September 20

Episode 140: The Power of Imperfect Ideas


In today’s episode, Mike talks with Dr. Brett Jacobsen. As CEO of Mount Vernon School and Ventures, Brett helps organizations learn how to innovate. He believes learning can provide a competitive advantage over culture and strategy. Brett provides tactics like isolating ideas to small teams, creating parallel tracks, and constantly asking “help me see what you see” to spur momentum. Tune in to pick up tangible tips for getting your team unstuck.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen’s Bio

Entering his 15th year, Dr. Jacobsen is the CEO of The Mount Vernon School, Mount Vernon Ventures, and Mount Vernon Online – The Global Online Campus. Leading Mount Vernon through a transformational period since 2009, the School with 1,2500 students strong, has gained a national reputation for innovation in education.

As a result, Dr. Jacobsen launched a Transformation R&D consulting company known as Mount Vernon Ventures, partnering with schools throughout the world. Most recently, in August 2022, Mount Vernon Online, Mount Vernon’s online high school, welcomed its first cohort of students to the School.

Outside of overseeing a portfolio of business units, Dr. Jacobsen frequently shares his journey of innovation and entrepreneurial impact at national and international conferences. The Atlanta Business Chronicle recognized Dr. Jacobsen as one of the 2017 Most admired CEOs in the education category.

In This Episode…

  • Learning can be a competitive advantage over company culture and strategy
  • Shipping an idea, even an imperfect one, creates movement and momentum
  • Focus on getting better to serve your customers, and they’ll demand you get bigger
  • Ask “Help me see what you see” to make your own story more complete

Links & Resources Mentioned…

Read The Transcript

P140 Dr. Brett Jacobsen

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to Get Unstuck and On Target. I'm Mike O'Neill. Whether we at Bench Builders are working with a company or me coaching a CEO one-on-one, getting leaders in companies unstuck is at the heart of everything I do, and that's exactly what this podcast is all about. Each week I get to invite incredible guests who share their hard won experiences of getting themselves or others unstuck.

Back on target and moving forward, and I hope it will get you unstuck and on target as well. Joining me today is Brett Jacobsen. Dr. Jacobsen is the CEO of the Mount Vernon School, Mount Vernon Ventures and Mount Vernon online. We're going to learn more about each of those, but of those three, I'm particularly interested in.

Learning a bit more about Mount Vernon Ventures because Brett, you describe yourself, is that you find your passion is teaching organizations how to learn and that's what we're going to zero in on that. Welcome, Brett.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Mike O'Neill: Brett, when we first met, I learned that your role with Mount Vernon is a little bit different than one might immediately assume.

I just assumed that you were the headmaster and you were managing classes, and these were of other things that you have responsibility for, but what really drew me to you is how you have launched a transformation R&D consulting company. I think that's the way you would describe Mount Vernon Ventures, and it was very intriguing.

Can we start with that? Tell us a little more about what that is. What is it that y'all are trying to accomplish internally and for your external clients?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Sure. Well, we do have a head of school and she's amazing and she runs the day-to-day side of the school and the operations where I partner with her in terms of vision and strategy for the overall school organization as we run a day school that has more than 1,250 students, and we have ventures, as you talked about, as a consulting arm of the school and then Mount Vernon online.

That is serving, its first couple years of cohort, of students in that. And so we're in essence, we're running several business units all under the umbrella of the Mount Vernon School organization. And so, so you're right. I, you know, my why is to set the conditions for people to do what they've been called to do.

And what that really means is teaching organizations how to learn. And ventures is really focused on teaching organizations how to learn. While most of our clients are in the education sector in terms of schools we do serve other nonprofits and we, for example, we've worked on afterschool programs for the greater land of YMCA.

So, you know, we have a d different types of clients in one might expect, but because of the reputation national and someone international reputation around innovation education, we've had a lot of people throughout the years contact us about the work that we're doing. Now I'm a big Peter Trucker fan, so.

I never want to appear to be sacrilegious to Peter Trucker, but I've come to, in my, now entering my 29th year in education in 18th or 19th as a lead executive, I've discovered that learning is. Is the competitive advantage that learning may actually eat culture and strategy.

And and again, I don't wanna be sacrilegious to Mr. Trucker, Dr. Trucker, but because I'm a big fan. But I do believe that this idea of learning is a, is there's an action oriented nature to it. And one thing I've learned even out of Covid is And from various podcasts out there, especially around wellbeing is around movement over mood.

And so, just by, by the activity of moving can put you in a different disposition, can create a new ideas, can get you outside the box. But if you're stagnant, trying to get in the right disposition, trying to get in the right sort of strategic moment. Actually it's probably going to be paralyzing at times.

At least that's what I have seen. So, so Ventures does provide consulting opportunities for organizations around the country and internationally, but we also produce these R&D reports around complex topics of the day. And one of my, one of my, our most recent ones is around, as you can imagine, around artificial intelligence and really asking organizations to kind of zoom out a little bit.

But but in addition to that, you know, we're heavily involved in. Business development opportunities for the Mount Vernon School organization. Constantly finding new market segments. So we're very entrepreneurial in nature and we love elevating schools from where they are to where they want to be.

Including the day school at Mount Vernon, but also schools around the country.

Mike O'Neill: You know, I didn't wanna gloss over your day school and your online. I found myself kind of keying in on mount. Vernon Ventures, but you said something a moment ago I'd like to follow up on, and that is this notion of movement and the power of movement. Can you elaborate a little bit more on what that means?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yeah. I think that you know, Seth goin over the years has talked a lot about you know, shipping an idea and shipping it. And shipping it, you know, again a key part for us, kind of a methodology and way of being throughout all of our organizations here at the school in Mount Vernon.

Is around design thinking and design thinking is a very iterative process. It's about discovery. There's empathy is at the core and at the center of its work. And this idea of experimenting and prototyping and iterating over and over again. And then, you know, coming back to it. So, you know, as leaders, sometimes we like to ship perfectly packaged products because that feels safer.

We don't know how it's going to land on the other side. And I think. In terms of movement, it's saying let's ship an idea. We can't be committee on committee or taskforce over taskforce or a small group you know, and never moving forward. because we have this paralysis around making a decision.

So shipping an idea and you can, and we can, and you can look at that in various sort of ways. I think that there are three ways I think you could look at it. One is around. Isolating it to a small portion of your company, organization, or school and beginning to test it out in that particular area where it's not really impacting a lot of people, but it's really isolated and piloting in nature.

I think in different, another way of looking at that is multi-tracking. Kotter talks a lot about this in his book Accelerate and others throughout his research. But part of this multi-tracking idea is saying, Hey, We have this executive team who ultimately makes decisions and who's looking at the overall landscape of the school.

But in parallel, we're going to have a particular team, you know, really doing some diagnosis of our systems and processes. And so we're going, we're going to have them, you know, collect data, look at multiple ways of translating that data and maybe identifying some alternate solutions and then giving that.

Providing that back to an executive team to make decisions. And then the last part is a different way to do it is where we use the entrepreneurial operating system at the school EOS which is much in the startup, sort of small company sort of world. And part of that is developing.

Tenure targets but as you back that out, one, your priorities, so what is the executive leadership to to, to advance the organization strategically? So, just gave you quick three examples of how organizations can use them simultaneously or can isolate them in whatever way that fits their mission and vision the best.

Mike O'Neill: Brett, as you know, I don't come from an educational background, so my frame of reference would be working with typically companies for-profit companies. You mentioned. How does one roll these things out? And you mentioned EOS. I am familiar with EOS. I have clients who use that. And for those who are not familiar it's a framework of looking at your organization, how to run the organization.

And it's pretty powerful on multiple levels. But one of the things that I have picked up on is that it's critically important that all the organization knows kind of where are we headed. As an organization, and when you describe how your Mount Vernon Ventures helps others, let's say it's a school setting.

They have different ways of maybe embracing some of these ideas, these kind of entrepreneurial ideas. One of the things you said is they could basically take a small segment of the organization and pilot some of these ideas and almost in a kind of a laboratory setting. And then I think you also described it well, you could also basically create a kind of a multi-track approach.

If you are working with education groups, schools, if you will, it's, I'm going to generalize. It would seem to me that there education changes slowly. Least that's my take. Is that a fair read?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yes. I would also venture to say that the legal profession and CPAs and, you know, all those, you know, are at snails pace, at snails space too. But education, you know, itself for the most part, you still see classrooms in, in rows and and it's a deliver, it's a consumption, you know, model. So, so you're right.

Mike O'Neill: So if we continue this lot of kind of discussion about how, what is it y'all do might translate to a typical listener, a business owner, a business a leader kind of help us kind of connect dots. In what ways has this, these ideas been applied maybe outside of educational settings?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yeah, I think, you know, I think it's a, it's an important question for any company, organization, or school is, you know, what is your innovation intention? And I think being transparent and honest about that is, is really important.

And I think that it aligns with part of the scale that I was referring to. So, so I don't know a tier one, you know, sort of moment, you know, and just might be just some tweaks and shifts. And some smoothing, some edges. And and so, you know, maybe that's your intention. A tier two, you know, example is more replacing one system or approach with another.

And then a tier three is like, you know, as your industry didn't even exist, like your, it's a real disruption, disruptive, transformative sort of sort of thing. And so, so I think, you know, as an example to piloting something, When we started design thinking many years ago, it was with one teacher in one particular classroom impacting a certain set of students.

We didn't bother other people about it, other employees about it. We didn't. They began to see a live classroom happen and they heard more about it, and we didn't spend dedicated time of training for them. It was really this one person working with these groups of students. Now it caught on because they saw how engaged and motivated students are and how it was a very multisensory approach.

So I, I think this. You know, I think this really relates to companies because because where I see an issue in companies is that their l and d executives are not on the executive leadership team. I. And many of those programs are relegated to certain types of programming. But this could really exist in companies too.

So we took that one sort of thing and it sort of brushfire the multi-tracking approach. Example is to say, Hey I, we were looking at. How to continue to upskill our students over time because the skills gap is obvious. And there's so many different reports out there from the future of Jobs Report and Economic World Economic Forum and others that really talk about this and is creating a sense of urgency around how do we best prepare students.

And so we wanted to develop what we would call our a set of skills and dispositions. That we could continue to cultivate over time from our two year olds to all the way to our 18 year olds. And so I created a kind of a task force around it. But then I include everybody in our school, organization, company as a part of the process.

And it took about six months. So I had two, two tracks going on at the same time. A larger ecosystem of getting feedback and voice from every single employee at the school while also working on a very research evidence-based group that's taking that feedback, but also doing the real research around what is going to be impactful.

Moving forward, and eventually those merge and we created some a list of them and we've assessed them over a decade now. We've morphed them into new ones. The other idea from a, just from an EOS standpoint is that most companies, whether it's a strategic plan, which are difficult to do these days in a very ambi, ambiguous world there's a moment of.

Of strategic targets. At least that's why I like EOS because it at least allows you to identify what are these strategic targets. And from that your leadership team is developing these three year. To five year pictures of like these snapshots of what really what this would look like. And then developing into one year priorities.

And these one year priorities are are really owned by the e executive leadership team, you know, of the organization. And so it, it is incumbent upon them every 90 days in that batch cycle to be able to demonstrate what you've the progress you've made. And then the progress you will make in the next nine days.

And I really believe at scale, regardless of how big your company is, I believe that you could apply each of those principles while understanding what is your intention. Because one last thing to say about the innovation intention from just tweaking all the way to disrupting. Is that the further you go along that scale and that spectrum the greater the cost will be.

In terms of time, money, resources, and company organizational politics around and change management around that. So the further you go up that scale from just modifying something to replacing something, to completely disrupting something, you know, it's just going to, there's greater cost.

I think you should be thinking about mindful of all of them, but if to me, if you even just camped out in the mo in the. And the, you know, just the modification. I believe that creates enough movement and momentum to move up that scale, you know, eventually conceding pace and approach.

Mike O'Neill: But those who are watching some of the things you just said, I found myself smiling bigger and bigger. And making more and more notes. Brett, you probably don't know, but one of the. Areas that we focus on from a company standpoint is on the talent development side with a real emphasis on the people skills development.

And I don't know if this matches your understanding, but what we have found is most companies, when they say, oh yeah, we develop our folks, they usually do a decent job on the technical training.

But what they usually don't do a good job of is the people skills. And I'm going to show my bias, but my bias is people skills. You just don't read about it and get it. People skills is something that you really have to really work at. So the approach we take to quote training, it's very hands-on.

It's very practical. It's use it right now and let's together come back and share what. We've learned what can we learn together, how to improve. I don't know if I would use a movement to describe that, but what I would simply say is all too often we promote from within. We're proud of that, but we are expecting these newly promoted people to know how to manage.

So as you're describing this kind of resonates when I'm working with a small to mid-size company, they may have a small HR department, but one of the things I do find, and you kind of alluded to this a moment ago, is if learning development or HR, if they truly are not at the table, the organization doesn't really realize the potential.

And when you use the term innovation intention, You're not leaving it to chance. But the more you lean in, if I understand you correctly, and the more you move along that continuum, it's a bit more and more risky. And in today's climate, what do you find companies are doing? Are they embracing this move to a more innovative approach to.

Running the business and developing the people and the like. What are you seeing right now? We're recording this in late August of 23. What's the climate like right now from what you're seeing?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yeah, I think there's interesting sort of, concepts in this book called generations. And the real differences between Gen Z, millennials, gen X, and boomers. What they mean for America's future is the kind of the subtitle. So I think that this, you know, this post covid world and when you look at the graduates of 2023 this is revealed in handshake as well as zip recruiters annual reports that they put out that.

These recent graduates are really I mean they still value, they value in person because, you know, during college in particular, they were not necessarily there or they've had a, you know, kind of a stop and start and disruptive sort of period. However they do value hybrid, you know, moments as well.

So when I think about the, your question in terms of companies is to say, you know, how is. How is just the idea of the term company being reoriented and reset. And and how do you honor the identity of the organization, the mission and vision of the company, and yet also honor? A group of employees who want a much more customized, personalized approach with with their work.

But I mean, I mean, even a recent McKinsey report would say, you know, it's about people and performance. And so I, I think if you're really focused on people understanding who they are, what their jagged sort of profile, Looks like as it contributes to your organization and you're positioning them in a social, I believe in a social capital way, that you're expanding their network that you're enriching them as a way to improve their craft.

Then. I think you will retain talent and you'll attract talent. Now you're going to lose some because they're going to go on to do bigger and better things. And that should be great. And that's a reflection of your organization. But I think when you get down to it and really simplify it, I believe it's in Dan Pink's book drive about, you know, it really comes down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

You know, what sort of agency do your employees have? How are they able to improve their craft? Master that and and is there real meaning and purpose behind that, behind their work? So I just think it really simplifies down to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And how do you as a company continue to reflect on that?

That I would say proficiency scale and how you're doing, but it, with each individual pointy, it just requires a lot of energy, a lot of work. But I believe that's where we can be most effective.

Mike O'Neill: Brett, when you're describing those three and you ended with the purpose I don't know if this is what you're finding, but what I kind of read is those entering the workplace now an organization's purpose is that much more important.

They're really looking to what extent, why does the organization exist? And if it's for profit beyond making a profit. That if they cannot relate to that, then they're not going to be attracted to you, the organization. And you can't just put it on the website. It really needs to be part of the culture.

There needs to be, I love that word, intention that you mentioned earlier, innovation intention, that if you really wanna build a positive. Culture that engages employees, students and the, like, you need to be attuned. You just showed up. Can you reference that book again? I only saw it briefly.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yep. Yep. Is

Mike O'Neill: Is it called generations?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: It's called generations.

Mike O'Neill: And it's Gene, and what is that? How do you spell genes, or pronounce that last name?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: You know, I would hate to that up.

Mike O'Neill: Sorry, gene.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: It's T W E N G. And I just think that there are some interesting. Not to say I endorse that book necessarily, but to say that there are some interesting things that you know, sometimes we can get it wrong of painting too broad of a brush based on generations.

But I do believe when you disaggregate the data a little bit it's going to tell you be more reflective of kind of what you're discovering in your work workplace.

Mike O'Neill: Well said. I think when we tend to put labels on groups of people that that does that individual and that group, maybe a disservice, but just to be aware that we're all different and we need to embrace those differences.

If we're really going to foster change, if we're going to foster innovation.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: We have a mantra here at the school that is help me see what you see. I think if we. If, if we all ask that question more I think that it would make our own story more complete. And and it doesn't mean we're creating sameness.

But if we're asking, help me see what you see, then I can, from a polarity standpoint, I can hold both of those better at the same time. And as a leader, I can help sort of navigate. Steer the organization through through challenges and opportunities that might arise.

Mike O'Neill: That goes back to an earlier comment. About the power of empathy. And if, help me see what you see is at least having the willingness to look at things from a different perspective. Doesn't necessarily you, you agree with, but that willingness can go a long way.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yeah. You're inviting people in and I think that's what people want which can purpose can be an offshoot of that for sure.

Mike O'Neill: Inviting in improves relationships. Improves communication and the like. As we start to kind of wrap up some things here, Brett, I don't want to not ask this question because I think you could be, your insight would be very helpful. Can you share an example where perhaps you, a client or others got stuck and when that happened, what did it take to get unstuck?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: I think I think it goes back to an earlier, you know, sort of com comment around, you know, movement over, you know, over mood. I think when I arrived here in 2009 in Atlanta it was, the recession in Atlanta was hit hard by that. Our upper school only had a couple of graduating classes.

And and we had a decision to make to say, Hey, we're going to replicate ourselves like everyone else or which are great. Places to replicate for sure. Or are we going to try to create our own blue ocean our own sort of niche that combines a successful practice of multiple ways of doing and being and create our own sort of niche sort of around that.

And so we took the position that we're going to. Shape a narrative around innovation before we were actually innovating. And and so it created a sort of a level of movement in action around, around that. And I'll sort of end with a Chick-fil-A story. The, you know, the father you know, at the time when Boston Market was a competitor the stories recounted to me that.

People around the table were saying, we should open a store here, we should open a store there. And he kind of set up and pounded the table, which I don't know if that's common for him but he's pounded the table and said when we get better, our customers are going to demand that we get bigger. So, so if focus on innovation as a narrative, we begin to think about how can we get better to serve this generation of students?

And as we get better, Our customers will demand that we get bigger And why did that take place? Because we grew over 60% over the last decade, which is therefore, Caused us to open a consulting agency because so many were, people were asking about what we were doing and it caused us to open to open an online high school for students who wanted this, a similar type of experience, but just but weren't able to come to the day school because.

Either they don't live in Atlanta or whatever the case may be. So, so I guess be careful what you asked for, but that would be an example of unstuck that seems so profound and impactful for me.

Mike O'Neill: That's a wonderful example, Brett, you've kind of given us a lot to kind of chew on. If folks say, you know, I'd like to learn more about Brett, what's the best way for them to connect with you?

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Yeah, I think Easy, accessible way, especially from your audience, is on LinkedIn. I think I, I post something every day. Sometimes I'll, I might once a week, you know, it might be sort of a thing promoting of ventures in the work that's going on or the school itself, but but for the most part I'm providing something that I think you can learn from and teaching you how to learn.

I'm just trying to set the conditions for you to have as many tools in your tool belt as possible, because when something shows up, Then that tool can also show up with it and really support you during that process. So I'd say my LinkedIn account is probably the best way to really look at the leadership thought, leadership that and evidence-based leadership that I'm providing.

Mike O'Neill: It is on linkedIn that you and I first came in contact. I noticed some of your posts caught my attention and I thought, gosh, I think Dr. Jacobsen, I think he'd be a fascinating guest. And you have been. Thank you.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen: Well, thanks for having me. It's it's been a pleasure.

Mike O'Neill: I also wanna thank our listeners for joining us today for even more insights about getting unstuck and moving your business forward.

I invite you to subscribe to the Bottom Line Newsletter. You can do that by going to bench You know, I have found that the clients I work with usually had one of two problems. Either they were frustrated because they were losing the employees they wanted to keep, or their leaders found themselves stuck in the weeds of the day-to-day and failing to execute on their long-term strategy.

So if high turnover or poor execution. If that's slow on your growth, let's talk head over to to schedule a call. So I wanna thank you for joining us and I hope you have picked up on some quick wins from Brett that will help you get unstuck and on target.

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