Bob Knowling stopped by his alma mater Sunday to meet with students at the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies and to give a few remarks about his new book, You Can Get There From Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success. The 1977 graduate is on a national book tour, but said returning to Wabash was like a homecoming.
“I’ve always considered this place to be home and I’m happy to be here,” he said during Sunday evening’s event.
Knowling grew up poor in Kokomo, Indiana in a family of 13 children. An excellent football, basketball, and track star, Knowling was recruited by major universities and small colleges alike. But when he came to Crawfordsville for a campus visit, he knew Wabash was the place for him.
“I walked into Baxter 101 and I felt like for the first time in my life, I was going to be surrounded by a constituency that would support my success,” Knowling said. “Everyone was in that room — the basketball coach, football coach, the president… Raymond Williams was there. Rob Johnson was there. Everyone who would matter to me in my life was sitting in that room.”
Knowling, who has served as CEO of technology and communications companies, credited Coach Mac Petty and Raymond Williams with much of his success, and referred to Professor Williams as his “lifetime mentor.”
Petty showed the star basketball player tough love, and made Knowling choose between basketball and football. “I hated him for that,” Knowling said. “But when I became a CEO, I figured it out. You have to know who is on your team.
“Coach Petty didn’t teach me one iota about how to play basketball. He taught me how to be a man and a leader, and I’ve used those lessons every day in my business career.”
Knowling left Wabash to pursue a career in telecommunications and later earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He rose quickly through the corporate ranks, becoming a vice president of Ameritech and US West. He was named CEO of Covad and helped launch one of the country’s first broadband providers. He has also served as CEO of Telewares and SimDesk Technologies.
Knowling stepped away from the corporate world to accept New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s offer to became CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy. In that position, Knowling recruited some of the nation’s top CEOs and corporate leaders to work with New York City’s public school principals in an effort to reform the schools and better serve the students.
The Wabash religion major referred to himself as a “reluctant author” who had to be coaxed repeatedly by Penguin Publishing to write his memoir, which he says is “authentic — the only way I know how to tell the story, both successes and failures alike.”
It took more than two years for Knowling to write his memoir, which takes readers on a journey from his “dysfunctional childhood” through his maturation at Wabash and throughout his career in the business world.
Twice during his remarks Sunday night, Knowling told to the students in attendance that they don’t need to have all the answers in life. “Having it all figured out is overrated,” he said. “Having the will to win is the genesis of success.”
Knowling grew to international fame as a corporate change agent in the technology and telecommunications industries, and was featured in Forbes, Business Week, and Fortune magazines.
When asked a question about why so many businesses fail, Knowling hit upon a familiar theme — a corporate reluctance to change.
“Broken businesses don’t have a case for change,” he said. “They lack vision. To be successful you must have a clear vision of success.” He also said successful businesses must be steeped in values and always be anticipating the next opportunity to evolve.
“When I go into a business — even a successful business — I’m constantly looking for every opportunity to change it,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire life just trying to get better. I believe that change starts with a constituency of one — yourself.
“Never be afraid to change.”
Knowling started and ended his talk by thanking the professors and coaches who shaped him at Wabash. He said Professor Williams helped him sort out all of the problems in his life and had been both a guide and mentor for more than 30 years.
“I’ve taken Wabash with me every where I’ve gone in life. I cherish every moment I spent here, good times and bad… I stand in a long line of great men who have come here and gone on to stake their place in the world. All of you young men who will someday leave here must remember Wabash. You must become a giver and you must give back.”
Knowling said he didn’t write his memoir for sensationalism, fame, or money. He wrote it to inspire young people to succeed in spite of obstacles that stand in their way. “I don’t want a dime from the book sales,” he said. “The proceeds are coming to Wabash, so obviously I do want the book to do well!”