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“Write down assumptions” With Everett Harper

C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). Have a credible, testable plan to create revenue in excess of your costs. Raising money is not *your* cash, it’s an alarm clock that will run down faster than you think. The founders decided to fund the company ourselves (and there are no trust funds lying around). This instilled […]

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C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). Have a credible, testable plan to create revenue in excess of your costs. Raising money is not *your* cash, it’s an alarm clock that will run down faster than you think. The founders decided to fund the company ourselves (and there are no trust funds lying around). This instilled incredible focus and discipline on a very simple notion: can we solve problems or create value sufficiently well that people will pay us? Now that we are over 100 employees, we retain that mindset and it continues to pay off.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Everett Harper, CEO and co-founder of Truss, an engineering firm that has worked on such prominent projects as the healthcare.gov website. Everett is also a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leader who recently joined the “Black Tech for Black Lives” coalition to bring positive change to the tech industry at large. Fully remote and distributed since its 2011 launch, Truss’ diverse team comprises significant female, minority, and LGBTQIA employees, and recently surpassed 100 employees in Summer 2020.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s not one thing.

There’s not one story that brought me to being a CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company; there are many stories. First, I grew up in an atypical IBM family in the Hudson Valley of New York. Neither my mother nor father went to college, but both had 25 year careers as programmers for IBM. In particular, my mother was a pioneering “hidden genius” figure, starting as a secretary in the mid-60s (as they were called then) and becoming one of the first black women programmers at the company in 1975. I got first-hand knowledge of what resilience and perseverance looked like from her.

I am the first in my family to attend college. While getting a degree in biomedical and electrical engineering, I won a NCAA National Championship in soccer for Duke, it’s first in any sport. It was my first insight into what elements are needed for a high-performing team, as well as the experience of going to the edge of my physical, mental, and emotional limits.

I discovered my fascination for social psychology, organizational development, and network theory by starting a diversity and inclusion consulting company in the mid 90s, then deepened it while starting a PhD at Stanford and finishing with an MBA and M.Ed. in Learning, Design, and Technology.

It all came together in 2010 when I applied — at the midnight deadline — to Founder Labs, a startup accelerator by Women 2.0. I learned that my jam was Customer Development, because it combined social psychology, customer-curiosity, and a high dose of perseverance, and put it into a framework that adds tremendous value to a high-performing founding team.

Within a year, I started what would become Truss with my own high-performing cofounders, Mark Ferlatte and Jen Leech.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

At 7pm on a cloudy October Sunday in 2013, I was cleaning the dinner table of stray cheese tortellini that had missed the mouth of my six year old daughter when I heard my cell phone ring. I was surprised and curious enough to check my screen.

It said, “Mark Ferlatte,” my cofounder. Anyone who is a founder, leader, or executive knows that when you get a call from your colleague on Sunday evening, it’s not going to be good news. I answered my phone, dreading the ruin of my nice fall weekend.

He told me that he’d been asked to join the team to help fix Healthcare.gov. They had until December 24th to get it fixed, or the entire Affordable Care Act could be revoked. I paused for 5 beats, and said, “You gotta go.” He replied, “Yep, I gotta go.”

The entire conversation with Mark lasted about 90 seconds. More importantly, the decision to say “Yes” was milliseconds.

It was one of the best business decisions we ever made. Mark and the team helped save Healthcare.gov, then our company was asked to build the upgrade the following year. It allowed us to scale up our team and sealed the decision that Truss would be a human-centered software development company working for public and private sector clients.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It was 2011 and we were about to release a smart calendar app called Leave Now by Tetherpad. The purpose of the app was to use calendar, location, and transportation data to send a customer a message when to “Leave Now” to get to their next appointment, call, or meeting on time. We were the first to have this feature, but there were a growing number of calendar apps being released at the same time.

I strongly believed that the visual design and interface had to be distinctive in order to stand out from the competition. Over my cofounders’ objections, I insisted that we pay $5,000 for a designer to custom-build an interface with special fonts and colors that changed depending on whether you were early, on time, or late. That cash might not seem like a big deal, but given we were bootstrapping, none of us had any income and this was the single largest expense we’d incurred to date.

As it turned out, while it made for a distinctive app, that feature made very little difference to our customers. Even worse, in order to iterate and improve the app, we had to dismantle most of the design, because none of the components could be resized nor readjusted.

The funny part of the story is that I was the most practiced at the “customer development” portion of the lean startup model. A core tenet of customer development is asking the customer what is most important to them to solve their problems. Out of over 50 in-depth interviews, exactly ZERO people thought color and font were important. DUH.

My cofounders still make fun of me for that. The lessons I learned were:

  • Write down assumptions, and then test and validate them with actual customers, not my *idea* of customers.
  • “Kill your darlings” — in other words, believe in the data and customers enough to challenge and eliminate my most cherished beliefs about a business.
  • C.R.E.A.M — Cash Rules Everything Around Me, especially in early startup mode. Do everything possible to preserve cash.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

In the first four months of 2012, I got divorced, became a single 50% co-parent to my 4 year old daughter, and moved out of my home. However, someone cased my new house, broke in and stole the one single object that could not be replaced — my National Championship soccer ring from winning Duke’s first ever NCAA title in any sport.

To top it off, my father’s stomach cancer reappeared, and I needed to go home in February, just after we launched our first product, Leave Now. He died in April, and I still had to push forward, keep improving the app, and pitch investors and customers, all while worrying on a monthly basis whether I had enough money to pay rent.

I spent the next ten months looking in the mirror at a 47 year-old Duke and Stanford MBA-educated, 15 years in tech, now tech founder — and trying to hush the word “failure” so I could leave my room with a smiling face in order to show my daughter how to water the tomatoes in our garden.

I don’t think it was “drive” that got me through that period. It was a 20 year practice of meditation, starting with The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn. I knew how to sit with discomfort and fear, watch them pass, and take the next action in the moment. As a Black man, I knew that I had resilience from enduring a lifetime of hardships. I learned to say “No” as a default to invitations for socializing, which created a clarity of focus. Finally, I learned to disclose how tough things were to my friends, and to my surprise there was an abundance of support, often from unexpected people who remain friends to this day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mother, Jacqueline Harper, and Mary Spriggs, M.S.W. First, my mother is a version of a “Hidden Figure.” She grew up in a poor neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA, but with only a high school diploma, worked her way up from a “secretary” at IBM in the sixties to having a 30 year career as an assembly language programmer at IBM. Her career spanned mainframes through the emergence of personal computers.

Second, when I was in kindergarten, my mother received a note from the school that I was having “challenges” in class because I was “overactive.” They advised my mother to have me see a psychologist, but Mary Spriggs intervened. She insisted, “Do not let the school diagnose your child. Little black boys get tracked as problem children, and either he’ll get medicated or put into a ‘special’ class. Get an independent assessment.”

I still remember that day, playing word association games — which I thought was fun — in a sea-green cinder block room in an office building. The independent assessment: “He’s bored. Put him in 1st grade and he will be fine.” I skipped kindergarten and after that I settled in and was a good student from then on.

I came that close to an outcome that occurs for so many Black girls and boys in the school systems across the US. I am extremely grateful that Mrs. Spriggs intervened and my mother took action, because I literally would not be here to write this article today without them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Wash the dishes to wash the dishes” — Thich Nhat Hahn. This was the line that floored me when I read The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1992 at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. My friend Matt Hammer chased me for two years to read that book and put it in my hand on that April weekend.

The story he told started with an ordinary, daily activity — washing dishes — and then a plate falls out of one’s hands. How did that happen? Probably thinking about something else, listening to the radio, peering at the TV, everything except focusing on the dish. Then the hook, “Wash the dishes to wash the dishes,” and I felt my breath stop. Washing the dishes is a meditation. It is a present moment that’s accessible every day. Mediation is not the province of an ashram, a retreat center, or at an altar, but daily life.

After that, I followed the path that the book and his teachings started, attending single and multi-day silent retreats in 1996, 1999, and 2015.

As Thich Nhat Hahn is close to death in his home country of Vietnam after many years of exile, I can easily say he’s been the single most influential individual in my business career and personal journey. Especially in this time of uncertainty, the practice of the present moment keeps me rooted.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I was on a Zoom call in July with current members of the Duke soccer team, to share my career and life experiences as a Duke soccer alum. During the Q&A session, one of the student-athletes asked me if I felt protected from the racism, violence, and police brutality because I went to Duke and Stanford and was a CEO of a tech company.

I paused for a second, and said, “There’s no jacket that says, “Don’t hurt me, I’m a CEO.” There’s no bumper sticker that would make me feel relieved if I saw a police car tailing me in the rearview mirror. The stunned look on their faces — those who weren’t Black — was testament to the legitimate surprise and horror my story evoked.

A successful white male investor who I’ve known for years told me, “Everett, I’ve had the privilege of high quality education my entire life. But I am embarrassed that it took me watching a sci-fi show on HBO (The Watchmen) to learn about Black Wall Street, Tulsa, and how white crowds burned it to the ground. That should be part of everyone’s US history.”

For me, these two stories serve to highlight how invisible the Black experience in the US is for most white people — especially those with privilege. It is now at a boiling point because many leaders in the political, economic, education, and religious institutions have failed to confront this reality. This summer, with the distractions of sports, dining, entertainment, and socializing due to COVID-19, millions witnessed the killing of George Floyd, heard the story of Breonna Taylor — and now they can’t unsee it. Now they are catching up on history, asking harder questions of themselves and others, and beginning to hold themselves accountable.

Leaders failing to confront reality. The data about the business benefits of diversity were established years ago, from innovation to stock price and market cap. The abject rate of hiring, promotion, and leadership for Black, Latinx/a/o, Asian (in leadership, and South Asian across all levels), MENA, and LGTBQI has been obvious for years in tech, government, education, and nonprofit institutions. And the advent of the smartphone — in my mind the most important civil rights tool of the past 50 years — has created irrefutable documentation of the violence that Black people have endured since slavery.

However, when faced with reality, and the data to support it, many influential, prominent white leaders have ignored, obscured, or suppressed the evidence. What tipped the scale was two things: George Floyd’s murder was brutal, in broad daylight, and on film with dozens of witnesses. Second, the pandemic created an absence of usual distractions: sports, summer blockbuster movies, socializing, and vacations. The combination galvanized not only citizens in the US, but the world, to engage and confront systemic racism.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The data is clear that diverse leadership, boards, and teams deliver superior results, measured from innovations to market performance. That alone should spark action at the executive and leadership levels.

Second, every company has blind spots, and they are worse when teams are homogenous. Those blind spots represent unknown risks that can lead to missed market opportunities, tone-deaf marketing campaigns, and embarrassing product launches.

Third, there is a competitive advantage in recruiting when there is a diverse executive team. Talented prospects recognize when companies put their money where their mouth is, and there are fewer signals of commitment as strong as when the leadership team is diverse. This is true for all prospects. There are many people who are “overrepresented” in tech who are actively seeking companies that reflect the US population as a whole.

Representation is only the first step. Recruiting, hiring, onboarding, mentorship, sponsorship, and career development processes need to be built, scaled, and operationalized, centering on diversity and inclusion as a critical part of the core business value. Companies with a diverse leadership team are more likely to have the commitment, talent, and vision to make that happen.

At this point, the better question is how a business can afford not to have diverse boards, executives and staff.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

First, I want to expand the observation. It is hard to be satisfied with Black, Latinx/o/a, MENA, Asian women, and LGBTQI representation in tech leadership. It’s important to recognize that the systemic forces that affect Black men also prevent other groups from being in leadership. Intersectionality is a critical piece of changing the status quo.

The second change is to be serious about clear and candid measurement and data. For example, it’s remarkably difficult to find reliable public data about the numbers, revenues, profits, and equity held by Black founders, Owners, C-Levels, or Board members. There is some data on venture-backed companies but given that those numbers are miniscule and that is a tiny percentage of all Black-owned companies, we have scarcely any data by which to assess where the problems are, much less the solutions.

Even more obscure is how many and at what rate Black people are being promoted to Manager, Director, VP, and C-Level roles. We can measure the numbers of graduates from higher education overall and in tech fields, but the gap in data speaks volumes as to the lack of commitment by tech companies to take the issue seriously.

The third change is the active recruitment of Black people to Boards of Directors: in particular, representation on Boards of companies by private equity. The reason is that Board service provides a unique opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with accomplished leaders having distinct expertise across multiple domains. That network reaps powerful dividends, in terms of learning, governance, and especially exposure. When a Black Director or VP with a specific operational or technical skill set adds value to a Series B, C, or above startup, or to a private equity turnaround as a Board member, that person gets on short lists for the next founder or CEO at other portfolio companies. The right Board is “the room where it happens,” and particularly with new California state laws to recruit women and minority Board members, smart companies will get ahead of the curve.

We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

In short, digital transformation. We solve complex problems for large enterprises and public agencies where the system for software production is critical to success, but the critical components — research, design, infrastructure, engineering, security, and delivery — are lacking. We work shoulder-to-shoulder with clients using our expertise in modern iterative methods, user-centered focus, and reliable delivery.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We Move to the Edge, and Declare it Center.

We challenge assumptions by Moving to the Edge of our knowledge, expertise, and abilities, and develop insights by creating experiments, iterating quickly, and discovering levers of change.

We Declare it Center by taking new information, discoveries, or innovations, and building processes and operations to support, repeat, accelerate, scale, and automate in order to deliver the desired outcome.

Both are necessary for systemic change — like digital transformation — and we not only help our clients but continue to push ourselves internally. Here are four examples:

  1. We have been a remote-first, distributed company since 2011, and we now operate in over 30 states. This was an edgy decision at the time, and most investors and startup colleagues insisted that this was a mistake. Now, that expertise and experience is extremely valuable in guiding companies through the pandemic to the shift to all-remote or hybrid work.
  2. We are a people-first company, which means not only do we insist on learning directly from customers all throughout the software development process, we also make sure to learn from the operators of the systems — the client’s own employees — who are often overlooked but have a wealth of knowledge. We are focused on using our superpower — developing high-leverage software — to achieve positive outcomes for people and the planet.
  3. We have been committed to diversity and inclusion since our founding. We are over 105 employees, with 45% women, 67% of owners are URM in tech, 20% leadership is BIPOC, and over 35% people are URM in tech (Latinx, Black, Asian, MENA, LGBTQI folks). Not only is this well above the tech company average, it gives us an advantage in recruiting talented folks while having the benefit of diverse insight that makes our solutions higher quality.
  4. We have implemented salary transparency since 2017, to ensure that we maintain equity across all our diverse groups. This has the unexpected bonus that it has made our hiring and recruiting much more efficient, and gives us the tools to make swift corrections if we notice anti-patterns.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

For the past 40 years, military veterans appealing for medical benefits and services had to go through a system that sometimes took up to a decade to make a decision. In 2017, a law was passed directing the Board of Veteran Appeals to shrink that wait time, and they turned to Truss for help. Our solution turned their lossy, paper-based process into a streamlined digital workflow that integrates with VA databases to ensure no case gets lost or left hanging. The wait time goal for many cases has now been revised from ten years to four months, a 30x reduction.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

First, I’d ask, “Do you *need* to grow, and by how much?” The reason is that a flat period might be a good period to catch up on improvements to infrastructure, technology, product, services, or training that was deprioritized in order to meet growth goals. Rebuilding, repairing, or optimizing the foundation may be necessary to continue growth in any case.

Second, I’d engage a cross-functional team to ask my current customers about their level of satisfaction, unmet needs they have, problems they’re encountering, and potential competition they are seeing. The reason is to discover opportunities to improve, and just as important is to learn how to be partners in your customers’ long term or strategic success. The challenge is to ask questions and be open to their perception of the world, and resist trying to solve or sell to them. Create the environment for candor and stay curious, and I’m confident that your team will learn far more.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Before hiring, expanding, or accelerating a high performance sales team, I’d do three things as leadership team:

  • Be clear about the value proposition of the product or service from the customers’ point of view. What problem are you solving and why is it distinctive from your competitors?
  • Set up systems to test, measure and document go-to market and pipeline processes. It should be clear to the non-sales leaders of the company what the expectations and targets are at each stage. If there are unexpected results, it should be clear where the problems are (e.g. not enough targets at the top of the funnel, or poor conversion from cold email campaigns), how to test new tactics, iterate, and adjust.
  • Then hire your sales lead to build a high-performing team. Getting the right leader the right tools — value prop and system — enables them to execute the plan and hire the right people. A great sales lead will know how to attract the high performing sales team better than the leadership team.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

“Ship, actually.” It’s a phrase we use internally because actually delivering the software we were expected to is a distinctive value proposition for our customers. That reputation not only makes customers want to expand or extend our work, but we’ve had many referrals because our customers can say that we delivered. When 87% of large government IT projects fail because they never launch, are way over budget, or fail to deliver, shipping working software is a significant improvement over the status quo.

Why are we able to achieve this? At a high level, we practice human-centered, iterative software development, from design and research, infrastructure, engineering, product, security, through to delivery. We engage actual customers — not the “idea” of customers — early in the process to learn what their needs, problems, and challenges are, and keep them engaged throughout the entire process. We work shoulder-to-shoulder with clients, demoing our progress on a weekly cadence, so that they stay informed, committed, and engaged. Of late, we’ve been refining our techniques to work remotely, which has been a huge boost to companies struggling to figure out how to make the shift.

We can see examples of the fallout from not delivering in the Accenture vs. Hertz debacle, or the failure to launch Healthcare.gov. Truss was one of the companies that helped fix the site by the December 24th deadline, and from that outcome, we were asked back to build the next version in 2014 — putting our company on the map for our public sector work.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Ask them! The methods may vary depending on whether sales are high touch vs. low touch or simple transaction vs. complex sale, but if you ask good, open-ended questions, there is unbelievable knowledge waiting to be unlocked.
  2. Find skilled researchers. Invest in a person skilled in research from a user experience, customer development, or service design perspective. I’m not a fan of Net Promoter Scores because the scale is arbitrary, it doesn’t reveal why a customer would recommend or not recommend, and it gives very little actionable feedback. A skilled researcher, in contrast, not only finds out the why, but creates a framework for developing and testing hypotheses that leads to unique insights that the company can use.
  3. Engage other teams early. Involve sales, marketing, technology, or product early in the user experience and customer service experience. When paired with a skilled researcher, key team members learn how to design user experience in the formative stages of a product. This influences teams across the company to make better decisions, take better actions and have greater empathy for customers.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We don’t have specific initiatives, because we have practices that are embedded in the way we work shoulder to shoulder with our clients. As a result, over 70% of our revenue comes from repeat customers or referrals. That said, I can share some of the key practices that have made a difference, as well as those we are continuing to refine.

  • Do great work that makes an impact on your customers. They’ll remember and tell others.
  • Help customers tell their stories, focused on impact and outcomes. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, but featuring the client’s own outcomes helps position you as a partner to their success. They will more likely repeat the story to others as well.
  • Build products with real customers early in the feedback loop. Don’t guess what the customer wants or needs. Create systems to enable them to tell you directly.
  • Make a senior person accountable for customer retention (or at minimum, retention is team performance criteria). Incentives clarify priorities.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Find the right founding team and build the relationship. It’s the first and most critical partnership a company will have. Mark Ferlatte and Jen Leech are amazing leaders, technical experts, and attentive to the well-being of others. When combined with high integrity, we’ve been able to make hard decisions anchored on purpose, even when we didn’t know how things would turn out. For example, when we founded the company, Jen’s husband Mike Burstein had an opportunity to do a fellowship for 18 months, travelling from the Balkans through Western Europe and ending in Scotland. Could she work remotely as a cofounder? Most investors and startup folks would have said no — but we had tremendous trust, plus high integrity. We worked out a plan to share our work transparently, ensure that she had sufficient WiFi at all locations, and hit all of our meeting times and milestones. We were able to release our first products and, while we didn’t realize it at the time, develop some of the explicit and implicit practices of building a remote-first company.
  2. C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). Have a credible, testable plan to create revenue in excess of your costs. Raising money is not *your* cash, it’s an alarm clock that will run down faster than you think. The founders decided to fund the company ourselves (and there are no trust funds lying around). This instilled incredible focus and discipline on a very simple notion: can we solve problems or create value sufficiently well that people will pay us? Now that we are over 100 employees, we retain that mindset and it continues to pay off.
  3. People first, not technology. This is especially true as the shift to remote work accelerates. We shared Remote, Yet Connected, our distributed company playbook, with many individuals and companies. It made a big impact because what most people and organizations experienced is disconnection and dislocation from their teammates. We focus squarely on people first because the technology is there to facilitate connection and build trust, not the other way around. As my cofounder Mark says, “There are no technology problems — only people problems.”
  4. Define values early. I’ve had the benefit of being part of several companies with strong values and cultures — Bain & Co and Linden Lab (maker of Second Life) to name two — and both had explicit cultural norms and expectations. I wanted to make sure that we did the same for Truss. So my co-founders and I met over six Wednesdays, after work, for three hours each, and worked with an outside facilitator to hammer out a minimum set of values. Our goal was to have six, make them memorable, and (crucially) make them verbs. We wanted these values to guide action, so that if any employee found themselves in an unusual situation, the values could guide their decision-making. At the time, defining values was seen by many in the startup community either as a waste of time, or something that would “just happen.” We took the opposite approach, and creating the Truss Values has been one of the best investments of time we’ve ever made. Bonus: a set of explicit values repels as much as it attracts. Think about it.
  5. Learn to tolerate ambiguity and make decisions under uncertainty. In other words, get good at saying, “I don’t know.” I have been a CEO for nine years, and almost daily I have a challenge or a situation that I’ve never encountered before. It’s not just because we do innovative work. It’s because the nature of problems has changed. Complex problems defy the old command-and-control, know-it-all leadership model. The year 2020 with the pandemic, the BLM movement, and massive fires should make that point crystal clear. We have to learn how to make decisions without the playbook. It starts with saying “I don’t know,” then building a diverse team to test different hypotheses to solve the problem. The good news: it’s a muscle that can be developed.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Move to the Edge, Declare it Center. It is a framework for making decisions about urgent, complex issues when there’s no playbook, no roadmap, and intense uncertainty.

In 2020, much of America has been compelled to rethink the complex problems of race, equity, and the future of work. From my point of view, it is clear that centering on the model of white, office’d, maximizing shareholder-value economics is broken. The pandemic and protests of 2020 have pushed most of us so far out of our comfort zone that we can barely remember “how things were.”

In my conversations with fellow CEOs, Executive Directors, and public policy leaders, they are overwhelmed, uncertain, and reluctant to take even the first step, for fear of making a mistake. This struggle is leaving people burned out, precisely when we need their intelligence, creativity, and inspiration most.

Pandemics and protests are examples of complex problems, and like climate change, those types of problems defy traditional, linear management practices that have been much of the 20th century canon. Unfortunately, we’ve all been trained to be “the smartest person in the room” with all the answers — and that mindset doesn’t prepare us to address complex problems. We need new leadership that approaches these problems with a different mindset led by curiosity, experimentation, iteration, values, and purpose.

Do you want to make better decisions, in these uncertain times, on our most complex problems? Then I invite you to move to your edge, find your purpose, and declare it center.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d love to meet Lin Manuel Miranda, Barack Obama, Brene Brown, Robert Smith (Vista Equity Partners), and Michael Gervais. Each has made a significant impact on the world, and would have unique insights to share about the nature of leadership and success.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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