Good afternoon President, colleagues, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Aileen Pierce and I am an accountant and a professor in the Accountancy subject area here in UCD.
It is a great privilege for me to address the 2012 graduating classes of the Master of Accounting, Master of Business Administration and Master of Science (Strategic Management Accounting) programmes. Indeed, it is an historic occasion because we have our first cohort of MSc (SMA) graduates being conferred today. This programme was created in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) to promote professional accountancy training through industry following a strong university education in management, accounting and strategy. This route into accountancy is in addition to the well-established route through professional practice, which is the preferred route of Master of Accounting graduates. While the MSc is a new programme, the UCD MBA is approaching its 50th anniversary and the MAcc is into its fourth decade of graduating students.
I would like to start by congratulating each and every one of you on your great achievement – it has taken hard work, commitment and sacrifices to successfully complete the challenging programme you signed up for over one or two years ago. Many of you have studied while continuing to deliver on responsibilities in the workplace. Most of you have sacrificed family time, hobbies and social life to complete your Masters programme. It is our hope that you feel a sense of significant achievement and pride today. It is also important that we, in the University community, acknowledge your achievements, and that you allow yourselves time to reflect on:
- what it has taken to get to where you are,
- why you undertook that challenge,
- where it will lead to in the future and
- what you can take away with you as you close this chapter of engagement with UCD.
The vast majority of you (if not all) signed up for a graduate business programme to improve your career and life prospects. More than half of you are embarking on a professional accountancy career following completion of your graduate degree. Many of you are aiming to move up the career ladder in business and management. More of you are poised to pursue entrepreneurial dreams with the confidence of being better versed in the functional areas of business, better equipped to evaluate opportunities, to make decisions and to communicate with the wide range of stakeholders that is necessary for business effectiveness and success. You will all tap into a network of friends and colleagues who can encourage, support and inspire you into the future. Your graduation marks the end of a significant phase and the commencement of another phase in your life’s journey. Whatever your plans were when you started out on your Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School experience, I hope they will become a reality, and if not, I hope this is because a better plan has overtaken that earlier ambition!
This is a day of celebration. It is also a time to reflect on the opportunities and challenges ahead. Many of you are destined to become CEOs, CFOs, auditors, regulators, entrepreneurs and company directors. You will initially hone your skills during a particularly challenging period for business, public service, government and citizens. You understand the contributions which successful business and enterprise make to civil society. Our recent financial problems in Ireland have increased awareness in the general population of the importance of business success, combined with integrity, for the welfare of citizens and the stability of the State. They have also reminded us of the impact of good or bad organizational governance on the quality of life of families, communities and the country at large.
It can be argued that many of the current fiscal, economic and business challenges were born out of poor business decisions and/or inadequate responses by people in leadership positions or with particular responsibilities, to changes that took place over time in the structures of our economy, and to the checks and balances that operate in capitalist economies within a democratic society. In the not-too-distant past, decisions were made to capitalise on emerging opportunities without adequate acknowledgement of the risks and potential consequences if underlying assumptions proved to be wrong. Some very ambitious, focused and driven people were not sufficiently challenged to think through the consequences of their actions. Policies to drive financial return and employee engagement were not objectively and rigorously assessed for unintended consequences. And, the remediation envisaged, should underlying assumptions prove faulty, was often hopelessly inadequate. Many of those who drove the buoyant economy are now suffering, as painful corrections are being made. Many who are suffering had nothing to do with the crazy excess of the early to mid-2000s and deserved to be better protected by those whom they respected and trusted to know better than to expose ordinary people to the risks of losing jobs, homes and dignity.
Our experience tells us that a high proportion of today’s graduates will hold significant leadership roles in business over the coming years and decades. Many of you will assume positions with substantial responsibility both within the private and the public sectors. You will secure these positions because of your demonstrated ability, character, drive, and vision. You will continue, post-graduation, to work hard to develop the required skills and attributes and to gain appropriate experience so that you will secure these much-sought-after roles when they arise. Career progression is not a right. It is a reward for ability, hard work and dedication. It is also a privilege that supports a good quality of life and personal fulfilment. Nonetheless, career progression is generally accompanied by increasing responsibility.
It can be portrayed by those who have not shouldered significant responsibilities that major leadership positions are easy to carry and are too well rewarded! That may be true of some where the reality of responsibility is not fully understood or is not taken conscientiously by key individuals. However, in the majority of cases, responsibility for the continued survival of organisations in a very competitive world, for the job security of the hundreds or thousands of people who rely on an organisation to sustain their livelihoods, can be simultaneously invigorating and truly stressful. Responsibilities to regulate public interest sectors of the economy or to add reliability to corporate reports can test personal integrity and strength of character. Human frailties can be exposed when situations arise that test the delicate balance between commercialism and professionalism e.g., in audit and taxation practice. In a plethora of business situations, a balance has to be struck between creativity and morality, e.g., when strategies are considered to maximise return on investment that may have long-term destructive consequences for the environment or for society. Over a professional career, difficult choices are likely to be made highlighting conflicts between self-interest and personal sacrifice for “the greater good”, or between self-interest and a professional responsibility to prioritise the public interest.
One thing that we can say with certainty right now is that there is a great need for strong and responsible leaders in the Irish, European and Global economies. Strong and visionary leaders who see their personal fulfilment as aligned with overcoming the great societal burdens of debt and unemployment are essential if we are to create the economic environment and occupational opportunities that will restore optimism, confidence, trust and self-esteem across all sectors in society.
You are graduating with a top class qualification from Ireland’s only Business School with the triple-crown of international accreditations. You are well equipped to achieve personal success and to become exemplary leaders of the future. Strong leadership requires ability, courage, resilience and support from those around you. Despite the widespread and justifiable criticism of the behaviour of some business leaders, regulators and politicians over the past decade, there are many positive legacies of that period of remarkable growth in economic activity, population, and national and personal wealth. You can build on these positive legacies, particularly in light of what we have all learned from the negative ones. Business and professional leaders who stand out over time as positive role models are those who understand that their talents, responsibilities and privileges can and should be used to make this a better world.
I urge you be proactive in ensuring that your voice is heard even when you are in a minority, to continue to think critically as you develop your careers and your place of influence in the organisations to which you will devote your efforts and talents over the coming years. Be open to new thinking, to constructive criticism and to the reality that learning continues beyond formal qualifications. UCD and its School of Business look forward to maintaining contact with you through our Alumni Associations. We hope that the friendships you have made in UCD will be deep and enduring and we wish you the very best of good fortune in your future lives and careers.
Thank you very much.