Convocation 2009 – Address by Graduate

During each of the three days of convocation, one graduate addressed his fellow students and convocation guests, sharing his thoughts about graduation and the journey that brought him there.

On Saturday, June 13, the graduate address was given by Russell Permann, of Calgary, Alberta, who received his Master of Business Administration.

The Voice thanks Russell for sharing the text of his address, which is printed below.

Madam Chair, Mr. President, distinguished guests, members of the platform party, graduates, families and friends, ladies and gentlemen.

What a privilege and honour it is to be before you today delivering the address to the graduating class of 2009. I want to extend my congratulations to each graduate on this very impressive accomplishment. When James D?Arcy called to ask me to deliver this talk I hesitated for a moment, not out of fear of speaking before such a large crowd (which I am picturing in their underwear right now to calm my anxieties, by the way) but because it is at that moment that I realized I had truly reached another very significant milestone in my life. Being asked to deliver this speech has really afforded me yet another one of life’s opportunities in disguise to be reflective and contemplative not just about my educational experience but about life; so I hope you’ll indulge me as I share some of my thoughts.

For any person who has known me much of my life and definitely during those oh-so-important formative years, you would appreciate just how significant this accomplishment has been for me personally. I am most definitely of very humble academic origins. If you were to tell anyone who knew me in high school that I was delivering this address, they might ask if you had me confused with another Russ Permann. If I had a focus in my early life, it most definitely wasn’t on academics. But in this crowd, I believe that I am far from unique.

I am sure that if I were to ask everyone in this graduating class about how they found themselves here at this point in life, there would be an interesting story about a learner who has led a fascinating life, most likely has overcome some challenges, but has somehow found a way to accomplish a great deal so far. It seems to me that it is in no small part because of the Athabasca University experience that so many of us who may not have been good as traditional learners or those among us who weren’t afforded all of life’s opportunities have found a way to unlock so much of our potential.

Because I am just one of the unique success stories among this group today, I wanted to talk about what the experience of completing my MBA at Athabasca has meant to me so that I might pay some respect to the great lessons that I have personally learned along this journey. I hope to once and for all answer the question that everyone invariably asks when you tell them you have finally completed your studies: ?So, what have you learned?? and in so doing I hope to share with you some of the lessons I have taken away from this experience. More importantly, I hope that this gives you pause to think about your own ?story? and what lessons you have learned as you have completed this important leg of your life’s journey.

I started the program in 2005, with two small children and a little more hair. At that time I was extremely anxious about the journey that lay before me. In those early days I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into both academically and with respect to life experiences, challenges, and opportunities. Since 2005 we have relocated across the country twice, welcomed a third child into the world, underwent three fairly significant job changes and innumerable other experiences that all characterize the life of a young family.

Again, this is not so unusual among this crowd; it is just life happening in its ordinary way. What was so unique for me was that I somehow managed to continue my studies through all of these usual personal dynamics. One of the things that really got me through all this change was having a clear objective and a good schedule with weekly milestones to achieve; but just as importantly I took advantage of some important deferrals between a couple of courses so that I might make some adjustments in my personal life. At the time, these deferrals felt like real setbacks, extending my timeframe for completion and making the journey all the more long. But in hindsight, these changes to the plan really afforded me the opportunity to place my focus on what needed my attention at the time.

This was really learning number one for me: always have an objective, strategy, and supporting tactics in place but remember that the environment can change so one needs to be ready to revisit, revise and retool strategies as circumstances dictate. It was the facilitating learning method, the online distance learning format, and the independent, self-paced study that really allowed me to make these adjustments and helped drive this lesson home for me. The strategic management gurus will tell you to scan the environment, develop good systems to organize and synthesize your findings, and make sure you have the ability to execute. There is no doubt in this era of great uncertainty and change it will be those people, families, and businesses that learn to make good plans and then adjust when circumstances change that will not just survive but thrive.

I mentioned briefly my family before. They have been so instrumental in making this accomplishment possible for me. My wife, Erin, and my kids?Matthew, Adria, and Nicholas?made so many sacrifices so that I could diligently participate in the databases, complete my readings, and get all of my assignments done on time; they were my supporters and cheerleaders throughout. I can’t pay my family and (I suspect) all of the families of the other learners present today enough respect for all of their support.

Beyond my wife and kids, our extended family and our circle of close friends celebrated alongside us in times of victory and pitched in when we needed their help so that I might have some life beyond my studies. Just as importantly, my fellow learners and the instructors played such an important role in facilitating my learning. As my studies progressed I learned that taking the time to understand other students? experiences in various businesses, gleaning as much knowledge from instructors as possible, and leaning on this newly developed network for support during challenging times only served to enrich the learning experience.

For me, this really underscores learning number two: One should always seek to surround themselves with great people, spend time understanding what makes each of these people so unique and so special, and to invest heavily in these relationships using both conventional and unconventional tools available. The experience at Athabasca allowed me to expand my network and experiment with new online technologies that allowed me to get to know people. The way things were structured encouraged sharing of experiences which facilitated gaining a fairly deep understanding about others while allowing the academic staff to really provide us with a depth of insight.

Those who study HR and organizational design in-depth will tell you that the way in which we work is changing, the knowledge worker is becoming more prevalent, educated workers are becoming more migratory, the world is becoming less constrained by geographic boundaries, and the interconnections among people throughout the world are being facilitated and enabled by technology. For me, this means that we can’t stop experimenting with new technologies, we must continue breaking down barriers to communication but most importantly, we must make the time to really get to know the people that are important in our lives and we must reach out using all of the tools at our disposal to keep these relationships alive and healthy.

When I began my studies back in 2005, I expected that through all of these courses I would get the answers to some burning questions about business that would ultimately make me a better manager and a better leader. However, in my early studies (and if I am being truthful, pretty much during the entire first phase of the program) after I finished a reading, a weekly lesson, or even after completing an entire course I often found myself thinking ?I didn’t get any answers, only more questions.? Sure, we were being introduced to new concepts and frameworks but I kept waiting for someone to tell me the special secret?the answer?that would finally tell me what to do as a manager.

It wasn’t until later in my studies that I realized, that I myself was asking more questions; not just regular questions but more informed and insightful questions, questions that led to better discovery when it came to searching for answers. In essence, I discovered something that has come to be one of the most cherished treasures unearthed during my academic expedition in that there are very few right answers in this world, there are only the right questions to be asked. Just as importantly, once the right question has been asked, one can assuredly go about developing an appropriate answer but in so doing, one is likely to uncover yet more questions that deserve to be explored. It became apparent to me that the learning isn’t in the output of the analysis but rather the learning occurs when one discovers how to source, utilize, adapt, and even develop a framework that helps us better understand this complex world in which we live. I feel that I have become a better manager and a better leader because I have come to accept that I will never have all of the answers but I can focus on asking good questions and then framing the analysis.

It is this nugget that must be counted as learning number three: One can never stop learning; life, business, relationships, spirituality, and anything we hold dear are worth exploring and we should seek to ask great questions, endeavour to keep adapting and refining the paradigms through which we see the world, and put these paradigms to the test by using them to analyze the world around us; if we’re doing it right, we should end up with some insights but even more questions worthy of our exploration.

Even accountants and quantitative analysts will agree that one needs to read data and figures that we often accept as ?fact? with a careful eye knowing that such data only becomes information through the lens of interpretation. The true nature of lifelong learning was never made more apparent to me than when I completed my applied project where I discovered that although I had come up with some great answers to my research questions there were still so many facets of the problem left to explore. I have Lee Ann Keple especially to thank for her guidance through my project; she helped me refine my understanding of how great it is to discover that we have more questions to answer. (I suspect for the instructors and professors in the crowd this concept of indefinite exploration is especially reassuring from a job security standpoint.)

This brings me to the conclusions and recommendations section of this talk, because if we have learned anything over the course of our studies, a good paper ends with a summation of the findings and some actionable items for us to undertake. If I am to really sum up my learning and provide any recommendations to this audience it is that we all need to have a plan but be wise enough to know when to make changes; we need to be genuine and caring managers, coworkers, spouses, parents, siblings, children and friends; and we need to never stop learning, never stop asking questions, and always strive to discover more about the world in which we live.

But, I must caution you; this is just one man’s thoughts on what the Athabasca University experience has taught me. I hope you too will take the time to think about what you have really learned; you’ve accomplished so much and yet you all have so much more to accomplish. I hope for each of you that this is not the end of something but rather just another milestone passed in life’s journey.

I want to once again congratulate my colleagues?all of you graduates?on this enormous accomplishment, I want to thank the unsung heroes?the staff and management at AU?who seamlessly manage a very complex operation every day, I want to acknowledge the teaching staff at AU who are truly world-class academics, and last but certainly not least I want to tell my family how much I appreciate and love you.

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