“Be all in.” Janet Mountain recently spoke to a group of businesswomen and men at the Kenan-Flager Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill, offering advice to the audience at a conference sponsored by the Carolina Women in Business (CWIB).
Mountain currently serves as the Executive Director of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the charitable arm of the Dell Corporation. The foundation focuses on children living in urban poverty with outreach efforts in the US, India, and South Africa.
Mountain’s talk to the audience illuminated the CWIB Conference’s key themes—imagine, invest, and inspire—by discussing ways in which we can work in service to others no matter where we our in our lives and our careers.
Here were her key takeaways:
- “Never underestimate the value of a made-up number in setting goals.” Think big when setting your goals and you will be inspired to achieve them. When they started the Dell Scholars Program, which aims to help low-income, first generation college students graduate, the foundation set an extremely ambitious and totally made-up number of 80 percent for their graduation rate goal for the program. The graduation rate for this demographic overall is 20 percent, thus their plan was overreaching to say the least. But once that 80 percent number was down on paper, people on the team started to figure out ways to make it happen. That is the power of the made up number. Over time, it becomes real. Dell Scholars achieved their goal and more; their graduation rate is over 80 percent.
- “The most important investment you can make is in the people around you.” When it comes to great leadership, it needs to be about your people, not you. Mountain advocates placing the team in the headlines rather than highlighting your own role in the accomplishments. Mountain invoked the philosophy of servant leadership; we must, as leaders, focus on how we are serving others first. By investing in our people, we are not only investing in the outcome of their hard work, but also in their futures as leaders, colleagues, and change-makers.
- “Be all in.” This was the biggest takeaway for me. “Never ever just mark time in a job,” Mountain said. “It is impossible to inspire others if they cannot see that you care.” You may not be exactly where you want to be in your career, but while you are there, be all in and give your best. “If you can’t inspire others, you can’t put yourself in line for inspiring work,” Mountain said.
Mountain also talked about life not as a series of choices, but of tradeoffs. “It’s not what you can say yes to, but what you can’t say no to.”
Mountain’s talk spoke in particular to the women in the audience, including me. Tradeoffs—sometimes agonizing ones—are the language of working women in America. Spending time with our children or going back to work? Go to the conference or skip it to make your child’s birthday party? Mountain herself talked about skipping the World Economic Forum every year because it falls on her daughter’s birthday. It was a tradeoff, one that she is glad she was able to make as her daughter heads off to college.
In our lives, we all have to make tradeoffs, some that seem difficult, nearly impossible. What Mountain suggests is to figure out in advance what you can’t say no to, not just want you can say yes to, and determine your priorities. Then imagine your future, invest in the people around you, and be all in in the life that you have.