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.

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.

On Lifelong Learning

Jim-StudentInteraction
Jim McClelland shares a laugh with a graduate of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

When I was 17, I thought I knew a lot. Throughout my adult life, though, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized how little I know. I figure if that process continues long enough I will eventually reach the logical conclusion that I know absolutely nothing. (I realize that just confirms what some of you have always thought….)

Nevertheless, I don’t think we can overemphasize the importance of being a lifelong learner. This is particularly true for anyone who works or wants to work, as changes occur at such a rapid rate we have to keep learning just to stay current in whatever field we’re in or, in many cases, be employable at all.

I’ve had the same title at Goodwill for forty years, but the work I do today is vastly different from what it was even a few years ago. In part, the changes in what I do and how I go about my work are reflections of how we have adapted to enormous changes that have taken place over the years in demographics, technology, the economy, competition, laws and regulations, and American culture. Goodwill has also changed in response to what we’ve learned from our own experiences, from the experiences of others, and from research. And we’ve changed as a result of the different perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills of people who have become part of our organization and caused us to question old assumptions, ask different questions, and consider new approaches.

From a personal standpoint, I have learned an enormous amount over the years from being in a position to work with people at nearly every level of society and in all parts of a community. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a lot of people at national and international levels, try to understand their experiences and perspectives, and learn from them. The variety is tremendously appealing to me, and having those experiences has caused me to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers.

I also read a lot. I read to stay current with what’s going on in the world and in my community. I read in hopes of learning something that will help me do a better job or be a better person. I read for insights and to learn about topics I’m interested in. And sometimes I read simply for pleasure and no other purpose.

My regular reading includes publications with different perspectives, as I do not want to confine myself to being exposed only to the thoughts and opinions of those who have one particular point of view. Gary Hamel’s book, Leading the Revolution, (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) reinforced my desire to try to understand and learn from people with different experiences and perspectives. My notes on that book include:

  • Most people in an industry are blind in the same way. They’re all paying attention to the same things and not paying attention to the same things.
  • Insights come from new conversations. All too often, strategy conversations in large companies have the same ten people talking to the same ten people for the fifth year in a row. They can finish each other’s sentences. You’re not going to learn anything new in this setting.
  • There is so much individuals cannot imagine simply because they are prisoners of their own dogma.
  • The more you pay attention to information that supports your world view, the less you learn.
  • You can’t use an old map to find a new land.

While Hamel was writing primarily for leaders in business and industry, perhaps his admonitions could also be helpful in other aspects of a society that has become dismayingly polarized over many issues.

The gap between public perception and reality

I once heard a newspaper publisher make a speech in which he bemoaned the fact that people didn’t really understand the newspaper business. I thought about this a bit and came to the conclusion that any of us could probably say something similar about the businesses we are in. Even if we once thought we understood someone else’s business, organizations that survive over long periods of time aren’t standing still. They’re changing in ways that are often not visible to the general public. Public perception often lags reality, and the faster the rate of change within an organization, the greater the gap between what the organization actually is and public perception of it.

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved at such a rapid rate that even people who have been relatively close to the organization are not aware of some of what we are now doing, the approaches we are taking to our work, or the impact we are having in the larger community.

For starters, most people have no idea we are as large as we are. With 3,000 employees – two-thirds with a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other barrier – we are still doing what the founder of Goodwill set out to do more than 110 years ago – provide work for people with few options. We’re just doing it for a lot more people.

We have also become significantly involved in public education – especially of older youth and adults. This fall we will operate 10 schools with a total of more than 3,000 students. Nine of those schools are Excel Centers – a unique concept we created three years ago that enables adults to complete requirements for a high school diploma and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will enhance their earnings potential.

More recently, we have begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective home visitation program that helps first-time mothers in low income households improve pregnancy outcomes, child health and development, and the economic self-sufficiency of the family. Our nurses are currently working with over 350 expectant moms and new moms to whom 220 babies have been born. It’s a 30-month program with lifelong benefits.

Equally exciting is the extent to which we are now able to link individuals and families with education, employment, health and family services in a holistic approach to help people move out of poverty. We don’t provide all of the services ourselves. Rather, we work with many other organizations whose capabilities and resources complement Goodwill’s. As this approach has grown in recent years, our organization has begun resembling a network of networks – an approach that makes better use of overall community resources and is much more effective than the more common fragmented approach.

The financial base for what we do is provided by our donated goods/retail operations, which also employ two-thirds of our 3,000 employees. Thus, we are dependent on hundreds of thousands of residents who donate goods and shop in our stores.

All of this is a lot more than meets the eye of the general public. Lack of knowledge or – worse yet – misleading information or misinformation that can arise from taking small pieces of what we do out of context can be damaging. One of our challenges is to find ways to improve public knowledge of Goodwill’s wide array of services and the impact of those services in the lives of people and the communities in which we operate. The better we can do that, the better we will be able to reduce the gap between perception and reality.

A perspective on the GED and why the Excel Center is a more effective option for many

The following excerpt from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012) is one illustration of why I believe Tough’s book should be read by anyone who is seriously interested in finding long term solutions to a lot of persistent social problems.

“(James) Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes – annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs – GED recipients looked exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

From a policy point of view, this was a useful finding, if a depressing one: In the long run, it seemed, as a way to improve your life, the GED was essentially worthless. If anything, it might be having a negative overall effect by inducing young people to drop out of high school. But for Heckman, the results also posed a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, Heckman had believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group – GED holders – whose test scores didn’t seem to have any positive effect on their lives.

What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits – an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan – also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally.”

Obtaining a GED is a successful completion of an event – passing a test. On the other hand, a diploma takes consistent effort over time to achieve. Students must earn credits, stick to their goals, set targets and deadlines, and work to reach the goals. It takes more persistence, grit, and motivation to achieve.

Part of the job of an Excel Center “coach” is to help students develop the traits that will improve their life prospects. Even after graduation, the ongoing relationship we offer with a Goodwill Guide is intended to reinforce those traits.

Excel Center students dropped out of high school for a wide variety of reasons. Our schools offer a new path to those persons and other older youth and adults who did not think they would ever have another chance. Not all will succeed, but many will.