PCA Founder Jim Thompson interviews Dan Whalen an original PCA Board Member, still active in PCA's 15th year.
Jim Thompson: Grit, passion and perseverance for a long-term goal, has been a big part of PCA’s culture from the beginning, and now we are 15 years old. You are an original board member still active after 15 years. Why did you get involved with PCA in the first place?
Dan Whalen: Because you asked me! (laughter) (Editor’s note: read on for more on always saying 'yes.') I got to know you when you ran the Public and Global Management Programs at the GSB (Stanford Graduate School of Business), and I was favorably impressed with what you did there, so you may remember I provided some support when you were the Director. So in some sense I was betting on you. Plus you had a BHAG (big, hairy audacious goal) and were going to spend the next 10 years of your life changing the culture of youth sports.
I was a youth coach, and I knew how difficult it was and how coaches can screw up a kid well into their adult life. I saw that a big difference could be made if PCA were successful so that youth win, not just the team winning.
JT: I’ve been encouraged by some supporters to have term limits on our board members but it doesn’t make sense to me to have someone like you term off the board for an artificial reason. Why have you stuck with PCA for 15 years?
DW: Because you missed your 10-year goal! (laughter) Actually there are multiple reasons. The mission continued to call me. Your leadership continued to impress me. And then one of my kids asked me why I wasn’t doing more with PCA! He was the son I coached so maybe this was his subtle way of giving me a passive-aggressive message!
JT: So you think he might have been saying you needed to atone?
DW: After the first Phil Jackson PCA event, driving home from that, Matthew said, “Dad, why aren’t you doing more with PCA?”
JT: I love Matthew! How would you characterize the changes you’ve seen in PCA over the years?
DW: More elbow room. I remember the cramped offices in Roble Gym (on Stanford campus) with you guys sitting on top of each other. If there were such a thing as bunk desks, they would have helped you!
More significantly, a much higher degree of professionalism. Very sharp focus on what you do. PCA has evolved to the point where you now can choose NOT to do something. You needed to be opportunistic at the beginning and go where the opportunities were. That is no longer the case.
Many more people being touched by PCA. In the beginning, you knew everyone in the PCA Movement and it was Bay Area- centric—now it’s national and even international. I’m not saying it’s the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but it’s now too big for you to know everyone in it and that’s a good thing.
JT: There was a moment in the early days of PCA when I was so discouraged and you lifted me up. We had lunch at the Stanford Faculty Club and I asked you what you remembered about the early days of starting your business and you said, “I remember being weary all the time.” That was inspiring to me because weary was exactly how I felt—physically and mentally and emotionally. If I hadn’t gotten past that, no PCA today.
DW: I didn’t start out to start a company. I had a project as a free-lance consultant and I needed some people to help me. Then I got more projects and needed more people. The company kind of grew up around me, and pretty soon we had project offices in dozens of places around the world. I was on the road 4-5-6 days a week, and I did get weary.
A friend was hanging out with me one weekend, and I told him I was so tired I was thinking of quitting the business. He said to me, “Well, if you are tired, rest. Don’t quit!”
I was so exhausted, that sounded brilliant to me! (laughter) I was too exhausted to think of that myself.
JT: I remember the very first PCA Board meeting. Can you talk about the magic wand you brought to that?
DW: Our 3-year-old daughter Anna and I were playing in the dining room one evening, and she had this plastic tube about eight inches long filled with sparkly fluids. She called it a magic wand and said, “Daddy, I know what magic is.” I was interested in what she was going to say!
She said, “It’s when you believe and begin.” And that is the magic. I brought wands for all the PCA Board Members and staff because we were about to believe and begin!
JT: The wand was part of what you gave every employee when hired, wasn’t it?
DW: I gave new employees a tool kit that also included a handheld mirror. I would tell them, “Whenever you are in doubt about who is ultimately responsible, pull out the mirror.”
I eventually sold Whalen & Company to a fellow who just dropped into my office. I didn’t know him at all. He said he wanted to buy my company, and I asked why. He said because its business cycle balanced the business cycle of his other company. And I said, "I understand that’s why you want to be in this industry, but why do you want to buy this company?"
He said, “Any company that gives employees a mirror, that’s a company I want. I asked, “How do you know that we give our employees mirrors?” He said, I read about it on your web site.
And that was how I found out we had a web site! Some of my employees just did it without asking or even telling me. I don’t even know exactly who did it. They just did it.
JT: Was it traumatic selling your business?
DW: Initially I told the ultimate buyer, “You’re like someone coming to my home and saying, ‘I want to buy your house.’ To you this is a house, but to me it’s my home, and my home is not for sale.”
When I told my staff on an all-hands conference call that I was selling Whalen & Company, someone asked how I was doing. I said, “It’s probably like how I would feel walking my daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. Happy for her—crying for my loss."
JT: Whalen & Company was a project management consulting firm serving the wireless telephone industry. Why do you think it was so successful?
DW: First was luck. Warren Buffet talks about how lucky he was to be born where he was at the time he was, etc. I got involved in the wireless telephone business right at the beginning. And we also worked really hard.
Ignorance has always been my ally. I had to work really hard because I knew nothing about project management or wireless telephony. From the beginning I set two goals:
- Our customers would receive the best service they’d ever received, and they got to decide what that meant.
- Our employees would have the best job they’d ever had and they got to decide what that meant.
Now it wasn’t always the case that they felt that way in the beginning but in the end they experienced that.
JT: It reminds me of what you recently said to me, “The way PCA is organized shouldn’t work. PCA’s organization chart works in practice but not in theory.”
DW: Yes, a big part of our success was that our employees got to define their jobs. We also never set revenue or profit goals. Profit is opinion. Cash is a fact.
JT: I remember a small business class from Rick Berthold at the GSB where he queried us, “What is the most important thing to a small business?” We said things like, employees, strategy, vision, etc. Finally he lifted a big piece of paper off a black board that I hadn’t noticed until then and behind it he had written, “CASH.”
DW: In my hometown of Argyle, Minnesota—a much more important town than West Fargo, North Dakota (editor’s note: West Fargo is Jim Thompson's home town!)!—there was only one place you could play basketball outside in the winter—on a tennis court with a hoop. The winners stayed on the court, and if you wanted to keep playing, when you got your chance you and your team had to win to retain the court. If you wanted to play the game you had to be on a winning team!
The goal of business for me was never to make a profit. We had to make a profit if we wanted to stay in the game, and I loved playing the game.
JT: You are one of the most positive people I know. Why are you such a positive person?
DW: I have no idea! It might be a technique or it might be more ingrained than that. In the early 1970s I was a junior management consultant, and one of the partners told me a story about when he was a junior consultant. A potential client asked him if he knew anything about tertiary oil recovery. He said no. The client walked down the hall and asked another guy if he did and he said yes. And he got the job. He told me, “If I had said ‘Yes,’ I would have gotten that business. So now I always say, “Yes.”
When I was working on a consulting project at Kaiser Permanente, this fellow said to me, “I never hear you say ‘No.’ It’s always ‘Yes,’ or ‘Yes, and…’ but never ‘No.’”
JT: So it sounds like you work at being positive.
DW: I know that it works better. A seasoned, silver-haired bureaucrat at the Veteran’s Administration told me he always asks three questions in evaluating how a project has gone, and the order of the questions is important:
- What did you like about it?
- What didn’t you like about it?
- What would you do differently next time?
The first question sets the table for the second question and makes it easier to hear the second answer.
JT: It reminds me of an article I read that brain wave activity is actually different when you focus on strengths vs. weaknesses. You’ve been the Chair of the Board of Trustees for St. John’s University in Minnesota and then when Brother Dietrich Reinhart tragically died you became the acting President. How did you approach this challenge?
DW: It was actually Interim President but I truly was acting! I was frightened. I didn’t know anything about being a university president, but like ignorance, fear is also an ally. I’ve learned that for me, being overly confident can be a dangerous place!
This was Autumn 2008, a time of recession, and administrators at St. John’s were worried about whether students would be able to pay their tuition. University staff were worried about losing their jobs, so my first goal was to provide some stability. I gave faculty and staff many public and private opportunities to take my measure. I lived in a “cell” in the monastery. There had never been a President who wasn’t a Benedictine so there was no house for the President nor even an apartment. My wife, Katharine, when she came to visit couldn’t see my room. But I did assure her that I was keeping it neat!
I ate 1/3 of my meals with the monks, 1/3 with the students and 1/3 on the rubber chicken circuit with alumni and donors. When I would get an e-mail from someone, I would walk over to their desk and talk with them rather than simply respond via e-mail. People liked that.
JT: And ultimately, you kept things together until St. John’s hired a permanent President. You introduced PCA to John Gagliardi, St. John’s longtime football coach and one of the greatest coaches of all time. We gave him our Ronald L. Jensen Award for Lifetime Achievement a few years ago. What did you learn from spending so much time with John over the years?
DW: I took his 1-credit first aid course as a student because I had heard that he used the course to try out the jokes he would use when he spoke at high school awards banquets, which was his form of recruiting. He was very funny but the one thing I remember from the class was how he said he would walk the length and breadth of the football field before the season started and pick up every stone and fill in every gopher hole so none of his players would get hurt unnecessarily.
He banned hitting in practice because he didn’t want anyone to get hurt. He would say, “They know how to tackle,” and it worked because his healthy teams won three NCAA Division III Championships.
I once invited John to speak along with some high-powered leadership experts at a company retreat for my top leaders. The experts took notes from John. He gave us a problem. His returning senior quarterback had set records the previous year. But he also had a freshman who before the season started was already the senior’s equal. Which one should he start?
He started the senior. The first two games went great but the third game the veteran wasn’t getting the job done—they weren’t able to move the ball down the field. John called him over, “Johnny, you know I love you. I’ll always love you. But I’m putting Steve in. Steve, come over here. Go on in and move the ball down the field.”
Steve started all the rest of the games that year. John used this to explain how you could make the hard decisions that needed to be made, while still doing it with love and care.
JT: What has been the most fun about your involvement with PCA?
DW: Seeing my wife and children so excited about PCA. They all love PCA, and they love going to the awards dinner. They really like my involvement with PCA.
JT: Well, so do I! PCA owes you a debt of gratefulness for your grit in sticking with PCA for all these years and for all the contributions you’ve made in so many ways over the entire life of PCA. Thank you.