I've had the privilege of a wide spanning career. Working first as an international strategy consultant then working as a change management/turnaround specialist before moving on to founding a technology startup. Those experiences were formative in the successes I would have later working in K-12 and higher education.
A few highlights:
Saved a global automaker $3 billion.Saved a business on the brink of insolvency and turned it into a growth company.Founded and led a fully remote startup through The Great Recession, growing it to tens of millions in annual bookings.
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 some of those failures.
I had seen the future. In it, the 7 out of 10 independently owned trucks on the road were rolling billboards.
The owner-operators of those semis were making more money on their routes, and my business was booming.
That vision never became reality.
After nearly five years I ended up with some decent counting stats and a whole lot of learning. I'm proud that we created a startup that was managed well enough to survive the recession following the 2008 financial crisis. One that was remote from day 1, when that was still taboo.
Here are some of the important lessons I learned:
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 it was printing money acting as a middle man between the independent truck drivers on the road, and the things in the USA 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, while taking a substantial portion of the market, and use the free cash flow to invest in R&D for ruckside advertising and infrastructure.
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."
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 users needs. When dealing with 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 helped me learn how to make sense of systems.Know when to quit. I ignored the realities of the business, sticking it out for too long.
The Global Leadership Center (GLC) is a a project based interdisciplinary program. The projects are often for real world clients.
In the fall of 2012 the second-year GLC students were coming off of a lackluster project. The client for the winter project fell through.
Over two weeks, I secured a partnership with the RAND Corporation and ensured I had autonomy to run the project as I saw fit. The RAND Corporation is where their "interns have PhD's" and they had "never partnered with undergraduates before." It was ambitious.
We devised a project. GLC students would answer the question: what implications would the Arab Spring have for foreign policy and defense strategy in the Middle East and North Africa?
I made the course pass/fail. "You can't do that" I was told. Real world projects have deliverables and outcomes, not grades. I knew the incentives had to match the work. With grades, students stop once the grade is delivered. That wouldn't work here.
Out of 30 students, 28 put forth an extraordinary amount of effort to deliver a final product they were proud to present to officials from RAND at its Washington, D.C. office. Two slacked. A common mistake in organizations is devoting too much time and energy on the slackers. Instead I focused my efforts on continuously knowing enough to lead the project and on the 93% of students working hard.
The sentiments from the 93% are below.
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."
"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 keen understanding of how to collaborate with diverse groups of people while tackling a rigorous project in order to achieve something great."
"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."
A tale of two VPs.
At organization number one, a VP was obstructing an improvement effort that was picking up steam. He held sway over several other influential people. It wouldn't be the first potential change effort he extinguished.
This bottoms-up change effort scared him. It encroached on tasks that had usually been his. He was used to top-down initiatives where he had more control. It made this VP question his significance within the organization.
At organization number two, a VP had an ambitious new vision and plan for his university. He followed all of the protocols for gathering feedback and requirements. He had great slide decks. Wielding authority he had the power to initiate and see this through. Four years later all he had to show for it was a vote of no confidence from his subordinates and an early retirement.
Change erodes psychological safety.
With VP number one I identified this fear, found ways to bring him into the fold, and allowed him to re-affirm his sense of significance. Instead of being a blocker he went on to be a champion of a successful and durable change.
With VP number two, I watched from the sidelines as it unfolded. Eschewing influence or any interpersonal initiative, he drove forward on authority alone with unfortunate yet predictable results.
In a human system, a person has five options when confronted with change:
1. Do nothing different
2. Distort the system
3. Distort the data
4. Active resistance/policy refusal
5. Improve the system
Some executives and managers think change is just a matter of incentives (financial, cultural, punitive). They are hoping the incentives cause the fifth option, but all too often they enable the second and third. Incentives can become perverse. People will chase incentives even if it means destroying the system in the process.
Noted strategy consultant and author, Hamilton Helmer, said, "One thing you learn when you study strategy long enough, people really matter."
It's worth remembering that an organization is a group of people. People have core needs. They need to feel safe. They need to feel a sense of significance and belonging from the group they are in. This makes change deeply personal.
Change is also social. Some people in groups have a weighted influence. If any of the most influential people's core needs are unmet and they decide to choose option 4, resistance/refusal, it cascades through the group and dooms initiatives to failure. Psychological safety is a fragile thing that change can easily fracture. Conversely, if a manager can see, understand, and assuage any loss of safety/belonging/significance then the door is open to success.
Seeing, understanding, and executing on the human side of strategy is a skill I have turned into a core competency.*
* The Genesis of The Human Side of Strategy
My competency comes from intuition gained through experience furthered by reading.
Growing up I saw great anti-examples. I worked service and blue collar jobs. Bosses distrusted us, treated us poorly, and created a self-perpetuating cycle of failure.
Young and naive I thought white collar work would be different. My experiences doing web development were my first counters to that notion. Strategy consulting furthered this belief. I listened to employees in clients' organizations and saw fear. I watched them be ignored, sensed them feeling insignificant, and lacking a sense of belonging.
At first I thought this was management lacking empathy for workers. Yet time and again I saw individual contributors elevated to management repeat the follies they hated so much before their ascension.
When I joined Schrickel Home Builders as an operator, I knew I needed to listen, build trust, and create safety. That's the only way I can explain a 22 year old who knew nothing about residential construction getting blue collar laborers and sub-contractors on board with our initiatives that turned a dying company into a growth company.
Below is a list. It's not exhaustive. It was formative. It gave me words. It gave me frameworks to understand my experience and intuition. This made me better. These people and concepts are in the order I remember coming across them.
W. Edwards Deming - "Drive out fear"
Deming gives me something new every time I read him. When I was younger I didn't have enough experience to understand most of what he wrote, but "drive out fear" made sense immediately.
Responsive Classroom - belonging/significance/fun
While teaching I learned this framework.I realized it was descriptive and prescriptive and that it applied to adults.The safety part is analogous to Deming and drive out fearProject Aristotle and the idea of psychological safety dovetailed with these ideas. I came to see safety as the umbrella needed to create space for belonging, significance, and satisfaction from ones work (what I changed "fun" to).The theme is understanding people and their behavior in groups.
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
Candor. That's a big idea I took from this book. I had seen a lack of candor so often in organizations. I knew it was damning. Catmull wrote an entire book about cultivating candor to allow a culture of creativity to thrive.In 2021, I know Catmull's ideas have blind spots (John Lasseter). Willful or ignorant, this undoubtedly stifled candor and creativity from women at Pixar. It doesn't sully the concept though.
Choice Words - Peter Johnston
I was thinking about identity in education for students."I'm not a ______ [math] person" vs building identities as learners/mathematicians/writers/etc.
It got me to thinking about identity in adults, especially in America. Jobs as identity. Hobbies as identity. Preferences as identity e.g. spaces vs tabs, vim vs emacs, ford vs chevy"I'm the ______ person at my job."
Understanding someone's identity can be a big part of change, them accepting change, or working against it.
Radical Candor by Kim Ball Scott
This took Catmull's ideas about candor and gave a great many ways to put them into practice.Scott has a nice 2x2 showing radical candor, ruinous empathy, and other behaviors.
Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
Hostage negotiation? Business negotiation? Psychology? This book is all of the above and more. Voss preaches the concept of tactical empathy. The name of course has to seem tough, but the idea is simply a way to avoid ruinous empathy and instead use empathy to effectively work through situations.This fits nicely with Kim Ball Scott's work.
7 Powers by Hamilton Helmer
This book articulated what I had known intuitively for a long time. In strategy, people matter. A lot.
Challenges I'm Interested In
Building a better education systemVoting rightsBeyond inclusion and diversity to equity--confronting and dismantling White supremacy in America and the workplaceA.I./ML, especially its implications in educationTechnology and its use in educationWhat HR could be...severing it from its roots in compliance and administrivia to creating a true people operation and an organizational sensory organHealthspan and longevityGaming
Building better organizations alongside good peopleDeveloping peopleScalingAlignmentBuilding learning orgsTeaching managerial effectiveness—it's a skill. It can be learned
A.I./M.L. in Education
I want technology that helps me to better see and understand my students' thinking and reasoning.
In elementary math, Dr. Michael Battista developed the best tool I have used in understanding my students' mathematical reasoning. Software that could take my place in administering Battista's Cognition Based Assessments is top of my list where I would like to see AI/ML applied.
Cognition Based Assessments, shortened to CBA can be done 1-on-1, small group, or whole group. 1-on-1 is best because you can ask follow up questions. Two ways this helps me as a teacher is to get past false positives, when students answer questions correctly but are still insecure in their understanding of the concept or procedure, and to uncover the layers of students' thinking.
In my teaching the data gathered from CBA's is hugely helpful in planning whole group instruction and in understanding each student.
On a school level CBAs uncover holes in curriculum and instruction. For example if 5th graders are still reasoning below level 4, which is where they understand place value in expanded algorithms, then the school knows it needs to look at instruction in Pre-K-4th grade.
The downside of CBA's are twofold.
1. They take time to learn and to learn to administer well.
2. They take lots of time for a teacher to administer.
A system that could supplant or at least supplement the teacher in administering and analyzing these assessments could be a huge help to teachers, schools, and their students.
In 2019 I signed up to be a poll worker. I saw what bore out in the 2020 general election. Polls are run in a free and fair manner that allow the USA to have a successful democracy.
The threats to voting rights and our democracy happen upstream at the state legislative level.
Leading up to the 2020 general election I canvassed and organized to educate voters in Ohio about three things:
1. Voter registration
2. Voter purges and what to do if your registration was purged
3. HR1, the For the People Act. In an era where republicans are doing everything they can do destroy voting rights on the back of a massive lie, HR1 could be the most significant legislation of our lives in holding together what remains of America.
- My curiosity about how the education system in America works has led me to positions in primary education, post-secondary, and beyond.
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.Worked with a teaching college to regain accreditation and turn its program around.Adjunct professor—developing and delivering an introductory course for teacher candidates.
Why Schumacher and Shea but not Schrickel
Debt, delays, and negative cash flow. Schrickel Home Builders (SHB) was on the road to insolvency. The founder was on the road to a stress induced heart attack.
After I joined, we didn't just revitalize the business, we turned it into a growth company—all in under a year.
I've watched with curiosity over the years as friends have built homes with both Schumacher and Shea. Their customer satisfaction, communication, build process, quality, and time to completion have all been surprisingly worse than what we were able to achieve for our customers at SHB.
So why is it that Schrickel is not a household name in home building, but Schumacher and Shea are?
Psychology and my ignorance of it at the time—identity, belonging, significance, and satisfaction.
The founder of Schrickel Home Builders wanted to step away from the mess he had made that was going to give him a heart attack at age 50. When that mess was cleaned up, it was natural that he wanted to return. This was his company. It was his identity. It's where he derived his sense of significance and satisfaction. We saved the business in the short-term, but I failed to scale the founder, dooming it in the long-term.
I've spent the past 15 years learning from this failure. I think of it as the human side of strategy. My understanding of it and my successes because of this knowledge, continue to grow.