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5 ways not having a college degree made me a better leader

The CEO of OH Partners says it took him a long time to understand that people learn differently and that self-worth should not be tied to a college diploma.

5 ways not having a college degree made me a better leader
[Photo: Jakob Rosen/Unsplash]
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One of the biggest life lessons I have learned over the years is that it’s okay to go against the grain. I believe that sometimes you need to reject a social norm to stay true to yourself—and the reason I know that’s true is because it’s exactly what I did when I dropped out of college.

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Now, that’s not something that I’ve always been open about. In fact, for many years I felt ashamed. Partially because I thought it meant I wasn’t as smart as other people—a thought that was made exponentially worse as I compared myself to my peers, some of whom were busy earning multiple degrees—and partly because I thought it made me a failure.

I did attend college briefly. I tried unsuccessfully to play football for a university in Utah, but that didn’t work out. I came home and attended Arizona State University, where I did well in marketing classes and was active in the business school’s marketing club, but I still struggled with my other classes. For a creative, tactile learner like myself, sitting through 45-minute lectures in a classroom was painful. Not only was it challenging, but I always resented the fact that it felt like I was being taught how to memorize facts and formulas rather than how to actually use them. My self-esteem plummeted, and I decided college was not for me.

It took me a long time to understand that people learn differently, and that self-worth should not be tied to a college diploma. Eventually, I felt less shame knowing that some of the most powerful business leaders in the world—from Steve Jobs and Richard Branson to Larry Ellison and Debbi Fields—have never earned a college degree. In fact, a 2017 CNBC Survey Monkey Small Business Survey reported that a majority of small business owners in the U.S. don’t have a college degree and they outnumber those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

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Knowing this helped me move forward. After all, I knew I had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and several wise mentors to guide me in my quest to succeed. Today, at 39, I am the cofounder, president, and CEO of a fast-growing advertising and digital marketing firm.

Looking back, I’m grateful for my path. In fact, in many ways, not having a college degree has helped me become a better leader. I learned to:

Be resourceful

Some people tell me I’m “street smart” and there is no doubt that I learned from the “school of hard knocks,” but I believe a big part of my success has been because I am resourceful. I think outside of the box. If there’s a roadblock, I’ll find a quick, creative way around it. Not having a college degree forced me to be resourceful, and for that, I’m grateful.

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Embrace failure

We all fail. It’s how we deal with failure that matters. Not having a college degree made me hungrier to succeed, so I learned to take more calculated risks, make bold decisions, and learn from my mistakes and failures. 

Have empathy

Great leaders have and show empathy. For me, not having a college degree has made me less judgmental, especially when it comes to choosing who joins our team. If I see potential in a job candidate or if an employee demonstrates a passion for creativity, I won’t let a college degree affect my decision to hire or promote them. I am empathetic to the fact that we all have different career paths on our life journeys.

Surround yourself with smart leaders

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn was spot on when he said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Not having a college degree taught me the importance of networking with successful leaders. It’s a key reason why I am active with both Young Presidents’ Association and Entrepreneurs’ Organization. 

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Keep learning and cocreate

Would a college degree have changed my thirst for knowledge? I don’t think so. But one thing is for sure: The fact that I didn’t earn a degree, meant that I jumped at opportunities to cocreate with other imaginative people. I’m also constantly working on my own professional development. No matter what stage of my life, I’ll always be searching for opportunities to learn.

I hope the social norms dictating that people earn a college degree will change so our society is more accepting of people who choose a different path. As a father of a young son and daughter, I worry about the pressures they will face during and after high school. You can bet that I’ll be supporting them to align their career path with their passions, whatever that may be.


Scott Harkey is the president and CEO of OH Partners.

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