I was barely 21 years old, newly married and living life large. My wife was a newly-minted RN with a great job, and I….I was going to school… playing college basketball, majoring in PE and taking classes here and there, working out, and generally having fun….”could I make it to the pros”? I wondered. Would I become a basketball coach at a high school or junior college? My little self-centered world was rocked one weekend, when my wife declared that she wanted to be at home to raise children. Yowzers! Where did that come from?! That meant that I needed to find a job…. stat! I scurried and applied at a lot of places….”what did this mean for my basketball career?” I wondered. I knew how to be a carpenter, but the construction industry was very slow in the mid-1970s, an artifact of the oil crisis…. What skills did I have to support a family with? Eventually, a family friend who worked at the local power company helped me find a job at the utility as a project manager.
The pay at the power company was more than I had ever made! The downside was that I had to put school on the back burner. I began to attend night classes, when I could find the classes I needed. The going was slow, and I felt like I was making no progress toward finishing my degree. I also began to realize that the folks who were moving up in the company were folks with degrees….was I consigned to a life of incrementalism?
My dilemma really hadn’t been resolved at all. What would I do?….better yet, what could I do? I didn’t have the money or the time to be able to attend school full-time and support a wife and kid. It was the next critical conversation that forever changed my trajectory in life. My mother-in-law, who at the time was a college counselor, asked me a question that changed how I looked at my options: “Michael, if you could be anything you wanted to be, what would you be?” Wow, no one had ever asked me that question! I knew the answer, but felt like it was only something to dream about – not actually something to pursue. “I want to be the president of a telecommunications company, someday”, I said. “Then why don’t you do what it takes to get there?” she said.
That conversation forced me to rethink my studies and my time priorities. I needed to get into engineering school…wow, that was going to be hard! I didn’t have the credentials… and changing majors meant that I would lose class credits for classes that didn’t apply to an engineering degree. The money to finish school while supporting my family came by way of a loan from my in-laws….and the time to attend class came by way of a leave of absence granted by my company…. Our first-born was just a few months old at the time.
Over the next 2 calendar years, I finished 3-years’ worth of engineering courses, and finally graduated. I returned to my company, and applied for a job in the telecommunications engineering department, as a microwave systems engineer. Since then, I have sought advice and counsel from many and have had mentors in key areas of personal development. Each has brought moments of reflection and decision. For instance, on the advice of a CEO, who told me that if I wanted to succeed in telecomm, I needed to work at a company where telecomm was the product and not a staff function, I left the employ of the power company and became employee number 70 at Sprint. I worked there 10 years, before leaving to start a phase in my career of turning-around troubled companies, working with investment bankers and venture capitalists. For the 10 years, I worked as a COO or CEO of several venture capital-backed companies. The experience and connections I had made led to my being hired by AT&T to go to Alaska, to be the president of AT&T Alaska, a position I held for 9 years.
Looking back, I never would have guessed that a 40 year career would have taken me around the world and through so many companies, but the journey has been exciting, and what’s more, it’s not over yet! Now, my career has taken on new meaning: I’m working to provide a future for our grand kids. My stay-at-home nurse raised 3 great kids, all of whom are grown and married with families of their own – and we count them all and their spouses among some of our best friends – and they have blessed us with 6 grandchildren! As I look toward the future, I realize that CS Lewis was right when he said “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream”. My PhD work is preparing me for that new goal and another career transition, where I get to leverage my technology background in speaking and consulting as a Media Psychologist and a former CEO.