April 13, 2010

The Right WHO Gives You the How

Marshall Goldsmith said "Knowing what to do is not the major challenge faced by executives today-finding WHO to do it is!"  What about you?  I have mine written on a sticky note on the bottom left side of my computer screen so I see it daily.  It’s a little jewel of wisdom.  No doubt you’ve had one of those discoveries, a little epiphany that gives you such an awakening you wonder how you missed it  all these years.  Mine came into view in my second reading of the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins. 

The title of the chapter where the diamond in the rough was hiding is, First Who...Then What.  There in the first two pages was what I’ve known for years, but never really crystallized.  It had eluded me because it had never been presented in such a salient and simple way that grabbed me by the nose.

Now if you let this life principle get you, really grab you by the nose you’ll never look at leadership the same way again.  I promise.  My paraphrase of this principle is simply, the right who gives you the how.

Today everyone wants to know how; how to be successful, how to be more attractive, how to make a million dollars, how to lose weight, how to gain great fame, etc.  Knowing how is important.  But if you’re building a world class organization or developing a winning team or gathering a specialized cadre of innovative individuals you must start with first things first. To get to the how you start with ‘the who’.  The first thing is to get the right person, the right WHO.  Get it?

How do you reach a group of under performing, unfocused and seemingly unmotivated high school students at notoriously rough Garfield High School in East Los Angeles?  How do you not only grab their attention and challenge them to grow up but also turn them into high performing, ‘super students’ that learn calculus and ace their AP test?  You start with the right ‘who’, a teacher named Jaime Escalante.

While many had dismissed the students as "unteachable," Escalante strove to reach his students and to get them to live up to their potential. He started an advanced mathematics program with a handful of students. In 1982 his class of students took and passed an advanced placement test in Calculus.  Some of the students' test scores were invalidated by the testing company because it believed that the students had cheated. Escalante protested, saying that the students had been disqualified because they were Hispanic and from a poor school. A few months later many of the students retook the test and passed, proving that they knew the material and that the company was wrong.

This accomplishment led to college admission, scholarships and the opportunity for a new life.  The movie Stand and Deliver starring James Edward Olmos was about the successes Jaime saw at Garfield High School.  It is an inspiring story that shows what one person can accomplish.

It was the vision, commitment and attitude of one man that made the difference.  The right WHO gives you the how.

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