Tom Cooper started his first business partnership at age nine. Tom has worked in companies as small as 5, and has lead teams in companies as large as 160,000 employees. He has been a management consultant and IT leader. He has studied and lived out leadership, team building and communications. Along the way he spent a decade in Fortune 500 information technology; built and led teams of software engineers; was accountable for operations of enterprise solutions and integrations; and built the product management discipline for a SaaS vendor saving clients millions in operational costs.
BrightHill Group is a leadership coaching, training and speaking firm. They believe that “because people matter, we must lead them well” and are focused on transforming leadership in their community by developing leaders, and generously adding value to them.
MO: What’s the story behind BrightHill Group?
Tom: I started my career as a technologist. I have always loved to know how things work and how to make them work. I bought my first computer with paper route money and was thrilled to learn BASIC programming. I love technology, and knew my career would be in that field.
I grew up, got a degree in computer science and began doing tech work. It’s no secret that tech projects tend to fail. As I grew in my career, I began to wonder why. There was a move to certify project managers, and I thought “Yes – that’s it – project management” so I got a certification. It helped. I’m glad I pursued that – it made me more effective – but it wasn’t enough. I watched projects run by certified project managers fail again and again. Project management skills were helpful but not sufficient. There had to be something more.
I was invited to be in a mentorship program, and spent a year with a bunch of guys studying what it meant to grow and develop personally. This is where I learned that leadership is a skill that anyone can learn.
I studied and applied what I was learning, and my projects got healthier. I became a better leader and had more project and career success. Leadership turned out to be the key. You must have strong tech skills, and project management techniques are powerful, but without leadership, you’re done.
As I learned more about leadership, I became more sensitive to it – where I saw it, and more commonly – where I didn’t see it. The fact is that we don’t study leadership in high school or college – we might study it in graduate school, but mostly we are put in a job with a title and we’re left to fend for ourselves.
I decided to do something about it. I quit my “safe” job to start a leadership training speaking and coaching firm. BrightHill Group is all about transforming leadership in our community by developing leaders. That’s not just a slogan; it’s my vision to build a collaborative group of leaders who will raise the bar for leadership in our community.
John Maxwell says “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” I believe that completely. Leadership matters and we’re helping leaders become better.
MO: How did you start your first business partnership when you were just nine years old? Where did your early interest in entrepreneurship come from?
Tom: As the father of a 9 year old, I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but it was my pride and outspokenness that got me into that one. Our evening paper was being delivered to us around 8AM the following day. In my impertinence I challenged the delivery manager with “You know, the reason they call it the evening paper is that it’s supposed to be delivered in the evening!”
He responded “Kid, if you can do a better job, YOU do it!” That motivated me to lobby my older sister to be my business partner and my mom and dad to allow me to take on that responsibility.
We ended up taking that on and running with it. We took over the morning and the evening routes, and kept them for the next nine years!
My dad was an entrepreneur, so I knew what business ownership looked like. I saw the good and the bad that goes with that, and decided that it was easier to be an employee than the owner of a concern. After college it took me more than 20 years to “go on my own.”
MO: What are some tips for improving teamwork and productivity?
Tom: I think that the key is to:
1. have a clear idea where you are going,
2. know what you want to do when you get there, and
3. how do you want to treat people along the way?
If you can have clarity on your why – why do you do what you do? It makes decision-making much more clear. Your team needs to know what you want from them.
It sounds trite, but it’s true – most productivity comes from lack of clarity. Do you know the answers to those questions? If I ask you tomorrow will the answers be the same?
If I ask your team members, will their answers match yours? Are you sure?
Clear that up, and many of your productivity problems will get MUCH smaller.
MO: What leaders are you inspired by?
Tom: How long do you have?
It’s fascinating. In many ways, we live in a time with almost no leaders. Our schools, business, and government are struggling – largely due to a lack of leadership skills.
There are some leaders out there.
When it comes to statesmen, some of my heroes are: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington.
When it comes to creativity and thought leadership: I look to John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Stephen Covey, Marcus Buckingham, Ken Blanchard
When it comes to sports: John Wooden, Phil Jackson, Vince Lombardi, Tony Dungy, even young Tim Tebow has set a standard for leadership.
When it comes to family, I think of my dad – who taught me a great deal about how to live with intgrity.
MO: What is the difference between an ordinary leader and an extraordinary one?
Tom: Ordinary leaders have a limited vision. They may be effective in their job, but they don’t even dream big dreams. They dream achievable dreams.
I just had a conversation this evening with an extraordinary leader. He sat down with his directors and said. “Your professional development assignment this year is to take a field trip. You need to tell me where you’re going to go, which living person you’re going to meet, what you expect to learn, and how envision the process going. There are no limits on this assignment. You think about this and tell me what you want to do. If I agree I’ll pay for everything.”
His goal is to give the team perspective. If there were no limits, where would you go? Who would you meet?
Are you sure your vision is big enough?
MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for BrightGroup in 2012?
Tom: What excites me the most is creating a community of leaders who will transform our community. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Schools, government, business – everything rises and falls on leadership.
We’re building momentum locally and we look forward to becoming a resource and a conduit for positive change – elevating each other and the entire community.
I’ve got a number of public events this year, and the best part of what will come from it has yet to be discovered. We are on an exciting journey together. I can’t wait to see what will happen!
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