To be successful, you need to find satisfying work, stay focused and be willing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths, says John Allison, a Distinguished Professor of Practice at Wake Forest University Schools of Business and a retired chairman and CEO of BB&T.
Allison spoke to a group of Triad business leaders on April 27 after being given the 2011 Triad Business Leader Legend Award by Business Leader Media. Allison’s award capped an evening in which 27 Triad businesses and business-education institutions were honored in various categories.
The Wake Forest University Schools of Business was honored as 2011 Triad Business Leader of the Year for Higher Education, and Michael Haggas, Director of Development for the Schools of Business, was on hand at the Hawthorne Inn & Conference Center in Winston-Salem to receive the award. The introduction noted that in 2010, despite a sluggish economy, 100 percent of the Master of Science in Accountancy graduates and 92 percent of the full-time MBA graduates found work within three months of graduating and that, in March 2011, U.S. News & World Report ranked Wake Forest’s full-time MBA program in the top 5 percent nationally for securing jobs within three months of graduation.
Allison, who is being featured in the May issue of Business Leader magazine, was recognized for a career that, in 2010, led Harvard Business Review to name him one of the Top 100 most-successful CEOs in the world during past decade.
When Allison went to work for BB&T in 1971 after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the bank had assets of $275 million. He became president in 1987 and chairman and CEO in 1989. Under his leadership the bank grew dramatically. He was CEO through December 2008, and, during his tenure as CEO, assets grew from $4.5 billion to $152 billion.
He continued to serve as chairman through December 2009. In March 2009, Allison joined the Wake Forest Schools of Business faculty.
In accepting the award, Allison told the 110 people at the awards dinner that he sees such an honor as recognition for all of the people at BB&T who have made him look good over his career. In remarks that earned Allison a standing ovation, he emphasized the importance of principles. In the long run, he said, it’s not the esoteric or complex that make the difference. It is such fundamentals as having a purpose, being a disciplined thinker, and working in a way that enhances self-esteem.
“For organizations to be successful, the people in the organization must invest in the purpose of the organization,” he said.
For individuals to be successful, they must find work they enjoy. For some people, he said, that can be raising children.
“If work is just work, you’re missing a lot in life,” he said.
You don’t have to have a high IQ to run a successful business, he said. But being a disciplined thinker is essential. Part of that is learning from your mistakes. To do that, you have not only to admit that you made a mistake, but also be willing to uncover the underlying causes of that mistake. Sometimes, you may find that you had the necessary information to have avoided the mistake but it didn’t register because it went against your belief system.
“You literally didn’t hear it,” he said. “Being detached from reality is a very dangerous place to be.”
Another important component of disciplined thinking is staying focused. “Don’t evade. Stay focused.”
Allison also emphasized the importance of developing self-esteem and of work’s role in doing that.
“By far the biggest driver of self-esteem is work,” Allison said. “If you do your work the best you can possibly do it, you will raise your self-esteem.”
Often, he said, failure can be traced to poor self-esteem.
“You earn self-esteem by how you live your life,” he said. “Live your life with integrity.”