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Life beyond the bottom line: Clayton Christensen's new book has business world buzzing

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

It was the great irony of late Utah Jazz owner and car dealership magnate Larry Miller's short, accomplished life that he originally began working long hours — 90 hours a week for 20 years — to benefit his wife and children, but wound up neglecting them and creating heartache along the way.

This is not anything the late Miller wouldn't talk about freely today if he hadn't died in 2009. When I conducted the first of three lengthy interviews with Miller for a Deseret News profile in 2001, he eagerly and tearfully discussed his mistakes and regrets. He was hard on himself and pulled no punches. I believe it was cathartic. When Miller asked me to write his book a few years later — "Driven" — this became a major theme that ran through much of the narrative.

Miller's story is pretty well known. Uneducated and with little means, he built a billion-dollar empire, but in the process he was never home and his wife and children suffered for it. He missed the ball games and the science fairs and back-to-school nights and the first day of kindergarten and dinner at home with the family. He also neglected the church that was so much a part of his early life.

Clayton Christensen's book measures life beyond the bottom line.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen's book measures life beyond the bottom line. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

By the end of his life, he had long since embraced all of the above passionately.

"As a husband and father," Miller said, "I viewed myself much more as a breadwinner than an emotional leader. As long as I provided for my family financially, I fulfilled my role, or so I thought. I didn't realize, until my late 40s, that not only did my kids and wife have an emotional need for a father and husband, but it was my responsibility."

Every time business guru Clayton Christensen attended a reunion of his Harvard Business School class, he learned that success in the office had taken its toll elsewhere — unhappy marriages and divorce, strained relationships with children, unethical and illegal behavior at work. These were the best and the brightest of a prestigious business school who couldn't get work-life balance right. Like Miller, they were putting in long hours at the office and earning responsible positions and lots of money with big companies, but "despite such professional accomplishments … many of them were clearly unhappy."

Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

So Christensen began to address the real meaning of family and life in his classes. He gave a speech about it and then wrote an article and now ultimately a book — "How Will You Measure Your Life?"

Business types are a little uneasy about discussing religion, faith and family in the workplace, but Christensen's book — which measures life beyond the bottom line and the big office with a view to encompass family, commitment, service, career, faith and more — has the business world buzzing. His book has won rich praise from the New York Times and Forbes Magazine and elsewhere.

The book began as a topic in Christensen's classes at Harvard. As Christensen tells it, at the end of every class he talked with his students about the purpose of life. He asked his students to consider three questions: "How can I be sure that I'll be happy in my career? How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? How can I be sure I'll stay out of jail?"

Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010.  (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

The message resonated with students. Using common sense and the conclusions of his own business research, he offered advice for finding "meaning and happiness."

Students asked him to address the same subject to the entire Harvard class in May 2010. The talks were recorded and widely distributed by students. Seeing the popularity of the video, Karen Dillon, editor of the Harvard Business Review, asked if she could turn the video into an article. It went viral, becoming what is believed to be the most-viewed HBR piece ever. In turn, Forbes Magazine began to address the real meaning of family and life in his classes and turned the article into a cover story. Finally, Christensen turned it into a book.

Christensen seems qualified to speak on such heady matters. If you turned the book's question back on the author, he would measure up pretty well. Raised in Utah and having graduated from BYU and later Harvard and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), he has been a one-man dynamo in the business world and beyond.

Clayton Christensen's book measures life beyond the bottom line. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen's book measures life beyond the bottom line. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

At 60, he has served as a White House fellow, a Harvard professor, an author, a widely quoted business theorist, a best-selling author, co-founder and founder of consulting and investment companies, and a sought-after public speaker who is quoted by everyone from Forbes to LDS Church leaders in their semiannual general conference. He is considered the leading innovation scholar in the world by no less than Forbes. He has made impactful leaps from innovation scholarship to addressing education, health care reform and the poor.

There's more, and if Christensen were measuring his life, all of the above would take a back seat or be given equal billing with the mission he served for his church in Korea, his marriage, fatherhood, family life and church work (including Scoutmaster duty) — which is the point of the book.

In many ways, Christensen's life has come full circle. Always a writer at heart, he aspired to be a journalist early in his professional life, but was drawn into a remarkable career in education and business before he got around to writing books on an amazing array of subjects, including health, education, the poor and business theory. His most famous book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," was a New York Times business category best-seller.

"How Will You Measure Your Life?," co-authored with Dillon and consultant James Allworth, is making another big splash. Forbes wrote this about the book: "It mixes tested business theories, a heap of common sense and Clay's deep confidence in the authority of God. It's one of the more surprisingly powerful books of personal philosophy of the 21st century. The questions it asks are the right ones: How do I find satisfaction in work? How do I create a family with relationships that are meaningful and fulfilling? How do I raise kids who are responsible, kind and make good choices?

"Ask any recovering alcoholic or addicted gambler or adulterer. They'll tell you what Clay tells you: it's easier to hold to one's principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. For kids graduating from college right now, this is the best time to engage in this personal reflection. Life, kids, careers and other pressures have a way of swallowing up time. Decide now what you stand for. Stand for it all the time."

The ideas in the book have earned praise in the past from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote about Christensen's approach to a "well-planned life" in August 2010, and Forbes, which produced a series of stories about Christensen in February 2011 after he'd survived cancer, a heart attack and a stroke.

As Christensen concludes at the end of the prologue, "I don't promise this book will offer you any easy answers; working through these questions requires hard work. It has taken me decades. But it has also been one of the most worthwhile endeavors of my life. I hope the theories in this book can help you as you continue on your journey, so that in the end you can definitively answer for yourself the question, 'How will you measure you life?'"

I believe Miller would have enthusiastically endorsed the book, as well. He addressed many of the same themes raised by Christensen's book in public settings, using himself as a cautionary tale. Referring to his shortcomings at home, Miller said, "I try to pass these painful lessons to others who might be tempted by the allure of professional success. For years I taught a weekly three-hour entrepreneurial class for MBA students at BYU. Near the end of each semester Gail (his wife) and I were invited to speak to the students and their spouses about the trappings of the business world. I tell the students that success, as the world defines it, is very intoxicating. I tell them that they should understand that it's important to be home with their family and be more than a breadwinner."

In "Driven," Miller said many things consistent with Christensen's themes in "How Will You Measure Your Life?" To wit, he expressed his regrets this way: "I would have been there for the Little League games and the scraped knees and the back-to-school nights. Would we have accomplished as much? There's no way to know ... If I had to choose between working long hours and being closer to family, I would choose the latter. That has come to mean more to me now, but, unfortunately, not until after my kids were grown and gone."

Evolution of a book

The genesis of a new national book phenomenon, Clayton Christensen's "How Will You Measure Your Life?" Out this week, the book already has drawn major attention and profiles of Christensen from Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the New Yorker and the Financial Times.

Harvard classrooms: Professor Christensen takes business class time to share lessons learned from watching others in business struggle in their personal lives. He asks students three questions — "How can I be sure that I'll be happy in my career? How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? How can I be sure I'll stay out of jail?"

Harvard speech: The students in the Harvard Business School Class of 2010 asked Christensen to speak to them in May of that year. He delivers a speech titled "How Will You Measure Your Life?" that mixes thoughts on faith and work-life balance with integrity and business.

Viral article: The speech becomes an article in the Harvard Business Review in July 2010, and the article becomes the most-read item in the history of the HBR website.

Forbes Magazine: The body of Christensen's life's work, the popularity of the article and his survival of cancer, a heart attack and a stroke lead Forbes to write not just a cover story but multiple articles with multiple videos.

Harper Business: The business imprint of international book publishing company HarperCollins Publishers brings Christensen together with James Allworth and Karen Dillon to turn the concepts into a book.

Email: drob@desnews.com

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