An Inspiration in the Boardroom and the Classroom
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:20
Stanford University
Grousbeck majored in economics at Amherst, but also completed a significant amount of psychology courses.

He has served on the boards of more than 40 profit and nonprofit companies. He has co-authored a well-received book regarding entrepreneurial practice. Now, at age 80, things have slowed down a bit, but H. Irving Grousbeck ’56 remains busy working as a professor at the Stanford Business and Medical Schools.

Hitting Close to Home
When he first decided to attend Amherst, Grousbeck did not have a long trip ahead of him — he grew up about 30 minutes from the college, in Northampton, Massachusetts. After graduating from Deerfield Academy, an elite private high school in nearby Deerfield, the choice to matriculate to Amherst was easy.

“Why would I go far away for school when I had such a great one nearby?” Grousbeck said.

The decision was made even easier by the fact that the headmaster of Deerfield Academy at the time was an Amherst graduate. Attending Amherst “just seemed like the natural order of things,” Grousbeck said.

The Amherst Years
Just like many students today, Grousbeck enrolled at the college with doubts about his major.

He eventually decided on economics, but did not take any courses in the department until the spring of his sophomore year. He had begun the coursework for a major in psychology, and figured that he could finish up that curriculum as well.

At the time, the college’s curriculum included juniors honors courses, six-credit classes that students took for their major, similar to the higher-level seminars the college offers today. Grousbeck went above and beyond, taking honors courses in both economics and psychology before eventually deciding upon economics major.

“I really enjoyed the major. We had some great teachers at that time,” Grousbeck said. “It was really informative.”

Surprisingly, Grousbeck’s favorite professor came from outside both of his majors: the English department.

“He was actually a poetry teacher,” Grousbeck shared with a laugh. “His name was Ben DeMott.”

“I also had a wonderful economics teacher named Jim Nelson,” he added. “We had a lot of great teachers in the department, and I think that’s something that really attracted me to it.”

Outside of the classroom, Grousbeck remained involved in many aspects of campus life, participating in three varsity sports (baseball, basketball and soccer), working for the OLIO and writing for The Amherst Student. He also held a job collecting tickets at campus events and concerts.

Grousbeck said he enjoyed having such diverse experiences at Amherst.

“It wasn’t in any one thing that really shaped my experience; it was being involved in a number of things, doing so many different things really contributed to it all,” he said.

During his time at Amherst, he was also a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity.

“The fraternity was a big part of it at that time. It was a very collegial and paternal experience,” he said. “I enjoyed the social aspect. I don’t mean social as in partying, but the sociable atmosphere surrounding the fraternity. I know there aren’t any now, and that’s fine, but it was really important to me throughout my time at the school.”

He also appreciated the friendly student body.

“The whole fabric of the place was appealing to me; it felt like a very comfortable place,” Grousbeck noted. “It was a place that I really resonated with. The whole atmosphere was always welcoming. It felt like home, I always looked forward to coming back.”

After graduating and spending some years away, Grousbeck did eventually return to his beloved campus, earning an honorary degree from the college at the 2000 commencement exercises.

“I remember the day clearly, because it was pouring rain,” Grousbeck shared with a laugh. “It’s something very special. The college means a lot to me so for them to turn around and do that was a lovely gesture.” “I’m not sure if it was deserved,” he added good-humoredly.

The address given by then-president Tom Gerety, however, showed sincere appreciation from the college. Gerety bestowed the degree upon Grousbeck and said, “a cool, self-contained presence, always impeccable, you are a wonderful listener and a graciously attentive host with a long history of quiet philanthropy … Your description of the attitudes needed to run your own show includes the following: dissatisfaction with the status quo; a healthy self-confidence; a ‘responsible competence;’ a concern for detail and a tolerance for ambiguity. It is a self-description as well, one that has led you to the heights of both business and education.”

After Amherst
The qualities for which Grousbeck was lauded had already been manifesting themselves during the impressive years following his time at the college. From his graduation in 1956 to today, he has worked with numerous different companies in the capacity of board member or CEO.

After receiving his MBA from Harvard, Grousbeck entered the job market, finding early employment with a few different companies. Entering established companies, however, was not what he had envisioned.

“After doing that, I realized that I didn’t want to work for someone else’s company, I wanted to have my own,” he said.

Grousbeck created his own company with fellow Amherst alum Amos B. Hostetter ’58. The startup was called Continental Cablevision (later known as Media One) and competed with other large cable companies already on the market. The pair started the company in 1964 and Grousbeck served as its president through 1980.

Continental Cablevision was the spark that ignited Grousbeck’s entrepreneurial career, as he went on to work with many different non-profit and for-profit companies including Asurion Corporation, Response Link and the Boston Celtics.

When asked about his work with the Celtics, he noted the importance of the fan base to the organization and, in turn, the importance of the organization to his own life.

“It’s fun to be associated with a legendary franchise like that,” Grousbeck said. “There are only so many of them that have a history and resonate with a lot of people. The Celtics have an enduring value and an enduring presence.”

“Fans feel a community of interest with the team, maybe not necessarily that they own them, but they are invested and like to follow them,” he added. “We’re trying to manage the team not only to win … but also to manage them the right way and do the best job we can.”

Was it this community ethic and determination that brought him to where he is today?

“First of all, we have to be sure that we credit Lady Luck,” Grousbeck said. “She was a big supporting hand.”

He also continually praised the people around him who helped him reach the place he is in now.

“They talk about self-made people, but I don’t really believe there’s such a thing as self-made,” he remarked. “A lot of people get a boost from some people that they don’t really recognize.”

Grousbeck also mentioned “integrity and ethical dealing,” and said that honesty is important to him not only in business, but in all aspects of life.

“I think that if people come to trust you, it’s not only a good way to be but it’s also helpful,” he said. “I see a marriage of both the right thing to do and the practical thing to do. I’m sure I’ve stubbed my toe and failed from time to time but I’ve always tried to do the right thing … and treat people fairly.”

In the Classroom
After his great successes in the business world, Grousbeck transitioned to teaching, which he continues to do today.
He began his career at Harvard. When they originally offered him a position, he thought, “Now that doesn’t come along every day to everyone,” and knew to jump at the opportunity.

“I knew I always wanted to teach after I was done with business, and I thought I should probably do it now or they might never ask me again,” he said.

After his time at Harvard, Grousbeck made the move to Stanford, where he still works today. It was originally an “adventure” that Grousbeck assumed would end after one year. But now, 29 years later, he’s still there.

“It’s very nice out here; I don’t have to shovel all of the snow,” he said with a laugh.

Currently, he teaches two highly competitive courses at Stanford, one in the medical school and the other in the business school.

It may come as a surprise that Grousbeck teaches at a medical school despite having no experience in medicine. However, his course is focuses on theory of interpersonal relationships, something of which he has a wealth of knowledge. The course is titled “Managing Difficult Conversations” and presents future doctors a number of difficult medical situations.

“We give them cases such as Alzheimer’s diagnosis, cancer diagnosis, teen suicide, baby drowning,” he said. “The students are put in the position of being the doctor and talking to the family and patient in these situations.”

His course in the business school, titled “Managing Growing Enterprises” is another hands-on class. It puts students into the role of CEO and teaches them how to work through sets of challenges in the field of business.

“Maybe one day, your best salesman is about to quit, or two of your key employees are fighting,” he said. “It teaches you how to work through those issues.”

When asked about his own setbacks throughout his business career, he first referenced his family. “I haven’t had any major personal ones. I’ve been married to the same person for a long time, we have four kids and none of them are in jail, so I’m doing well on the home front,” he said, chuckling.

He quickly got back to business.

“You face professional challenges all of the time,” he said. “Someone disappoints you, and then you disappoint them. There are constantly challenges that you need to handle, and that’s part of the intrigue of being a businessperson. There’s a huge diversity of issues that come up in my world and also in my classes.”

Passionate Professor
Because Grousbeck’s courses are hands-on, the atmosphere of the classroom is one of active discussion.

“There’s an old adage that a lecture is where the information goes from the notes of the professor to the notes of the student without passing through the brains of either one,” he said.

“My philosophy is to try to engage the students in lively conversation that leads to insight and learning on their part,” he added.

Grousbeck takes some of the qualities he found in his Amherst professors and applies them to his teaching style today.

“The best teachers inspire — they’re not just prosaic and kind of hum-drum. They are enthusiastic,” he said. “They are inspired about the topic, so they tend to inspire students as well. That’s a lesson I learned at Amherst if not before and something I try to embody in my own teaching.”

Grousbeck urges current Amherst students to find their passion and stay with it. “It’s not work; it’s play, if you love what you’re doing. I don’t consider coming to the office at Stanford work at all,” he said.

“I feel fortunate that I found teaching and that I’m thriving in it. I get up in the morning and think ‘Yeah! Today’s a class day! I get to go to class and see the students.’ I love to challenge them and help them continue to grow.”