Freedom To Create: My Personal Leadership Journey

Working in Paradise

Working in Paradise

This week I taking some time to reflect on my personal leadership journey as an entrepreneur and owner of two businesses, Groove Management Consulting and LeaderSurf. I chose to escape the day to day with my daughter to spend the week at the Buena Onda Beach Resort in Nicaragua.  The location has significance, but I will get to that a bit later.  In my executive coaching and leadership development work, I encourage my clients to take more time to be introspective and to reflect on the choices they have made and the things that bring them joy and trouble them in their lives. This trip and the time away with my daughter doing things I love with her is me taking my own advice.

In 2014 I finally mustered the courage to fulfill a lifelong dream of leading my own consulting firm full time.  I had dabbled with the idea in the past, had a false start in 2006 and I had maintained the Groove Management website since 2001 when I originally birthed the idea in graduate school.  I wrote a post about the original idea A Blast From The Past- Finding My Groove. 2014 was the year to fully commit.  I knew my trade well having spend 20 plus years leading human capital initiatives for Fortune 500 companies, startups and global organizations. I had a clear image of what it takes to be a successful corporate leader and I was confident that I could transfer that knowledge through to clients.  I went into the venture of leading a human capital consulting firm with excitement and the high level of passion that I approach all new ventures with.  What I found was that certain aspects of the job were much more challenging than I had anticipated.

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When I launched Groove Management I sent an email blast to everyone within my network, over 1,800 people announcing the launch of the company and explaining the nature of the work. I was clear about our mission  “Helping individuals and organizations to maximize their performance by focusing on their strengths.”, I was clear about the value proposition and I was clear about the solutions I would provide.  The offerings included executive coaching, organizational development, leadership development, team building, employee engagement and culture.  I was intentionally in not defining my target audience geographically, by vertical or by size.  I believed that given my diverse experience, I could do this work across various company types.  What I found was that the email blast fell on almost entirely deaf ears.  I got a few emails saying congratulations, but for the most past people ignored the email.  I soon realized that doing the work would be the easy part and that selling the work would be my biggest challenge.

What I learned early on are two things

One about myself and one about networking.  What I learned about myself is that I don’t like prospecting.  I enjoy sales when a clear buying need is established and my role is to compel the client why they should choose Groove Management over another vendor, but finding clients with buying needs is not something that is a strength of mine. 

My other early lesson was around the power of networking.  Hiding behind email does not work.  The best crafted email or website will not attract business.  Networking and prospecting requires face to face interaction and conversation.  The more time I spent at events and taking contacts to lunch the more success I had.  While I still work to have a compelling website and send email blasts, they have not been a significant driver of my business.  Networking is not just about having conversations with people you know.  My biggest aha around networking occurred when I flipped the question I was asking people I networked with.  Instead of asking if I could do business with them or their company, I shifted to a different question. 

“Who do you know that I should know?” 

That simple question turned on my prospecting engine.  I wrote a blogpost about this approach.  Networking:  It is not about who you know, but who they know

Success came slowly, but it did come.  I landed a few clients which turned into a few more and the a few more.  It took a couple of years before the business started to hit its stride. Balancing prospecting, selling and delivering became a challenge.  I had to be much smarter about how I was using my time and how I turned client work into repeatable processes while maintaining a customized approach to the work for each client.  The work was really rewarding and enabled me to work with a diverse set of client from manufacturers to venture capital backed Silicon Valley high growth organizations. The referrals began to flow and that has been the main growth engine for Groove Management. We deliver excellence and that has translated into referrals.

The Freedom

What I have come to enjoy most about running Groove Management is the freedom.  As long as I work smart and deliver for my clients, I have amazing flexibility.  Writing this from Nicaragua is an example of the freedom I have.  In our connected world, as long as I have a strong internet connection, I can accomplish most of my daily work.  The more interesting component of the freedom that Groove Management has afforded me is related to the actual work.  I have the freedom to be as creative as I want and to try new approaches to my craft.  When working in large organizations I found that creative thinking and risk taking were frowned upon.  When I ask people about my superpowers, creativity and innovation are words that are often used to describe me.  I thrive on thinking and then acting out of the box.  I have that freedom being an entrepreneur and it has led to unique solutions for many of my clients which has been a differentiator between Groove Management and the myriad of other human capital consulting firms.

The Leadership Done Differently Inspiration

As someone who is always looking for a better way, I thrive on problem solving.  Two years into Groove Management we took a family trip to Nicaragua for spring break in 2016.  My wife had been traveling to Central and Latin America for work and was told by colleagues to check out Nicaragua.  Having been to Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica, we were intrigued. I am an avid surfer, so the initial research I conducted on Nicaragua was focused on finding a place to visit with waves.  To my surprise Nicaragua has world class surf.  My only knowledge about Nicaragua at the time was rooted in what I had read about and heard about during the 1980s with the Sandinistas and the civil war.  That tragedy had ended and while still primitive Nicaragua was a stable and beautiful country with lots to offer.  My wife, my 13 year old daughter and I had an amazing trip to Nicaragua.  We enjoyed the nature, the food, the waves and most of all the people.  While Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere behind Haiti, it also ranks as one of the happiest poor countries in the world.

During the trip both my wife and daughter took surfing lessons.  Neither had surfing experience and both did extremely well.  In talking with my wife about the experience, I put on my executive coach hat and heard her describe learning to surf in a way that paralleled the experience I hear people use to describe the struggle with transitioning from doer to leader in organizations.  A crazy idea entered my head,

What if I could help develop business leaders by teaching them how to surf? 

The answer to that question turned into a quest to build a better approach to leadership development.  Over the next several months I worked with instructional designers, researched experiential learning programs, read ever article ever written about surfing and leadership and even connected with Rick Hansen, the author of the book Leadership and The Art of Surfing.  In August 2016 I returned to Nicaragua to pilot additional aspects of the leadership program I was creating.  There were several variables under consideration before launching and marketing the program.  Some included:

Location  Where should he program be held?  Central America made sense from a proximity to the east and west coasts of the USA, availability of waves, warm climate and reasonable cost

Program Content  While surfing would be a component of the program, this was not set up to be a surf trip.  I wanted companies to leverage this program as an alternative to University based or other professional leadership programs.  We would need to include leadership theory, leadership modules, psychometric assessments, formal sessions and other components that would be found in a more traditional learning program. I believe the program has a unique recipe for leadership development

Open Enrollment or Cohort based:  What I have found is that paradoxically people learn more and push outside their comfort zones when they are surrounded by people they don’t know.  The program would be best served as an open enrollment program with the requirement that no two people attend the same session from the same company.  I learned the power of open enrollment programs first hand when I attended an art and innovation program at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation.  I wrote an article about that experience for the Charlotte Agenda.  3 Leadership Lessons from a Workshop at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation

Target Audience  Who would send people to such a unique leadership development program?  The plan was to target organizations that thrive on disruption and creativity.  Similar to the findings with launching Groove Management, I found that the key to making this program a reality was networking.  There is no one best match type of company.  I had to make a compelling case why this program was not going to be a boondoggle and surf trip, but a legitimate leadership development program to go up against any classroom based program in terms of learning outcomes.

Servant Leadership  One of my biggest learnings about leadership has been that the best leaders are selfless and they tend to put their teams ahead of themselves.  Teaching this approach can be difficult, but allowing people to learn it first hand is quite easy.  It was important to me that the program have a servant leadership component.  I wanted to do something wit the participants to give back to the community where we would hold the program.  I committed a full day of the program to an aid project.  The project would make a sustainable difference in the community where we would run the program.

Name That Program  Initially I thought about calling the program Groove Leadership Adventures.  The thought was that in the future I could run other experiential programs in other locals.  Maybe skiing, mountain climbing, sailing, etc.  As I thought further about this, I became concerned that I would dilute the focus.  After much thought and input from others in my network, I landed on calling the program LeaderSurf.  The name is a play on the word leadership.  If you drop “hip” and replace it with “urf” you have the program name.

Let’s Go Surfing and Learning

Surfing 101

Surfing 101

The first official LeaderSurf program was held in February 2017 at the Buena Onda Beach Resort in Nicaragua.  We had six participants from various companies and industries attend.  Four women and two men.  The group ranged in age from 33 to 47 and included five Americans and a South African.  The group had an amazing week together and proved to me several things.

1)       The power of experiential learning.  This group made lifelong bonds with each other.  They learned about themselves and about each other.  They shared insights and displayed vulnerability in ways I have never seen in a leadership workshop.  They all learned to surf and took great pleasure in celebrating each others successes on the waves as well as chuckling at the wipeouts.

2)      Doing Good Can Make Us Better:  The servant leadership day was amazing.  We spend the better part of the day in a village near Nandaime installing water filters with the help of our program partner Waves 4 Water.  We literally changed the lives of an entire village that day.  It brought tears to the eyes of our participants and joy to the families we served.  Knowing that this village would now have a sustainable source of clean drinking water was amazing.

3)      An Execution Mindset:  The freedom I am afforded in being an entrepreneur enabled me to birth LeaderSurf.  It would never have happened if I worked for an organization and pitched them with the idea of creating a leadership program this unique.  Where I see so many entrepreneurs struggle is in the execution of their ideas.  The idea for LeaderSurf was the easy part.  I spent a year fine tuning and refining it before officially launching the program.  It was a ton of work and some would say a distraction from Groove Management.  I would argue that is was one of the hardest yet most rewarding things I have done so far.  It took an amazing amount of work, a lot of risk and perseverance.

As I sat in a hammock at the Buena Onda Beach Resort after the airport shuttle left with that first program’s participants, I was as fulfilled as I have ever felt in my professional life.  I had an idea that I turned into a reality and one that would change lives for the better.  Not just the program participants but the community in Nicaragua that benefitted from our program.

Riding The Waves of Change

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LeaderSurf has evolved. After each program I have incorporated the feedback and the learnings to make the program even better. There were small refinements regarding pre-working, timing and preparations. The biggest change came in early 2018 when violence broke out in Nicaragua. The country became politically unstable which caused the US State Department and authorities from most other countries to impose a level 3 travel warning for Nicaragua. Much like riding an ever changing wave, I had to change course and find another country from which to hose LeaderSurf. I embraced this challenge as an opportunity and began planning. I chose to expand the program to Costa Rica and to add a program in Folly Beach, South Carolina. The change was positioned as an expansion: LeaderSurf Expands While I was disappointed to leave Nicaragua, the new location at the Gilded Iguana Surf Hotel in Costa Rica offered more upscale amenities and a few other advantages. The Folly Beach program required sourcing two beachfront houses, an executive chef to prepare meals and a partnership with a surf school. With all of that in place, we were ready. Surprisingly Folly Beach did not generate much interest, but Costa Rica expanded the level of corporate interest in the program. We have since conduced two programs in Costa Rica and have the next few programs scheduled for Costa Rica. Folly Beach remains an option for cohort based corporate retreats. The pivot challenged me professionally, but also taught me about flexibility and adaptability. These are the skills that effective leaders and entrepreneurs must learn.

Back in Nicaragua

LeaderSurf in Nicaragua

Fast forward to today.  As I sit here writing this from the same spot where it all started, I am filled with pride.  LeaderSurf has stood the test of time.  We have conducted several programs with more scheduled.  The feedback has been awesome.  Each program has brought new challenges and new opportunities. I missed Nicaragua, the Buena Onda Resort, my friends and the overall vibe of the country. I can say that things are safe here and as beautiful as ever. I hope to run future LeaderSurf programs in Nicaragua and wold encourage anyone looking for a unique holiday spot to add Nicaragua to your list.

I am in my element doing what I do best and what I love to do, “helping individuals and organizations to maximize their performance by focusing on their strengths.” I have found my groove and combined my passion and my expertise to grow two businesses that provide me with the freedom to be the best I can be.