I’ve spent the last few weeks giving a number of speeches to audiences both large and small on subjects ranging from business strategy to civic engineering. This flurry of activity got started with a luncheon talk to about 80 people at the Rainier Club in Seattle where I discussed strategy, intrapreneurship, and civic engagement. This was followed by a formal speech to an audience of 800+ at the IPC Apex Expo in San Diego where I concentrated on business strategy and the 3P Framework we used to fix and then grow the Xbox business. I then spoke on back-to-back days at the Zino Society (an angel investing group) and the Seattle Foundation (a community foundation) which involved some combination of all of the above plus some thoughts on building organizations and growing a healthy culture. As much as I enjoyed all of these talks – and I really do appreciate the opportunity to share ideas, respond to questions, and learn in the process – my favorite audience was saved for the last in the series.
I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During a hectic four days, I did some interviewing, met with the tennis team (I played there back in the day), had dinner with honors students, taught my class on Public Policy Entrepreneurship, and presented as part of the Hillard Gold Lecture series. As I said in United We Stand, my time on the Hill was energizing and uplifting, and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on why this was so important to me.
- The University Asset: I was reminded why my time at UNC was so critical to my formation and how it shaped and changed the trajectory of my life. This is, in fact, a critical purpose for most schools of higher education, and UNC fulfills that purpose incredibly well…as does many other colleges and universities in the United States that play this essential role. While other nations certainly have some great education institutions, the American higher education system, taken collectively, is the envy of the world and an incredible asset that we must protect and leverage to improve our future.
- Hope and Opportunity: Amidst the angst and rubble that is our daily diet of bad news, spending time with people more than half my age brought real perspective. While many of these students have experienced life’s ups and downs, they are also so incredibly hopeful and optimistic – and filled with the right intentions to make our communities better places. It reminded me that while we should face the issues in front of us with honesty and respect, we also must have the naiveté required to know that we can make things better. Faith and hope are force multipliers and the fountain of youth has an abundance of both.
- A Time to Reflect: Even though I was constantly occupied with meetings and action items to complete, the entire visit enabled me to reflect on what I call my “Act II” in life – the pursuit of civic engineering as a way to have community impact. My conversations with students about this whole subject made me realize that I really do enjoy working in this area, and I need to free up more time to dedicate to it. It is ironic that being ultra-busy provided me with the insight to step back and create more time for an activity I love and to which I am deeply committed.
- Power of Sport: UNC is going through a particularly painful period as an academic scandal in one department that was exploited by athletes and non-athletes has given the university a black eye. My hour with the UNC Men’s Tennis Team reminded me that athletics is a powerful life metaphor (see The Sporting…Life), and sports brings out the best in those who participate. For sure, there will be some warts included, but these student-athletes brought back my intense pride in my time on the tennis court and my education at UNC.
- No Gain without Pain: When I left Microsoft, I promised myself that I would never get that absorbed in something again professionally because of the sacrifices it required. And I stand by that pledge. My deep immersion in the world of civic engineering did, however, remind me that community impact will not come for free. If we are going to fix our civic institutions and improve local outcomes, real effort, resources, and sacrifices will be required. Definitely important food for thought.
By their very nature and design, university and college campuses are a bit sheltered from the maelstrom that is the rest of our experience. This protective cover enables a certain type of learning and growth that is difficult to accomplish amidst our day-to-day activities. And that is as it should be. I strongly encourage you to re-engage with the school you attended or with a local college or university. Your time will be well spent supporting students and you will learn from it.
Washington, DC, by comparison, is also isolated from the realities of our society – except in this case, the separation acts as a distortion field rather than a protective shield. It is that distortion field that we must pierce if we hope to drive real change. Next week, I’ll explore a new way to think about our political engagement. Until then, I will revel in the ability of an old man to return to campus and enjoy the experience. Definitely one I recommend…