We often think of government employees as the polar opposite of entrepreneurs. But what could happen if we teach them to think this way, transforming them into empowered employees? In this episode, we are joined by educator and entrepreneur Tom Darling. Tom serves the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico as a Division Manager of their Employee Learning Center. In addition, he has undertaken a radical experiment to teach the city’s employees to think like entrepreneurs. Listen to a fascinating conversation about how managers can empower organizational employees by solving small problems for their coworkers and the people they serve.
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Transforming Organizational Culture By Empowering Employees To Think Like Entrepreneurs With Tom Darling
Welcome to another episode of the show. I am speaking with Tom Darling, who’s both an educator and an entrepreneur. He has an interesting story to tell. While teaching entrepreneurship at Central New Mexico Community College, he was asked to undertake a radical experiment. Can you teach city government workers how to think like entrepreneurs? We often think of government employees as the polar opposite of entrepreneurs. Yet Tom thought differently.
Using our Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, Tom set out with a vision to transform the corporate culture of the city of Albuquerque workforce by empowering employees to be fully engaged in their work. The results were truly astonishing. In this episode, we discuss how teaching frontline workers to think like entrepreneurs not only drastically increased engagement but also changed the organizational culture. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Tom Darling.
Tom, welcome to the show.
Thanks. Great to be on here, Gary.
This conversation has been a long time coming. For the readers, a little bit of background, we’ve known each other for quite some time but I’m particularly interested in the story you have about teaching entrepreneurship to city government workers. This is such an extraordinary story about the entrepreneurial mindset and so many people think of a city government worker as the polar opposite of an entrepreneur and you almost single-handedly turned that idea inside out.
That’s what I want to talk about now but I want to start letting our audience know that you and I go back. I met you when you were at the community college in New Mexico as an educator but I know that you’re also an entrepreneur. You’ve had many different entrepreneurial adventures in your own life. Let me start with that. How did you find yourself at this intersection of education and entrepreneurship?
When I was a young guy, I graduated from high school life. I was an artist and a musician but I wanted a job and I wanted something that could make me a living. I ended up going to college to get my Architecture degree. I had a vast construction background. My dad was a painting contractor and a firefighter. Going to get my Architecture degree was a way to bring my art and my building background together in a way that I can go do something.
I went to college and got my Architecture degree and like a lot of degrees, you’d go to school, you borrow a bunch of money, go get your degree and no matter how good you are, that doesn’t guarantee there’s going to be a job out there for you. I ended up going to work with a residential remodeling company and ended up being their design director for several years. After doing that for a while, I realized there was some opportunity for me to open up my own remodeling company.
It’s interesting because you found some literature. Someone published on this that if you’re exposed to a startup or you work in a small organization and you get to see how the sausage gets made, you’re exponentially more likely to become entrepreneurial.
It was a good experience. This company that I was working for is a pretty lean construction company for the time back in the early-‘90s but I wasn’t making the money I wanted to make. I knew what they were doing and I had that opportunity with another friend of mine so I ended up venturing out. Starting a small partnership, low residence remodeling company, I carried about 4 or 5 different custom cabinet lines.
It did okay. The problem with being in your 22, 23 years old and running a company with somebody who’s twice your age is you get beat up and taken advantage of. I did that for 3 or 4 years and then I had an opportunity with another friend to go help him with his mortgage company, which I don’t talk about a lot only because the mortgage business has such a bad connotation but it got to the opportunity to go and help this guy get incorporated. I was able to take my construction knowledge with me and do a little different type of sales and business. I did that for a while.
Until an opportunity presented itself from a friend of mine that I knew when I was small, there was an opening at the local community college to teach some classes and construction management at a community college. I knew that I had a heart for helping other people, teaching and wanted to do something a little different yet, I was still going to be self-employed on the side. I ended up picking about 4 or 5 classes in my very first semester in this construction management program, teaching, estimating and project management.
After the first semester, the guy who was a friend of mine that got me hired there decided he was ready to retire. I ended up applying for his job and then became a full-time faculty and the faculty chair of the program at the community college teaching construction and project management. I worked at the community college for about sixteen years before I came to the city. While I was there, not only did I lead the construction management program but I also did professional development for other teachers.
I was an acting Associate Dean for a little while and then the last five years I was at the community college full-time, I was the Chair of the Business Administration Group, which was a better fit for everything I was doing with my entrepreneurial background. While I was at the college, I went back and got my Master’s Degree in adult education, which I needed in order to do the jobs I was doing.
That’s where my ability to teach entrepreneurship was. I was doing that on the side but then to be able to teach it in the context of helping other people. I’m so glad that I got to do it at the community college, not at a four-year research university where nobody ever got their hands dirty.
In the last years, the college decided they wanted to start a nonprofit that was built around growing entrepreneurs and the local community. There was an initiative going on in Albuquerque at the time to create an innovation district downtown to bring more entrepreneurs to Albuquerque. This was back in 2014, 2015 when Austin, Kansas City and lots of other entrepreneurial cities were starting to branch out.
There was the strive with our city council, the city and the colleges do something about that. They formed a little nonprofit organization, which I got to work on and be a part of. In 2015, I helped create a business accelerator at the college. We created a maker space at the college and there was an opportunity for us to go to Kauffman and get some training on this program called the Ice House Entrepreneurial Mindset Program, which we figured may be a good opportunity for us to use this content in our entrepreneurship courses, primarily the courses I was teaching at that time. We went through the training and that’s when I met you.
There were several of us and we came back. It’s one of those moments where we recognized there was this opportunity with this particular training. For those reading who have looked at this content, it’s based on a story that was sold by Clifton Taulbert, the successful businessman in Oklahoma who grew up in the Mississippi Delta, where his uncle Cleve was running an ice house in the South of Mississippi Delta.
Clifton worked for his uncle and learned a lot of very interesting lessons about entrepreneurship and then flip through the Gary took those stories and put them into a book that was transformative. I’ve had lots of experience with entrepreneurs, teaching entrepreneurship and being an entrepreneur myself but to identify the story that a simple individual, an unlikely entrepreneur, an American man in the 40s in the deep South running a successful business, was transformative knowledge for us to gain.
When I brought it back, the first thing I did was start to look at is how I could integrate this curriculum into my intro to entrepreneurship-wise as discussions were going on with our nonprofit that the college created with our accelerator program maker space. We had the idea that why don’t we start using this and teaching this concept in our accelerator to our new entrepreneurs, which made sense, entrepreneurship curriculum for entrepreneurs.
I appreciate you saying that about the Ice House Program because that’s what Clif and I were trying to do. We were trying to get to the simplicity on the other side of the complexity of entrepreneurship. It’s not that complicated. You have to figure out how to make yourself useful to other humans and the more useful you become, the better off you’re going to be.
We often come to believe that someone else is going to tell us how to become useful to other humans and we stop taking responsibility for learning. That’s what the book was all about to try to push back a little bit on the Silicon Valley narrative of the entrepreneur, has the privileged White male at an elite university with big idea access to venture capital and so on and so forth and wanting to get to the root of it. I appreciate you saying that. That validated it. That’s what the book and the course were designed to do.
Having been one of those entrepreneurs, I didn’t have any training when I started. That is the norm for most entrepreneurs. It’s little experience, no training and no idea what they’re doing. Teaching entrepreneurship at the college, the temptation is you take a textbook. You go through it, you teach them all these things, you teach in business management and hopefully in the process that they that figure out.
They can go and watch Shark Tank and think, “That’s how I have to do it.” That was never the approach that I worked to apply. The timeliness of this program was great because it was focused on how to help people versus how to come up with the idea that nobody has had before and ended up finding venture capital selling, which is that’s the reality.
That’s what we’re trying to do, to help folks understand that the attitudes and the skills required to discover opportunities are almost completely distinct and the attitudes and skills required to exploit an opportunity. The former being entrepreneurial and the latter being managerial and so much to your point about entrepreneurship education tends to conflate those two things. We’re going to teach you how to manage a business or health.
To answer entrepreneurship, they get an A, B or C depending on how effective of a business plan they have versus my approach was where we’re going to create a business model because I had started using the lean canvas model approach as well because it works and we’re going to create a business model.
My opinion is that your grade is going to be based on whether you can sell something and, of course, that was not very popular in a community college setting and there are all kinds of ethical issues surrounding having your students have to go sell something. The reality is if you’re not helping anybody then you’re another person with another product that’s trying to find someone to give you money to make it.
We did this. We integrated it into the content and started using it in the accelerator and it was valuable. There were a couple of people that had gone before us to the training at Kauffman Labs in the Entrepreneurial Mindset. A good friend of mine helps manage a nonprofit in Downtown Albuquerque. His name is Rick Rennie. He and I started talking and he had had this idea. He had been trying to figure out how to use a program like this outside of an educational setting where it could have an impact.
There were some conversations that we had a couple of other conversations with some of the circles he was working in. I bubbled up this idea of like, “What if we could take some economic development money that was sitting aside at that time because we had all of this economic development work that was going on Downtown? What if we took some of that money and maybe applied some of this training program to a small group of city employees to see if teaching some unlikely employees in the city or people that were working on helping develop this innovation district? Teach them about entrepreneurship and see if that had any impact on their contribution to the work we were doing, understanding entrepreneurs and bringing entrepreneurs to the city.” It was a unique idea.
A unique idea is an understatement here. It sounds like a practical joke if you want to teach entrepreneurship to city government workers. That’s one thing that I love about it. It’s a radical idea. I want to go back to something you said about teaching kids to sell something. It had ethical implications. There’s a word you used inside the college. Can you talk a little bit about that? I’m curious about that and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would call the casual contempt for entrepreneurship within an academic setting is perceived as a money-making scheme or business oriented and so on and so forth.
It’s important that I clarify because the one thing that’s happened in the last years is the college programs have started working to build some incubator where students could make products, sell them and learn how to make a profit. Part of that started with where we were moving but to grade a student based on whether or not they could sell something.
I gave an assignment to some of my business students many years ago when we got to a chapter on entrepreneurship. I would explain to them this concept of how hard it is to make $100 legally. A lot of people have this mindset that it takes money to make money and I can’t make $100 unless I have money, time, resources, intelligence, access or a great product. The reality is you can make $100 in a couple of days.
You can go out to your garage and sell stuff that you don’t use anymore. You can mow somebody’s yard, wash somebody’s car and deliver groceries for a neighbor. A couple of times, I gave an assignment to some students that are on a Thursday before Monday’s class that, “Your assignment this week is to make $100 literally. You can’t borrow the money. You have to go physically sell something to make $100.”
You got to make yourself useful to other humans and come back with evidence of usefulness in the form of currency.
The thing is, lots of students did and lots of students made more than $100. Some of them were sparked by the opportunity of being able to do that. Our department director at the time had a problem with me putting a grade or an assignment where a student could possibly fail because they may or may not be able to do what other students can do. Some introverted students can’t sell as well as extroverted students so that might be a disadvantage for me to be able to grade that.
It wasn’t about the contempt for entrepreneurship.
Understand that we’re in a business program. In our program in the business school, there’s an appreciation for how this works like no other program in college. I stopped giving them that as a homework assignment, but I would encourage them to do it anyway even though there’s this perception of privilege associated with people that may be extroverted, smarter, better looking or have resources that some people don’t.
This is a hard reality for a lot of people, especially in our society to accept is that anybody can solve a problem for somebody else, regardless of your background, what you have, your privilege, your location, your heritage, your culture, where you grew up, how much money you have or how much money you don’t.
A lot of times, the more resources that you do have available, the more privileged that you do have access to, the less productive many people can be because they don’t have the motivation that they need to be able to focus and hone in on helping somebody with that minimum viable product to do it.
There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ve long said that in my interview and analysis of underdog entrepreneurs, adversity becomes an advantage because if you have access to resources, you can lurch forward and execute on an idea without evidence of the usefulness of that idea and that’s more akin to gambling than it is entrepreneurship. That’s a build it and they will come approach.
That’s what a lot of people do and it’s taught. A lot of people teach that. Write a business plan, which is the best way possible to fool yourself but the problem there is the business plan relies on logic and reason but it lacks evidence. That’s the challenge. As Richard Feynman was fond of saying, “The first trick is not to fool yourself and you’re the easiest person to fool.” The lack of resources forces you to pursue what we would call now client-funded development, where you prove the concept with real clients in the real world and when they pay you for the useful thing that you developed, that payment is evidence of usefulness.
To be fair to all my friends that work at the college and I still teach part-time there. I still teach the intro to Entrepreneurship course. I’ve written a lot of business plans and I’ve made money writing business plans. I don’t recommend that people stop writing business plans but I’ve told all of my students and as I’ll talk to you later about this. The business plan pitch mentality doesn’t exist in the entrepreneurial world. It also exists in government. That is the foundation for government procurement and we’ll talk about that in a little bit.
I always tell all of our students, anybody who’s starting a business or anybody that I coach, I do a lot of entrepreneurial coaching, “You can’t write a business plan until after you’ve sold 20 or 30 items.” They all look at me like, “What do you mean? What am I going to sell twenty items?” “We need a business model. You need to know your value proposition. Who are you going to sell something to, how are you going to do it, how much is it going to cost and show me what problem you’re solving for somebody and then let’s go find somebody to test it.”
Once they test it and they like it and then they decide that they want to buy it, they buy it and then you learn that you charge too little, you charge too much or you have to refund them because something’s broken. All of the data and the information that you have is what gives you everything you need to put together a business plan is not a lie. No one understands why when they go to some local incubators and write a business plan and then they run to the bank to get money to buy that new truck and buy those fifteen things they need to buy to start their company, the banks all look at it and say, no.
It’s like, “Somebody forgot to tell me. The bank doesn’t like my business plan because the bank is looking for evidence.” Shark Tank is entertaining but it’s not done a good service to the small entrepreneur because even Shark Tank proves the concept we’re talking about because after they get up and they do their pitch and the sharks are watching, the very first thing the sharks ask is, “How many products have you sold? How much profit have you made?” In other words, they’re asking, “Show me your evidence that your idea has any value because I’m not going to get you any money until you do that.”
That’s why the plan and pitch approach has its place but not at the level of figuring out what is the problem I’m going to solve and who I am going to solve it for. Is there anybody that wants my solution? It is that simple but unfortunately, we have complicated it. It’s so greatly and repeated this pattern.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. The distinction between a non-entrepreneur and an entrepreneur is blurry. People ask me, what is an entrepreneurial mindset? Sometimes my answer is, “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me what a non-entrepreneurial mindset is?” This starts to bring up some of these deeply held assumptions that we operate on that we don’t know that we’re operating on this mindset. If you break it down to the most basic principles, we all live by exchanging useful things with each other.
That’s how people survive.
We’re not gatherers anymore. We’re not subsistence farmers. We exchange that we live by exchanging. Adam Smith wrote about that in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The question becomes, “What is the useful thing that you exchange and with whom do you exchange it?” I think the more important question is, “What is the mechanism by which you learn how to become useful to other humans?” We’re not taught to develop those discovery skills. It’s assumed that we’re going to work in an established organization. The useful product or services have already been proven and established.
We’re going to fulfill a predetermined well-defined role within that organization. That way of thinking served us well for a moment in time. I think that distinction is becoming obsolete and that’s what your story demonstrates and we’ll get more into that over time. We think about entrepreneurship in a binary way. That means you’re going to start a business or you’re going to work for somebody else and they’re two distinct tracks.
Maybe the business definition of an entrepreneur is somebody who comes up with an idea to create a product or service to sell to somebody else to make a profit. That’s the old business definition of the word entrepreneur but there’s more to it.
It’s misleading because if you look up the word entrepreneur, it basically will say someone who takes a risk in exchange for a profit. This contributes to this casual contempt that the assumption is the entrepreneur is all profit-oriented. I’ve not seen evidence of that at all in my research. Profit is important but there’s a purpose motive.
It’s a precarious situation that we’re in societally and globally because while there’s one side that says profit is evil, profit extracts something from somebody else. The reality, not just here in America or Western society but globally is if you cannot make enough money to put money in the bank, you cannot make a profit. If you don’t make a profit, you will not be in business and even governments have got to learn how to spend less money than they bring in in order to not continue the cycle as well. It’s not a political issue, a spiritual issue, or any of those issues.
It’s simple math. We move away from this idea. When I ask anybody I’m teaching and I say entrepreneur was the first thing that comes to mind. People say money. People list the top five White old men who have millions of dollars from the internet companies that they started up. I like to give this example. I’ll pick one street in Albuquerque from the freeway to the mountain, one of our streets or boulevards and I’ll say, “Many of you have been up this road and you have driven from here to here. Imagine in your mind, how many signs are there on the street that represents a place of business in over five miles of this one road in this city? How many signs are there?”
It’s an interesting discussion because they all say, “There are too many to count.” In the midst of this conversation about understanding business entrepreneurs because I have to clarify business versus regular employees that are not starting businesses, I say, “Every one of those signs represents an individual in our city who has chosen to find a problem that they can solve for somebody else by delivering a product or service.”
Every one of those signs on that one street represents an entrepreneur and if you can’t count the number of signs that represent entrepreneurs on one street in a city that’s got 400 streets or 200 streets like that, suddenly you can see the wheels start turning. They’re like, “Entrepreneurs are everywhere.”
Everything that you own, your computer, clothes, your car, what you eat, or something you’ve purchased that is sold by somebody who has to make a profit in order to keep selling these things, no matter what the topic or the narrative of the day is, at the end of the day, what makes our world go around is entrepreneurship and business. We transfer that a little bit and say, “Do you have to be a business owner to be an entrepreneur?”
Even before I went to work in the city, we would talk to people. In my intro to entrepreneurship class, only 25% to 30% of the students plan on starting a business. The others are taking that class because it’s part of their required degree program. How do I engage them and understand that this applies to them as it applies to anybody else because we used to use the word entrepreneur? An entrepreneurial person within an existing company uses the same type of things and it was not a very popular term but it was a word that we used and we talked a little bit about it and some people would say, “That’s cool but whatever.”
Going back to the story I was telling about my last year of full-time at the college. We did this test with 100 city employees where we would have about 25 employees for a class session where we were going to take them through the eight weeks of the life lessons in the Entrepreneur Mindset Program and apply the concepts to city employees at all up.
What were you thinking about? Were you thinking like this was going to work or were you like, “I don’t know, this is weird?”
For those of you who know anything about personality types, I’m an ENFJ. That’s my Myers-Briggs. I’m a teacher personality type and I’m also an entrepreneur myself. When the idea came about offering these city employees, there were a few people that were very skeptical. To be quite honest, with everybody reading this, one of the most skeptical people that was in the room at the time is the one who’s in the box right next to me.
I was totally skeptical and I was worried like, “Our program was not meant for this.”
When I teach entrepreneurship at the college, only 25% of those people in those classes are going to start businesses. The others are not. I started going through the content and thinking about how I was going to apply it in my classroom. One of the things that struck me in the curriculum when we went through the training was the content in the very first chapter. The opening of the course talks about Gallup organization’s levels of engagement or employee engagement because there’s a component of being entrepreneurial that has to do with fully being engaged in whatever you’re going to do. I thought it was an interesting component because they lit the foundation to the training we were getting ready to go over. Some of the committees I sit on at the college have to do with student engagement.
As a teacher and somebody who’s committed to engaging active learning in my classrooms, when we started talking about teaching employees at the city, which could be employees in any organization who are not necessarily entrepreneurs, the one thing that government organizations struggle with, even more than private organizations struggle with is employee engagement.
Gallup has a wonderful Q12 employee engagement survey that we use at the college. I used that with some of the projects we were doing. Now I’ve got this entrepreneurial mindset curriculum. I’ve got Gallup’s data. I’ve now got a combination interlocking of them showing up in the content. When the idea was presented about teaching city employees, the idea was laid out there. Money was set aside and they say, “Would you teach this class?”
The administrators are all involved in scheduling this to make it happen. Their number one priority is, “We’re going to teach city employees and train 100 of them and they’re going to pay for it. Maybe when this is done, we can teach all those city employees. There’s a money-making opportunity there, something we can brag about in the community, a sound bite that we can use in the news and something supportive that we’re doing that supports the initiatives in town.”
I’m totally committed to supporting all of that but at the lowest level of my set of priorities, it’s like, “Now I have 100 people that I’ve got to teach, I’ve got to find a way to connect entrepreneurial thinking to what I consider being the main problem here.” I’m applying my own entrepreneurial perspective. What is the problem that I’m going to solve for the city of Albuquerque as a teacher at the college? The problem I’m going to solve is helping the employees become more engaged. If city employees are lazy then we want them to not be lazy. If the city employee works in a social construct, everybody makes the same amount of money and gets the same raises.
Everybody comes to work and does their thing. They drive their buses. They pick up trash. The outcome that I need to deliver. The usefulness that I need to bring to the city is going to have to be, “How do I help the city employee who comes to work punches in, does their job, punches out and be excited about coming to work like someone who’s running a business or someone who’s inspired.” That was my perspective before I taught the first class. It’s all about engagement.
That’s important. I want to dig into that. I appreciate the Gallups that you’re talking about. For the readers, we’ve looked at this Gallup data that shows approximately 2/3 of workers in North America. That’s the United States and Canada are not engaged in their work and the numbers are worse than that globally. North America is the most engaged and yet 2/3, about 66% to 67%, are not engaged in their work. I’m going to paraphrase here but Gallup describes that as people who are not psychologically committed to the organization’s goals. It’s something to that effect.
Gallup went even further to say approximately 1 in 5 actively disengaged, whether they’re hostile to organizations that are trying to undermine the organization’s goals. We then look at Gallup’s data on student engagement and it’s ironic what this Gallup calls this a student engagement cliff. They measure it from 5th grade to 12th grade and it’s a cliff. It goes from about 75% of students engaged to about 1/3 of students leave high school and still engaged in learning. We looked at that and said, “According to Gallup and what I’ve seen in the world, most students and most workers are essentially phoning it in.”
Imagine this is the private sector. I’m in the process of bringing the Gallup Q12 to the city of Albuquerque because we need it to validate some of the outcomes we’re seeing. Out of all of Gallup’s surveys, 9% to 10% are in public organizations. You imagine that this level of disengagement is happening in the private sector where people get raises, people perform based on merit, there’s an opportunity. Also, you can get fired at any time at will in the private sector.
Now you transfer that into the public sector where there are unions that protect people where classified employment where you cannot be fired without a year’s worth of progressive discipline and you don’t have to do anything to get the same raise that somebody else is getting. The engagement numbers in the public sector are even worse than they are in the private sector.
It’s not hard to imagine but the thing that I was trying to bring forth with the Gallup engagement data is when we look at entrepreneurial people. To your point, they don’t necessarily own businesses, they’re optimally engaged is probably the best word. They’re not saying thank God it’s Friday the same, thank God it’s Monday.
They are trying to convince somebody on the surface that how do I engage an employee to be more committed in the organization? That’s been always a difficult question. Why pay them more money? If money is the motivator that you’re using then the employees are already out the door because money is the 5th or 6th motivator in the list of things that motivate employees.
Someone who has value has worth knows that they’re appreciated, they’re doing good work and their boss knows their name. You feel like they’re making a difference. The purpose is much more important than money. People will take pay cuts for the purpose all the time. This is how I approached the idea and it was already baked into that content.
We were doing the very same thing at the college. My approach before the first class is as I’ve got a group of people, the city leadership thinks, “If I can get people to think like business-minded entrepreneurs then they will be more supportive when I need to pull a permit at planning. When I need to get a noise permit for an event we’re doing.” We need to get people to organize to share space for entrepreneurial events downtown. Part of that perspective is the more they understand about being entrepreneurial, the more they’ll appreciate the efforts that we’re applying to become an entrepreneurial city but deeper than that is like, “Who am I going to have in these classes,” and they were from all over.
Are they handpicked?
No. It wasn’t handpicked. A call was put out by our economic development director at a director’s meeting and said, “We have 100 slots. We would like you to choose some of your folks that would benefit from learning how to be entrepreneurial.” There were some deputy directors, managers and a lot of frontline folks like firefighters and a couple of police officers. We had a pretty good cross-section of folks that signed up.
My perspective was, “We’re going to go through this content but this is about helping somebody understand that they’re not doing a job to get paid for and collecting their wonderful benefits. The beauty of this program, the way it’s designed is while this content focuses on problem-solving, a methodology and building a canvas, very similar to the lean canvas that can apply to any project, there’s a lot of personal components to it.
The very first chapter talks about this idea of having the power to cheat. Shifting the mindset about I can versus I can’t. What’s exciting for me but also challenging during that first day of training with a city employee is that 80% of city employees are like, “I can’t do that. My boss will let me do that. This is my job. I have boundaries and limitations and there’s a process. There are 500 administrative instructions. All of these things are in our way.”
They’re focused on the obstacles.
That’s exactly how that particular work world works. From my standpoint as an instructor, as someone who teaches this is when you turn on the light switch, you help them understand. I think that class number one is probably the most impactful because it hits an emotional chord with everybody in the room because when they leave that day, we talk about responding and reacting. We’re talking about the locus of control.
We talk a little bit about their perception of barriers in their past that have kept them behaving the way that they do and then we talk about vision. One of the turning factors in that first training that sets has set the tone for everybody that I’ve trained since I’ve been in the city is the realization that’s like, “What is your compelling vision for your future?” This is an interesting side. One story that I tell everybody that we teach this training too is I’ll talk to them about anybody who’s 19 to 24 years old, graduating from high school.
The thing is, when you ask an 18, 19 or 20-year-old, what’s your vision for the future, they will tell you. “I want to go do this. I want to make this much money. I’m going to change the world. I want to go join the Peace Corps.” It is amazing the level of vision that a nineteen-year-old who’s only been alive for five minutes and articulate but then when I asked somebody who’s 35 and over and specifically in the demographic of the city employee, I asked them, “What is your vision for the future?” This happens 90% of the time. “I want to be comfortable. I want to be able to pay my bills. I want my kids to be happy and I want to retire.”
When I got hired in the city at new employee orientation somebody made the statement that said, “The reason why we come to the city is not for the money. It’s for the benefits.” They told me this and I was disgusted and went back after my new employee orientation. When the CEO asked me, “What do you think of the new employee orientation?” I said, “Aside from the fact that they told me that the reason why I’m here is for the benefits, not for the money and then someone else said that for the first six months, while you’re on probation, your job is to keep your head down not do anything so you don’t get fired. I’m sorry but that’s not why I was hired to come here.”
What happened was I was teaching this class and we had somebody in the class after our first or second class came up to me and said, “Our training manager position in HR is open. You should consider coming to work for the city.” I looked at the job. It was clearly an upgrade. It was an opportunity and the thought of being able to do what I do and do it in a professional development environment as opposed to a curriculum-heavy college environment. I applied. Six months went by before I was even offered the job because the wheels on the bus at the city are square.
We offered a course. We did one course for the mayor and his staff at the time. We did it in one day, where we went through all the lessons and the quick overview so they could see what their employees are going to learn. I have the opportunity to share that we’re not going to teach them how to start businesses. They would always ask me, “If you teach this class, how many of our employees are going to quit and go start a business?” I said, “Probably not. The ones that are working for you already and running businesses are going to continue to do that because they’re only required to work 40 hours a week and they make good money and have great benefits.”
The most important outcome of this training is going to be an employee who suddenly has a purpose. Purpose, motivation and doesn’t feel like you need to ask permission to solve problems. That became the statement that I started using in that cohort and I told that to the mayor. A month later, I was offered the job. I get hired. My job is not entrepreneurial training. My job is also new employee orientation, onboarding, employee recognition programs, tuition reimbursements, coaching, anti-harassment and all of the standardized required training, ethics and all that but we do an awful lot of leadership development as well.
I walked in the door and luckily, my two employees that I had, at that time, both were in the cohort of the first 100. They knew who I was before I became their boss, which was very helpful and they already had the light bulb come on for them. I walked in the door. I’ve got two employees and a new administrative assistant who was hired fresh minds, committed, excited about making an impact and incredibly gifted teachers.
I sat down at my computer and I made the decision that the first thing I was going to do was create a compelling vision statement for the Employee Learning Center, which is what we’re called because I have to walk my talk. That’s my personality type. I thought, whenever you get in a situation where you get to start a new job and everybody’s looking at you and is like, “Do what you need to do.”
I created a vision statement to transform the corporate culture of the city of Albuquerque workforce by empowering employees to be fully engaged in their work. That’s the vision statement. We do that through onboarding support, development and recognition. I put it on the website the first week. I told my director. I pass that up to the Mayor’s Office because this is our vision statement. Nobody questioned it.
It’s a mouthful and if you think about it, it’s like, “What is he saying here? He’s not saying engaging employees. He’s saying transform the corporate culture.” This is a heavy lift for our city organization but I had a compelling vision and I saw lots of transformation in minds opening up, eyes opening up, people looking at their jobs differently, people working in teams to get excited about solving problems in their departments in our cohort, that first 100 that we went.
I believed that if we did this internally, we would successfully start transforming the corporate culture. I told my staff, “This is our vision statement. I want you all to memorize it and I don’t want you to say it when we’re making presentations. We’re going to keep repeating it. People need to hear this.” It’s like we teach in the lesson on vision is that you create a vision statement so that you can know what to say yes to and what to say no to.
The one thing I’ve been very intentional about is if anything I get asked to do, a committee I get asked to sit on, any project I get asked to be on, any hiring team I get asked to be on and anything my staff gives gets asked to do, we put it through the filter of transforming the corporate culture and fully engaging employees in their work.
We said yes to a lot more things than we said no to because every single department struggles with something. The beauty of what we do is we work with every single department. I knew that I was going to have an in and have the ability not to be contextualized to one department but to develop relationships with each individual department with our staff and their very unique challenges and issues over the course of a number of years. One of the things that when I was offered the job, the mayor did ask my director who hired me, if I could commit to making sure that we taught as many people, if not all people at the city, the entrepreneurial mindset.
It’s important to know. I was hard in 2016 and at the end of 2017, the mayor at that time was voted out and we have a new mayor coming in 2017. One thing about government and if anyone has ever worked in an organization where there are elected officials is that every 4 to 8 years, you get a new boss and they have a whole different set of priorities and things that they find valuable and they can completely derail anything that you’re working on.
I knew it was going to be important for us to establish this training. Not as a standalone course but as part of our training culture in HR. We’ve embedded it in our leadership development program, our supervisory training and our pre-management development program. For any of the larger training that are mandatory and required, we’ve embedded the entrepreneur mindset in those training. If something happens and they say, “We don’t ever want you offering out as a standalone course anymore.” It will be offered because it’s part of the curriculum. It’s not its own thing anymore.
You’re teaching business and entrepreneurship at a Community College of New Mexico, CNM. The mayor comes to this nonprofit organization that you’re part of and says, “We want to teach city government workers how to be more innovative and entrepreneurial in their work.” Did they start with a cohort of 100 or did they start with your one-day overview to the leadership team?
It started with a cohort of 100 because that’s the way the money works.
That was your micro experiment, let’s say.
I wish I could say that the administration of the city was so smart and so thoughtful in the way that they were thinking about how to lay this out that they decided to train people first and then come see it but the reality is we had a very entrepreneurial economic development director who is a high-level extrovert and really excited who had the money for training. We had Rick, myself and CNM ready to do training. There was this perfect alignment of opportunity there. We offered the training but it did not take long. This is the beauty and the mayor was fully aware of it, I don’t think the mayor had any intention of going through any part of the class because it was just a thing.
It was, “We’re going to use economic development dollars. We’re going to try this out and see what happens.” This happens all the time at the college and in the city and 80% of the time, these little pilot programs result in nothing. They’re a checkbox on someone’s list somewhere and that’s as far as it goes. There were people in the class that were challenged. One of the things with the class is everybody has to identify a problem or an opportunity and they work in cross-departmental teams and they go through a canvas process to identify and validate the problem and then make sure that that problem is not a symptom of another problem and then create a solution that they can test that they can go back and validate with real people.
Once they test the solution, validate it and get some meaningful action or results then find a way to scale that up to the next level. One of the requirements I have is that no department can use new money. They have to use existing resources. They have to write it but what was happening in the cohort and the test is that there were people who were reporting back to the directors meeting where the mayor attends, what they were learning in class and some of the projects that some of these people were working on. It didn’t take long before the mayor and their staff that, “We want to go check this out and see it.”
That was a smart thing. I haven’t heard you say that before but that was a smart thing you did by putting that constraint on the initial cohort that you have to make this happen with the resources that we are available to you.
I’m still doing it with every other class I train.
There are so many people say, “I gave my boss an idea and then he or she didn’t listen to me. I got to take my toys and go home.” That’s lame. You have to take an idea and you have to validate, to test it and then bring it to your boss and say, “Here’s the problem we found, the test we run and the outcome we had. I know we could do something here.”
You can’t blame the worker. You have to also have the management that will tolerate that. I know that was the big challenge which led me to my next question. I want you to take us into this first cohort. Some people were voluntold to show up for this. They weren’t there because they wanted to be there. Can you tell us a little bit about that? There’s one case in particular. I know you’ll talk about Rob V Hill and the role he’s in. It’s a good example but can you tell that story?
This happens a lot. People will get voluntold to be on hiring teams. People get voluntold to do all kinds they say. The one thing I have learned about the city is when there’s an opportunity to attend training, that gives a person a full day. If one of these types of training is they’re being in their truck or being somewhere else, I’ve been totally surprised at the level of participant engagement that people don’t have any problem going to a class. When they get there, that’s the trick. Are they going to be active participants or be terrorists while they’re at the class, which we’ve experienced both of those?
It’s been helpful and this speaks to my background as a facilitator that anytime we put a new facilitator teaching this class, we want to train them to understand classroom management because this content is, anybody can teach it the way that it’s structured but not everybody can manage a classroom with potentially hostile people in it who may or may not agree.
There was a guy. He’s one of our supervisors from our sanitation department or our solid waste management department. The first day he comes in, we do a couple of activities that we’re talking about this idea of the mindset, about your view of reacting, responding and having vision, boundaries, locus of control, and moving from a mindset of being victimized and not feeling like you have any power at all to understand that you have all the power to choose and the meaningful outcomes you want, not in your personal life but in your work, even at the city.
He approached me during one of the breaks. He said, “I want to tell you that I didn’t choose to be in this class and I’m not a good classroom student.” He made a comment to me. He says, “I never heard anybody tell me here at the city that I can be creative, I can do something and I can think for myself.” I thought that was interesting because I wasn’t working for the city yet. My first thought is, “What type of environment is this,” because I worked at the college so I wasn’t too far-fetched. That’s the thing. Nobody ever tells you you can’t think for yourself. It’s a culture that develops based on behaviors.
It becomes rule-bound.
Often, a supervisor will lead that way and then they’ll leave and then the next person in line becomes a supervisor and then they mimic the behavior they had before and so then it becomes this repetitive, unpleasant place to work. I told Rob, “Don’t worry about not being a student and all this. I am certain that you have so much that you can lend to everybody else in this class about the work that you do and the impact that you have and just because you’re driving a trash truck, it doesn’t mean that you have nothing to contribute.”
This is something we talked greatly about. This is not from my mindset. This is Gallup 101. This is motivational employee development. Frontline workers are the ones who have all the knowledge, all the information and all of the ideas about innovating anything. He committed to stay in the class and committed to ride with everyone.
He liked the content. He liked that we were talking about something that he hadn’t heard before, which is what’s exciting about this type of program because people don’t talk like this. Often in city governments or organizations like this, a large majority of the training is about all the fifteen things that you can’t do because we have a new rule. It’s not necessarily driven on. These are the things we want you to do because this is a philosophy that we believe in here.
I read something that Warren Buffet wrote about bureaucracy. I can’t recall exactly what he wrote but he said, “I would rather suffer the consequences of the few bad decisions. Rather than the long-term consequences of no growth of everyone being afraid to make a move,” and that’s what happens. If somebody makes a mistake, we create a new rule around that mistake.
We then train everybody to death.
I’ve studied the work of a cognitive psychologist named Gary Klein and he laid it out in a book. I forgot the name of the book. He said something to the effect of like, “The more rule-bound an organization is, the less likely the people who work in that organization are to have insights.” It made it crystal clear for me. It’s like, “There are so many rules and there’s no contribution and creativity.” The other thing I want to add is what this story reminds me of it and I found this writing and these obscure writings of Karl Marx of all places. Who’d go looking for Karl Marx to understand entrepreneurship but he wrote about this. The desire to fulfill human needs through our own effort is part of what makes us human.
The easiest way to control a human is to suppress that. That’s so often the main news report every night. Now that I work in the city, I never paid attention to how many news reports every night in the local news have to do with people that I’m friends with at work. Every night, there’s another report or there’s another issue. Elected officials and people that are working on the government’s dime are scrutinized by the public every day for what they do. It’s funny that there’s this perception when someone asks me, “Where do you work?” I tell them, “I worked for the Employee Learning Center.” We used to have a different name, which is another story for another day.
We had to change it because somebody at the state level didn’t like it. Working for the government is a ball of fun, no matter how you slice it. It’s always hesitant to tell them I worked for the city of Albuquerque because the first thing they say is, “You work for the city.” It’s all this judgment. “It’s must be nice and lazy. You guys don’t do anything. I pay your salary.” Fifteen minutes later, they’re asking me to get them a job there.
That’s the reality. I will tell you one of the things that I discovered within the first three months once I got to the city was I could not believe how many amazingly gifted, hardworking people there are working in our city government. It’s amazing to me but the problem is that so many of those hardworking people have found ways to keep their heads below the radar so they don’t get a shot off. Staging somebody or saying something and they learned how to work in their bubble, work in their area and do their job.
That’s the point. You articulated. That exists in every organization.
Not the city. It’s everywhere.
The premise of social psychology is that if you create the conditions, you’re going to get the behavior.
Sometimes people forget why they’re getting what they’re getting., I’ve had supervisors in my life and I’ve heard some supervisors that may enter the college make the statement. “I’m not paying you to think. I’m paying you to drive that truck or I’m paying you to do this.” I’ve told this to our participants. The reality is they’re not paying you. The taxpayer and the Payroll Department are paying you and you will get paid until you retire.
There’s this old mindset. I’ve had several conversations with folks that are wanting to deploy this and so they’ve asked. “I get it. You’re teaching the frontline employee when they’re coming in the morning and they see trash in the parking lot. They don’t leave that there because it’s somebody else’s job to pick it up. They pick it up because they have pride, excitement and they’re committed and engaged in our organization.”
A simple example, they’re looking for problems to solve and they’re testing little ideas and they don’t go talk to their supervisor about it until they tested it and they’re willing to own it. I told our frontline employees. The number one reason why you get told no, it’s not because you have a good idea but it’s because when you go to your supervisor to say, “I’ve got a great idea to fix this problem.” What’s your boss hears you saying out of your mouth is, “I have another thing for you to do before the end of the week.”
That is the culture. Reframing this idea is like, “I don’t want you to do it, boss. I want to do it because my role is to be engaged in my work. I know how to solve a problem and I’m want to solve a problem. As a result of solving the problem, I make my life and everybody else’s life easier.” Some people from the outside would say, “What’s the motivation for a frontline employee doing that? Why would they want to do it when there’s no motivation or empathy to do it?” My answer is pretty simple. Number one, we have amazing people that work for the city, even though they may be stifled and limited in what they do, they want to do more. They’re not theory X on the bottom.
That’s my point that everybody wants to start a business but we’re all hard-wired to want to contribute.
You want to be valuable and want to make an impact. When you get punished for wanting to make an impact, you quit wanting to make an impact. The frontline employees, it’s all about understanding. I tell them, it’s like, “How many of you plan on quitting before you retire here?” None of them ever raised their hand and it takes 25 to 30 years before someone can retire from the city. We got people 5 to 10 years in taking the class and I simply asked them the question. I said, “How many of you plan on staying here until you retire,” and they all raised their hand.
I’m like, “Do you want to continue to come to work for the next 10 to 15 years and not matter, not make a difference or not have any value?” They all look to me, “No,” because none of them intend to quit. The benefits are too good. The golden handcuffs are too good. None of them intend to quit. It’s helping them understand 15, 25 or 30 years is a long time to come to work unhappy. What’s the alternative?
It’s to be able to say just because this is city government doesn’t mean that I can’t fix things that are broken. I cannot solve problems and have a meaningful impact. The other side of that is the supervisors. We train all the new supervisors through a mandatory eight-week training program where they go through hiring, labor and all that good stuff but we’ve also carved out every one of their afternoons to go through the entrepreneurial mindset.
When I teach supervisors the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program, we teach it from a perspective of not for them being engaged but how to allow their employees to be engaged and give their employees permission to not have their permission to solve problems and how to be supportive. It’s a different slant on trying to build the culture that supports that behavior while we’re training employees to behave differently and think entrepreneurially.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing magic here. It’s simply, “If I can help an employee feel valuable, they’re making a contribution and get excited about coming to work, they will come to work early, leave late, won’t complain about their pay and will become dynamic team members within their department.”
Some people say, “You’re living in a pipe dream.” I’ve got almost 2,000 people that have gone to the program that has proven otherwise. We have projects working all over and not only that. The people that go through the program, when they go back to their offices, start having an impact in the way that they relate with other people in their office because they’re different and they have a different mindset. It may take us five more years to get all 6,000 or more employees through the program but all the people that have gone through the program were out there teaching it in their lifestyle or in their work-life to the people that they work with.
There’s so much to unpack here. Let me go back to the Rob V Hill story. Let me get you back on that track. This is a sanitation supervisor. He was in the first cohort of the first hundred. He’s sitting in the back of the class with his arms folded. Like, “I don’t want to be here. I was voluntold to be here,” but he started to hear things that he hadn’t heard before. You started to change his mindset early on. Can you talk about the outcome of that particular example?
After the 2nd or 3rd class, he was all in.
You’ve probably seen this before. The ones that come in most skeptical are the ones that flip.
Some people may look at me and say, “You have a completely different view of your optimism. I’m a realist but I’m an entrepreneur. The way that I see an opportunity like when you have a person that comes to class or a person that gets into the program and they’re very negative, that’s an opportunity. That’s not a problem. It then becomes, “How do I help them see the truth here?” Rob went through the program. He worked on a team. One of the things he took back with him after he left is he went back and started looking at his area and looking at routing. He spent a fair amount of time doing several different things.
One of the things he did is he recognized that they could make some minor improvements to the route. One of them is recycling and it’s different now, now that China isn’t buying our recycling but back then recycling was a pretty big deal here in Albuquerque. We had a number of people that were not recycling and the green team and all that. We’re trying to figure out how to help boost engagement. Rob had a simple idea for boosting engagement. One of those things was putting recycle bins on the truck and any time that they were out on the route and they found a house that either didn’t have a recycle bin or had a broken one or whatever, they would provide it. They wouldn’t call, they wouldn’t ask, they would roll it up, put it there and leave it there.
That was a simple one that did start to have an impact and a simple activity that didn’t cost any money. Another thing that he did is he started taking a look at the routes that their trucks were on and checked out as one of their projects to read the term, “What’s the best way for us to figure out how to route so that we can cover more homes in less time during the day and review their routing.
It has some great impact on scheduling the number of homes they could see in a day. What that has led later on resulted in that Rob doesn’t get any credit for and this is another thing I want to talk about. Within about a year and a half after this is all activity was done, other people or other supervisors started looking at their own routes.
That led the leadership and solid waste to invest in software that would calculate the most effective route for all those trucks and to put that hardware and software into the trucks. Rob will never get credits for the fact that our solid waste department upgraded their technology through validated reasoning to justify why this is important for saving the money but because Rob was one of the first people to make it a priority to start taking a look at routes, looking at those things and then spread that to other supervisors, that led to bigger discussions with other people, budget discussions and the new director. The next thing you know, we have software that’s put in the trucks and over time, a larger multiplied type of solution grows out of these smaller problems.
Rob is out to the landfill now. He’s working out there supervising. He’s had two promotions as he went through the program. He’s comfortable. He’s got a couple of years left before he can retire and he’s excited about his next stage of life. He loves reminding me that coming to the class reluctantly and then catching a vision where then 2 or 3 weeks has transformed the way that he views his job when he comes to work. He’s one of a huge number of employees that have gone through this program that, if identified, are small things.
One of the things that I get asked a lot is, “Crime and homelessness is a problem. We have all these big problems in our society. Can we apply the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program to solve those?” The answer is yes. However, oftentimes, when we have the classes come together and they start identifying problems that they want to solve, they’ll pick something like the homeless is camping in the parks illegally, crime rates, communication or morale. These are huge issues that they will never be able to solve in eight weeks. It’s too big.
One of the things that we’ve worked on with all of these project teams is helping them to understand that the only way you can solve a big problem is you have to drill down and find the 1,000 little problems that contribute to that big problem. I’ll give you an example. We had another employee who worked out at Tingley Beach. We have a river here called the Rio Grande. It’s like half dry but we have a place called Tingley Beach that has these very large man-made fishing ponds. It’s pretty astounded by the park.
He worked at Tingley Beach as security and his job was to make sure that everybody behaved while they were fishing there during the day. The problem he wanted to solve was a very simple little problem. One was getting people to follow the rules and to leave when they’re supposed to leave. It’s so insignificant that almost laughable. As he started working on the problem, people would never leave when the deadline to leave at the end of the day was. Through a little bit of research and realized that the signs say, “Open from dawn to dusk.”
Dusk is the time when everybody has to be out and you can imagine, dusk is different every single time in the day every year. He has this huge problem trying to get people out. There was no way to notify people. People would like to hide from him down there. He uses this as his project. He was using his own personal truck to chase these people down. As he started going through it, he figured out, “We need to pick a time. A time for these months and a time for those months.” They did that then it started to change how things were going down there. Then they figured, “We need to figure out a better way to manage and track. I’m using my personal vehicle.”
One of the ideas was, “Why don’t you go to the BioPark, employees or son sitting in this class, to find out if they have an extra Gator four-wheeler,” and it turned out they did. They loaned him and they did a little internal transfer, gave him a Gator where they’re using it in the BioPark immediately. One thing led to another and over the course of the last 4 or 5 weeks of the course, he had a deadline, a way to transport around and put together better ways to manage the little park down there.
He was so motivated and excited that he wanted to work on some other projects in this department. This is insignificant. Some of the folks reading and be like, “How hard is it to change the sign and make a decision?” Try working for the city once in a while. We do some dumb stuff and then repeat it every year because there are always many balls in the air.
You said this to me yourself once. I never forgot it. All these little changes add up to culture change. At the frontline level, they’re not significant but in the aggregate, the benefit to the city and the engagement and the cultural shift is in mass.
We have another employee who works in the planning department and the project that he chose to work on was he wanted to find a way to help store documentation. We have document retention standards. All documents have to be kept a certain number of years after they’ve been collected and then once the project is over or someone has been terminated, there are so many years we have to keep them before we destroy them.
At the planning department, you can imagine, they literally have a huge room with full blueprints. It’s a fire hazard. One of the things is when you go to submit a set of plans for a permit, you have to take seven copies in. Seven copies of documents could be 4, 6 or 10 pages long and 24 x 36 sheets. All those documents have to be retained. None of them can be thrown away.
He was trying to figure out how to better manage their documents. As he started the project going through, he came up with the realization through his a little bit of research that’s required in training that the documents weren’t the problem. The number of documents required was the problem. Now that we have software and otherwise they’re tracking, they only needed 2 copies is to the 7. He approached me, “I’d like to try something. Who do I need to get permission from?” I said, “What’s your job over there?” “I run the planning desk. I’m not in charge but I do this and that.” I said, “You need to pull the requirement paper off the desk and rewrite it and say, ‘We only required two copies,’ then run the test for a few weeks.”
“Nobody is going to care. That’s your responsibility. Only after two copies and see what happens.” He did. He went back, rewrote the form only requiring two physical copies and did this for two weeks. He came back to the class and I said, “What were your findings? What did you learn?” He goes, “Number one, we didn’t collect as many documents, which were amazing and it works well. Number two, I learned something completely different. We’re the one hated department at the city by the public. The public hates coming in but when I put the new form out, within a couple of days, every architect and developer they came in to pull permits was like nice, happy, engaged and excited.”
I said, “Did you dig a dig deeper to find out why?” He goes, “I started talking to them. They said, ‘We’re so glad you’re only requiring two copies. You have no idea how much it costs for us to make blueprints are seven copies. It’s $500 to $600 to bring you paper. You saved us $400 every time we come to see you.” Anybody that can do simple math would know that but for him, the light bulb is coming on in the realization. He was trying to solve one problem. During that, he was solving a completely other problem. He had no idea about it. An opportunistic gap that patience wherein action is happening.
That’s the entrepreneurial process. You set out in one direction but through micro experimentation, you don’t know what it is you’re going to discover. You and I have talked about this over the years. I think it was Trucker who once said, “When a new venture does succeed more often than not, it’s in a way that the founder never anticipated.” The product or service is being used in ways they never anticipated by people that never anticipated it.
Here’s how I’ve been thinking about this, entrepreneurship is exploration and discovery. You’re exploring new ways to make yourself useful to other humans. Some of the questions I ask people again to get at the mindset is, “If you accept my premise, the more useful you become, the better off you are going to be.” We live by exchanging and not economically. You’re going to be more likely to flourish, be optimally engaged, experience psychological well-being, advance in your career and so on and so forth. It’s more of a holistic eudaimonic thing that occurs in the individual. To me, this will come as no surprise to you but the entrepreneurial mindset education is all about human flourishing.
Without a doubt. For someone to change the way they view their work and realize that I matter, I make a difference and I can make an impact. The one thing that’s interesting about city government, state government or federal government, unlike an entrepreneur that is starting a new business that has no resources. It has to bootstrap its way and struggle. The one thing that we do not lack in the city, state and federal government are resources. There is even money laying around there. There are computers, phones, classrooms, offices and buildings.
The amount of stuff it is anytime I want to test an idea, I’ve got a place I can go test it. I don’t have to scrape the bottom of the barrel. When we help employees recognize that you have an opportunity here and you don’t have to go very far to use what you have at your disposal to test it, it’s amazing and we have more things with motors than we have employees in the city. For the readers, a couple of the examples that I shared may sound small and insignificant. To know for those of you reading this that we’ve had people in our finance department that have redefined how to do procurement for computers and in different departments.
We’ve had people in other departments that have redefined the hiring process to other departments that have redone the way that they honor and recognize employees, the way that they manage radios and how they’re training. We’ve had several departments that develop training programs. We’ve got the BioPark is putting their entire aquatics and training all online as a result of going through the Entrepreneur Mindset Program as their project.
What seems like a no-brainer for people in the private sector that have to be these things, the public sector is totally different. It is like turning the Titanic in the desert sometimes. Everyone who has been engaged in this program has done something that’s contributing. We had one student who decided to take our defensive driving course, put it online and as a result of the financial study that she did. It turned out she’s saving $70,000 a year by putting the training online and setting up this idea.
You can see how I have a vested interest in some of these. Some of the people I coach entrepreneurially when we find people in different departments that have ideas that can have a long-term impact, we will do what we can to support and boost that so that we can see this happen. It’s happening all over. One of the other things that that happens often is people ask me all the time. It’s like, “I work for the government and every time I come up with a good idea and I do something, my boss steals the credit for it and I don’t get any credit.” One of the things about being an entrepreneur or having an entrepreneurial mindset is understanding that entrepreneurial thinking is not about credit. It’s always about outcomes. It’s about what change and difference am I making versus getting the credit.
It’s about the inner scorecard versus the outer scorecard.
We’re teaching that because the mayor is taking credit for lots of crazy ideas and things that I’ve implemented. You can imagine, I am a non-stop shop of transformative projects and I’m okay with the mayor taking credit if it results in the outcome that we want to see happen and changing the culture because, at the end of the day, it is amazing the number of people that have transferred up who have become supervisors and been able to move up in the organization as a result of participating in this program and changing their mindset.
I will not say that the class guarantees you a promotion but when you take the class, you start making a difference and start behaving differently in your workplace, you start becoming the valuable type of people that we want supervising and we want in those positions. It’s amazing when you see an employee suddenly get it. It’s like, “No one would even look at me before. Now, when they come to you and ask for help, I’m the one that they’re asking to apply for this job.” It’s an outcomes-based program and it is hard and challenging.
What you’re bringing up the idea is that there’s this innate desire in the individual to want to contribute and be engaged in work that matters. That’s part of what makes us human. That’s not in some of us. It’s in all of us.
It doesn’t matter where you work.
An important part of this story is that you, Tom Darling, intuited that. I hear that in your story. When you look at a human being, you intuitive that there’s more inside that individual. That’s an important part of the story, number one but the second thing you did well is to create the environmental conditions. Our behavior is a function of the person and the situation.
That innate need is there to contribute and so forth but it’s fragile and can be easily thwarted. What you did also well was create the situation and you created what I would say that there are some key ingredients to your psychological safety. I’m not going to be punished or ridiculed for trying things and then the autonomy support, which is, “Stop asking for permission. Take the resources you have, your discretionary time and prove the concept.”
You were doing both whether you’re aware of it or not. You were investing in the person but you were also working in the margins to create the conditions. Maybe I answered my own question. I’m not trying to make this into a commercial for the Ice House Entrepreneurial Mindset Program but this story should be shouted from the rooftops.
What is the benefit to any organization, let alone city governments, for exposing people to these basic concepts and encouraging people to think about how to make themselves more useful to more humans within the confines of their job? The question I have is, “Can we scale this? How do we bring this to other government organizations? How do we bring this to other corporate organizations in the private sector? Can we replicate this? How do we clone Tom Darling?” Maybe part of the question is that like, “How do we tease out of you?” What you were bringing to the table might not even know you’re bringing to the table so that we can train other people to get these similar results. What do you say about that?
All of my staff are trained to be facilitators in the Ice House and they’ve taught to program as well.
You guys don’t call it the Ice House.
We don’t. We call it the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program because we used to have a strip club in Albuquerque called the Ice House.
There’s a bit of a branding issue there.
I recognize that I have a personality type that is geared for the type of teaching that I do. I also recognize that I mentor and I coach. I understand that my leadership, how I lead and how I will be part of the reason why this is working here is because of the choices and the behaviors that I choose to display with my personality type, my background and my teaching ability. I’ll say that so I do recognize that.
This is going to be tricky for those that are reading. I cannot be afraid of upsetting somebody or a supervisor in a department if I tell their employee that they don’t need to have permission to solve a problem. I also warn that employee that we don’t want you going and reconfiguring the fuel injection system on a bus without somebody knowing about it either.
For the readers to understand, what you’re advocating is micro-experimenting to pricing the smallest scale to test that.
I don’t understand. People do this already. That’s the trick here. Everybody has a workaround for every problem they have in life. If the lowest simplest level is I’m trying to help people understand, it’s like, number one, you need to stop working around the problem and start working the problem. Number two is helping them to understand that they don’t have to feel like a victim. Nobody likes to use the word victim. The truth is when people feel like they cannot say, do act, think or express their thoughts, they are being victimized. Whether they’re victimizing themselves or being victimized by the culture that they operate in.
The second thing is to help people understand that they’ve got to change their thinking and not be a victim of other people, powerful others or the circumstances they’re in and start realizing they have a part to play. I’ve given permission to two people to quit their job and go find a job somewhere else, which is a dangerous thing to do as an HR professional.
Trying to speak, frankly, about this job is no different than any other job. What happens in the city, a private company, a college and at home are all very similar. The problems are there. You have to decide whether you’re going to hide through a problem or see it as an opportunity and then decide, “What am I going to test my assumptions?” You don’t have to talk to a lot of people to do that.
You don’t have to ask for permission to do that. You simply have to look around. As many entrepreneurs as I’ve coached and taken them through this program and others, I think it’s easier to help city employees and private employees become more entrepreneurial than it is even to help an entrepreneur who’s got an ugly project idea because this is all about engagement. This is all about the person and their connection. They’re not worried about whether or not they’re going to get paid next week. They’re going to get. They are free. They have the freedom to go experiment without the fear of starving to death.
It’s almost like you’re coming up with a new management theory. If you look back at the history of management, Taylorism is there, the Dawn of the 20th Century. This is predicated on the idea that the worker is a laborer like a body without a mind, and the manager is a mind without a body. It’s not that at all. I think a lot of us think of entrepreneurs through the lens of what we might call the Great Man theories of the 19th Century. That great man so to speak, are somehow born and endowed with these characteristics and we don’t realize and what’s your story demonstrates so beautifully is the extraordinary ability of ordinary people to do extraordinary things when you cultivate, it helped catalyze which is a natural organismic tendency.
While I was listening to you talking, I was thinking about a passage in The Wealth of Nations written by Adam Smith in 1776. He was talking about the routinized nature of work and the division of labor. The idea was that your job should be reduced to a simple task so that you can maximize your dexterity in that task. You can become very good at that thing. In the next paragraph, he goes on to say that when a man’s life work is reduced to one simple task, he loses the ability to solve problems because they never arise.
It doesn’t recognize when they’re there.
Correct. We were not taught. We’re probably living in the most opportunity-rich era in human history. There are almost eight billion people on the planet walking around with unarticulated unmet needs. In your pocket, you have a device that’s enabled you to connect with 2/3 of those people but we’ve never been taught the fundamentals of how to identify, evaluate and bring ideas to life. We’re still operating on these industrial-era assumptions that are not enabling us to access human potential, which is what this conversation is all about. It’s about accessing human potential.
Whether in a city government, a school system, a private company, a nonprofit organization or an aspiring entrepreneur, to me, that’s it Tom. I’ve heard Malcolm Gladwell talk about this concept of the human capitalization rates, which are the percentage of a given population that’s able to achieve their level of professionalism and we’re doing a horrible job of that.
If you turn your vision and your self-actualization into the day you’re going to retire and pay your bills, we’ll never get there. Some would argue that while society has become something that limits our ability to be creative and to become these things that we’re talking about here, even so, that flies in the face of being entrepreneurial regardless of where you’re at. If you watched Naked and Afraid or Survivor, these people are out running through the desert. The reality in life is no matter where you are, in order for us to thrive in our life, we have to make decisions and we have to work through problems.
You will have a challenge no matter how hard you work. You cannot eat race challenges from the equation. The one thing I tell every employee is like, “The one thing we have plenty of in the city our problems.” One of the hurdles I’ve had to get over with some of our directors, deputy directors and managers is for them to even admit that they have a problem in their department because admitting it means that someone upstairs might hear about it and it might make them look bad. You’ve got to stop trying to cover up a pretend. Own it and then fix it. If you don’t know how to fix it then, we sit down and we’d go through a process to learn how to fix it.
When we learn how to own a problem, we learn how to validate with real people what those problems are and then we would do this with any assumption, even your personal life, you do this and then we work and we test a small idea to see if it has any impact on moving the needle and then we get other people to join in the test and to validate that our idea is a good one.
When that happens, once they validate it then we can talk about scaling it up. It is so much easier to get the city council to fund a proposal when you’ve got six months’ worth of data to show that you’ve tried this in your department. The plan and pitch approach is used in the city and every other government.
Every proposal for a grant and city council is based on a set of assumptions that somebody writes in knowing there’s a pot of money sitting there. Every time somebody goes and they say, “We’ve been trying this. This is the way it’s worked. We want to scale it up and it’s going to cost $60,000 to do this. It’s so much easier to get the money then and then everybody gets to share in the data and gets to share in the outcome
At the end of the day, no matter who takes the credit for it, ultimately, the problem-solver gets the benefits of the outcome. Especially if you’re going to be in the job and you’re going to work there for twenty years, you better be doing whatever you can to make it a great place to come to work every day. Otherwise, you’re going to be a terrorist. You’re going to be a miserable individual that’s going to destroy your life.
You’re going to become part of the 2/3 that are not engaged. Thoreau wrote about the lives of quiet desperation. Maybe we’ll end here. The question I would ask anyone is if you accept the premise that we all live by exchanging useful things with each other. The more useful we become to more people, the better off we’re going to be. The more engaged we’re going to be and so forth. I already talked about that. The question I ask people and our audience is, “What is preventing you from becoming more useful to more people?”
That brings up some of these deeply held mindset assumptions that, “I thought I needed another degree and I’m too old to go through school. I can’t afford to go to school.” It’s like, no. I read this great line in a paper I was reading about the act of discovery written by a scholar in 1961 named Jerome Bruner. It struck me like a bolt of lightning. He said, “The greatest obstacle to growth is the belief that opportunities don’t exist.”
That’s the work you and I are doing. Once people realize that there’s an opportunity, they go looking for them. I think this is so important for people to understand. Many of us get to the point where we’re not engaged in any exploration or discovery because we’ve come to believe that the world is the way it is. I am who I am and nothing I can do about it. When that happens, the natural manifestation of that is you start to spend your discretionary time, thought and resources on recreation, leisure and ornamental things.
Once you realize that there are opportunities that abound in any situation that shifts that mindset and engage the individual. That’s what entrepreneurial mindset education is all about, in my view. Tom, I can’t thank you enough for doing this interview of the work. I’ve trained a lot of facilitators. We’ve trained 3,000 facilitators for many years on five continents. I got to tell you that the work you’re doing is at the top of anything I’ve ever seen someone do to take this work and go in a direction we could have never anticipated when we began. I hope that this show can help inspire other people. Specifically, government leaders and policymakers understand the impact of entrepreneurship education in communities, classrooms and organizations worldwide. Thank you, Tom.
Thank you so much, Gary. It’s great to be here.
- Tom Darling – LinkedIn
- Ice House Entrepreneurial Mindset Program
- The Wealth of Nations
About Tom Darling
Being successful is an outcome that is difficult to measure, and in the world today, it requires education, coaching, and sheer willpower. One of my biggest passions is investing in others to find their true potential, their strengths, and help them exploit both.
I oversee the professional development deployment for the largest city government in New Mexico. My vision is to transform corporate culture of the public sector workforce by empowering employees to become fully engaged in their work.
In my spare time, I continue to teach business courses for Central New Mexico Community College and specialize in Entrepreneurship, Organizational Behavior, and Leadership. I also speak to businesses about creating powerful environments where people work effectively together toward a common purpose. Building a successful business requires more than knowledge of the right paperwork to file and having a cool product or service. It is about understanding your customer, your employees, and the human capital around you.
I began my career as an artist with a heart for building things. Upon completing my Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, I managed a residential remodeling company transforming old spaces into client realities. I have run several businesses and have taken my desire for transformation and expanded it to greater depths in teaching and coaching others to transform their thinking and become successful contributors to society. I have my Master’s degree in Adult Education and spend my time teaching others how to reach their potential and build strong work teams.
Becoming a successful leader requires heart, and knowing the people that you are called to lead.