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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

What CEOs Want Grads To Know

2023 graduation tassel and someone holding a lightbulb; Article: "What CEOs Want Grads To Know" by Stephen Caldwell
May 11, 2023  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Regular listeners to the BeEpic podcast know there is one question that host Matthew Waller almost always asks his guests: What advice do you have for our students? 

Matt is dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and his guests are successful leaders for organizations of all shapes and sizes. They have learned from their experiences, so of course the dean wants that wisdom shared with the students.  

And, as you might expect, there are some common themes in the advice those leaders offer. So, with another commencement on the horizon, we thought it would be valuable to share a summary of the advice from a few high-level executives.  

We went through more than two dozen interviews with CEOs and other top executives and came up with 12 pieces of advice that will set graduates up for success: 

1. Follow your passions. This by far ranks as the most common piece of advice offered by guests on the podcast. Most mentioned it directly, and others touched on it, so it seems pretty clear that identifying and following your passions is a key component of success. 

“What I would suggest is do what you love. That’s going to drive you. If you don’t love it, you’re going to eventually leave it.” – Lisa Williams, founder of World of Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration (World of EPI) 

“I realized as time went on that not everybody got up in the morning and was excited about their job. And I just thought, something is wrong if you can’t be excited about your work. Now, every day is not going to be a wonderful day on the job. There's going to be bad weather. There’s going to be times when you don’t feel good. But if you don’t have that general feeling that I’m excited about my job, then you really need to look for something else.” – Charles Nabholz, chairman emeritus of Nabholz Corporation 

“If you really love something, and it is something that gives you great satisfaction, you'll be a happy person. Even if you’re not the richest guy in town, you’ll be a happy person, and very successful.” – Steve Nelson, co-founder of Carbon, Inc. and Re Inc. 

“When I was in the supply house business, we were good at it, but I was not fulfilled at a certain level. I felt like it was Groundhog Day. And I was bored. Now I work three times as hard. But I enjoy what I do. And I almost have to peel myself out of here. … So I would just say, find your passion. Find what you would do if you didn’t have to pay bills, and then maybe see if there’s a way you can monetize it. And you might be surprised by what might happen.” – Charley Boyce, president of Paschal Air, Plumbing and Electric 

2. Know your why. Your passion can give you energy, but your “why” gives direction to your passion.  

“Always remember your why, because if you don’t remember why you’re doing what you do, you’ll get distracted and you’ll get confused, and then you’ll start listening to the other voices that will come in.” – Lisa Williams, founder of World of Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration (World of EPI) 

3. Bloom where you are planted. Passion is important, but you can’t count on spending all your days living in nirvana – or even all day listening to Nirvana. So, make the most of whatever situation you are in.   

“Don’t worry about how fast you’re going to get there or what opportunities will come. Bloom. Be the best team player and make sure you are the strongest bloom in the bunch of flowers. I think people will see that almost immediately. And when you’re a great team player on top of that, it starts to set you up for new opportunities.” – Shelley Simpson, president of J.B. Hunt Transport Services 

“Whenever there’s a job out there, volunteer for it. Whenever they say, ‘Hey, I need someone to …,’ say, ‘I’ll do it.’ ... That attitude, people notice and pick up on right away.” – Claiborne Deming, chairman of the board and former CEO of Murphy Oil Corporation 

4.  Be a lifelong learner. Earning a degree is a milestone, and an important one at that. But your education never ends. 

“Learn something new every day. What makes my job so enjoyable are the challenges it presents – the opportunities it presents for me to think about something new, to learn something new. I would challenge your students to embrace that. It is just such a valuable life skill to have, to learn something new every day.” – Tom Tedford, president and CEO of ACCO Brands 

“People are going to have different qualifications and different skills. But the thing that stands out to me is always curiosity. Because I think if you’re going to solve problems, not just the problems that customers and associates face today, but ones they’re going to face tomorrow, and if you’re going to understand that you’ve got to see past solutioning, to find that pure problem statement, to remove friction and to get on to the next thing, you’ve got to start from a place of curiosity.” – Tom Ward, executive vice president and chief e-commerce officer of Walmart U.S.

“You can learn from failure, just as you can learn from success. So many things that I’ve learned over my career have either been experiences that I failed in or watching others in a challenging environment not necessarily handle it the best way.” – Tom Tedford, president and CEO of ACCO Brands 

“One thing that I think has helped me become a better leader over time is really knowing myself and where my strengths and my own opportunities are …  because you know how you will respond or you behave or you react in different situations.”– Allie Hazelwood, senior vice president of fulfillment operations for Walmart U.S. 

“It’s really about learning to be a lifelong learner. And some of the exciting challenges that come along with that is that you never stop adapting and growing.” – John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. 

5. Build your utility belt. This is a great metaphor for proactively developing the skills you need for the job you are in and for the future.   

“Batman doesn’t have any superpowers. All he has are the tools in his belt. And that’s what you get when you learn how to sell. Or you learn how to read financial statements. Or you learn how to scrub a toilet. Or you learn how to deal with an angry client. Or you learn how to break down a project into its component parts into manage it through execution. ... All of those go into your bat belt, and one day you wake up and you’re a superhero.” – Stan Zylowski, co-founder of Movista 

6. Embrace personal disruption. Leaders often talk about the importance of an organization’s willingness to pivot, sometimes in dramatic fashions, but this also applies to people.   

“The world is going to move on with or without us at its pace, so you have to stay at least at its pace or ahead of it. … Be willing to disrupt the thing that you already did. … Just because it works today doesn’t mean that you can’t change it and you shouldn’t change it. So the question is, will you be willing to disrupt yourself?” – John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. 

7. Pull the trigger on calculated risks. Who enjoys wallowing in regret? No one, that’s who.  

“You don’t know what your life is until you try. So, there is a risk in everything you do. You try to calculate the best you can, but at some point you got to pull the trigger. And if it doesn't work, that doesn’t mean that it’s over with. It just didn’t work that time.” – Gerald Alley, founder and CEO of Con-Real

“Early in your career, you’re really not going to make a bad decision. What I would tell you is find an opportunity that interests you and always stretch yourself to be uncomfortable. You always want to be ahead of what you know. Take the opportunity and really stretch yourself. Take the risk.” – Gary Norcross, former president and CEO of FIS 

“Don’t be afraid to fail. They probably hear that from a lot of people, but it’s okay. It’s much better to chase the big dream than it is to never try.” – Dan Andrews, managing partner and CEO of Tempus Realty Partners   

8. Invest in relationships. Every career involves relationships with other people, so make the most of them. 

“The most important thing is to find a place where you enjoy the people that you’re working with. Work is work. And in any industry, no matter how exciting it is, it’s boring also. Like, most work is not coming up with the biggest new idea, most work is not the breakthrough concepts. Most work, it’s the boring monotonous maintenance and dealing with stuff that’s not exciting. So ... make sure you’re working with people that challenge you, that are inspiring, that are friendly, they’re kind, they’re fair. Find cultures like that.” – Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Basecamp 

“One of the things that was very, very helpful for me was being surrounded by people who’ve done it before and could give me really close feedback. So the fuel accelerator program was game changing, because I just didn’t really have the knowledge or resources to really take the next step until I was able to see it directly in front of my eyes.” – Charu Thomas, CEO of Ox 

“Your journey to success is going to be dependent on so many people over the duration of your career. And it’s important to have people invest time in you early in your career. … It's so important to invest in relationships. And you don't have to stay in contact with those people every single day for the rest of your life. But you want people in your network when you have a unique challenge or a unique opportunity that you can pick up the phone or drop them a note, have a cup of coffee, talk about the challenge. They are just invaluable.” – Tom Tedford, president and CEO of ACCO Brands 

“Associate with people who are doing big things. There are lots of people out there, and you’re going to wind up performing to the level of the people that you surround yourself with. So make sure that you surround yourself with people who are doing big things, and you’ll wind up doing big things as well.” – Dan Andrews, managing partner and CEO of Tempus Realty Partners   

9. Show your gratitude. Develop an intuitive sense of appreciation for others and it will help you serve them and acknowledge them, which, incidentally, benefits you as much as it does them.  

“If you come with an attitude of gratitude and you look at it as a positive experience and a privilege to be managing people, you’ll do an amazing job at whatever you’re doing. If you come to work every day and it’s about you, and you’re worried about things and you're concerned and you’re not focused on your people, bad things will ultimately happen.” – Walt Rakowich, former CEO of Prologis 

“Appreciate and love those who surround you and encourage you. And also recognize that those who love you and encourage you might want to protect you. And in their ability to protect you, they may tell you, ‘You shouldn’t do this. Don’t do this. Stay where you are.’” – Lisa Williams, founder of World of Entertainment, Publishing and Inspiration (World of EPI) 

10. Serve others. Love, it’s been said, is an action, not an abstraction. Put it into practice by helping people who need help.   

“I love the idea of being of service to others. … This whole idea of being of service to others is where I get my joy. It’s not by doing my thing. It is by helping others.” – Steve Nelson, co-founder of Carbon, Inc. and Re Inc. 

11. Be humble. Without humility, it’s difficult to be grateful or to serve others with a good attitude.  

“When you screw up, you admit it. When you’re successful, be humble, for Christ’s sake. Everyone knows you were successful. Don’t brag about it. That’s dumb, and companies don’t like people like that. People like humble people who give other people credit.” – Claiborne Deming, chairman of the board and former CEO of Murphy Oil Corporation 

12. Play the long game. It’s easy to focus on the next job or the next task or the next promotion or the next whatever. It’s great to live in the moment, but there’s also value in seeing beyond the ridge you are standing on. 

“You need to think about your aspirations, your dreams. What’s the end game? Where would you like to be five or 10 years from now? And figure out how to get there. Do you need other skills? Do you need to go to graduate school? Do you need to go to a two-year college? Or do you need to work to gain some skills training. But it’s all toward that end game, that aspiration of where you’d like to be in five to 10 years. And you set a plan to get it done.” – Delano Lewis, former president Bell Atlantic, former president/CEO of NPR, and former US Ambassador to South Africa  

“If you are lucky, you will be 40-years-old one day. And what you’re doing right now will determine who you are and where you will be when you’re 40-years-old. … What do you want to do when you’re 40 that’s fun? That you can get excited about? That you know you can do well? And if people think about it hard enough, they have an idea.” – Charles Morgan, chairman and CEO of First Orion 

Matt WallerStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.