Foundational Stories That Have Shaped or Revealed Who We Have Become
Here is another excerpt from The Shift from Me to Team, which will be published this year. This post continues the discussion about the importance of foundational stories in forming our identity. What are your foundational life stories that have shaped or revealed who you are?
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What Are You Passionate About?
I have always had a fascination for why things work the way they do. As a kid, I would take apart bicycles and just about anything else I could disassemble. Then I would put it back together again, with a better understanding of why it worked, or perhaps how I could make it work better.
This fascination led me to a degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan. I would also play football as a walk-on on Bump Elliott’s last Wolverine team, then three years for Bo Schembechler. At the time, collegiate head football coaches were the most impressive leaders I had ever met. Their passion for caring for you, their high standards for everyone around them, and how they seemingly always knew the right thing to do and say under pressure was inspiring. These men started me on my study of exceptional leaders who made everyone around them better.
After a short stint playing football for the New York Giants and Calgary Stampeders, I took on my first engineering consulting job with BF Goodrich in Akron, Ohio; I traveled North America fixing plant problems. I left that job after realizing I was challenged with improving plant operations—through tens of millions of dollars of expenditures—yet none of the changes or the dollars addressed the real problem. One night at 3:00 a.m., I went to observe the third shift plant operations. I found the “maxed to capacity” equipment idle. I went to the union steward and asked why the plant was not running. He said, “Today is Thursday. Come back tomorrow and see what we do.” I had no idea what that meant, but I did know that the central issue was not more machines, better layout, or better material—it was people. Our leadership thought success was determined by investment in equipment and processes. The reality is that an investment in the energy level and motivation of the workforce will help meet production demands, more than any investment in equipment. People have an intrinsic energy in them, ready and available to be tapped. Human potential may be the most underutilized asset organizations possess. And tapping into it costs nothing.
This lack of understanding that success is about people led me to find another job. My wife, Lynn, son Sean, and I moved to Connecticut. I went to work for Arthur Young & Co. By taking this job, I had accomplished the dream of working in a prestigious corporate consulting firm in New York City. Our office handled Fortune 50 companies. Daily, I was rubbing elbows with people who had a tangible and significant impact on the business world.
At one point, we had two young children at home in Connecticut, an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, for client work, and I was studying for my MBA at night school. I enjoyed the work with clients, and I enjoyed coming home on weekends, but something was missing. Life did not feel right. Lynn felt it too, sharing, “Something is going to change!”
Soon after, I had dinner with my managing partner. I was in my late twenties. He was in his mid-forties, sharp, and well educated. He had worked hard to get to where he was. Now, he drove a beautiful car and had homes in Florida, Connecticut, and Vermont. He seemed to have everything I was working to achieve.
As we waited for our food to arrive, I noticed tears streaming down his face. I asked him what was wrong. He said, “Today’s my son’s sixteenth birthday, and I don’t even know him.”
I realized I was looking into my future. I connected with his feelings and found the same surfacing in me. Is this what I want for my life?
That Friday, I returned home and saw an 8×10 New York Giants headshot taped to the refrigerator. I asked Lynn about it, and she says she put it there so that our children wouldn’t forget what their father looked like.
Six months later, life hit us with a sledgehammer. I was commuting two hours each way consulting with Knickerbocker Toy Company in New Jersey. I got a call from a next-door neighbor. She was crying and telling me I had to come home. Our two-year-old son Sean was comatose with complications from the flu. He had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
I spent five days with Sean in the hospital. I decided I had to make a change. From that day forward, I was going to prioritize my family. I was going to be there for my wife and my kids.
The word got out, and I received a call from University of Michigan Football coach Bo Schembechler. He said college football was turning into a business. “I need you to run the business so I can have a whistle around my neck!” I joined Michigan Football as the recruiting coordinator; I also oversaw all off-the-field operations such as recruiting and camps, clinics, and travel. Thus began my journey to understanding team success. It also marked a new chapter with my family—Lynn was able to file the headshot because I was there for them in person.
What are your foundational life stories that have shaped or revealed who you are?