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2009 Speeches
James A. Bell

James Bell

Executive Vice President

The Boeing Company

Corporate President and Chief Financial Officer

The Boeing Company

"Remarks by James Bell"

California State Los Angeles Commencement Address

June 12, 2009

Thank you.

It's great to be back at Cal State LA and a distinct honor and privilege to be delivering the keynote address at this 62nd commencement ceremony.

Preparing my remarks for this evening gave me occasion to pause and reflect how far I've come, and how much I've experienced since graduating from this fine institution. I have had a career beyond anything I could have imagined; I have met and become friends with people that I used to only read about, including the President of the United States; I have visited places that I used to only see on television or in books; and I have had the good fortune to be in a position to remember where I came from and to give back.

To the members of the 2009 graduating class, I can only hope that when you look back 30 years from now, that your reflection will be as rich and rewarding as mine was.

I want to congratulate you on your special night.

You have every right to be proud and to bask in the glow of your wonderful achievement. I know many of you -- just like I was -- are the first in your families to attain a university degree and the whole village is beaming with pride today.

So, I also would like to congratulate the "Village" -- the parents, spouses, friends, and other loved ones who provided the support and encouragement that motivated you to achieve this significant accomplishment.

Congratulations to all of you for a job well done!

I'm thrilled to share this moment with you. Not just because my god daughter Whitney Epps, is graduating in tomorrow's ceremony, and not because I graduated from Cal State L.A., but because you represent the best of America's future -- a future that is full of promise.

The same kind of promise that our nation experienced on another day in June -- back in 1967 -- when Thurgood Marshall was nominated to be the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.

The hope and optimism many felt on that day was tempered by the challenging conditions our nation faced. A feeling many of you might be experiencing today. Where your excitement and pride of this great accomplishment is tempered by anxiety about the world you are now moving into.

Rest assured that others that came before you have wrestled with the same set of emotions and have done just fine.

Justice Marshall, on the occasion of his nomination said: "None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps."

These are words to remember because over the course of your journey you will realize that you are not on it alone.

As you move forward into what is sure to be an exciting, ever-changing future, be aware and take comfort and strength from the fact that you will be able to stand on the shoulders of others who have preceded you.
Completing your degree studies is an achievement that sends the world a powerful message about who you are. It says that you have taken a significant step in preparing yourself to contribute at a high level in society. You have demonstrated intelligence, a willingness to learn, and a personal commitment to finish what you start.

I firmly believe that education is the key to the door of freedom. It provides the foundation and hope for a better life, and enables the transition from what we are today to what we want to be tomorrow.

As a black kid born and raised in a South Central LA neighborhood, it was inconceivable to me that someday I would be the Corporate President and Chief Financial Officer of the world's largest aerospace company. But here I am!

Clearly, I had a lot of help along the way, but the education I received at CalState LA played a significant role.

Although we cannot predict what the future will hold for you, we do know that the world you will enter is far different than the one I entered several decades ago. It will present significant challenges as well as opportunities for those who are prepared and willing to take advantage of them. And your graduation from CalState LA is a great start on your preparation!

Now, let's reflect for a moment on what that world looks like:

Our traditional institutions, like banking, the automobile industries, newspapers, and governments (local, state, and federal) have come under close scrutiny that threaten our position in the world order.

These are clearly daunting issues faced by our country without obvious clear solutions.

But, take heart, it's not all bad -- We have elected our first person of color as President of the United States of America. And with a name like Barack Obama that's really showing progress!

And you also have YouTube and Twitter -- In fact I'm pretty sure half of you are sending texts or tweets right now, and for sure it has nothing to do with anything I'm saying right? ... more like o...m...g... some old accountant dude at grad ceremony made a twitter reference -- what's up with that!

But seriously...there's no escaping the fact ... this is one of the most challenging environments we've ever faced. Even Hollywood recognizes that. Just last week, while you all were studying for your last set of final exams, four new movies came out. Their names are, "Away We Go", "The Hangover", "Land of the Lost", and "My Life in Ruins".

Those titles might describe how many Americans feel about what's happening to them today during these difficult times.

To address the significant issues facing our country we need our best and brightest as represented by the young men and women of this graduating class.

Who better to address the healthcare cost and service issues that prevent so many in America from receiving the treatment they need than you all from the College of Health and Human Services?

Who better to address the country's needs to improve our education system to ensure no child is left behind and that we maintain our rightful place as leader of the free world, than you all from the Charter College of Education?

And who better to address the issues of global warming, energy independence, continued technology innovation and extracting the promise of the digital age than you all from the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology?

Now is truly your time. It's a time of uncertainty. It's a time of challenge and it's a time of abundant opportunity. Your future will bring a new day -- your day. Seize the moment, get engaged, be part of the solution.

When I look at this graduating class I am confident about our future. I am confident you all have the tools, the passion and the perseverance to help make a difference in this world. Hopefully you have the patience too, because it will take time and won't happen overnight.

Now for some advice. I know for many of you the conventional wisdom is "never trust someone over 30" which is good advice until you turn 30.

As you embark on your career, I cannot overemphasize the importance of personal integrity.

Over the course of your career you will face numerous situations where the path forward is not clear, where there is a perceived conflict between what's right and the achievement of your goals and objectives. Sometimes, making compromises to your value systems will appear to be "OK under the circumstances."

In those times, remember, HOW you do things is just as important, if not more so, than WHAT you do. I can't think of anything more important and valuable to you than your reputation.

Warren Buffett said it best: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." In today's world it probably takes a lot less time to damage your reputation.

Everything you do should be done at the highest ethical standard and you should never compromise your integrity to achieve performance goals.

Personally, everything I needed to know about right and wrong I learned in kindergarten. And those lessons have served me well during some very challenging and difficult times over the course of my 37-year career.

Keep it simple, because integrity matters over all else. Take personal accountability over yours.

The other piece of advice I want to leave you with is to develop your leadership skills. It's often been said that when things are stable and going well, leadership is important and one of many attributes that matter, but in volatile and uncertain times it is the only thing that matters.

At The Boeing Company, where I work, we place a high value on leadership and a common set of attributes that describe the behaviors we expect of all our people. Leaders define the path forward, set high expectations, inspire others, find a way to get things done, never compromise their integrity and last but not least, they deliver results.

Embrace leadership attributes and remember, you don't have to lead people directly to be a good leader. You can lead them from where you are. Leadership skills will differentiate you even if your role is one of an individual contributor.

Like Justice Marshall, you are entering this new phase of your lives in a time of tremendous upheaval, uncertainty and change. You can react to change or you can enact the change. It's up to you. Your education gives you the choice. And while none of you are Supreme Court justices... yet...you can honor the Justice, your families and this institution by rising to the challenges that you will face.

Again -- Congratulations, and I wish you the best!

Thank you.