If I Knew Then Advice on careers, finance, and life from Harvard Business School's Class of 1963

Bob Griffin

Marriage & Family

I believe the most significant barrier to a healthy, happy family is the combination of self-will, a sense of authority rather than partnership and respect, and a reluctance to express forgiveness. The qualities of respectful communication, trust, patience, and an abundance of flexibility will lead to a family life of happiness and mutual love, even through the tough times.

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Growing Older

One of the best suggestions I ever got is to never go to bed without having something in mind that you need to do tomorrow — not just a chore — but something you want to do for yourself or others.

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Life's Lessons

Of all the things I thought would provide a happy and successful life, the one most undervalued was the attention paid to wife, children, and other family during the beginning years. Sacrifice of family for job achievement for the “long-term good of the family” was a myth.

The long-term measure of success has less to do, in my view, with monetary achievement and public acknowledgement than with the privilege of being able to provide a path of progress and growth for the family and being part of a loving, supportive family unit. For me, that success was sometimes elusive, but I’m grateful to say it has been a steady foundation later in my life.

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Turning Points

My life changed course in a major way at least four times from pre-Harvard Business School days to the present. The first was when a fellow USAF pilot suggested I consider applying to Harvard after I separated from the Air Force in 1960. 

The second major course change was an unpleasant one about 10 years after graduating from Harvard Business School, when I decided to take a personal stand on a matter of corporate ethics, and gave up a very promising career continuation in a prominent company. 

The third shift was the sale of the corporation of which I was senior vice president of finance and planning. This led to small business enterprise ownership that continued for another two decades.

The final course change occurred almost 40 years after graduation when my daughter passed on, leaving three wonderful young children. My appetite for continued enterprise disappeared, so I sold my business and retired. After a period of spiritual renewal, I began a decade of service, primarily through Rotary International and my church. These experiences continue to be, in many ways, the most satisfying of my life.

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Charity & Spirituality

Spirituality is at the core of my everyday life. To the extent I am true to my values, it is the force that guides me, protects me, corrects me when I veer, and teaches me to see and choose the paths before me. 

I view charity as an outcome of the imperative to follow Him, and to go into the world to feed the hungry and heal the hearts of others. This requires little and accomplishes much.

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Perhaps the most significant dimension of change with experience has been a shift in the meaning of “worth” to me. As I look back, I recognize that many of my Harvard Business School associates have accumulated more material value in the last 50 years than I have.

While I am grateful that I have been provided with sufficient funds to support my family, it has been in bringing pure water to indigenous Miskito Indians in Honduras, starting a literacy school for adults, participating with my wife in her founding of two teen courts for young people, and having a positive impact on our children and grandchildren that define my sense of wealth and worth.

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I believe the essential characteristics of leadership blend specific knowledge and analytical skill, genuine communication, a willingness to consider possibilities, and the courage to decide and act.

In both my major corporate experiences and almost two decades of small business ownership, I too often failed to acknowledge the 90% positive level of employee performance, mentioning instead the 10% we might have done better. The need to affirm and genuinely express both achievement and opportunity for improvement among employees was certainly well taught in Harvard Business School classes. A better adherence to those lessons would have made me a better leader.

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Happiness & Success

Life takes dedication to succeed. Just because someone competes, tries, earns a trophy, or gets a pat on the back merely for participating, as is so common in the younger generations today, that alone does not bring meaningful achievement or earn success. It takes integrity and hard work.

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I made some mistakes in running one of my small business endeavors. Had it been my first business, it might have been excusable. But it was not. In fact, it was my last. From it, I learned how important it is to think clearly about the fundamental purpose of the enterprise. Among the most important ingredients is the need to establish a principle of being fair to all the stakeholders.

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