Mike Blackwell gave me an opportunity to learn and put that learning into practice.
President of James Dallas & Associates
I’m a big believer in connections, but that connection has got to be willing to place a bet on you. Because it’s one thing to open up a mind, but if you can’t open a door, then that person is just on the outside looking in. In other words, it has to be a connection and an opportunity; especially in corporate America, because you can get your foot in the door at the lower level, but the only way to move up is for someone to make a connection for you and then place a bet on you.
For me, that person was Mike Blackwell. I was an IT manager for the transportation division at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta, GA. The company had hired Mike, who was part of Boise Cascade, as the new General Manager for transportation. In his second week, Mike came to me and said “James I want you to walk me through our IT strategy.” Now, all I’d been doing is supporting the IT systems and I didn’t know any more about strategy than the man in the moon—and he saw that in my reaction and response. Most leaders, especially when they’re brought in from the outside and who have a change mandate, would have replaced me with someone that’s been there and done that. But instead, Mike took a chance on me. The next week he put me on a corporate plane to Boise Cascade in Idaho to hear from a packed conference room on their IT strategy. I didn’t talk all that much, just listened as they walked me through a framework. When we got back to Atlanta, as we were walking from the plane, Mike turned to me and said “Keep me updated.” The rest was history. Once I saw that framework, I made sure we took it to a whole other level, and I eventually wound up being the general manager of the whole transportation division. Operations and IT strategy became my career calling card, and I attribute my success to Mike. He easily could have said “Our whole strategy is based on this person, and I have somebody who doesn’t know strategy. So let’s find someone else.” But instead, he gave me an opportunity to learn and to put that learning into practice.
That wasn’t the only time Mike went to bat for me, though. In 1992, he had the company sponsor me to get my MBA from Emory University. One hundred percent of the cost was covered. So first, Mike expanded my mind about transportation strategy. Second, he made sure I got the opportunity to expand my mind about business strategy. He allowed me to couple the practical with the possible.
James Dallas is the president of James Dallas & Associates, author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail, and the former senior vice president of Quality, Operations, and IT at Medtronic, Inc. In 2015 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia CIO Leadership Association, and he has also been honored multiple times as one of the “Most Powerful Black Men in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise and Savoy Magazine.