John White | Leadership, Opposing Opinions, & Balancing Work and Life
Who is John White?
John White holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as a Ph.D in industrial engineering. John’s career has spanned over 50 years, the vast majority of that being spent in academics. He has held titles over the years including, but not limited to, Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech, Chancellor at the University of Arkansas, and assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Aaron Moncur, host
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engineering, people, arkansas, leadership, leader, called, book, university, aaron, thought, big, engineers, chancellor, problem, gave, talking, press, son, georgia tech, understand
John White, Aaron Moncur
Aaron Moncur 00:00
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John White 00:34
My goal is not to be the best leader of the team. My goal is to be the leader of the best team, the focus needs to be on the team not on the leader.
Aaron Moncur 00:43
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The being an engineer podcast today we have the pleasure of speaking with and hearing from John White, who holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as a PhD in industrial engineering. John’s career has spanned over 50 years, the vast majority of that being spent in academics. He has held titles over the years including but not limited to Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech, Chancellor at the University of Arkansas and Assistant Director for engineering at the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC. John, thank you so much for joining us today.
John White 01:34
Thank you, Aaron giving me the opportunity.
Aaron Moncur 01:37
All right. Well, let’s start off with the same question. I asked all of our guests at the beginning what made you decide to become an engineer?
John White 01:45
Aaron Moncur 01:48
That was easy.
John White 01:50
I’ll tell you tell you how it happened. I was a junior junior in high school. And I was taking a chemistry class. And Mr. Jones seated all of us alphabetically. So I’m on the back row, seated next to WJ Wheeler, WJ was a senior.
Aaron Moncur 04:09
A very intentional path, you took care of John,
John White 04:12
Whoa, oh, well, listen, people would say, that is the dumbest way to ever choose a major. I agree with it. But what’s really interesting, if I had it to do all over again, I wound up in the right spot for me. It really wound up being the best major for me. And so as I talk with students who are struggling over what to major and I said, What just, you know, try something, experiment, go find something that really interests you. Well, when some students get up to their third or fourth major, you have to say, hey, get serious. You also need to think about graduating. So but that’s how I got into engineering air and it was really, that way. My parents thought I would major in English. They really my dad was an English high school English teacher. My mom was an elementary school teacher. They thought I would be in the humanities.
Aaron Moncur 05:06
Well, with the goal of girls and money, you could have gotten to rock and roll as well, that would have provided
John White 05:13
that was coming. Yeah. It’s just crazy how it worked out. But
Aaron Moncur 05:21
Well, my story is not a whole friend, my dad one evening at the dinner table said, What are you going to do in college? And I said, I don’t know. And he said, you should consider engineering. And I said, Okay, that sounds good. And that was about all the thought that went into it. And like you, it just it turned out to be a really great fit.
John White 05:38
Yeah. Well, you know, I was good at math. And I was good in science. And but Matt was also good in humanities. And that’s it. But anyway, right. That’s where I wound up. And it was the right place for me. And interestingly, my son wound up majoring in engineering.
Aaron Moncur 06:21
So well, you spent most of your career in academics. There was a period that I couldn’t figure out quite did you go straight into academics? Or did you spend some time in industry before moving back,
John White 06:36
I was in I was in industry, I was at with Eastman Kodak, their chemicals fibers plastics division in Tennessee called Tennessee Eastman company. And in fact, if and I’m sure you’ve heard and read many times, Robert Frost, from the road, less path less taken the road less taken, that, you know, when when you read that it says, and I came to the took the path less taken? Well, it says you can make a choice. In my case, I started out in industry. And from then on, I did the best I could to keep one foot in industry. As I went through the academic path I tried, it wasn’t an either or, for me, it was both. I tried to find a way to do both. So through consulting, being on boards of directors of companies and everything, I wound up having a heavy, heavy involvement in business while I was on the academic path. Probably, that’s one of the things that differentiates me from a lot of the others who wound up where I wound up as head of a university, it’s that I tried to keep really my focus on both business and academia as I went along. And then I had that opportunity to go and help with government for three years. And that really changed a lot of my thinking. When I did that. It was it was the best three years of my professional career where the three years I spent at the National Science Foundation just completely changed my perspective. I had been all about me, my and mine. And I got there. And I came to grips with the fact that the United States needed to do something, to engage a lot more of our talented people in engineering and science, and especially the women and underrepresented minorities. And so I became a real advocate for increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in engineering, because you just can’t leave the brightest half of our population on the sidelines. And frankly, that’s the women’s students that they have are really, really bright and capable. But you compare us with China and India and all I mean, my goodness, we just were under representing our women in engineering and science, we need to do something about it. So that became a big thing with me. And it continued that way. As I went on to become the Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech, and then the Chancellor at the University of Arkansas. And when I was on the corporate boards, I would emphasize the need to get a diverse set of people involved because the more diverse the team is, the stronger the solution is going to be for any problem.
Aaron Moncur 09:29
While you were at the National Science Foundation, what were some of the initiatives that you were a part of there?
John White 09:37
Well, in fact, I was the representative from the National Science Foundation for what they call the FIX IT initiative, Federal Coordinating Committee on Science and Technology focused on material synthesis and processing and so I met with our counterparts and the other agencies and and DOD within, also within commerce. First with all, so I was really involved with that. That was one. And then the other thing that I got very much involved in was to get engineering schools to focus more on changing the whole focus of the engineering education, to bring it more into concert with what industry needs were to try to, instead of it being just a theoretically based curriculum, to involve industry and developing the curriculum within engineering. In fact, that number of people got really upset with me and said that, you know, I was fooling around with I was taking the focus away from research and putting too much focus on education. But I just felt like that that was something that we needed to do. Because the, the interesting problems are not just within the disciplines, they’re at the intersections and the edges of disciplines. And that if you step back and look at it, there’s a lot more that we have in common within engineering, the various majors within engineering than there are differences, but also that we needed to get multidisciplinary teams and we need to engage the sciences with us, we also need to engage the humanities and the social sciences people and coming up with the solutions. You know, it’s I think that too often, engineers want to only talk to engineers, because we’re more, it’s more familiar, it’s a easier thing to do when you’re dealing with engineers, but we’re a minority in the world. And I don’t care how good your solution is, if it’s not accepted by the people is not going to be something that will work. So I just was really focused on expanding the vision of and that engineers have for how you develop your solutions. And to make sure that you had a diverse team coming in, and I’m talking not now just about age, or gender, or national origin, I’m talking about diversity, even in the way that you think the way you go about solving problems, even geographic differences, because you get, if you look, talk with people from Northeast, and USA versus southwest, they’ve got a whole different take on problems. So if you could get a real diverse team to come together, and then the key to it is and be aligned with what your goals are. And that gets to what leadership is, you know, leadership to me and is a process, which means that it’s you’re, you’re taking action. Leadership is not a noun, it’s a verb, it’s got to be action oriented. And then you’ve got to use influence in order to achieve those things you want to achieve. But then you’ve got to have a set of common goals that you’re going after. And that’s the common and that is the key, you’ve got to get the team aligned. And so achieving alignment in that is such a key for success, I think within engineering. And we’ve got a long way to go. Unfortunately, if you ask a group of engineers to form a firing squad too often we would form a circle, you know, we just have got to find a way to work together, as opposed to working at cross purposes. And to get away from that silo approach and everything and just say, hey, step back, coolit. Listen, listen to what others have to say. Just because they aren’t educated the same way you are doesn’t mean that they aren’t, don’t have something to offer. In fact, when I came back from NSF to Georgia Tech, and I was I was teaching while Dean of Engineering, and I had my son in my class. And I wanted him to hear his father say, Look, if there any of you in this class who believe that, that your abilities, capabilities, and engineers are based on the color of your skin, or your gender, I’ve got to help you get over this craziness, while you’re here in a protective environment, university, because when you graduate from Georgia Tech, you’re gonna go to work with and for people who don’t think like you do, who don’t look like you do, who don’t believe like you to who don’t have any common experiences at all that you have. So we’ve got to get you ready to be successful in a world that is changing rapidly. So that sets up sort of what my, my approach has been. And it was the time at the National Science Foundation that changed my my outlook on things that I was stunned when I looked at the data, the data jumped off the page and said, the US is in big trouble. If we don’t do something to engage more people in the enterprise.
Aaron Moncur 14:48
And do you think that we’ve done something? How are we looking these days in that respect,
John White 14:53
despite all of our efforts, Aaron and I mean, I worked so hard on that we We’ve made very little progress, very little progress, we still have not been able to, to reach out and engage, particularly women and and upper underrepresented minorities. And now, some engineering fields have done very well, if that others it’s as though you just stopped the clock and said, No, we’re not gonna let time pass, we’re gonna just stay the way we are right now. You realize, you realize it, if you went and looked at engineering schools that award at least 100 engineering degrees a year, which engineering school has the highest fraction of women in their graduates, it’s MIT. It’s MIT. Now, they, they’ve been able to do it in a number of different disciplines, there are a number of their majors were well over 60% of the students in our women. And those programs. Were at many other schools, that’s not the case. Now, today, an engineering program is feeling really good. If they get up to 35% of their students are women. But even though you go back and you look at it, and you’ll find for the engineering, honor societies, the engineering professional societies, the officers, the leaders of those are disproportionately women students, they rise to the occasion, and they’re providing leadership. But still, the numbers are really small. One of the things I did at Georgia Tech was set a five year goals, when I came in as as dean. And when I gave the five year goals, people laughed, they thought it wasn’t possible. Well, palace, and through the looking glass says the only way to achieve the impossible is to believe it’s possible. And I believed it was possible. And I said in five years, we should double the number of women getting engineering degrees, we should double the number of women faculty, we should double the number of Hispanic Latinos, we should getting degrees, we should double the number of African Americans getting degrees, we should double the number of underrepresented minorities who are faculty members, we should double the amount number of PhD degrees we award, we should double the amount of funded research that we do. And we should go from being ranked 11th and graduate engineering by US News or report to being ranked in the top five in five years. And they just thought it couldn’t be done. Well, one year, I declared, It’s the Year of the Woman engineering. Every meeting I had with the department heads, I’d go around the table say What have you done to involve women since we last met and no one wanted to say I haven’t done anything. So they started doing things. And you know, at the end of five years, we did not double the number of women getting engineering degrees. And oh, by the way, we were already awarding more degrees to women than anyone else in the country. But that’s because we were the largest engineering program in the country. But after five years 84% we increased it 84% We didn’t double it went up 84% What about Hispanic Latinos went up 74% What about African Americans went up 73%. we more than doubled the number of doctorates awarded, we more than doubled the amount of funded research. And oh, by the way, we were ranked by US News, News and World Report. Fifth. And so I got a call from the provost congratulating us on we achieved it and I said, Mike, if we had done what I said, we need to do on GRE scores, we’d be ranked third. He said, Can’t you feel good about what you said? No, no, no, not within. So it’s within our grasp to be third, I don’t think we can get past MIT and Stanford. But we can go past Berkeley in Illinois. And then I left and went back to Arkansas as Chancellor. And the report came out from US News and World Report. And Mike called me said, Congratulations, we’re ranked third. We did it. I said, Well, it’s just you’ve got to believe that it’s possible, Mike, and we just got so focused on that. So what
Aaron Moncur 19:20
what are some, some strategies to believing that? You know, it’s one thing to say, Well, if you can believe that you can achieve it. But it’s another thing to actually have that mindset, that conviction that yeah, this really is achievable. How do you how do you enable that kind of mindset to where you really, truly do believe that something is possible?
John White 19:40
Well, the the reason that I was able to do those things is while I was at NSF, I visited all the top engineering programs in the country. And I saw what they were doing, and I saw what we were doing at Georgia Tech, and I knew that it was possible because others were doing it so when I asked each of the department It’s to do benchmark against the top programs in the country in your field. And when they did it, they saw that these others were doing things they weren’t doing, then they got the faculty involved and that they began to see it. And so having, I believe in keeping score, you know, and so I would do, I’d publish the data every year and show them what our goals were and how we were doing. And as you begin to see that battleship began to turn, then suddenly, what people thought was impossible now becomes possible. And then it goes to highly probable, and now it’s happening. And so you need some evidence. And the reason that I didn’t just make these goals up out of thin air, I looked, and I saw what was happening elsewhere. And I thought we could do it, too. That’s the thing. And so that’s another reason I’m big on benchmarking is that you look for best practices, you find others that are doing things. And so then you continue to look for things that you can do that you can improve. So the continuous improvement gene is alive and well in me. And I try to make sure that it’s alive and well and those people that I’m working with,
Aaron Moncur 21:13
yeah, that’s great. Well, you you recently published a book on leadership called why it matters. Reflections on practical leadership. What was one of your your goals for this book? I mean, why did why did you write it? There are plenty of leadership books out there. What did you want to add?
John White 21:28
You are not kidding, there are plenty of leadership books out there. And so I had been teaching a course on leadership, there had nine offerings of that course. And in fact, when I stepped down from being Chancellor returned the faculty, so my colleagues said, you need to develop a leadership course I said, I don’t know how to do that. Every course I’ve taught has got equations in it, how am I going to teach a course some leadership? I don’t think there’s an equation about how to do that. So they kept after me. So I went to see my mentor, Paul Torgerson, who was at Virginia Tech, he was my department head then he was my dean. And then he became the president at Virginia Tech. While I was doing it at Georgia Tech. He was a person that I relied on to counsel me and advise me. And so I went back to see Paul. And I said, Paul, I’ve been encouraged to do a leadership course he said, shouldn’t say What What books should I used? He said, Use Steve. Steve samples that contrarians guide to leadership as it Steve sent me the book, I had no idea that I should do that. Let me go back and read it. When I read it. I saw that he and Warren Bennis co taught a course on leadership at Southern Cal. And so I called his office and he was away. And I told his executive assistant who I was that I knew Steve quite well had known him since he was at SUNY Buffalo. And that I was interested in hearing more about the leadership course. She said, Oh, well, there’s someone who works behind the scenes with Dr. Sample. And Dr. Bendis, let me put you in touch with her. So she gets on the phone, and I introduce myself, she says, I want to know who you are. You’re the Chancellor of University of Arkansas, because I grew up in Fayetteville, and I came to the university when you came as Chancellor. And I got my degree in sociology and came to Southern Cal to get my doctorate in sociology with an emphasis on leadership, what can I do to to help you and I said, we just send me the syllabus and everything about your course. So I went through and I took that, and then I changed it substantially to sort of emphasize the things that I wanted to try to emphasize it Arkansas. And so I offered it, and consistently over those years, students said three things about the course it’s the most demanding course I’ve taken is the best course I’ve taken and it changed my life.
Aaron Moncur 23:46
Well, what are some of the reasons that they liked it so much?
John White 23:49
Well, let me just finish that up. And I’ll come right back to that. So the last offering, one student said, Dr. White said it would be the most demanding, and it was he said it would be the best. And it was he said it would change my life. It did not. It saved my life. And that’s Aaron, when I knew that I needed to do something about the book, because in that last offering of the course, the kids in the class said, Would you please write a book and try to capture in the book what’s happened in this class? And so that’s what I set out to try to do. Now what happened there? Well, I invited it met over 16 semesters, 15 of those, I had a guest leader who came and met with a class. So the first 20 minutes, I would sit there, and I would have a conversation with the leader like you and I are having, then I would turn to the class and I would say to any of you have questions for our guest, and remember, we have two rules. What said here stays here, and there’s no recording of what the guests leaders say. Well, Aaron, of those 15 leaders, you could count on at least three of them being in tears. As they responded this units questions about leadership. I remember a person who was on the Motorola board of directors with me, asked, How do you balance family and cruise that he calls me my first marriage, I had no idea. I knew his wife, but I thought that was his first wife. And he said, My second wife came out of industry, and she understood what the demands are on a CEO, another leader, when asked how do you balance family and career said, I’m the poster child and how not to do it. I’m a failure as a husband, I’m a failure as a father, no success at work will overcome failure at home. The millennials, were very focused on how can I have a life and have a career? How do I do that? That wound up being an important part of the course. But it wasn’t the most important part, I think.
Aaron Moncur 26:11
I’m really curious. Was there an answer to that for these millennials? Who are I think it’s not just millennials, but a lot of us struggle with that question. How do we balance work in life? Were there any golden nuggets that came out of those discussions?
John White 26:24
Absolutely. You take a person like Greg Brown, who’s the chairman of Motorola. Now he’s the Chairman of Motorola Solutions, and CEO there. His son was at 135, I believe basketball games junior high through high school, he missed one game. And that’s because that game was rescheduled and conflicted when he had an appointment with the Prime Minister of Israel. And he wanted to change that appointment with the Prime Minister and his staff said, it’s taken us years to get this appointment, you’ve got to do this one. Now. John Roberts, who’s the CEO at JB Hunt, transport. His wife got with his executive assistant, put on his calendar, what the important dates were for the kids. And he treated like any other business commitment. When he came to class, he said, Now you may think I’m staying past seven o’clock tonight. But my son’s in a baseball game and I’m gonna be there. Okay. So there are any number of ways to try to work through that. It’s a private’s a priority to you, then make it a priority, but also how you go about doing it. If you’re in a marital, spousal situation, it needs to be a group decision about how you’re going to do it. Now, Shelley Simpson, who’s the president now at JB Hunt, transport, her husband was making progress within the company. And she was and so what did they do? That she went to a cousin and brought the cousin in, and they paid the cousin as it to be a nanny for the kids and all and so you’ve can find different ways to do it. But there’s no cookie cutter approach to this. I thought Steve sample it and the beginning of his book said leadership is situational and contingent. And he’s absolutely right. It depends on the situation, about how you’re going to go about developing your solution. And it needs to be a family based solution. Now, Donnie Smith, the CEO at Tyson Foods, said, I don’t balance out rebalance. My wife and I decided that we would build memories with our children instead of building mansions. And so we take them on extensive vacations and all of that, but they recognize that it’s the sacrifices that they made along the way, about me being available that allowed us to do those things. And they participated at the very beginning about saying, Yes, Dad, you go do those things are then you take someone like Adriana Lopez Graham, who was involved with international travel, and with Tyson Foods, and her children understood, well, Mommy needs to go to China or Mommy needs to go to Argentina or somewhere to make sure that little killed children have food to eat. And so they felt like that they anytime that she wasn’t there for them, she was out there making a difference for others. So she let them know what she was doing and why she was going. But then, you know, you work all kinds of hours in order to be there for the kids when you can. Now on the military side, we had a Marine General and two Navy admirals who were guest leaders. And when they were sent there, their children understood that their role was helping defend America and they were right there and interesting, general Marty’s steal. His son followed him right in the Marines and so forth and understood that but it’s it’s a thing that you have to communicate within the family and let them understand why we’re doing this, what it means. And so that they don’t feel like you don’t care, because you do care. You care deeply about him. Now my son, I worried so much about my son because he was consultant. He’s right at a 4 million miler with delta. And so he had two children, a son and a daughter. He had acquired a company in South Africa, he acquired one in England, one in Germany. I mean, he was traveling all the time. But he made a point of every day, he talked with his wife, guys, today, with cell phones and all you can do that with social media, you can stay in touch with the kids. So he said he was gonna be a memory with his kids. He knew his son loved to hunt. So he’s taken him hunting in South Africa. He’s taken him hunting for dogs and Argentina, black bear hunting, and they go fishing every year duck hunting with his daughter, she loves Broadway Stokes. So he takes her to New York, they go to Broadway shows, they went to London to go to Broadway shows, he does that to try to make up for the fact that he couldn’t be there all the time. But he said that when I’m there, they know I’m there. And so that’s the thing that I think is so key in this Aaron, is letting your children know, they’re important to you, and that they’re helping with this solution, because they’re giving up time with you so that you can go do these things to allow you to do these other things for them. And so that’s that’s just a part of what came out of that that class. Aaron, it was we literally caught lightning in a bottle in that in that course. So now, I don’t think I’ve caught lightning in a bottle with this book. But I tried to share all of these learnings that came from these guests, leaders coming and meeting with them. And oh, by the way, I contacted all the guest leaders and said, I know that when I invited you to come, I said that there’ll be no recordings. And what was said here stays here. But I want your permission for me to share these thoughts in this book. And so everything that’s in there, has been agreed to by the individuals that I’ve quoted.
Aaron Moncur 32:15
Wonderful. Wonderful. Were there any I’m sure there were a lot, but were there any stories or specific class sessions that really stood out to you as being particularly impactful that you can share?
John White 32:29
Yes. General Marty steel, grew up in Fayetteville where the University of Arkansas located was an outstanding athlete in high school. He was a terrific leader, came to the University and did not do well, academically first semester, dropped out of the university enlisted in the Marine Corps. There’s a book titled The boys of 67, about three individuals who enlisted his privates in the Marine Corps and retired his generals. And Marty steagle is one of those. He’s goes in the Marines, mostly sent to Vietnam. Best friend dies in his arms. He’s given a battlefield promotion to Corporal he was he was chosen by the staff sergeant really picked him out and said he’s got to go to Officer Candidate School. That time you couldn’t go to Officer Candidate School if you hadn’t graduated from college that made an exception for Marty and he went, he became the longest serving chief operating officer in the Marine Corps. When he retired, he became the executive director of the museum on the Hudson River, the intrepid aircraft carrier, they’re on September the 11th. In 2001, he was out on deck with one of his aides. They looked up and he saw a plane coming up the river. He said that’s gonna be a terrorist attack in the World Trade Center, called the FBI and tell them they can stage here on the Intrepid. Now, how do you know that? He had been giving testimony before a Senate committee about what their intelligence said was going to happen. Senator called a recess took him outside and said, Look, stop talking about that you’re going to scare the American public. Well, on September the 12th, that Senator called Marty apologized and said, I should have let you keep talking. He said it’s too late now, Senator. Well, as Marty would meet with that class, and talk through the challenges and things that he faced, you could drop a pin in that room and hear it drop. I mean, he had those students understanding that leadership can mean the difference in life and death in situations and his his times with the class were always impact Act Four. But so were several of those from other leaders as well. Greg Brown easy, was just brutally honest with him, just laid it out there, and talked about the struggles that he had with depression, and all, and then how he was able to deal with it, and what happened. And so all of these kinds of things are shared with the class, and then wound up, I’m able to share them in the book,
Aaron Moncur 35:32
amazing. Thinking back on your own career, being in leadership for so long, what are a few of the biggest triumphs that you feel you’ve had as a leader? And then conversely, what are a couple of the worst mistakes that you’ve made as a leader? Now? How can we learn from that,
John White 35:53
let’s start with that start with the mistakes because there were so many of them. I mean, in fact, I address some of those within the book. But also, when I finished the manuscript, in order to publish that manuscript would have doubled size the book, so I had to face reality, and reduced half of it so that the half that’s not in the book is out there on a website that I have. Now, that’s a companion to the book. But at any rate, a big mistake I made right off the bat was listening to the wrong people. Well, I didn’t know they were the wrong people. But the person who was going to be my chief financial officer I met with before I became the Chancellor at the University is between the time it was announced, I was gonna be it and but before I actually started, and learned that we had a major problem budget problem with the University of Arkansas press, and it was losing a lot of money, and it built up a significant debt. And then I had the president of the system, and some trustees were saying, you’re gonna have to close the university wrong, some press. So I put this off as long as I could dealing with it, but then it in the spring, we had budget hearings to focus on the next year’s budget. And when I asked the head of the university libraries that if it was not the University of Arkansas press, how many of their books would he purchase for the library when he said not any. And I knew that we also had a major shortage of funding for the library. I said, I called the University of Arkansas System president and said, I’ve concluded I need to close the University of Arkansas press. And he agreed, and he said the trustees would understand and they would support me on it. So I went over and met with the University of Arkansas staff and told them we were going to have to close the University of Arkansas press. Of course, they were devastated. And then Aaron had hit the fan. In every newspaper in the state, dealing with freedom of the press, the Chronicle of Higher Education had a big article about closing and universe are so impressed. President Jimmy Carter called me because University RSR press had been publishing his books for him. And I mean, the pressure was building. So it was building on the trustees and they began to put the pressure on the president he called he said, You’re going to have to reverse your decision. I said, Alan, this is the first big decision I’ve made. And if I have to reverse this one, then people are gonna know the way to get decisions reversed around here is putting pressure on the trustees and trash pressure on you. You said you just got to do it. And I held off I just want to do it. I was gonna just Stonewall and not do it. I was gonna be stubborn Aaron. I mean, I really was. I was gonna dig my heels in for goodness sakes. And then Don Tyson of Tyson Foods came to my rescue. He gave a million dollar gift to the University of Arkansas press. He gave me a way out. He gave me a loophole I could explore. So now I could announce because private support has come forward. We’re gonna keep the university RSR press Open. We then reorganized it change who the the head of the press was changed reporting relationships did all of that and the press has done fine since then. So what I didn’t recognize was what the other stakeholders the people who were deeply invested in the press like my predecessor as chancellor, my predecessors predecessor as chancellor, the relationship that the head of the press, who was teaching President Carter how to write poetry. That relationship I hadn’t even thought Talk about that notion of freedom of the press. I had it, I forgot that the Chronicle of Higher Education makes his money off of job ads, as well as book ads in there, that, that there were gonna be all of these folks don’t come right off, I should have learned the law of unintended consequences. That I should have recognized that old engineering principle that says, For every solution to a problem, there’s a new problem, or why did not remember Newton’s third law, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Why did not recognize that there’s gonna be a second bounce to the ball? Why couldn’t I look ahead and say, Surely there’s some other people who are going to favor keeping it open? Maybe I should hear from them. The only inputs I was getting were those who were saying it needs to be closed. Well, I don’t care how thin the pancake is, there are two sides to the pancake. And I didn’t bother to look for the other side. I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do. How stupid was that? I ignored everything I had been taught. I completely forgot about Newton’s third law. Now, come on, give me a break. No, but did I learn from that? Oh, no, no, I made other mistakes looks like that. Next year, and the next year? I mean, come on, what is it about you Tico, Tico. Come on, get with it, you’ve got to look, look for people who think otherwise, get different opinions. If everybody is on the same wavelength on something, you’re in trouble, because there’s gonna be somebody out there whose input you’ve not gotten, and you ought to get it. And then think about it.
Aaron Moncur 41:45
That’s a big lesson. Yeah, to look for feedback, not just for the people who are kind of saying the same thing that you are, but for the people who are opposing those opinions.
John White 41:53
And that’s another real argument for why you need to have a diverse team. And in fact, Marty Steele, he made sure that all of his teams, he was real big on the Myers Briggs Personality assessment tool, he made sure the teams that he had represented all the combinations of personalities. That’s why JB Hunt, and Shelly Simpson, who’s real big on Strengths Finder, it makes sure she goes through, she knows what the strengths are for all the members. And she puts together teams to make sure that she’s got strengths where others are weak. And that’s that’s the key is that every leader needs to be brutally honest, and understand what her his strengths and weaknesses are, and make sure you are surrounded by people who are strong in areas where you’re weak. And if you go into it thinking, you’ve got all the answers, hey, you’re in big trouble. Because what your responsibility as a leader is to have all the questions, not all the answers. You got to be asking and asking and asking and make sure you’re asking over a broad cross section of people. The diversity issue again, rears its head and says, Get yet people have not have like mines of unlike mines, Yet unlike mines in the room. We don’t want Tweedledee and Tweedledum as our people that are helping us make the decisions. We need more than that.
Aaron Moncur 43:18
Well, it occurs to me that really what we’re talking about here is communication, and how to keep the lines of communication very much open between different groups. What What are a few kind of foundational truths of effective communication that you’ve learned over the past 50 years as a leader,
John White 43:38
I wish I wish I had learned them sooner, Aaron. And the first one is the one we’ve been talking about. It starts with listening. It starts with listening. And I didn’t listen as well as I should have. I didn’t listen as broadly as I should have. I didn’t listen between the words and behind the words. I didn’t listen to the body language that was there at the time that the verbalization of words was occurring. I needed to listen better. And I’m talking about being an active listener. I mean, really, really listening, trying to get inside the head of the person you’re listening to, to understand what that person’s really, really saying. Because the biggest the biggest problems that I’ve had are issues of communication. And yet, people would say I’m a great communicator. No, no. First of all, they’re not any really great communicators out there. We think we are maybe we can give speeches we can do. We do a lot of communication, but it’s mostly we’ve pushed the send button. And sometimes people don’t even have a Receive button they could push it And that’s the biggest complaint that I’ve heard on leaders is that they don’t listen. They just are telling all the time telling and telling, but they aren’t listening well. So start with listening. And the next thing on that, I would say is, know your audience really well, and speak the language of the listener. You’ve got to be able to speak their language. You can’t go through and just be talking, finance, lingo, or engineering lingo. If you’re dealing with non finance or non engineering people. You need to be able to speak their language, put it in terms they’ll understand. That’s one of the reasons that I rely so heavily on stories to communicate. When I was asked, during an interview process for Chancellor what my leadership style was, I said, I believe in kudzu management. And they had no idea what I was talking about. Kudzu is a plant that was brought to the US from Japan that was put along the railroads in the south to combat soil erosion. But you can go down now. And if you drive from Texas, across Arkansas, on across Mississippi, and Alabama, at cross Georgia and into South Carolina, you can see kudzu growing out there now in a way you actually can’t see it growing. But if you turn your head and look back, it will have grown. I mean, it will just cover an abandoned house, it covers trees, it covers it just now, I told the staff, I said, Look, I’m an externally focused Minister, I’m going to be going a lot and more I’m going to better university is going to be so I’m depending on you to be running your parts of the organization. But keep me informed. And I don’t like surprises. I don’t believe in shooting the messenger unless the messenger doesn’t deliver the message, both the good news and the bad news. So keep me informed. But you won’t see the difference is day to day, or even year to year that only occur here. But after five years, you’re gonna see we’ve made a lot of progress. And after 10 years, you’re not going to believe it is going to be phenomenal progress. Because I’m going to stay the course it’s we’re going to continue and persist and persist and persist until we accomplish what we’re setting out to accomplish. And so that’s one of the things that I just, it didn’t take long for people to recognize that I’m, I’m often pleased but never satisfied. I believe we can always do better. And I’m a big advocate of setting lofty goals. When I gave the high school commencement address, I used a quotation from Thoreau. If you build castles in the air, that’s where your yes where they should be put foundations under them. So I set big, hairy, audacious goals is Jim Collins called him. I mean, I believe that we could raise a billion dollars in private funding at the University of Arkansas. And no one else believed that, but me. And we wound up raising over a billion dollars in private support. When the North Central Association, which is the accrediting body or university or so they come every 10 years to do assessment on the university and they were there just before I started. And then they came 10 years, just as I was nearing the end of my time as Chancellor. And they said they had never seen that kind of transformation that had occurred at the university and a 10 year period. Why we’re able to do that. Because we were able to achieve that alignment of getting focused on what our goals were the processes by which we were going to pursue those goals. And we persisted and stayed after it. And we got a lot done in those 10 years.
Aaron Moncur 49:09
That’s a great reminder of how powerful focus can be. I have a quote here on my wall that says success is not difficult. It merely involves taking 20 steps in a singular direction. Most people take one step in 20 directions. I think that’s kind of what you’re saying right
John White 49:23
now. Absolutely. Absolutely. And one of the things that I have said, that really shocked some people when they first heard it, I said my goal is not to be the best leader of the team. My goal is to be the leader of the best team. The focus needs to be on the team, not on the leader. If you’re focused on the team, and the team is does exceptionally well, that you’re gonna get credit for it as the leader of that team. But your goal shouldn’t be I’m gonna be the best leader of the team. No, no, no. It’s I’m gonna be the leader of the best team. What’s in the best interest of The team members to help them be successful. And if they know that you are behind them 100% They’re going to do extraordinary things. I like that a lot. Sam Walton had a sign over the door going in and said, through these doors are ordinary people coming to do extraordinary things. And ordinary people can do extraordinary things. When you get them put together as a team and focused on that goal, you can achieve tremendous amount.
Aaron Moncur 50:30
Well, John, I think maybe just one more question here. And then then we’ll wrap things up for today. And we’ve probably covered some of these already. Maybe a lot of them. But let me ask this question again, kind of in a different way. What What are a few things that you know now about leadership that you wish you had known as a young leader just getting started? Things that perhaps folks listening to this right now can take advantage of?
John White 50:56
Well, the the one was about listening, to listen, first, the leader should speak last, not first, you should listen. You shouldn’t be the first to speak when you go in to say you should listen to people. And that when you are asked a question, you don’t give an answer. You turn it around and ask a question. Use it as a learning opportunity for the team, that you’re not the person you’re not. If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in big trouble. You didn’t assemble a very good team. Okay, so you need to get people who are strong where you are weak. I was on a plane flying back from New Orleans to when I was on the faculty at Virginia Tech, flying from New Orleans to Atlanta, and then change planes to go on into Blacksburg. seated next to me was the world’s number one handball player at the time. He asked me if I played handball and I said no, I have a reoccurring dislocation left shoulder, I play racquetball, he said, I’m gonna give you three bits of advice. If you follow them, it’s going to really improve your game. Number one, play with people who are better than you. Number two, play to your strengths, which is probably your forehand. So hit every shot to your opponent’s backhand. Focus on your play with better focus on your strengths, and then hit every shot to then attack your opponents back down. Well, Tommy carpenito was a graduate student that was working, he was a linebacker on the football team, a smart guy really smart. He was smart enough to let me think I could compete with him and racquetball but he always beat me like a drum. So I went back and I thought, Okay, I’m going to hit every shot to Tommy’s backhand, every serve every shot, I won the first game, I had never won a game from him. Never had, I’m in the second game, and I’ve got him 10 Zero and I did a little baby lob to his backhand. He missed it smashed his racket against the wall of court, walked off the court and never played racquetball with me again.
Aaron Moncur 53:13
Brilliant, great story, I
John White 53:15
had no idea how those three things would influence my leadership.
Aaron Moncur 53:20
Hold on, I heard two of the three things. I only heard two. One was focus on your strengths.
John White 53:25
First was play with people who are better than you, okay? And then focus on your strengths and attack your opponent’s weakness, which is usually their backhand. Okay, those were three. So first, play with people better than you. When I came back to Georgia Tech, as Dean. I said, there are several things that bugged me. One is that we keep saying we’re the best engineering program in the South. I am not going to be content with being the best mentoring program in the south, I want to be the best in the world. I mean, you can go to our bookstore and buy T shirts, it says Georgia Tech, the MIT of the South, I’m not going to be happy to lack and go to MIT and buy a t shirt that says, MIT, the Georgia Tech of the north. So we’re going to go after this. And so then we did benchmarking. In other words, to play with people who are better than we were. We had to understand our strengths. So we went through to identify where were we so we would make sure that the budget we put resources and I believe in pouring gasoline on live embers, not dead coals, okay. And then we would not I don’t I didn’t like that Tommy never played again with me. I thought maybe attacking your opponent’s weakness in the way to do it. Maybe we should just keep emphasizing with people what our strengths are. Now occasionally, I might point out an opportunity for improvement in my in my competitor, but I’m not going to go attacking them and not gonna be that negative. Thank you very much. So I think The things that I would leave is to understand your strengths and play to your strengths. And understand the need to have that diverse team. I wish I had known that early. I thought that I was the leader, oh, I’ve got to have all the answers. No, no, no, no. That’s not the way it works. I also didn’t understand the notion about servant leadership, that your whole focus is serving those whom you lead, as opposed to them serving you. It’s selfless leadership, not selfish leadership. And so those are the things that as a young person, I wish not only that I had heard and understood, but that I had practiced. No, I think that too often. We don’t do the things we know we should do. And one of the things for sure, that I learned along the line away, is, although I am an engineer, there comes a point where paralysis of analysis comes into play. And you have to say, good is not the enemy of great, there are times when good is good enough, and know when to settle for getting less than perfection, because you need to move on to the next opportunity. I was such a perfectionist early on, it took me a long time to learn that I need to compromise. When someone in fact, my leader at one point said, John, you need to learn how to go along to get along. And I said I’m not a go along to get along kind of guy. Well, as I thought about that, what I understood him saying was I needed to not be so perfectionist, I needed to learn how to compromise. I needed to learn that. Not all problems are technical problems. If they’re technical problems, they’re easy to solve. But if those problems are what Ron Heifetz in his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, called adaptive challenges, then those kinds of problems you need to have the people who are impacted by the solution create the solution, it shouldn’t be a top down kind of process at all, it should be almost a bottoms up kind of a process. It took me a long time to learn that, Aaron, I think that, that engineers, and also scientists and accountants, we tend to be see things as black and white, we are not real good at finding the gray in there. And I think that right now in this nation, and in fact, in this world, with a polarization that’s going on, we need to understand that when you’ve got a polarity, it’s not a problem to be solved. But it’s a opportunity for reconciliation, and listening to both sides. And both sides need to listen and to find middle ground. And that’s where I think engineers, we need to always be looking for that middle ground out there. Because we want our solutions to be implemented and used. It’s not going to be great, just because it’s the most fantastic. It should be a Nobel Prize winning solution if it’s not accepted by the people.
Aaron Moncur 58:45
John, powerful words you have sure made my job easy today. What a delightful 60 minutes this has been is there. Are there anything else that you’d like to say before we sign off here? And and also, maybe you can share a little bit about where people can go to to find and purchase your book?
John White 59:04
Oh, my Well, it goes, if you go to my LinkedIn, you connect with me on LinkedIn. And that’s the place where engineers tend to really get together through LinkedIn, then there’s a lot of information there. Or you can go to my website, which is John, a white Jr. That’s johnawhtejr.com backslash why it matters. Then there’s going to be information there about how you could get the book and there’s also information there that didn’t make its way into the book. And if you get the book then you see on page 287 is a password that takes you to a Restricted Section on that website. That then gives you all this other stuff that those guests leaders were sharing with the class along the way.
Aaron Moncur 59:55
Oh, wonderful. What advice just for that. Well, thank you. Thank you So much for for sharing all this with us today. This is a powerful episode. And like I said, he really made my job easy. So thank you again, thank you for being with us and I sure appreciate your time today. I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Team pipeline.us. Thanks for listening
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