In Satya Nadella’s recent book, Hit Refresh, the Microsoft CEO writes at length about his vision for the company, and positions it as a place where individual employees’ passion and desire to improve their world serves to drive and motivate their work. He convincingly makes the point that when people believe their work makes a difference—and that difference is married to their own individual cares—they not only do better work, but it means more to them.
This second post in my take on our “How I Work” series is written very much in that spirit. As if to prove Satya’s point, my personal and professional influences are very much the same. Sure, I could take a shortcut. I could link to a bunch of TED talks, cite a few passages from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman, and spin a story or two about how, when and why I figured out that consulting is in my blood.
Thing is, I’ve never been a guy for shortcuts.
I grew up in a hard-working, blue-collar town with hard-working, blue-collar parents. From my days as a prep wrestler who would show up at 6AM every school day to crush the weights before hitting the books, I understood that nothing worth doing came easily. The effort and the grind of getting stronger was at least as enjoyable as the exultation of hitting a goal. That ethic has been the common thread in every success I’ve had since; no surprises, then, that I’m not taking a shortcut now.
Which is too bad, really. Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman are pretty darn good. But maybe—just maybe—we need to pull back the curtain a bit and go deeper. Your friendly neighborhood digital strategists are about more than just our new gadgets, techie trends and strange vocabularies.
The Written Word
If we’re going to talk about influences, let’s start with books. You can tell a lot about a person from their reading list and I’m no different. What I read influences how I work in many ways.
Let’s begin with the obvious books, the direct connections. Over the years I’ve been referred to many a book about management consulting, software development and estimation techniques, philosophies of leadership and the like—but I very rarely follow up on these anymore. The simple truth is that I find most business writing dry and uncompelling. Instead, I read other books that directly influence my work: Biographies.
Let’s be clear: I’m a firm believer that first-hand experience is the single most powerful way to learn. If I don’t live something myself, I want to hear about it from someone who has. It’s probably this—and my fondness for storytelling—that drives my interest in (auto)biographies and their close cousin, the first-person memoir.
Some of the bios I read have a direct and obvious impact on how I approach my job: the lives and thoughts of Steve Jobs and Mr. Nadella have a clear application in what I do every day. But some of these books have a less evident connection, on the surface at least. The likes of Robert Kennedy, Paul McCartney, Vince Lombardi, Jim Henson, and E. Gary Gygax have absolutely nothing to do with technology strategy and digital transformation.
Or do they?
Only a fool could miss the leadership lessons in any book about Vince Lombardi. The creativity and endless reinvention of artists like McCartney and Jim Henson reminds me regularly that change isn’t just a component of growth, it’s essential. Explaining the number of ways Robert Kennedy inspires me would require a book in itself, and Gary Gygax? That man was equal parts entrepreneur, visionary, and eternal kid. What’s not to like?
Nobody should stop reading at biographies, though. I’m also a big fan of long-form journalism.
Growing up in my industrial town, I was acutely aware of Rust Belt issues like the class divide, the decline of manufacturing, and the diaspora of young talent to warmer climes and the Coasts. Our factories were closing, our city was visibly falling apart, and it scared me. When I was young, that meant finding inspiration in the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald—whose Midwestern heroes grew up, got educated, applied some polish and waded in to do emotional battle with the truly wealthy.
As an adult, it means I’m drawn to real-life stories about places where post-industrial reinvention isn’t just a matter of fiction, but a life-and-death struggle. Books like Glass House by Brian Alexander and The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt by David Giffels. These are the stories that inspire me and the reasons that given a choice, I’ll always elect to work with clients in Upper Midwestern states who want to reinvest in their communities. This is what I come from, and I care about these places more than I can easily explain in words. If you work in a place like that and you need a technology strategist, contact Rightpoint. I’m your guy.
Finally, I also read for fun. I read less about sports than I used to, but good prep and college football stories always pull me in. I’m still a sucker for Gandalf and Frodo on occasion, and as a Britpop aficionado from my college days I enjoy what’s left of the UK music press. Of course, in this digital world, what I read is more than just books, but things I see in my social feeds don’t inspire my why so much as they inform my day-to-day how, and we covered that last week.
Family, Friends and Connections Inspire Us…
I’ve said twice now how much I value first-hand stories and experiences. It should follow, then, how much I value the input, feedback and quiet inspiration of the people around me.
Unsurprisingly (I hope!), my wife and five children are what keep me going. I work harder—not to mention smarter—and do what I do to provide them with their own opportunities in life. (Lest that sound slanted, let me assure you that my wife would say the exact same thing about working hard to give me the chance to do whatever it is that I want to do.) Every parent wants their children to inherit a better world. At the very least I can equip my kids to improve the one that they live in.
Speaking of parents, mine have meant the world to me. The All-American story of the hard-working, impeccably honest dad who expects a lot, delivers everything he can, goes off to the factory from sunrise to sunset to provide a future not just with what he earns but the example he sets? Maybe it’s fading postwar iconography to some, but I actually grew up with a father like that. My mom was no different, working nights to make ends meet and still finding time to be there when we needed her. If I’m not outworking my competition, I think I’m doing something wrong. That’s all Mom and Dad.
Outside the inner circle of family, I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend many amazing people. Sure, there are plenty of innovative tech people and connections I’ve made in this industry. There’s also talented musicians, driven businesspeople, thoughtful doctors, coaches and teachers. There’s something I can learn—in many cases, have learned—from all of them. Mentors, but friends and peers as well. Never underestimate the power of first-person inspiration.
…And Experiences Drive Us
Bringing this full-circle, then, if I worked at Microsoft and Mr. Nadella dropped by my office to ask me what I was passionate about, what would I tell that august gentleman?
There are many ways I could answer that question. I’m a father, a former educator, a coach, a Catholic and a technology strategist (though not in that order)—and how I invest my personal time tends to reflect those things. How do I tie those interests together with my job here at Rightpoint?
Firstly, I care about my kids—and other kids in our community. I work with them in their schools and our church when I can, and as a football coach too. Our grade school feeds up to a local, STEM-focused private high school, St. Thomas More—where I donate my time on the board’s technology advisory committee. In that role, I work to provide a voice for digital transformation, ideally helping that institution continue to differentiate itself through innovative uses of technology in and across the curriculum, as well as in marketing and support functions.
It’s a start, but I am always looking for a board, an opportunity, a chance to more closely connect my expertise and professional network with the things I care about. If Mr. Nadella’s efforts at Microsoft have proven anything, it’s that you can make this happen. Not surprisingly, I see a lot of similarities in what Rightpoint is and what Microsoft is becoming.
The same themes that run throughout Hit Refresh are infused in the conversation and execution of our co-CEO’s, and that’s an important dichotomy. When you have a good idea at Rightpoint, you have the support to make it work if you have the discipline to drive it forward. That’s why I think being a Cloud Strategist here will ultimately help me do good things for my kids and our own community.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I do what I do. Next time, we’ll close the loop with a look at the equipment I use to do it. Hint: I’m really grateful for apps that run and sync across multiple devices.