5 Things I’ve Learned About Startups (& Life)

The Pearson Foundation launched a cool project called 5 Things I’ve Learned, check it out. My contribution is below is focused on launching an organization or a project.
1. Find the right balance
Leaders—at home, school, and work—find the right balance between pressure and support. Setting high expectations and supporting growth are the keys to developing human excellence and organization growth. The trick is adjusting the mix of pressure and support and finding new ways to express the two over time.Leaders also need to balance execution and innovation. Education is all about execution—talented and committed teachers meeting the needs of students every day in every classroom. But just making the old model work better isn’t good enough any more. We now have the opportunity to customize learning for every student. The trick is running a good organization while inventing the future. Managers deliver results. Leaders create the future. You need to be both—just get the balance right!

2. Hit the window
You can work on an old problem or a new opportunity, but you usually have a small window to build a solution, demonstrate some traction, and create something that, as my Learn Capital partner Rob Hutter says, “authentically delights a community of users.”

The best you can hope to do is play Judo on the world and leverage emerging change forces. These external forces—like technology, demographics, and politics—create windows of opportunity and changes you can take advantage of if you are paying attention. For example, how are you going to use the Common Core Standards and online assessment to improve learning or build your organizational capacity?
3. Learn broadly
To hit windows of opportunity you need context that requires you to learn broadly—obviously in your field, but also across disciplines. Most innovations aren’t primary, they are translational—stuff that worked in one field is a breakthrough in another. The key is pattern recognition of analogous problems and solutions. I’ve had good success with using book reviews with teams that I’ve led; every great book had something to do with our work together.
4. Build a team
I’ve had two great team experiences in the last 30 years. Great teams are hard to build, but when you get the talent, trust and focus right the results are extraordinary. Take the time to get the right folks in the right jobs. Build reflective time into your meetings. Invest in development. Make a change quickly when it’s clear that there’s not a fit. A high-functioning team produces value and is the most rewarding professional experience you’ll ever have.
5. Keep a contribution mindset
Instead of focusing on what’s in it for you (i.e., an extraction mindset), stay focused on making a contribution to your school or your company, and the education sector. You may miss a window, your project or company may even fail, but it’s really about making a difference. If you stay focused on adding value and are persistent you will have the opportunity to make a big impact.

The Pearson Foundation also launched Learning Starts today, a project focused on providing parents with relevant information about education and learning.


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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