It’s funny how life sorts out. In a way, it seems that there is some logic to the journey the universe has in store for us. At least, I can make the argument that, in my case, dots have been connected in ways that, in retrospect, make perfect sense.
To understand the point I want to make and set the context, it’s probably important to cue you in on two key points. First, I’m a lifelong competitor. I like to win. Second, while I like winning on my own, even more so, I passionately prefer to win as a member of a top-notch team.
Winning for me encompasses more than finishing first. I simply don’t find winning, in itself, rewarding enough.
To experience total joy in victory, I need to feel as if my team and I have left nothing on the table in the process of crossing the finish line ahead of our competitors. A simple way to describe this phenomenon is to say that victory is less than satisfying if my team and I have not performed to full potential. To my way of thinking, why go after the prize if we’re not going to give the very best we have in the process?
I’ll tell you a story that illustrates the first dot in the chain of connections that has evolved into the life I lead today – helping competitive enterprises and the executives who lead, manage and operate them – win by achieving and sustaining full potential performance. It has to do with an experience I had in high school.
Growing up in a small town in Georgia – the heart of the fabled American South – there were few options for a competitive young athlete like myself. Basically, there was football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. Beginning at around three years of age, I chose to compete in all four. Once I got to high school, football won out.
By the time my teammates and I reached our junior year, our team was widely believed to have the potential to be one of the best teams ever fielded in our state. The summer before our junior season began, article after article extolled our strengths and virtues. Everywhere we went, it seemed, people mentioned the great season that certainly lay ahead for us.
There was some grounding for boundless optimism. Ten of the eleven starting players on our offense went on to play on Division One teams in college. Two years before, our team made it to the State AAA Championship, where it had a fighting chance to win, though it did not.
We represented a legacy of audacity and excellence – an underfunded, small-town group of overachievers competing with the state’s largest schools. We were big, fast, experienced, and had the taste of champions on our collective palettes.
Inevitably, our reckoning came. We were to play an away game with our traditional rivals, Griffin High, in the first game of our penultimate season together.
The mood on our team bus was celebratory. Radios were blaring, ribald jokes were flying, and our certainty of the victory that lay ahead was absolute. As we traversed the 28 miles between our City and our rivals, banter filled the air, and post-game celebrations were planned with eager anticipation. All the while, little to no conversation or thought focused on the game that lay ahead.
Have you guessed the outcome yet? Yes, looking back, our fate was virtually inevitable. We had our clocks cleaned.
Thus, began the season of our discontent. Lack of focus on what mattered, insufficient discipline, and a low tolerance with the standards our coaches had set contributed to distractions that assured we would fail to perform at or even near our full potential.
Just as this event foretold a season of disappointment for our team, it began for me a journey of fascination with understanding and positively impacting how people can most effectively team together to achieve their individual and full collective potential.
Years later, as a practicing architect, I had many opportunities to partner with senior executives leading global blue-chip corporations and highly successful entrepreneurial ventures over a decade or two. I was selected to envision and lead the design and realization of complex, politically sensitive projects that represented huge investments in their business’s future. And as a result, these executives took me into their confidence. They gave me an insider’s look at the challenges and opportunities they faced in their enterprises’ day-to-day leadership.
On the whole, those were heady times. In addition to learning how to envision, design and manage the processes of creating tangible value through the realization of the built environments that embodied the aspirations of my clients and their organizations, I witnessed, first-hand, successful leadership and learned business basics with an immediacy that no formal MBA education could have given me. I will forever be grateful for the privilege of learning and mentorship made available to me during those years.
And, I could not help but observe that even the most successful of my clients often left opportunity on the table. Generally, this was not a result of intention. Rather, it represented the outgrowth of key individuals’ decisions that were either inconsistent with organizational standards and priorities or a result of suboptimal communication and coordination among peers and colleagues.
The fascination I had begun in high school with diagnosing and impacting how people worked together to accomplish aspirations deepened.
Finally, as our projects and clients grew in sophistication and success, the firm my partners and I led began to grow rapidly. As we struggled to manage growth effectively, I began to notice areas of our business where suboptimal communication, coordination, teamwork, and leadership impacted our ability to perform at full potential consistently. But, like our clients, we were successful, and the idea that we should consistently fine-tune our working standards and practices burned less intensely in the minds and hearts of my partners than in my own.
Admittedly, there was no doubt that I contributed more than my fair share to the recurrent breakdowns that compromised our ability to perform at full potential across the board. While we did perform at full potential enough of the time to build a strong reputation for world-class performance and fuel our business’s rapid growth, I could not find a way to be content. I wanted more.
My thoughts began to turn away from architecture. My interest in buildings became supplanted by a growing interest and obsession with the people and organizations that occupied the buildings my colleagues and I designed.
Could I transfer my creative skills to helping businesses achieve and sustain full potential performance? Could I find a way to help the many highly talented and accomplished executives I encountered build careers that were as personally rewarding as they were financially?
Simply put, the answer was and remains yes. It was and is possible. The journey that took me to the creation of Aperio was not the one I had envisioned or planned. Yet here I am.
While I could reasonably argue that I have a track record of notable success in designing and realizing futures of choice, in this case, the universe seems to have had a path in mind for me that took precedence over my most careful designs.
I chose to move from a career that offered me a strong identity, sense of belonging, creative challenge, engagement, comfort, and success, to one that gave me total freedom to strive in all situations as a member of a team devoted to a shared passion and commitment to excellence. In doing so, the greatest hurdle I had to overcome was acquiescence to acceptance.
At the end of the day, we can resist, do battle, complain or kick and scream, for that matter, when things in life unfold in ways we have not anticipated. But in the complex world within which we and our children now live, there comes a time in every life and career when simple, unadorned acceptance of what is becomes the gateway to what might be.
If you are feeling as if a full potential life, career, business quarter, or year seems just out of reach, take a moment to be quiet. Then, ask yourself these questions:
• Is there a dot to be connected that I am not seeing?
• Is there a path forward that I am resisting?
• Do I have the courage and wisdom to let go of what I know to see and accept what is?
Yours is a life worth living and a career worth having to full potential. Please, please open yourself to what is for the sake of becoming the most you can. Leave nothing on the table!