north of neutral dialog

September 25, 2012

by anne lueneburger

Eric D. Dawson, President and Co-founder, Peace First 

Boston, MA

As Eric comes up to meet me at Columbia University for our interview, I am stunned by how young he looks. He easily blends in with the rest of the graduate student population and his grin has a boyish quality to it as he notices the cowboy boots I am wearing that day: “For our wedding, my wife wanted diamonds in her wedding band,” he recounts, “and the deal was if she got that I would get cowboy boots. For one, they make me taller. And as I grew up in the Midwest and my grandfather had grown up on a farm, it just felt like cowboy boots fit that aesthetic.”

Dawson’s youthful looks and easygoing demeanor can be deceiving. Nearing his forties he can look back over a long list of accomplishments, starting with when he was only 14-years-old and he launched a student-teacher movement against the discrimination of children with developmental disabilities. And while working towards three Harvard degrees, this ‘child advocate’ founded Peace First, with the aim of making violence in schools a thing of the past. In addition to impacting positive social change at large, Eric is also a dedicated husband and father of three

the context

Peace First, conceived in 1992 at Harvard University, is an independent non-profit organization. Headquartered in Boston, the organization also has offices in Los Angeles, and New York, and its reach is expanding rapidly, both in the US and globally. Its mission is to teach children critical conflict resolution skills, reducing youth violence and creating stronger schools and communities, in short: anti-bullying and pro-kids.

To date, Peace First has trained over 40,000 students as well as close to 2,500 teachers in conflict resolution skills; in addition, with its emphasis on community projects, the organization offers school children a sense of civic engagement. Peace First’s work carries impressive results: its partner schools are reporting a 100% reduction in racial slurs, an over 80% increase when it comes to students mitigating fights and being support champions for each other, and a 60% decrease in violence overall.

Eric Dawson, as the co-founder and head of the organization, has been nationally recognized for his leadership and contributions, including being awarded the prestigious Ashoka and Echoing Green fellowships. Dawson, who co-founded the organization at age 18, focused in phase one of his leadership on designing a curriculum of change, during phase two on building a growing organizational culture and, as Peace First has entered phase three, his emphasis is on scale and how to make the peace concept a universal one in order to address the soaring demand (so far over 250,000 schools and school districts worldwide have expressed interest to partner with Peace First).

growing up, taking a STAND

Born in St. Louis Missouri and the youngest of three, he moved at a young age with his parents back to Columbus, Ohio to be closer to family.

When Dawson was a freshman at his neighborhood public high school, the inclusion movement (advocating the idea that all people should openly accommodate any person with a disability without restrictions) was mainstreamed into schools. While kids with disabilities – particularly mental developmental disabilities – had previously been kept in separate wings of his school, Dawson saw them now included at lunchtime, and during music class or gym class. Unfortunately, a number of students would harass and ridicule these children: “It made me very angry. I started a group called STAND: Students and Teachers Against Negative Discrimination. We started with 100 members, both disabled and non-disabled students, and ran discrimination simulation exercises for the school. It was a huge success. We made harassment and bullying unacceptable and we ultimately changed the culture of our school.”

Dawson saw support for STAND come from a large cross section of the student body: “Change was happening from within, which made it so powerful.” As the initiative gained traction, Dawson and his fellow students created a teaching program for 4th, 5th and 6th graders for the entire district, which translated into 10,000 students being taught how best to fight discrimination. Much of the content focused on clarifying assumptions and answering questions about the disabled community. This in turn reduced much of the fear and aggression that had emerged when it came to interacting with people who were different.

In addition, quality control was an integral part of the training process, a feature Dawson had picked up from his parents’ consulting business on program evaluation: “We assessed on a regular basis what people took away from any given module,” Dawson shares. “And I remember getting this envelope of evaluations where a 4th grader wrote under ‘what did you learn’: I learned to see with my heart, rather than with my eyes. That was powerful.”

a kid in a candy store

Following in the footsteps of his Russian immigrant grandmother, Dawson was involved with a lot of theatre when he was growing up: “I hung out with a lot of adults, doing community theatre and also some television commercials. What I loved about theatre was the language and the power of storytelling. I grew out of it, for a lack of better words, when I was 18. I realized at that age that I liked my own language better rather than reciting what someone else had written. And I wanted to play ‘myself’, explore what is out there.”

Harvard offered just that for the high school graduate with a 4.2 GPA, it opened a variety of new doors, some unfamiliar, some uncomfortable: “Harvard was a bit of a culture shock to me. I was far away from home for the first time. And while I did not have money to go home for Thanksgiving and I was working 30 hours a week to pay for school, there were people who had their laundry done, and who had never thought about taking public transportation. Harvard was also intriguing to me. The school did not offer the structure I had experienced growing up, I was surrounded by lots of flexibility and not much nurturing or guidance.”

Dawson sounds like a kid in a candy store as he is reflecting back on this experience. One particularly important encounter proved to be with a professor of children’s literature out of the University of Connecticut who had launched festivals for children which encouraged them to take leadership roles with the aim of creating peace in the world. Her idea was that adults had had their turn to make the world a better place and had failed. According to her it was now time to let kids speak up and to make peace happen. Dawson remembers vividly how, with a group of other likeminded students, he began building a program around these peace festivals: “In my freshmen year I was eligible for advanced standing and I could have had the opportunity to finish in three years, but my academic learning was taking second place to being drawn to how to help kids to be peacemakers. It was the early nineties, the height of youth violence in Boston and cities around the country, young people were dying. Eighteen kids were shot or killed every day by handguns in the US.” This sense of urgency caused Dawson to decelerate his studies and he got involved as the education director to develop a peace curriculum that led to launching what is today Peace First.

Not victim, not bully, but problem solver

What sets Peace First apart from similar initiatives is its approach to not look at children as victims that need protection nor as perpetrators that need incarceration: “We arrest kids, medicate them, turn our schools into prisons, either literally with metal detectors and police officers, or spiritually with zero tolerance policies. We have a whole language of looking at kids as problems, and as a young person that made me angry. Our big idea was: “What if we were to look at kids as problem solvers rather than problems? What would it look like if every child in this country had a tool belt, an opportunity to work for peace?”

Dawson and his team at Peace First launched a three-week curriculum for schools around Boston which quickly expanded into a year long curriculum and a training program for teachers. Parallel to Dawson starting his Masters in Human Development Psychology on a part time basis, Peace First was launched as a non-profit with the help of two fellowships and a quarter million dollars philanthropic investment. With the limited resources of two full time and nineteen part time staff, Peace First created a weekly curriculum model mapped onto the academic public school framework, starting with kindergarten all the way through to 8th grade.

 a playful approach to conflict

Not all conflict is bad. In fact, when well-managed, it can result in more creative ideas and solutions than a conflict free environment, as exemplified by Peace First curriculum that operates on two key premises, as Dawson explains: “It all starts with the assumption that young people are good and have natural inclinations towards peacemaking. It is our job to unleash young people’s imaginations around resolving conflict and to give them tools to support that. The second premise is that peacemaking skills need to be in every community. Violence exists in all communities, it is not only a problem of poor communities and we want to create a shared sense of responsibility, to be courageous and compassionate.”

The first half of each school year, the Peace First curriculum focuses on creating awareness around the concept of conflict and explores it experientially in the form of games and role play: what is conflict? When is it good to have conflict and when not? What makes conflict get worse and what makes it get better? How do we, as a community, want to resolve conflicts? These are all questions that the school children address together with their Peace First teacher and their classroom teacher.

During the second half of the year all children identify a problem in their community that is important to them, develop collaborative solutions and then implement them: “We have kindergarteners who start recycling programs, 3rd graders who develop yoga programs for 8th graders who pick on them, and we see 8th graders develop workshops for their teachers on sexism. The options are endless,” explains Dawson.

Much of the Peace First approach and content is applicable in the adult world and in fact reminds me of how we coach executives when it comes to conflict management in organizations: We help leaders assess the situation at hand, to become aware of their very own behavior and conflict management style, to weigh the risks and consequences of options for action, and to build empathy and the courage to act on what seems right.

nobel prize for peace

To feed the demand in the market, Peace First is working actively on a solution to reach a wider audience: “We are developing an online digital platform where teachers anywhere in the world can go online, type in for example ‘10-year-olds and communication skills’ and lessons will pop up which they can use. So they can take our content of over 400 lessons that we have developed over the course of twenty years and use it as they see fit.“

Dawson’s plan is generous, as the service will be offered free of charge and open for anyone. But there is more when it comes to building reach: “For many, the concept of peace carries a somewhat soft ‘touchy-feely’ connotation.  People think of the 60s, 70s, holding hands. It may be inner peace, meditating. What we will launch is a kind of Nobel Prize for kids, called the Peace First Prize, a national search for young people who transform their communities in phenomenal but accessible ways. The prize does not require extraordinary acts, rather it targets delicate, transformative acts of peace that we may see on the news and think ‘I could do this’.”

In addition to connecting all applicants in the Peace First community, the 5-10 winners of the Peace First Prize will get a two-year $50,000 scholarship to support their peacemaking work and will also go on a speaking tour. Dawson’s passion around the idea of making a lasting impact is reflected in his body language as he leans forward: “I get excited about movement building, inspiring young people, and about having the prize be a vehicle for peacemaking on a larger scope.”

Not unlike the folk story of the Stone Soup, in which a hungry soldier, with his powerful and persistent rhetoric, persuades an entire village to volunteer additional ingredients to the soup he is making from a stone, Dawson has used his strong conviction together with his ability to influence and mobilize those around him to make Peace First the powerful force it is today. Influential support champions such as Hollywood actress America Ferrera, national television and print media, as well as non-profit organizations such as the Girl Scouts have signed on to support the Peace First Prize which aims to reach about 25 million young people.

Having said this, there still remains a disconnect between everything Dawson wants to accomplish and what he is actually able to do given the resources at hand: “Running Peace First is like being a parent. Sometimes it is so lovely, the best thing I have ever done, and sometimes it is a pain the ass.”

conflict, up close and personal

As with many of us, managing conflict effectively on a personal level is also a challenge for Dawson: “I was a naturally empathetic kid. Empathy is a phenomenal skill. To be too empathetic can also lead to making it difficult to engage in conflict as you can get hypersensitive as to how someone might experience it. Conflict is not about fighting. It is about honesty and listening deeply to what you need and what the other person needs.”

As he went through Harvard’s divinity school for his masters, Dawson worked as chaplain in the Intensive Care Unit, supporting people who had been stabbed and many of whom were dying: “I expected it to be emotionally exhausting, but it turned out to be spiritually exhausting. I would show up in a room and would have nothing practical to offer. I was not a social worker, nor a doctor, all I could do was sit and listen to them.” It turns out this was just what was needed, active focused listening: “It was transformative because what it showed me is that problem solving is sometimes not useful. Sometimes all we need to do is to show up and be there for the other person.”

Active listening has become an important tool Dawson uses when it comes to addressing conflict in his personal life. Working on resisting his need to please others or to ‘fix what is broken’, he makes “a conscious effort to make space for his professional and personal interactions, and to embrace conflict, giving it space to rise and subside.”

save yourself and you can save the world

As an 8-year old, Dawson got bored after school and decided to design a utopian community.  Unlike most of his peers, he did not focus on trees or mountains, but designed economic systems where everyone was taken care of with hospitals for anyone who got sick, and with free housing for everyone: “The challenge I had as an 8-year old, I couldn’t figure out how to get people to work that did not have to, as everyone was taken care of.”

Yet, it were the very three elements that we know sustain motivation at work that had kept the young Dawson so enthusiastically focused to his project: autonomy (he was in charge of designing this utopian community), growth (as he build the project he was learning along the way and developing new ideas), and finally a sense of purpose (to take care of everyone in his community and make it a better world).

Motivation to work was never a challenge for Eric Dawson. He lives to work: “I want to be careful about using this language, but I am an addict to work. It fuels me, I crave it. Not meaning to belittle people who have a chemical addiction but I think the brain works the same way when it comes to being addicted to work.” Not unlike his entrepreneurial parents who ran their own business, which often meant that work would know no boundaries, Dawson struggles to add discipline to his schedule and to create boundaries between his personal and professional life.

There were a number of occasions throughout his life when he disrespected these boundaries and it was forced on him to slow down: “During my sophomore year in college I was taking five classes, I was working four jobs, and I was running Peace First and organizing a summer camp in a public housing development. I got very sick, my body stopped working, I was hospitalized. I realized I couldn’t do it all.”

One of Dawson’s colleagues bluntly commented on Dawson’s work ethic: ‘Eric get off the cross, we need the wood’. And Dawson is determined to set boundaries to realize a richer personal life: “I get up very early, 4.30am, go to the gym and am at my desk around 7 and I stop at 5:30ish, go to my family, and I am a dad. Then I go to bed at around 9pm. I spend every first Friday of the month with my family. From Friday night to Saturday night I don’t work, and what helps is my wife and children who demand that I am here for them and fully present. Yet, it remains a constant struggle.”

The struggle clearly stems from Dawson’s sense of possibility for the positive social impact Peace First can have, not only for his children but for countless more children out there. The idea of resolving conflict is not new, yet it is his sovereignty over his work and his passion and creativity on delivering his message that is contagious and that has created huge momentum. And that gets him in trouble when it comes to balancing his life. As his mother once said to him: “If you were using cocaine, we would know exactly what to do. But what do you do if your son is trying to save the world?”

And with that, cowboy boots long forgotten, Eric Dawson heads off – clearly mulling over the next life-affirming developments for Peace First as he goes…

north of neutral dialog

March 11, 2012

by anne lueneburger

Damien O’Brien, CEO & Chairman, Egon Zehnder International, Paris

Damien O’Brien doesn’t necessarily fit the image most of us have when we think of a Chief Executive Officer. O’Brien heads up Egon Zehnder International, one of the world’s leading executive search firms with revenues of over US$600m. Born and raised in Australia, nowadays O’Brien is based in Egon Zehnder International’s Paris office where, unlike many C-level executives who are chauffeured in limousines with tinted windows, he frequently travels to the airport on the back seat of a motor bike that a rider-for-hire expertly zips through the crazy traffic of the French capital.

Before he embarked on his stellar career in business, O’Brien spent seven years in the seminary and served as missionary in a community in the Philippines. O’Brien enjoys being provocative and questioning the status quo. In 2000, he was the junior of two partners who initiated the first ever strategic review of the way Egon Zehnder International managed itself since its foundation in 1964. This initiative was subsequently captured as a Harvard Business case study[1] and is today used as one of the classic examples on leadership in top institutions around the world.

I first met Damien O’Brien when I accompanied my husband to a Firm conference in Istanbul in May 2011. I was immediately struck by Damien’s warmth and approachability, and how genuinely curious he is about people and their stories.

The role and the Firm

Damien O’Brien was elected Chief Executive Officer of Egon Zehnder International in June 2008, and Chairman in June 2010 after 22 years with the Firm. The Firm had originally been founded by Swiss national Egon Zehnder, who introduced the concept of executive search as a reputable profession in Europe. Strong on cultural values, Egon Zehnder International’s commitment to charge clients a fixed fee rather than a commission stands out from its competitors. Wholly owned by partners and functioning as a single profit center, the Firm is highly selective and, after an average of over thirty individual interviews, roughly one out of ten candidates makes the cut to join. Once part of Egon Zehnder International, however, most consultants receive an offer for partnership and stay with the Firm for the rest of their career.

Damien’s primary practice areas have been Consumer Products, Private Equity, Leadership Strategy Services and Board Consulting. As CEO he spends most of his time personally checking in with his colleagues across the Firm’s 65 wholly owned offices in 38 countries. He held a range of leadership roles prior to his appointment as CEO, including leading the establishment of the Firm’s China practice (which now comprises offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing), overseeing the Firm’s global industry and functional practices, and responsibility for global operations and professional development.

Rebel with a cause

From a working class Irish family, Damien O’Brien’s father built a successful catering business in Melbourne. A talented tenor, he had decided to leave a career in music behind to raise his growing family during the depression of the 1930s.

The third eldest of seven children, young Damien was very much a contrarian: “I remember early on wanting to be different. I enjoyed blending the naughty with the good and being unpredictable.” Academically strong, the self-confident adolescent who grew up in a supportive family environment did not follow the most intuitive path after graduating high school with honors. While most of his friends went off to study medicine, law or finance, and started having girlfriends, O’Brien decided to join the seminary – despite his parent’s reservations.

He was attracted by the challenge of the journey he had chosen: “I was deeply motivated by making an impact. I was not a particularly religious kid in the traditional sense. I used to go to church, and I was very inspired by the church’s social teachings, but I wasn’t the pious type. I believed in the story of Jesus and I also believed in working for a better world. And I saw that this particular style of priesthood would allow me to make a difference and to work with people who were less privileged than I. I saw it as a platform to make a difference.”


As part of his time in the seminary, Damien O’Brien spent five years studying academic subjects including philosophy, anthropology and theology. Unsurprisingly, within the seminary O’Brien was considered something of a revolutionary with his particular interest in edgy, Marxist inspired theological literature. The underlying idea that attracted him was that both priest and church work with their communities to overthrow structures that were impediments to the freedom and development of people: “I was never a Marxist but I liked the idea of working to change structures without a big revolution that causes death and mayhem. To this day I think of the world more in terms of systems and structures. I am acutely aware that we are a product of the cultural milieu and the systems that we grow up in. We are given concepts and frameworks and value sets that are pretty much pre-defined for us and given to us. They shape our consciousness, how we approach problems, our aspirations, and the way we relate to people. I like to sit back and reflect about this structure and get a sense of perspective.”

As a seminarian O’Brien was sent to work on Mindanao, the southern most island in the Philippines with a dominant Muslim population in an otherwise Christian country. Religious differences between Muslims and Christians, as well as widespread poverty, had led to the development of two aggressive separatist movements – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MNLF) and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) both fighting the Philippine Armed Forces, and as a result displacing over 100,000 people: “This was a profoundly life changing experience. Literally, on one mountain range were the Muslim rebels and on the other side were the communist rebels, or the ‘barefoot solders’ as they were known. And I was living with farmers, in the middle of these conflicts.” Only in his early twenties, O’Brien saw incredible suffering and displacement of many poor and innocent people. One night, after a particularly vicious attack with many fatalities he found himself surrounded by members of the local community, drinking the local wine and talking: “I was quite fluent, so I was able to converse with them but I realized that I wasn’t part of their world, I wasn’t part of their history, I wasn’t part of their families. I felt vulnerable and, in the face of the suffering all around me, I felt a deep need for intimacy. I discovered loneliness, deep profound loneliness. That was the moment I decided to leave the seminary, because I knew I could not lead that celibate life, this lonely existence. I needed someone to be close to.”

Trappings of success

O’Brien was now 25 years old and without a penny in his pocket: “I wanted to be successful. My idea of success at the time was pretty selfish and one-dimensional. Different from my friends who had gone off and who had already achieved success in their chosen careers, I had nothing, no savings and no real qualifications, certainly no qualifications that would help me build a career. I had to prove something to myself, score the points that would demonstrate that I was capable.”

O’Brien enrolled to do an economics degree with the University of New South Wales in Sydney, about 500 miles from his native Melbourne. To finance his studies he took on part time jobs. Graduating with honors, he held various management positions in a family owned group of companies before he relocated to New York where he got his MBA from Columbia. Following graduation he was offered a position in investment banking in New York but chose to return to Australia instead to join McKinsey.

It did not take long, however, for O’Brien to move beyond his initial instinct of adding brand names and ‘badges’ to his resume: “I loved McKinsey, yet I came to the view that important as strategy and advising companies on operational improvement is, I believed leadership was the key to bringing about positive change in communities. That was another pivotal time in my life because that was when I became aware of Egon Zehnder International as a platform for working in this realm of leadership. I joined the Firm in March of 1988. “Now grey-haired”, he laughs, “it was black when I joined!”

The spice is in the mix

One of O’Brien’s core values – a profound respect for people – is rooted in his upbringing and his family: “I grew up in a household that had a remarkable capacity for hospitality. Our home was always full of people with diverse backgrounds. Even though my father became a successful businessman and we ended up dealing with people with money at times, my family’s friends came from all walks of life including the very poor and one or two who had spent time in jail. My mother had a tremendous sense of respect for all people, coming from her strong sense for community, and everyone was welcome at home no matter the time of day or night.”

As a leader of Egon Zehnder International, O’Brien continues to encourage a diverse, open and tolerant environment. Diversity for him is about bringing together people who approach problems with different perspectives: “I recoil from notions of diversity based on politically correct concepts and categorization of people based on gender, race or cultural origin. And I am often surprised by the quickness with which those who champion diversity are prepared to put people in boxes and stereotype them. Diversity should be about the exact opposite, yet it seems the very language that we use to discuss diversity often reinforces the very things we want to avoid.”

Within the context of Egon Zehnder International, fostering diversity remains a priority and a challenge. Looking from the outside in, the majority of the Firm’s consultants are very similar – products of top business schools, many are white males, and they have most often worked for Fortune 500 firms or leading consulting firms. With this in mind, O’Brien leads his executive committee of six in a way which encourages a high level of open debate and dissent and he wants the same culture to shape the broader interactions of his partners when they convene twice a year. His executive committee brings together a spectrum of skills, personalities and life experiences which both complement and challenge him. All well educated, they come from five different continents and have different socio-economic and professional backgrounds: “In serving our clients we have a certain global template of what our consultants should look like. And I think our clients expect to deal with consultants who have a similarly world-class education and who have demonstrated success in many traditional ways. But this pulls against the idea of building a truly diverse team. There is a natural tension here that we are dealing with by hiring ‘less traditional’ consultants.”

As the world of his clients is changing, and as diversity gains in importance as a means to solve problems creatively and effectively, the culture of Egon Zehnder International is also becoming more diverse: “If on a scale of one to ten on diversity we are a four or five now, we were about a one a decade ago. And that would be a culture defined by traditional European values, male, and individuals of a certain socio-economic grouping. I am sure about 99 percent of us reflected this type of profile. Today it might still be true of some of our offices, but it would certainly not be true of all offices.”

Part of this spirit to embrace diversity and different point of views is undoubtedly rooted in the Firm’s origins: “Our founder Egon Zehnder was a pathfinder, a pioneer in our industry. I love the boldness in him. To this day, when you meet Egon he will engage you in a discussion about a wide range of issues and he embraces people with very different perspectives. He loves meeting people with different views and different experiences to himself.”

As the Firm’s CEO, O’Brien clearly continues to nurture Zehnder’s legacy of healthy discussion and championing and celebrating different personalities. Yet, as the partnership grows, the challenges rise as well: “I think we need to work hard to maintain this spirit and to avoid the tendency that all large institutions face as they grow to average down and become homogenized. So as the partnership gets bigger and more dispersed we need work even harder to celebrate and promote our differences.”

Lonely at the top

Becoming Chairman and CEO of Egon Zehnder International has been something of an organic process for O’Brien it seems: “There was no moment. Egon Zehnder himself had over the years subtly indicated that he saw me as a potential leader. Dan Meiland, who was Egon’s successor, took risks on me and gave me opportunities that also indicated that he saw me as a possible future leader. And ultimately John Grumbar, my predecessor, did likewise. It took shape almost unconsciously in my mind. I do not believe in pre-destination, but it was almost living into something that was coming towards me. And with hindsight I think I made a lot of decisions that enhanced my candidacy – including not particularly wanting the job.”

Many of us are familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen parable about the Emperor with no clothes. (The Emperor hires a tailor to weave a suit of fine material. The tailor claims the fabric is invisible to all who are not fit for their positions or ‘hopelessly stupid’. Although he himself cannot see the fabric, the Emperor pretends he does see it. No one, not even his advisors, dare tell the Emperor he is naked as he walks around in his ‘new clothes’. Only when he strolls through the village does a child in the crowd shout that the Emperor is wearing no clothes).

As successful executives rise to the top there is a danger of experiencing the Emperor’s isolation. Consequently O’Brien supports the exchange of ideas and information, he encourages ‘shouts from the crowd’ in the Firm. He strives to achieve a rich dialogue between the different constituents. His dedication to leave ‘the tower’ and to continuously travel to many of the Firm’s 37 country representations illustrates his hands-on interest in the Firm’s local teams including their concerns and particular perspectives on the challenges the Firm might be facing at any particular time.

However, even the most adept leader who embraces differences and encourages taking risks will experience a sense of isolation that comes with the nature of the position. His experience of ‘loneliness’ in his early years while on missionary duty in the Philippines has undoubtedly created an acute sense of awareness around what loneliness ‘looks like’: “I have been CEO for four years and chairman for a couple of years. From time to time I am surrounded by colleagues whom I love dearly and with whom I spend a lot of time, but at the end of the day I have a level of accountability which puts me in a different position. My ability to share with all my colleagues at all levels has been constrained by the decisions I have to make. So I think grappling with this has been a great source of personal growth. At times it feels kind of alienating, at times it feels stimulating, and it has meant that I have grown considerably in self-awareness.”

Damien O’Brien heads up a group of professionals who own the very Firm he is directing, adding another layer of complexity to his leadership. What’s more, his colleagues, who are critiquing leaders as their day job, are by definition very demanding They are trained to be critical and very aware of what good leadership looks like (and what it doesn’t look like), and Egon Zehnder International has long been known for its emphasis on emotionally intelligent leadership[2].

Sounding boards

Historically and across cultures and contexts, leaders have been expected to possess insight and vision, particularly in the face of uncertainty or complexity, as Dan Goleman says: “The leader acts as the group’s emotional guide. Understanding the powerful role of emotions in the workplace sets the best leaders apart from the rest – not just in tangibles such as better business results and the retention of talent, but also in the all-important intangibles, such as higher morale, motivation, and commitment.” [3]

O’Brien understands the powerful role emotions play in the work place: “As CEO, the persona and the leadership role merge. Leadership is about having followers. And people follow a person, so it is about me and that can be very challenging.” To energize and increase his capacity as a leader, O’Brien has his own sounding boards, both inside and outside the Firm. Here too diversity is a dominant theme as he surrounds himself with a healthy variety of people who complement his strengths and offset his weaknesses as a leader. O’Brien spends time on the phone each day communicating with colleagues and making himself available for group calls with even the most junior consultants. The resulting relationships form a platform which allows for constructive feedback in both directions.

Outside of the Firm, O’Brien’s wife Jo (to whom he has been married for 28 years) is also a strong source of support and someone who “keeps him honest”. Damien also has a particularly close relationship with his sister who works as a professional coach. He also serves as his own sounding board. Not a big fan of popular management literature he reads extensively on broader topics of philosophy and sociology and he carves out time to reflect on his life and relationships and to learn from the lessons it has to offer.

Sufficiently introspective, he is not afraid to be his own sharpest critic, and holds himself accountable when he realizes that his ego may be getting in the way of objectivity and the overall well-being of the Firm. As well as being an excellent listener to others, he also explores his inner dialogue, and once participated in a 30-day silent retreat.

As a leader he takes time out to think about the ‘big questions’: “What is the purpose of the Firm I lead? How can I help my colleagues reach their full potential? What is the future of Egon Zehnder International and what is my own future beyond the leadership of the Firm? What are key measures to determine the Firm’s success and my success, or not? How will I hold myself and others accountable in the interest of these goals?”

There is no doubt that Damien O’Brien has had an inspiring journey to date. It’s uncertain what his next step will look like after Egon Zehnder International but there are certain to be interesting experiences to come – as illustrated by his personal mantra: “Dream, dance and don’t pitch your tent too early.”

[1] Nanda, A. and Morrell, K. (2004), Strategic Review at Egon Zehnder International (A; B; C), Harvard Business School.

[2] Goleman, D. (1998). “Working with Emotionally Intelligence.” New York: Bantam Books, pp. 305-306.

[3] Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., McKee, A. (2002).Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, Harvard Business School Press, pp. 3 – 5.

north of neutral dialog

October 17, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Kennedy Odede, President, Shining Hope for Communities

Imagine 1.5 million people living in a space the size of Central Park and you begin to understand what living in Kibera, a slum next to Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and the second largest in the world, must feel like. Kibera is a ‘world on fire’, burning with pollution, human feces and starvation. But there are also sparks of hope for a future that is different from today’s reality of poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption.

Movements like ‘Shining Hope for Communities’ (known in Kibera as ‘SHOFCO’) feed the hope that there can be a better tomorrow. Take the example of Sarah Omariba – a five-year-old girl whose father had abandoned the family as his wife lay dying from AIDS. Without Shining Hope for Communities, Sarah likely would have followed the path of many other girls in the slum: abuse, rape or possibly death before she reached her next birthday. Now enrolled in Shining Hope for Communities’ Kibera School for Girls, this once despondent little girl has found a new home. And Sarah is growing stronger as she receives an education which significantly improve her odds of breaking free of the poverty cycle.

Behind Shining Hope for Communities is 27-year-young Kennedy Odede, who spent 23 years of his life in Kibera before coming to the US. I was moved by Odede’s New York Times article Slumdog Tourism’, which makes a convincing argument that, while witnessing poverty first hand by ‘touring’ Kibera may create a heightened awareness of what true deprivation looks like (and occasionally inspire financial donations), it is not the most effective (nor tactful) option to bring about positive lasting change. Odede’s movement leads the way to sustainable positive change by launching an educational platform which is coupled with providing services for the community.

A snap shot

Born and raised in the Kibera slum, Odede recalls that he was nicknamed the “Mayor of Kibera” for his leadership to foster social justice and help alleviate poverty. He became a certified HIV/AIDS counselor, was a community health worker, and ran several slum-wide AIDS education campaigns.

In 2004, at the age of 19, he founded Shining Hope for Communities, one of the largest community-based organizations in Kibera, a nonprofit that works to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty. Kennedy Odede serves as Executive Director, while day-to-day operations are managed by Kibera residents.

A human rights activist, Kennedy has received widespread recognition for his work. He is a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow, has won the 2010 Dell Social Innovation Competition, is a senior fellow with Humanity in Action and receives significant endorsement from the Paul Newman Foundation. In 2011 Odede was an invited panelist with the Clinton Global Initiative, sharing the stage with former President Clinton and Hollywood legend Sean Penn (who is the founder and CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization).

In addition to his Kibera project responsibilities, Odede is a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he is majoring in sociology.

Slum boy

“I was born to an underage mother and have never met my biological father, nor do I know who he is,” Odede says. The oldest of eight siblings, he was raised by an abusive stepfather who often beat his mother and who would waste the already scarce family resources on his alcohol addiction.

“At eight I was malnourished and almost died of malaria. My mother had to leave me behind most days to look for odd jobs to feed us. When I turned ten, I was forced to leave my mother and siblings and fend for myself on the Kibera streets. Often I was so hungry I would go through garbage bins to look for any leftover food.”

Odede was a resourceful young boy though, with a contagious, slightly mischievous laugh which breaks through during our interview. There is little doubt that his engaging personality helped him sell peanuts and other items at a higher profit margin than his fellow street kids. And Odede’s mind was racing as to how he could break free of his misery: “My aunt had told me that people who speak English have power. So, whatever money I could spare, I would use to learn English from some self-appointed tutors in the slum.”

When Kennedy Odede was a teenager a tourist handed him the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. “These reads changed my life,” he recalls. “Much like myself these leaders come from very poor backgrounds and I could connect with them.” The books, combined with his desire to bring about social change, inspired Odede to mobilize the Kibera community:  “I started with 20 cents and bought a soccer ball to start a soccer club to both give idle minds something constructive to do, and I used the club as a platform to tackle the everyday issues affecting us.”

His soccer club soon attracted many of Kibera’s boys and girls. When Odede learned that one of his sisters had been raped and was pregnant, he expanded his soccer club to protest against violence: “we would get together and scream very loudly, pretending we were fighting. This got the attention of people around us. We would then give impromptu performances with themes focusing on promoting togetherness and condemning sexual abuse.”

It was at this time that he met a young Wesleyan student from the US, Jessica Posner, who had a profound interest in theatre and decided to spend a year abroad living in Kibera.  She shared a room with four other people and endured the tough conditions of the slum with no water, electricity or sanitation.

Breaking free

Despite all the adversity which Odede faced in the slum – be it abuse, neglect, starvation or lack of education – Odede has successfully deployed strategies to not only survive, but to thrive. His ability to maintain a hopeful outlook on life, and to persevere when it comes to developing and realizing his goals, are all evidence of a certain ‘mental toughness’.

Yet this explains only part of Odede’s remarkable resilience and success. When we look closer, he did not completely pull himself out of difficult conditions ‘by his own bootstraps’. Research shows that social context plays a crucial role when it comes to an individual’s resilience. One of Odede’s strongest ‘social buffers’ throughout has been his mother, a woman who had never received any education herself. Even after his stepfather had forced him to leave home at the age of ten, she ensured that she remained in close contact with her son. She treated him like a partner and shared her values and ideas about life: “She taught me to care about other people and to take action for change. She would keep telling me how leadership without education is like being a puppet of the oppressor.”

And while Odede had launched the soccer club as a means for others to connect and introduce meaning into their lives, the club also served as a support platform for him:”We were about 300 kids, many of us homeless, and we felt like we were a family.” Other community initiatives followed.

In 2007, as a result of political violence in Kenya that put Odede – as a well known community leader – at risk, it was his friend Posner who helped him escape to Tanzania and ultimately secure a space at Wesleyan University in the US (making him the first ever in Kibera to receive a full scholarship to a four-year accredited college).

Seeing this resilience grow as the result of a strong social network makes sense not only in a personal, but also in a broader context. Looking at the corporate world, evidence proves the impact of a strong social support on employee engagement and resilience.  According to Gallup research, we are seven times as likely to thrive at work if we have a ‘best friend’ in the organization (yet, as a side note, only 30 percent of us have this type of support at work).

Building resilience in individuals remains an important and effective developmental task for families, organizations and society – both individually and collectively. The more holistic view of resilience as a mix of individual traits and social setting lifts the full burden of survival off the shoulders of those who are facing adversity and challenges. We can strengthen our individual resilience muscles by changing the way we think and behave, but we can also reach out to others to create a more robust emotional costume for ourselves and those around us.

SHOFCO – building resilient communities

In Kibera the average life expectancy is 30 years (as compared to 60 in the rest of Kenya). One out of five children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and girls are particularly vulnerable. Two thirds of girls trade sex for food from as early as age six, and seven out of ten women will experience violence at some point in their lives. A mere eight percent of women ever receives any schooling and, as a result, most are stuck selling vegetables, food or their bodies on the streets of Kibera.

To address this problem of women being ‘stuck in a rut’, Odede’s Shining Hope for Communities launched the first tuition-free educational platform, The Kibera School for Girls: “We currently have 64 girls currently enrolled, from kindergarten to second grade, and our innovative curriculum has seen some first graders reading at seventh grade levels and above!” he shares proudly.

It’s competitive to be admitted to the school, with around 500 girls competing for 19 kindergarten spaces last year. Dedicated supporters have given Shining Hope for Communities the opportunity to construct a new school building this summer, which will allow them to double their enrollment of new students in January to 40. Admission is not only based on intellectual talent, but also takes a girl’s family situation into consideration. At least 20 percent of the girls have been raped, some so badly that they have chronic internal injuries. “We have helped prosecute rapists and offer boarding for the girls at greatest risk for domestic violence. As we raise more funds from individuals and the corporate world, we can add more spaces and admit more girls to our school.” Odede explains.

The SHOFCO Community Center next to the school also serves as a platform to the general Kibera community, with a library, internet café, and classes in adult literacy and computer skills. The community center is also used for youth group meetings, health and sanitation outreach, girls empowerment programs, champion soccer teams, microfinance groups, as well as for counseling and support groups.

Boosting resilience

The Shining Hope for Communities model works in three ways when it comes to boosting resilience:

First, individuals build knowledge and skills, fostering self-confidence and optimism about a better tomorrow. Second, individuals are embedded in a supportive community which increases their awareness and capacity to understand and deal with the issues in their lives. Third, as Shining Hope for Communities’ movement solicits feedback and active involvement of the community at large, everyone is treated as a potential community activist, which results in an increased overall ‘community resilience’. Individuals are also helping each other via social networking events where a group of champions connect the powerful with the powerless such as health care specialists, teachers or counselors: “I had nothing, but I believed in the power of my people,” Odede emphasizes.

And the results speak for themselves. “Thanks to our sponsors and our community volunteers, we are continuously expanding our services and reach. We have built a bio-latrine center, sanitary toilets throughout Kibera, sustainable ‘vertical gardens’ and a water tower that serves as Kibera’s largest single water point,” Odede is proud to explain.

In their words

There is nothing more powerful than testimonials, so here is one by Helen Mbithe, a parent, community health worker and project participant:

“I am writing this as a woman who was born and lived my entire life in the poverty of the Kibera Slum of Kenya…I was born the first girl in a family of eleven children.  Early in my life I was made to know that girl children are worthless and a burden to the society.  My father terribly abused my mother, and even in my adult years I can still remember those screams.  I tried to stay out of the way, raising my younger brothers and watching as my parents struggled through their poverty to take the boys to a school.  Each day I would watch with longing as my brothers walked to their school, all I wanted was to learn.  Finally, I convinced my father to take me to school.  His commitment only lasted a month.  I wanted to do well, but no one expected anything of me as a woman so it was difficult.  By further bad luck, I was soon with child on my own at age sixteen because I had no food in my house and so I was made to find men to help me to survive.  My baby was a girl and her name is Mwongeli.  From the moment she was born I made a secret promise in my heart.  I kneeled down and I prayed hard and said “Please God, I have one wish in my poor life.  Please, let this child go to school so that she may go ahead of where I have reached in my life, ahead, ahead, ahead.”  I am saying this to you now because by a miracle God has kept his covenant with me.  My daughter, Mwongeli, is now a student at The Kibera School for Girls.  Mwongeli’s life will be very different than mine as the first girl in our family to ever go to school.

The Kibera School for Girls is special in many ways.  It is the only free school for girls that I have even heard of in Kenya.  But there is something more.  At the school there is also a center for the community with needed resources like computer, books, health education sessions, and a vegetable garden open to all community members.   I can say that these offerings have really transformed my life, beyond the impact of providing my daughter with education.  At the community center I am learning to read, and I also got instruction and supplies to start a vegetable garden of my own.  I started to make my own business of selling these vegetables in October, and that ability made my life much better because now I am the one providing my family with the income, which I am so proud about.  I also later got a job as a Community Health Worker at the Johanna Justin-Jinich Community Clinic.  This gave me both an income, as well as knowledge and respect in my community.  This has really changed how my husband behaves towards me, and towards Pius.  My husband was a hard man who abused me much.  But after I started putting food on the table, he did less.  After some time of seeing me learn the gardening and watching Mwongeli move faster in her class work than the neighbor boys, he decided one day to see what was going on at the compound.  Now my husband is learning the computer and got a small job helping to build the toilet structure. My husband now says that good treats come with educating girl children, and because he is the last person I could ever think to say this, I can say that this idea will change lives in many ways in my struggling home community. From my position on the parent board of the Kibera School for Girls, which advises the management of the school and makes our own ideas, I can tell you that when Shining Hope for Communities succeeds, so do we as a community—we want to be as much part of that success as possible.”

What’s next?

Much like Slumdog Millionaire’s hero Jamal, there seems likely to be a happy ending if one were to take measure of Kennedy Odede’s life today. On a personal level he will get married to his long-term partner and “lioness” Jessica Posner once he graduates in June 2012. Then after graduation he aspires to go for his masters degree.

He continues to build awareness and the scope of Shining Hope for Communities, and plans to expand the movement across East Africa. As in the movie, many are there to cheer Odede on – hoping for him to continue to succeed and to spread his life-changing ethos to other communities.

Perhaps one of the main differences between Jamal’s character and Kennedy’s though, is that the current happy ending is not the result of destiny or luck, but due instead to a strong, relentless vision of ‘what could be’. This comes from within Odede and has created a brighter future for him and for an entire community.

We have not seen the sequel to Slumdog Millionaire (if there will ever be one), and do not know whether Jamal would leverage his new riches to create his own game changing movement. But for Odede, who started everything with 20 cents, we have seen that it does not take millions to make an impact. Kennedy Odede’s work and the people around him is what gives his life meaning. In many ways, not much different from what many of us in the developed world long for, he summarizes his ultimate goal in life: “My dream is to be a happy man. Not rich, and not poor!”

north of neutral dialog

September 6, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Ralf Schmerberg, Artist, Berlin

September 2006, Berlin: Bebelplatz 9. Around the largest round table in the world, 112 intellectuals, artists and human rights activists gather for a day to share their thoughts on 100 thought provoking questions. This ‘Table of Free Voices’ seated luminaries such as US actor Willem Dafoe, star of Mississippi Burning and The English Patient; Nicaraguan human rights advocate Bianca Jagger; German entrepreneur Roland Berger, founder of the successful strategy consulting firm that carries his name; Kenyan sports’ icon Tegla Loroupe, world record holder for 20, 25 and 30 kilometers; and India’s grassroots activist against child labor, Kailash Satyarthi, survivor of numerous attacks on his life for defending his cause.

Questions covered a wide range of topics and came from people like you and I from across the globe. Here’s a sample of the questions asked: What is today’s most important unreported story? Do I really think myself or am I just influenced by all the things I have learned and see? And If we produce enough food to feed everyone in the world, why don’t we? They were subsequently listed on the website and were captured in ‘Problema’, a dramatic visualization of the event with a mix of documentary and photo story line.

Behind this event was one man, Ralf Schmerberg, who brings his creative talent to social discourse. Schmerberg and I sat down in New York’s Highline Park to talk about his journey from butcher apprentice to Cannes Festival awards as an international artist, filmmaker and producer.

Professional context

The autodidact Schmerberg has been working since 1987 as a photographer, and got into film in the mid 90s when he founded Trigger Happy Productions, a multifaceted production company. Schmerberg has produced ad campaigns for clients such as American Express, Hewlett Packard, Lufthansa, LEVI’S, Nike and the city of Paris, as well as two anti-Aids campaigns for the United Nations Foundation. One of the most sought after directors in the German music business, he produced music videos for leading German rock bands ‘Die Fantastischen Vier’, ‘Die Toten Hosen’ and for Chaka Khan.

His work is part of the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, and he has received numerous accolades and awards around the globe, including the “The Polaroid Final Award” and the “Gold Medal for Humanity” for his documentary “Hommage a Noir” at the New York Film Festival. He has been nominated for the “Unesco Award”, and his commercial “Bottled courage” for Nike was nominated for Hollywood’s 2009 Emmy Awards. Member of the exclusive Directors Guild of America as well as the Art Directors Club Germany, he also won several Lions in Cannes and has received the prestigious Lead Award.

From the day I went away, I am going home

Schmerberg was raised in Germany as the middle child of a ‘typical’ post second war family, his father a salesman for automotive supplier Bosch, and mother a homemaker who attended to home and family. “I have always been very outgoing and independent,” Schmerberg smiles, “even when I was in elementary school I would ring the door bell of our neighbor in the morning and might say something like ‘Frau Krötz, I am going to school now’.”

Much to the chagrin of his conservative father, Schmerberg in his early teens began identifying with left wing politics and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. He stopped after middle school, deeply disliking the German school system that “forces everyone to follow a rigid curriculum, regardless of their particular talents and passions.” This resulted in further friction at home. Schmerberg was developing a concept of autonomy. His desire to be independent with his choices could be aligned with psychologist Jack Brehm’s ‘reactance theory’ which shows that whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us want them significantly more than before.

Conversations which he had about ‘the world’ with the butcher in his local village (of less than 10,000 people) just outside of Stuttgart, intrigued him as it was the first time that a ‘father figure’ had approached him as an equal, and engaged him in discussions around the meaning of life. As a result, and partly to spite his father, Schmerberg – at the age of 16 – started an apprenticeship as a butcher.

It is hard to imagine, as Ralf Schmerberg sits in front of me, with his tall and lean frame, and long slender fingers, that he would even possess the strength and, moreover, some of the mental ‘brutality’, that comes with preparing animals for consumption: “It took me a while to admit to myself how miserable I was in this environment. A cultural value that was deeply engrained in me was that ‘you don’t quit something you have started’ though. So for about a year-and-a-half I dragged myself to this place. And one morning, the sun was shining through the windows, I could see the bright blue summer sky from inside the butchery, I threw up my hands in the air, looked at my colleagues that were at their cutting stations and started running out the door shouting ‘ I am leaving, and you can all go to hell!’ I ran faster and faster, it felt like I was running for my life, my own life.” Much like Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous tune ‘From the day I went away, I am going home’, Schmerberg sensed that his true journey was about to begin…


It was in the search of a home that he left, at the age of 16, to join the highly controversial Baghwan Shree Rajneesh spiritual community, first in India and later in Oregon. The Ashram in Poona was, by all accounts, a different world from that which Schmerberg was used to: intense, emotionally charged, and highly experimental. Days started out with meditative practices and continued with therapy groups, some of them involving physical aggression and sexual encounters between participants.

Schmerberg describes his time with the movement as an “intense time of learning and search of self”. Much like the movement’s founder Baghwan, an educated and intelligent man, Schmerberg struggled to subscribe to external discipline, convention and system. It is no surprise that, despite the controversies that surrounded the movement, he was touched by some of the key messages of the community. Baghwan’s teachings emphasized the importance of awareness, love, courage and creativity, qualities he saw as being negated by society and its norms. He delivered his message with a rhetoric that Schmerberg found inspiring, as it was so different from that of his own father – this iteration of a father figure used humor to communicate and never ‘discipled’ his followers.

Five years after joining the community, Schmerberg recalls doing farm work on the Oregon Ranch: “I was pulling carrots next to another member, and we were talking about life. At one point she asked me whether I thought I would be able to fend for myself and survive in the ‘world out there’. I did not have an answer. This really troubled me.”

The next morning Schmerberg left the ranch: “I cried in the bus as the landscape flew by, carrying me further and further away from what I had come to know as my home.” As he shares this with me, I can see him welling up.

I am a photographer

Back in his native Stuttgart, now 22 years of age, and Ralf Schmerberg was bartending in a club, uncertain about his future. “One night a group of photographers with models and make-up artists came in. We connected, and I ended up spending time with some of them. After a few weeks I grabbed my sister’s camera, asked two girls to pose as models, and we did some photo shoots out in the countryside. It was as if I had been struck by lightening. I was hooked, absolutely fascinated by how fast I could see the results of my work, how playful it was. The next day, I proclaimed I was a photographer.”

Schmerberg takes a camera out of his bag as he speaks, and shoots a butterfly in the high grass right behind the bench we are sitting on. “If someone would ask me ‘where will you learn to become a photographer’ I would respond that I am not learning to be a photographer, that I am a photographer.”

From self-belief to reality

Schmerberg claims that all of his work to date has been experimental, and he has gradually built on the experience he accumulated over the years. Schmerberg is an autodidact – he has never taken a course in photography or film, never read books about photography, nor does he know much about the different functions of the high end camera he is using other than a few buttons. His talent comes from his ‘eye’ – in fact, as he shares this he laughs: ”I have two differently colored eyes that also perceive different angles of what is around me.” Schmerberg’s work has an acute sense for beauty and of creatively translating words and meaning into images.

Working long hours and experimenting with his camera, his work soon received recognition, and he was hired to shoot ads for well-known brands such as Kodak.

Two years after the landmark initial first photo shoot he received his first two awards from the Art Director’s Club of Germany.

Schmerberg’s early work was characterized by constructing the image: “It really was a kick for me to create my own world. I could tell the models to tilt their head a certain way, to bend their body at a specific angle, it was the first time I experienced the rush of power.” It was four years later, as Schmerberg reviewed his portfolio one evening, that he got a sense that he may have “abused his power of holding the camera”. Appalled, he decided to no longer photograph humans, but to focus on still life. “I was focusing exclusively on objects, be it lanterns or cars. One day I found myself on a random walk and wanted to take a photo of a plant standing on a trash bin. However, it felt like it was not quite right and I started moving the trash bin. The bin was too heavy, so I ended up taking a photo without moving it. And what was interesting: the result was just as good. It was not necessary to move or change anything. This was the moment when I decided I would take photos of whatever I found interesting, be it humans, animals or objects. The key was not to change or influence the visual, but to simply capture it.”

What evolved was Schmerberg’s signature style of bringing ‘real people’ into advertising, portraying life as it happened in front of his lens for fashion houses such as Joop. “I work to make things visible, touchable and aim to get to my audience’s head and heart. I think it is important to leave the human aspect in advertising and communication and not to artificially change or distort it.”

A vote of confidence

Schmerberg was becoming a sought after commercial photographer. In the mid nineties, barely 30, he was hired for a photo shoot for Mustang Jeans: “The company rep asked if, while on the road, I could take along a camera and film a few scenes. Even after I told him that I had never done this before and didn’t know if I could do it, he insisted and told me that he thought I could do it.”

This vote of confidence puzzles Ralf Schmerberg to this day: it was the unfamiliar situation of someone of authority believing in him and his ability to conquer the unknown. In his past, it seems, he often had to overcome the objection of others to believe in his convictions. He was familiar with their doubt – be it succeeding outside of his father’s social milieu, be it surviving in a world without the support of the Baghwan community, or be it creating a profession without any formal training in a society that was all about formal education and degrees. It had been that very doubt that further spurred his motivation to push forward.

In the psychology of motivational coaching, if a client is not moving forward towards an aspirational goal, despite a judicious mix of challenge and support on the part of the coach, one of the tactics left is that the coach slips into the role of the client: of not believing that progress is feasible. Often what happens is pushback on the part of the client. Much like passing the baton in sport: the need to belief in oneself is passed on to the client, the coach is off the ‘hook’ as a motivator, and the client frequently finds the motivation in him or herself.

A balancing act

Over the years, Schmerberg has mastered the art of aligning his need to make a living with his desire to be a catalyst for change. Given his status in the advertising world, producing a couple of ad campaigns is pretty lucrative. Rather than focusing on generating more income, however, Schmerberg devotes the remainder of the year to projects close to his mind and heart. Most of these he finances out of his own pocket, to keep his independence and the ability to craft the message that he wishes to communicate.

In 2003, he filmed and financed the 1.5 million Euro production ‘Poem’, a visualization of 19 poems by the likes of Goethe, Paul Celan and Heiner Mueller. In 2007 he filmed and financed the documentary ‘Trouble – Teatime In Heiligendamm’ about the resistance against the G-8 meeting in Germany. In 2011 he released ‘Problema’ which captures the highlights of the ‘Table of Free Voices’, where 58 nations gathered in their efforts to answer some of the most burning questions on social topics, the environment, peace, health and well-being. Again, he financed this million-Euro documentary out of his own pocket: “It was important to have total freedom when it came to putting this film together. I did not want to follow anybody’s agenda.”

Not surprisingly, critics have suggested that it is “not that difficult for a privileged producer who collects close to half a million Euros for a couple of advertising gigs to finance large scale projects out of pocket.” In fact, some have accused Schmerberg of being a narcissistic hypocrite who, on the one hand, works for organizations that through their very existence contribute to societal problems, and on the other hand uses that income to protest against social injustice. Their assumption is that his motive isn’t a noble one, but rather about developing his own status and his personal fame.

Then there are voices openly admiring Schmerberg as a man who follows his passion. In our work with clients who aspire to live an authentic life, we have often found them (understandably) struggling with the risk that comes with trailblazing one’s own path. The fear of compromising their standard of living, of stepping out of their comfort zone (and what is more: their innate fear of failure) often stands in the way. In addition to doing one’s own due diligence as to what is personally possible, it is key to look at others and see what we can learn and adopt from their life lessons. Schmerberg’s biography offers a few:

Awareness: Early on Schmerberg was focused on creating a life that felt authentic and real, in spite of resistance within his environment. He experimented, sought insights about who he was (and who he was not) and followed a number of leads, and he remained open to opportunities. Even in his career as a photographer he didn’t stop paying attention to how he was evolving and when course corrections were necessary.

Commitment: Once he had clarity as to his professional calling, Schmerberg was determined to make it reality. At the start of his career as a photographer, he decided to forgo monetary comfort to live his passion: “I waited tables and did whatever else came along to make money. I knew I wanted to be a photographer and was determined to live that dream.” As we all do, Schmerberg did have options: he could have apprenticed in a more ‘solid career’ in banking or insurance, for instance, but he chose not to.

Tolerance of uncertainty: Over the years, his films have been controversial and the possibility that his socially critical stance might upset his advertising clients is a real one. Schmerberg operates in a highly competitive industry and new talent rises daily. There is no ‘guarantee’ that he will find another gig, as his popularity might change. His ease of accepting the opaqueness of what may be next can, in part, be attributed to his notorious reluctance to plan far ahead. But there’s no doubt that part of this can also be attributed to his willingness to take the risks which enable him to live the life that he wants to.

Personal sacrifice: Producing his films not only consumes his time and financial resources but Schmerberg is also ready to lower his standard of living to live his convictions. When he decided to produce ‘Problema’, he moved to a smaller place, refrained from expensive travel, and decided not to buy anything new. In fact, as he is on tour for promoting ‘Problema’ when we meet up for our interview, I noticed as we stroll through New York’s Meatpacking district that his shirt is torn and that he is wearing no socks – which turns out not to be a fashion statement, but the result that for about two years he did not buy any new clothes.

That is not to say that Schmerberg is reckless. He maintains a reasonable level of personal comfort. What is more, he is the devoted and responsible father of four, planning for the future of his offspring: “I could be run over by a bus tomorrow, so while I do not think they need privileges, I am concerned with and plan for their financial security.”

It’s a process: Schmerberg did not start out as the social change agent that he has become. Early in his career much of Schmerberg’s focus had been on self-realization through his work as a photographer. His passion for and dedication to his profession combined with his talent has over the years resulted in an increasing reputation and success in his industry. Over the years he also evolved as a photographer, and has added new skills and competencies as an artist and filmmaker to his repertoire.

Despite his relatively young age (46), Schmerberg’s professional focus seems to have moved on to creating something ‘larger than the self’ with his increasingly big scale and global projects. Not one to prioritize profits over conviction, however, he offers his work as free downloads to maximize impact: “I’ve spent the last two years in the edit room making it. All together it took me eight crazy and exciting years. The whole project was based on giving, learning and questioning. We decided to release the film for free to the world because we think it’s too precious to pay for.”

The importance of closing doors

Part of his success is also based on Schmerberg’s uncanny ability to forgo opportunities and to leave behind options quickly once he realizes that they are not (or are no longer) part of his authentic path. Be it quitting school, leaving Baghwan, committing to the career as a photographer, or deciding what kinds of clients to categorically reject, he is not afraid to live up to what he believes is his path: “I refuse to take on any commercials that have to do with pharmaceuticals, insurance or banks. I have come to realize that advertising is more influential than religion.”

What we know from research when it comes to living a meaningful and fulfilling existence, a life that is characterized by playing to one’s strengths, it is no more about opening the right doors than it is about closing the wrong ones. And doing so consistently, ruthlessly, and without regret is a core characteristic of success stories.

‘Problema’, opportunities?

Schmerberg’s documentary Problema focuses on problems in the world and how we can find answers to them. An important step to creating awareness on social challenges and starting to develop solutions, no doubt.

However, an equally crucial element in finding solutions and creating a world that reduces suffering and offers well-being for life on earth would be to look at what is going ‘well’, and what we can learn from this to create a better world. This view is similar to the science of psychology, where in 1998 the newly elected president of the American Psychology Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, acknowledged that the discipline had been served well by focusing on what was wrong and how to fix problems, but charged that it would not be complete without looking at the other side of the coin – that it was now time to learn from people who were thriving within their lives. This started the increasingly powerful science movement of positive psychology that has since produced significant insights on what practical interventions we can use in every day life and work to live a more fulfilled, happy and successful life.

And, looking at things from that perspective, Ralf Schmerberg would certainly have plenty to offer… a project for the future?

by anne lueneburger

Ashni Mohnot, CEO, Enzi, Mumbai

Imagine training low-income, foreign born women in artisanal baking to help them launch their own shop in Manhattan. Contemplate using Bollywood songs to protect children from prostitution in the slums of India. Or take the idea of turning food processor waste (such as rice hulls or nutshells) into fuel. Social change often starts small. Bold ideas need support to come alive. Over the course of twenty five years, venture capitalist Echoing Green has offered $30m in seed funding and hands-on support to some 500 social entrepreneurs and their ideas.

Ashni Mohnot, an inspiring young woman who has received the prestigious “Echoing Green Fellows” award, is among the 1% selected out of a pool of thousands of applicants. Her idea? She launched Enzi, a social investment portal that allows underprivileged Indian students to gain access to need-based educational financing by offering collateral that serves as a guarantee for bank loans.

The company and how it works

For millions of students around the world higher education remains out of reach – mainly due to a lack of funding. According to estimates by UNESCO, around 75% of potential students face this fate, as high as 90% in countries such as India.

Enzi, meaning ‘powerful’ in Swahili, has just completed its pilot phase.  Enzi facilitates lower-interest credit to the unbanked by leveraging bank capital with collateral raised through a global angel network of individuals and organizations. Their primary audience is the poor who will now be able to gain access to funding for vocational and skills training in India, previously reserved to individuals applying for degree education for international students in the US.

A bright mind

Ashni Mohnot grew up in Mumbai and comes from a family tradition of entrepreneurs: “My mother has a jewelry and clothes designing business which she runs with her sisters. My father, after a career in mineral trading, owns a hygiene products and disinfectants distribution firm. About ten years ago he was reading an article about how hospital infections kill a significant number of patients, and the tragic message of people going to a place for healing and not coming back home deeply moved him. He decided to do something about it.”

A smart and dedicated student, Mohnot had a broad range of interests growing up: “I loved literature, English, biology and psychology. I spent a lot of my childhood reading. When I started thinking about university, I struggled with the Indian system that seems to make everyone a specialist right from the start. I was not ready to commit to any one field, be it engineering, business, medicine or art. It was then that one of my cousins told me about Stanford. I got very excited.” After a campus visit, Mohnot was hooked: “I knew I had to go there, I knew that this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss!”

Stanford accepted her. The most challenging part, however, was funding this amazing opportunity, as a US school’s financial aid is typically reserved for US citizens or internationals that come from a country under-represented in US higher education: “We had to use my parents’ life savings and needed to ask for help from American relatives who agreed to co-sign private loans.”

Moment of pause

At Stanford, Ashni was thriving: “Coming to Stanford was the best decision I had ever made. It literally changed my life and helped put me on a path to realizing my potential.”

However, financially she continued to feel burdened, especially when her father changed professions during her studies, which meant that her financial resources temporarily dried up. Mohnot was in danger of not being able to complete her degree. After much lobbying, Stanford decided to extend – on an exceptional basis – part non-cosigner loan, part grant to Mohnot so she could continue her studies. Reflecting back, she recalls: “While I understood the need and the situation, it was scary to think of taking on so much debt. I wondered how I would ever pay it back. It was burdensome starting life that way.”

Entrepreneurship in her DNA

Mohnot went on to earn a Bachelor in Human Biology and English with Honors in Feminist Studies and a Masters in International Education which allowed her to gain a unique perspective on international development, global health, and the global higher education industry: “The potential of millions around the world is tragically wasted because they lack access to education, often due to the financial barrier.” Alongside this came the awareness that there were many other international students in the same boat as her and graduating with heavy debt: the seed for Enzi was planted.

Following graduation Mohnot started working as Director of Education at Stanford’s Martin Luther King institute. However, social entrepreneurship kept her intrigued and, alongside her work at the institute, she worked on supporting the launch of two social ventures and wrote articles on social entrepreneurship for PopTech, a media site dedicated to innovation.

Having been raised in a community of entrepreneurs had clearly left its mark on Mohnot:”I really love the idea of being my own boss and making my own decisions. I saw my parents take liberties which they would have never gotten away with in a corporate environment. When they wanted to take a vacation, they did; when they wanted to change a product offering, they would. They were not afraid to take risks.”

Future potential is the asset

Resulting from her own experience of financial hardship while going through school, Mohnot began to immerse herself into the – to her unknown – world of finance. An intriguing concept has crystallized as part of this process, removing financial barriers to the least privileged through a guarantor model.

While the Reserve Bank of India recommends that banks offer priority sector education loans of less than ~$8K without requiring collateral. Yet, private and cooperative banks generally require collateral for all education loans. National banks follow the mandate, but only for degree education. For the poor pursuing vocational training or skill-based education – which the Government of India estimates to be 500M people by 2022 – there are few viable credit options. Currently, mainstream banks (who could offer loans with 10-12% interest) are not set up to serve the poor, who rely on high interest loans from parallel credit systems such as microfinance institutions (25-30% interest) and moneylenders (50-60%+ interest).

Enzi is the first to apply a guarantor model for education lending and the first to utilize bank infrastructure for the same, instead of working with microfinance institutions to offer education loans, as other programs do. This will allow poor students to get lower interest loans (10-12%) from banks instead of other higher-interest credit options. Given that education lending is a priority sector as defined by the RBI, it is in banks’ business interests to give education loans. Enzi’s program will enable Indian banks to fulfill their priority sector quotas through education lending, while ensuring that Indian citizens who most need these bank loans but cannot provide physical collateral have access to them through guarantee support.

Unfamiliar with the terrain, Mohnot was nevertheless ready to charge ahead: “I had a moment of obligation – I just couldn’t let go an idea with such enormous, paradigm-shifting, world-changing potential.”

In bringing her idea – Enzi – to life, Mohnot’s knack for networking proved to be a real asset: “I have a genuine interest in other people, what they are motivated by, how they think, and whether there are synergies for what moves them and what I am passionate about.”

In addition to bringing key people together and raising funds for the start-up, Mohnot was able to make Enzi her full time priority in the fall of 2010, when she won the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship. “I receive $30K per year over the period of two years. They also offer health insurance reimbursement as well as personal development stipends and business advice, and I have access to their impressive network of business and political leaders. What’s more, they are agnostic as to how the funds are used, so I can either invest it fully into my business or use parts of it to cover living expenses to fully dedicate myself to developing the venture. It all depends on the needs of the fellow and it has truly been phenomenally helpful to take the leap.”

What’s ahead?

So far the response has been extremely positive and Mohnot is optimistic that Enzi will become a full-blown operation helping a significant number of students fulfill their educational dreams. But she also admits that the concept is in its early days and will have to undergo numerous revisions to become fully operational and efficient.

Some of the challenges of the model include the need to find an appropriate bank partner willing to pilot investing in the poor by offering them bank loans against Enzi’s collateral. Banks in India are often risk-averse and historically do not serve the poor and hence, do not know how to evaluate their credit-worthiness. Enzi will probably have to step in as part evaluator of students, which in the absence of collateral that they cannot provide, will have to be a test of integrity and aspirations. There are many possible ways to test for integrity and ambition; the challenge is identifying and implementing the most relevant for this context.

Despite the challenges which come with developing such an innovative scheme, Ashni Mohnot’s idea resonates not only with interested individuals who wish to gain access to education, but also with the world at large. A number of firms have offered pro-bono advice, including a legal firm who gave free legal advice in the range of $1m for the original model of student investments and continues to be interested in working with Enzi’s new guarantee model. In addition to the honor of the Echoing Green Fellowship, Enzi has had coverage in a number of publications, including The Economist, Forbes, and WSJ’s SmartMoney.

Profit with purpose

Only time will tell whether Enzi will be a success. However, there are a couple of important messages about personal leadership.

For one, Mohnot’s story exemplifies the motivational power of intrinsic goals: “I am truly enjoying this journey, it is a meaningful venture, even though it is not always easy, given the different challenges of starting a business and developing an idea that is novel and still needs room to grow and evolve. Running my own venture speaks to my values of wanting to be independent and free. Much like my parents, I do not mind taking risks if I believe in the payoff of the investment.”

In line with living a life based on her values is Mohnot’s realization of wanting to create something greater than herself. Though Enzi is a non profit organization, Mohnot intends to not only make sure that the organization thrives and grows, but also has a revenue stream to make it financially sustainable and independent of donors and that she make a living from her work. At the same time, it is clear that earning an income is not her only motivator. Indeed, it is further down her priority list: “I know that I am privileged that I could study at Stanford. And I believe that it is my responsibility to use the skills and experiences I now have to make a difference in the world. My work is my legacy – I need to leave behind when I die something that was larger than my life itself. I cannot live any other way.”

A good part of what we know about this particular aspect of personal leadership is informed by the work of psychologist Erik Erikson. His widely accepted concept is that people pass through a series of stages over the course of their life. One of these stages is generativity (as opposed to stagnation) – a concern with matters outside the self, but more with the world and next generations. On the personal side it may involve raising children or supporting a cause such as animal rights. On the professional dimension, it can be as ‘small’ as mentoring a younger colleague, or as big as starting a second career that revolves around a topic or area that matters to the individual based on his or her value system and set of experiences. A famous example is Bill Gates who stepped down in 2000 as CEO of Microsoft to pursue a number of of philantrophic endeavors through the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation he had launched that same year.

Generativity tends to evolve later in life. In this sense, Mohnot’s high level of psychological maturity at the beginning of her career stands out. We often see a life crisis as the trigger for generativity at such a young age. In Mohnot’s case, it was her financial difficulty that had a major impact on her. Her college majors, her openness to taking risks, and her optimistic outlook on life subsequently created an opportunity that she couldn’t pass up. Recognizing her personal growth as part of the growth of a greater whole caused her to reframe her goal in a bigger way, ultimately not only enriching her own life but also the life of others.

Which brings to mind one of my favorite Gandhi quotes: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

You can follow Ashni.

by anne lueneburger

Bill Massa, CEO Synagro, Houston, Texas

Imagine standing inside a giant tank. The tank is filled with two million gallons of sludge. Waist deep in what you force yourself to think of as oatmeal, you are inching forward purposefully and cautiously. Purposefully, because your task today is to clean up decade-old treated human waste with a pressure hose. Cautiously because your partner just advised you that the ground is extremely slippery!

This is what I saw Bill Massa, CEO of Synagro, the nation’s largest provider of comprehensive waste water treatment and conversion services, do on CBS’s Emmy nominated series of Undercover Boss at the end of March. This most watched premiere episode of any reality series, ‘Undercover Boss’ follows different leaders every month as they leave the amenities of their headquarters to examine, incognito, the inner workings of their companies.

In this episode, Massa comes across as a likeable, down to earth guy with a good sense of humor – even when he is faced with potentially working alongside alligators in a sewage lagoon. So, what motivates a senior leader to agree to get his hands dirty, and what does reality look like beyond what we see on TV?

The company

Bill Massa became CEO of Synagro in 2009. The company, owned by private equity giant The Carlyle Group, converts sewage sludge into marketable products including green energy. It also designs, builds, owns and operates biosolids recycling facilities/systems. Their specialty is in drying, pelletizing, composting, digestion, renewable energy generation and incinerating biosolids, which they sell as nutrient-rich fertilizer or green energy fuel.

An optimistic start

The oldest of four boys, Massa was born in Brooklyn, New York, and for most of his adolescence grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. When Massa was in high school, his father asked whether he was planning to go to college and how he was going to pay for it. Bill Massa remembers thinking it would be a mix of work, loans and support from home. “I was quite wrong,” he laughs remembering. “My father responded with ‘Well you have two of these three right. You are the oldest, we have modest means, what we do for one we have to do for all, and we have to focus on retirement.”

Confronted with this challenge, Massa started looking for solutions. He attributes his capacity to achieve his goals and stay motivated to learning from his mother. “My mother is an amazing person. As a young girl her mother passed away, her father abandoned the kids, and she grew up in a series of foster homes. But despite all of the adversity, she always had a positive outlook on life, and now at 77-years-old, she still has it.”

While some of our natural characteristics are embedded in our genetic DNA, scientific evidence supports the case that optimism is cultivated at a young age and is informed by the explanatory style that children observe in their primary care giver. (Reassuringly for those of us who do not grow up in such an environment, science also informs us that, even later in life, we can learn to change our outlook and, through consciously challenging negative self-talk, develop a more ‘optimistic’ perspective.)

In line with an optimist’s habit of interpreting challenges as temporary, changeable and local, Massa secured a ROTC scholarship with the US Navy, and began his engineering degree at Northwestern in Chicago. He later transferred to Cornell, and managed to take his scholarship with him, something that had not been done before: “When I am told that something is not possible or can’t be done, I get very excited about doing it! That I definitely get from my mother.” Massa’s resourcefulness and strong motivation to achieve his goals points to another psychological trait: hope. Both hope and optimism are positively correlated with performance and the ability to be a transformational leader[1]. A journey Massa was about to embark on.

Pivotal moment: management vs. engineering

As part of his studies, Massa worked in a company as the junior amongst a group of engineers. It was this experience that shaped his decision to stay with the Navy beyond college, as it offered him ample opportunity to become involved in management. “There was this brilliant guy, Rudy, a very smart engineer. He was managed by this young kid who clearly didn’t know as much as he did. All of us would always go to Rudy for answers, yet he wasn’t at all appreciated compared to the value he provided. Rather, management was getting all the glory. So I thought if I get an engineering degree and go into management, maybe I can change this dynamic.”

After graduating with a Bachelors degree in electrical engineering from Cornell in 1982, Massa joined the Navy’s Nuclear Submarine Training and stayed on for seven more years. He advanced rapidly through the ranks and emerged at the top of his peer group. In 1989, equipped with an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he decided it was time to leave: “I had a good career going, but I knew that I wanted to do a lot more with my life. Five days after my first son was born I had to go to sea for three-and-a-half months. My younger son was born while I was at sea.”

When Massa speaks about his family, it is apparent how high this ranks in terms of priorities. Married for 30 years to his high school sweetheart (who is a senior executive in the software industry), he is about to embark on a two-week sailing trip in Greece with his wife and friends. He also makes time to balance his demanding professional life with some rounds of squash and tennis. “It helps that I only need about six hours sleep”, he says, laughingly putting things into perspective.

Corporate life

Leaving the Navy, Bill Massa joined General Chemical Corporation as a Financial Analyst, and was promoted rapidly. At the age of 32, he supported 40% of the firm’s general line of sales, and oversaw the national network of close to 100 distributors with sales in excess of $60m.

In 1994, he was recruited by Cambrex Corporation, another chemical manufacturer, and was charged with turning around one of the company’s weakest business lines. This turned out to be a tough assignment: “The business was really struggling with profitability, sales, quality and safety. After a lot of hard work we were able to take the business to record performance. I received a promotion to run a much larger business, and about a year later my former business was struggling again – I couldn’t believe it! The CEO asked – or forced! – me to add my former business to my current responsibilities. After a lot of reflection I realized I had not built strong and sustainable teams and processes.”

As with earlier personal and professional set backs, Massa showed an exceptional ability to adapt his responses to shifting (and often stressful) situational demands. He vowed to never “make that mistake again” and quickly assumed increasingly larger roles. In 2000 Massa was nominated President of Cambrex Specialty Chemicals.

Two years later, he was recruited by another Chemical giant, Celanese Corporation, to build a billion dollar global Performance Chemical Division through acquisitions.  He accomplished this and was asked to integrate and run the Division.

Massa ended up spending about 17 years in the chemical industry. “I liked this industry as it was very challenging and very diverse. It was a great place to learn sales, relationships, business, market dynamics and value propositions.”

Going green – a business case

In October of 2006 Massa launched his own consulting practice, focused on Private Equity Portfolio companies but, only a few months later, he was offered a unique opportunity: becoming CEO of Clean Earth, a recycler of contaminated soil and other hazardous and non-hazardous materials.

Massa assumed this role in January 2007, and saw some quick wins through increasing revenues and the firm’s profitability. However, he had now become hot property in the limited pool of senior talent, and was headhunted in November of 2009 to become CEO of Synagro. “I am a very loyal person and I always look to do the best wherever I am. I am also fairly rational, and have turned down many job offers. But when I learned about Synagro and its particular challenges and opportunities, I fell in love after about 30 seconds. I didn’t know anything about wastewater and sludge, but I saw a really good match between what I like to do and what I am good at – developing and executing strategies and building teams.”

Different from what one might expect, Massa’s main interest did not stem from becoming a ‘green’ CEO. He laughs as he shares his sister-in-law’s comment: “You have spent 15 years polluting the Earth, now you can spend the next 15 cleaning it up.” As Massa sees it, “It is a good business. Waste is waste. There is a lot of value and profit in waste. It is not any more complicated than that.”

Strategic rigor meets street smarts

Having come on board as Synagro’s new leader, Massa took over from a team that had been managed through fear: “The previous management had a very different approach from what I believe in. For some time they had discouraged risk taking, not invested in the business and capital equipment, did not develop people and had maximized short term business goals. There was no strategic plan in place, not even informally.”

Within the first 100 days Massa, together with a steering committee of twenty people, drafted a strategic plan. He later involved most of the managers in the company. “When we started out, I was literally the only person who had ever done a strategic plan.”

About two dozen of Synagro’s employees presented this plan to The Carlyle Group (Massa stepped back and assumed the role of ‘supportive audience’). The response was exhilarating. Of the hundreds of strategic plans that the investor had reviewed, they ranked Synagro’s among the very best. “It was nice to hear. But more important was that the Synagro team did not hear this from me, but from a critical outside source.”

Since then it has all been about execution. “I absolutely believe in running a business with a plan, executing in line with the plan, and generating open lines of communication.” The plan’s comprehensive framework serves as a foundation and compass and Massa’s biggest challenge now is finding and developing the right talent behind the tasks that lay before the company.

These struggles are rooted in Synagro’s previous culture which was ruled by fear and risk aversion. To accomplish this culture shift, Massa spends a lot of time communicating in the field. “I aim to have a relationship which runs deep down into the organization.  What you see on Undercover Boss is what I do – I have been in plants and generally try to maximize direct contact with my leadership team, their reports and their reports. We are in the middle of talent review process of all managers in the company. I hold a quarterly company-wide conference call – for all employees to participate in – where I have several people make a brief presentation on how the company is doing and then for the next hour I answer any questions they may have from anywhere on any topic. The list goes on and on.”

Wings of compassion

As much as Massa stands ready to make tough decisions to create and lead a successful business, behind all that tough exterior is a soft heart.

Angel Flight East is an operation that transports seriously ill patients (free of charge) to medical facilities far from their homes. For over a decade, Bill Massa has been a part of their dedicated pilots’ group. In his spare time he uses his personal airplane, a Columbia 400, and regularly transports patients and their families. “I have been very fortunate in my life, I have worked very hard for what I have, have taken a lot of chances, risks, have fallen, picked myself up a bunch of times, but life has generally worked out very well for me. There are a lot of other folks who are not as fortunate.”

Massa was shaped by his own experience as one of his brothers was born with serious health issues. “There is only so much I can do for my brother, but Angel flights combine my love for flying with my desire to give back. I get a great deal of satisfaction and it helps to keep things in perspective. Most of my passengers face personal tragedy and loss. And yet despite of all of that, they are very optimistic and have a positive outlook.”

He describes one time when he transported an elderly married couple. The wife was just returning from chemotherapy, the husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I was struck by how grateful they both were, as it looked like they would still be able to celebrate the holidays together.”

A transformational leader

Massa – throughout his career – has been entrusted to lead change. While many of his peers may possess equally smart strategic vision, Massa has an edge. His ability to harness his own positive psychological capabilities, such as being hopeful, optimistic and resilient, equip him to be an exceptional leader who inspires confidence and trust in his followers.

In his current role of a smaller operation in a dynamic environment, his transformational leadership style promises to have an even greater impact than in the larger and more conventional environments in which he operated during his time in the chemical industry.

Add to this powerful mix his self-efficacy, which expresses itself in a solid confidence in his own abilities to complete a task successfully, and it is clear why Carlyle have most likely picked a ‘winner’ in their investment. Massa’s hopeful and perseverant leadership style portrays a positive future to his team. His innate ability to thrive on challenge and cope with failure will empower them to take calculated risks, to seek innovation and to rebound from setbacks.

There is a hopeful message in this for all of us: different from the personal strengths that we see as trait-like and innate, the psychological capacities of optimism, hope, resilience and self-efficacy are changeable. This in turn means that we can cultivate these capacities in ourselves and in those we lead by using a variety of proven interventions. The science of positive psychology has a lot to offer when it comes to strengthening the optimism and resilience muscles.

An increasing number of organizations are recognizing the importance of introducing and building psychological capabilities such as those which Massa carries naturally within his leadership teams. And it may not surprise that innovators such as Google, with their ‘Project Oxygen’, have formally integrated positive psychology interventions into their leadership training. More traditional operations, such as the US Army, are also coming on board, and the defense force has set aside $145 million for a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program. CSF is designed in collaboration with leading positive psychologists, and equips soldiers with a training that reinforces signature strengths, mental resilience and strong interpersonal bonds.

Thinking back to where it all began for Bill Massa, with his successful term with the US Navy, one might argue that he instinctively knew ’the secret’ all along: being optimistic, hopeful and resilient are the key ingredients to personal and organizational success, and to a fulfilled life.

[1] Peterson, S.J. et al (2009); “CEO Positive Psychological Traits, Transformational Leadership, and Firm Performance in High-Technology Start-up and Established Firms”, Journal of Management, Vol. 35 No.2, pp. 348 – 368

by anne lueneburger


Pete Eckert, Conceptual Artist, Sacramento, California

Good coaches are good listeners. Exceptional coaches master the art of listening which takes place at a deeper level. They receive information in what they hear with their ears, as well as through their other senses.

My recent conversation with Pete Eckert took place over the phone. As I asked him questions, I had the sense that he was listening to my every word and sensing its intonation with an almost palpable attention. It literally felt as if he was in the room with me. Like a master listener, he was fully engaged (and made me feel fully engaged!), in the moment.

His responses were candid, without obvious filtering even though, as he shares, “some of this is not so easy to talk about.” Pete Eckert is a photographer. He is also blind. An inspiring individual and trailblazer, his work and his life story build powerful bridges between the world of the blind and the sighted.

What he does and how it works

Equipped with three cameras: a digital point-and-shoot Canon; an old Mamia Flex Twin lens reflex, and a large 4×5 Toyo view camera with a Rodenstock lens, Eckert creates striking black and white images that reflect movement and light, adding hints of color. His art is shot mostly at nighttime.

So, how does he go about creating art without seeing? Eckert explains: ”In essence, while most ‘seeing’ photographers go out in the world searching for shots, I am looking from the inside out. I see myself more as a conceptual artist than a photographer. During a shoot I think about it a lot, I shoot very slowly. If I am photographing a woman’s face, for example, I may think of a flower, the transition of skin tone. It must be fairly specific, as when it is too broad, I cannot conceive what I am doing.”

Aside from his extraordinary imagination, Eckert sees the world through sound and touch. “Just take when I am approaching an object such as a parking meter. I sort of ‘see’ sound, perceive the waves of energy, the sounds of objects that are moving around it that are deflected from it.”

While blindness does not necessarily cause other senses (such as smell or hearing) to become more developed, the loss of eyesight facilitates using one’s other senses more effectively. “I would go so far as to say that vision actually masks the other senses. Not having the ability to see allows me to develop an entirely different ‘view’ of the world. I get insight and expand my mind as to what is possible.” Eckert, who was completely blind by the age of 42, also taps into his memory when it comes to investigating his creations.

Once the shoot is done Eckert develops the film and runs contact prints. Only then does he involve sighted people. “They give me feedback before I create large dramatic final prints. I want them involved, to get them thinking.”

Over the past twelve years of working in photography, this 54-year-old artist’s work has received a lot of attention by the sighted world. His art has been exhibited in numerous prestigious art galleries and shows around the country and abroad. In 2011, his art was exhibited at the Photo LA 2011, the 20th Annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Exposition by the Blind Photographers Guild in Santa Monica (California). In 2010, Eckert was invited to exhibit In ‘Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists’ by the Falcon Gallery in Moscow (Russia), the ‘Fundacion Once III Bienal De Arte Contemporaneo’ in Madrid (Spain) and at the Centro de la Imagen exhibit ‘La Mirada Invisible: Colectiva Internacional De Fotógrafos Ciegos’ in Mexico City (Mexico) as well as nationally at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC. In 2009, Apple invited the artist for a presentation at their Cupertino headquarters in California. Eckert has won 1st place at the Artist Wanted “Exposure” competition in New York, and came in 3rd place in “Global Art Look” at the International Juried Show, Matrix Arts, California. The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery honored him with the ‘Award of Outstanding Artist’, and Eckert came in 1st on the Black & White 15th Annual Photography Competition in 2002.

Growing up, growing blind

Pete Eckert grew up on the East coast in rural Connecticut. His mother, a journalist, was head of a household of five children: three boys and two girls. His father, a civil engineer, was a creative spirit and always had projects going. Much like his father, Pete Eckert enjoyed to “build things and play mechanic. I was fairly solitary, wandering the woods and playing with small motorcycles.” Bright, but battling dyslexia, “the conventional school regimen was difficult.”

Based on his visual talent, he trained in sculpture and industrial design. While working as a carpenter, his dream was to study architecture at Yale. It was during this time that he started noticing that he was losing his sight. Following night blindness and tunnel vision, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that leads to incurable blindness. At 28 he was considered legally blind: a person with this condition would need to stand 20 feet from an object to see it with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet. “I was in shock, wondering how I could take care of myself and how I was to make a living.”


Engaged at the time, his (now wife) Amy stood by him during the two years that it took Eckert to bounce back and begin to think about his future again. Eckert decided that getting his MBA “was a very broad solution for an unknown problem. It was not yet clear to me what it would mean to be blind. I was the only one in my class in blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket. It was night school, and most of my classmates were in suits and ties. I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was hard to compete with me though because I was so determined to succeed. My intensity was fuelled by fear and desperation.”

Upon graduation from business school (with honors), Eckert struggled to find employment. “It was odd, as I was dressed up to get jobs, yet would have to pedal on my bike to these interviews as I no longer felt comfortable riding my Moto Guzzi.” There was abundant opportunity and interest in this bright and driven candidate among the traditional MBA hiring recruiters, yet as potential employers became aware of his visual impairment, they tended to back off.

Eckert decided to try a more linear approach to employment that would “fit his profile” – at least on paper. He secured a role as business consultant for rehabilitation with California’s Department Of Services For The Blind. Ironically, it was not long before he realized that this institution was “not a good place for blind person”. Rather than advocating the blind population, much of the bureaucracy seemed to support the 85% unemployment rate of blind people.

Eckert left the Department of Rehab: “I decided to get back into art work, to do something that I had enjoyed all my life. I started out using my machining and woodworking skills to produce 1750s type clocks. From that, other, larger wood works emerged. My production rate was slow, though, about four times lower than that of a seeing person.”

Blindness had also brought about a heightened sense of vulnerability around his physical safety. Shortly after receiving his MBA degree, Eckert’s training in martial arts earned him a black belt in tae kwon do. He now also decided to get a guide dog, a black German Shepherd named Uzu.

One day, cleaning out drawers, he came across a 1950’s Kodak, a camera that had belonged to his mother-in-law. After learning more about the functionality, Eckert was hooked. He picked up a computer and a talking scanner and began devouring books about photography. A local photo store loaned him a Mamiya Flex to get started: “I loved it. I used it so much that the camera started to show wear.”

Tipping point

Eckert found that his photos resonated with the world. Searching to find his authentic style, it was the comment of a friend of Eckerts, a guy from England, that pushed his work to a whole other level:”Pete, you could be just another shabby fashion photographer. Why do you follow the view of the sighted? Why not show the view of the blind?”

Eckert now went on regular nightly excursions with his cameras, in the company of his loyal companion, Uzu, to take the shots that characterize his work today. “My art does not represent all of the blind. It only represents my own view of the world. I strive to translate the non-visual graphically into a visual, sort of as a metaphor of blindness. It is a means to express color, to contain color. I try to portray what I perceive is in front of me.”

Eckert’s style, as for any artist, is ever evolving. He works in batches of photos, and his objects are driven by opportunity: ”I get inspired by situations I find myself in, and I often work in a stream of photos, typically in batches of about 100 photos that I can easily memorize.”

Blinded by assumptions

Eckert’s work is exceptional, not limited but expanded as a result of his life story. Not surprisingly, a number of people did not believe he was blind. “I was in galleries talking about my work. People challenged me that I was not blind.” Eckert still seems taken aback as he recalls this experience. “Their assumption was that a blind man’s photography could never be this good.”

On a very basic level, the reactions of the gallery owners are comprehensible, although they reveal a blindness even more profound. Eckert does not lead what, on the outside, you may expect to be a blind man’s life. You may see him in the fall, on top of the roof of his house, brushing off leaves. As he walks the streets, he wears regular sunglasses and has retrained his highly trained guide dog to behave more like a regular pet to the outside world: “Not standing out makes it easier for me to deal with the world. I feel more accepted.”

Lessons from Eckert

If I translate Eckert’s experience to my own work with leaders, then not questioning entrenched beliefs about one’s own story, or that of others, is one of the major challenges that the seemingly seeing person is blinded and subsequently limited by. When I ask Eckert what any of us can do to develop greater understanding about a world outside of their own, his response is passionate: “Stop assuming things. I am personally very careful about making assumptions, about anybody.” Taking this a step further and applying it to the day-to-day lives of professionals, a first step towards building bridges and strong relationships with others is to lead with questions. Strive to foster an open and inquisitive dialog, unburdened by preconceived notions.

Eckert’s yearning to remain a valued and appreciated part of the world of the seeing reminds me of something Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mount Everest, said in the documentary ‘Blindsight’: “When I was 15 I went blind, completely blind. I hated blindness. I wasn’t afraid to go blind and see darkness. That is a myth. I was afraid to be swept to the sidelines and be forgotten. To be obsolete.”

Biases towards blindness can take extreme forms. Tibetans believe that blindness is the divine punishment of bad behavior over the course of a previous life. It may manifest itself in a perceived inferiority when it comes to overall productivity and contribution at work (even if the obstacles of not seeing are not relevant in a given job context). It may show up in the form of aggression perpetuated on blind people from the sighted, as Eckert has seen a number of times:”One night I was attacked by three men. They almost ran me over, and based on their shouting it was obvious that there was purpose.”

Overcoming biases of the seeing world takes guts. To apply this more broadly, biases against who we are or what we stand for present tough and substantive challenges. Most of us experience this in some form at different times in our lives, be it in school, at work or at home. However, working on overcoming these challenges builds courage and fosters self-confidence and growth. And frequently it lets ordinary people produce extraordinary results.

Eckert consistently pushes himself and broadens his personal comfort zone to live his passion more fully “I believe it is better to risk all and die than to sit in the chair for the rest of my life.” He pauses, reflecting on the stakes, which in his case can translate into live and death moments, and adds: “As I get older, it is a bit scarier. Young men don’t fear dying as much.”

Choosing to see what matters

Eckert shared this example about how he can and does choose to experience life through his perceptions:

“There is this funky dive restaurant close to where we live. It is run down, next to a railroad crossing and not in a very good part of town. They serve great Japanese food and Amy and I like to go there. In my imagination, it has nice wooden paneling – from the 1850s – and there is an old train rumbling by! I have the liberty to choose how I perceive the world. It is my world full of spirits and it is up to me to see the good or to see the bad. It is a question of choice.”

And this choice is available to all of us, much of the time. This is not a question of positive thinking, it is not about taking something that is objectively difficult and challenging, such as a serious illness, and seeking what is good about it. It is instead about having a tool kit of tactics that enable us to embrace life and life’s challenges, and to broaden our own horizons through being anchored to who we are and what makes us unique. Through doing this we can build resilience, overcome obstacles and live a more fulfilled life. And Peter Eckert is an inspirational case-in-point.

north of neutral dialog

April 1, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Dara O’Rourke, Chairman, GoodGuide, San Francisco

Did you know hippos can hang out in summer sunshine all day without getting sunburn? Their sweat contains microscopic structures that disperse light, protecting these massive mammals from burns. Now, if you are like most consumers, you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to look for sunscreen based on hippo sweat! You’d probably pick up a brand that you trust. Because many of us assume that ‘brands’ are the best.

I did too – that is until I met Dara O’Rourke in 2010 in Fontainebleau, France, where he was a speaker at INSEAD’s Sustainability Conference. He kicked off a presentation he was giving on his start-up ‘GoodGuide’ by showing a slide of his seven-year-old daughter Minju and a bottle of sunscreen. It turned out that the top-selling brand he used to lather on his toddler contained a hormone-disrupting chemical and a carcinogen activated by sunlight… It had been his training as a scientist combined with his concern as a new parent that had caused him to look more closely at the contents of the products he was using in his household.

What started out as Dara O’Rourke’s concern and quest for knowledge has evolved into a broad consumer-accessible platform. As a result of the work of O’Rourke and his team, the average consumer (you or I) is now more empowered to make informed decisions about which products to buy based on our personal values and concerns.

The role

Dara O’Rourke is co-founder and Chief Sustainability Officer of, a revolutionary suite of tools he launched in 2007 to inform consumers about the environmental, health and social impacts of products and companies. An associate professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Dara has spent the past 20 years researching the environmental, labor, and health impacts of global supply chains.

O’Rourke’s work has been featured in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Business Week, Newsweek, Time, CBS, ABC, NPR and O – the Oprah Magazine.

Chapter one: academic…

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Dara O’Rourke grew up in Pullman, a small college town in Washington State. The son of a professor of Agricultural Economics and a financial aid administrator at Washington State University, O’Rourke embarked on an academic career himself. Having earned his Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering and Political Science from MIT, he signed on as a research assistant with ICF, a DC consulting firm, on projects looking at global climate change and its effect on human health and the environment, before going on to spend most of the nineties in consulting roles for organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the US Environmental Protection Agency on pollution prevention and sustainable development concerns, mostly in Vietnam, Thailand and the US. At the same time he completed a PhD in Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Program.

Generally less outspoken and persuasive than his older brother (who incidentally has made a career in sales), O’Rourke laughs as he recalls his relationship with his sibbling:”I remember him tricking me out of my favorite toys when I was six years old. I was always much more academically inclined.” However, when it comes to core values, O’Rourke easily overcomes his reluctance to speak up. As part of his research on global supply chains, O’Rourke pushed forward and exposed some of the questionable practices of global corporate players. A number of publications, including his 1997 article discussing problems with Nike’s labor practices in Asia, attest to that.

After a couple of years at MIT as an assistant professor, O’Rourke returned to the west coast in 2003 to take up a professorship in Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management.

Chapter two: …and social entrepreneur

In 2005 Dara O’Rourke used $300,000 of grant resources and a group of Berkeley computer science majors to begin systematically collecting data from over 200 trusted sources on a selection of products: “You need to look at a wide range of criteria and go down the supply chain to assess the full health, environmental and social impact of a seemingly trivial purchase of something like a bottle of conditioner.”

O’Rourke’s personal life story of becoming a parent is intricately interwoven with the inception of GoodGuide. Add to this O’Rourke’s passion for creating a sustainable world: ”I am frankly surprised not more people do disruptive things to bring about positive change.” And what follows is an ability to bring others on board: “I am not sure if I am truly a social entrepreneur or more of a troublemaker… As soon as I am passionate about an idea I seem to have the Irish ‘gift of the gab’ and work to convince others to join in and offer support.” Certainly his credentials and hard-won expertise in the field were convincing enough for the initial team of scientists and engineers to pursue the idea of applying hard metrics to the environmental, health and social impact of a company’s products.

In addition to building the technical platform and creating the scientific measures for GoodGuide, there were also the tasks involved with launching the business. After struggling to find investors initially, O’Rourke and his team managed to secure VC funding of $9.2 million. They also had to embark on unfamiliar territory such as marketing their start-up and deciding on a name for the business: “We spent a year trying to figure out a name… We were named Taoit for one year (the idea being to ‘help people find their own path in the marketplace…’) Everyone hated that name. Then we generated lists of hundreds of possible names. I showed them to a linguist named George Lakoff – who is a professor friend of mine at Berkeley – and famous for his work on “framing”. He said from our list there was only one acceptable name with a positive frame which was understandable and empowering, and that was GoodGuide. I then had to go buy the web address from a squatter!”

GoodGuide launched officially in September 2008. Since then it has grown dramatically, both in terms of public awareness and in terms of the respect it has gained. Its initial mission was to facilitate decision-making at the point of purchase, and to help to promote sustainable brands, “our goal is to have product ratings become standard in the industry. Our tipping point would be if companies will come to us to get rated proactively and if they join us in our quest to offer true value to the end consumer.”

In January 2011, the site had 570,000 visitors: “Our growth rate to date has been between 10 and 20% per month.” The small scale of the firm (with 25 permanent staff) allows the firm to learn and react faster than the big corporate players. “Most companies innovate once a year, a software firm maybe every three months. At GoodGuide, every week we launch something new, new web features, ratings of new product categories. In January it was coffee and tea and pet food, in February we offered ratings on appliances, cell phones and apparel,” explains Dara O’Rourke. On their second homepage revamp within 6 months, O’Rourke emphasizes that the “key is to create an innovative culture where you are allowed to fail, and to fail fast.”

Being in the sustainable business also means having a sustainable business model. “I am not in this to make money personally. But we are moving fast to make this a sustainable, thriving company.” O’Rourke states firmly when I ask him about revenue streams. In addition to some minor revenues from sales leads to Amazon and licensing scientific and competitive data to companies, O’Rourke and his team are currently looking into licensing data to retailers and institutional purchasers to help them evaluate their offerings before they go on the shelves. The overarching objective is to continue to offer GoodGuide’s insight to the end consumer at no cost.

A case for (radical) transparency

My interview with Dara O’Rourke took place at the end of January, shortly after he had returned from moderating a panel of senior leaders at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos on ‘The New Reality of Consumer Power’. More pointedly, we spoke a few hours before the historic day on the 10th February 2011, when a peaceful revolution by the Egyptian people brought a 30-year dictatorship to an end. It is too early to say what will come of all of this, but one thing that the events in Egypt made clear was the power of social media – Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Audioboo – to maximize the ability of its users to be heard, and ultimately to become a force to be reckoned with.

A similar effect takes place when organizations such as GoodGuide promote ecological transparency. Consumers have shown a growing demand for safer, healthier products. GoodGuide has scored over 95,000 products that consumers can now review on the company’s web site. In addition, with the help of smart phones consumers can, at the point of purchase, scan a product’s bar code and, in less than one second, get a 1 to 10 rating of products based on their health and ecological footprint. Apple has added GoodGuide to its apps and, while currently only 20% of Americans have smart phones, predictions are that in two years almost everybody will have replaced their cell phones with these devices.

The ability to get valid, trustworthy information almost instantaneously helps fight ‘greenwashing’, as now consumers can compare products and demand improvements. Word-of-mouth also serves to boost transparency, and GoodGuide is introducing new social features that support this effect.

Firms have become increasingly aware of this consumer pull. Market trends are impacting their decisions as to how to invest in R&D. O’Rourke notes that, “We are seeing big multinationals – such as Pepsi – respond to these consumer shifts as a result of transparency at the point of purchase. They have committed publicly to cut sodium in their products by 20%, and sugar by 25% over the next ten years.”

About leading an integrated life

As with other authentic leaders, O’Rourke appears cognizant of the importance of integrating professional and personal priorities and of making choices which play to one’s strengths. By mid August 2010, he replaced himself with a CEO: “Over our first year in business I learned a lot. Every day was a bit like a rollercoaster ride. Managing a social start-up required me to wear many hats… in addition to being the CEO I was essentially Chairman, Chief Sustainability Officer, Scientist, head of PR, accountant, and evangelist. I was faced with my own strengths and weaknesses and learned quickly that where I am best and what energizes me most is to work with the science team and to be the public voice for our organization.”

However, striking that right balance between professional and personal life remains a challenge. Once nominated ‘Male Sports Figure of 1997’ by Village Voice, and still a passionate surfer and swimmer, O’Rourke seems ‘consumed’ by GoodGuide, which he leads in addition to teaching two classes for the spring semester at one of the top academic institutions in the nation. “Currently there is no socializing. Sleep is a luxury, and there is no time for sports. My wife and daughter have been tremendously supportive, but I know I travel too much and I work too much.”

At which point I suggest to him that were O’Rourke himself to be rated on GoodGuide, he would rank highly in terms of his impact on the environment around him, but the picture would be more ambiguous when it comes to his personal social upkeep and health. This does seem to resonate and he is aware of the need for change which he reinforces by sharing some concrete steps that he plans to take: “After this semester I plan to reduce travel, especially plane travel, and swim three mornings a week.”

GoodGuide is not just about measuring the ‘status quo’, it is about enabling the process of becoming “more good” for all companies – and giving socially and environmentally focused companies an edge – a trajectory to which Dara O’Rourke is fully committed. Maybe Hippo sweat sunscreen isn’t so far off after all…

north of neutral dialog

March 5, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Veronique Rivest, Sommelier, Quebec

I first met Veronique Rivest when she stepped into the elevator of The Huntington on Nob Hill, San Francisco. I was on my way down to the lobby to check out and return to New York after three days of work on the west coast. Despite being somewhat shy when I meet new people, by the time we had reached the ground floor I found myself asking this stranger to share a cab to the airport so we could continue our chat.

It was on that  30-minute cab ride that I learned that she was one of the key players in the world of sommeliers, quite surprising and in stark contrast to her nonchalant and approachable attitude. In fact, as she took a sip from her mug, she burst out in an infectious laugh: “This coffee tastes strange, I wonder if it still has some wine from yesterday left in it.” At the gate we agreed to follow-up with an interview to explore her journey in the world of wine.

The role

A seasoned wine-specialist, Veronique Rivest has represented her native Canada at a number of prestigious wine competitions worldwide. In October 2010, she placed 3rd at the Sommelier World Cup in Paarl, South Africa. The same year she won the much sought-after Peter Lehmann Shiraz World Sommelier Award. In 2009 she came in second at the Best Sommelier of the Americas Competition in Buenos Aires, and in 2007 was named ‘Wine Woman of the Year’ at the renowned Wine Woman Awards competition in Paris, and finished semi-finalist at the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Greece.

In addition to her presence in the global world of sommeliers, Rivest also consults, leads educational programs and oversees corporate events. Within this role she has created award-winning wine programs for some of Canada’s top restaurants, and runs educational programs on behalf of organizations such as Wines of Australia, Wines of Greece and Wines of Germany. She has served as a judge in global wine and food competitions and is  the wine columnist forRadio-Canada and Journal le Droit. Rivest also serves as spokesperson of the ‘Mondial des Cidres de Glace’ as well as being a regular contributor to specialty magazines and television shows.

The journey

Rivest grew up in Quebec, the youngest of three children of a German mother and a French-Canadian father. Between her mother’s career as a professional translators and her father’s as an economist for the Canadian  government, the home life of this family of fivewas always busy. Nevertheless, Rivest describes how most evenings her family would gather and share engaging discussion at the dinner table – both about daily life and world events. Food, good wine and socializing were part of her family’s fabric: “I loved eating and discovering new flavors. I was one of those horrible kids that would put everything in my mouth. It would drive my parents crazy!”

A naturally curious person, at the age of twelve Rivest had her first encounter with wine. Accompanying her father to a reception, she picked up a glass of wine and was intrigued by this unfamiliar taste. It was another twelve years though before Rivest decided to explore the world of wine more seriously…

A thirst for discovery made it difficult for her to decide on a definite career path for quite some time. “I was always afraid of specializing – as I was convinced I would miss out on so much.” Which reminded me of studies on the nature of ‘curiosity’. According to well-known psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, there exists a direct correlation between our cognitive resources and our interest in the world. In other words: nothing is truly compelling until we choose to focus our attention on it.

During her first year abroad in France, following completion of a BA in Modern Languages and Literature, Rivest signed on as an apprentice for a winery and, as a result, started to consider a career in wine:”How could you not like this job? I learned a lot, worked alongside the winemaker in the lab, was attending wine tastings and was generally appreciated for my ‘fresh palate’.”

It was a rapid learning curve from here. Rivest taught the ‘Introduction to Oenology’ at the Hotel Management School in Strasbourg while getting her MBA from Schiller University. In 1992 she trained on analytical tastings with Serge Dubs, France’s Best Sommelier at the time and recognized as the number one in Europe.

After seven years in France, Rivest decided to return to Canada with her husband. Having experienced a successful trajectory in the world of wine during her stay in Europe she now saw herself faced with a very different landscape: a state regulated monopoly of the wine industry. “The hiring of staff was not based on competence but based on the number of years and seniority.” As a woman in her early thirties she did not ‘fit the typical profile’ and her dream of continuing a career as a wine specialist seemed to have been dashed, so Rivest embarked on a career in retail sales in the restaurant industry.

The lucky break

In a fortuitous twist, however, soon after returning to Canada, Rivest came across an announcement for a competition for sommeliers in Montreal. “I thought that it would be a great way to get a sense for who the key players were in the local sommelier market.” Rivest signed up – along with about 60 other wine professionals and enthusiasts. Her personal strength equipped her with the willingness to accept the risk of failure, but Rivest was more than surprised when they announced the six finalists – she was among them. “Next was a taste test in front of a group of judges.” She recalls. “In preparation I found myself in a room with my competitors, five guys who all knew each other. I was practically a blank page after a number of years of having lived outside of the country. You could almost hear them whispering: Who the hell is that?”

Rivest lost the competition but regained her commitment to becoming one of the leading sommeliers in her native Canada. Another characteristic of intrinsically curious individuals, the heightened awareness of what Rivest did know and did not know in her chosen domain prompted her readiness to expand herself: “I realized that in the field of wine there are no boundaries as to what you can learn. That really fueled my love and desire for  learning more.”

As part of our dialog I had asked Rivest to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, a complimentary 30-minute questionnaire that measures the degree to which you identify with each of the 24 character strengths it assesses. This reliable, valid instrument is stable across cultures. It represents a solid step towards creating a heightened self-awareness, key pre-requisite to unleashing one’s full potential and to leading an authentic, fulfilling career and life. No surprise, Rivest’s number one signature strength turned out to be curiosity.


Mentor relationships in meaningful domains are known to foster a person’s desire to explore. Rivest’s professional inspiration is Gérard Basset, currently the only person in the world to hold the combined titles of Master of  Wine, Master Sommelier, Wine MBA and World’s Best Sommelier. “He competes on a regular basis, despite being 55, which is a very stressful undertaking. At the same time he remains the most approachable and  down-to-earth person. He operates a restaurant in England with his wife where he is implicated in everyday operations and mentors interns year round.”

Many competitions and global recognitions later, Rivest is looking to get her Master Sommelier Diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers:”When I am interested in something I completely sink in and devote myself to learning about it.” Part one of the Masters consists of applied restaurant wine service and salesmanship, part two covers wine theory, and part three involves the practical tasting part. Within twenty-five minutes a contestant must identify six different wines and, where appropriate, name grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages. The prestigious international examining body was established in 1977 and, given its low passing rate of 10 percent, only 174 people worldwide had become Master Sommeliers by 2011, and more than 90 percent are male.

However, Rivest’s extrinsic motivators to succeed – such as wishing to be acknowledged for her competencies – are very much balanced by her intrinsic motivation to find enjoyment in what she does. Her source of  inspiration and energy is in being able to continuously discover something new. It may be a new wine region, competition, colleague or simply discovering a new wine.

Here she laughs and shares one of her trophies of venturing out and forever discovering: “I love wines that transport you, that tell you a story. I came upon a lesser heard of creation, ‘Drappier Brut Nature Zero Dosage’.” She explains, “It comes from outside the classical Champagne région, a bit off the beaten track, and is different from other champagnes which use sugar to balance the high acid,as a brut nature has no sugar added. Of the brut  nature category, I have tasted a whole bunch of bad ones, very austere, almost hard. This Drappier stands out as it is well-rounded, of outstanding quality yet it currently sells very reasonably for under $30 a bottle.”

This feels like an appropriate note to end on and her description of her latest discovery and its attributes very much remind me of how I have come to experience Veronique Rivest myself. She’s bubbly, of superb yet  unassuming quality, and well-balanced in her drive for professional success and personal happiness. And undoubtedly, like a good wine, she will get even better over time. Surely the coveted title of Master Sommelier awaits…

north of neutral dialog

February 14, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Carol Kauffman, Founder & Director of the Institute of Coaching, Boston

At North of Neutral we work with successful leaders and their teams to achieve lasting positive change. Part of my due diligence as a coach is to ensure a consistent level of quality service to clients and, as part of this, I consider it to be my responsibility to continually invest in my own personal and professional growth and development. An element of this involves regular coaching sessions with a supervisor coach, in my case with Carol Kauffman.

In addition to being supportive, asking insightful questions, and giving feedback, Carol stands ready to confront me when needed. Occasionally this involves giving me a ‘swift kick’ to move me forward and help me realize my full potential.

I often come out of sessions with her full of energy and laughter (which, as we know from research on motivation, is one of the best indicators of engagement), and ready to take on my next challenging assignment.

The role

Dr. Carol Kauffman is Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and heads up the Institute of Coaching that she founded in 2009. The mission of the Institute is to offer education and research on Leadership, Healthcare and Applied Positive Psychology. Kauffman is also co-director of the annual Harvard Coaching Conference, and initiated the annual International Coaching Research Forum, an organization that promotes progress and community in coaching research.

Kauffman a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and is an Examiner for its Board. She is Chief Supervisor for Meyler Campell Ltd, a business coaching program based in London and, as a Professional Certified Coach, runs her own coaching practice working with seasoned C-suite executives.

A frequent key-note speaker on topics related to coaching, and Founding Editor in Chief of the academic journal ‘Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice’, Kauffman has also published a number of articles, including her 2009 Harvard Business Review publication “What Can Coaches Do for You?” the first of its kind to take a close (and quantitative) look at the realities of executive coaching.

Her work is featured and referenced extensively in the media – including publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business week, NPR and her coaching is featured in a documentary film by the CBC.

The journey

“I had a very unusual childhood,” explains Carol Kauffman when I ask her about her upbringing. She recounts how she was born into a lower middle class family in a small town in New Jersey, where her father began manufacturing tools. He grew increasingly successful, and over time the family became well off.

On the family’s journey through social classes – coming from “rats in the basement” through to living next door to Keith Richards and a home next occupied by the Shah of Iran – Kauffman describes her life at times as feeling like being in a movie set: “It was fascinating but odd, often I would be the only person in the room without a title.”

In addition to experiencing a wide range of socio-economic statuses, Kauffman’s parents also enabled a broad and inclusive view of spirituality, and a mature perspective on life’s purpose. Her father was Jewish, and her mother Episcopalian, with a vivid interest in Buddhism and psychic phenomena.

Kauffman credits this array of socio-economic and spiritual elements in her upbringing for her ability to coach a wide range of clients with ease, including the most senior leaders of the most powerful organizations worldwide. ”I am grateful to the chaos of my past,” she says.

In addition to these elements, from an early age Kauffman discovered that she had a profound curiosity about people. She explains that transformative experiences, such as the Jesuit priest who approached her at a retreat where she participated as a 10-year old, and who with rapt attention seemed to listen to her responses to his questions, “made me think: I must have something to say, something to offer.”

Still, as with many teenagers about to graduate from high school and getting ready for college, Kauffman had little idea of how ‘something to offer’ could take shape in the form of a future career. She recalls being 19 years old, out gardening with her mother, with a “beautiful view of the New York skyline, pulling weeds, and whining that I did not know what to do with my life.” Kauffman laughs as she shares her mother’s somewhat exasperated response: “Oh Carol, just figure what it is that you like to do, and then how to get paid for it.”

In ever so pragmatic terms, Kauffman’s mother had pointed out what positive psychologists and research have proven to be at the core of professional engagement and job satisfaction: identifying your strengths, and applying these as much as possible to what you do on a daily basis.

Based on her natural ability to talk to people, listen to their concerns and “sort things out”, Kauffman decided to major in psychology. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology in 1984 from Boston University.

As she practiced though, she was troubled by the common pathological approach of treating people at the time: ”Most clients seemed like people to me, not bundles of pathology. I could see their potential, rather than making my sole focus how ill they were.”

She goes on to share her experience with one rather challenging patient with multiple personality disorder who came, in part the result of therapy, to turn things around and lead a mentally healthy and productive life. Much later when Kauffman asked this patient why she thought the turnaround had been possible, the response intrigued her: “It was clear you trusted me, then I was able to trust you and learned to trust myself.”

While Kauffman was passionate about helping people, she saw herself surrounded by colleagues who did not think the way she did, frequently giving her a sense of being the “perky” psychologist rather than having an approach that was as equally rigorous as her more traditional peers.

The glass is half full…

When, in 1998, the positive psychology movement was called to life by newly appointed American Psychology Association President Martin Seligman, Kauffman “jumped aboard”. The call to scientifically study what is going ‘right’ with people and what we can learn from that (as opposed to the focus of research over the previous 50 years on fixing what was wrong with people), was what she had desired all along.

Kauffman attended Gallup meetings, started speaking at positive psychology summits, and founded her own coaching practice in 2003, where she integrated the principles of positive psychology into her primary areas of interest: peak performance and authentic leadership.

For the past eight years Kauffman has run her psychology and coaching practice on parallel but separate tracks. At present she has a tiny clinical practice, and spends the majority of her time as a leadership coach and supervisor of business coaching.  She has had the privilege of participating in well over 38,000 client sessions. The core coaching and leadership purpose is to “discover things that ignite eternal change with people who matter,”she explains. “‘Matter’ may mean that they are simply good hearted, or that they are key change agents in the world.”

On the importance of being ‘yourself’

It is clear that Kauffman has found her own coaching style and that she is comfortable with who she is as a professional. And her authenticity, resulting from her life story as well as her values and passions as an individual, is part of the reason for her success. It enables her to play in a variety of different leagues and to not be intimidated by challenging situations:

“I like the high challenge. For example, I was called, alongside a group of coaching colleagues from the Authentic Leadership Institute, to coach the top 100 in a Fortune 50 organization. The debriefing was fairly intense: unless the coaching yielded a significant change in their leadership quality and interaction with others in the organization, some of these top players in the firm would not be able to move forward; on some occasions they were about to be fired – despite being huge moneymakers.”

After 5 full days of coaching, intensive 360s, conversations with peers and the CEO, Kauffman and her colleagues – together with their clients – designed powerful change programs.

Two months later many of these leaders were on a good trajectory. A number of the leaders she had been working with one-on-one received promotions, and had clearly made real progress as a result of the process.

When I ask Kauffman about her ‘tricks’ with a particularly difficult leader she laughs:”Essentially, it came down to asking direct and forceful questions. How did this individual think his previous behavior of humiliating his team served him and his leadership? The key was to find his absolute core strength and to leverage his motivation to become a good leader. His destructive behavior then became less tolerable to him and while he still isn’t exactly a walk in the park, he is much more collaborative.”

What makes for a great coach?

This is a question organizations, their leaders, and HR teams ask repeatedly as they seek to find the best coach to facilitate change in their organizations.

As part of knowing what drives her, Kauffman has learned when to say ‘no’ to some potential client engagements:”Being an effective coach also means having the good sense to know when not to get started and to have a good filtering process in place. Recently I had a client who needed a degree of structure that just wasn’t exciting for me. Certain people are not interested in the process of discovery. They primarily wish to fix something and may have a particular performance goal in mind, such as being a better public speaker, where they don’t really require nimble or agile thinking.”

Kauffman knows that she has the right client to work with: “when at the end of a session I am filled with more energy and zest than when it began. In fact, that happens nearly all the time, coaching is fundamentally exciting.”

Here a few key ingredients on Kauffman’s list on what constitutes great coaching:

1/ Be compassionate and confront.

“A deep interest in others is key. You have to really be delighted with people and willing to put yourself on the line to be of service to them.”

On her road to developing her personal coaching style, Kauffman has worked with many mentors and role models along the way (much as I do now with her). One of them is Ruth Ann Harnish, a former journalist and well-known coach and philanthropist. To Kauffman, she “embodies the spirit of coaching: extraordinarily warm, very engaging and highly confrontational.”

Carol Kauffman also remembers some useful advice she received from one of her peers, David Peterson:”When you are coaching an executive and you are not willing to get fired on the spot for saying what you feel is the right thing, you are not doing your job.” Being able to be true to herself and her coaching principles allows her to add real value to a client’s situation.

2/ Offer substance.

Powerful questions, exceptional listening skills, and holding a client accountable to move towards a particular goal are at the core of coaching. However, these skills alone do not suffice, particularly in the world of executive coaching:“Working knowledge of different models and theories of coaching and leadership is essential. You need to be able to really adjust to what you are doing to the particular person you are working with. Mental, emotional and interpersonal agility is key to making sure clients get what they want.“

The conviction that coaching is a powerful force of change was ultimately the motivator for Kauffman to launch the Institute of Coaching as it offers learning tours, master classes and rich resources to the coaching community.

3/ Untap potential.

“You need to be clear about the strengths of a person, and not get stuck in the default option of only looking for ‘gaps or defects’. Coaching is about creating a strong awareness about where someone is and allowing them to hold on to the perspective of where they want to go. ‘Failures’ are there to learn from, and as a coach I ask them to look back and mine their crucible (most painful) experiences but also harvest their most positive experiences. Together, these help us know our story, and what leadership lessons we have learned that bring us to the keys of great leadership: Positivity, Authenticity and Edge.”

On the importance of staying grounded…

Much of Carol Kauffman’s success seems based on realizing an equilibrium in her life, on being grounded and confident about who she is and regardless of which ‘hat’ she is wearing: that of a coach, teacher, leader, mother or friend.

When I ask Kauffman about her biggest challenge in coaching clients effectively, she is quick to say in her own irreverent way: “Listen more and learn to shut up.”

This disarming honesty reminded me of an anecdote she offered during a coaching session when I expressed concern about entering a coaching engagement where I had little previous exposure to the client’s industry. Kauffman shared how she had been in a similar position when she had been asked to coach some of the senior partners at the Boston Consulting Group. When one of the partners asked her whether she had ever done such an assignment in the world of strategy consulting, she described looking at him, and responding with warmth and enthusiasm, straight out “No! That’s why I’m so excited to be here.”

Knowing her disarming habit of being completely candid (in an even-handed and somewhat playful fashion),the BCG partner was intrigued by her answer (contrary to what one might intuitively assume), and probed further, ”So how can you help us?” Kauffman replied:”I have no idea, but my brain is at your service, let’s figure out how to best use it.” Kauffman got the assignment and, of course, worked successfully with the senior leadership team of the firm.

An authentic life

Needless to say, Carol Kauffman’s authentic way of free-thinking candor is coupled with a healthy dose of tact and warmth in addition to convincing substance.

To instill trust and confidence in others is to find and practice one’s own authentic voice. There are no universal traits, attributes or styles linked to success. Much as I admire and enjoy Kauffman’s coaching style, it will never fully be mine.

As Bill George emphasizes in his book ‘True North’, being an authentic leader or professional requires a commitment to developing oneself. It involves “testing [oneself] through real-world experiences and reframing life stories to understand who one is at the core.”

In fact, grasping the purpose of one’s work and realizing that being authentic is at the very core of thriving both professionally and personally – as exemplified by Carol Kauffman.