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

Chapter 9

Turning Points

What were the turning points in your life — and knowing now what you didn't know then, what would you advise someone to do when one comes along?

Somewhere in the misty space between fact and urban legend reside some rather stunning tales about people who (to paraphrase Yogi Berra) reached a fork in the road and took it.

The comedian Bill Murray had his sights set on becoming a surgeon. That was until he was arrested with nine pounds of marijuana at O’Hare Airport and had to drop out of college.

Physicist Stephen Hawking’s turning point can be traced to a day in 1955 when he was too ill to take an entrance exam for the highly regarded Westminster School. Staying on at St. Albans School, the 13-year-old was mentored by a teacher who inspired his interest and love of mathematics.

Whether a serendipitous moment or the culmination of a slow, steady path, many Harvard grads can readily identify the forks in their roads. If there is a lesson to be learned from the recollections of their turning points, it was best stated by one alumnus who wrote, “When one comes along, you must think it through every which way possible and then go for it. Trust your instincts and never look back on ‘what ifs.’”

John T. “Jack” Corrodi Jr.

In 1972, I was driving down the street with my wife in the passenger seat. Suddenly, a 10-year-old boy on a bicycle darted right in front of me. He was in a coma for six months and then died. His family sued me for $25 million. My insurance company settled the case for $200,000. I felt so awful, this event motivated my wife and me to adopt 16 newborns.

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Melvin Stanford

(Editors’ note: The following, while seeming to be no more than a chronological biography, has a deeper story to tell about overcoming adversity from early in life, and how, no matter how we fill our years, we inevitably grow older.)

  • At age 16, I enrolled in college after dropping out of high school the previous year.
  • The end of the Korean War interrupted my goal of a military career.
  • While I was still in college, my first marriage ended in divorce.
  • I was admitted to Harvard Business School and enrolled in September 1957.
  • In November 1957, I was unable to continue school because of the Asian flu.
  • In 1958, I was admitted to membership in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
  • Linda came to work at the Utah State Capitol in 1958. That is where I worked.
  • Linda and I were married in 1960 — the most important turning point in my life.
  • In 1961, I was readmitted to Harvard Business School.
  • Graduating with the MBA class of 1963, I went to work in the overseas oil industry.
  • In 1966, I began doctoral study in business at the University of Illinois.
  • I was ordained a high priest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1967 and served on the high council of the church in central Illinois.
  • In 1968, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a Ph.D. in business. Then I served 14 years as a professor and administrator at Brigham Young University.
  • From 1969 to 1980, I was a member of the consulting faculty at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
  • From 1973 to 1975, I served as commanding officer of a U. S. Army Reserve strategic research unit for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
  • 1975 and 1976, I was a visiting professor of management, Boston University in Europe.
  • In 1982, I was appointed dean of the College of Business, Minnesota State University.
  • In 1987, I was ordained a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • In 1994, I retired from Minnesota State University and returned to Utah.
  • Linda and I served a volunteer mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Boston from 1997 to 1999, teaching religion classes at the Boston Institute of Religion, Harvard Business School, Wellesley College, Boston University, Harvard College, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • From 2001 to 2003, Linda and I served another volunteer mission, preparing a leadership development program for 8,000 worldwide employees of the Farm Management Company of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • In January 2013, I began walking with a cane and obtained a blue parking tag.
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Barbara Minto

A big turning point was, of course, attending the Harvard Business School. Next was being hired by McKinsey as their “experiment” (first female consultant). But the real event that made all the difference was being transferred to London in 1966. It was a different world at McKinsey here; there were no MBA consultants in the London office because there were no business schools in England at that time. It was a genuinely exciting, creative time, and it changed my life — but that was still not the real turning point.

In 1973, the world experienced the Arab oil embargo, which greatly reduced demand for consulting services. As a result, McKinsey needed to cut its London office staff and I was one of the “cuttees.” The question for me was, do you go back to Cleveland, Ohio, and get a real job, or do you stay in London and try to open your own business?

I did stay and opened Minto International, Inc., where I refined and taught to the rest of the world what I had essentially been teaching at McKinsey. And that continues to be the story of my life.

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There are very few really big, tough decisions in life. But when one comes along, you must think it through every which way possible and then go for it. Trust your instincts and never look back on “what ifs.”

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Alan Wolf

When we celebrated our 40th reunion, I had no idea that, in only a few short months, I would experience a key event that would be a turning point in my life. My diagnosis of central nervous system lymphoma came in July of 2003. Fighting it has affected every part of my life for the last decade and significantly changed the course of my career.

It is primarily relationships with family and employees that have comforted me. I have been blessed with a loving and beautiful wife, three remarkable children, and a belief in God that has helped me through my illness. It may not be possible to prepare for the directions that turning points in life take us, but my experience shows that we never go wrong if we keep our focus on family, friends, and our employees’ welfare. If we do, we can maintain a happy and fruitful life, even when dealing with adversity.

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At age 60, I left the family business to return to school and earn a Ph.D. in philosophy, which I now teach at the college level.

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Frederick M. O’Such

I had built up a group of businesses for a public company, and then the parent made a major strategic shift. In 1981, I elected to purse a management buyout of the businesses I knew well, at a time when private equity was scarce and interest rates reached 22½%.

Although the risks were high, the timing far from ideal, and my own funds limited and reserved for my children’s college education, it was my chance to run my own show as a CEO and share ownership with my key employees.

The outcome far exceeded even my own expectations — both financially and from the standpoint of personal satisfaction. The lesson to me is clear: One needs to know when to accept sizable risks in order to capitalize on the opportunity. I decided to put all my eggs in one basket, and nurture and watch that basket each and every day.

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One turning point in my business life occurred when an adverse situation showed me who was my friend and who was not. I learned that when it came to such a point, I could rely on myself more than I had thought.

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Bob Griffin

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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Take the road less traveled. In my case, I accepted the lowest starting salary I was offered. I passed up Wall Street to work as a “gofer” for the founder/CEO of a medium-sized company. He was a great mentor. The proximity to and participation in top-level strategic decision-making was valuable training for my later responsibilities.

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Perry R. Pero

Take chances. At 24, I moved to Chicago, where I had never been, and joined a company I previously was unaware of. It turned out to be a terrific move.

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Eyk Van Otterloo

The key turning point was the decision to leave Holland and shed some baggage. Harvard Business School was another key, and steered me to two areas of interest: investments (the management of investments) and development (attempts at alleviating poverty in underdeveloped countries). As an emigrant from Holland, I had a chance to start again with a clean slate.

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Judy Ley Allen

The death of President John F. Kennedy changed my career direction. After the Harvard Business School, I was hired to be the assistant to the partner of land planning and economic analysis for the architectural firm of John Carl Warnecke & Associates in San Francisco. As a future land developer with my family, I felt this would be a good experience and add to my knowledge.

But within three weeks of joining the firm, President Kennedy was assassinated. Five days later, I was in Washington, D.C. as the assistant to John Carl Warnecke, the chosen architect for the “final resting place” for the president. It was a fascinating assignment, a real participation in the history of the country, and a chance to witness some of the great operatives in our government at that time.

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Eugene C. Bell

The key turning point in my professional life was leaving a fairly successful business career to pursue a doctorate in organizational behavior and management. I wanted to teach, do research, and consult — and I was able to do all three.

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John A. Fabian

My first turning point was going to the Harvard Business School. The benefit was not so much what I learned in the classroom, but rather the fact that I learned I could compete with a world-class student body.

Getting married was the second turning point. One thing I definitely learned is that one’s choice of spouse is the most important decision one ever makes.

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Charles Hale

One turning point occurred quite early, when I decided to compete for a naval ROTC scholarship at Stanford. Upon graduation I found myself, at age 21, onboard ship and responsible for 35 men, many nearly twice my age. Over the ensuing three years, I discovered that I had both a desire and some aptitude for molding, leading, and inspiring others. This, together with a strong love for investing, caused me, upon leaving the Navy, to opt for business school and ultimately a career in finance.

My naval experience led me to the firm belief that most young men, if presented with the opportunity of military service — preferably in peacetime and as an officer — should grab the opportunity to gain leadership experience early in life.

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Ralph Linsalata

What did I learn from the turning points in my life? Look for great colleagues, role models, and teachers. Be certain to understand the opportunities relative to the risks, and how the risks can be avoided. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and act accordingly. Play to your strengths while you work, but work on your weaknesses.

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Joan O. Rothberg

I was accepted at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School and went to HBS. I turned down job offers that would have made an impact on my career and my family. Who knows what would have happened? It is an unanswerable question, and I am more than satisfied with how my career turned out.

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John A. Moeller

A major turning point in my life was taking a personal and financial risk against long odds. One day at work, after seemingly being fired by a new owner, I went out to play golf and shot a career-best 76. I’m not that good, so obviously somebody was talking to me.

Shortly after that, my father passed away and I was sad and depressed. However, management and union factory workers urged me to step in and try to rescue them from the new owner of this company of 1,500 folks. We had no significant capital and would need to almost totally leverage the company. With assistance from many unexpected sources, we succeeded in our takeover and, more important, succeeded in the ensuing years.

We, the investors, took an extreme risk. Even with the help of employees, suppliers, customers, and friends, it wasn’t only our work, skill, or wisdom that produced our success — the stars lined up and God was smiling on our endeavors. The fruits of this experience have given me a reasonably comfortable retirement and a broader view of life, family, personal relationships, and miracles.

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Chapter 8:
Happiness & Success
Chapter 10:
Life's Lessons
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