Roller Coaster Leadership, with special guest: Mark Estee

A few months ago, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Mark Estee of Campo, chez louie, Heritage Restaurant & Bar, Burger Me!, and most recently Reno Provisions. Listening to the interview again after that span of time I felt like I was someone in the audience, not actively involved. I got wrapped up in the conversation so much I kept forgetting I was supposed to be typing.

First of all, Mark is a force, a powerhouse. After we met I immediately knew I was on the clock and make it count. The result was I was energized, I fed off his passion and drive for what that day held in store. He was very much in the moment while at the same time staring off in the distance at some unseen event or project. Our conversation was kind of all over the place, we would jump forward and then run backwards. We were here one second and then way over their the next. It was a roller coaster and sometimes I felt like I was driving, but most of the time I was just holding on.  I don’t believe the man uses punctuation when he speaks, it’s fantastic! We had a very candid, at times blunt, open and honest conversation about management, leadership and well, see for yourself.

We started off talking about all of his different projects and how they are aligned with a common goal and how everything branches out from that common goal. How that common goal is static but everything around it is dynamic. How the challenge comes in responding to that dynamic and the ability to reference the static when necessary, to realign when necessary. How that realignment may be with his project managers or with other projects going on. Continuing on in this thread of the conversation is where we’ll pick up.

Mark: “The one thing that is constant in my industry is change itself. So, we live by that principle and instead of fighting it, we try to embrace it. I know a lot of restaurants or a lot of owners who don’t like change, they like to stay a certain way and that’s not us. We have a clearly defined mission statement, vision statement, and concept statement for all of our properties. They are all very similar as we want to do the same thing across the boards at all of our properties. And while we may get there differently for each, like chez louie is more French, Campo is more Italian, Provisions is cafeteria, and Heritage is Northern Nevada cuisine, they are all different in a way but ultimately they all have the same goal. It’s about the customer, it’s about the employee, and it’s about our local food scene. So, we want to create a culture, a food culture if you will.”

Elton: “So is that consistent in every one? It’s about the customer, employee, and the community?”

Mark: “Yep, yep. We always talk about out investors too, our partners …”

Elton: “Sure, it’s still a business.”Mark Estee

Mark: “Yes, we can’t forget that, we want to do good by them as well. The first rule of a sustainable restaurant or a sustainable business is to remain open.”

Elton: “Seems reasonable.”

Mark: He chuckles.

Elton: “But after that?”

Mark: “A lot of people lose focus of that, you’d be surprised. You should be sustainable.”

Elton: “But how you accomplish that, how do you stay open?”

Mark: “It’s a bitch. It’s a bitch man, this isn’t easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart.”

Elton: “Sounds honest.”

Mark: “Very. And the thing is, that’s what you’ll find in our business, we are a very open book management. So, everyone sees where we’re at, we don’t hide anything. As the owner of all these businesses, I consider all the managers Project Managers. Obviously I don’t do all this myself, we have a lot of layers.”

Elton: “Right! I was looking at some of your team members on your website.”

Mark: “Yes, we have an awesome team. And for them to continue to stay with us, to continue to grow, I need to continue to give them challenges. We’re not just the ‘same-ole same-ole’, we don’t say that in our business. We’re consistent, but it’s never said: ‘How’s it going today?’ ‘Ole, same old shit, different day.’ That’s grounds for termination, no one says that, everyone knows that.”

Elton: “Do you allow, in that dynamic environment, them the opportunity to explore within their own sphere of influence? There’s no ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to expand today.’ But more ‘Tell me how we’re going to expand today.’”

Mark: “Absolutely. And the best way for me to show you that is in the fact that my managers stay with us for a long time. If they leave, they typically leave to open their own place. So, those are some of the good things that we try to do. If I was an overbearing ogre, or I didn’t give them room to grow, I don’t think we’d be as successful as we are. You know, we’re only as good as the people around us. So, I manage down to them and they manage down to the employees.”

Elton: “And if they do move on, then they become ambassadors of where they came from, and everything that they were doing with you.”

Mark: “If you go back to my first business in 2002, or before that when I moved up to Tahoe in 1996, I think at last count the different chefs that have worked for me, with me, under me, beside me, I think it was something like over 50 different guys and gals running their own kitchens or starting their own businesses since then which is pretty cool.”

Elton: “Very cool!”

Mark: “So to me it says that we’re doing something right. We all kind of have that open book type management and we all come back to that visions statement, mission statement, and concept statement. And looking at our culture, our business culture, it’s kind of how we decide what we’re going to do. Like I was saying earlier, sometimes it’s a really easy road to get there, sometimes it’s very difficult, sometimes it’s a combination of both. Sometimes it starts with a single idea, but we end up adapting, changing, and seeing better ways along the way and we’ll always take those roads and explore them. But it’s still the end goal that we ultimately keep in mind. I believe that’s how we use organizational management, and that’s how we implement our business strategy if you will.”

Elton: “What is that end goal, when you say ‘end goal,’ what is that?”

Mark: “There is none. The thing is there is no end goal because it’s always growing. Let’s go back, we want to create a culture of learning, caring and respect. Where we respect our community, our coworkers, our investors, and our customers. And that’s the most important thing we can do. So that very simple statement, that’s how we build our business. We’re obviously in a ginormous growth period right now, seven restaurants in three years …”

Elton: “And all very fast.”

Mark: “Fast! Vertical integration is new to us so we’re working really hard on that. And organizationally, literally I just left a meeting where we were talking about making some changes already such as I had this one idea of a director of operations and then it veered into business operations. And we’re making some changes in how we do PR right now, we’re working through some of the ways we can make our company stronger, better, leaner, faster, and we see where we can apply the necessary efforts to address these things.”

Note: I want to pause real quick here. Have you noticed how much he’s said “I” or “Me?” I looked back at this point because it was something I noticed in the recording and I’ll just tell you, it’s hardly at all. To me this is telling of the nature of thing for the Reno Local Food Group, it’s very much that, a “group.” A man that has experienced as much success as he has in this amazingly short period of time has probably earned the right to say “I did this …” or “My business over here is doing that …” but that’s absolutely not the case. Mark embraces the group dynamic and when he wins, they win. Great leadership quality. Let’s get back to making changes on the fly.

Elton: “But you don’t know some of those things till you get in there. You can put in place the things you think will work, and then you have to reevaluate.”

Mark: “Anything you’ve read about me, or what you might already know about me, is that I’m the first person to talk about all the mistakes we’ve made. Such as we’re in the middle of redoing the Provisions store, we started with one idea …”

Elton: “After you opening in December correct?”

Mark: “… yeah well we started and my idea was to have this small little thing and now we’re putting a full market in because that’s what the community wants.”

Elton: “You’re getting the demand for that? That’s fantastic!”

Mark: “And we need to have those things you know? You come in here and if you can buy everything you need you’re going to come here more. If you’re coming here just for specialty stuff you’re only going to be coming here every once in a while.”

Elton: “I like that its community driven, that it’s: ‘We had ideas and we implemented them. We got feedback and we thought about it. We heard and we listened, and now let’s put it together.’”

Mark: “Yep.”

Elton: “Then, they come and the response is: ‘This is great! But, what about this? Or what about that?’ At that point you’re getting feedback and then you can respond in kind?”

Mark: “Sometimes you have to be wary because if you solicit people’s opinion they get butt hurt if we don’t follow through exactly with what they say. So, we’re always very careful about how we take that feedback. Most of time we’re able to kind of decipher through that. That’s one of the things that I can do pretty well because believe it or not, I’m a pretty good listener. I believe leaders are great listeners first, and sometimes they still have to make the tough decision even with what you’re hearing what’s being said. You have to measure that gut with actual numbers and finding that sweet-spot is the goal.”

“So for us, as we move forward and are in this huge growth spurt, and we’re reorganizing that all the time. It would be really easy to hang back and you know, Campo is doing great right now and everything else is kind of doing well too, but I think what we want to do is really dial this Reno Provisions in and then kind of maybe take a breath and enjoy some of the things we’ve created. Hopefully enjoy some of the spoils of that and continue to kind of grow. There’s some opportunities in maybe consulting and creative content from other people and some of the other things we talk about.”

“Campo seems to be doing really well right now, it’s a strong product and a strong brand. Its been going now coming up on its fourth year in November. We have one in Mammoth and we’re talking maybe one in Vegas or maybe one in Cabo. You know, maybe wherever that brand works really well. Our Burger Me brand works really really well and those are cash cows, maybe putting one of those in Sparks or Sacramento. So maybe we’re not creating something new all the time but maybe honing in on what we already have and take the great ones and try and reproduce it to an extent.”

Another note: Okay, that was classic Mark. Everything that was said above took about thirty seconds and I inserted punctuation where it felt appropriate. The man is fiercely focused in a random way if that makes sense. It was a pleasure to sit down with him, now, back to it!

Elton: “Wait! I want to backtrack real quick.” Elton’s turn to chuckle. You have to be quick with this guy as I’ve said. It’s like Double Dutch, if you see an opening you have to jump in there! “You said you take all this stuff in and as a leader you’re able to balance and find that sweet-spot and make a decision. What I find in leadership and in project management is that you may not make everyone happy, but you have the ability to give understanding to everyone. And I believe that really where that communication is key because when it comes to it, this is what you’re saying: ‘I know you’re not really happy with my decision but let me explain how we got here and why we went in a different direction than maybe you or someone else believed we should have gone.’ And with that in mind then you’re not creating areas of contempt or breeding grounds for some ill feelings. And it sounds like that’s what you’re trying to accomplish in reaching out to the public in this sense. That while it may not meet everyone’s needs, perhaps they understand where you’re going with it?”

Mark: “That reminds me of a great quote that Rick Reviglio (of Western Nevada Supply). When I was telling him about Provisions and I was thinking about where I was going to go and he said ‘Hey Mark, sometimes you’ve got to have bigger balls than brains. But at the same time, you have to have bigger brains than balls.’ So, finding that place in between is the goal. And when we operate like that, not everyone is going to like what you’re doing especially as you get bigger. But, I believe if we put the effort in as a group to kind of quiet it out, or if we talk about it enough.”

“You see, I don’t make many unilateral decisions, I’ll usually solicit the input of everybody. But there’s a secret to Management 101 and that is sometimes I have an idea and I get them to believe it was their idea that’s where some greatness can occur.”

Elton: “You don’t have to take the credit for it, but you can help implement it. And then by giving them accountability, they can take ownership?”

Mark: “And that’s what you want. So, the greatest thing that I can do is in a sense is to lead them in the right direction, let them come to the answer on their own, and then support them through that. Even when an alternative is presented to them, let them know it’s their choice and be willing to back them up either way.”

Elton: “Succeed or fail, that have that ownership, they ran with it and the result is experience.”

Mark: Those are the things we use to create that organizational leadership we were talking about earlier. Now I’ve been in other places where it’s been a dictatorship, I came up in that. ….”

Ohhhhhhhh, what’s he gonna say next? Like I said, he’s a fierce force and this interview is definitely meant for two parts. There is so much good stuff and in a very off the cuff manner that you can’t help but want more, to engage with this guy and let your game rise to his level which is what I felt happening to my excitement. So, for the time being, managers and leaders out there, between now and the next post try to go the day without saying “I” or “Me” when it comes to your projects or your team. It’s not easy but if you can catch yourself, you can glean some valuable insight about yourself and your leadership style.

Image Credit: Sketch by Author


Prodigy in Leadership, with special guest: Drew Fodor. Part II

Welcome back everyone. I trust the first tart of my interview with Drew Fodor went down well last night? What an amazing individual and such a unique story. What an interesting view of one man’s leadership and the management of his own gifted life. I want to get back into the interview without hesitation but first I have a little bit of follow up information.Nightline

After I signed off last night I reached out to Drew to let him know the first part had posted. I always love hearing from the guest and look forward to getting their perspective on the piece. In this instance I was looking to see if Drew wanted me to change anything in Part II. He was very gracious and declined that anything be changed but he did offer a link to the Nightline Interview I mentioned in the Part I.  I’ll let you watch for yourself the whole piece but Drew pretty much recalled verbatim what was said in the interview; I’m not surprised. One thing that did stick out was something that one of the Davidson Academy’s founders said. You see, this isn’t just a school for the gifted and talented, it’s a school for the gifted and talented from the gifted and talented. A number he threw out was these are individuals that come along about once in about every 25,000 people. Okay, now that we have a little more perspective, let’s continue.

Elton: “Your dad, doing what he did, it sounds like he was a big proponent of your future. Did he play a role in creating those opportunities for you to interact with other kids or activities whether it be sports or things of a similar nature?”

Drew: “Getting involved in sports was a little difficult when it was a school of one for sure. But I ended up doing martial arts as my main sport so I have my black belts in Karate, Kung Fu, and Taekwondo.”

Elton: “All three?”

Drew: “Mmm hmm” He nodded his closed lips yes. “And I taught Taekwondo for a few years after I got my third one.”

Elton: “So were you able to engage with other people your own age at that point?”

Drew: “That’s where I met my two best friends and still to this day, was through that Taekwondo School since I’ve moved here.”

Elton: “So it sounds like he was really creating or affording you those opportunities to engage … “

Drew: “Yes, he definitely tried his best, whether or whether not it always worked … “ slight chuckle and a smile “ … he definitely tried his best.”

Elton: “To recap a little. When I was introduced to you through your video presentation in Dr. Simmons class last semester, when I saw and heard that what I did, I was very much: ‘What? This guy? This is incredible! This is amazing and what a wonderful story.’”

Drew: “And that’s how it’s been since maybe the first two years, it’s sort of tucked away until it gets brought up.” Drew makes a tucking away gesture with a little grin.”

Elton: “And then are people very curious?”

Drew: “Yes.”

Elton: “You said you matriculated when you were 13 … and I don’t know your age now so my question is was it slow going? Did you take two or three classes a semester, or was it more like one class a semester?”

Drew: “I took two classes my first semester then it was between 15 and 18 credits (five to six classes) each subsequent semester. So, it sped up pretty quickly so between the ages of 13 and 18 is when I did my undergrad. Then after completing my undergrad I worked at a small pharmaceutical storage company for a year and then I started the MBA program and now I’m 21.”

Elton: “So, pretty much a normal timespan?”

Drew: “Yes, it’s been about eight years between since I started and now.”

Elton: “And the work you do with REMSA, that doesn’t only sound like an interest but also an aid in you being accepted into a medical program?”

Drew: “Yes, I’m hoping my interest in health care can make a difference. We’ll see if that ends up happening.”

Elton: “Now, do you engage with the community in any other ways at this time?”

Drew: “So, I’m not teaching Taekwondo like I was before but during my EMT basic class I started the … what did we end up calling it … the TMCC EMS iPod Project at Regent Care. It’s down in South Reno and is a long-term elder care facility. What prompted it was were shown a video in class that music helps people with mental disabilities a lot so we brought down a bunch of iPod’s loaded with music. That’s still going on.”

Elton: “It’s ongoing? You’re an active participant in that? That’s fantastic. I had now idea such a program was even going on.”

Drew: “Yeah. I started it and we’ve had two or three classes go down there and volunteer since then.”

Elton: “That’s a great program! So what I’m hearing up to this point is there weren’t any real trouble spots for you along the way? Would you say that’s true as you’ve gone form this very incredible beginning to where you are now?”

Drew: “I definitely had issues in the first two years, getting accustomed to my undergrad. But since then it’s really not been a struggle.”

Elton: “What about kids in similar situations, would you have advice for them?” I think this is actually the first time he’s paused. Up until now most of his answers have been very direct, and of quick response. But after a brief pause he shrugs before answering.

Drew: “Think really hard before matriculating to college. Sixteen is one thing, thirteen is another. At sixteen you have enough experience with regular education that I think the matriculation would be a lot easier. But, doing it a lot younger than that, especially if you’ve been out of the normal education system for a while, you have to have a strong support system. Someone who has recently gone through a similar situation would help a lot.”

Elton: “Did you have that someone?”

Drew: He closes his eyes, purses his lips and vigorously shakes his head no while letting out a chuckle and a smile at the end. “I mean, I had my dad and you know he was great throughout my undergrad but I didn’t have someone to tell me what I should be doing or how I should be taking notes. All that kind of stuff I had to figure out on my own. That was hard.”

Elton: “You started this project really from the ground up forcing you to, like you said, figure it out on your own, what a tremendous experience. Now that we’ve looked back, and now that you’re looking forward, as we wrap this up, where are you at in your expectations on where this could go based on where you’ve been? Because for you, it was a really fast-track up.”

Drew: He smiles and laughs an approving nod

Elton: “And so it’s plateauing a little bit and maybe if you get into medical school it will ramp up one more time?”

Drew: “Yeah. I’m thinking that it’s either going to be healthcare management in finance or accounting now that I’m done with my MBA. I’ve received one job offer but I’m still trying to find more. So, wherever I end up continuing on it’s going to be doing something in the interim until I start medical school in a year or two.”

Elton: “In my blog, I also talk about the Reno area and you heard Kristin Stith come and talk to us and what a great program she doing with #BiggestLittleCity, do you see yourself if the opportunity presents itself staying in the area?

Drew: “I do, I’m going to stay here for probably the next two or three years and then from there I’ll make another decision on whether not I’ll stay beyond that. It depends on medical school as well. If I get in here, soon, then I’ll stay. But you know, if I get in somewhere else then that’s where I’ll end up leaving to.”

Elton: “And so, just like any other grad student who is in the same situation you’re in your applying to medical schools all over the place? Those schools that pertain to your particular interest, your particular talents?”

Drew: “Yes.”

Elton: “Well, I hope you stay, I believe it would be a great to continue to have your presence in the community.”

Drew: “Well, if I do leave, I plan on coming back at some point.”

Elton: “Oh, so it sounds like you’ve grown fond of the area?”

Drew: “Yes, yes I have.” Great smile here and a little head nod affirmative. “Hilton Head, South Carolina is great, and there are some 20,000 people that live there, but it’s pretty much beaches and tennis and golf. That’s all there is to do there and it gets old after a while; it’s not as much as fun as it sort of sounds. And here, there’s all of that, and more!”

Elton: “Agreed! And a lot of that is sometimes taken for granted by those that live here who say: ‘Oh there’s so much going on in these other places’ but in reality there is so much going on here!”

Drew: “They should go there and visit first.”

Elton: “Haha, exactly! That whole: ‘The grass is greener on the other side.’ Thing.”

Drew: “Yes, exactly.”Drew & Elton

At this pint our interview was pretty much concluded. I want to thank Drew for giving us a very good synopsis of what it’s like for someone in his unique situation to manage what I consider a project from a very young age and do it very effectively under sometimes very difficult circumstances.

Wrapping up, as leaders and managers we all face situations where we need to handle personnel uniquely. In Drew’s case, and he’s an extreme circumstance, it shows what can happen when a tailor made situation is created for someone. No, we won’t always have the time to create an atmosphere or project unique to everyone we manage. But, that doesn’t mean we stop looking at them uniquely, that doesn’t mean we ignore where each can be utilized most effectively while allowing for them to grow in response. So, pause next time you start making decisions for the group, and remember, each one of them is a Drew in their own unique way, it’s our job to see it that way.

Image Credits: Sketch and Photo by Author

Prodigy in Leadership, with special guest: Drew Fodor. Part I

At the end of last semester, I had the privilege of sitting down with Drew Fodor. Drew has been a classmate of mine for the past few semesters as we both worked through the Master’s program at the University of Nevada. Drew is definitely a unique circumstance in that he grew up in a way that is very different than maybe you or I grew up. Drew was a child prodigy and up until he shared a little bit of himself during a presentation, I had no idea.

Drew is now a slender young man with close cropped blond hair and a pale complexion. He’s got a great wry smile and he can bring it out in a flash and stash it back just as quick as he returns to what for him are very matter of fact statements. He’s quick to laugh but just as quick to let you know he’s quite serious. I by no means could tell his story, but after our discussion, I am happy to share what he so graciously shared with me. I started by asking Drew to just give his shortened version of what he experienced growing up and how he arrived at the University of Nevada.

Drew: “I was born in St. Clair, Michigan to my dad who was a planned segregate so it’s just been my dad and I ever since I was born. From there, I went to public school like many other kids but around third grade my dad noticed that I was a little different and wanted to get me tested to see what it was specifically. We went to the Gifted and Talented Institute in Denver and had my I.Q. tested and from that point on, things changed a lot.”

Drew: “I stopped going to public and private schools and enrolled in a few gifted programs before I started just doing home school courses.”

Elton: “Can I ask what your I.Q. was?”

Drew: “It was, well it was 154.”

Elton: “WOW!”

Drew: A sheepish smile crosses his young face, he gives a small shrug and continues: “I took courses from Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, and various gifted programs attached to different universities. From there, around eleven, the word about Davidson Academy here at UNR was starting to get out. So, at twelve, while we were visiting in Hawaii, my dad said: ‘So, I didn’t tell you that I was putting you in as an applicant to this program as I didn’t want to get your hopes up. But, you have a phone interview in about five minutes for the Davidson Academy.’”Davidson Academy

Drew: With that wry dimpled smile and a light chuckle: “I said ’What’s the Davidson Academy?’ That’s how little I knew about it at that point. So, I had the phone interview and we moved out here from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina which is where we were living at that point.”

Elton: “What’s your dad’s occupation?”

Drew: “He’s an Exploration Geologist.”

Elton: “Okay, so he was able to move around based on your needs?”

Drew: “The wells are in Michigan and Pennsylvania so it was never where we lived, just where he had lived and worked previously. So, I came here and was part of the first thirty-five students that opened the doors of Davidson. Actually, I think I was the one that cut the ribbon at the door.”

Elton: “Oh! Wow!” (Talking to an individual of this caliber I now wish my vocabulary included more words than “Wow.” But, talking to a person of this caliber and that’s what you’re left with.)

Drew: “Yeah.” Drew looks away, a little modesty shows through. He looks down and continues as his eyes come up. “From there, I stayed at the Davidson Academy for a year before matriculating to the University of Nevada full time. I didn’t decide really on a major straight off but it ended up being biology.”

Elton: “Now did that come naturally? That matriculation? Did it feel a little forced or rushed? What I’m asking is how did that effect you internally?”

Drew: Drew looks off as if seeing some distant object then chuckles a little while saying: “It defiantly impacted my GPA in the first two years of my undergrad as it was an interesting thing to get accustomed to. I wasn’t used to lecture based courses where you have to take notes. I was used to doing things at my own pace, online while homeschooling. So, it was a little different.”

Elton: “For a moment I’d like to sidetrack and explore something. To me and for maybe the people here in Reno, the Davidson Academy is very much a mysterious thing. I’m not real sure how instruction takes place on the inside. Is it a much more open forum type? Is it individually specific?”

Drew: “It is individual specific but it’s also a traditional classroom type of environment. For instance, the math class had twenty students but that wasn’t the only math class. There were five or six and sort of depending on your level of understand of math was, you could be placed in the highest level of math and perhaps in the middle level for history. It’s tailored towards where you are educationally.”

Elton: “In all subjects?”

Drew: “Yes.”

Elton: “And did they focus on any particular subjects or did they allow you to focus on a particular subject? Or was that also very much still like traditional education?”

Drew: “It’s still a very general education. The way that you get unique experiences in different courses is through the university. So while you are at the Davidson Academy, you can also take university courses without matriculating full time. Sort of like AP, but not AP.” Drew gives that wry smile followed by small chuckle.

Elton: “Do you find that it serves as a fast track for students to University of Nevada or to other universities?”

Drew: “Yeah. We had maybe 30% or so go to UNR while the other 70% maybe went to MIT, or Stanford, or various other universities.”

Elton: “Did the matriculation vary for each student depending on what their personal level was?”

Drew: “Yes. So not everyone matriculated when they were thirteen.” Bigger chuckle. “That is definitely depended on the student.”

Elton: “Thank you. So, let’s continue on where it went from there.”

Drew: “So, my major did end up being biology and that was primarily because I wanted to pursue medicine and still do, but I haven’t gotten there yet so we’ll see if that actually ends up happening. In the meantime I’m pursuing my MBA which I’m about to finish up … “ He jokingly looks at his watch “ … in a few days.”Interview

Elton: “T-Minus …”

Drew: Big smile, “Yeah, took my last final yesterday.”

Elton: “Congratulations. When you say medicine, any particular field?”

Drew: “Yes. So, I’ve applied to medical school and becoming a physician is the ultimate goal but in the interim I got my EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). I work as an EMT at REMSA and I also teach emergency medical services at TMCC (Truckee Meadows Community College) as an assistant instructor.

Elton: “Oh, wow …” My jaw slacked a little “… in your free time right?”

Drew: “Yeah. All of the free time that I have.” Another smile and chuckle.

Elton: “I want to back track a little bit again. In the blog that I write, I focus on leadership and project management, and again for you it’s a very unique situation. From an adolescents stand point, how did you manage or how did you juggle not only the curriculum but … like I said, it’s very unique but there’s this eye on people of your gifts and talents so was that ever a struggle?”

Drew: “Here at UNR it was actually a lot less of a struggle than I thought it would be. But, back before then, I definitely had a teacher or two that would tell us ‘Oh stop working with him at home dad, the other children will catch up eventually.”

Elton: “Really? So there wasn’t a complete understanding it sounds like?”

Drew: “Well, there was the Nightline episode we did with the Davidson Academy, I don’t remember how long ago, but that was discussed a little. But, at UNR it was actually not that bad, it was still normal. People either didn’t care or they really didn’t know after the first year or two. Prior to then it was really obvious since I was five years younger. When I started to catch up in age people just assumed I was a regular student.”

Note: I want to apologize to those who caught what I missed during the interview. Yes, he said: “Nightline episode we did with the Davidson Academy” and I totally moved on from what probably would have been a very interesting little gem to include. Again, my apologies.

Elton: “What about other activities? Social activities or interacting with other kids? Again, at that young age what was that afforded to you? Did you find it difficult? Or was it a natural progression that any young kid might go through?”

Drew: “It was difficult for parts of it. When I was still in public school normal socialization took place. But when I was home schooled, it was less so. Then when I was at the Davidson Academy it was again more normal. Then when I started at UNR it kind of went back to a little less normal. It’s not like I was going to go out and party when I was thirteen so I didn’t really socialize much with my peers at UNR. That was an interesting situation where I didn’t have too many friends during my undergrad.”

Expert’s Input: In a piece titled What We Often Forget When Teaching Students to Solve Problems by Tim Elmore, he talks about giving permission to students and similarly those young in our organizations. The piece concludes with “It’s amazing what permission can do. When we turn them loose and empower them with such permission, students come up with some of the most amazing solutions.” The point I’m trying to make is we may hire those young and talented to give us the solutions we’re looking for, but what good is it if we force them to operate in a box that will stifle creativity and constrict exactly what we’ve asked them to do in the first place? The Davidson Academy is one of the institutions that recognizes this, can you imagine if we treated all our kids this way?

I’m going to pause here for the night. It’s a great interview so far and I hope you’ll stick around for the rest tomorrow. It only gets more interesting in what I feel is a very unique perspective into one’s personal project management; a child prodigy and how it was managed into the man I very much enjoyed interviewing.

Image Credits: Sketch and Photo by Author

Most speeches are boring!

Image Credit: Bartleby.Com

Yep, I said “most.” Hang in there with me, I’m going to take a departure from the interviews, the difficulties
of project management, and turn towards something I recently read. In the early years of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson made a speech titled Leaderless Government that addressed the shortcomings of the American system of government. I thought it was appropriate not only in my blog, but in this day and age that over a hundred years ago America was facing many of the same difficulties in government we are now.

Wilson’s describes the American system of government not as dynamic and responsive but as “a government without definite order,” one in which inertia and the inability to act – today it is known as “gridlock” – are the most apparent features. This is something I believe we can all relate to when we consider our own personnel views of today’s government. It’s an incredible read and gone are the days of such lengthy speeches of such high quality. I only reference two very small portions of the speech below and they are intended to steer the conversation towards the concept of institutionalization and leadership.

I want to start off with an expert from a portion of the speech that centered in on the way the Founding Fathers chose men for the presidential nomination: “… putting those in authority who were their actual leaders, and to whom they looked for guidance whether in office or out.” This really struck me as something that lacks in our current system at any level. If you ask, any member of the current administration, any senator, or member of the house, to whom do they most admire or look to for leadership qualities? I would wager that a scant amount would respond with one of their fellow elected officials. Or if they did, would it be for the reason’s we would want to believe, or even in that loaded question would the answer be politically motivated? To drive that point home, I tried to answer that question for myself and the answer was a long list of scientists, scholars, athletes, family members, and no, not a single current elected official. Now, there is a line of past elected officials whose long lasting results place them in the halls of great leaders. But why is it that history that has to give them to us? While, in the meantime we search else ware, in different arenas, for that kind of leadership?

Wilson refers to the House as an: “… organization that provides for deliberate, and deliberative, action, and which enables the nation to affix responsibility for what is done and what is not done.” I recall once hearing, and I can’t recall where or on what platform, but it talked about this slow and lumbering machine that is our political system. The author was explaining how our Founding Fathers intended for the system to be exactly that, slow, and lumbering. Whether for a nation to affix responsibility or for check and balances, I don’t recall what the context was but it stuck with me. Ever since then, every time I hear of the gridlock that legislation faces in Congress, I’m reminded of that. Only recently have I started to question its validity.

Expert’s Input – After a quick search I found a piece by retired lawyer Dan Miller titled: The Government is Too Damn Big, Slow, Inefficient, and Intrusive. In it, he succinctly describes why the government is this lumbering machine. It also is an interesting read but his conclusion that “Government is very big and very powerful; it is also clunky and slow and … That’s the way it is, and it is not going to change, …” is pretty different to Wilson’s take who suggests how that change can occur. Some of which is plausible, some probably not feasible, but all of it very thought provoking. I’d like to conclude with this concept of Institutionalization.

This is a difficult topic for all leaders, or at least it should be. It is often referred to it as a theory but I would argue it is a very real thing. It is a difficult topic for leaders as it’s very hard to resists. Take for example a manager brought in to make sweeping changes to a department. Swept in on the wings of change, then once that change is implemented and things started to turn around, that manager finds himself falling into the same ruts as the previous manager he replaced. The point is, it’s a very difficult question to answer day after day, to maintain that level commitment to change asking constantly: “Is this the way we should be doing it? Can we do it better? Why are we doing it this way in the first place?” To fight against this as leaders we need to surround ourselves with people who can provide perspective and contrasting points of view. We should also include in our midst a devil’s advocate, one who’s not afraid to give us a dissenting point of view or tell us straight up we could be doing it different, or better.

As a leader or manager, we need to seek out the council of other leaders, those whom we respect and trust. In their council and in the council of those we’ve placed on our own team(s), we can fight concepts like institutionalization. We can continue to strive for the greater, the “What’s next?” Or, “How can we be doing it better?” The more groups, teams, and companies that build in this fashion, the more we’re doing our part in creating a public that is not satisfied with the statues quo, one that is proactive in doing something. One that is actively engaged in at least asking, is our current system broken? And if so, what can I do about it?

Citation: Hartwick Classic Leadership Cases: Woodrow Wilson’s “Leaderless Government”, Copyright 1994

Reliable Resilience

Emergency Stop! – Failure to Connect! – Automatic Failure Notification! – Transaction Failed! – Critical Failure Imminent! – Your Car Will Self Destruct in 5 Seconds! …. Not matter the way the message is delivered, these are some obstacles we may face on any given day, well most anyway. But, what is it about these messages that makes us get back up and keep going? This is somewhat of a follow up post to my last two pieces about: What went wrong and why I was responsible.

You see, yes, something went wrong on the project I was working on and I was responsible. Yes I did learn from it and no, the project didn’t self-destruct. In fact, quite the opposite happened, we kept going. That little incident was only the beginning of a long string of events that brings us up-to-date on the project. After we recovered from my little incident, we went to start the project again and this time we literally blew up a piece of equipment. No fire and brimstone but it ruptured in a fashion that made an incredible mess, was extremely expensive, and added additional delays; thankfully no one was hurt. This incident could not have been foreseen, it was the result of an unexpected characteristic of the project site we were working at.

We emergency shutdown, we cleaned up the mess, and of course we had a big meeting on what to do next. Then, we went out to determine why the project responded in this manner and under these new circumstances what could we still hope to achieve. Eventually, after a very short while we established new test parameters and brought out new equipment.


Image Credit: Candid Writer

So, we went for startup a third time and Vroom! We were going! Off to the races! After startup we were taking readings across the site to establish a baseline. When we got to the receiving end of the project, we noticed that it was rather quiet and it quickly sunk in that the new equipment had self-shut down. We scrambled (again) to restart the equipment while at the same time providing some bypass relief on the system so as not to overload it. Well, when that relief was added, Blammo! The line connecting the producing side to the receiving side over loaded and burst open. I think I literally almost cried. But, there’s no crying in baseball! So instead, a quick phone call to the producing side of the project along with some serious getup we were able to keep the production going by diverting it to a containment area. Another quick phone call to get the appropriate personnel to the project site and some quick hands by some right-proper technicians and the within an hour and a half we were back in business.

Image Credit: Cliparthut

The clouds appeared to part at this point, metaphorically, it was actually ridiculously sunny. We brought the system slowly back online and did a full inspection of the whole system, all appeared to be running very well. I went home that night feeling better but apprehensive still. It was a good evening till: Rring! Rring! It was the evening site supervisor and we were having issues with the new piece of equipment recent brought out, the same one that shut down of its own volition earlier the same day. Now, a little more used to this issue the second time through, we trouble shot the problem into the night. The night supervisor trouble shot it much more than I and was doing his best pretty much all night long to keep the project quasi going. The result when this happens is reduced production by half which could affect the outcome of the test, the all-important data. In the morning we sent the technicians out again and after some investigation thought we had come to the root of the problem, and it was a simple fix and so again, we were back up running.

Image Credit:

At this point we were good for about two hours. Yep, two hours when that same piece of equipment shut down. In fact, as I’m writing this post, I’m on and off the phone with the night supervisor and the equipment provider who is intern talking to a technician. Apparently the problem(s) we thought we addressed, we not in fact the problem after all. The result of this project/test relies heavily on us not shutting down once we start and varying degrees of production also contaminate the data gathered for final analysis. This is why there is such a strong push to keep the project going even under duress, under extraneous circumstances, even when stuff goes Ka Ka Ka Boom!

The point of all this is what is it that keeps those involved going after all of this? I have the pleasure to work with some seriously resilient people. In my seven here years I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words: “Nope, we can’t do that,” or: “That’s going to be too difficult.” Every time something is presented to these people, no matter how daunting, they find a way to get it done. But what’s more impressive is how they perform when things go wrong which has been a lot lately. They don’t quit, they find a way. It doesn’t matter the hours or the amount of work that is required, they are head down plowing through the difficulties; solution seekers.

So why? Many of these people aren’t even in my department or they are subcontracted to provide help where needed. And still the level of dedication and commitment is truly remarkable. I believe there are a couple of things that contribute to this, the first is ownership. As I discussed in the last post, commitment and engagement come from understanding, from knowing your part and how it fits in into the larger puzzle. That understanding comes from communicating, by pausing long enough to answer questions and to go out of your way to make sure each player understands the project from beginning to end, ensuring that their little piece is critical to the completion of the whole.

The second thing I believe is trust. When that individual is tasked with their part, after you have explained, communicated, and answered questions, leave them alone. You must trust that they will work in a timely fashion until the job is complete no matter the circumstances that the work has to be completed under. You must trust them that if they do run into a question, or an obstacle they can’t quite get around, that they will communicate that to you and in return trust you as the leader to assist in a solution. It’s cuticle that you involve them in any and every solution. Solicit their advice and give them room to operate.

Expert’s Input: In a piece by Jessie Sholl she gives an example of incredible resiliency and also The 5 Best Ways to Build Resiliency. It’s a very interesting read and I’ll leave most of it to you but what caught me by surprise is what she says about point-of-view. Specifically: “Resilient people are adept at seeing things from another person’s point of view.” It makes complete sense but I never considered it. Why? According to a study cited in the piece: “When we empathize with others, we feel less alone and less entrenched in pain. As a result, we recover faster.” So it’s perspective, something that is so much of a leaders responsibility, but to have a team built with those who can really consider the flip-side of the coin, invaluable.

In the end, you may not even have people with a resilient temperament, but when dropped in a circumstance that they first understand, that they second see they are relied upon, and that they are third trusted, I’ve yet to see the individual that doesn’t rise to the challenge. To wrap this up please remember that every day your team has a new opportunity to prove themselves. If they are trusted, then they can lose that trust based on what happens that day. But until that moment comes, they get to keep that trust so give it freely. On the other side, you may have those on your team that you don’t trust, and each new day that have an opportunity to gain your trust. So give those opportunities just as freely as you give trust.

What went wrong and why I was responsible. Part II

Hello and welcome back. This is the second of two posts on a particular project I’m currently managing and at this point in the project. Things on the project had just gone the horribly wrong. So, let’s jump right in by recapping real quick what went wrong.

We had worked through a few minor issues then it was time to “launch.” When the button was hit, it was all going very well, so well I was cooking up some celebratory late lunch to feed and thank everyone for their hard work and effort. Then, I got a call from the receiving end of all our efforts. You see, when the start button was hit, it’s supposed to have a direct albeit delayed result on the other side of a very large job site. I had failed to check the receiving end as I was so focused on the startup that I had neglected to take the time to travel the distance of half a mile to see of things were ready on the other end. They were not and the result was a very premature shutdown of the test and possible extensive damage to the equipment we had been laboring for months to assemble and get into place.

Continuing on, we could not keep the test going because the receiving end of the test was closed and by the time a portion of the team had driven to the other side of the very large site, it was too late. Material we overflowing on the receiving end which resulted in the same type of overflow where I was at. I made a decision that after thirty minutes of runtime, we would shut it down.

This is where it gets bad. When we emergency shut down like this after only 30 minutes of runtime, it has the potential to lock up the production mechanism. This is where I need to resist the temptation to discuss the project in depth and in detail. It would help to clarify no doubt but again, this is not industry related, but people related.

So, after losing the ability to move forward with the project, it was that time of the day that I needed to send out an update to everyone including the companies’ upper management. It’s interesting, that at this point I was recalling my conversation with the intern who rode out with me that morning. Coincidence? Doesn’t really matter in that regard. What does matter is that now it was time for me to live up to those lofty words I was touting not six hours prior. I wrote the email and used the collective tense of “we” in every aspect except for that of the part where I explained what happened on the other end of the project. It went like this: “I did not confirm that … .” Translation, I did not do my job.

By late that evening, we had put together a solution to gain a working project back without too much of a delay and without too much additional equipment. That night, we were all driving home in different trucks. This is after I and another truck each got a flat ties almost in the exact same spot as each other; hell of a Monday! After fixing the flat(s) and getting back on the road, I received a couple phone calls from the guys behind me and the guy in front of me. They were still working! They were trying to improve on the project such that we could ensure success or at least give it a better chance. Each truck was doing this independently which is a tribute to the project itself. Everyone had already put in twelve hours and yet while driving home, they continued by putting together ideas on how to make the project happen. Now that’s ownership!

The next day I was in the office early before heading out to the job site again. One of the individuals on the
team was also in early and we got to talking about what happened and what happens next. In regards to the closed portion of the receiving end, she said: “It was my fault, I should have checked it.” I smiled a little and then gave some thematic pause. You see, this was not the first person to say these words, to try and takeBlog #4 responsibility for the mistake. The day before, on Launch Day, two other team members had said very similar things. That’s three people willing the jump in front of the speeding bullet that’s was my responsibility to take. Wow! That’s so awesome that there was so much ownership, so much of each individual invested in the project that they wanted to be accountable for its demise, not just its success.  How was this done? I imaging through communication and the willingness to know for a fact that you must rely on your team, you can’t micromanage them, and finally trust. Trust that they will complete their portion and trust in me that I will know when to step in and when I need to walk away. I was very humbled by this gesture and other than the mishap, I would do everything exactly the same, all over again, if given the chance. At least when it came to managing the team members.

I want to side track real quick here. The issues we were trouble shooting the day of the launch had to do with the intern’s portion of the project. A part that he directly contributed to. To keep this little sidetrack short, I’m just going to say that portion didn’t work but he learned a lot in the process. Much of it he would not have learned had he succeeded the first time out of the shoot. He learned to always test equipment prior to dragging it two hours on the job site. He also learned what hustle means in that he had it dragged the piece of equipment back to corporate, and with the help of another engineer, they had it fixed, tested and running in less that twenty-four hours.

So what now? Management heard what happened, but ten they needed to hear about what “we” were going to do about it. I feel safe in using the collective “we” again as it’s going to take a team to get us back on track.

Expert’s Input: It’s interesting, the day I was writing the first part of this article I was also tweeting a little and I ended up re-tweeting a piece by Chris Farmer titled: Learn From Failure. In it he talks about a lot of great stuff that I will leave for you to read but he wraps it up with: “Failure. Suck it up.” That’s it. You have to be man or women enough to not allow your team members to take that bullet for you. To stand up and say “I did this wrong, and this is how we are going to fix it.”

Is the project going? No. In fact what happened on Launch Day was just the first of a string of events that made this project a struggle on a daily basis. I’m headed out tomorrow to try something different after a round of meetings today on how we can save the project. At the beginning of this article I said this was the second of two posts concerning this job. Something tells me it has legs enough for a few more discussions about the things we faced, as project managers and as leaders.

This probably isn’t going to make the top 22 Of The Most Epic Product Fails in History like the Ford Edsel or New Coke. But I’ll admit, there were moments when I extended the current chain of events out to their worst possible outcome sans someone getting hurt, and it sure felt like it could at least crack the top three. At least in regards to the projects I’ve been involved in.

To wrap things up here, at least for the meantime, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how well you prepare, you will forget something.  Be vocal and communicate with your team. Ask their advice and share your ideas. Ownership in a project even by the party doing the least amount of work can make all the difference in the world.

Image Credit: The Simpsons, Matt Groening

What went wrong and why was I responsible? Part I

In these pieces about project management and leadership, about “do’s” and “don’ts”, talking with professionals and seeking out experts, nothing compares to personal experience. The last few months I’ve been working on a large project and many of the things I’ve talked about here on this blog have come into play and some new aspects as well. I want to discuss some of the things that went wrong, what the repercussions were, and what was learned. I’m going to attempt to run through these few situations without getting into the industry I work in as I want to maintain the essence of this blog and that is we are all project managers, we are all leaders, and the success we experience and adversity we face transcends industry. To start, I’ve had enough experience to know that the best laid plans will never account for the unknown, and also no matter how hard you prepare, one minor mistake can destroy all that has been worked for.

In the beginning of the project my experience and knowhow propelled the project along briskly. The budget was looking good and every time there was a delay it was something that was out of my hands. In those delays I took to opportunity to review the project with the rest of the team and fine tune down to the littlest of details. It didn’t matter how big the microscope, every time there was a delay we found something else to address, something else we missed. But, at some point you have to pull the trigger and go with what has been prepared to the best of everyone’s abilities.

Such was the case for this project.  Again, the budget was looking good and we had taken some liberties in improving on an old model. There was some newly implemented ideas that we thought were going to be very effective, and some others that were already turning out to be very effective. There was quite a bit of excitement at the approaching “launch” date and by the time the final delays that were out of our hands were over, I also was very excited and fairly confident. I will say that the test did involve a start button so I don’t feel “launch” date is a terrible misnomer.

They day the project was supposed to be a “go” was a beautiful day but it followed already several delays so there was some apprehension, at least on my part. The delays weren’t major, and I’m not sure they were unavoidable. In fact there is no way we could have avoided them since they were all external so spirits were very high at the opportunity to show our stuff. I had the pleasure of having a 95% hands on role in the project and so that day I was running the motions from beginning to end to make sure nothing was forgotten. (Insert foreshadowing here.)Blog #3

That morning I had the privilege of having an intern along for the ride out to the job site. He had been helping extensively with one particular portion of the project and he also was very excited about the days anticipated events. During the ride out he took advantage of the opportunity and asked me a lot of questions regarding project management, communication, and working with team members in varying capacities. One particular question he had especially stands out and that was: “So, when something goes wrong, and it’s the result of someone on your team, how do you appropriately lay blame on that individual to your superiors?” This among others I felt were some great questions from a kid still finishing his undergrad with minimal experience in any industry.

I knew my answer even before he finished the question and I’ve written about it in this blog in the past. In It’s Not My Fault I talk about this fundamental attribution error so when this intern brought it up, I brought up my experience. After his question was asked, I paused with a little thematic gesture to give the appearance of deep thought, it had been kind of a running joke between us, this idea of “thematic” gestures, responses, and the like. My response was: “I don’t lay blame on my team members to my superiors. It’s my project so anything that happens while I am at the helm, I am directly responsible for. My superiors don’t want to hear about who did what and why? They want accountability and resolution. It happened, but what is being done about it right now and later, how do we keep it from happening again?” I also said: “There will come a time and a place when I’ll get to talk with that individual about what happened, and my only goal in that conversation is how we keep it from happening again; then we move on. But, it is my responsibility to absorb the blow from above and never let it seep through unless absolutely necessary.” Which is a topic for another time.

He recognized the logic in it, but also the effectiveness of it and how as project managers and leaders we are put in those positions of responsibility for the very fact that we have been and will continue to be accountable. The rest of the ride passed in similar thematic fashion and when we arrived at the job site, we were both in good spirits.

Expert’s Input: In a piece by john Baldoni titled WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR TEAM FAILS, he outlines some great steps to follow when exactly that, your team fails. I believe they are also great steps when you fail your team. One comment in the article I’d like to point out is: “Not everything likely went wrong. It is important to diagnose the positives and decide how they can be repeated.” That is so great and enough said. I’ll leave the rest of the article for you to read so let’s get back to the story.

Later that day, after some extensive trouble shooting with actually his portion of the project which we’ll address later, it was finally time to “launch.” When the button was hit it was all going very well, so well I was cooking up some celebratory late lunch to feed and thank everyone for their hard work and effort. Then, I got a call from the receiving end of all our efforts. You see, when the start button was hit, it’s supposed to have a direct albeit delayed result on the other side of a very large job site. So, when I received that call my heart sank, no it was shot out of a cannon off of a cliff straight down. You see, I had failed to check the receiving end of our efforts. I was so focused on the startup I had neglected to take the time to travel the distance of half a mile to see of things were ready on the other end. They were not and the result was a very premature shutdown of the test and possible extensive damage to the equipment we had been laboring for months to assemble and get into place.

So, the launch day did not go well, and things did not get much better from there on out. I will talk about how it was handled, and the rest of the project’s events to date tomorrow so come back and join me for some more, you might learn something, I know I did.

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