Executive Life; A Driven Bunch Says No Degree, No Problem

By Julia Lawlor (NYT)

WHILE most of his peers were going to fraternity parties and studying in their dorm rooms, Joseph Grano was deep in the jungles of South Vietnam, leading his Army division against the Vietcong. He never got a college degree, but Mr. Grano, now chairman and chief executive of UBS Wealth Management, said in a recent interview that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.

”I don’t regret it,” said Mr. Grano, who described being wounded during the war. ”I found out that as long as I could perform as well, if not better, than someone with a degree, it wasn’t a barrier.”

As the fall semester goes into full swing at universities across the country, students are working under the assumption that the better their grades, and the more prestigious their college, the better they will fare in their careers. Yet a surprising number of business executives offer potent counterexamples.

In the world of finance, those without degrees include David Herron, the chief executive of the Chicago Stock Exchange, who said he skipped so many classes at the University of California at Berkeley that he dropped out, after reaching ”mutual agreement” with college officials. David H. Komansky, who retired this year as chairman of Merrill Lynch, and Richard A. Grasso, who resigned last month as head of the New York Stock Exchange amid a furor over a $140 million compensation package, also do not have college degrees. (Mr. Grasso’s package could cover the cost of 921 Harvard degrees, room and board included.)

In the technology field, it sometimes seems that lacking a degree is a requirement for future success. According to the relevant corporate press officers, Bill Gates of Microsoft dropped out of Harvard in his junior year; Michael Dell, founder of the Dell computer company, dropped out of the University of Texas at Austin; Lawrence J. Ellison, chief executive of Oracle, attended both the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois but never graduated; and Ted Waitt, the founder of Gateway, left the University of Iowa after his sophomore year.

In the free-wheeling entertainment world, Barry Diller and David Geffen both dropped out of college — Mr. Diller, the chief executive of InterActiveCorp, from U.C.L.A.; and Mr. Geffen, a co-founder of Dreamworks SKG, from Brooklyn College and the University of Texas after less than one semester each, according to a spokeswoman.

Ted Turner, the founder of Turner Broadcasting, was asked to leave Brown University, a spokeswoman confirmed. But in 1989 Brown gave him a special degree, a Bachelor of Philosophy, for his “sustained service to the university.”

Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley. She declined to discuss her decision but said through a spokesman that she had left college ”because I wanted to start life.”

William Simon, managing director of the global entertainment and media practice at the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, cautioned that skipping college was not a good idea for most people. Even the entertainment industry is now overrun with M.B.A.’s, he said.

Still, a degree matters more for younger workers than for those with experience, he said. ”It’s valuable during the first 7 to 10, or 10 to 12 years, and after that you’re being hired or promoted based on what you’ve actually accomplished in business,” he said. ”Nobody at a senior level has ever been asked what his G.P.A. was.”

A COLLEGE degree can also be less relevant to success if you end up as your own boss. David Neeleman, chief executive of JetBlue Airways, said he hated every minute of his three years at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

He says he knows now that the difficulty stemmed from his attention deficit disorder, which remained undiagnosed until he was in his 30’s. ”I couldn’t focus,” he said.

Mr. Neeleman got the idea to start a tour company, and when his business took off, he dropped out. ”I’m not ashamed that I don’t have a degree,” he said.

Indeed, Mr. Herron, who became a runner on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange after leaving Berkeley, volunteered that he lacked a degree before accepting the Chicago Stock Exchange job last year. ”I didn’t want to hide anything,” he said. ”They said it wasn’t an issue.”

Not having a degree can lead some ambitious beginners to desperate acts.

According to a story published in the New Yorker and confirmed by Mr. Geffen’s spokeswoman, Mr. Geffen wanted a job in the William Morris Agency mailroom, but knew a college degree was required. So Mr. Geffen, then a 20-year-old college dropout, told them he had a diploma from U.C.L.A.

Once he started working, though, he discovered that his bosses were checking all résumés, and that another person had been fired for lying about his background. For the next six months, he arrived at the office at 6 a.m. on the lookout for a letter from U.C.L.A.; when he saw it, he opened and altered it, then put it back in the mail, the spokeswoman confirmed.

Inevitably, once an executive without a degree reaches a certain lofty level, there are invitations to speak at college commencements, serve on college advisory boards and accept honorary degrees. Mr. Dell and Mr. Grano each have two, and Mr. Neeleman has one.

When it comes to the art of leadership, the military may offer the best training. After one semester at Central Connecticut State College, Mr. Grano enlisted in the Army, became a captain in Vietnam and was badly wounded in combat. ”There isn’t anything more stressful or more shaping than being responsible for peoples’ lives,” he said. ”Being an officer made me realize I had a management ego.”

When Mr. Grano returned to the United States, intending to enroll in college, he happened to read about a training program at Merrill Lynch. The next day, he said, he hobbled into the Hartford office with casts on both legs and applied.

Many years later, he is bothered by just one thing. ”I often wonder what I missed,” Mr. Grano mused. ”I could have seen myself in the movie ‘Animal House.”’

“Degrees of Success” captures short inspirational stories of every day people who became successful without a college degree.

“Claudia Fox has written an enlightening book that will demonstrate to you, that although education may be the key that will unlock doors, with only dedication and desire, you can blow them right off their hinges.”
– John Roland, WNYW, FOX 5