Monday, June 9, 2014

Advice for Grossmont College graduates from Walt Ekard

Walt Ekard
Former San Diego County CEO Walt Ekard, a Grossmont College alum, offered graduates some advice at Grossmont College's commencement on June 5. Here's an excerpt from his speech:
Commencement speakers are well known for talking about things that are especially important to THEM.  Well, I’m going to do that, too, but  I want to talk to you about three things I think YOU should know.  Three things I’ve learned in my working life, that I wish I’d fully appreciated when I started out.


Some of you think you have it all figured out.  You know exactly who you are and where you are going.  You’ve carefully plotted the progression of your career and you have a laser-focused view on what it will look like.

Well, if that’s you, prepare to be surprised … because that’s not the way it happens.  Careers don’t really go like that -- you are going to be surprised about where your working life takes you.

I was the Chief Executive for 14 years for San Diego County; one of the largest and most successful local governments in America. I had as many as 18, 000 employees reporting to me and I spent as much as $5 billion of your tax money each year.

I retired from that post in December of 2012 … at the top of my profession, proud of my service and ready to bask in the joy of retired life. Sleep in late everyday, go see lots of movies, write a book and just generally chill for the next 20 years or so.

Things didn’t quite work out the way I expected. A few months after I retired, I got a call from some movers and shakers downtown, people I’d worked with while at the County.   They asked if I’d be willing to help out at City Hall.  Seems the new Mayor, a fellow named Bob Filner was having some, um, “challenges” and he needed an experienced hand to keep City Government from imploding while he and his accusers fought their very ugly and very public battle.

After laughing hysterically at the notion of getting involved in that mess … and asking these people what part of the word retirement they didn’t understand, I momentarily lost my mind and said ok. I then spent six months of last year in the middle of the biggest circus any local government has ever seen.

You all know what happened to Mr. Filner, so I won’t belabor it.  But suffice to say that the experience of working in that surreal environment was something I could never have anticipated. A lot of what we do in government is crisis management … but this gave a whole new meaning to the term. 

And yet I not only survived it professionally, I thrived in it.  I found that while I may not have expected to be in such circumstances, the foundation of discipline and the principles of leadership I had acquired … beginning right here on this campus … gave me the confidence to deal with the “surprising” turn my career had taken.  So lesson one:  expect the unexpected.    


Chances are that each of you, at some point in your careers, will have the chance to take a big step … a leap in responsibility that you, for a variety of reasons, may be reluctant to take on.

Maybe it’s because you don’t think you have sufficient pedigree … you didn’t go to Harvard or Stanford like some of those competing with you for the job.  Maybe you don’t think you’re smart enough, there are others in the mix that just seem more cerebral.  Maybe you don’t think you speak well enough, or write well enough, or maybe you are just insecure about accepting new responsibilities.   Well … listen to me.  Accept this piece of advice … don’t ever let any of that stop you from trying.

As I said, I led a very large, complex government organization with a lot of responsibility and authority. Life or death decisions are made daily in County Government. So how the heck did I get put in charge?   I can assure you it wasn’t my advanced intellect.  Many, many of the people who worked for me were smarter than I.  Many went to more prestigious academic institutions. I’m not Ernest Hemingway as a writer nor Winston Churchill as a speaker and, like many of you, I have battled insecurity my entire life.  You wouldn’t find a more average guy than the one standing before you, nor a more unlikely candidate for such a big job.

But I had what many did not …  a passion for public service and an unceasing desire to be the best at what I did.  I just worked harder than everyone else to get where I wanted to go.

Here’s the good news for you:  If I can do it …  a kid from Spring Valley can reach the top rung in his profession …  anyone sitting here today can too.  Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your success.


Develop a reputation for integrity in all that you do.

We don’t trust each other in this country anymore.  We don’t trust our government or our government employees.   We see corporations as evil and media as dishonest. We don’t have faith in our justice system or in the people we elect to make decisions.  We’ve come to a point that we almost expect our institutions to let us down … to not deserve our faith and trust.  That has to change … and that change has to begin with each one of us being personally accountable for the manner in which we conduct our lives.

I’ve hired hundreds, if not thousands, of employees in my career.  Let me give you a flavor for what I’m looking for today in the people I would employ.

First and foremost, I want to be able to trust you to tell the truth. I want to be able to trust you to do the right thing, regardless of the personal or political consequences.  I want to be able to trust you to keep confidential, things that are confidential.  If you are a manager, I want to trust that you won’t be afraid to hire people smarter and better than you are. I want to be able to trust that your reputation for integrity is more important to you than your job.  And I want to trust that you will do whatever you say you will do.

That’s what I’m looking for when you interview with me.  And I’m not alone.  In the end, it all comes down to character. Hiring for character before skills is what top employers are doing today.

I have guarded nothing more zealously in my own career than my good name. It’s been the most important tool in my tool chest. Setting an example for my kids, my friends and the people I work with has always been my highest priority.

Ladies and gentlemen, leave here today desiring to be a person who others trust.  Focus on building your reputation for character … for being one others can count on … and then hang onto that reputation for dear life … because once you lose it, once you cross the ethical line and lose that reputation, you can never fully get it back.