Ken Olliff | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ken Olliff


Saint Louis University, founded in 1818, is a Catholic, Jesuit institution educating nearly 13,000 students on urban campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain.

The Mistake:

False starts in my career path. I'm not sure if mistake is the right word, but I've definitely learned lessons along the way.

I've had a very unusual career path so far. I actually started my professional life training to be a minister and went to seminary right after graduating college.

I got my divinity degree and was ordained, but decided during seminary that ministry was not how I wanted to spend my professional life. Then I decided to be a theologian. I loved the intellectual aspect of the ministry and thought maybe working in academia was the right place. I spent two years at Harvard in a doctoral program, then decided that wasn't the right career path either – so, strike two.

I found my way to the University of Chicago, took a fairly entry-level role there and discovered university administration absolutely fit like a glove. I ended up stumbling into something I loved, I was good at, and really thrived in. I'm now a chief research officer for Saint Louis University.

I ended up stumbling into something I loved, I was good at, and really thrived in.

The Lesson:

What I've learned along the way is not to hold on too tight to what you think you're supposed to be doing. Don't be afraid to change track along the way.

I'm a weird candidate for my job given that most of our research is biomedical and in the hard sciences, and I'm a trained minister and theologian. But I really feel fortunate to be where I am, and I wouldn't be able to do this without all the roles and each of the steps I've taken along the way.

In the ministry, you learn how to work with people and navigate complex interpersonal situations. You learn how to deal with all different kinds of personalities. You have to use persuasion more than coercion in terms of getting things done, so you have to build close relationships and bring people along. You also have to cast a vision. You have to articulate with the community, “This is who we are. This is where we're going. This is what we're trying to become together.”

I find myself doing that all the time with my staff and working with the faculty, listening to what their aspirations are, and pulling that together to articulate an overall vision for what we can become together.

On the theology side of things, it means I'm comfortable working in all different types of disciplines and engaging with those ideas. I end up putting a lot of energy into strategic thinking about what we want to become, how we get there, what we need to invest in, and how we assess success. I think that focus on rigorous thinking is something I learned from my theology training. I also went back in my mid 30s to get my MBA from University Chicago. Talk about making your brain work. I had been working with ideas and language before going back to learn hard, quantitative skills that also helped prepare me for what I do.

I felt like I knew where my career was going, but I turned left and turned left again. I ended up doing something that works really well for me. It's a pleasure not trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I guess my advice to the person who's thinking of changing their path or the direction they'd like to go is not to be afraid to make that shift and probably do it sooner rather than later. We all spend so much time at work that it's important to find something that's satisfying and makes you happy.

Saint Louis University is on Twitter at @SLU_Official

Photo courtesy of Saint Louis University.

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