Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Chance to Inspire

I recently concluded a month-long sabbatical which allowed me to completely disconnect from the day-to-day grind of work. This precious time away, which was five years in the making, also provided a rare opportunity to slow down, take stock in what I truly value, and reacquaint myself with the good people in my life that have helped shape who I am today. There is no doubt about it, and I would be the first to admit, that I am truly fortunate in the places that I get to visit and the people, culture, and customs that I am able to observe and learn about. But this sabbatical was not about traipsing off to some distant foreign land, but rather it was about the act of coming home and reaffirming the roots that are so important to me and from which I take great pride and inspiration.

Over the years, I've certainly benefited from the many teachers, classmates, coaches, teammates, colleagues, and friends that I have rubbed shoulders with and who have pushed and inspired me. Yet I often wonder about the younger generation back in my home country. Who is inspiring them, who is moving the bar higher, who is opening their eyes to the broader world which we all now share and are directly tied to more than ever before? I seriously worry about the capacity and capability of my country to maintain and grow the prosperity that has been so dutifully cobbled together by the hard work, industriousness, creativity, and tenacity of America's earlier generations. I am not necessarily picking on today's young Americans but rather I am directly targeting the specific conditions that erode any nation's aspirations for greatness, which are Complacency, Entitlement, & Self Absorption.

When did "good enough" ever stir the passions of an organization, an industry, or a nation? The answer is never. Market forces reward the innovator and value creator and in turn punish the bloated and conceited. You can debate the appropriateness of the financial bail-out for two of America's most storied auto companies, but how many wake-up calls does a person, an organization, or an industry deserve in order to get the message? These companies have been here before in the early 80s when Japan was kicking their Detroit posteriors. What was learned from that experience? Fast forward 20 years later and they continue to crank out cars that neither inspire us to dream nor meet or exceed the new benchmarks established by the competition.

When did it become a Right for your kids to live better than you did? The answer is never. Improvements, progress, and prosperity are earned; not paid for on financial lay-away plans or horrific IOUs. We do nothing positive by placating to our kids' never-ending Want List. Our children are reflections of what they themselves see around them, and right now they see their parents and their country strapped with debt in an attempt to provide the American Dream for every man, woman, and child. The point is that the American Dream has never been about amassing "things" or providing a certain level of living standard. Instead, it has always been about taking bold chances and maximizing the unique opportunities that exist here to fulfill aspirations that are backed up by hard work, creativity, and innovativeness.

Self Absorption:
When did entertainment move from providing amusement to now becoming the lynch pin in our social fabric? Americans today find themselves in a fast-paced attention deficit creating environment where the night's Reality TV programing schedule, or celebrity worship, or the views of bickering and polarizing politicians have cannibalized and decayed our psyche into thinking that these are the things that matter.

I've painted above some real scary things that I have observed happening to my country while sitting half way around the world. I've also born witness to the speed at which other nations are racing to not just catch up with the US but also to surpass it. For a long time, I've wanted to sound the alert and voice these concerns to a group of American young people who are, in my belief, the best positioned to accept the challenge and respond positively. On my sabbatical, I finally got that chance.

My childhood friend, Stuart Foster, is a high school teacher. Stuart, or Stu as I have always called him, has teaching in his blood. His mother is a teacher as is his sister. Stu wasn't always an educator, as he started out professionally as a financial analyst but gave it all up to become a teacher. He takes it seriously and thank goodness he does. It is probably the most important job that any of us could have. Upon hearing that I would be back home in Oregon for the entire month, Stu reached out to me and asked if I would like to come into his Intro to Marketing class at Woodburn High School, to address the kids on core marketing concepts and strategies but more importantly to give them both global insight and perspective as well as to encourage and enlighten them on what can be achieved when you establish strong goals and lock in on ways to accomplish them.

I was really excited for this opportunity and like any good marketing guy, I assembled a presentation to help clearly illustrate my points that I wanted to leave with the class. This was no easy crowd by the way and I had a miserable time slot. I spoke to Stu's class during first period and on a Monday no less. It was early and the kids strolled into class yawning and were visibly tired. I had my work cut out for me.

My first step was to try and develop a degree of commonality with the class. They didn't know me and I didn't know them. The composition of the class was made up of 90% Latinos, 8% Russians, and 2% Anglos, which to me was quintessential America, a land that draws its heritage and success from its ethnic diversity. All these kids were Oregonians in my book and so was I. I went to high school myself less than 20 miles down the road from where we were standing, so I wanted to show them that a kid from Oregon can make it out in the world and so could they.

I took them on a not-so-short journey that had taken me from a high school student in West Linn, Oregon, to a college graduate at Oregon State University, to studying business at the feet of one of our greatest management minds, Peter Drucker, to joining the tech industry at one of the world's fastest growing PC companies, to working for the world's largest microprocessor company on three different continents (North America, Europe, and now Asia). The lesson was simple. I had a goal in mind and each individual step brought me closer and closer to meeting my objective. It wasn't so much about the stamps in my passport, which don't get me wrong have been some of the most rewarding experiences in my life, but it has more so been about the choices we are presented and more importantly the choices we create for ourselves that make the difference along the pathway that will guide us.

I then transitioned to an activity that required the class to be broken up into groups. Each group was given a different target customer profile and was asked to create a marketing program that would be tailored for that specific audience. Each team prepared their ideas and then reported out to the class. There were some real creative ideas which gave me hope and affirmed that these kids had the potential that I was looking for. I then showed them a short video that demonstrated how this activity played out in real life so that they could see how classroom theory really does have applicability in the real world.

As I moved to the last area of my discussion, I wanted to shock the class into the cold yet honest reality that I see from my vantage point living overseas. Nothing is guaranteed or certain. Dominant economies are based upon knowledge not commodities and this knowledge can now be sourced virtually from anywhere in the world. So the question was... Are You Ready?

I gazed into the eyes of this group of students before me. They were not much different than me when I was 18 years old. I want each and every one of them to succeed in career and in life. What I left them with were things I thought they could start doing right now to help set themselves up for success no matter what obstacles may get tossed in their way. Earning their college degree is going to have to be essential but from there, they have the opportunity to develop a sense of life-long learning which I think is so critical. I also wanted to compel them to become more globally aware. The US often times become insular and inward focused and I believe these kids can do a much better job of learning and reaching out with all the technology that is available today and get engaged with what life is like elsewhere. Lastly, I wanted the kids to develop a true sense of accountability and throw off the victimistic attitudes that so often plagues and demoralizes young minds. If you don't like your situation, then change it. Don't blame others for your circumstance but rise up and take positive actions to break out and change things for the better. In this vain, I once again referred back to my graduate business school professor Peter Drucker for his sage advice. Peter famously said,
"The best way to predict the future... is to create it!"
In the days that followed my presentation to the class, I received thoughtful emails of thanks from many of the students. I'm pretty sure Stu had asked them to write the notes, but I could tell from the varied responses that he didn't tell them what to write.

"I just wanted to thank you for taking time off from your busy and exciting life to enlighten a class of high school seniors about the in depth world of marketing. I appreciated that you didn't just talk about sticking to the confines of the U.S., you talked about how marketing ( in order to be successful) needs to expand throughout the world."
"I'm very interested in how you managed to travel the world, and get paid for it."
"Thank you for coming to our class yesterday and sharing your life story with us. Your experience helped influence me for my future in computer engineering, and opened my eyes to the world around me."
"Knowing that you were able to achieve your dream of working in Asia makes me think that if i work hard i can achieve my dreams as well."
"i just wanted to thank you for coming in yesterday and sharing your journey to success with us. it made me enthusiastic about my goals and also taught me to be patient as well. i will take your advise and look into how your game plan played out."
"i want to thank you for your speech yesterday. it was very informative and interesting. and it was waaaaaaaay better than doing class work. ha-ha!"
Having this opportunity to reach out and work with some young American students was one of the most rewarding experiences during my sabbatical. I feel like the kids really took to heart what I was trying to say. Even though the emails were nice, and at times made me break out with a grin, if just one of these kids takes a big leap and changes their situation for the better, than it will have been worth it.

I'll finish by leaving off with the closing slide that I gave to the students. I hope these kids will become strong, globally aware and compassionate, innovative, and ambitious leaders in whatever they set out to achieve. I've got renewed faith that if they do, America just may have deposited a few more coins into that piggy bank of continued growth and prosperity.