Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Great Discriminator - A Culture of Collaboration

One of the things I have enjoyed about consulting is the exposure to multiple companies and multiple business units within those companies. In the year I have been at The Gunter Group, I have already worked with multiple clients on projects that span across the respective organizations. It has been very interesting to contrast the clients and more specifically the corporate cultures that exist within those companies.

I have participated in and watched various projects being driven in different parts of a client's business and it is interesting to see which projects have been, are, and will be successful. The other day I was reading a report of some analysis done by one of the world's largest and most respected consulting firms. The analysis was essentially outlining a path for success for a broad spectrum of projects of varied scopes and complexities. The analysis, which was very good by the way, touched on a lot of elements of the business that would impact the likelihood of project success. Elements like governance, data analysis, process design, etc. The analysis and the accompanying recommendations were undoubtedly sound given the caliber of the firm, the background research done to support the report, and my own confirmation based on what I have picked up about the client. I try and get my hands on these types of reports whenever possible to see how "the big boys" are doing it, to shape my own thinking, and to have examples of successful presentations. I am, however, always surprised that these reports fail to mention what I consider to be a very big influence on the success of a project and ultimately the success of the organization as a whole.

At their core, companies are merely people. A group of people with a collective identity; a corporate culture if you will. Reflecting back on my many interactions with the people that make up these organizations it has become very evident to me that a collaborative corporate culture is a huge discriminator in determining the success of any project. Although it is a macro factor, the collaborative spirit of an organization transcends everything that the company does and/or attempts to do.

Here is an example to give context of the premise I am talking about.

At client A, the project team I worked with was designing an extremely innovative, complex, and challenging system that has the potential to alter the way they do business. Without going into too much detail, it was a massive undertaking with relatively limited resourcing.

At client B, the scope of work I was involved in was relatively straightforward and mirrored business practices at other organizations. The bulk of the effort on my part was driving the creation and adoption of a framework to promote cross functional interaction amongst project teams. A very realistic undertaking with appropriate resourcing.

Below are vignettes that illustrate typical exchanges in both organizations. In both organizations I have been directed to connect with a particular individual or group of individuals as it was thought that our respective works may be related in some fashion.

Client A:
Me - "Let me give you a brief overview of the project I am working on. John Doe recommended I connect with you as your project may intersect with mine in some manner. We may be able to help each other." (Continue with my overview)

Other Party - "Wow, this is great. I actually have really in depth knowledge of X and would love to get involved in the work you are doing. I am actually simultaneously driving Y effort and it would be great if we were aligned. At a high level we are both supporting strategy A so connecting now would really set us up for success. Feel free to include me on your future meetings and I will pass along our high level overview. Also, have you thought about connecting with So and So? They are working in the Z space on a project and it may help to drive your project forward as well."

Client B:
Me - "Let me give you a brief overview of the project I am working on. John Doe recommended I connect with you as your project may intersect......." 

Other Party - (Interrupts) "Well we have already gotten our project approved at such and such level and we have found that we really don't have any interdependencies with your project."

Me - "Oh, OK. Well I am not really looking to create additional work for anyone. I am just looking to leverage the work we are both already doing. We may be able to help each other." 

Other Party - (Interrupts again) "Our project team is really busy and we are on a tight deadline. We don't have the resources we need. I have told John Doe time and again we need more help but until we get it I just really need to focus on X."

Me - "OK. Well how about I jump in to what it is we are actually doing and if there aren't any opportunities for collaboration or any synergies to be gained from working together that is fine. I just wanted to be proactive about connecting the dots across the organization. (Continue with my overview)

Other Party - "...........*crickets*..........." (Meeting concludes.....)

These aren't depictions of a single event. They are aggregations of month's of interactions that give a good representation of single events in a variety of contexts on a daily basis. Of course, there are exceptions. However, I have found that exceptions within both cultures are extremely rare based on my personal experience. This only furthers my point. Can you begin to see why a collaborative corporate culture is so foundational to the success of any endeavor regardless of scope, complexity, etc?

The other aspect that adds to the importance of a sound corporate culture is the self fulfilling nature of culture. Which organization do you think inspires future collaborative behavior? Even those people that want to collaborate within client B are consistently met with resistance. Those in client A are inspired by the positive interactions, enhanced results, and they are more likely to actively seek out others to help and work with. Both trajectories are accelerated in opposite directions just by the nature of the prevailing culture.

So how do you create and engender a culture that embodies collaboration? That my friends is a question I don't pretend to have all the answers too. Maybe I'll be so lucky to figure that one out someday......

Friday, August 3, 2012

Musings, Cliches, Golden Nuggets From My First Consulting Engagement

I have officially closed out my first consulting engagement and although it ended sooner that I would have liked it was an amazingly rewarding learning experience that I am incredibly grateful for. My post Air Force life has been blast that has brought an incredible amount of change, enjoyment, and stress in short period of time. New hometown, new careers for the wife and I, new house, new & old friends, and a new baby girl! To add to the plethora of change in my life, I have settled into the consulting career field which essentially means that I am changing jobs within a job every few months to a year. Amidst the chaos, I really wanted to carve out some time to capture thoughts and lessons learned from my first consulting engagement at Nike. My learnings range from fairly tactical and borderline anecdotal to strategic and transcendent but I wanted them recorded nonetheless. Here they are:

- The Importance of Visually Expressing Ideas: One thing that I took away from working within Nike was the power of visually expressing ideas. The world moves fast and it is only moving faster by the day. People within successful organizations have a lot on their plate, their time is limited, and their attention spans are understandably short. Couple that with a corporate culture like that of a Nike and you have very little time to express, sell, and execute complex ideas. It was no wonder that given that context, everything....and I mean everything was done via slide decks. PowerPoint or bust. There were no long word document proposals. 

At first I found it a bit odd, especially having come from the Government contracting world where stacks of files literally consumed real estate within every organization. But over time I found it to be an incredibly liberating culture to operate within. No formal formats. Just the visual medium necessary to express an idea. What was great was that these presentations were consistently reused and/or distributed to new people to proliferate buy in as well. There wasn't any proposal or commitment document that was shelved or lost, just presentations that marked points of agreement in time amongst relevant stakeholders. An oddly relaxed yet effectively self organizing methodology that delivered results. At the end of the day shared understanding equals shared goals and objectives, so moving forward I will definitely utilize presentations as my medium of choice. 

- The Power of Facilitating Workshops/Meetings with Clearly Defined Objectives: The project I worked on had an incredibly complex network of internal and external stakeholders that needed to be aligned on where the project was headed. At times it felt like we were doing an incredible amount of work without actually accomplishing much from an enterprise perspective. It felt like swimming in place. Then all of a sudden we would have a week or two where as a project team we really moved the dial on achieving our goals. Our progress looked like a set of continuing (extremely steep) peaks and (longer) valleys. As I neared the end of my engagement I began to piece together a pattern surrounding the causes of those steep peaks of productivity. The common denominator was that we held multi day workshops with extremely defined objectives for each session, day, and workshop.

We started each workshop with a vision of what needed to be accomplished at the highest level. Ex. develop a communications strategy. Then we would break the days into sub goals to support the overarching objective. Ex. Day 1: Align on Current State of Project, Day 2: Identify Risks, Day 3: Design the Strategy, Day 4: Create the Plan. From those subcategories you could design exercises and discussions for each hour. It was a lot of work but that pattern paid extremely large dividends for a few reasons.

First and foremost, is the undeniable fact that we are social creatures. People love to come together. People really love to come together to create. When you have a complex set of stakeholders separated by function, geography, interests, etc. it becomes very easy for people to be confused, disengaged, or even become a detractor from the mission at hand. When you bring people together participate in a workshop you establish a shared understanding and more importantly you co-create a solution. It becomes a lot more difficult to pull back or sabotage a solution that you helped to created. Additionally, these workshops serve as points in time that can be signed off on by leadership. Outbriefs out of these sessions became the proposal to the powers that be. I saw time and again the fears of leadership being eased merely by the fact that they knew the right brainpower was in the room and that the due diligence behind the thinking had been performed. The workshops were the vehicle for that thinking. Lastly, highly functional teams produce great work. Nothing brings a team together like a structured workshop that allows for all concerns and perspectives to be heard without derailing the goals at hand. These workshops helped to craft a tight knit team as opposed to a group of people that happen to work on a project together.

- Bring In Other People, Meet for Coffee, Ask for Expertise: Organizations don't possess knowledge. People do. In the consulting field you are brought in for one reason....there is a problem and work to be done to solve that problem. Given that maxim, it follows that as a consultant you will constantly be thrown into situations wrought with ambiguity and complexity. Not a very comfortable feeling, especially when you first land at a new gig (as I am experiencing with client #2). What I have found to work better than anything else to get oriented in these situations is to ask someone in the organization to grab coffee. Everyone loves to help someone else. Everyone loves to be the expert. So make those around you the expert, build relationships, and reap the rewards. 

- Align with the Client on the Purpose of Meetings In Advance to Better Facilitate, Provide Consultation, Capture Key Decisions & Actions, Properly Structure Visual Frameworks: This is way more tactical in focus as compared to some of the other insights I have listed but it is important nonetheless. I have noticed that in order to provide the best support possible I need to be clearly aligned with the project sponsor on the details of a meeting prior to it occurring. This sounds really intuitive, but I am not just talking about knowing the purpose of a meeting and having an agenda. I am talking about deeper discussions that can be tedious if you have a lot of meetings but also can make so much better use of your time in the long run. Below are some example questions:

1. What are you trying to get out of this meeting?
2. Who is in the meeting and from what angle will they be coming at this meeting from (challenging, aligned, clueless, etc)?
3. Beyond the agenda, how do you see this meeting playing out?
4. How do you see me supporting? Is there a need for any facilitation? 

From those questions, I can generally brainstorm ways to support the goals of the sponsor and make recommendations for facilitation based on things that have worked in the past. If you don't do this in advance it is a struggle just to capture action items and decisions let alone have the head space to design visual brainstorming frameworks on the fly. As intuitive as this learning may seem, the challenge is consistently doing it!

- Find Mentors in Every Organization: As a consultant you don't need a mentor in the career/professional sense within the organization you supporting but that doesn't mean you don't need to seek out mentors at all. There is always someone smarter than you, more experienced than you, and downright more capable than you especially when viewed through various contextual lenses. So treat that reality as the value proposition behind seeking out mentors in everyone organization that you are a part of. Continue to be a life long learner!

- Think Strategically and Work Your Way Down to Execution: This little nugget was definitely not learned on the job in the consulting field. It was learned through a combination of education and practical experience in my military career. However, the importance of systemic thinking was reaffirmed while working on my last project. Especially in consulting, it is so easy to get stovepiped into the mind space of the task at hand. However, starting to tackle a problem at that level leads to decisions and solutions that are made in a vacuum. I have blogged recently about the power of context and the systemic challenges we often face while working through complicated problems. Those concepts dovetail nicely with the point I am making here. To effectively solve problems you need to gather a broader context of the world you are operating within. From that foundation you can begin to develop strategies that decrescendo down into more tactical level actions. By consistently pulling myself up to a high level of thinking at the front end of scoping a problem I find that I am crafting more thoughtful, inclusive, and systemic solutions.

- Beg, Borrow, & Steal....Brilliance is Borrowed: I admit that I (fittingly) stole this gem from an audiobook that I listened to recently called "Borrowing Brilliance."  Basically the premise of the book is that there are no truly original ideas. Brilliant ideas are a collection pre-existing ideas that are either expanded upon, utilized in another context, or both. It seems oddly cynical but when you walk through the logic it makes sense. I have written on the similar topic of pattern recognition in the past.

In the consulting world this is definitely a reality. There are so many frameworks and methodologies out there that have been used. Merely applying previously utilized frameworks to new scenarios can yield huge benefits.

Beyond using templates and frameworks you can beg, borrow, and steal from peers. This ties in a bit to my point above on asking for expertise, but the reality is that no problem or challenge is solved in a vacuum. The more brainpower you can garner from other people the better. Sometimes brilliance can merely be aggregating the brainpower and works of others to solve a specific problem. Although there is nothing inherently "brilliant" about gathering the brilliance of others it will be viewed as such when a solution is delivered and progress is made.

- Develop PM Solutions to the Minimum Fidelity Necessary to Execute: Project Management tools and principles are a means to an end. They are not an end in and of themselves. In most organizations project management makes people's heads explode. Nike was definitely no different. Given their corporate culture, I always had to find the very fine line between introducing process,structure, and rigor to the project while minimizing additional work for the team, respecting the corporate culture, and allowing innovative thinking to thrive. It was a challenge but it reinforced within me the understanding that as a consultant you are an enabler. You make others better. If your tools and practices aren't contributing to that maxim then you either aren't using the right tools or they are just too robust given the scenario. PMP certification holders everywhere are furious.....

- Character Always Has, Does, and Always Will Matter:  A project is only as good as the person/team behind it. Period. I have been lucky enough to be a part of some amazing teams in my life whether it be family, sports, business, or military service. Every time I am a part of a team with sound character and capable individuals I am always amazed at the results. It is like a lesson that it re-learned every time you are privileged to experience it. Be character and build character teams.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Final Countdown: A Rookie Father's Introspection

Here I am. Staring down the final weeks before I make, perhaps, the single greatest transition of my life. I have been through a great deal of transition in my relatively short life and just digging back through my various blog posts I am amazed at all that has transpired in the short period of time that I have been blogging. But I am pretty sure that the next chapter of my life will prove more monumental and defined than any that has come before it. The transition I am referring to is that of fatherhood.

In a matter of weeks my lovely wife and I will bring a baby girl into this world. In some sense it has seemed like an eternity waiting for this moment. An eternity both in terms of the pregnancy/miscarriage/pregnancy journey we have endured and my lifelong actualization of becoming a dad. On the other hand, I feel like I am running out of time to "prepare" for the ceremonious shift that is fast approaching. As if one can ever prepare for a change like this.

Perhaps my converse perception of time is representative of the majority introspection I have done throughout this journey.

Emotionally I am overwhelmed by excitement and fear. Excitement in knowing that I have always wanted to be a dad and fear over whether I can pull it off. I can't wait to step into this new chapter alongside my wife but am terrified by an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their well being and happiness. I am so excited to see her little face but petrified on what to do after that moment. I imagine my feelings are common to most new expectant fathers but that doesn't make it any easier!

I also can't help but consistently think of the dynamic between the known and the unknown with regard to our family's future. I know that bringing a child into this world will be amazing and that it will forever change my life for the better. What I don't know is how parenthood will specifically alter our current existence and how it will change me. I know I won't get any sleep for the next six months but I don't know what our daily routine will be like. I have spent the last few months envisaging what our new life will be and not surprisingly the different visions of what our future could be are pretty broad.

Although my conscious introspection is wrought with paradoxical thoughts and emotions, my daily ideations and musings are much more random and (ironically) childlike. I can't help but wonder what she will be like. What will baby Blake's favorite color be? What passions will she develop? What will she look like? When will she stop thinking I am "cool?"

The combination of focused reflection and casual wonder can be mentally taxing and I must admit that I have been more tired than any time in recent memory. I can only imagine what my wife feels like! With that being said, I feel that we have harnessed our excitement for this life change and have continued to optimistically push forward towards our due date.

If there is one thing that eases my mind and reassures me that everything will turn out fine it is family. I am taking this journey with my loving wife who I have always felt is destined to be an amazing mother. I have been blessed with an amazing family and a set of parents who have given my brother and I a childhood that serves as a retrospective expose for successful parenting that I can follow and emulate. I married into a great family that provided the same loving environment and positive parenting example to my wife. So with that kind of lifelong support I feel like I have a foundation that will allow me to grow, develop, and flourish throughout my fatherhood journey.

After a few months of introspection I am left with just one I good enough? Hopefully I can look back on a lifetime of trying to be the best dad I can and answer yes.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Academy Business Leaders

A great friend of mine has started a website called He describes the site as,"an online database of business leaders who graduated from The U.S. Air Force Academy, The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, The U.S. Military Academy, and The U.S. Naval Academy."

The venture is rather new but he has started by featuring service academy business leaders in summary posts or more intimate interview style posts. I think it is a cool concept that could prove very valuable to the service academy graduate network assuming it continues to grow.

I feel lucky to have been featured this month in an interview style post that is focused on my non profit leadership work and my transition from active duty into the corporate world. I have included the post below but do yourself a favor and check out

1. Describe the non-profit you started and how it impacts the community. 

I started a non-profit called Checking For Charity while I was serving in the Air Force in New Jersey. Checking For Charity is a non-profit that is dedicated to changing the world through competitive hockey events. A little ambitious? Yes. But we believe that change in this world starts by creating a small movement of passionate people with a common goal. Our Goal is to Assist! Our unique hockey centric approach is designed to raise as much money and awareness as possible for charity while putting on the most professional and competitive hockey tournaments. 

Each team that enters a Checking For Charity tournament picks a charity that is near and dear to their heart. All the proceeds from the tournament entry fees, corporate sponsorships, personal donations, merchandise, raffles, etc are put into the greater Checking For Charity pot. Each team/charity that is represented is guaranteed a percentage of that pot just for participating in the tournament. Each team/charity has the opportunity to increase their percentage depending on where they place within tournament play. Our unique format incentivizes everyone involved to raise as much money as possible as well as putting in the most competitive team possible. Our non-profit impacts the community in a few different ways. First and foremost, it empowers hockey participants to contribute to worthy causes through the game they love. Players can contribute to something larger than themselves through a fun and positive outlet. Secondly, we help the community by serving as a catalyst and a multiplier. We allow individuals, teams, volunteers, and corporate sponsors to have a much greater positive impact on the causes they value than they would individually or by donating to an individual cause. We also allow the participants to choose the causes they wish to support. Often time’s people are naturally funneled into donating time and money into the same few well established and recognizable charities. Nothing against well established and recognizable charities, as they undoubtedly serve great causes, but our charity allows the participants to contribute to local and/or more specialized causes. There are many people out there who are looking for the kind of vehicle that provides real choice and control while capitalizing on the multiplier effect the tournaments provides. Lastly, our charity impacts the community by promoting culture change amongst our citizens. Our charity proves that you do not have to be an extremist to be a positive contributor to this world. You do not have to dedicate your life to a certain cause to make a difference. We show through our model that you can be a model citizen while playing hockey, drinking beers, and barbecuing with your friends. You can be a contributor through the power of choice, the choice to participate in a movement like the Checking For Charity movement. For more information please 

2. How have your experiences in the Air Force helped you succeed in the business world?

I recently wrote a blog post about this very question ( Although it was more targeted towards my current position than succeeding in the business world in general the same themes hold true here.

Systemic Challenges: One thing that I learned in the military is how to operate in challenging and ambiguous environments. Throughout my career and most notably while serving in Iraq, I encountered challenges that did not have a textbook answer. There was not a clear cut best solution...or a solution at all for that matter. There were too many unknowns, too many interests, too many interconnected subsets, and too little time to easily solve problems. In the military you are forced to confront challenges that are spread and interwoven throughout a complex system. I see the same type of systemic challenges represented in the business world. Military veterans should not discount the soft skills they have developed that help them navigate and overcome these types of challenges. 

Execution: I am, admittedly, probably more of an idea guy by nature than a down and dirty details engineer type. I am energized by strategic thinking and collaborative brainstorming. However, I crafted my ability to get things done in the military and that is something I will always be grateful for. Now I am in essence getting paid for my ability to get things done as well as my ability to help other people get things done as a consultant in the business world. It is a challenge and I am constantly learning but it is exciting and fulfilling as well. A military force that can rapidly work its way through the planning/decision cycle to execute will have a competitive advantage over its enemies over time. My sense is that companies benefit from a similar (albeit less combative) approach in the business world. Going from idea to execution faster than your competitors is a critical competitive advantage over time. I feel that my military career helped me to realize the importance of executing over all else and that mindset alone is a differentiator amongst many corporate peers. Think Patton – “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

Leading Change: As an officer in the Air Force I have sat through a few leadership presentations in my day. In fact, my undergrad experience at the Air Force Academy was almost entirely centered on character based leadership training. In hindsight, a great number of those sessions drifted into discussions about leading change. The military isn't all about following orders as many like to think. And although as whole the military machine may be categorized as a bludgeoning bureaucracy of sorts, in smaller pockets the most successful units/organizations are all about leading and implementing change. The business world is no different. It is the organization or individual that can consistently lead change that will consistently win. My military experience helped me, in theory and practice, to lead teams through change initiatives.

3. Do you have mentors, and if so, how have they helped you develop as a leader?

I have had relatively few “formal” mentors in my AF career and my post AF career. I have found that the formal mentors probably served the least value towards developing me as a leader. I think the best lesson I have learned with regard to mentorship is that you can learn from everyone and if you approach even the most challenging personal and professional relationships with that frame of mind you will always be developing as a leader.

Additionally, I have learned the value in seeking out mentors before you “need” them as a mentor. Relationships are always a two way street and mentorship is no exception. Focus on creating a valuable relationship and interesting exchange with someone versus seeking out someone for the specified value you can extract from them to benefit your current needs. Ironically, this can feel a bit uncomfortable at times because you are taking action without a focused end state in mind. But the end state should really just be consistent learning and growth.

A lot of people associate mentorship with one person being senior or providing more value to the relationship than the other. Those mentors are valuable but do not discount the value peer mentors can provide. As a whole I would say that I have learned more from professional peers, teammates, friends, and family than senior professional mentors. Hopefully a few of those peers have learned from me as well.

4. What advice would you give other service academy graduates looking to transition to the private sector?

Strategically: Know yourself. Learn what you want out of your life. Not from a career perspective or a personal perspective but from a holistic perspective of the way you want your life to play out. The days of work life balance are gone. The name of the game is work life integration and happiness is the ultimate goal. Make every decision from separation to new career selection with your life goals in mind and continue to learn and grow as you pursue those life goals. Most importantly, never look back and enjoy it.

Tactically: Learn the value of networking and how to effectively network. This ties in directly with our discussion of mentors. The private sector is comprised of companies, companies are comprised of people, people interact by establishing relationships. Relationships were the only thing that worked for me in my transition. I focused on creating and building relationships and that eventually landed me in a career path that was a great fit for me. As service academy graduates, we are a bit spoiled in the sense that you essentially know everyone at your institution. If you don’t know them personally you know someone who does. Transitioning to the corporate world you should be attempting to create that reality for yourself again. You need to create a network where even if you don’t know someone, you know someone who does. If you are not utilizing LinkedIn as a tool to facilitate this kind of network building you are behind the curve. 

5. What is one of the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome while transitioning from Active Duty to the business world?

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, I would have to say that one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was other people’s ignorance and stereotypes. I moved back to Portland, Oregon which is not an area with a large military contingent. There were a lot of misperceptions about what a military guy had to offer. But that is the nature of the world I guess. We all have our preconceived notions and biases based on our experiences so when it comes to transitioning it is best to recognize that you will encounter the same things from other people. What makes that obstacle even more challenging is the humble nature of veterans. We come from a world where you don’t talk about yourself, and when you do it is uncomfortable. When you are trying to convince someone, who most likely has strong judgments on what you are all about, that you can add value to their organization it does not pay to be humble and uncomfortable when talking about yourself. Learning that lesson was a long and hard journey for me. What really helped was focusing on establishing relationships where I could speak with candor. When you focus on building relationships versus honing your ability to sell yourself the stereotypes are broken down naturally over time. That person then becomes your bridge to an opportunity, to another relationship, or they become a full blown advocate for what you are all about. Worst case scenario you have established a new positive relationship. You really can’t lose.

6. What piece of advice would you give to a young person thinking about starting their own non-profit?

I would give three pieces of advice for someone thinking about starting their own non-profit. Firstly, I would say that non-profit is not a dirty word. I never thought I would start a non-profit but my life journey led me to a place where I almost fell into creating my own non-profit. Non-profits have their own unique challenges and nuances but as a whole to be successful you must approach starting a non-profit as you would approach any other business endeavor. Don’t run away from the opportunity just because there aren’t opportunities for monetary spoils!

Which leads to my next piece of advice; your reward is knowledge. The reason I decided to start my own non-profit was to gather real world business leadership experience while I was still in the military. I had to navigate the challenging startup process and mobilize a motivated team to bring our concept to fruition. The rest of the world may not see the non monetary value that you will undoubtedly receive but who cares. If you are truly striving towards achieving your life goals then personal development is an enabler that must serve as a foundation for your efforts. My experience in less than four years of non-profit leadership will undoubtedly pay dividends for the rest of my life, not mention the fact it is extremely gratifying and fun.

Lastly, I would say that you cannot be your 501c3. Rhyming aside, I think a lot of people feel that they need to be consumed by a higher calling to get involved in a non-profit. They almost feel like if they aren’t dedicating a massive amount of time and effort to the cause they are faking it or something. I think nothing could be further from the truth. I was Active Duty when I started my charity and I work full time as a management consultant now. I don’t have the bandwidth to dedicate countless hours to my non-profit and still maintain an enjoyable family life. There is nothing wrong with that! I went into my non-profit journey with systems creation in mind. I wanted to create a system that was great, not an organization that “pumped my own tires” or showcased how great I (thought I) was to the world. I created a system that would raise money for charity with minimal effort. If we signed up four hockey teams to play in a tournament without any bells or whistles we would raise money. I then set to getting great people involved to take that system from one that makes money with minimal effort to a system that is something special. Our last tournament had 25 teams in 3 divisions, a beef and beer event hosted by hall of fame NHL’ers, a puck shoot to give away a car, and many other exciting features. All those extra features were more money and awareness for charity, a better tournament experience for participants, and they were all powered by great people and a calculated business system. If your non-profit is centered around you then you are in it for the wrong reasons and you won’t last. You will burn out! Create a system and mobilize a highly motivated and character group of people around the vision and you will be amazed where the endeavor takes you. 

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contributing to It is a cool concept and I hope it blossoms into a central hub for likeminded service academy business leaders. Please feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn

About Checking For Charity President Matt Bader

Matt is a 2006 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy where he majored in Business Management and was a four year letter winner and two year captain on the men's Div I ice hockey team. Matt served as a contracting officer in the United States Air Force with stints in New Jersey, Boston, and Iraq before separating as a Captain in September, 2011. Matt currently resides in Portland, OR and works as a management consultant for the Gunter Group. He currently works at Nike World Headquarters as a project manager in the Sustainable Business and Innovation division on a project that is seeking to revolutionize the Nike manufacturing base and the quality of life for it's contract labor force. Matt still actively serves as the President of the nonprofit he founded called Checking For Charity. He is focused on building the success the organization has achieved on the east coast while expanding operations to the west coast in 2012.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Power of Context

Context is defined as "the set of circumstances, or facts, that surround a particular event, situation, etc."
You can gain context by actively seeking it out to frame a situation or you can bolster your situational context through an osmosis like process of consuming seemingly unrelated bits of information and/or experiences. Planning is preparation before you are forced to prepare. Many people see the value in planning for known events and situations but relatively few people see the value in developing your situational context to prepare for unknown events and situations. I view situational context in a similar vain to planning and as I become older, and arguable wiser, I have taken a much more proactive approach in broadening my world view.
I remember my days at the Air Force Academy where I would skip presentations given by a wide variety of people on a wide variety of topics because I felt that their presentations had nothing to do with my reality at the time. My reality and their message weren't linearly related and given the demands of academics, athletics, military, and trying to maintain a personal life I chose to use my time in a different manner. In hindsight I should have taken in as many of the presentations as possible.
Ironically it was during my military career, and more specifically during my time in Iraq, that I learned context is everything. Problem solving in a deployed environment was challenging to say the least. It was that challenging environment that broadened my world view and caused me to place a premium on a maintaining a broad context. I believe that my deployed experience and complex, ambiguous problems in general have that effect on people because it is those situations that clearly demonstrate that most things are interrelated even if they are not linearly related.
The "butterfly effect" is a term that was derived from the concept that a butterfly across the world could flap it's wings and cause a hurricane on the other side of the world weeks later. The butterfly effect is really just an interesting way to describe chaos theory principals. It is used to illustrate that in a nonlinear system (aka life) the trajectory of any future action is dependent on the initial conditions. In other words, small differences at the beginning of a series of events can have large impacts and lead to big differences in the future state.
This is where I make the parallel to the power of context. Having a broader scope of knowledge and situational context will undoubtedly impact the way you make decisions. Those decisions could greatly change the outcome of a given situation. Operating in a stagnant contextual "vacuum" is not only impacting your ability to react to the unknown it is in essence denying the interrelatedness of life.
In my new position I attended a new session started called Insights for a Better World. It is essentially a presentation/discussion set to a normal cadence that is designed to shape and inspire our work. Going back to my AFA days I likely would have skipped it. There is plenty of work to be done on my current projects and in the short run it may even be a more valuable decision to use the hour elsewhere. The session was presentation on 'Citizen Influencers' and how systemic change in the new world is achieved not through traditional organizations but through groups of interconnected and influential individuals. Thinking linearly it could appear that the session doesn't really relate to my focus.  However, it was during that session that I was overcome by the power of context and how important it is in decision making, leadership, creativity, etc. The session helped to broaden my awareness of the world I am operating in and it just may influence me enough to significantly impact the success I have moving forward.  
Bottom Line: Context transcends a particular discipline and those who seek and soak in a broad situational context will undoubtedly have a competitive advantage across a range of endeavors moving forward as compared to those who don't.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sustainability & The Military: Parallels Between Two Worlds

Since my departure from the Air Force I have had to try and explain to family, friends, and acquaintances what exactly it is that I am doing now. When I explain that I took a role within a start up Portland-based consulting firm called The Gunter Group people can generally follow along. However, when I get into the details of the client and division I work in I often lose people. 

I was lucky enough to have Nike as my first client in the consulting arena. It is a company that I have an immense amount of respect for not only due to the fact they are a leader in the athletic apparel arena, but because that have been a shining star company that continually innovates over time. Of course there is a coolness factor that is associated with Nike, it's products, and it's marketing and at the risk of sounding cliche' that attitude transcends throughout the World Headquarters campus. But it is the innovation piece that I am more closely aligned with in my current role and that is the part of my Nike experience that I find most engaging. It has been a great experience and I really have enjoyed my time at Nike so far.

Not only was I lucky to get Nike as a client but I was also lucky to get on within a unique division of Nike. I work in the Sustainable Business & Innovation (SB&I) division of Nike which in in its simplest form is a bit like a 'green incubator' for Nike. SB&I seeks to innovate and integrate enterprise level sustainability solutions into the Nike business model while mobilizing key external stakeholders to make industry change.

The first question I usually get is, "what do you consult?" The answer is pretty straightforward in that I provide project management support within SB&I. In short, I help to get things done. Execution.

The second question I almost always get is, "what the hell do you know about sustainability?" To be quite honest, when I started I doubt I knew much more than the average college educated Gen Y-er does about sustainability. I had a basic understanding of the concepts surrounding sustainability that were mostly garnered through osmosis in a variety life experiences. That understanding wasn't very deep and it came accompanied with limited context. 

However, having been a part of the division for the better part of four months I may have sold myself short a bit regarding what I knew about sustainability. Although I wasn't formally educated in sustainability concepts and I most certainly had never served in a role within that context before, I came from a background that shares a surprisingly large number of parallels with the sustainability world.....the military. What do sustainability and the military environments have in common?

Systemic Challenges - One thing that I learned in the military is how to operate in challenging and ambiguous environments. Throughout my career and most notably while serving in Iraq, I encountered challenges that did not have a textbook answer. There was not a clear cut best solution...or a solution at all for that matter. There were too many unknowns, too many interests, too many interconnected subsets, and too little time to easily solve problems. In the military you are forced to confront challenges that are spread and interwoven throughout a complex system. In my relatively short stint in the sustainability realm I see the same type of systemic challenges represented. 

Execution - I have discussed on BadskiBlog before that execution is everything. I am, admittedly, probably more of an idea guy by nature. I am energized by strategic thinking and collaborative brainstorming. However, I crafted my ability to get things done in the military and that is something I will always be grateful for. Now I am, in essence, getting paid for my ability to get things done and to serve as a catalyst to help other people get things done. It is a challenge and I am constantly learning but it is exciting and fulfilling as well. A military force that can rapidly work it's way through the planning/decision cycle and execute will have a competitive advantage and will overcome resource constraints to defeat its enemies over time. My sense is that companies will benefit from a similar (albeit less combative) approach to sustainability. Taking sustainability from idea to execution faster that your competitors will become a critical competitive advantage over time.

Leading Change - As an officer in the Air Force I have sat through a few leadership presentations in my day. In fact, my undergrad experience at the Air Force Academy was almost entirely centered around character based leadership. In hindsight, a great number of those sessions drifted into discussions about leading change. The military isn't all about following orders as many like to think. And although as whole the military machine may be categorized as a bludgeoning bureaucracy of sorts, in smaller pockets the most successful units/organizations are all about leading and implementing change. SB&I is all about leading change and I imagine that is consistent throughout the sustainability space. There are a ton of methodologies for leading change (a book review on John Kotter's "The Heart of Change" coming soon) but like anything else academia can only get you so far. It is the organization that can consistently lead change that will prevail in their efforts to implement sustainability or any other initiative for that matter.

Below is a video of Nike's VP of Sustainable Business & Innovation, Hannah Jones, in which she not only provides an excellent overview of what SB&I is all about, but also some of the concepts I discussed above. Definitely do yourself a favor and watch the full video and enjoy Hannah's, very eloquent, discussion on the future of sustainability.

Check out the full video HERE, it is very interesting.