Recently a business class asked me the following question: “If you could redo one thing, what would it be?” The following was my response.

“I would redo the way I handled my first real job. After graduating from USC, I immediately began working at Merrill Lynch. A few months later I received my securities license. Shortly after receiving the license, I had a dispute with my supposed sponsoring broker over commissions.

I had opened up several accounts prior to enrolling in the financial advisor training program. Although I had my license, I was not yet an official financial advisor. While waiting for admission to the program, I placed all accounts with a broker in my office. After enrollment, I asked my sponsoring broker and manager to transfer the accounts to me. This broker, in front of our manager, took the position that these accounts would never had been closed without his help. My manager sided with him, and decided that all accounts would be shared equally. It didn’t matter that the accounts were my family and friends.

At that moment I felt as if I had been artfully robbed. It was at that moment I learned that the business was cut throat. Unlike my experience as an athlete, where I was surrounded by men of character, in the brokerage industry I was surrounded by men of greed and questionable ethics. I left Merrill Lynch because I felt cheated. If neither the firm nor my colleagues would stand by me, I saw no reason to stand by them

In retrospect, I recognize that decision to leave Merrill Lynch as the first of sliders in my moral character. I failed to stand up for fairness and integrity and the other virtues I had been groomed to follow. Instead, I quit without putting up a fight. I was only 23-years-old and obviously not wise enough in the ways of the business world. Influenced easily, it was when I began to descend to the lowest common denominator of the brokerage business. The glass was no longer half full. I assumed everyone with whom I worked had their own special interests. Through that incident, I allowed myself to become influenced by the worst parts of the industry. Clearly, my experiences at Merrill Lynch helped shape my behavior for the years to come.

So, in short, what would I do? I would have stood up for what I knew to be fair and right. If I had, the balance of my career and life would have been different. Instead, I’m locked up, writing to an ethics class from the quiet room in a federal prison. The decisions you make today will follow you for a lifetime. Trust me.”

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