Serious Message from the East – Engage!

Many of you chide me about my connections to the Harvard Business School – most of time deservedly so. It’s a unique place moderately connected to reality – especially our reality here in the Midwest. There’s definitely an East Coast bias and many times the graduates focus on money over other matters. It can be an elitist place that can get stuck in its own thinking.

Still there’s an allure…

I returned to HBS for a Boardroom exercise last month for a chance to share my experience and teach some of the present MBA candidates. The visit reminded me of HBS’ positive qualities – a long tradition, great talent, and the ability to convene diverse talented groups. My visit also reinforced the impact exponential change will have on all of us and the critical need for each of us to make intense lifelong learning a part of our routine.

Harvard is a fascinating place. It’s the oldest college in the U.S. and HBS is the oldest business school. One of HBS’ monikers is the “West Point of Capitalism”. That comparison calls up images of the long grey line of West Point Cadets through the centuries and the similar lineage of HBS graduates. That long line of history binds many of us to each other and makes the school a lightning rod for great people, organizations, and ideas to come together. The case method – the Socratic Method – provides the base for spirited and respectful discussion.

This engagement reinforced the link between exponential change, continuous learning, and constant engagement. We discussed Alphabet’s (Google’s parent) X initiatives with the organization’s CFO. They are tackling tough world issues the way only Google can – with substantial resources and unique collaborations. The case we discussed involved their efforts to turn seawater into carbon-neutral fuel. After that, we engaged around what’s next for X. All the activity clearly illustrated the complexity, speed of change, and the diverse expertise needed to effectively address the most important issues facing us.

Exponential change is not just a Google issue. It affects every single one of us. The alumni present brought a cacophony of issues, ideas, and challenges to the meetings. It was very clear that every person and every business faces transformational change. It was also clear that these leaders are moving quickly with substantial resources to reposition themselves in this new world.

It was great fun to see how this movement parallels our activities here in Wisconsin. Our pace and collaboration on many key issues matches anything I saw in Boston. Many different people lead our charge with the respect and dignity great ideas and personalities deserve. Plenty of our initiatives lead the nation, though many lag. All of this reconfirmed a basic belief many of us share: Not all good ideas come from Wisconsin, just most of them.

Engaging the best Wisconsin has to offer is a terrific start, but it’s not nearly enough. Plenty of the knowledge we need lies outside the state. The HBS crowd still sees Wisconsin as the frontier, just barely a part of civilization. The best and brightest from the East Coast are not beating a path to our state to share their expertise. That means we need to reach outside our Wisconsin bubble and engage experts wherever we can.

Engagement is just one element of lifelong learning. Exponential change requires all of us to open our minds and thinking to new ideas and developments. Engaging Wisconsin expertise is only the first step. Reading is terrific as far as it goes. We all know “book smart” people unable to take practical action. That’s where face-to-face engagement with experts exploring the leading edge of technology, leadership, and collaboration fills in the gaps. Each of us should engage in a focused way that furthers our strategies and objectives while also helping others reach their goals.

I know this sounds like hard work – and it is! Still, we can make that work a source of joy and fun. We can all learn much much more when we suppress our usual need to be the best or the smartest…or even just to be right. People love to talk about what they do and know. Take time to listen – really listen! Engage with interesting people not normally in your circles. Break out of your bubble and avoid the echo chamber. Leverage your expertise with theirs and you will both win!

It’s an exciting time to be alive! There’s much happening and great opportunities to learn more than ever before. Take advantage of the times and harness them to your advantage.

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