the complex lives of motivated learners. Offered in a variety of innovative formats, CPS courses are taught by accomplished scholars and practitioners who have real-world experience. The result is an educational experience founded on proven scholarship, strengthened with practical application, and sustained by academic excellence.

Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a comprehensive, global research university. The university offers more than 80 undergraduate majors and more than 165 graduate programs, ranging from professional master’s degrees to interdisciplinary PhD programs. Northeastern’s research enterprise is aligned with three national imperatives: health, security and sustainability. Northeastern students participate in co-op and other forms of experiential learning in 90 countries on all seven continents.