Becoming Stronger, Faster, and Smarter

This past week marked the third iteration of Alaska Business Week, a week long business camp for high school aged students.

There is plenty of information available online regarding the Business Week program. Rather than rehash all of that, I wanted to tell a couple of stories about the ABW class of 2012. I also want to talk about the roll that each of us play – knowingly or not – in shaping Alaska’s future.

How do we grow stronger?

How do we get faster?

What can we do to become smarter?

This summer at ABW, dozens of remarkably unique Alaskan students showed me several ways to do all three.

© Todd Paris

© Todd Paris

The Power of One: Gravitational Force

The first story that I want to tell is about Stephanie. Suffice it to say that Stephanie is a young, motivated Alaskan and she impressed the heck out of me at ABW. She was not in my Company. You couldn’t help but notice her, though. She came to ABW with an agenda.

Stephanie wants to train people to train horses. She is driven to learn the business principles necessary to let her craft a living out of that passion. At sixteen, she is committed to an idea and sure enough in herself and in her plan that she stood up within a group of her peers and told them that she was going to start her own business.

When you hear her say it, you believe her.

People like Stephanie have a sort of gravity about them. They attract and capture our attention and I think that I know why this happens.

Stephanie has a plan, a destination. At sixteen, she is proactive. She isn’t sitting at home, waiting around for something to happen or for someone to hand success to her. She can articulate her destination and let the obstacles be damned. She is going places and I think that it is only natural for others get caught up and pulled along in the wake of her passage.

One of the things that we do each year at ABW is host a talent show. It’s held on day four of the camp, so the students are already growing more comfortable. There are a lot of barriers that have been kicked down. Many bonds have been formed, and that is all fairly normal for that point in the week. The actual performances at each year’s talent show are very hit or miss. This year, however, we got to witness something exceptional.

Stephanie closed out the show. For the first time in her young life, she sat down in front of an audience with a microphone and a piano and she sang her heart out. She performed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and she brought down the house. There were missed notes, broken verses, and an extra beat here and there. None of that mattered. Stephanie’s willingness to step out of her comfort zone and risk a little had a profound effect on the rest of the camp.

By the end of the second verse, everyone in that auditorium was standing, hand in hand or arm in arm and singing along at the top of their lungs. Stephanie bound us together. She gave us the direction and the destination. Together, we raised the roof.

How to grow stronger:

We need our kids to dream big. I issued a challenge to the ABW 2012 graduates. It is a challenge that I would issue to anyone of any age who wished to tear off a larger bite of life.

The challenge is this.

Choose the words that you would like to describe your life. Use words like Build, Grow, Create, and Invent. Then build a life that makes those words true. Don’t settle for a life described with small, ordinary words. There are enough of us doing that.

If it ever turns out that you do not love what you are doing, then start something new. Craft your world and your days around the way that you want to live your life. Then take as many other Alaskans as you can along for the ride.

How to get faster:

One way to get faster is to expand the scope of our message. We need to reach increasingly more of Alaska’s youth and to empower them with the tools and the confidence necessary to build enviable lives, companies and communities around themselves.

How to become smarter:

Getting smart is easy. Getting smarter is hard.

We get smart by listening to those who know more than we do. We learn from people who are more educated than we are or who have a particular type of wisdom. We get smarter by surrounding ourselves with people who are better at certain things than are ourselves.

Learning all that there is to know is not enough. We can’t stop there. Associate yourself with people who challenge you to keep learning new things and exploring new ideas. If we want to get smarter, we have to accept some risk and present our own thoughts and ideas. We have to get them out of our heads and into the hands of others, into the marketplace, and into workplace.

That way, we all get smarter.

The Power of Many: Lost In Space

Alaska Business Week is predominantly a course in professional leadership. We teach the basic principles of private sector business. There are a variety of tools and exercises that we use to illustrate concepts. Some of these are over-arching efforts that span the entirety of the camp. Others are little 5-10 minute one-off drills that are there to make a simple point and to provide some practical application for a core concept.

One of these exercises is the NASA Space Crash exercise. It happens early in the week and it proves to the students that a group can outperform an individual in certain situations. It’s really quite amusing to watch the students’ reactions to the results of the exercise, especially the reactions of the outdoorsy or sci-fi-fanatic kids.

The exercise is basically this.

You have crash-landed on the moon and your spacecraft is demolished. You are stranded some large number of miles from the safety of your mothership. There are 15 items that have survived the crash and nothing more. You cannot possibly carry each of the 15 items. Your task is to rank the items in order of priority for your survival and successful trek to the mothership.

After ranking the items individually, the group gathers to comes up with a mutually agreed upon ranking. The ranks are then compared to a predetermined ranking from NASA specialists. The group ranking out performs each of the individual results.


Every time.

The NASA exercise is a powerful bit of perspective for large, fragile high-school aged egos. It’s a nice reminder about teamwork for myself, as well.

How to grow stronger:

Become excellent at what you do. Don’t settle for being technically proficient in your life and in your job. Become a student of your craft. Then become a master.

Be the strongest and most useful link in the chain that you can be.

Move past the point where what you do takes conscious effort and attention. Get to a place where you are not a technician in your work but an artist of your field. Do all of this, and then go far further by selflessly teaching what you’ve learned to others.

How to get faster:

Make commitments and tear down obstacles. That’s how we get faster.

I know Alaskans from across the state that share a desire for a robust, diverse and growing economic base. Commit to a plan. I don’t care whose plan it is. Team up and make it work. Stop talking about doing things and start doing them. That’s the only way that we will get there faster.

How to become smarter:

I am a really cool guy… when I’m standing next to my wife.

She makes me look awesome. With the possible exception of reaching things on the top shelf, my wife outperforms me in all regards. When I’m with her, I become far more than I would normally be and this magical transformation occurs by association alone.

The same phenomenon occurs in many aspects of life and it’s certainly true in business. Surround yourself with the most talented and successful people that you can find. You’ll be better because of it.

How do we become smarter? Team up. Collaborate. Place others in a position to succeed. Or, allow other to eliminate the obstacles that block your path to professional excellence.

Working alone might make you a hard worker. Assembling an awesome team will make you a smart one.

Well… What’s The Point?

I mean, seriously. Why bother?

Why take one of our few, precious Alaskan summer weeks and two weekends to teach a bunch of teenagers about revenue, depreciation, and cost control? Why sacrifice time that I could spend with my own children to get some random high schoolers to ask themselves the question, “Does profit equal greed?” What’s the point of preparing for a hypothetical board meeting? Why bother hosting a simulated trade show?

The whole process is by definition an exercise in frustration. It’s like loosing an arrow and then waiting for years – or even decades – before learning if it hit the mark.

Why bother?

I believe that Admiral Tom Barrett, President of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, may have given one of the best answers to those questions. He spoke this year to ABW on the principles and obligations of serving others as a leader.

Let me repeat that, because Admiral Barrett’s ideological outlook on leadership reflects my own. However, I’m not sure that everyone always sees leaders in this light. The Admiral believes that leaders exist in a capacity of service. On our own, we are nothing more than the articulation of a vision. We must work in support of others, putting them in a position to succeed, if that vision is to be realized.

Leadership, as opposed to management, is a quality rather than a skill. It flows from a core of personality. It can be mentored or nurtured, but it is difficult to teach. As such, I believe that it is critical to give our young people every possible chance to explore their own interest and capacity for leadership when they are young. When they are still forming themselves into the future persons that they will become. These explorations equip our successors with the greatest potential for excellence.

Like all of us, Admiral Barrett is on a professional time clock. His time to realize his vision is now, but that window of opportunity will one day close. He told the auditorium of captivated ABW teens that he was, at that moment, quite possibly speaking to the future leader who would someday take over his position at Alyeska Pipeline.

Each of us will be replaced at some point. This isn’t a sad or morbid thought. It is quite the opposite, actually. It is the alternative that is depressingly regressive. For those of us who live life in positions of leadership, our replacements are of critical interest and importance. I want whoever fills my shoes to accomplish much more than I ever imagined could be done. Stand on my shoulders. Stand on top of my head if you need to. Just strive to reach something higher. Go father.

When I look at the ABW class of 2012, I may very well be looking at my own children’s future employers. I am motivated to see those students become amazing and visionary leaders.

What’s the point? Well, if I can answer a question with a question, why wouldn’t we want someone stronger, faster, and smarter to take over when our time to step aside comes?

How to grow stronger:

You get stronger by diligently performing at the highest level of precision possible with perfection of technique.


Again and again.

Do this over time and the average will be replaced with something impressive.

Don’t settle.

Persist and the impressive can then become something truly remarkable. I believe that this is true on a personal level. It is true for our companies, and also for our communities as a whole.

How to get faster:

How do we get faster? How do we lead the race? Set the pace?

Get involved.

Don’t sit in your office and wish that you had access to a more talented workforce. Don’t sit at your desk hoping that a stronger manager or a visionary leader will miraculously appear in the office down at the end of the hall.

Like Stephanie, be proactive. Commit to a plan and have the conviction to see it happen.

If we want leaders, let’s empower our youth to become them. Let’s connect them. Let’s trust and support them. And let’s marvel at what they can create.

How to become smarter:

Each one of us is blessed with gifts. Many, I am afraid, go undiscovered and unused.

How do we become smarter?

Personally, I feel that we should each put ourselves into as many situations as possible to discover hidden talents and strengths. ABW students, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that we all ought to drag ourselves out of our comfort zones and live a rich life, full of challenge and reward, on the borders of our growth zones.

We let fly with nearly 70 arrows this year at ABW. We won’t know for some time if those arrows will hit the mark. But if just one of them does, if we’ve helped to create the next Alaska Airlines, or the next GCI, or the next Google, then it was all worth it.

Thank you, Alaska Business Week 2012.

And to the students of ABW 2013… I’m looking forward to meeting you all.

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