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What I Would Do Differently

Though from a distance John Berra’s career path might look like a series of great moves, there are many things he says he would do differently.

John Berra, retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management
John Berra, retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management


I began my career as an instrument engineer working in a cube, and I ended up running a multibillion-dollar global automation company. From a distance, my career path would appear to be an uninterrupted sequence of great moves. In reality, there are many things I would do differently.

A friend of mine has a favorite saying: “This is not a practice life.” Hopefully, this column can help as you as you navigate your own career path.

Let’s begin with developmental items. I went from undergrad engineering directly to a job. I wish I would have obtained an MBA, or at least found some way to learn about finance and business early on. Even if you never run a business, it is important to know how business works and measures itself. Second, all of my jobs were in the U.S. But an assignment in another country would have been beneficial. No matter where you are based or what you do, the value of a global perspective cannot be overstated. The message here is take charge of your own development.

I was overly ambitious, particularly in the early days. Confidence and competitiveness are good, but not when they translate into insensitivity and arrogance. There was a time when there were five of us under consideration for a general management position. Those not selected would wind up working for the selected one. I was not a team player at this point—I wanted the job and it showed! I did get the job, but then had to deal with the problems I created because of my behavior. I made it worse by trying to prove that I was the right choice even after the job was decided. Campaign on your merits, but drop the campaigning after the choice is made. Treat your peers with respect.

There was another time when I did not get selected for a position, and it was one I really wanted. This was even more of a test for me. Indignation is never righteous. Find out why you weren’t selected and be humble enough to see your issues and go to work on them. Tools like a 360 feedback are invaluable here. 

In my career, I had a chance to hire and develop some wonderful people. However, I also made some personnel mistakes. An interesting thing happens as you get older and more successful: You forget that someone took a chance on you in your early days. Your “band-pass filter” on people gets narrower and you start insisting on experienced people who think like you do. Don’t surround yourself with clones, and give the younger folks a chance.

Some of the corporate acquisitions I made did not work out as well as others. Acquisitions are an art. When they don’t go right, it is usually the result of a faulty or over-glowing view of the future. Lots of time is spent identifying positive synergies. Spend just as much time identifying negative synergies and unintended consequences.

Life is a ledger sheet with the good stuff on one side and the not-so-good stuff on the other. The most we can hope for is that the list on the good side is much longer. That’s how I view my time. It is totally right to be proud of your accomplishments. It is also right to look realistically at missteps and learn from them along the way. Think about your own life’s ledger. Happy navigating!

>> John Berra,, is retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management.

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