Creating a Vision and Mobilizing People to Achieve It

The special sauce needed to be a catalytic mentor.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

Catalytic Corner Interview with Randy Brown

Randy Brown is an admired Career Mentor and MBA Leadership Coach to students at Butler University and a former Chief HR Officer of Anthem.

What is your current role?

I serve as a mentor to ~ 100 undergraduate students in the Lacy School of Business at Butler University. In this role, I have the opportunity to build supportive relationships with students during their first year at Butler, then continue to work with them as a career and life coach through their graduation, and in some instances beyond.  It is a wonderful opportunity to get to know my students really well and to impact their lives. In addition to that, I also work with MBA students at Butler as a leadership coach.

What is the cornerstone of what has made you successful?

In every one of the roles I’ve played in my career, it has always started with trust and credibility.

If people don’t trust where you’re coming from, if they don’t trust who you are or what you’re about, then it’s really hard to make a positive impact. Once trust is established, then credibility comes from injecting good ideas, suggesting resources that resonate with people, or defining action steps that help people take a big step forward.

How do you build trust and credibility with the students that you mentor?

In the first meeting with my students, the conversation is only about them. I invite them to tell me their story. I want to learn about their history, their background, their dreams, and goals.

I make two promises to my students. I don’t promise a fantastic job when they graduate, but I always promise that 1) I’ll have their back, and 2) I’ll never give up on them. That doesn’t mean they’re always going to be right or I’ll suggest that they always are. I’m sometimes going to try to redirect them if they are not doing things that they should do… but it’s always going to be with their best interests in mind, and I need to convey that. 

Levity and humor, just being able to talk is important for us to get comfortable with each other. In a new relationship between myself and my students, they’re trying to figure out what this relationship is going to be like. I realize they are thinking “who the heck is this guy?” Once they get relaxed, it takes the pressure off and we can be fully candid with each other.

What other factors make for strong working relationships?

Along with establishing trust and credibility, you have to be humble. You have to admit when you’re wrong and be willing to apologize because there are times when you will be wrong. As a mentor, I’ve had to apologize to a student when I made a false assumption about why they weren’t getting back to me. No matter what role I’m in, I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and in being humble enough to apologize when I violate that principle.  That’s important to sustaining the relationship and the trust.

And when you want to be highly influential, how do you approach others?

I think your opportunity to be catalytic and influential is enhanced by being personally attentive. Little things add up, like paying attention to people’s birthdays or other things that matter to them. A lot of times in a business setting, people are afraid to get overinvolved in each other’s lives. Without being intrusive, I believe it is critical to genuinely care about others and let them know that you do.

How do you discuss leadership with students who don’t have anyone reporting to them … who may have no one to lead formally?

I always start with my simple definition of leadership: creating a vision and mobilizing people to achieve it.

The key word is mobilize, getting people to do things, not because you have power or authority over them, but because they see value in the vision. And if that’s a valid definition, then surely any of us can be a leader. No matter what role you are in, you have to find a way to be influential.

You describe yourself as being a bit of a late bloomer in gaining self-confidence. Tell us more?

Yes, absolutely. I was the kid who liked to blend into the wallpaper. It was after I got out of college that I gained more confidence and was willing to step up.

Early in my career, when I was 24, I had a boss named Ed Hill who was willing to give me truly helpful performance feedback. He told me that I was being rated on three things: the relationships that I was building with clients (which was a 5/5); the quality of my work (a 4/5 and trending toward 5); and the quantity of my work, which was a 3/5. Whoops.

He told me that college is over, along with the assumed goal of doing as little as you can to get an A! If you really want to go to the next level, Ed said you need to show people that you care a lot about the organization, your teams and the achievement of a common vision of success. You have to unleash discretionary effort. After that invaluable feedback, I started upping my game.

I also learned the value of asking for opportunities. When I was 26, my boss left, and I went to his boss and said, “if you give me a chance at my manager’s open job — give me a lesser title, less pay, just give me the shot at it — I’ll do a great job for you." And he did, and it worked out well.  That experience changed the trajectory of my career.

So yes, I was a late bloomer, but bosses who cared enough to give me developmental feedback and who took chances on me when I asked for opportunity helped build my confidence.

How do you balance the desire to be perfect with being willing to make mistakes?

In my first jobs post-college, I had this notion that I had to show up perfectly. I had to be absolutely right before anyone would ever listen to me. But I learned quickly that excellence is the goal, not perfection. 

If you have an idea, put it out there. Be willing to make a mistake. You have to get past the fear that you have to be perfect all the time before you can be influential. I don’t think you can be a catalytic leader and be highly influential until you learn to value excellence over perfection. [CS2] 

How else do you help your students function best in an interview or during the job search process?

This is what we hear employers hate most: a candidate shows up and clearly hasn’t done any homework on the company. That signals that they don’t really care what the company is about, they just care about getting the job. By contrast, when you do your homework and show an employer how you could plug into their company, it really resonates with them.  You are trying to convince the decision-makers that you are the right hire for them.

You used the phrase “I hired an accountant, but I got a whole person." Tell me more about that.

Yes, I often like to say: “We hired an accountant and surprise — a whole person showed up.”

Organizations seek specific skill sets in their hires, but they also need to realize that they are hiring a human being. My students may be marketing or finance majors, but I want to get to know each of them as a whole person, to know what matters to them.

I was just talking to one of my rising seniors recently, and I encouraged her to write down a list of ten attributes about her that are really cool. Personal qualities. Why? Because once the employer knows what kind of skill set you bring, they’re going to want to know what kind of person you are. If you are able to articulate that, it helps you be catalytic, to influence the hiring manager that you’re the person they need.  

You’ve had a wonderfully catalytic life and have positively influenced so many. What’s next?

I feel like I am so blessed to be doing what I’m doing. The next thing for me is to not think that I am done… but to keep learning. I need to keep understanding how organizations and markets are changing, staying relevant to my students. I have to keep learning and adapting as new students come with new life aspirations, skill sets, and career interests. Staying grateful, adaptable, and embracing a continuous learning mindset are the keys for me.

References

The Catalyst Effect, Toomer, Caldwell, Weitzenkorn, Clark, Emerald Publishing, 2018. Website:  thecatalysteffect.org