Capstone Project is More than Academic Exercise

August 26th, 2013

A grad school capstone project is an academic tour de force, impressive to department faculty but often short on real-world impact. So along with the 100-page paper, we decided to feed children by helping the Boys and Girls Club of Central Iowa expand its food program. Hats off to my cohort, five very talented communication professionals working here in Des Moines. After six years, it’s nice to be done with my Master’s, but I miss the intellectual challenge and camaraderie.

Here’s a link to a story about our final project together.

To Lead or Not to Lead?

October 25th, 2011

We’ve all heard the well-worn cliché that “it’s lonely at the top.” And as Stephen Denning illustrates so well throughout The Secret Language of Leadership, leadership can be quite detrimental to the leader. As he points out, people don’t like change and will often take out their frustration on the agent of that change. He also points out that true leaders take on a great deal of risk for what they believe in, often gambling away the perks and security of a safe, traditional, “do-it-like-we’ve-always-done-it” approach. The stress involved can, and often does, take a toll on the physical and mental well-being of the leader. This all becomes greatly magnified when spouse and family are involved in a leader’s choice to buck the system and take an all-or-nothing stand for what he or she believes is possible.

So it is with particular interest that I noted Denning’s advice that people must make this decision consciously, “fully aware of the implications of the decision they are making.” You must ask yourself, “Am I ready for the challenges of leadership? Am I ready to commit to the worthwhile goal?”

I think the reality in my experience, however, is that most people take on leadership roles without fully considering or even caring much about the risk. Since storytelling is also a big part of Denning’s advice to leaders, I’ll do the same. My father made a rather dramatic mid-career change from lab technician at a major corporation to small-town police officer. He loved his new job, and quickly rose through the ranks to become a shift sergeant, a position that required a great deal of leadership skill and dedication. We all shared in dad’s excitement and pride in this achievement, but within a year he decided leadership just wasn’t for him despite his passion for police work, and so he returned to patrol.

To this day I remember how disappointed I was as a 12-year-old watching my hero at the kitchen counter, carefully cutting off the threads that held his sergeant stripes to his uniform shirts. I asked him then why he took the demotion, wondering if perhaps he couldn’t cut it or if he did something wrong. Recognizing my somewhat fragile mental state, my dad – normally rather gruff when it comes to heart-to-heart conversations – gently assured me that the chief of police thought he had done a great job as sergeant, that it was his decision to step down, and that he simply decided he didn’t like how he had to change to become a leader. He went on to serve as a patrolman and detective for 25 years, winning great respect and admiration from the community he served.

I think my dad’s situation and the decision he made regarding leadership are not uncommon. From early in life, we are taught to aspire to leadership in hundreds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways whether at school, on the field, or as part of numerous social organizations like the Boy Scouts or 4-H. Not surprisingly, I think people equate success in life with attaining positions of leadership. And in fact, already at 12, I saw my dad’s decision to reject leadership as some type of failure. But later in life, I came to appreciate and respect his decision and have thought of his example often when challenged to lead.

In my case, I approach this question in two parts: 1) Was I ready to lead in the past, and 2) Am I ready to lead in the future? In all honesty, my answer to the first question is “sometimes more than others.” As I have reported before, I left the ad agency I had worked at for 10 years to start Welland Laike thinking I had all the leadership skills necessary to be a success. Seventeen years later, I’m still in business, I still work with some fantastic people, I’ve greatly enjoy the variety and flexibility that go with owning a business, I’ve grown professionally, and I’ve had fun! On the other hand, I think my lack of preparation and limitations as a leader have greatly limited my ability to grow the company beyond the small shop that it is to the larger, dynamic agency I always thought it should become. Many times over the years I’ve thought, “maybe this is the best I can do.”

Then another leadership opportunity came knocking several years ago when a long-time client, a $500-million correspondent bank, asked me to lead a major rebranding effort. It was clear from the outset that the job would require me to successfully direct the technical aspects of the project, while winning first the support of the management team and eventually the hearts and minds of the employees. I accepted the challenge because I had worked with the marketing and executive team at the bank for almost 20 years, I was very familiar with the bank’s culture (the audience’s story per Denning), and I was well trained in the fundamentals of branding. After two years of research and development, we launched the new brand internally getting the attention, eliciting desire for a different future, and reinforcing with reason the fundamentals driving the new brand and positioning strategy. In fact, our narrative was actually built on the story of the famed explorers, Lewis and Clarke! In this case, I believe I was ready for leadership.

Despite the ups and downs of these two examples, I believe I am more ready for future leadership opportunities now than I ever have been in the past. I certainly owe part of that realization to the training I’ve received through both the Drake and University of St. Thomas graduate programs. But I think more important, I learned from my dad long ago and through my experiences over the years that leadership in and of itself is not my ultimate goal or the true measure of a life worth living. Instead, leadership should be approached very carefully and undertaken only as it fits into the ebb and flow of life. And perhaps, like the perfect storm, a leadership opportunity awaits that will truly inspire me, and the people important to me, to do even greater things.

The Tools of Leadership

October 13th, 2011

1) The Power of Stories
As a youth baseball, basketball and football coach, I learned early on that kids would learn much faster and better retain various lessons if I could connect them to a memorable word, simple (but catchy) phrase, or a story. No one ever forgot the “butt play,” for example, because it was particularly funny to my 12-year-old little leaguers and it aptly described what the base runner in this case was supposed to do: fall down on his/ her butt on the way to second base. Stories and anecdotes are the glue that make ideas stick.

2) Call to Action
This one should have been self-evident to me as all advertisers are taught to include a call to action in their advertising. Otherwise you can spend a lot of money getting someone’s attention only to drop the ball by not giving them some way to respond. And this is applicable in every aspect of business and life; I frequently conclude meetings by discussing “next steps.”

3) Overcoming Fears
It isn’t the act of doing something that’s truly terrifying, it’s all the time spent thinking about doing it. I worry and fret about upcoming events and challenges only to find out how exhilarating, enjoyable and productive the experience is once the fateful moment arrives. There’s no use procrastinating because of these fears. Just get down to business, improve performance and become a better leader. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s critical to open up to experiences and opportunities you might be missing because of these fears. More on this thought later…

You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader

October 4th, 2011

Early on, a wise mentor of mine in the advertising business pulled me aside before an important meeting with a new client and suggested that I focus on the executive officially in charge while he looked for the person at the table who was really in charge. His comments seemed odd to me at the time, being a wet-behind-the-ears account executive, but many times since I’ve reflected back on this sage advice. Titles mean nothing in achieving or holding onto leadership. Learning this lesson has saved me a lot of frustration over the years at the very least, and in many cases, was the key difference between project/account success or failure.

By his choice of assignments, my mentor also knew that I hadn’t been around long enough to recognize true leadership. Nevertheless, I learned many of the fundamentals by observation and experience. Those I revere as leaders today exhibit all the key characteristics of leadership, titled or untitled: an unshakeable and passionate belief in their vision and mission, an uncanny ability to persuade and inspire others to share that vision, great skill in nurturing and motivating teams that achieve stretch goals, and unfailing positivity and respect for everyone they come in contact with along the way.

The bottom line: recognizing true leaders in any organization regardless of title connects you with those who have real influence and can get it done. The next step after recognizing these special people, for me at least was to learn how to become one of those leaders.

Leadership skills can be learned or enhanced in anyone willing to think, act and care like a leader. Before I did any formal study on leadership, I always assumed you were either born with leadership skills or you were out of luck. And while I believe there are inborn traits that predispose some people to become true leaders, I was (and still am) surprised and delighted to learn that leadership skills can actually be learned.

Conversely, those leaders that I know well who have never done any formal leadership training, practice all the highest principles of leadership without knowing they do so. Both observations give me great inspiration to study leadership and genuinely attempt to further develop these skills in my business relationships, community activities and personal life.

Interest and Enthusiasm in the Unknown

July 21st, 2011

Hello all,

It’s mid-July and I’ve been with Welland Laike for two months. Thankfully, the productivity I wrote about in my first post continues unabated—I don’t think I’ve ever written so many words in a two month time span. (Nothing helps spur productivity like a debilitating heat wave. It doesn’t leave one with many other options!)

Now, I’ve always had a very specific definition on what makes something, anything, a quality item. Whether it’s a documentary, a book, or in my case, a writing assignment, the mark of something good is the creation of an interest or curiosity in a subject where previously there wasn’t one. For me, that’s happened in spades with my work at Welland Laike. If you had asked me before I started how I felt about tort reform, I would have given you a blank stare and shrugged my shoulders. Now I have a strong opinion, and a well-researched case to back it up. Believing in what you’re writing is a necessity.

But it doesn’t just end there. The whole world of the civil justice system opened up to me and intrigued me in a way I never imagined when I started two months ago. Sometimes, “you learn something new every day” transcends cliché and has real meaning.

Lucas McMillan,
The (not-so-new) intern