After Three Decades, John Strangfeld is Perched Atop the Rock
LONG BEFORE the sun rises, Strangfeld is up. He allows that he never needed much sleep — except when he was in college. Four days a week, before dawn, he’s at work with a personal trainer doing Pilates, strength conditioning and cardiovascular exercises. The remaining three days of the week he works out on his own. He and his daughter, a high school student, do power yoga together every Sunday.
“If you’re in this for the marathon and not the sprint, which I am, you have to find the balance between the intellectual demands of work and your physical soundness,” he says. “I see them as highly interconnected. And I think I’m in better shape today than I ever have been.”
Strangfeld acknowledges that he is a little bit obsessive. At age 37, while working for Prudential in England, he took up horseback riding. In the beginning, the riding was a way to connect with his son and daughter. He wanted them to see him struggling as he learned something new, and he wanted them to see the rewards of being focused. The riding was also a way to spend more time with his children, something he had to consciously attend to as his work demands increased. His kids were okay with riding but eventually lost interest. Not Strangfeld. He got hooked and began riding competitively. For the next 10 years he developed his skills and became a very accomplished equestrian, winning awards in dressage, show jumping and cross country competitions. But three years ago, after one of his horses died in a high-speed-competition accident, Strangfeld quit, just like that. He had difficulty getting over losing the horse. It also occurred to him that jumping at high speeds over fixed objects was a risky proposition for a guy who could no longer devote the time needed to training.
Today he compensates in other ways. He enjoys his time at a beach home, where he and his wife of more than 25 years, Mary Kay, escape for private time. He squeezes whatever he can into the days that are never long enough, making sure that he reserves time to watch his daughter’s high school cross country and skiing competitions, as he did with his son’s sports years earlier. The pace is hectic, but one gets the sense that everything has gone according to plan.
BY THE TIME Strangfeld left Susquehanna, his career compass was firmly set on a life in financial services. His next move would take him to the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. It was a choice that some might think was a little counterintuitive, because instead of going with his strength, he went with his weakness. At Susquehanna, where Strangfeld was a finance major, he was the long-haired kid in the back of the class. He rarely participated in classroom discussion but usually aced the exam. “I suspect a few faculty members might have wondered, Who is this guy and is someone else taking his tests?” he says. The Darden School, on the other hand, placed a premium on written and oral communications skills — both of which Strangfeld considered his Achilles heel.
His choice also confronted him with another obstacle: Darden rarely admitted students fresh out of undergraduate school. That meant Strangfeld essentially had to talk himself into the place and convince them that this was an experiment worth taking. He did, and it worked. “Their initial response was we’d like you to come, but we prefer you wait and go do something for a couple of years. I said if you are going to insist on that, I am going to go somewhere else.” It wasn’t exactly a bluff, but it was probably a little bit audacious.