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!

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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.

Building Strong, Dynamic, Serving Institutions

Two pieces in the August 24, 2014 New York Times that were, on the surface, unrelated to each other offered insights on a topic I’ve been thinking about in recent weeks.

Tom Friedman’s column referred to the growing lack of order in the world – especially in societies that have overthrown autocrats, but not developed the values-based legal systems and institutions that enable people to grow and prosper. Tearing down the old order was much easier than building a new order with sustainable leadership and institutions.

The other piece, written by Stephanie Rosenbloom, was titled, “Dealing with Digital Cruelty.” It focused on how to deal with the nasty, often cruel barbs posted on social media by “trolls” who intentionally strive to distress or provoke and cause others pain. When I see comments of such people, I always think about how much easier it is to tear down an institution or the reputation of an individual than to build one. I take some comfort in the realization that most of those who delight in tearing down others have probably never built anything in their pathetically negative lives. But I’m also aware they can often do a lot of damage.

Three weeks ago I announced my intention to retire as President and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, Inc. in a little over 10 months. At that time I will have been in this position for 41 years. During those decades many talented colleagues and I have worked together to build an organization that is offering a wide array of opportunities to thousands of people who, in many cases, haven’t been dealt a very good hand in life. We haven’t succeeded at everything we’ve tried, but we’ve continued to learn, adapt as the world around us changes, and evolve to higher levels of impact in the lives of people and the communities where we operate. Today we have a tremendous pool of dedicated, talented people who bring their heads and their hearts to their work every day.

Over 20 years ago I began thinking of what we were trying to do as building a strong, dynamic, serving institution. And with a lot of help, we’ve done that. In addition to those who work in our organization, our helpers have included tens of thousands of people across central Indiana who donate goods, shop in our stores, hire our graduates, serve on our boards, or contribute money. They, too, are institution builders.

There are some indications that trust in institutions of all kinds is at an all-time low. It’s no mystery why. While no institution has ever been perfect, today the flaws are much more visible and tend to receive much more attention in the ever-present 24-hour news cycle than do the positive attributes. Couple that with the pervasiveness of social media and the tendency of negative stories – the more scandalous the better – to quickly go viral, and it’s no wonder that a lot of reputations – of individuals and institutions – have suffered.

I have no idea what the long term implications of these tendencies will be. But I’m quite certain that a decent, stable society will continue to need strong, dynamic, serving institutions that can function well over time despite the inevitable criticisms – justified or not – that come their way.

I’m also convinced that we will continue to need teams of passionate institution builders who devote their energy and talents over sustained periods of time to helping create a better society. At Goodwill we have been blessed with many such persons over the years, and I have no doubt that will continue to be the case as this organization continues to learn, adapt, and evolve to higher levels of service and impact.

Two Stories

We have a lot of stories at Goodwill. Here are two recent examples – very different from each other, but each a great illustration of some of what gives our work at Goodwill so much meaning.

The Sanders Triplets

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Amber, Ashley, and Angel Sanders are identical triplets. They were raised by their grandmother because their mom had severe addiction problems, and their father wasn’t around. On two separate occasions, they were placed in foster care. During those early years, they struggled, but they didn’t give up.

They enrolled in and thrived at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, the first charter school Goodwill opened. Graduating with honors in 2009, they received scholarships that covered all of their expenses at Indiana University, where they maintained GPAs above 3.0 and in 2013 graduated with bachelor’s degrees.

At IU, Amber and Ashley majored in East Asian Languages and Cultures. Ashley’s language focus was Korean, Amber’s was Japanese. Angel, who did part of her undergraduate work in Korea, had a double major in International Studies and Slavic Languages and Literature with a focus on Russian.

In their own words, they have “surpassed the stereotype of African-American women who have graduated from neither high school nor college.”

The Sanders sisters have been accepted by Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. Their goal is to earn masters degrees, immerse themselves in an Asian culture, and become fluent in one or more Asian languages. They then hope to work in the United States or abroad for government or a multinational corporation, become connectors, and help bridge borders around the world.

I have no doubt Amber, Angel, and Ashley will achieve their goals.

Verdell

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In 2012, Verdell came to Goodwill through a work release program after serving 17 years in prison. Initially employed as a janitor in one of our outlet stores, she let it be known that while in prison she had learned to clean floors and loved cleaning floors. She was then moved to Goodwill’s contract site at the VA Hospital, where she had the opportunity to clean floors every day. She did so well she was promoted to a team leader position.

In November 2013, while attending a Goodwill safety meeting at the VA Hospital, Goodwill COO Kent Kramer, who was aware Verdell had been homeless, asked about her housing situation. She told Kent she had an apartment, and then Kent asked her if she had ever thought about owning a home. Verdell thought she could never afford that, whereupon Kent connected her with Habitat for Humanity.

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Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity have developed a very good relationship over the last several years, and Verdell was given the opportunity to start the process to become owner of a new HFH home. She got support from staff at both Habitat and Goodwill, put in a lot of “sweat equity,” and on June 14, 2014 was given the keys to her new home. As she said at the dedication ceremony, she had gone “from homeless to homeowner.”

These two stories illustrate a variety of ways Goodwill provides opportunities for people. Some of those we work with (e.g. the Sanders sisters) need assistance because of circumstances over which they have had no control. Others (e.g. Verdell) need help because of bad choices they have made. Regardless, when we provide the opportunities, it’s still up to the individuals to make the most of those opportunities. Most – including Amber, Angel, Ashley, and Verdell – do.

The scarce resource (Hint: It’s not money.)

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Paul Tough presents research on the effects of poverty on a child’s development. He argues that the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them make a huge difference in how children’s brains develop and lead to later problems in school, health, and behavior.

Similarly, in an essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” (Boston Review, Sept./Oct. 2012), James J. Heckman notes that “early adverse experiences correlate with poor adult health, high medical care costs, increased depression and suicide rates, alcoholism, drug use, poor job performance and social function, disability, and impaired performance of subsequent generations.”

Other relevant quotes from Heckman’s essay include:

“An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy, … and participation in crime.”

“…both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, and their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…experimental evidence shows that intervening early can produce positive and lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families. This evidence is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms childhood and adult outcomes. Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…the benefits of later interventions are greatly enhanced by earlier interventions: skill begets skill…”

What are some of the implications for public policy? Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is now implementing in Indianapolis). “Programs with home visits affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end. Programs that build character and motivation, and do not focus exclusively on cognition, appear to be the most effective.”

What about programs for older children and youth? According to Heckman, “A growing body of evidence does suggest that cognitive skills are established early in life and that boosting raw IQ and problem-solving ability in the teenage years is much harder than doing so when children are young. But social and personality skills are another story. They are malleable into the early twenties, although early formation of these skills is still the best policy because they boost learning. Adolescent strategies should boost motivation, personality, and social skills through mentoring and workplace-based education.”

Heckman concludes the essay by noting that “Giving money to poor families does not, by itself, promote social mobility across generations….The scarce resource is love and parenting – not money.”

In a column titled, “Of Love and Money,” published in the New York Times May 25, 2006, David Brooks drew a similar conclusion: “Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.”