I have no choice but to acknowledge the enormous part that serendipity has played in my life. My guess is, if you do some contemplation, you will find that it has played a significant role in your life too. For my own story, I am amazed at the many things that seem to fall in place to make my life truly one of enjoyment, constant intellectual challenges, and yes, love. The story of how my wife and I met 55 years ago and are together still after 48 years of marriage is remarkable. That story is a testimony to why she is on track to sainthood. But I want to have this post focus more on the thing that began my journey professionally. It all started with a mistake.
Serendipity: the occurrence and development of events by chance—happily or beneficially.
I especially like the “happily or beneficially.” Luck is good or bad and can have a “happy or beneficial” part to it. But “serendipity” is, by definition, meant to be positive. I’ve heard it said that “I’d rather be lucky than smart,” but for me, I’d instead invite serendipity rather than luck. So briefly, here’s the story.
I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from High School. I only knew that my father kept beating into me that I had to get an education, or I’d wind up working as a manual laborer all my life. Okay, but a degree in what? The business he owned was a boiler construction and maintenance company. I worked for him (or more accurately, his business partner) full time every summer from the time I could legally drive until I was a Sophomore in college. And every summer, he would drive the message home — get an education or work hard like this for the rest of your life. Perhaps some other time, I’ll share how I feel about that message. But for now, let’s say I heard it loud and clear.
I spent a year in Junior college to try and figure out what I wanted to do. I decided that I would go into my father’s business but as a professional — Mechanical Engineer: Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning being the goal. Well, I made the arrangements to transfer from the Junior College to a local four-year school. At the time, it was a small private college that has since grown into a rather large private University — Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.
Close to Home
I found the campus, not far from my parent’s home, and parked the car. I was looking for the Administration Building, where they located registration. But, as serendipity would have it, I parked in the wrong spot and entered the wrong building. I entered the building pictured above, and it happened to be the Engineering Building. I think there were only four buildings on campus at the time. As I walked through the doors shown in the picture, I noticed a whole bunch of lights flashing in a room to my right.
I was standing there with my nose pressed against the glass in the door when a gentleman asked me if he could help me. I managed to stammer out, “Yes, what is that machine in there?” His amused reply was, “It’s an IBM 1620 computer.” (Oh! I forgot to tell you; this is 1966.) I then asked, “Who works on those?” to which he responded, “Well, I do. I’m the Director of the Computer Center.” Of course, I was thinking about who designed them. When I asked him that question, he said, “Well, Electrical Engineers design the electronics and Mechanical Engineers design the metal machine itself.”
After a few more questions and exchanging names, Mr. Don LaPorte directed me to the Administration Building, and I signed up to be an Electrical Engineering student. All because I went through the wrong door in the wrong building and met a nice man who would spend some time answering seemingly inane questions. Or, you might say, no, you went through the right door. At any rate, serendipity. (And of course, the incredible luck of being born at all!)
After graduating with a BSEE, I went to work as a design engineer at a local aerospace company. I also went back to the same school evenings to get an MBA degree. Another serendipitous thing since back then, few technical people bothered with business degrees. But I had observed that the engineers and there were many, many sound engineers at this company, seemed not to be able to advance very far in the organization. The men (yes, they were all men) in the offices were relatively young and weren’t going anywhere soon. I had decided to become a leader, and so that meant gaining a business degree to move up. I figured that if I could lead other engineers, great. But if that weren’t going to happen, then I would lead other technology people.
The Semiconductor Business
After more than 32 years in the semiconductor business, I can honestly say that I had not had more than a dozen “bad days” when I did not look forward to going to work. And that work was in many disciplines, including engineering, purchasing, sales, marketing, back to managing application engineering, ERP implementation, and operations. Along the way, more serendipity in terms of planning encountering opportunity, and being in the right place at the right time.
Fast forward to today. I left the semiconductor business in 2002 and started my own business as a Management Consultant. Much of what I now do has evolved into leadership coaching. So when the question comes up, and it frequently comes up, in my group of colleagues about “What experience in your past has made you the leader you are today?” I have no other choice than to admit that it all got started with a serendipitous mistake. What experience in your life has made you the leader you are today? Did serendipity have a significant role? Did lousy luck (say having a jerk for a boss) play a role in shaping you? How will you help develop the young people in your care today? Will they consider having the opportunity to work with/for you a good thing — serendipity — or a bad thing?
[Reformatted 9/2020 with a new website.]