Just upon hearing the words, I welled with emotion. It was beautiful and I was moved to my core. For what felt like my whole life I had been waiting to hear that voice speak these words. “I am Optimus Prime.”
I leapt out of my seat and let out an unadulterated Woop!
Before you sound the Nerd Alert, it should be understood that this is a pivotal moment in the first Transformers movie (technically the cartoon movie was first, but I digress). The leader of the Autobots, with no shortage of fanfare, transforms himself from tractor-trailer to magnificent robot. It should also be understood that this idea of transformation—that through sheer force of will you can shape-shift and reinvent—is one I connect with on, well, a molecular level.
I have been fortunate to have many people believe and invest in me over the years and, as a result, have experienced multiple transformations. The formula was often very similar.
- They saw a set of skills, capacity, or potential in me.
- They put me in a position to leverage those skills, regardless (and often in spite) of whether or not I believed that I possessed what they saw.
- They coached me thoughtfully as I navigated the challenges before me.
- Once I believed in the skills and capacity we had built together, they helped me build a new self-concept that included this set of experiences.
It was after living out this formula a few times for myself that I came upon Year Up. I was in my first year of Harvard Business School when I met Gerald Chertavian and began consulting for his then-just-burgeoning organization. I loved everything about Year Up, but what drew me in immediately was that the leader of this organization also believed in the power of transformational experiences. That formula I had experienced on my own was similar to the methodology behind Year Up. And not only was Year Up creating the space for their young people to experience a journey of transformation, they were making it happen in the span of one year (because, really, when you decide you want to change the trajectory of your life, why take the slow train?)
“Transformation” can sound so grandiose. Can’t people just change? Couldn’t I just, with the help and support of my champions, change? Couldn’t the talented, bright young people at Year Up change? And this is the important distinction. Change implies somehow fixing the past. Transformation is about creating the future. There was no fixing to be done—no one needed to be fixed. What my mentors had done—what Year Up was focused on doing—was about showing somebody the talent they already possessed. It was about building a supportive environment wherein they could discover that talent for themselves and, with this newfound belief, create their own future.
When I came into my role as Executive Director at Year Up perhaps the most important thing to me was creating that environment and giving our young people the space to explore, self-reflect and actualize. And though I was indeed on one, I wasn’t really thinking about my own journey, which is how the doubt sort of crept up on me. About a year into launching the DC site, I looked up and felt it. I was the ED of my own site; everyone—my team, our young people, Gerald, our board— was counting on the me to figure this out in a new community and a new market. For sure, we had all made a grave error. They thought I could pull this off? I thought I could pull this off?
Then I started listening to the words I was speaking to my advisees.
“You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t do it. If we didn’t know you can do it.”
“It’s okay to fall. Fall. Let go. You don’t need someone to catch you, you just need to know you can get yourself back up.”
“I wish you could see what others see when they look at you. It’s okay that you don’t right now, but someday you will.”
“Pull up your drawers.”
I could have turned every one of these statements back on myself. Every single one. While I was working so hard to squash the doubt in the hearts of my students, I had let my own doubt grow wild. Fortunately, I had people around me creating the space for me to fall. To fail. They reminded me what they saw in me that I sometimes couldn’t. They reminded me why I was here, what I had accomplished and, sometimes, to pull up my drawers.
Over time, my doubts just quietly took a back seat. As my team grew, I focused not just on the transformational experiences of the young people we served, but of my team, the people who served our students. I was creating the space so that people on my team could have transformational experiences. They were, in turn, creating that same space for our students.
What I didn’t see at the time was that these two spheres of experience (that of my team and that of our students) formed the core of my own sphere for transformation. What’s truly beautiful is that all these spaces are interconnected and dependent upon one another’s existence.
Without Gerald creating the space for my transformational experience, I wouldn’t have been able to create the space for others’ to occur. And without the opportunity to have helped in some way to create the space for others’ experiences, I would never have experienced my own.
Now let me be clear- I’m not trying to paint myself, or any values-driven entrepreneur as some sort of messianic figure. The beauty of CREATING TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCES is that is has very little to do with the leader who is helping to facilitate the change. It has everything to do with the person who is going through that transformation. But it is one of the most important and rewarding responsibilities of the values-driven entrepreneur.
The value of CREATE TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCES is in many ways the fuel for several of the other values – BE RESOURCEFUL, DELIVER QUALITY, and EXUDE PASSION. It is how to ensure your team members are growing and your organization is dynamic and not stagnating. The key as a leader is to be intentional as you create these experiences and equally if not more intentional as you shepherd your team through them.
Here are a few guiding principles when shepherding a team member through this process:
It’s not about you – One of the first things Gerald coached me on when working with our young people is that you can’t take responsibility for their successes or failures. The same applies for any team member that you are coaching through the transformational experience. Remember, your role is to create the environment, but the person has to live their own transformation. This can be incredibly difficult to remember at times, especially because many values driven entrepreneurs become emotionally invested in their team’s personal and professional development. But just like the tree can’t take credit for the butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis on its branches, you cannot take ownership of the metamorphosis that occurs within your environment.
But you will also transform - What’s magical about this value is that to witness another’s transformation, and to be lucky enough to be a part of it in some way, is in itself transformational. I can’t count the number of times I coached a team member through a sticking point in her transformation and walked away with a new approach to something I was wrestling with myself. Transformational change requires a blend of courage, humility, and determination. As a leader, you will have an intimate view of what it takes for your team member to move from point A to point B. Having such connectedness to that universally human experience often has the effect of motivating and inspiring you to model that behavior.
Which can lead to more transformations - When your team member has successfully navigated her transformational experience, she will emerge brimming with enthusiasm to unleash this newly discovered capacity on the world around her. As she seeks to drive change, she will often emulate the approach you leveraged to coach her. Depending on what she wishes to change, this can lead to transformational experiences for your customers, your investors, or other team members. There will also be times that your team member will be attracted to opportunities outside of your organization. If the transition is handled well, it will often be for your organization’s benefit. When you authentically invest in your team, it builds bonds of loyalty and trust not just with them, but with others around you. I can’t count the number of times a former team member of mine has connected me to resources in one way or the other. I even do it with Gerald to this day because my commitment to him and the organization is not tied to a paycheck. He invested in me and because of that I had the opportunity to build something I’m proud of and grow in ways that may have taken me years to accomplish otherwise. As a result, the people you invest in are assets that will return dividends over time that even you cannot imagine.
By the time I left Year Up, I had close to a decade of experience running my own business. I had groomed my successor, hosted President Obama and had had the honor of working with an amazing team to serve close to 1,000 young people. To have been a part of this was my transformational experience. And this experience led me to the realization that I was, in fact, an entrepreneur. I was capable of starting and sustaining my own business. I was skilled at (and possibly obsessed with) creating transformational experiences. I could actually change how people think about leading, managing and running businesses. I was a values-driven leader. I…was Optimus Ty.
Okay now you can sound the Nerd Alert.