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Some thoughts upon retiring from a long career

The “farewell” tour I’ve made during the months leading up to my retirement has been one of the highlights of my entire career. Listening to the stories and hearing the comments of hundreds of employees and students, I’ve never felt better about the organization – our people, our culture, and what we are doing.

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There’s no doubt that the impact Goodwill is having is far greater than ever. The way we are linking services internally and with other organizations in a holistic, multi-generational approach is, I’m confident, going to have lasting impact and help begin to reduce some major social problems. And yet, there’s so much more that needs to be done.

My career has been a constant learning and growing process, but the learning really began accelerating in 2004 when we became directly involved in public education by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

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Since then, Goodwill has evolved at a rapid rate that has further accelerated the learning throughout the organization. And while we don’t claim to have all the answers, based on our experiences as well as what we’ve learned from others during the past decade, I’m convinced that if we are ever going to substantially reduce a lot of the social problems that are plaguing U.S. society today, we must:

  • Continue working vigorously to raise education attainment levels, and we must ensure that at every step along the way we’re preparing students well for what comes next.
  • Greatly increase the number of affordable, accessible, high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households. Because of the way the brain develops, the years 0-3 are even more important than ages 3-5. The earlier we start, the better.

In addition, to break a cycle of poverty, we need to take a long-term, holistic, multi-generational approach that leverages the resources and capabilities of multiple organizations within and across the sectors in focused ways designed to prevent problems, help kids develop, strengthen families, and make much more effective use of existing resources.

Goodwill in central Indiana is taking such an approach with a growing number of families and organizations, and that approach is attracting a growing amount of national attention. But while others can learn from our experiences, we must also continue to learn from others.

And while Goodwill’s board of directors and new CEO, Kent Kramer, will determine the organization’s direction going forward, there’s a strong base of knowledge and experience to build on and a lot of resources that can be deployed to further increase impact.

I don’t know what the organization we’ve built will look like ten years from now, but I know it will be different. Goodwill must continue trying new ways to grow its businesses and accomplish its mission; it must continue to learn; and it must continue to adapt as the world around it changes. Yet while I can’t predict what the organization will look like a decade from now, I do hope to be around watching from the sidelines, and I fully expect to be amazed!

The Magnificence of the Ordinary

(Note: This piece was first posted in December 2013).

While solutions to major social problems must be macro in scale, in the final analysis we must see results in the lives of individual people. As Peter Drucker reminded us, the purpose of any not-for-profit organization is to change lives.

As we offer opportunities to help others improve their lives, the changes can often be in ways that on the surface might seem unremarkable.  As we look deeper, though, we discover that often they are really much more.  Here are some brief sketches of a few people I’ve been fortunate to know during my career.

Cheryl dropped out of high school. She came to Goodwill, learned keyboard skills, got a GED, got a driver’s license, and got a job. A few years later she got married, then had a son.  She’s now been married for over 30 years, and their son has graduated from college.  Cheryl has worked nearly all her adult life.

Sounds pretty ordinary until you learn that Cheryl was born with no arms.  When you know this, you begin to realize that there is nothing ordinary about Cheryl’s life and that, in fact, what she has done with her life is truly magnificent.

Bobby worked at Goodwill. When he was 36 years old one of our staff helped him learn how to write his name and tell time.  For weeks, every time he would see me he would ask me if I knew what time it was. Then he would tell me. For most people, learning how to write your name and tell time are pretty ordinary accomplishments. For Bobby, though, they were magnificent achievements.

Steve was severely limited by cerebral palsy. He used a motorized wheelchair and communicated by using a keyboard with a voice synthesizer. He worked for several years on a contract Goodwill has to do janitorial work in a large federal building in Indianapolis. With a broom attached to his wheelchair, Steve swept 1-1/2 miles of corridors every day. He absolutely loved his job and his co-workers.

One day, Steve was in his motorized wheelchair crossing a street. While he was in a marked crosswalk, a car hit him, killing him instantly.

Many people would not have considered a person doing such an ordinary – and to some, a menial – task to be a success. But Steve exceeded everyone’s expectations – except possibly his own – and worked at a level many would never have thought possible. And he was happy doing it. For Steve, what to most people might have seemed so ordinary was truly magnificent.

When I started working for Goodwill, a member of our board of directors told me he thought Goodwill was amazing. The way he saw it, we took goods people no longer wanted and people no one else wanted to hire and combined them to create self-sustaining employment for a lot of people who otherwise would have been sitting at home surviving on public assistance. To him, ordinary household goods and ordinary people combined to produce something extraordinary and magnificent.

As we get caught up in the busyness of day-to-day work and life, it can be easy to take for granted a lot of what we as an organization and many of our people do so well day in and day out. Fortunately, though, when I see examples such as those I’ve mentioned and many others, I am reminded that much of what we tend to think of as pretty ordinary is much more than that. In fact, much of it is truly magnificent.

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Thanksgiving

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As this is my last Thanksgiving while serving as president of Goodwill in central Indiana, I am a bit more reflective than I usually am in the early days of what is typically the busiest time of year for me. And when I start thinking of all of the reasons I have to be thankful, the list just keeps growing.

Of course, all of us at Goodwill are grateful for the hundreds of thousands of people who donate goods, shop in our stores, give money, or hire our graduates. We’re grateful for those in many other organizations and units of government who work with us to make opportunities available to thousands of people who haven’t had a lot of opportunities. We’re grateful for the good business relationships we have with companies and other entities that enable us to provide jobs for people with significant disabilities or other barriers that limit their options.

We’re also grateful for those who take advantage of the opportunities we can offer – individuals who put forth much effort – sometimes overcoming major obstacles in the process – to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

I’m particularly grateful for our 3100 employees who do their work so well day in and day out and who work well with each other to help our organization have significant impact. And I’m grateful for the leadership, guidance, and support we have received over the years from boards of directors that have given us the freedom to try many different ways of growing our businesses and accomplishing our mission. And I’m especially grateful that those boards have also given us the freedom to fail at some of what we try and learn and grow from the experiences.

And, of course, it was a board of directors who took a chance and gave me the opportunity to be CEO of this organization when I was only 30 years old and had only three years experience in a management role. I’m grateful to them not only for that opportunity, but also for being patient with me as I made many mistakes trying to learn how to do my job reasonably well – most of the time, at least.

And now, after 40 years, I find myself even more grateful to have been in a position where I can honestly say I cannot recall a day in my entire career when I woke up in the morning wishing I didn’t have to go to work.

Of course, I have much more to be thankful for. I’m thankful for good health, friends, and family. I’m particularly thankful for my wife, who’s put up with me for nearly 35 years and willingly done so many things that have made my life easier and much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise. And I’m thankful for our two grown children, who are good citizens engaged in vocations where they work directly with many people who haven’t been dealt a good hand in life.

And on Thanksgiving Day and the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I’ll also be grateful for the wonderful desserts and other foods I seldom let my disgustingly disciplined self enjoy at other times of the year.

If I keep thinking about it, I’ll add more to my list of reasons to be thankful. But you get the idea. And if you haven’t already made your own list, I recommend you do so. It’s a good way to help bring a bit of perspective as we deal with the problems and hassles we frequently encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Millennials

A lot has been written about the generation known as Millennials – some positive, some less so. Of course, ascribing a particular set of characteristics to an entire generation of people is a bit absurd, given the enormous variability one can find in any large segment of the population at any point in time.

Nevertheless, what I see in many of today’s young people – i.e., many of the Millennials – is very encouraging. They give me hope.

We have a lot of people in their 20s and 30s working for us. They work in many parts of our organization – quite a few of them in our schools. They are typically bright, energetic, eager to learn, and excited about life. I enjoy talking with them.

I’ve also had several opportunities in recent months to speak on university campuses and interact with some incredibly bright, talented students. Most of those I’ve been fortunate to meet are interested in more than just getting into a career that will enable them to earn a good living. They’re also interested in helping make the world a better place. They want to make a difference.

I’m not just referring to liberal arts or social science majors either. Many of the students I’ve been meeting are majoring in business, engineering, or computer science. And some of the opportunities they are having on a number of university campuses today are helping them learn creative cross-disciplinary approaches designed to better prepare them to develop innovative approaches to help reduce some of the persistent social problems in our country and around the world.

One such program is being offered at my alma mater, Georgia Tech. It’s called Grand Challenges. Established in 2012, Grand Challenges each year accepts 110 entering freshmen and is open to students of any major. They live in the same dormitory for a year and learn how to work in multi-disciplinary teams, developing problem-solving skills to find possible solutions to real world problems. Students learn how to give and receive feedback, how to listen, argue, analyze, and persuade.

During the second semester, each team of students identifies a problem they want to tackle. Projects have dealt with a wide variety of food and water, energy, and health issues. One team last year worked on a project to benefit Goodwill of North Georgia. At the end of the semester, they can “pitch” their proposal for funding to continue working on their concept into their upperclassmen years.

A lot of my interest in Grand Challenges stems from what we’ve learned at Goodwill in central Indiana in recent years about how so many of our major social problems are interrelated. And yet, in our society we still tend to try to treat those problems in isolation one from another. Is it any wonder we’re not seeing better results? In our organization, though, we are now taking and further developing some truly holistic, often whole family approaches that we believe offer real potential for helping reduce generational poverty and some of the social problems that are associated with it.

So, for me, it’s encouraging to see universities offering opportunities for students to learn practical, multi-disciplinary approaches to solving societal problems. That, plus the contact I am privileged to have with a lot of young people who are similarly inclined, makes me optimistic about the future.

In my opinion, this generation of young people is going to have major positive impact in this country and many other places around the world. I look forward to seeing what they’re going to accomplish.

On Character Development

In my September 2, 2014 post to this blog, I described how, over the past 20 or more years, my colleagues at Goodwill and I have been working to build a strong, dynamic, serving institution. Such institutions are vitally important to the development and ongoing improvement of a decent, stable society.

But, as emphasized by Richard Reeves in a wonderful essay, “The New Politics of Character,” in National Affairs, that’s not enough. Reeves states that “if we want a better, freer, fairer society, we will have to complement the 20th-century focus on strong institutions with a new (if also ancient) concern for strong individuals. The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people.”

According to Reeves, “The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it…..Gaps in character development correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice versa.”

Lest we think there are simple solutions, though, Reeves provides a dose of reality. For example, he points out that, while rates of teen parenthood have declined, rates have proved stubbornly high among the least-educated, lowest-income groups. It may appear that poor teenagers who become parents are irrationally discounting the future and so failing to demonstrate the virtue of prudence. But there’s an important factor in the equation that we might not realize: “Teen pregnancy appears to have a limited impact on life chances for this group (poor teenagers) because their life chances were so truncated in the first place. Broadly speaking, they are not sacrificing opportunities for wealth and security in the long term for short-term pleasures; their opportunities for future pleasures are few, so as a matter of calculation it makes more sense to pursue the short-term pleasures than it would for a teen from a wealthier family.”

Reeves suggested approach? “The key insight for policymakers is that the task is not simply to teach prudence, but to improve the future prospects of these young adults so they have brighter possible futures to measure the present against…The opportunity agenda is a character agenda, and vice versa.”

Of course, without good role models, it is harder for a child to learn to defer gratification. There is also a growing body of evidence from neuroscientists showing “that growing up in a poor, stressful environment slows the development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation.”

Reeves emphasizes, though, that “The most important influence on character development is not poverty – it is parenting. Good parenting – close, attentive, nurturing – can often compensate for material poverty.”

This is reassuring for those of us at Goodwill in central Indiana. We’ve now been implementing Nurse-Family Partnership for nearly three years, and well over 600 babies have been born to the moms who have enrolled. All of those moms want to do what’s best for their babies. But when our nurses first meet them, few know how to be good parents or to provide the kind of environment in the home that is conducive to the proper health and development of their children. That’s a lot of what our nurses emphasize during their 2-1/2 year relationship with these families. And that’s a big part of why NFP nationally has shown such remarkably strong results reducing the incidence of a lot of negative social indicators among children whose parents participated in NFP.

Of course, NFP is only part of a long term solution to a lot of major social problems. But thirty years of solid evidence illustrates why it should be scaled as much as possible. We intend to do our part.