Steve Pemberton: “That whenever you stop growing, you have to make a move”

That whenever you stop growing, you have to make a move. In my twenties, I worked in higher education and I really enjoyed what I did as well as the university itself. But after five years I wasn’t growing in the profession and I made the mistake of staying another five years after that realization. […]

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That whenever you stop growing, you have to make a move. In my twenties, I worked in higher education and I really enjoyed what I did as well as the university itself. But after five years I wasn’t growing in the profession and I made the mistake of staying another five years after that realization. I never did that again!


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Pemberton.

Steve Pemberton is chief people officer for Workhuman, the leading online platform bringing positivity to the workplace through social recognition. Prior to assuming his role at Workhuman, Steve was a senior human resources executive at Walgreens. Steve and his wife, Tonya, are the proud parents of three children.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve had several different career paths. What I was doing in my twenties (working in higher education) was different than what I was doing in my thirties (entrepreneurial ventures) and forties (writer and senior executive in multi-national companies). And now in my fifties, I’m a Chief Human Resources Officer for Workhuman, former candidate for the United States Senate and author of three books. I am doing something different again. What has driven those different career paths is not a story as much as it was a set of childhood experiences where my fate and fortune were completely out of my hands. Those were difficult times and though I managed to get through them, I resolved then that never again were my choices going to be dictated to me by the randomness of chance.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When my first book was published, it found an audience I was not really expecting. After all, it was meant to be more of a family history. But soon enough I realized I had inadvertently touched a chord of other people’s lives and they often write to me to let me know. One morning, I arrived at my office to find a letter from a fifth-grader telling me that he really appreciated my book and that I was his favorite author. It occurred to me almost immediately that I should repay the favor by going to his school to surprise him. His teacher immediately agreed to the idea and sought to get permission from the principal. Unfortunately, the principal said no, citing the school’s schedule and the time of year. The next day the teacher shared my book with her, and in that moment the principal realized that she had been my second-grade teacher!! When the young boy was writing to me, he did not realize the connection and I did not know either when I responded back to him. It was an amazing and beautiful coincidence-and, yes, I did go see him, his teacher and my second grade teacher.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I try to answer the question: what is my best? Not that which is best for somebody else but my best. Here are some other principles that guided me personally and professionally: the victory is in the effort, not the outcome; live with honor and integrity; always try to better someone’s else life; explore new worlds, spend some part of each day in gratitude, appreciation and reflection; leave the world better than you found it.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The Big Idea That Might Change The World is The Lighthouse Effect. The Lighthouse Effect is the idea that any of us, in any given moment on any given day, can both find a lighthouse for ourselves and be a lighthouse for someone else. What if we woke up each day with a first thought of looking to extend gratitude? That could be someone in our life whose impact we want to recognize or a complete stranger to whom we might extend a kindness. At the same time, each interaction gives us the opportunity to find a connection that guides us in times of uncertainty or difficulty in our own lives.

Think of all the wonderful attributes of the lighthouse: humble, steadfast, noble, selfless, resilient, courageous, resolute. These are also the best elements of humanity. It is why we remember our own lighthouses as fondly as we do because we realize that our journey would almost certainly have wound up in a very different place were it not for those human lighthouse who lit the way for us.

How do you think this will change the world?

We live in a time of incredible cynicism, negativity, and polarization. It seems so rooted in our culture these days that it can be hard to see our way through it all. Changing this dynamic means focusing on what we as individuals and as communities can do in our daily interactions. The secret to this Big Idea that is The Lighthouse Effect is that it gives us, the seemingly ordinary people, the power to bend the arc of lives.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The one potential drawback is that this might be seen as too idealistic or naïve. This might lead us to think simple acts of goodness might remedy systemic issues that are more complex.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

There were two of them in fact. The first tipping point was my first book in which I shared my coming-of-age journey. It has continued to find an audience, but it was also an invitation to hear other people’ stories and it’s helped me better understand the heroism of seemingly ordinary people. The second is my company, Workhuman, where I serve as Chief Human Resources Officer. We power the recognition platforms of companies all across the world so each day I get to see how daily recognition makes such an impact on people’s lives.

It got me to thinking about how each of us, in our small ways, can recognize someone who was a lighthouse in our life.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

If each of us took a moment to recognize the human lighthouse in our life or share a story of how someone provided that for you, we can ignite a movement that can fundamentally re-shape the world. That is one of most important aspects of The Lighthouse Effect. It does not require any special skills or degrees to help someone in moments of doubt or to find others who might help you find your own way through uncertainty.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. That whenever you stop growing, you have to make a move. In my twenties, I worked in higher education and I really enjoyed what I did as well as the university itself. But after five years I wasn’t growing in the profession and I made the mistake of staying another five years after that realization. I never did that again!
  2. That it’s okay to trust yourself and your vision. I vividly recall sitting in front of some publishers who were working really hard to disguise that they simply didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fit into their mold of what a writer should be. But I was resolved that I had to write my life the way I lived it as opposed to the way they wanted me to write it.
  3. That your greatest dreams and aspirations do not require approval or permission. There is, within all of us, dreams that live within the quiet of our own heart. Often, we do not share them because we fear rejection or criticism.
  4. That the very adversity that scarred you is the same one that now empowers you to take on new challenges. It’s no accident that successes come after there have been several setbacks. Each setback is a learning that you take with you onto your next venture which you will do with better understanding and wisdom.
  5. That there are fewer things better than helping someone along their life journey. In a way I knew this before I started but I am reminded every day of the responsibility I have that we all have to one another. If we can wake up each day thinking about how to touch someone’s life, we can usher in a new world and a new way of being.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

It can be trite to say it, but there are few things more important than discipline and good habits. On your next full working day, keep a log of what you do that day and how much time you spend on those tasks. Track everything!! At the end of the day, look back at the log and see what you accomplished and where you spent your time. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find and where you can create better efficiencies.

That approach applies not only to your daily life, but also to your longer-term goals, whether that be monthly goals or yearly goals. It forces a mindset of consistency while at the same time breaking down your goals into a series of achievable objectives. That’s really what creates success-goals, discipline and the good habits necessary to achieve them.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Imagine a platform, be it an app or a social media community, that is focused solely on goodness. Whenever you have a lighthouse moment with another human being, this is the place you would go to share that experience or tell that person how that person impacted you. In most cases, those who have touched or impacted you would not be aware they had done so until they received that notification. Similarly so, you would also be on the receiving end of messages from those who were touched by you or something you did. Imagine the power of millions of messages of gratitude flying all across the world on a daily basis. We could quite literally change how humanity interacts.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can find me on all the major social media platforms: LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @istevepemberton.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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