Business exec Bob Knowling

The business exec, who attended the same high school as Tavis, discusses GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, shares what life is like as a Black CEO and talks about his book You Can Get There from Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success.

With more than 30 years of experience, Bob Knowling has made a name for himself in the telecommunications and technology sectors. Since starting his career at then-Indiana Bell, he's held several senior executive positions and is known for leading large organizations through dramatic transformation. He's also founding CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, a nonprofit that attempts to turn school principals into change agents. In the book You Can Get There from Here, he chronicles his journey from growing up in a poor family of 13 to being one of few minority CEOs.


Tavis: Bob Knowling grew up on welfare in a place called Kokomo, Indiana – we’ll come back to that little place in just a moment – at a time when any path to success seemed remote for him.

But his impoverished background did not prevent him from getting an education and rising to become a leading telecommunications CEO and now the chairman of the consulting firm Eagles Landing Partners.

His new book is called “You Can Get There from Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success.” He has been called upon by folk on the left and the right; people like Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg have called on him for a variety of projects over the years.

I’m honored to have, I suspect, the first and maybe last person on this program to be not just from the same home town that I am from, a little place in Indiana, but more remotely, the same high school that I went to. What are the chances that you’d get two Black men on a program out of a high school called Maconaquah in a cornfield in north central Indiana on PBS? Only in America would a story like this even be possible, and it’s an honor to have you on this program.

Bob Knowling: Thank you, Tavis, for having me.

Tavis: I’m sure the folk in Indiana are proud tonight to have two Hoosiers on national television on PBS. I’m honored to have you here. Your story’s a fascinating one.

I want to start at an unlikely place, perhaps, because there’s been so much conversation of late about Herman Cain and those who are being turned on to him and turned on to his candidacy are turned on to him in part because of his business background, but more than just his business background and his 999 plan, whether you like it or loathe it, heavily debated in these Republican debates of late.

But the part I keep coming back to, Bob, apparently that folk are turned on to is how he wound up where he is, given where he began, and that he started in poverty and that he did it the hard way and he did it the right way, he did it the American way, as if to suggest that most Black folk who succeed don’t do it the same sort of way.

So his story’s a wonderful story, but not that unique, not that unusual a story if you succeed in this country, whatever that means. But what do you make of all the conversation about Herman Cain’s success story?

Knowling: That’s a story that has followed me my entire business career, and it’s one which quite frankly I’ve tried to downplay, because you just made the point – there are hundreds of these cases out there. I look at my mother. There’s a terrific case of a single mom with 13 kids that figured a way to get us all out of there.

So it’s a wonderful story. People are infatuated with that rags-to-riches component, and most of my business career I have fought against it and in fact said let’s focus on what I’ve done in terms of turning businesses around, in terms of delighting shareholders. Let’s quit talking so much about welfare and how do you get out of that process.

Tavis: I mentioned that we went to – we’re from the same city, we went to the same high school, grew up in many of the same conditions. You’re one of a large family; I’m from a large family of 10 kids. Tell me more about growing up in Kokomo during your time.

Knowling: Well, my mother was divorced, so I shuttled between my mom, my dad, my grandparents and at one time actually followed my father to Michigan for three years. Then my grandparents farmed down in Missouri, so I never was stable in any of those homes.

As you said, big family, all told there are 13 brothers and sisters, and quite frankly as you exist in tough conditions you really don’t know that your situation is that bleak because everybody else around you is in the same condition. So when people ask me what was it like to grow up poor, what was it like? It was like any other kid.

Nobody had a car, nobody had telephones. We just existed. We were just kids trying to figure out a way to get out of that environment.

Tavis: How does growing up in that kind of environment for you end up showing itself in your work years later as a CEO? In other words, what do you draw upon consistently from that upbringing that helps you to be the kind of outstanding businessman that you are?

Knowling: I think the values that I picked up from grandparents, from my mother. The going to church and actually having a faith are things I draw upon. Tough conditions also are the things that you draw upon when you get into difficult situations.

I have never found anything in business as tough as overcoming some of the struggles of childhood. Not having food, I was beaten once by a principal to the point where I was numb. So some of those conditions, I draw upon them to say everything I do in the private sector, child’s play compared to the things I’ve been doing as a child.

Tavis: I was at a conference the other day. As a matter of fact, I spoke at a conference, “Black Enterprise” magazine had a huge conference here in L.A. the other day and they asked me to speak at it and so I went to talk to this huge audience of people about some of these same issues, about how to succeed in business.

One of the issues that comes up in these conferences is the extent to which as an African American, certainly an African American male, the extent to which some believe you have to surrender your soul, you have to compromise yourself, you have to avoid or deny, put to the side, at least, your own culture if you want to make it in the culture of business in America.

What’s been your journey with regard to that particular struggle and whether or not you even have that struggle of having to deny parts of who you authentically are as a Black man to be accepted, much less to rise, in the corporate world?

Knowling: Interesting, the way you put that. There are compromises you have to make. For instance, I’m a great believer in diversity and I found that as I navigated through my career often I would have to perhaps make choices that I would love to have made from the heart in terms of people I want on the team, decisions I’d want to make.

The objective, if you are driven, is to get to the CEO suite. If you’re going to do that, you can’t really make a lot of waves. You can’t go and be a bull in the China shop.

You can do those things once you sort of get to a position where you have real power and you can make your own decision. So it is a process of navigating to think that you can be authentic, totally, is wrong. It’s not the way that the process works.

But I would also say I don’t believe that I’ve ever compromised to the point where I lost my identity.

Tavis: When folk want to make the point about diversity, real diversity, in corporate America, they point to a handful of Black CEOs, and as you well know, being one of them, comparatively speaking there are only a handful.

But they’ll point to three or four people. They’ll point to you, they’ll point to Ken Chenault, they’ll point to Stan O’Neill back at Merrill Lynch in the day, they’ll point to Dick Parsons, who endorses this book.

They’ll point to people like that as examples of how much better corporate America is at diversity. I never bought that line because because a handful of Black folk ascend to the top does not mean that top-down that diversity is really setting in as a mind-set, as a way of life in American corporations.

Let me ask you your sense of how well we are doing or not doing with regard to real diversity in corporate America, since you raised it.

Knowling: I was on Neil Cavuto’s show, and he asked me the question about would Martin Luther King feel good about where we are today. It was during MLK Week, and I said, “I think he would say there’s been some progress, but we still are a long way from really having the parity. If you just look at the representation of the demographics of this country, the number of women and the people of color who are leading businesses, we are no further ahead than we were 15 years ago.

It’s a very select group of folks that sort of get through. I can tell you that it’s tough once you do get there to ensure that there’s a good pipeline of succession, but I’ve got to tell you, I have never compromised on my desire and my ability to put people of color and to put women in the top jobs.

My last business that I ran, my CEO of the international units was a great guy, Rob Davenport, from Harvard MBA, great guy. My chief operating officer was a white female.

So I have done the things that you’re supposed to do. And by the way, diversity, people keep thinking that that’s the handout program, that’s so that we can have the proper allocation.

Diversity actually is the way that you get better perspective, better outcomes and better results.

Tavis: How did – I agree with you on that. How did telecom end up being your area of expertise? How’d you end up on that track?

Knowling: Well, I was back at my alma mater last weekend as well, undergraduate school, Wabash College. I told the kids there you don’t really have to have it all figured out, and I didn’t. I came out of college with one desire, and that is to take care of my mother and to have a white-collar job.

There was a guy in Kokomo that I saw every morning who left his house in the projects with a white shirt on.

I have no idea, Tavis, if that guy was going to a janitor’s job or if he was going to the local bank. To this day I don’t know his name. But I said, “That’s what I’m going to do, is I’m going to wear the white shirt.”

So I didn’t pick telcom. I really sort of said I’ll do my best, I’m going to play to win, I’m going to go take care of my mom. When I graduated, I had a lot of job offers, the opportunity to play professional sports, and I knew I had a better chance of being a nuclear physicist than playing in the NFL.

Tavis: What’s your sense of this restlessness in America right now, 800 cities and counting with these protests, people are having major, major issues and pushing back now aggressively on Wall Street, on corporate America?

Knowling: Because people don’t have jobs. It’s because there is excessive gain, when you look at the compensation being paid in the financial services industry, and you’ve got a country that’s hurting right now. Where do you go when a Bank of America says 30,000 jobs are going to be laid off?

It’s tough times, and I believe that the turmoil that we see in the marketplace relative to people losing their jobs, the whole housing crisis, it was – just roll that clock back about 15 years when it was in vogue where everybody could get a house, and now these people are upside-down on houses.

You literally can go into neighborhoods and just take the pick of the litter in terms of depressed assets. It’s a tough time in America right now.

Tavis: The title of this book may very well be the answer to the next question, or the final question I want to ask, but let me ask it anyway. What is the abiding lesson that you want people to take from this particular book?

Knowling: Well, I’m a reluctant author. It took 13 years for Bingham Publishing to get me to do this, and I’m a reluctant author because there have been many CEOs that have written books, and they have all the answers, and I sort of said, let the guys who’ve got it all figured out and got the paint-by-number approaches, let them be the guys that write the books.

But one day about four years ago one of the senior executives there said, “You’re depriving the world and kids of some great lessons,” and I decided this is not going to be a book where I tell you all the great answers, and I’ve had some great success.

But this is a book that will talk about the frailty of the human spirit. It’ll talk about the self-doubt. What do you do when you get gut-punched, and how do you get yourself back up off the ground? How do you run into the wall, run into the door, and continue to get up and charge the door again?

So the book is very raw because it is a true story, and I hope what people can find are some nuggets that will give them a little bit of inspiration that says you can actually come from a very long way off and get to a very distant here.

Tavis: I’ll close where I began – Herman Cain ain’t the only one, and for all of y’all who were turned on by these success stories of Black people doing it the right way, the hard way, the American way, and making huge successes of themselves in the process, companies and other people, you will not be disappointed by the new text from Bob Knowling.

It’s called “You Can Get There from Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success.” I think you’ll be empowered and inspired by the text. Bob, good to have you on the program.

Knowling: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm