It’s not about you. Take risks. Be a lifelong learner. Have the will to win. Business leader and alumnus Craig Menear, chairman, CEO, and president of The Home Depot, shared four tips with members of the 2015 graduating class Saturday at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business baccalaureate degree ceremony.

Menear at 2015 commencement

Menear served as guest speaker of Broad’s 2015 commencement

Menear told the graduates that while this moment was about them, the focus during the rest of their career will be on other people—the team they work with, the employees they manage, the customers they serve, and the communities in which they work.

“The minute you make it about you, you’ll lose focus on what matters and your career will stall. More importantly, your business will stall as well,” he said.

Menear, a Flint, Mich. native who, in part, credits his hard-working parents and family for his success, explained to the group that with more than 30 years experience and as chairman, CEO, and president of the world’s largest home improvement retailer, he is part of the leadership team that is strategically placed at the bottom of the company’s structure.

“Home Depot’s founders, Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, envisioned their management structure as an inverted pyramid,” he said. “Customers and associates are at the top, managers are in the middle, and the leadership team and the CEO are at the very bottom.”

While he is strategically at the bottom in the company, Menear’s career path has been one of success. Part of that comes from taking risks—those that take you out of your comfort zone, but pay dividends later on.

“Most individuals and businesses don’t like taking risks because they are afraid of failure or afraid of getting off track in some way,” he told the graduates.

He told them of a time in his career when he was asked to take a lateral move into the supply chain organization. “I was a merchant—the guy who found great products at great value for customers. What did I know, or care, about how the products got from the manufacturer to the store?” he said.

But the move was beneficial. Years later, he found himself working for Home Depot and responsible for supply chain.

“Without taking that risk and gaining invaluable knowledge, I wouldn’t have been prepared to take on overseeing our company’s supply chain transformation, a hugely complex project,” he said.

The risk was also a learning process—something Menear stressed is never-ending even with a degree in hand.

Using his predecessor at Home Depot, Frank Blake, as an example, Menear said that when Blake was named chairman and CEO of the company in 2007, there had been a bit of turmoil, and his selection by the board was a surprise. Blake was even called a disappointing choice by one Wall Street analyst, and others called him the accidental CEO.

However, Menear said, when Blake retired, Home Depot was in a great position with a strong culture and a business strategy that was working, and stock prices at an all-time high. It was because Blake made his job to be about everyone else and learned something each day.

“You can shorten your learning curve by tapping the knowledge base of others. You can gain their respect by readily admitting that you don’t know everything and that you value their expertise,” Menear said.

Menear’s last piece of advice: have the will to win.

“Now while your career should never be all about you, it should be about what I’ll refer to as the will to win,” he said. “Whatever task is at hand, we must have the grit and stamina to get it done.”

He told the graduates about a man who traveled to Atlanta, Ga., from Nigeria a number of years ago who went into a Home Depot store and begged for a job. The store manager did hire the man and taught him the business. Today he is the store manager at one of the Atlanta stores.

“Winning is the ability to provide success for others, to bring others along with you—coworkers, employees, shareholders. That’s what Daniel (the man from Nigeria) does,” Menear said.

Menear called the will for others to win the X factor in your success.

“You really just need to remember MSU’s mantra: ‘Spartans Will,’” he said.

As he smiled at the crowd, Menear experienced his first MSU commencement. When he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in personnel administration from the business college in 1979, he didn’t attend commencement. He was too busy going to his first job and thought that was more important.

“While I’ve had a great career in business, doing work that I love, I’m grateful to have a second chance to be here at an MSU graduation to experience this moment with all of you,” he said.

Menear has more than three decades of experience in the retail and hardware home improvement industry, more than half of which has been with The Home Depot.

He was named chairman and CEO of Home Depot in January 2015, and prior to that he served as president of U.S. retail for the company. Since joining the company in 1997, he has held several positions of increasing responsibility.

Students of the 2015 graduating class also heard from Ashley John (BA Supply Chain Management ’15). In addition to serving as president of the Broad Student Senate for the 2014–15 academic year, she was a team leader of the Broad College of Business Crowdfunding Project and an undergraduate representative for the Broad College of Business dean search committee. After graduation, she will join Starbucks Coffee Company in Seattle, Wash., in its supply chain management rotational program, a fast track to management with the company.

Ashley John, president of the Broad Student Senate.

Ashley John, president of the Broad Student Senate, speaks to the crowd at the Broad Commencement.
Photo by Alan Piñon

John was motivated to speak to her graduating class because she wanted to share with her classmates her experience of finding help from others while at the Broad College and MSU, and discovered that being a Spartan really is reaching out to others.

“We are Spartans. We are family. Spartans will always have your back,” she said.

Her message to her class:  go forward and help others and always be a Spartan who is willing to help other Spartans succeed. She plans to do just that when she comes back to recruit for Starbucks in the fall.

The Broad College conferred 1,063 undergraduate degrees this spring. Another 443 master’s degrees were presented, and six people earned doctoral degrees.

Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical Co., addressed the advanced degree candidates.