Reawakening the Dream (1995-2000)
I heard Olympic high jumper Dwight Stones speak some years ago. One thing he said stuck with me: "A vision is a dream with a deadline." Stones had always wanted to be in the Olympics. When he saw the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, he committed to make the 1972 team. Until then, he had done very little to pursue his dream. At age 14, with a deadline in mind, he got to work.
Things started to happen. He was just 18 when he represented the U.S. for the first time at the 1972 Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the high jump competition. Four years later, he won bronze again. Stones set his first world record in 1973 and went on to set two more world records during his career.
TAKE A MOMENT If a vision is a dream with a deadline, have you begun to put a deadline around your dreams? When will you begin work? When do you hope to arrive there?
Years earlier, at one of the first men's retreats I attended, the theme was, "What are you going to do with the rest of your life?" My friend and mentor Cecil Johnson led that retreat, and he posed a series of questions that forced me to envision the future and chart a path forward.
Cecil used a football analogy. He said, "Most of you are just approaching halftime. I'm already well into the second half. In the second half, you have to learn to play with pain, to endure and persist, because you won't have the energy of youth." He went on to challenge us with a series of questions to focus our thinking and penetrate the fog. "Halftime is a time to make adjustments," he said, "to reflect on what's working and what's not, to prepare for the second half."
TAKE A MOMENT What are the most important things you have learned about life as you look back on the first and second quarter?
Most of the participants were a few years older than me, and much more accomplished. One thing we shared in common was the feeling that Christ wanted something more from us. After struggling with the topic over the entire weekend, each of us had to report out a plan. We had to sort our values and decide what we were going to do about the gap between our stated values and how we were spending our time and money. I left that retreat with a powerful sense of clarity and some concrete plans.
In the early '90s, my mentor Charlotte Roberts challenged me to get serious about my long-nascent vision. Charlotte led our team through a course called Leadership and Personal Mastery. After some introspection and guidance from Charlotte, I came up with a list of 12 values and goals for the second half:
1. Love my family
2. Grow spiritually
3. Maintain my health
4. Be honest
5. Show empathy
6. Value lifelong learning
7. Be a teacher
8. Be a coach
9. Practice stewardship
10. Let go
11. Show humility
12. Listen, learn and lead
Some time later, after meditating on this list for a while, I realized I could sum up my aspirations for the second half of my life in two words: "wise leader."
To climb out of a rut, you have to have a compelling vision that will energize you to take the difficult steps to overcome the status quo in your life. Ever seen cow paths in a pasture? Cows will literally find the path of least resistance and follow it time and again until it is a rut.
Our lives often play out in a similar manner. We get started in a career, sometimes by accident. If we keep to the path, we become more valuable and our earnings grow. After a few years, we realize that our value is greater in this industry or field than in any other. To make a change means we often must reset our lifestyle, readjust to lower income. None of these things are choices we make for their own sake. We will make them, however, in service to a compelling vision of a desired future that is quite different from our current reality. In this way, we create a new path of least resistance, one that moves towards the fulfillment of our vision.
TAKE A MOMENT Are you currently in a rut? Can you see a path out? What obstacles hold you back? What would a more compelling future look like to you?
I began to revisit my vision, wondering what I would do if I left the company. During the hectic years when our kids were teenagers, the business was growing like crazy. 60-hour weeks were the norm. As I entered my 40's, I subconsciously pushed the "walk away" date back to age 50, primarily because I did not have a vision for my second career. As I began to think through possibilities, I came up with a design principle that has proved extremely valuable to me since then. I decided that in my second career, I would follow the energy, do more of what was energizing and less of what drained energy away. Trouble was, I didn't know exactly what fit that criteria.
So, for about a year I went through my days with an antenna up, sensing the energy flows. What I learned surprised me. I found that some of the things I was quite good at doing really drained energy away. Things like negotiating, problem-solving, analyzing financial statements, doing budgets--these were all things I was quite proud of my ability to do. Yet I found that they drained my energy. Likewise, I discovered most of my volunteer work at church fell into the same category. Serving on council, committees and task forces did nothing to energize.
I found the thing I was most energized by was the work I was doing with recent college graduates coming into our business. Although these people were several rungs below me in the organization, they were the future, and I began investing time in them. The work I did with these bright young men and women, helping them envision their future career path, was wonderfully energizing.
I also learned a powerful leadership lesson. The time I spent with the "high potential" people entering our business engendered tremendous loyalty. Once these young associates found out I was interested in their careers, their thoughts and dreams, they began to align themselves with the goals I articulated as important to the business. My commitment to them and their emerging visions brought about a deep engagement with the organization and its vision. It became a win-win scenario. The more they worked at helping us achieve the organizational vision, the more likely they were to see elements of their own vision coming true. This is the core of another of Senge's disciplines of the learning organization, shared vision. Shared vision is always rooted in personal vision, and I stumbled upon a way of connecting the two.
TAKE A MOMENT Think about the things in your life that are energizing and what drains your energy away. Are more of your pursuits life-giving or life-draining? What would it look like for you to follow the energy?
At the same time, I had developed a pretty good stage presence as a speaker. After pushing through the initial fear, I began to enjoy the opportunity to speak to a crowd. I had also gotten to know some consultants in both my church and work world. This was a gig I could enjoy. When you're selling tractors, you can only sell a piece of inventory once. But when your inventory is ideas, there is no carrying cost, and each time you repackage that idea for a different audience, you can sell it again. I found this incredibly compelling.
A picture began to emerge of a second career as a consultant, speaker, coach, teacher and mentor. As I began to articulate this vision and assess my current reality, I realized that I faced two glaring challenges. First, I had left college without a degree. Even though I had helped build a very successful business, I would need a degree to pursue consulting and teaching. Second, I grew up in Atlanta. When you get outside the South, people hear an accent like mine and whack your IQ by about 20 points. These two factors convinced me that I needed a credential to succeed in my second career.
I discovered that Georgia State University accepted a couple of people into their Executive MBA program each year who had significant experience, but no undergraduate degree. I conned the good folks at Georgia State into offering me a place and returned to school in fall of 1996, 25 years after I left. The EMBA is a two-year, team based program for executives working full time.
When you clarify your vision and look honestly at your current reality, a powerful tension will develop in the contrast. I found the energy in the gap between my vision and my current reality to take on this 35-hour-a-week commitment in addition to my work at the company, where I was responsible for two thirds of our revenues and employees. I found the discipline to get my job done between when I left the house at 7 a.m. and when I left work at 7 p.m. Classes met all day Friday one week, all day Saturday the next. All my remaining time was dedicated to reading, writing and study. We just about did away with a social life for two years to get this done. It turned into one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
TAKE A MOMENT Think back on a time when you felt truly energized and exhilarated. What were you doing?
When I began the program, we self-organized into five-person teams that would work together through the two-year lockstep curriculum. Many times, team projects made up the majority of a class grade, so it was crucial to build a good team. I had done a lot of work in committees and groups up to that point, but I had never been part of a true team. In fact, most of us haven't. You may have to reach far back into the past, perhaps to a sports team from your youth, to recall a true team experience.
Team is one of the most misused terms in the lexicon today. How many times have you seen a committee renamed a team, and nothing else changed? I have worked in group settings my whole adult life. Most of these groups operated somewhere between 40 and 90 percent of the potential of the individuals. Group work very rarely produces synergy. You've seen the old cartoon, "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." Rarely was the total greater than the sum of its parts. Often, it was less.
Teams, on the other hand, are about synergy. Look at the great sports teams. Everyone contributes based on their strengths. Everyone is clear about their role. Everyone pursues team goals above their own agenda. Expectations are clear. Norms of behavior are important. Measurable goals are set. It is a rare committee or task force that exhibits these traits.
In the group work I had done in the past, the ideas coming out of the group were rarely better than the ideas I brought into the room. With a team, you can never guarantee that your ideas will win the day. On each project during my EMBA, the result of our work as a team was significantly better than the ideas I brought into the room. The total always exceeded the sum of the parts. Synergy happened. Why was that? There were three key reasons.
1. We did the hard work of team building at the beginning of our time together. We assessed each of our individual strengths and weaknesses. We spent time developing good relationships. We clarified our roles and established boundaries and expectations. We created a written covenant with consequences for not meeting agreed expectations.
2. We replaced discussion with dialogue. When a group of diverse people with clashing ideas comes together, it often goes something like this: I beat you over the head with my ideas. While I'm talking, you're thinking about your rebuttal, not listening to me. As soon as I take a breath, you jump in and beat me over the head with your ideas. Rarely do we change each other's minds. Dialogue, on the other hand, is equal parts inquiry and advocacy. You're sharing your ideas, but you're also truly listening to the ideas of others.
3. We spent as much time on the relationships as we did on the work. Most groups are focused on the tasks to be done. Managing relationships is secondary at best. In an effective team, you do the work, and then you examine how you are working together. If a lumberjack spends all his time sawing wood and never stops to sharpen the saw, his productivity slows and slows. Caring for each other and developing trusting relationships is how we sharpen the saw in teams. Relationships create the environment where synergy can develop. We balanced the work we did with time to examine how we were working together. In our civil discourse, Americans seem to have lost the the ability to listen and understand each other when we don't share the same point of view.
TAKE A MOMENT How would collaborative, team-based leadership benefit your organization? How would you have to change to create and thrive in such an environment?
The people on my EMBA team came from opposite ends of the personality spectrum, and we had to reconcile gender and cultural differences. The development of trust and respect allowed us to hear very different opinions, overcome defensiveness, and learn from each other. Over time, our individual weaknesses became irrelevant because others on the team had strengths that compensated for them. This only happened because we had built strong relationships and created accountability.
Something that struck me in a catalytic way during the EMBA was the vital role trust plays in highly effective organizations. Every leadership and organizational theory we studied made a point of trust. I began to explore the nature of trust, and how to establish it within our company. This had never been a focus of our management. Our father, the way he blustered around the office, was more interested in being feared than trusted. While my brother and I had made a clear break from that style, moving all the way to trust had never really been a priority.
During my studies, we took a ten-day field trip Tokyo and Hong Kong to observe business in other cultures. We heard a human resources executive with Motorola explain their development process. It hinged on building trust and empowering employees. As he explained it, you must first trust yourself. If you cannot trust yourself, you can never trust another. As you begin to trust yourself, you build a foundation for trusting relationships by being trustworthy. You demonstrate that you are someone who can be trusted. The final step is to trust others. I would add one more step. I would say we must first trust God.
Trust is what my statistics professor would call a dependent variable. You cannot work directly on building trust; it is dependent on several other factors. For one thing, it takes a significant investment in building relationships. Jesus demonstrated this by spending the vast majority of his time with the few. Jesus entrusted his disciples with the most important task of all time, bringing the Gospel to the whole world. To prepare them for this assignment, Jesus invested his three years of public ministry with this core group of leaders. They lived together, ate together, slept together, learned together, cared for each other. So, leaders who want to trust and empower a core team must invest the majority of their time with this small group. It is the small group that will impact the others. Out of this shared time, trusting relationships can grow.
I say can, because it does not always happen. People are rightfully skeptical of leaders who claim to point the way. One of the key building blocks of trust is consistency. Is the leader's behavior consistent with his or her message? Are we walking the talk? Are we investing our time and money in the things we say are important to us? Any inconsistency here will invalidate our message.
Further, are we consistent in our trajectory? Wayne Gretzky said, "I try to skate where the puck is going, not where it is." He tried to anticipate the flow of the game and the moves of his teammates and arrive in the right place to strike. Over time, a good leader will set a consistent course that will allow others to anticipate the trajectory. Followers can then initiate action to prepare for where the leader is going.
You only need to try that once and see the leader zigzag off in a different direction to say, "I won't try that again." Inconsistency in the leader freezes the followers in their tracks. They don't want to take off in a direction only to find out the leader has changed his or her mind, and that the direction they took was wrong. This is called walking out on a limb and having it sawed off behind you. So, leaders who set a course and stick to it will be trusted much more than those who are constantly changing their minds.
The second key trait is competency. If you say you will do something, can people count on it getting done? I have seen key leaders in the church lose all credibility because they set an ambitious vision before the people and then can't get traction on getting it done. When people see this, the next time the leader proposes something, the response is, "Yeah, right. I'll believe it when I see it."
Another key to competency is who you bring onto your leadership team. If you are not quick to act when people on your team are not performing, those around you reach one of two conclusions. Either the leader is not aware of the shortcoming, or he or she is unwilling to confront poor performance. Either diagnosis points to incompetence.
These three elements--strong relationships, consistency, and competency--are the cornerstones of building trust as a leader.
TAKE A MOMENT What is the state of trust in your work organization? In your church? In your relationships? How do you strengthen trust in your circle? What is the cost of a lack of trust at work? Do you involve broad elements of leadership in visioning? If not, why?
Around the time I was going back to school, we brought Charlotte Roberts in to facilitate our third round of strategic planning at the company. Three years after our second round of visioning, we had accomplished our five-year goals. So, we began again. By this time, we were facing limits to our continued growth. We had nearly tripled the size of the business, made an acquisition, and started a new business. But our level of debt made us realize we had to scale back growth to what could be financed out of cash flow. By then, we were operating three distinct businesses under one roof: a heavy equipment business, a forklift business, and an equipment rental business. My brother and I invited our senior team and several mid-level managers to participate in the strategy conversation.
As we reviewed with Charlotte a strategy to create three separate business units so we could better measure the profits of each, she asked us a difficult question. After we described each business to her, she asked, "Why do you want to be in this business?" She rattled off a litany of challenges: high capital requirements, fragmented suppliers, overcapacity in certain sectors, mature businesses in which we weren't the leader, and significant debt.
The ensuing dialogue helped us clarify our priorities. We began to implement a plan to create three separate business entities in 1996. My brother and I, representing the ownership, told the management that we would measure progress in each unit, allocate future capital based on who was providing the best return, and in 1998, make decisions about which business we would continue to fund. Charlotte proved why it is so critical to have trusted friends who will ask you the tough questions you may not be asking yourself.
TAKE A MOMENT Who are the truth-tellers in your life? Who helps you see your blind side?
Charlotte took us through another exercise I had not experienced before, scenario planning. Once we decided on a strategy, she insisted that we also articulate two alternate scenarios. One scenario outlined what we would do if the economy significantly worsened. The other scenario looked at what we would do if conditions were significantly better than anticipated. This practice would prove invaluable.
Before the restructuring, I had sales and marketing responsibilities for the entire organization and operational responsibility for the rental and forklift divisions. The rental business was new and fun and growing like crazy. The forklift business was a new challenge, one I was interested in exploring. For two years we had been our forklift supplier's top dealer, but we weren't really making any money. I was happy with these responsibilities and hoped to end up leading the rental business as my role in the new organization. I had doubts whether the old core business, the equipment dealership, was sustainable. Six years after our father's death, we were still struggling to change its culture.
Equipping Others to Lead
My brother and our board had other ideas. They felt my experience and relationships were needed to run the heavy equipment business. I took that on at the end of the year, just as I was getting up to speed with my EMBA. By now, I was clear that I would exit the business at the first opportunity upon completing my masters.
I realized that I needed to make a move from being the leader to equipping and empowering others to lead. I had to learn to give away power, responsibility and authority. I made a conscious shift from being the "decider," the chief problem-solver and negotiator, to empowering others to deal with the challenges facing the business. I was becoming a leader of leaders.
I had serious concerns that the equipment distribution business was not sustainable. We were not the industry leader. With the growing rental trend, the market was eroding. Who wanted to buy anymore when it was cheaper and easier to rent?
So I launched an effort to sweep the cobwebs away and give the business a hope of surviving into the future. I brought in Bill Browning, a psychologist with a practice in organization design, to help facilitate restructuring. We shifted into a team-based structure, focusing on serving customers with less waste and fewer delays. It took a year, with significant costs for design and training, but the emerging structure was revolutionary for the industry, and processes worked significantly better.
I also made a conscious effort to demonstrate more trust in my senior team. I noticed that over time, each team member stepped up his or her contribution to the team significantly. I was empowering and delegating, and they were growing and learning. We were making good progress.
After a couple of years, a member of the senior team left, and the rest of the team came to me with a plan. They suggested eliminating his position, taking on more responsibility themselves, and using the savings to hire people directly serving customers. My team was taking the initiative. I had them put together budgets and projections and let them present to my brother for final approval.
The first meeting did not go well. My brother questioned their assumptions and shot holes in the numbers. After the meeting, I gathered my disheartened team for a pep talk. I pointed out that Travis hadn't said no, he just wanted better answers to his questions. "Do the work to answer these questions, and we'll take the plan back to him," I promised. Two weeks later, my brother approved the revised plans. We implemented them, everyone stepped up, and the plans worked very well. I knew I was making progress building trust and team.
Whenever I went out of town, I'd check in with the office each day to see if I was needed. Over time, I'd call in and ask if anyone needed me, and was a little put off when the answer was no. It wasn't easy to give up being the hub of the wheel, the center of attention, but I kept reminding myself that it was a good thing.
TAKE A MOMENT In what ways have you equipped and empowered others for success? What form of this work might you find most satisfying and fulfilling?
I finished the EMBA in June of 1998 and reengaged at work. I had a difficult time keeping my head in the game, because I was ready to move on to the next stage, my second career. By that time, public companies with Wall Street funding had begun to consolidate the equipment rental business. They started to roll up mom-and-pop rental stores into national chains. United Rental, the 800-pound gorilla in this emerging market, first came calling in 1998, but we didn't seriously consider selling until 1999.
We had borrowed $50 million by that point, and were getting leveraged beyond acceptable ranges for our industry. My courses in finance and accounting had made me understand one key point--leverage multiplies the risk to the shareholder. Everyone else gets paid before the owners. By borrowing heavily, we grew the business and doubled the return on equity. I'd been spoiled by seeing 20 percent-plus returns on my 401K and thinking, "Geez, I'm spending 60 hours a week on the business, and it's not returning nearly as much as the stock market."
My finance professor said, "Even a monkey can get market returns, just invest in an index fund. If you are going to manage investments yourself, be sure you can beat the monkey." So we ramped up risk as we ramped up growth, and all of a sudden something dawned on me. I worried that we were at risk of losing everything if we hit a recession. We had gone from $20M to nearly $100M since our father died in 1990. Construction stops when the economy craters, as we learned in the financial crash of 2008. Everything but our homes was tied up in the business. It began to feel like we were running down a slope with a snowball rolling right behind us, getting bigger by the moment. If we slowed down, we would get run over. I convinced my family it was time to take some chips off the table.
As we scrutinized the three business units, we could see where the profits were. The forklift business wasn't making money, so our first move was to find a buyer for that business. We took a haircut on the assets and sold to another dealer. That left us with the equipment business and the rental business. When United came back a second time, they were willing to make an offer for the whole thing. Their primary interest was the rental business, but they were willing to buy it all.
We received a letter of intent along with an offer in June of 1999. Before leaving for Colorado to close on a mountain home, I urged my brother to take the deal. But being the first-born son, Travis still felt some obligation to our long-dead father to keep the core business Dad had created. He was also concerned about the impact of the wrenching change that would come under new ownership. Instead of accepting, he restructured the deal to sell just the rental business and to recapitalize and keep the core distribution business. The family agreed and reinvested to let him keep it. We also accepted United's offer of $5 million in subordinated debt to help float the distribution business. It was a decision we would soon regret.
We closed the sale of the rental business in December, 1999. I unwound my involvement and exited the following June. although I was 48 instead of 45 when I walked away, I had achieved my long-held vision. It's an amazing feeling when a plan comes together. I was at the dawn of a new era in my life, one not consumed by the responsibilities of business and kids. I was entering the decompression period of my life.
TAKE A MOMENT The path of least resistance is always to continue on the path you are on. Is that God's intention for your life? Have you spent time listening for God's plan for an abundant life? How can you take control of the rudder in your life and chart a course into the future?
I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.