Mark Pettyjohn

Senior Leader, Entrepreneur, Educator


The human side of strategy


Long-term vision: build a better education system


Along the way: develop people and build better organizations

or·ga·ni·za·tion | \ ˌȯr-gə-nə-ˈzā-shən: a group of people working together towards a common goal where joint performance makes their strengths effective and weaknesses irrelevant




Career

My 18 years of professional experience have been unconventional.

Driven not by following any prescribed path, but by curiosity, knowing what I don't want to do, and (trying to) minimize regrets.


Act I: Industry

- accounting > strategy > change management > startup founder
Age 19—Developed and executed a plan to bring a Hong Kong based company into the U.S. market.Age 20—Investigated, analyzed, and recommended a strategy that led to a global automaker making a choice that saved it $3,000,000,000.By 24—Took a home builder on the brink of insolvency and turned it into a growth company fueled by free cash flow.By 29—Founded, self-funded, and led a fully remote startup through The Great Recession, growing it to tens of millions in annual bookings.

Act II: Education and beyond

- university faculty/lecturer > 4th & 6th grade teacher > the learning lab founder

First foray into higher ed—taking a multi-disciplinary program in the doldrums and creating a special experience for students.Some of the best years of my life as a classroom teacher. Spearheaded a major transformation in a school district that is still going strong seven years later, rare in K-12.Founded The Learning Laboratory—the pursuit of building a better education system.Staying sharp: a decade of selectively consulting/coaching and lecturing as an adjunct professor.

Bookshelf - current reads

  • I read Freire a decade ago before I had much experience in education. He deserves a fresh look.

  • My understanding of the epistemology of measurement is that anything can be measured, but should it?

  • Well I still haven't read Le Guin. I couldn't get in to the world building of a sci-fi book right now. I swapped out The Dispossessed for this recommended read.

My Top Mental Models
"Top" means I have pretty strong convictions in these models and use them regularly.If you're trying to make sense of something I am doing or saying, these are a good place to start.

1) The system determines performance and a bad system will beat a good person every time.

2) Underlying every problem is a human element. Every problem has a human element and its often the most difficult/seemingly intractable element.

3) Humans are social beings

4) We constantly fool ourselves

Making myself progressively unnecessary

Durable and transferable...whether I am teaching 9 and 10 year olds or working on organizational change, these are my overarching goals.

I want to help people and organizations solve immediate needs, and create durable solutions to problems that generate more potential and lead to more opportunities.

I am like scaffolding. A temporary tool that when removed leaves behind something stronger.


How Not to Start a Startup: Lessons learned from building mine

In 2021, the Athens City School District persists in something rare in any industry and mythical in status in K-12 education—it is in year 7 of a successful transformation. Something my colleague Nina Sudnick and I began long ago has outlasted both of us. Leading with influence not authority, we saw opportunity where there were only generational problems. This unicorn like success was due to a great team we built, luck, and what I learned from my failures as a startup founder/CEO. These are those failures.

2005

I had seen the future. In it, the 7 out of 10 independently owned trucks on the road were rolling billboards.

The owner-operators were making more money on their routes, and my business was booming.

I never got here. The logistics of trying to coordinate a national network of independent operators never worked out. I had tried to take bite out of too big a piece of pie all at once instead of sampling a small bite first.

Lesson 1: Think big, but start small. Learn. Improve/iterate/adapt/abandon.

My vision would be an expensive one to bring to life. To fund it I had my sights set on the freight brokerage industry. I had seen how the it was printing money acting as a middle man between the independent truck drivers on the road, and the things in this country that get shipped by semi-truck, which is nearly everything.

The barrier to entry was low, a license, bonding, and phones. The question I then asked was, could I bootstrap a technology platform to replace the high-touch brokerage model? If I could, I would enjoy higher margins than brokers, could take a substantial portion of the market, and use the free cash flow to invest in truckside advertising R&D and infrastructure.

USER RESEARCH

The good: I knew I needed to listen to and learn from truckers and shippers.

I learned that brokerages treat truckers as disposable, are incentivized to give them the lowest rate possible, and too often leave them dead-heading with empty trucks across the country. I thought we could do better for them.
I learned that many truckers have someone at home who helps them find and coordinate loads to haul across the country.

Where I really did user research the wrong way was with manufacturers and shippers. I went to them with a half-baked idea for my tech marketplace and asked if they would use it. "Why yes, that sounds great! Of course we would. It sounds simpler than what we do now."

Dear reader, this was not the case at all.

Lesson learned: listen to understand a users needs, but don't ask them about solutions. Better yet, watch how they work to gain an understanding of their needs.

I ended up with technology that wasn't yet accessible to truckers on one side of the marketplace—this was pre-iPhone and then the 3g era. For shippers I had built a service that didn't meet their true needs.

I watched margins erode as diesel rose to $4/gallon during The Great Recession, with no competitive advantage, and in fact a disadvantage in that we wouldn't quote truckers routes that lost them money. Scruples in a commodity marketplace with no pricing power is not a profitable place to be.

To sum up what this failure taught me:

Think big but start small.Understand user needs. Learning about complex systems "before you disturb a system in any way, watch how it behaves.", studying ethnography, and learning about the principle of "go and see" have been the most helpful for me.Know when to quit. I ignored the realities of the business, sticking it out for too long.

Quotes from GLC students

"The Arab Spring project is one of my most valued academic accomplishments and it would not have been possible without Mark’s leadership."

"Mark has a keen understanding of how to collaborate with diverse groups of people while tackling a rigorous project in order to achieve something great."

"I can say with honesty that the Arab Spring project and the other two initiatives that Mark led were more successful, enjoyable and informative than the ones I participated in with the same program a year before. Although these prior classes were taught by seasoned professors, the dynamic ability to be both an effective leader and a knowledgeable mentor that Mark brings to the table created outstanding results."

"During my second year in the program, Mark took the reigns and showed his stunning capabilities as a leader."

"The Global Leadership Center's achievements were largely due to Mark's impeccable direction. He successfully managed to bring the class closer together through his positivity and excitement."

"One of the challenges of running a classroom like this is the diversity in the room. Mark did a great job of listening to the different points of view and making sure that it was a safe environment."

"Mark was one of the best teachers I had at Ohio University. The amount of work we were expected to put in was challenging but because of the respect I have for Mark and the respect I received in return from him, I wanted to do my best work and more."

"Mark has a very unique ability to motivate, educate and provide just the right amount of assistance needed to allow for independent growth."

"Over the course of my 2 years in the GLC, the RAND project, which Mark led, was by far the most rewarding. He was able to take a challenging topic that 30 students knew little to nothing about and transform it into a passion for all of us."

"The year that Mark was with the GLC he helped our class grow together, work better in teams and helped to make the overall atmosphere more positive."

"Mark’s ability was incomparable to any other person with whom I have ever worked."

The Human Side of Strategy

"The strategy worked perfectly, except for the people."

An organization is ultimately a group of people trying to work together. People bring the strategy to life or doom it to failure. We know this, but the true quote above shows that it's too often ignored.

"One thing you learn when you study strategy long enough, people really matter."

People have to feel safe. They need a sense of belonging, a sense of significance, and a sense of satisfaction from their work.

They need to feel they are going with the group. Influential people have an outsized ability to torpedo strategy or enable its success.

Before any of this can be accomplished, people need to know what the strategy is.

Communication. Too often it either doesn't happen, or only the appearance of it happens. Drucker astutely told us that communication lies with the recipient. Speaking, e-mailing, or uttering does not mean communication has happened. Too often executives and managers confuse the appearance of communication for the real thing.

Awareness > Understanding > Acceptance + Ability
These are critical components people need to have to see a strategy through successfully.

To make this concrete, picture the IC who has had 3 managers in a year. The executives who aren't exactly rivals, but disagree about the direction of the organization. The 20 year teaching veteran who has seen annual change efforts that are always discarded after a few months. Or the early employee at the startup who sees this new strategy as a threat to their position and worth to the organization. They have little to no incentive to buy in.

Silence, fear, and self-preservation that breed misalignment are likely.

The human side of strategy is recognizing and overcoming all of these challenges. Success looks like building a durable culture of safety, trust, communication, and understanding where individuals feel a sense of belonging, significance, and satisfaction.