5 inspiring lessons from Adam Phillips’ graduation speech

Alumnus Adam Phillips graduated from La Trobe at a time when car park seven was empty and email didn’t exist. He came back to campus to share the life lessons he’s learned as a global business leader.

Having lived and worked across Asia, Europe and the Middle East, La Trobe alumnus Adam Phillips is an expert on forging a global career. Since graduating with a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) in 1992, he’s built more than 20 years’ experience in global business, including 10 years with Etihad airlines.

Today, Adam brings his international connections and commercial savvy to the Australian Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as General Manager. But the path to becoming an expert in commercial strategy, business plans and industry analysis wasn’t always smooth. Here are five significant lessons he’s learned in taking his career to the top.

Lesson 1: Say ‘yes’ to opportunities

“When you go out into the wider world, you’re going to be faced with opportunities. And I want you to say ‘yes’. Not to the opportunities that seem easy. I’m talking about the opportunities that seem tough, or test you, or stretch you. Rarely – actually, never – do opportunities present themselves in perfectly squared packages, and this is a great opportunity for naysayers to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t quite right, I don’t know…’.

"But let me impart two phrases that my mentors have said to me repeatedly: ‘It’s never a good time to do anything’ and ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly’. Because opportunities lead to experience, and experience leads to more opportunities. It’s self-fulfilling and saying ‘yes’ is one of the keys to success.”

Lesson 2: Trust that others can see your potential

“Try not to be the judge of whether you’re qualified enough, good enough, or can do the task. Let your boss make that judgement – let your boss be your boss.

“I got a phone call one night out of the blue from a colleague, who said, ‘Why don’t you come overseas and do this job for Gulf Air in Bahrain?’ He knew me very well, he knew I could do it and where I’d be stretched. I didn’t know if I was making a good decision, but I said ‘yes’. And it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

“Living in the Middle East, within Bahrain’s Arabic culture, was such an eye-opening and fantastic experience for me. But then it also opened me up to living in France, it took me to Asia and, eventually, it took me to all the places I’d wanted to go. It even took me to a small Soviet city called Minsk, where I met my wife. All from saying yes to Bahrain.”

Lesson 3: Don’t fear failure

“You learn from when you fail – in fact, I think you learn a lot more. Certainly, I’ve failed throughout my whole life. You’re looking at a guy who, on his first ever assignment at La Trobe, got the lowest mark out of 300 kids. I remember going to look up my mark and some guy in front of me was very disappointed. He scored 5 out of 10, and he said, ‘At least I’m not that bloke who got 2.’ And I thought, ‘Oh gosh. That’s me.’

“And every cultural faux-pas you could imagine committing in the Asian region and in the Middle East – whether it be the way you greet someone, or what you do with your hands or your feet – every faux-pas, I’ve committed it. I don’t think I’ve failed not to do one!

“But I can reconcile all these failures with knowing that I had an honest go. I really was trying my best. In life, if you’re trying your best, people respect that. People aren’t going to judge you for failing when you’ve had an honest go.”

Lesson 4: Slow down

“Don’t be in a rush to climb a career ladder. It gets narrow at the top, and it comes with responsibility. Embrace learning and challenge yourself. It really helped me to not be in a rush and to remember that life is long.”

Lesson 5: Know that your La Trobe qualification is of great value

“You should be super, super confident that you are graduating with one of the greatest qualifications you can get. With a La Trobe degree you emerge with a problem-solving framework and that’s what business wants. What’s my hypothesis? How can I design a project to solve the problem? How do I collect the data? What’s my conclusion? Pivoting, changing, adapting, solving problems – this La Trobe advantage is what I received, and it set me well on the way to what I’ve been able to achieve in my career.”

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