Commencement Speaker Barbara Humpton's remarks to George Mason's spring 2024 graduates


As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, everyone.

Thank you, President Washington and Vice Rector Peterson, for this honor and the invitation to speak today.

Let me also acknowledge Interim Provost Walsh, the Board of Visitors, deans, faculty and staff ... and, of course, let’s hear it for our graduates!

Congratulations to all of you.

George Mason University is a special place. You are graduating from a prestigious institution.

Barbara Humpton is wearing regalia and standing behind the podium on the stage in EagleBank Arena.
Barbara Humpton addresses the crowd at Spring 2024 Commencement. Photo by Ron Aira/Office of University Branding

I know it’s been a lot of hard work. Plenty of late nights. Great conversations out on the Quad. Maybe a quick visit to the George Mason statue before a really tough test. And I’m guessing there were a few parties, too.

You have excelled at this institution. You’ve made tremendous friendships you’ll carry for the rest of your lives. And now, you face your biggest assignment yet—building your own future.

Let me ask you: When you look ahead to this endeavor, are you excited? Nervous?  Maybe you don’t know what’s next. That’s okay. Or maybe you do know what’s next and can see the future you want unfolding.

The key thing is this: Get comfortable with uncertainty. Because you can’t plan out every next step.

What you can do is be adaptable. Be yourself. Be authentic to who you are. And not just when everything is going well, but especially when you face setbacks.

Leading our team at Siemens USA is one of the great joys of my life. But what set it in motion was actually the worst day of my career.

It happened when I was at a different company—a company that I had been with for 27 years. I was doing a job that I loved.

I had started off in a technical role in the early days of software programming. I advanced into management and got to lead teams delivering tough projects for the U.S. government. And then, one day, I was called into my boss’s boss’s office.

During that meeting, I was told that they had looked at all the jobs in the company. They had figured out that mine was one of the toughest. They said that my job was the perfect training ground for someone who could one day be CEO.

And then … they asked me to step aside. They said, “We don’t see you going further.” They wanted to put a candidate for CEO in my role. And I wasn’t a candidate myself.

You see, I didn’t fit the mold. At the time, it was believed there was an ideal model for a leader. Executives needed to be molded to fit that ideal.

I was told I was too nice. Too optimistic. I smiled too much. I wasn’t “executive material.”

So, yes, that felt like a bad day. By all accounts, it was a bad day.

Stop and ask, How would you react in that situation? Would you object? Would you try to defend your position? Would you crumble and dissolve in self-pity? Would you quit?

I’ll tell you what I did. I got to work transitioning my role to the next CEO candidate.

I did everything in my power to ensure our customers and people would be well taken care of. I had a conversation with my husband. I asked him, “Where would we like to be in 10 years?” And I created a profile on that newfangled tool called LinkedIn.

You see, I’m an optimist. And I believe that optimism is how we find opportunity in uncertainty. Optimism is how we turn setbacks into steps forward.

Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, Barb, this sounds great and all, but being optimistic is easier said than done.” What happens when life really feels like it’s coming undone, when everything feels unsteady?

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about putting on rose-colored glasses when things get tough. I’m not talking about only looking at the sunny side of things. That’s not the definition of optimism.

To be an optimist is to see the world as it is, identifying problems and searching for the ground truth. It's about believing that you have what it takes to persevere ... to find solutions amid difficulty ... to recognize that your worst day might actually lead to your best. 

After that day, I connected with former mentors and colleagues. I opened myself up to new opportunities. And I pursued those opportunities.

And that's what led me to Siemens. As it turned out, that tough job was a great training ground for a future CEO!

I didn’t change my leadership style. But something else did change. Society changed. Business changed. What did change was the concept of who can be a leader and what it means to lead.

The truth is, leadership comes in a lot of different packages. And it’s by bringing our different strengths together that we get the best results—in our businesses, in our universities, and in our communities.

So … how did I eventually get the job? I raised my hand.

For most of my career, up until that point, I had simply answered the call. Someone would say, “Hey, we need you to do this.” I’d do what was needed.

This time I put myself forward. I knew what I could offer. I knew this was the job for me.

And let me tell you, there’s a real joy and rush when you raise your hand for something and then get chosen to do it. 

So, here’s some additional advice. Figure out the kind of work that will bring you joy—work that aligns with your purpose and your values. And when the right opportunities come, put yourself out there. Raise your hand.

Be known as the person that people can count on. Be ready to see things through.

I don’t think this part of career-building is talked about enough. There’s this sense that we should always be thinking about the next thing and the next.

Throughout your career journey, remember to focus on what you are doing right now and do it well. There is real value in staying in a place long enough to understand it—to really be part of it. Maybe things get messy; stay there long enough to help clean it up. Stay there long enough to make your mark.

What’s next will come.

Let me add this: Have you heard the phrase that there are no small parts, there are only small actors?

Be the person who does your role like it’s the most important job in the organization, like it’s the last job you’ll ever have. I promise you—this mindset will serve you well.

To the graduates of 2024, I wish you well in every endeavor.

I hope your future is full of opportunity and growth. And I hope you reject the idea that there’s one path, one mold for leadership and success.

It took me my whole career to realize what you at George Mason already know: The secret to success is to be “All Together Different.” And we’re stronger because of it. 

So, be optimistic. Be confident in what you can offer. Raise your hand for what you love to do. And no matter the challenges that lie ahead, may they always lead to your best days.

Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2024!