When he was in the eighth grade, Bob Knowling became convinced he needed to drop out of school.
He worried that his mother worked too hard, and he wanted to help her.
She had other plans. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he says now, smiling, sitting in a conference room of the high-tech California company he runs.
"I remember her despair. But I also remember her resolve," he says.
She fixed her gaze on him and said fiercely, "I'm tired of losing my children. You are not quitting school."
So he did not. And she did not "lose" any more children.
Mr. Knowling was the sixth child of thirteen, and while none of his older siblings made it past the ninth grade, he and the other seven worked their way through school and into professional positions.
Knowling is still working his way higher. Today, he is chief executive officer of Covad Communications, a Santa Clara-based provider of digital communications. Before Covad, Knowling earned his stripes as vice president of network operations at Ameritech; before that, vice president of network operations for US West.
At first glance Knowling's career path might appear to have taken an unusual trajectory for a young boy who grew up in poverty in Kokomo, Ind.
But according to Knowling, it was that background - confronting poverty, racism, and a life of hardship as a child - that helped shape a philosophy that propelled him through the ranks of business.
There was clearly a watershed event for his family, Knowling remembers today. He was with his mother at the grocery store one day when she tried to use food stamps to buy peanut butter.
The clerk spoke disrespectfully: "If you didn't have so many kids you wouldn't need to worry about peanut butter."
At that moment, he says, his mother made a decision. Outside the store she took his hand and told him, "I am off welfare forever."
After that she took cleaning jobs, often working day and night, but she kept her resolve, and the family stayed off welfare. The courage and persistence he saw in her, says Knowling, have stayed with him since.
"My mom is my hero," he's quick to say. Perhaps the most valuable lesson gleaned from her example: "I know I can outwork anybody."
As both a top student and a star athlete, Knowling proved his capacity for hard work in high school and again at all-male Wabash College in Wabash, Ind., where he won a scholarship.
Although he studied for the ministry at Wabash, Knowling ultimately succumbed to the appeal of the business world and after school started working at Indiana Bell.
There he quickly distinguished himself by transforming the crew of 13 installers he headed from a group of middling performers into a top-ranked team.
Capacity for excellence
The secret, he says, was so simple that it astonishes him that other managers don't grasp it. "I ask my team to do heroic things," he says. "People want to be asked that, but most people don't ask them."
Everyone, he believes, is capable of outstanding performance. "Genetics has nothing to do with it. It's all environment and frame of mind."
Knowling went to work for Chicago-based Ameritech when it bought Indiana Bell. In 1992, he was assigned to the company's reengineering breakthrough development team. From there he jumped to Denver-based US West in 1996.
At both companies, he was credited with crucial roles in engineering turnarounds and fundamental changes in the way the two corporate giants did business.
For Knowling, much of what was needed at both companies was simply attention to detail and more investment in front-line workers (see story, above) - points so simple and so crucial that he is surprised they are so often overlooked.
From Denver, Knowling moved to Santa Clara for the top job at start-up company Covad.
"He should be able to go very far very fast there," says Noel Tichy, a business professor at the University of Michigan business school who wrote about Knowling in his book "The Leadership Engine," (HarperBusiness, $27).
"This is his first chance at building something ground up, and he'll be able to really use his strength, which is attracting and energizing talent."
Joe Devich, president of the Western region for Covad, has worked with Knowling since his days at Indiana Bell. Each time Knowling changed jobs, Mr. Devich followed. "I have yet to be disappointed," he says.
Raising the bar
Cathy Hemmer, president of network services at Covad, has also worked with Knowling since Ameritech.
"He's always going to raise the bar far beyond what you think you can achieve," she says, "and it's amazing how often you can do it."
At Covad, says Devich, Knowling set a goal for network deployment that struck some as wildly unrealistic. But attitudes have started to change. "We just may make that number," he says.
Knowling's drive to set high goals and being willing to shoot for them "causes a different mind-set and a different type of thinking," says Devich.
Knowling's thinking is definitely different. After any business coup, he says his first phone call is still to his mother.
"She hasn't a clue what I do," he says. "But she's still the one whose approval means most to me."
Knowling also credits two other adults with inspiring much of his success. One was his high-school coach, Ben Bowles. From Mr. Bowles Knowling says he learned to write down his goals and to think more about others than about himself.
"He taught me to take more joy in the assist than in reaching the basket" while playing basketball, Knowling says. That's why today, he says, his goal is "to spawn CEOs, not to be one."
The other adult was an elementary-school principal who beat him severely for a minor infraction. The man told the young boy, "I don t like having black students in my school."
Knowling calls the experience a turning point. "At a young age, I experienced racism, and I said to myself, 'You can be vengeful and have a chip on your shoulder or you can rise above it and try to change the game.' "
Changing the game, he says, has been one of the driving forces of his life.