Drawing on personal experience and some impressive career success, Fortune 500 CEO Mary Laschinger told UW-Eau Claire’s spring 2017 graduates that their learning should not end with the completion of their college degree.
Laschinger, a 1985 UW-Eau Claire business administration graduate who grew up on a dairy farm in Arkansaw, Wisconsin, delivered the “Charge to the Class” May 20 during UW-Eau Claire’s morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies. She also was honored at a midday awards event as a recipient of the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association’s President’s Award.
Laschinger, who said she didn’t have the confidence to attend a four-year college until she was 21, now is the chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Veritiv Corp. Under her leadership, Veritiv, a leading North American distributor of print, publishing, packaging, facility and logistics solutions, was named to the Fortune 500 within two years of its founding. In guiding Veritiv to $8.7 billion in annual revenue during the last fiscal year, Laschinger became one of only 21 female CEOs of current Fortune 500 companies.
For her newest fellow UW-Eau Claire alumni, Laschinger had specific advice about how to reach their full potential, find fulfillment and achieve success.
“First and very important, know what your goals are — both personal and professional,” Laschinger said. “They should be your goals, not what someone else wants or expects of you. And, very important, do not let someone tell you what you cannot do.”
Understanding one’s goals — and ensuring that personal and professional goals don’t conflict — are critical to succeeding at another aspect of achieving one’s full potential: making choices, Laschinger said, noting, “The choices you make will either create opportunity for you or diminish your opportunities.”
Laschinger recalled a pivotal choice she made right out of college to take a job with a large Fortune 500 company. It required a move to the East Coast, where she would live just 30 miles from New York City. It gave her a completely different perspective than had she stayed in Eau Claire working for a smaller company, she said.
For Laschinger, the choices continued.
“I once had 24 hours to decide if I was willing to move to Europe for a job, leaving everything I had known, and doing it by myself without family and friends,” she said. “Within in two weeks, I was living in Europe. But had I not made that choice to move, I can almost certainly say I would not be here today speaking with you or running a Fortune 500 company.”
Laschinger also encouraged graduates to keep learning, and to remember that learning can take many forms — including taking a new job, reading a book, moving to a new place, listening to others and taking feedback. It also may include making career moves — as Laschinger did — that are motivated not by a promotion or a raise but by the opportunity to learn more about one’s field.
While she is a Fortune 500 CEO, Laschinger said, she still does not have all the answers and she still makes mistakes.
“So I have to listen to my team and take feedback so that I can become a better leader for them and for the company,” she said. “They are teaching me something every day. Consider receiving feedback a gift.”
Laschinger encouraged graduates to find their passion and keep a focus on other people in the quest to reach their full potential.
“I believe success is defined by your happiness and fulfillment, which I believe depend on passion and people,” she said. “You must find your passion. What is it that drives you — that thing that motivates you in a way that when you get up every morning you want to go to work because you find purpose in what you do?”
For Laschinger, it was during her time as a general manager of a $150 million business, walking the production floor, when she realized her success was not about herself.
“A young woman, a single mom, stopped me and asked, ‘Will I be able to make my house payment?’” Laschinger recalled. “She was counting on me to make the decisions to make the business better so she had a job.”
It’s important to make people the center of your success, Laschinger told the graduates.
“You will not succeed alone, but through others,” she said. “Whether it is family or work team members, your patients, your students, your clients — help them be successful, and you will feel rewarded and fulfilled.”