The last eighteen months have been an amazing journey—with all the twists and turns of an epic road trip. I have spent this season discovering a vocational vision for my future. After completing my MBA at Notre Dame and sensing that my 22 year career in faith-based not-for-profit work was drawing to a close, I began a discernment process to land where I am today—launching a company to help other organizations thrive. This quest included more than 100 informational interviews and took me to amazing cities, with even more amazing people. That was certainly the highlight for me—the incredible people doing important and inspiring work across our country.
I learned so much in this season, too much to adequately cover in one post. However, I will do my best to give a brief overview of the five important lessons I’ve been learning along the way, and what it means for my future.
My journey began with the guidance of a brilliant marketing mind, Phil Raskin. He spent his career as an executive at Leo Burnett, and I had the privilege of learning from him as a professor in business school. Over our coffee and breakfast conversations, he graciously guided me through the development of a structure that would become my operating framework for discerning the next step in my career. His wisdom, candor (ie. occasional ass-kicking), and grace set me on a life-changing adventure, and I am indebted to him for my remaining days.
Lesson One: We All Need Guides
This brings us to the first lesson from my journey: We All Need Guides. Guides can come from people whose leadership we admire and may or may not be in our career industry. Guides are willing to invest in our development. Guides are the people who draw out what we don’t yet believe to be true about ourselves. They hold us accountable, even when it isn’t fun. They push us to grow and strive for more. Guides are essential to development.
You’ll Never Get What You Don’t Ask For.
It was a crisp march morning as I walked for an hour through NYC from my hotel to a small coffee shop in Soho. I could have taken an Uber, but have always felt like walking is the only way to truly experience a city. It was early for New York, as I left my hotel around 7AM for an 8AM meeting, but there were still plenty of sights, sounds and smells adding texture to my walk. It was magical in the way only New York is. There’s no place like it on Earth.
I arrived at La Colombe earlier than expected, either because the Google map was a liar, or because the temperature was just cool enough that I was walking more quickly to stay warm. I sat with my coffee, reading through the Moleskine journal that would be my companion for the entire 18 month process. The page for this day already had my questions listed on the top half—with room for the insights to be written below, or on concurrent pages if the conversation went really well. Today was a day to arrive early, to be prepared.
A few years before I had heard the story of an entrepreneur named Peter Thum. His career had taken him from management consulting to starting Ethos Water to overseeing the social impact arm of Starbucks and eventually, to starting another company called Liberty United. I had been a student of social impact for-profit business for a while, and in my view, Peter was an icon.
His Liberty United venture took illegal weapons off the streets of war-torn Congo and violence-ridden Chicago and created high end jewelry out of them. What a beautifully redemptive business to start.
My wife, Christina, had met him a few years before, as he was in town to give a lecture for Chicago Ideas Week. In their conversation, he had passed along his website and email info. It had been two years, and I didn’t expect him to remember their interaction—or give me the time of day, for that matter—as I cold emailed him asking if we could find a time to talk.
A few days went by and a reply appeared in my inbox. I was completely shocked. He graciously agreed to set up a phone call to start a conversation. Our first call was short—as I was boarding a flight for a work trip—but I had a trip to New York planned a few weeks later, and he said he’d be glad to get coffee together when I’d be in town.
Years of watching his evolving career and a simple phone call had led the way to prepared questions in my Moleskine journal for this early morning meeting at a coffee shop in Soho. I was incredibly intimidated… and then we started talking. I found Peter to be one of the most genuine, kind, and generous people I have ever had a conversation with. He graciously shared some great lessons he learned along the way and was candid about the positive and negative parts of his business and philanthropic journey. In addition, Peter was completely engaged as I also answered the questions he had for me about what I was trying to discover, and he was generous with his time, spending far longer with me than I initially imagined. When you meet a hero, and she/he lives up to the hopes and expectations, it is a rare experience.
Here’s the honest truth, I almost didn’t reach out to Peter because I thought he was too big to agree to a meeting with me. He runs with a league of people that I didn’t see myself being welcomed into their ranks, which leads to Lesson Two.
Lesson Two: Don’t Say Someone’s NO For Them
When I wanted to request to get together with Peter for a conversation, I almost said “no” for him—before even asking. What a huge missed opportunity that would have been since my conversation with him was one of the most important during this entire season. And once he said yes and was so gracious with his time and engagement, I was fearless to ask for time with anyone. I decided to let people say no to me, rather than me saying it for them. I’ll take this lesson with me for a long time, and keep asking to learn from the wisdom and experience of all kinds of people who are out of my league.
A Renewed Belief In Humanity.
Peter Thum’s approachability and engagement was very humbling to me, and made me want to be more that way with the people who cross my path each day.
Here’s the crazy part of my 18-month informational interview experience… nearly everyone I met with was just as generous, kind and engaged. At final count, I have had 105 of these type of conversations and with the exception of two, the people I met with were incredibly engaged and generous. That means more than 98% of the interviews I had were marked by kindness and generosity, and people were specifically generous with their time and network. Every conversation I had, opened up two or three new relationships as people passed along my info to people of interest or organizations in their networks.
I realize that 105 interviews sounds daunting and tedious, but it actually took far less work than one might imagine to get access to that group of people and schedule time for a conversation. It grew that large, not because I had planned it that way (I planned to do 15 interviews over a few weeks’ time), but because the people I met with were so benevolent. And here comes Lesson Three.
Lesson Three: People Are Kind & Generous
This process emboldened my belief in the goodness of humanity. It didn’t matter what industry I was learning about, what city or region I was in, or the work experience of the person I was meeting with; they each represented what we all hope is true of humanity as a whole: kindness and generosity
The polarity of current society and hyperbole of debate can easily convince us that humanity is just dark and brooding, each person only truly watching out for her/himself. I found the opposite to be true. And yes, the finance executives in New York City and lawyers in San Francisco were as kind and generous as the not-for-profit leaders in the midwest. People long to be good-hearted. What if we assumed that more often?
Lesson Four: Perspective Changes Everything
This one is short and sweet. There were companies I met with that looked one way on the outside, but were very different from an employee's perspective. Some looked great on the outside while the internal culture was described as toxic, and others that have a negative brand perception in the market were compelling to the people working within. It makes sense, as this is true of people as well. When we learn about someone or an organization, when we ask probing questions to truly understand, we gain the perspective to know the true character within. The insights I learned reframed how I saw numerous companies and industries, and the people working within them.
These insights also redefined the direction of my own vocational journey. I believed starting out that I would move in one direction, but quickly learned that this path would be more winding and mysterious than it would be clear and straight. I would have never imagined at the beginning that I would land at starting a consulting firm based on what I learned about myself and organizations throughout this journey. Perspective changed everything.
Lesson Five: People Want To Do Good
And finally, Lesson Five was affirmed over and over throughout this process. Across the board, everyone I met with wanted to do good in whatever career choice they’d made. Before you think I’ve gotten too naive through this, I know there are poorly motivated people out there, but the people I met along the way wanted to find meaning in their jobs and make a difference for their families, communities and world. A few examples I encountered:
Compelling and energetic marketing executives at Tesla trying to change how the world approaches power and transportation
Brilliant investment bankers at Morgan Stanley unlocking developing markets around the globe
Not-for-profit leaders working to transform the criminal justice system and leading efforts for true rehabilitation
Entrepreneurs working to solve countless challenges no one else has been able to figure out
Social good for-profit organizations helping global food producers increase access in nations facing famine
Customer success executives at the largest airline in the world and at the largest career networking platform working to help people have a positive product experience
Across every industry, discipline and time zone, people want to do good. This lesson has been the inspiration for the name of the new company I’m starting, Better Good Group. My interviews revealed that everyone wants to do good, and most identified a few significant areas of development that needed to be addressed to maximize that effort. So, I’ve decided to step into that journey with organizations—to partner with for-profit and not-for-profit businesses and help them identify how to continue doing their good, better and to bring an outside perspective to address barriers so they can move beyond them.
This quest has been far more than I ever expected or planned as Phil Raskin and I sat across from each other at a Starbucks in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. I never imagined the number of cups of coffee and meals that I’d have with some of the brightest minds doing good work across our nation. I can’t wait to introduce you to some of the incredible people I was able to meet, which is a big reason that I’ll also be launching the Better Good Podcast in the next few weeks. It will be an interview format conversation with amazing people across industries, discussing the value of Strategic Clarity, Leadership Development, Compelling Communication, and Healthy Culture.
Maybe these lessons I’ve been learning will be helpful to you as well. I look forward to continuing this epic journey together—the quest of each of us bringing our unique good to the world, better.