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How Clay Christensen Changed My Life and Work

Clayton (Clay) Christensen passed away this past January 2020. Christensen achieved fame with his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, and, in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017 was ranked the #1 , #2, or #3 management thinker in the world by Thinkers50. Yet, it was Christensen's article (2010) and book (2012) with the same title, “How will you measure your life?” that had the greatest impact on my professional and personal development.

Christensen was known for lecturing on the application of management theories to his personal life on the last day of his Harvard Business School courses. In 2010, he was then asked to give the same speech at the Harvard Business School commencement. He subsequently developed the material into an article for Harvard Business Review and in 2012, a full-length book. In his book, Christensen writes:

"My classmates were not only some of the brightest people I’ve known, but some of the most decent people, too. At graduation, they had plans and visions for what they would accomplish, not just in their careers, but in their personal lives as well. Yet something had gone wrong for some of them along the way: their personal relationships had begun to deteriorate, even as their professional prospects blossomed. I sensed that they felt embarrassed to explain to their friends the contrast in the trajectories of their personal and professional lives" (2012, p. 53).

Christensen talks about how he learned strategic insights as a Harvard Business School (HBS) student himself. After graduation, he noticed a trend. While many of his classmates went on to do great things and build successful businesses, many were uphappy in their personal lives and some even went to jail, such as Jeff Skilling, who was a leader in the Enron scandal.

Christensen’s main premise is how sad it is when people win at work and lose at life. At HBS, Christensen taught some of the most talented students in the world. He emphasized that the theories and insights he taught in his classes could be applied to one's personal life. “Year after year, I have been stunned at how the theories of the course illuminate issues in our personal lives as they do in the companies we’ve studied” (2012, p. 48).

Like many professors, I have tried to encourage my students' personal growth along with their professional and organizational growth.

A PPO Approach

In working through Christensen’s materials myself over the last several years, I have developed what I call the "PPO approach." Every theory, insight, and practice I cover in my courses and books can be applied to one’s personal, professional, and organizational lives. For example, the theory of value creation hods that the goal of every organization is to create value for its stakeholders. We can also apply this same theory to our personal and professional lives.

My most important personal stakeholder is my wife, Cheri. My goal is to create value in her life. Since value creation is in the eye of the stakeholder, it is important that I understand what she values. For example, almost everyday, we go outside for a walk or run. I do this because I know she values time with me, exercise, outdoors, and prayer. In 30-40 minutes, we can cover all four of these.

In my work as a professor, I seek to create value for my students and co-workers. While I want to create value at the professional and organizational level, I am even more concerned about creating value for those in my personal life.

I wish I had learned Christensen's insights 30 years ago--they would have saved me a lot of personal and professional pain. However, it is never too late to gain new insights. I hope that all of my MBA and DBA students can learn these principles from Christensen and their professors at our university.

In closing, how can you apply the PPO approach to your life? In my book, Strategic Leaders Are Made, Not Born: The First Five Tools for Escaping the Tactical Tsunami, I discuss the PPO approach in the preface and in each of the five following chapters. The first chapter, "Creating Value," explores how to create value in your personal, professional, and organizational life.

My hope for you is that you can win at life and win at work.


Christensen, C. (2010). How will you measure your life? Harvard Business Review, 88(7/8), 46–51.

Christensen, C. (2012). How will you measure your life? New York, NY: Harper Business.

Mann, R. (2019). Strategic leaders are made, not born: The first five tools for escaping the tactical tsunami. Nashville, TN: ClarionStrategy.

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