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Cornerstones of a successful career

by Elder Gary L. Crittenden.

By Elder Gary L. Crittenden

LDS Business College Devotional

November 19, 2013


There’s just such a wonderful feeling here this morning. In fact, I would have been happy to just sit there and allow the Spirit to work on us for a while. But it’s a real treat for Cathy and for me to have the chance to be here with you. As I look out and see you, it causes me to think about the time in our lives when we were at about your same age. We were down at BYU, and I got married about 18 months after I got home from my mission. And Cathy and I were—as most people at BYU were—absolutely dirt-poor and poverty-stricken. So I worked full time in a clothing store in the University Mall to kind of help pay our way through school and try to save some money for graduate school. And the combination of working full time plus going to school full time created the kind of busy schedule that I’m sure each one of you have that are here today. And it says a lot about you that, in the demands that you have on your time overall, that you can carve out a little bit of time to hopefully reflect on the things that are happening in your life, where you are headed and how Heavenly Father can assist you in the process of achieving the goals that you have.

I’m just delighted to be here. This is the first time that I have been actually at the school, and I’ve now found out that some of my former friends and colleagues are here and associated with the school. I’ve known President Richards for a while, who is a wonderful, delightful man. He and I have met each other in Church circles here in Salt Lake City, but this is the first time I have been at the school.

So I thought today I might talk to you—given what the environment is here and what we are talking about—that I might spend some time talking about four important cornerstones of building a successful career. And I hope that this will be something that will be helpful to you as you kind of think this through in your own lives. So these are going to sound pretty straightforward, and they are, because there’s not a lot of mystery to doing this right. But I hope to elaborate on them in a way that is helpful for you.

So the first one, not surprisingly for where you are, is to get the right education—get the best education that you possibly can. When I was at BYU, I was coming up on finishing my undergraduate, and we were graduating in December of 1976. And I had a terrific professor for a class that was called business policy. And the purpose of this class was, in theory, to be kind of a culmination of everything you learned in the business department at BYU, and you were then supposed to be able to distill that down and talk about doing business strategy for big companies.

I don’t know if you do this now here, but at the time they did a lot of tests that were called “blue-book tests.” Do you do blue-book tests anymore? It’s probably all done online and all that kind of stuff.  But these were blue-book tests, and blue-book tests were—they gave you this empty book, and they gave you a question, and you just wrote until you ran out of time in answer to that question. And then you handed it in. And I think the time periods for the final exams were about an hour and a half, and the faculty member would sit in on the house while the class members were kind of filling out whatever they thought the right answers were in their blue book. So anyway, I finished a few minutes early, before the time for the final was over, and my professor was sitting in the front of the room, and he was just having us drop our blue books into a box up there. And after I dropped my blue book in, he said, “Well, what are you thinking about doing after you get out of school?”

And I said, “Well, I’m going to work for a little while in my dad’s paint store, and then I’d really like to go to graduate school somewhere.”

And he said—now you have to remember that I’d had him in school for the last semester, and this was a pretty small class so he knew me pretty well—he said, “Well, where are you thinking about going?”

And I said, “Well, you know, my wife and I haven’t really decided, but we’ve been thinking about maybe applying to Harvard Business School and to Stanford graduate school.”

And he looked at me for a second, and he said, “You know, you might want to widen the number of places you apply.”

Now fortunately it worked out a little differently. It worked out fine for us, and we were able to eventually go to school in the East, because we had a fair amount of experience at living in the West. But we found that in the course of time I was at BYU, and then when I was at Harvard Business School, that there were two important things about getting a good education at a great institution like this. One is that you actually learn things. I mean you really—it turns out that when you go and do a job and you show up on the first day of work, there’s going to be an expectation that you know how to do something, and do something useful that kind of adds to, either the hospital that you work at or in the business you work in or wherever your particular vocation happens to take you. There’s going to be an expectation that you have learned something great that you can actually use and apply.

But more importantly are the wonderful people that you meet while you are there. Now here’s the interesting insight. When I was at BYU, and then when I was at Harvard Business School, I would look around the classroom—and this also applied a little bit to right after I had my first job—I would look around the classroom and I would see people sitting there that I knew, and I would think, “He’s a pretty normal guy, just like me, pretty similar kind of background and pretty normal person. And you know, she’s a very nice person, but she’s pretty normal, and she’s done good things in her life but kind of a normal thing.” And then miraculously, over the course of the last, now, 35 years since I graduated from Harvard Business School, one after another of those people who look just like the people who are sitting next to you on the bench, have ended up in very important roles and responsibilities, in government, in business, in the Church, in the sciences, in arts—in lots of different ways. And I never would have thought, at the time when I was sitting next to them in class, that they would have actually ended up in that job. I thought, “You mean them? How could that possibly be?”

Now you may know everybody that’s sitting next to you in this little congregation here today, but I suspect that you will have that exact same experience. I made a little list last night that I ran by Kathy this morning, and here’s the list of people that I sat with in classrooms somewhere: The CEO of Intuit, the CEO of eBay, the CEO of Dell, the CEO of HP, the CEO of Vail Resorts, the CEO of Gibson Guitar—would that be a cool job, or what? The CEO of Madison Square Garden, the CEO of American Express, who at one point actually ended up offering me a job responsibility, a congressman, general authorities of the Church. I used to ride to school each morning—or ride to work each morning, and to school—with the fellow who eventually became the dean of the Harvard Business School, and we used to sit in the back of the bus on our way down to Harvard Square and tell jokes to each other. And someone who was in my study group at Harvard Business School ended up being a professor at Harvard.

So you just don’t know how the world is going to evolve. It turns out that all of us who . . . are sort of on the other side of our careers . . . actually end up retiring and going on to do other things—going on missions for the Church and doing other responsibilities like that. And you all end up in those very important roles. And so while you are here getting a terrific education, it’s really important to be a good colleague, to be a good person. Because you just never know when that person next to you is going to be in a position somewhere where they say, “You know, I knew Sally when I was at LDS Business College. And I can tell you that Sally had great integrity. She was a wonderful person. She worked really hard. She was fun to be with.” And that will make the difference in the career opportunities that you have as you go down the road.

So first cornerstone—get the right education, because of the skills you will get, and more importantly, the wonderful relationships you’ll have the opportunity to build.

The second one is—and I wish you could get away from this—but it turns out that the second cornerstone of having a successful career is you have to work really hard. Now, that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you. It is only hard because it turns out, it is hard. There’s a lot of work involved in doing it.

When I first joined Bain and Company, it was my first job coming out of graduate school. I had grown up in Ogden and, as I mentioned just a minute ago, I had spent my teenage years working in my dad’s paint store. And kind of the sum total of my professional experience was selling paint, putting it in the truck, and then driving it to someone’s house and dropping it off at their place. And so suddenly I’m now in a professional consulting firm with all these guys who grew up on the East Coast, and they went to all these private boarding schools and had all the right pedigrees and all this kind of thing. I was totally and completely different from them and felt very intimidated by them. But I didn’t want to let on that that was the case.

So in the very first business trip that I ever took, where somebody was actually paying me to go do something, we were flying down to go visit a client of ours down in North Carolina. We flew down to the Research Triangle airport there in North Carolina. And I had flown down late in the evening, and my boss, my manager, had flown down a little earlier and was there before me. And he and I had arranged about 7:30 in the morning that we were going to meet in the lobby of the hotel, and we were going to go over and meet this client for the first time. He knew them, but it would have been the first opportunity for me to go there.

So I come down at 20 after seven, all dressed up ready to go, looking like many of you do today, sharp and ready to have my very first business interaction and be very professional about it. And he’s not there. So five minutes go by. It’s now 7:30. Fifteen minutes go by; it’s now 7:45. I start to get a little bit worried, so I go up to the desk at the hotel and I say, “Do you happen to know so-and-so’s room number? I need to call him and see where he is.”

And she said, “Oh, well, he checked out about 6:30 this morning.”

I thought, “Oh, wow.”

She said, “He was going to breakfast with so-and-so”—naming the client that was there in town—and it dawned on me that I was so important to this trip that he had totally forgotten that I had flown down the night before to be part of this client experience.

So I called him and he said, “Oh, that’s right. You are here, aren’t you?” He said, “Well, why don’t you see if you can get a cab and come on out to the plant.” You know, just come out and join the meeting as soon as you get there.

So we’re in North Carolina; it’s not exactly like there are 15 cabs waiting outside the hotel. So I pick up the telephone and called the local cab company. This was back before cell phones. I called the local cab company and 20 minutes passes by, and lo and behold, a cab shows up. And just as I’m walking out the door, a friend of mine—I mean, how unfortunate is this?—a friend of mine happens to walk in the door. So I stopped to talk to him for 30 seconds, and someone else gets in the cab and drives away.

So I go back to the pay phone, I call the cab company again and order a second cab. I wait 20 minutes, a cab shows up, picks me up, and he says, “Now, where are you going?”

And I said, “I need to go to Reedsville, North Carolina, to this plant.”

He says, “I know right where it is.”

So we get in, we’re driving down the road, and I’m watching the meter in the cab tick up—23 dollars, 24 dollars, 25 dollars—and I realize I only have 26 dollars in my pocket. And so we pull up and it is $25.40. I said to the guy, “How about I give you $25.00?”

He said, “Great.” So I paid him the $25.00, I kept the dollar in my pocket.

I walked into the plant and I said to the receptionist there, “Now, I’m here for the important Bain meeting that they’re having.”

And she said, “You know, I’m not sure that meeting is happening here at the Reedsville plant. I think it’s actually at the Madison plant in Madison, North Carolina.”

I said, “Well, how far away is that?”

She said, “Oh, not far at all. You can get there in 45 minutes.”

And then I realize I have one dollar in my pocket and the cab just disappeared into the distance.

So being resourceful, I walked across the street to a car dealership. I went inside and I said, “Now, do you rent cars?”

The guy said, “No. We’re a car dealership. We sell cars.” I explained my plight and he said, “Okay, we’ll rent you a car, but if you do that, we’re going to keep your credit card.” I had an American Express Card for travel, and he said, “We’re going to keep your American Express Card on file.”

So I gave him my American Express Card, I hopped in the car; I had directions on how to get to the plant. I’m driving through the back countryside, I looked down, and he hadn’t put any gas in the car. So—and recall, I have one dollar in my pocket. One dollar used to buy a lot more gas than it does today. So I pulled up to a little country store; they had a gas tank, and here’s the unfortunate thing. It was the year that unleaded gas had just been introduced, and this is a brand new car, and it had an unleaded gas tube on it. I pulled up at a country store that only sold leaded gas. I thought to myself, “How much damage can one dollar of leaded gas do?” So I pulled the hose out and I kind of nursed it into the edge of the tank and I pulled the trigger, and lo and behold the gas backed up out of the tank and poured all over my suit—my brand new suit that I had worn for the day.

But I nursed a little bit in, I went inside and paid the dollar for my gas, and I made my way over to the plant and joined the meeting. Now it was like 11:00 in the morning, and the meeting was supposed to start at 8:30 or something. And as I walked in the door I noticed that everyone turned around and went (sniff, sniff) smelling the gas that was on my suit.

So as you might imagine, I thought my career was ended. I’d had this life of shipping paint cans around the paint store and thought I was due to go back to that exact same job, that I had failed at the experience that I had had. But in spite of that inauspicious beginning, I had 12 wonderful years at Bain and Company, a time that I shared in part with John Bennion—12 wonderful years at Bain and Company, where I learned a lot and felt like I had an opportunity to progress. But a lot of that involved a lot of hard work.

And one of that—the most difficult things that we all face because we are committed to family, we’re committed to the responsibilities that we have in the Church but we also want to do a terrific job in our business responsibilities—is to figure out how you kind of separate the time and commitment you have. I’ve never had anyone say to me in a business context, “Do you know what? You don’t need to work that much. You’re really working way too hard. Why don’t you just slow down and take some time off? We’re just going to give you the afternoon.” I’ve never had anyone come up and say that to me. And so as you think about your work, it turns out that the only person who will end up setting limits on the way you spend your time and the amount of time you spend is yourself. You’re the one that will actually put those barriers around you.

When I first joined Bain, one of the LDS people that worked there before me called me right after I’d gotten my job offer. And he said, “It is very important that you don’t work on Sunday.”

I said, “Well, I don’t work on Sunday. I’ve made a commitment that I don’t do that.”

And he said, “No, no. Here’s what I mean. If you are working in the office and it is midnight on Saturday night, you need to walk out of the office. And you can come back at 12:01 on Monday, but I’ve got them all convinced that Mormons don’t work on Sunday at all, and I need to make sure that you keep that same feeling with the things that you do.”

So a Saturday evening came around, and Cathy will remember this, and it got to be 12:01 a.m., I would fold up my book and walk out of the [office] and make my way out to our home in Belmont. Because you have to think yourself about how you set parameters and balance around the things that you do. And you’ll find over the course of your career that you’ll set those boundaries in different places. There will be times like now, for instance, when you’re a little bit younger, maybe you don’t have children yet, where you can kind of push the boundaries and work a lot of very hard hours. And there will be other times where you might have to care for children or care for aged parents, or your family situation is such where you move those boundaries the other direction.

But the important thing is that you’re in charge of how hard you work. And I would hope that, as a result of your decisions around that, that you end up getting what you intend. That you end up getting what you intend. In other words, if you make a decision to trade off work for family, the blessing you will have in your life will be a blessing you will get in your family. I think one of the saddest experiences is if we let the outside world dictate how we spend our time and our efforts, we end up getting what the outside world would have us receive, as opposed to the thing that we might want most in our own lives and in our own hearts. But you’ll know where those boundaries are.

The third cornerstone of building a great career—and this might be a little different than you might think—is to improve an asset. Improve an asset. Now this may not have exactly dawned on you yet, but when I was working away at a clothing store in the University Mall, making a commission on every suit that I sold, it slowly began to dawn on me that if I was ever going to create any real wealth—that is, the kind of wealth that could bless the lives of my family and others and the Church—that I probably would not be able to work enough hours to create that amount of wealth. Most people sort of “top out” at about 2,040 hours a year. Maybe they can get up to 2,200 hours, maybe a little bit less. And I don’t know how much you will make an hour; most of you will probably do well. But even if you multiply all of that out, and assuming you do pretty well, there’s a limit if you are getting paid by the hour for what you do. It puts a limit on what you’re able to actually do in terms of the creation of wealth.

So let me tell you a little story about my son that probably tells this story better than I could. And these numbers are not going to be exact. They’re approximately right. I didn’t call him and check all these numbers with him, but these are approximately correct from what I remember. He graduated from BYU in construction management, which is a tough major. You have to swing a hammer, you have to actually have some kind of very specific experience as many of you are getting here, in order to eventually become a general contractor. And he went through that experience at BYU, so it took him seven years to graduate because of all the time he had to work while he was in school.

But eventually, he and a good buddy of his decided that they were going to move to Phoenix, Arizona, and they were going to build homes. And they made that decision, brilliantly, in 2007. Now any of you who are from the Phoenix area know that, although real estate was depressed in much of the country, real estate in Phoenix was really depressed in 2008, 2009, and 2010. But in spite of that, I am very proud of him and his partner, that they survived during that entire time period. They worked hard, they built town homes, they built custom homes, they built dental offices—they did a lot of work and put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into building their business. And during that time period there were probably some years where he made a little and some years where he lost a little, but on average he came out okay, providing for his family.

Now here’s the interesting part of this story: Because real estate prices had dropped so dramatically, he and his wife decided they would buy a home while they were there. They had a small, smallish home—it was about a 2,000-square-foot home. And I think when they bought it they paid about $75.00 a square foot for the home, so that would be $150,000 for the home. And I don’t know what he put down, but let’s just assume for discussion purposes that he put down 20 percent, so he put down $30,000 as a down payment. He lived in that house, then, during almost all of the time that they were there. And then recently, I persuaded him to come and join me in a business venture here in Salt Lake. That was in part because he’s a great guy, but in large measure because he has five of my 11 grandkids. So they joined us here in Sandy, and we’ve had a wonderful time over the course of the last year working together.

But while he owned that home, wonder of wonders, real estate prices in Phoenix turned around, because you had all these outside investors who were making—you know, trying to buy this inexpensive real estate in Phoenix. So by the time he sold his home—and again, I don’t know if these numbers are exactly correct—I think he sold it for about $125.00 a square foot. So he made about $50.00 a square foot times 2,000 square feet on that little home, relative to what he had originally paid for it when he bought it.

So he was working every day, eight, 10, 12 hours a day, building his construction business, but he was living in an asset that he cleaned up and fixed and painted and made a little bit better, and while he was doing that the value of that asset increased far more than the value of the time that he put against that.

And in there is a very important lesson as you think about your careers. Whether the asset that you own is a piece of real estate or a business that you start or a service that you provide to somebody else, if you can find a way to buy and own something, whatever that might be, and work on it and make it better and fix it up—it could be a company in which you get stock, it could be a business that you buy—that has the possibility of appreciating far faster than anything you might be able to do just by investing your time. It’s a miraculous principle, and it’s the wonderful principle of capitalism that when you take the ingenuity of people and you match that

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