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When a vision for success takes shape, never keep it to yourself. Instead, give it away to as many people as possible.
Such was the advice of businessman and philanthropist Ernest Cockrell, who spoke March 30 at HMC’s Annenberg Leadership and Management Speaker Series.
Giving away a vision, he explained, means—for those who run companies—spreading it to all hands comprising the organization. In so doing, people feel empowered to make the kinds of decisions necessary to achieve strategic growth goals, insisted Cockrell, chairman of Houston-based Cockrell Interests Inc. and president and director of The Cockrell Foundation.
The ability to spread a vision properly “is the most important leadership tool there is,” he said.
One of Cockrell’s more intriguing vision giveaways involved a nonprofit company he helped start in 2000 called Reasoning Mind Inc. As he described it, the organization supplies to elementary schools a performance-boosting, online math curriculum that is at once innovative and fun.
Reasoning Mind’s product was the brainchild of Alexander R. Khachatryan, PhD, whom Cockrell said he decided to financially back after catching the Russian-born math-and-physics expert’s own vision of an America where every kid is a numbers whiz.
“This year, we have 16,000 students [enrolled to participate] at 160 schools in four states,” he reported. “Next year, we’re projecting between 30,000 and 40,000 students. In the 2012-13 school year, 100,000 students.”
Cockrell told the audience that he persuaded Khachatryan to establish Reasoning Mind as a nonprofit organization in order to give the math product its best shot at penetrating the public-education market.
But unlike typical nonprofits, Reasoning Mind went about it much as any for-profit startup might. “We would raise money, float the venture and set benchmarks that had to be achieved before going to the next step,” Cockrell relayed.
Fortunately, Cockrell had abundant experience with both for-profit and nonprofit formation, strategic planning and operations. For example, he formerly was chairman and CEO of Cockrell Oil Corp., and currently serves on the boards of several prominent charities, including the University of Texas College of Engineering Foundation.
Needed a new strategy
Cockrell said he is the third generation of his family to have been in the energy business: “My father and grandfather were oil and gas wildcatters. I began my career as a roughneck on a drilling rig. Upon completion of engineering and graduate school, I signed on as a drilling engineer for the family company.”
At age 26, he assumed control of Cockrell Oil after the untimely death of his dad. That loss delivered a body-blow to the company’s finances: namely, a hefty inheritance tax came due. Paying it left the outfit scrambling for capital needed to continue exploration of new revenue-generating sources of oil and gas.
“We had to change our strategy,” said Cockrell. “First thing was to decide our goals and state a clear vision for the company. Second, we had to decide on what our core values were in order to guide the vision.”
Leaders, he said, must have a vision. More importantly, they must have a legitimate hope that, if they take action, their vision can become a reality.
The most fertile place in the world for vision, hope and action to come together is the United States because it is a nation that values liberty, Cockrell contended. “...[T]he freedom to pursue... happiness and self-interest is the most powerful force there is for innovation, advancement and, yes, incubation of leaders,” he said.
“In the simplest terms, leadership starts not so much with what skill sets leaders have but with their freedoms. It is our freedoms that give rise to the hope and point to actions that have the potential of success, regardless of the risk involved.” .