By Bob Knowling, Chairman, Eagles Landing Partners
My life experiences have carried me from the grinding poverty that defined so much of black America in the 1960s all the way to a status that, as a child, I could never have imagined for myself. Writing a book seems surreal to me. My friend, Dr. Noel Tichy, at the University of Michigan has been encouraging me to write this book for years. I’ve always been rather flip in my response to the question, “So, Bob, how did you become so successful?” I typically say, “I’ve been lucky.” So I’ve resisted every overture that has been made to me to do this project.
I’ve always hated rags-to-riches stories. They’re painful and, to me, unhelpful. And my attitude has been to let the guys who have it all figured out write the books. Now that has changed.
Writing this book has forced me to think about every aspect of my life and my career. I don’t have a textbook solution to anything. I will merely spend some time talking about winning. Take, for example, PGA golfer Jim Furyk. He has the ugliest golf swing on the PGA Tour, but I’ll wager you a round of golf at Pebble Beach that Jim doesn’t waste a single calorie trying to mimic the eight steps to a perfect golf swing. He just takes what he has and goes out and gets it done.
Twenty minutes into this project, I was crying, and I’m not normally a crier. A good friend told me that writing this book would be a cathartic process. He was right. So while the journey of my life has been incredible and the rewards too extreme to comprehend, the number of brushes with failure and even death has forced me to admit that luck and the grace of God do factor into it.
I’m not suggesting that if you do what I did, you will be successful. I am merely telling you that the simple formula of “work hard, treat people decently, and always tell the truth” will get you close to your goal.
I believe that beyond his upbringing, a person defines himself by the external conditions that affect his life. The response to those conditions is what counts. It’s not where you came from that is essential. It’s what you do with your potential.
I will tell you where I came from, what I experienced, and how I got from a really distant “there” to a very present “here.” I don’t candy-coat my stories, so some parts of them are hard to tell, even hard for me to look back on. But you should know about those parts because of what each story represents and the messages it sends about success and failure in a challenging and complicated, but fascinating world.
I believe my story is a model for what can happen over time when lots of hard work is spliced into an unyielding quest for excellence and a passion for victory. You can never lose sight of the importance of those things. No one ever got to the top of anything by planning a leisurely, indifferent ascent to reach the middle.
Play to Win
I’ve never walked onto any playing field, any court, any course, planning to lose. I can say the same for any position I’ve ever held: No matter the challenge, I’ve always played to win.
Sometimes people become phenomenally successful through no fault of their own. Those are flukes in the history of business, and not something anyone can count on. Your story is yours to build. The fact that there will be obstacles along the way is not as important as what you do to overcome them. No matter the challenge, the only thing that matters is your response, because that is the one thing you can control.
It would be so easy if there were a clear pathway that guaranteed success. That doesn’t exist. But in its place is a reliable, tested strategy that will always work to advance your interests. Because so much of my life has been defined by intense competition, either as an athlete or as an executive, I am certain about the central element at the heart of most success stories: You have to really want to win.
Bob Knowling is the chairman of Eagles Landing Partners, a consulting firm, and the former CEO of Telwares, SimDesk Technologies, and COVAD Communications. Earlier he had a long career in telecommunications, starting at Indiana Bell and including senior executive positions with Ameritech and US West. He was the first CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to improving the leadership skills of public school principals. He is the author of “You Can Get There From Here: My Journey From Struggle to Success” (by arrangement with Portfolio/Penguin, Copyright 2011).