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

Scott Spangler


Work is not always fulfilling. That is why we call it work. But if, at the end of a year or five years, you can identify concrete examples of changes you have made that have improved your company or the careers of your employees, I think that is fulfilling.

In the middle 1950s, when I graduated from high school, the United States was producing 50 percent of the world’s GNP. It was the world’s factory for sophisticated goods — autos, trucks, farm machinery, appliances, railroad equipment, machine tools, and industrial equipment of all kinds. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were world giants. Most of the factories were in the “industrial heartland” of the country, including my home state of Ohio. I went to the Harvard Business School thinking I wanted to be an executive in a manufacturing company.

After 10 years of slogging, I left manufacturing for an agribusiness and natural resources company. Being repotted was a success. I enjoyed being the CEO and building the new company.

In hindsight, I realize the lack of real opportunity in my early career was not due to any mistakes I made or to company politics. It was because the opportunities in a declining industry are so constrained, especially compared to an industry that is growing rapidly. With declining growth, companies and their executives become defensive. They do not take risks, and they focus on preserving the status quo.

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Happiness & Success

Success is when you can spend 90 percent of your time doing the things you want to do and only 10 percent doing things you have to do.  Most people’s lives are just the opposite.

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Overall, money is not as important as I used to think. It cannot buy happiness or respect. I know many people who are living happy, satisfied lives on very little money.

On the other hand, I have been poor and I have been rich, and it is a lot easier to be rich.

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I would have been a better leader if I had been less cocky in my early career and more confident in my middle career.

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Marriage & Family

I would say that marriage and parenthood are the essential human experience. While career was important, family life was, in the end, the most satisfying part of my life. I think a happy marriage and family are one of the most important predictors of success in business.

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One of the biggest mistakes is to think you know it all — or even have to know it all. Learning to surround yourself with people who know more than you do and learning to accept their advice is a big step — especially for people with Harvard Business School-graduate egos.

To succeed in business, show people that you appreciate their contributions with public and private praise and financial reward. If your company does well financially, be sure to share that with your key people.

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Charity & Spirituality

They are each important, because they give a person a reason to understand that he is not the center of the universe — there are higher, eternal purposes in life.

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