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Thursday, May 01, 2014

From Idea to Global Phenomenon: Lessons From John Wood's Room To Read

Guest post written by Nelson David Bassey
The Pencil Box
“John Wood is the founder and CEO of Room to Read. Room to Read is a global award-winning nonprofit that provides educational opportunities to children in Asia and Africa by establishing libraries and schools, supporting girls’ education and publishing local language children’s books. In 1999, Room To Read established its first library in a little Himalayan village of Bahundanda, Nepal. Today, Room To Read has opened over 6060 libraries in over 50 countries around the world, and has benefitted over 8,8000,000 (8.8 million) children.”

This article has literally taken me months to put together. I wrote, and rewrote over and over again, just to make sure you get the best which you always deserve (Thanks to everyone who has been following my writing and supporting me). It is a long post. So, I have divided it into sections to give you a better reading experience and easy comprehension. The article breaks into a prologue (which sets the foundation for the entire content), the meat and the epilogue. I have bolded some key texts within each section which encapsulates the main ideas for a quick read.

PS: Total read time is 9 minutes. (3 minutes for bolded texts)

John Wood Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

Are you an aspiring change agent? Have you started a project (perhaps, in your campus), business or cause lately, and feel the need or impulse to grow? Would you care enough to learn how to grow your ideas from hunches into a global force? Do you want to see your vision grow into reality, from good to great? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then, this is for you. My goal, in this article, is to show you “How” John Wood grew Room To Read from an idea into a global force impacting millions of lives, and show you “How” you can do it too in 5 steps. So, let’s get started!

Prologue:: The Growth Anatomy

Like all plants, a tree begins first as a seed that is carried by wind, water, or animals to a fertile soil where it can grow.

With the proper conditions, the seed puts down roots into the soil.

Next, it grows its first few leaves so it can begin to gather energy from the sunlight via photosynthesis.

After the tree has sprouted, the seedling is generally weak and must spend a large amount of its energy growing thicker stems and deeper roots. During this phase, it develops more cells to form bark which protect the trunks, while other cells become types of wood within the tree that help carry sap, water and rich nutrients from the ground (through its developing roots) to the tips of the leaves. The seedling lasts in this phase until it is fully developed.

Then only does major upward development begins. With underdeveloped root, stems and bark, the tree would not last long until it dies off.

In the heyday of the technology boom (From 1991 until 1999), John Wood was on the fast track at Microsoft. He was responsible for significant sectors of Microsoft’s international business and, was on the road constantly. He loved his job, but was often burnt out. During a much-needed three week vacation trekking through the Himalayas in Nepal, Wood met a man who escorted him to a local Nepalese school that was a two day walk from the nearest road (nestled amongst snow-capped mountains). This short tour became a life-altering event for him. Wood was shocked to learn that the 450 students did not have a functioning library or even a collection of children’s books.

“How could this be?” He asked the headmaster.
“In Nepal,” replied the man, “we are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor.”

The headmaster then turned to Wood and uttered the nine words that would change his life forever; “Perhaps Sir, you will someday come back with books.”

This, my friend, was the birth of Room To Read which have gone on to change the world as we know it today!

Room to Read World Change Starts with Educated Children

The Meat:: The 5 Growth Steps

John Wood’s journey growing ROOM TO READ from a little idea into a global phenomenon is largely synonymous to the steps of how a small acorn seed grows into a humongous tree as illustrated in the ‘Growth Anatomy’ above. If you would go back and read it again, you will be well advised to do so. Because hidden in those texts are the timeless secrets of a true growth process from hunches to revolutions, from good to great, from mediocre to outstanding, and from the doom loop to the flywheel.

As you read the following 5 steps of growth, reflect and see what stage you are currently at. This will give you an idea of your next possible move and prevent you from shooting yourself on the foot by jumping the gun to achieve quick success.

Step 1. Begin First: Look for a fertile environment for your idea.

In this age of global connectivity; we say the world is becoming a global village. We know that success is connected to exposure, who knows you and what they think about you. Often times, we have this huge vision in our minds, and we want to succeed at taking it onto a global level. Consequently, because we have read of Stacey Ferreira, a budding entrepreneur who turned a tweet from business tycoon, Richard Branson into $1 million, we too feel the urge to want to spin our way to the top, quickly.

We are tempted to want to tell the next big name we come across about an idea we have barely tested out. We want to take our ideas to WallStreet quickly. We want it to be highlighted in every major newspaper and articles everywhere in the world. We want to amass 1 million followers on twitter. We create a Fan Page for the untested idea etc. And this causes us to lose focus on what’s most important – Looking for a fertile environment for our idea, and planting our seeds there. I hear you say, “how do I look for a fertile environment?” My response is, you will sense it, if only you take some time to listen to that inner voice within.

For your idea perhaps, the Newspaper may not be the fertile ground, WallStreet may not be that fertile environment, neither may Facebook, Twitter or social media in general be that good ground. It could be that secondary school in the middle of ‘Behundanda’, that small farm land, that orphanage home, that village in Africa or perhaps in the middle or New York City. For John Wood, the little village of Bahundanda in Nepal was his fertile ground. He identified it, and immediately planted his seeds there.

As a vision driven young leader, take some time today to reflect, where/what exactly is the right environment or fertile ground for your idea to thrive? Is it a secondary school, a university, a small rural community in Africa, Asia or America etc? Or is it on Twitter or on Facebook, a blog or a website? Once you have identified this environment in which your idea could thrive, start there, and your next bet is to… start small!

Step 2. Grow your first few leaves: Start Small.

Often times, starting big is the mistake people make. ‘Starting small and then expanding from there’ is evaporating from our culture. There’s nothing wrong with starting big. However, in this adrenaline rush in pursuit of our dreams, we despise the humble beginning and ignore the fundamentals.

Here is John Wood, among the pedestals at Microsoft in those years, having the power to perhaps contact any big name in the world, and would not be ignored. Wood had the option of starting big. He had the liberty to write the largest charity organizations in America, UNESCO or the UN to give him some millions of dollars to go build libraries all around Nepal, and in every remote village in the world. But he chose to start small. Despite having a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to reach 10 million children across the developing world by 2020, he believed in the power of starting small. He started with one small school. He began first by, bringing books on his back to the small school. And from one school, he went to two, and then to three. Eventually, to 16,060 and before he knew it, he was already changing the world.

John Wood Room to Read

Starting small might mean starting alone first, or with group of friends. Starting small can mean focusing on your test environment. It can also mean focusing on the basics and on the fundamentals of what you do. Spend some time to evaluate what starting small would mean to you.

Step 3. Grow thicker stems and deeper roots: Get local support and focus on the fundamentals

Henry Thoreau said “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” In other words, it’s perfectly fine to build castles in the air, so long as you work to put foundations under them.

Often times, the first few steps many people take after conceiving an exciting and workable idea (sometimes after growing their first few leaves), is to contact the big names in the given industry; sometimes for collaboration, and sometimes as a way to campaign their idea to rally support. They build their castles in the air, without foundations, and want to fly from there. I admire the great leap of faith, but at the moment your idea lacks tap root or a solid foundation. Learn from the bamboo trees. While the roots of the average plant only go a few feet under, the root of the palm tree go deep in search for water.  Its depth always exceeds its height.

Other times, after the idea has proven results for a short period of time, they shoot an email to people miles and light years away from them, or to people with lots of money and potential to invest a lot into their cause, demanding (not asking) for some sort of collaboration or come-and-work-with-me kind of emails. This is not wrong, because as a matter of fact, we now live in a collaborative age where individuals and organizations collaborate to bring about positive change, growth and development. However, before you shoot any one of those emails, pause and remember this:

Most of the successful people who have achieved sustainable successes through their careers/professions, began by looking for a fertile soil/environment where they can kick their ideas or plans off, and often did so independently or as a group of passionate and interested individuals. With proper local conditions that supported their endeavor, they put down their roots. They mastered the basics of what they do. They did it over and over again. They focused on the fundamentals, and became masters of it. Then they pull their shoot.

This was exactly what Wood did when he returned to America. Given his profile at Microsoft, he possibly could have written emails to Bill Gates or other large organizations to get support and collaborations. He didn’t do that. He understood the power of planting himself into his vision and rallying local support. So, he walked from door to door, knocked on neighbors’ doors, rang friends’ and family’s’ phones, wrote email to close acquaintances to support his new adventure and idea. And he got support. Can you do the same?

You are building a castle my friend, an empire, a magnificent structure, and I believe in you! Focus on the quality of your foundation and on the quality of each block/brick which forms the structure. “The goal is not to get to the top, but to remain at the top. The goal is not to make it, but to keep it” says, Keith Cunningham (Rich Dad). For sustainability to be insured there is need to master the fundamentals and focus on the basics, begin first, start small, run your tap roots deep enough, build a solid foundation, master the fundamentals and then grow and expand. Our increasing exposure to great and exceptional people, in a good way, increases our chances to achieve big. However, it can be the principal catalyst to our failure if we haven’t put our roots down, deep enough. Success only happens when opportunity meets preparedness. By putting your roots down and starting with local support (friends, family, university, church, community, etc.) you obtain the preparedness required to attract sustainable success.

Step 4. Protect your Trunks: Develop your core values, working culture, and other aspects (cells) of the enterprise

With this initial growth of rallying support from close relatives or friends to gather momentum, you see your idea sprout and is beginning to produce results (not necessarily profits, but the objectives are being met), the next possible bet is to spend a large amount of your time developing your internal structure and organization culture, building your core values, ‘develop more cells which protects your trunks, and carry more sap and nutrients from the root to the tip of the leaves’ (these could mean stronger teams, stronger relationships and influence in your current environment). John Wood stayed in this phase for quite some time. Not surprisingly, it is during this phase, more than 75 percent of the lessons required to sustain the cause or enterprise are learnt. So, the number one question to ask yourself here is this: What are the values I want to build my cause, business or enterprise upon?

I believe growing a business or an enterprise is like jumping on a river. Sadly, most people jump on the river without really deciding what their core values are, what culture they want to build, etc. So, in a short period of time, experiencing an outburst of growth, and the surging current of opportunities, finances and responsibilities coming at them, they get caught up in the current: current sly practices, current unnecessary events, current fears, current quick-success-schemes and current challenges. When they come to forks in the river, they don’t consciously decide where they want to go, or which is the right direction for them. In the words of Anthony Robbins, “They merely go with the flow.” They become a part of the mass of entrepreneurs who are directed by the environment instead of by their own values and vision. As a result they feel out of control. They remain in this unconscious state until one day the sound of the raging water awakens them, and they discover that they’re five feet from Niagara Falls in a boat with no oars. At this point, they say “Oh shoot!” But by then it’s too late. They’re going to take a fall. Sometimes it’s an emotional fall. Sometimes it’s a physical fall. Sometimes it’s a financial fall, and ultimately the fall of their vision.

To avoid this, take some time in this phase to develop your core values, your working principles and internal systems. Learn how you can replicate your model over and over again, efficiently well. Be good at it, so much so that you know what to say ‘Yes’ to, and what to say ‘No’ to. This doesn’t mean that you must learn everything about your enterprise here. There is so much to learn along the journey, but this way, you have established a solid foundation and are not shaken by currents in the river. A million dollar donation will not disrupt your vision, but take you closer to your goals. You should strive to get here!

Step 5. Sprout: Expand, get the exposure you’ve always craved for

As you continuously grow and improve in terms of internal stability, and achieve your objectives, then only will the proper exposure facilitate your upward mobility and further growth. At this stage, exposure will not be harmful, but will serve as a catalyst to greater success. Shooting an email to a big name person in the same industry makes more sense then, and you stand more chances to strike a deal or a mutual working relationship. Now, you can shoot as much emails as you want to the big names in your industry! But… perhaps, by this time you’re already a big name, too, and changing the world already ⎯ who knows?

Epilogue:: Conclusion

Now, I have shown you the steps/stages involved in growing your ideas into a strong global force from John Wood’s story, and from the Growth Anatomy of a seed. Success doesn’t come overnight, or in a miracle moment. It takes time of beating into your craft. It takes persistence, commitment, dedication, and hard work.

“The good-to-great [idea to global phenomenon] transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There is no …solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel in one direction, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond…” says Jim Collins in his legendary book “Good to Great”. I hope these lessons will save you many trouble and disappointments, prevent you from shooting yourself on the foot, and ultimately guide you as you grow and expand.

Great leaders, do any of these steps resonate with you? Or, have you found other ways to grow ideas into a global phenomenon? Please share your thoughts here.

I love to hear from readers. Please email us at [email protected]. You can also follow me on Twitter, and on Facebook. Let us grow together!

Nelson David Bassey
Note from the author:
The reader has unlimited right to print the article and to distribute it electronically (via email, your website, or any other means). However, full copyright belongs to the author, and the content may not be altered in any way, and may not be charged for.

About the author:
A B. Eng. (Hons) Mechanical Engineering student in Malaysia, born and raised in Nigeria, Nelson David Bassey helps young students adapt themselves for success in our fast-changing society today. He is the co-founder of Leaders of Tomorrow a club and pioneer of I Am A Winner Student Program. David is also a writer at The Pencil Box (www.jclathepencilbox.org), and he has authored a book 'The New Generation of Leadership' while still studying at INTI International University.
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