Nine months ago I gave my final speech as CEO of GetSmarter. It was almost exactly a year after we were acquired by 2U, and it marked my stepping down from the CEO role and taking up the role of Senior Advisor to 2U and GetSmarter management teams.
This is my speech I delivered to a team that I love. I am confident they are going to go on to do purposeful, important work in higher education worldwide. I'll be cheering from the sidelines while I spend the next few years being a very present father to my twins, Violet and Fletcher.
Wednesday, 25 April, 2018.
So I brought my twins to work today.
I realised that it is the quickest way to bring a productive day to a grinding halt! But it also gave me a reason to do something I haven’t done in a long time - to just stroll around all corners of this ever-expanding office. I want to recommend you do it some time. You’ve heard me say that a company is simply people doing things. And a slow walk through these corridors gives you the clearest sense for the power and potential of this company. Your future is so, so bright. And it's because of everyone in this team today.
This is the last time I will address you as CEO. Today I formally step down and take up the role as Senior Advisor to Chip and the broader management team.
I’m going to do something I haven’t done before. I’m going to read from a prepared speech. Because today the precision of my words matter more than the charisma of my delivery.
So here goes.
What does one say during their final address to a company of people they love?
I’ve learnt so much over the past 10 years from this journey we call GetSmarter. And today, I want to share some of these learnings with you. But I want to be clear on why.
Some time ago I realized that to achieve my full potential I needed to regularly ask myself a very simple yet challenging question: “what is the only thing that only I can do?” You should try it some time. It’s bloody difficult to answer. If I’m doing something that someone else can do, I’m not only robbing them of their opportunity to learn and achieve their potential, but I’m probably doing something I’ve done before and can do fairly easily. The only things that only, truly, we can do always requires a lot of work that demands our full selves showing up.
So on my final day as CEO, and as you - the collective you - sit with the opportunity to play a role in building the world’s most iconic education company, the only thing that only I can do is share with you, as your past CEO, how I’ve thought about this company over the past decade. My intention is to give you some historical context that can feed into your next powerful chapter as 2U Cape Town.
In the next 19 minutes I am going to talk about:
The space between us;
Becoming our own heroes;
The most commonly used word when interviewing our students; can u guess what it is?
Writing things down;
Picking up pieces of paper;
Our calendars and bank accounts never lie;
And a thank you.
And while I think that some of this could be directionally useful to you, this is not about me sharing some sage wisdom so that you can learn.
Firstly, I don’t have sage wisdom. But, more importantly, in my experience we learn best by overcoming obstacles. In stoicism there is this saying that the obstacle is the way. What is most important then, to our learning, is that we are clear on which obstacles we wish to overcome and why. This is the seed of how we direct our personal transformation and it is how we best honour learning.
The professional obstacles that come our way are generally nested in the industry that our company is in that employs the people we report to and the team we are part of. That’s where we’ll find our obstacles. Of course, you can also just throw out that neat picture of the world and boldly and fearlessly go choose your next obstacle without regard for anything I have just said. I highly recommend that!
And because meaningful obstacles often present themselves as things we would rather avoid, as I wrote in a weekly note a year ago: “I wish you bad luck”. Not because I have sadistic tendencies. But because it will lead to obstacles you have to overcome because they happen to you. I’ve had both, and I prefer choosing my obstacles. But regardless of how we get there, overcoming them is the only way I know how to progress.
GetSmarter’s pace of growth has led to many obstacles for many of us to tackle. A few months ago I saw a poster up in marketing that read “If you’re on a rocketship, don’t ask which seat. Just get on.” I love that. And it is this rocketship that will continue to provide juicy obstacles for you to overcome.
So, alongside giving you some historical context for your next chapter, today is about me saying farewell to the space between us.
I’ve been saying farewell to the space between myself and individual Exco members and the Exco team as a whole for months now. You have very, very special leaders in this business, and saying goodbye to them has resulted in more tears than I have cried in as long as I can remember. I’m not someone who cries easily. At least I thought I wasn’t. Perhaps having children and saying goodbye to special people - all in the space of a year - has changed me. So, now I’m officially a cryer! I’m not sure “Ugly cry” would sit well alongside “Play to win” as a value, but hey - I dig it.
And so today is about my farewell to the space between me and this company as a collective - this team who has made me so damn proud over the past few years.
What an odd notion that is, this “space between” us. We can’t see it. But if we give ourselves time to reflect on it, it comes to life.
When I walk through that door, I walk into this space. First time visitors often remark that they feel like they walk into a wall of energy and enthusiasm as they enter the front door. One of our University partners once described GetSmarter as emotionally attractive. I’ve heard visitors say “Why is everyone smiling at me? What the actual is going on?” What a wonderful complement! Each of us don’t just arrive at the Corner of Browning and Main each morning because we have work to do. We come because to be human is to be part of a community that holds us.
Bringing people into this space is probably our most effective recruitment tool. 6 years ago, John Hill tried to sell me some mobile software. And 6 weeks late, he was our IT Manager. Rach Erasmus met with me in Attention to the Right Detail to talk about partnering on a recruitment initiative. And 12 weeks later she was on her way to becoming our Office Happiness Manager. There must be countless stories of the same thing happening over and over again. And it’s not because of the walls, the floor, the gym or the bar. It’s because of this space that sits between all of us.
I’m going to miss walking past our vibrant front desk team each morning that puts a smile on my face and gives me an extra spring in my step.
I’m going to miss rolling past Donald’s coffee station and hearing the chatter of GSers hooking up their early morning caffeine drips.
I’m going to miss my DSUs with Georgie and Janine, and then Exco that firmly plugged me into the daily heartbeat.
I’m going to miss newbie raps and Scott, Stevie or Kim’s quick wit at Team Time, and then standing up in front of you saying “I’m confused about what it is that we really do. I thought we were a short course company. Are we going into rapping, comedy, performance dance and poetry now?”
I’m going to miss Dylan Britz breaking out into spontaneous songs or making some highly inappropriate comment in a public space.
I’m going to miss my famously postponed Intro to Strat sessions where I get to meet the future leaders of our company.
I’m going to miss thinking about big objectives that scare us, and then going out there and winning.
I’m going to miss crazy purposeful things like people shaving their heads for charity, or strapping R20 to the vending machine with a note of gratitude for the next person who pays it a visit.
I’m going to miss this space between us because I have loved it. So much so that over the past 10 years, in the words of James Kenigsberg over dinner last night: “When I wake up on a Saturday, I feel a little bit sad.”
Our hierarchy has an outsized impact on shaping this space. And each one of us gets to influence what that hierarchy looks like.
I remember Ryan Mes coming to me 4 years ago saying “why can’t we just have a totally flat structure? I don’t get this hierarchy nonsense”. Ryan did pretty well in making an early mark here by challenging me on our dress code, which Thelmé changed shortly afterwards to “Our dress code is there is no dress code. At GetSmarter it’s all about the work.” Of course, we are the best looking office in Cape Town so dress code mattered little. Am I right? Of course I’m right.
But Ryan didn’t get his way on hierarchy. Hierarchy is a natural response to complexity, and as we’ve grown in size and complexity so too has our hierarchy evolved to deal with it. For years we’ve had strength between us up and down in functional verticals. And over the last few years, we’ve been trying to build strength across our organization. The key question of hierarchy, to me, is how each one of us builds strength with the people around us. Not just immediately near us, but anywhere in the company. Do you look up and focus the majority of your energy on building strength with your boss, or downwards to build strength with your followers? Or do you identify the responsibilities you have and build strength wherever it is needed to achieve results? There are probably 43 permutations here and these are just 2. No right answers. But our choices when faced with complex problems always give us more of something and less of something else. This is one of my and Amy J’s favourite sayings. Our decisions often simply lead to more of something and less of something else.
And while science doesn’t yet do a good job of explaining this space between us, I am convinced that we are more like aspen trees than great oaks. Popular media and romantics would have us believe in individual rockstars, self-made men and women, founders, heroes, heroines, and the chosen few. This is akin to the great oaks, with deep roots and everlasting canopies. But I think this is just because we all crave simple explanations implicit in simple stories. Life is more complex than that bullshit. I think we’re more like aspen trees, which cover vast hillsides with one shared root systems across millions of trees. With us humans, you can’t see the shared roots. But if you think on it, you can feel the space between.
I used to believe in heroes.
But I know now that they’re not that useful. I think this is a journey we all need to mature through. It starts with realizing that it’s not fair to expect our parents to be heroes, because truly no one can reliably fulfill that expectation. If we expect this, we set up both ourselves and them for failure. I remember when Nelson Mandela asked us not to make the mistake of viewing him as a saint. And I think that modern day social media contributes to this romantic version of reality - in Alla B’s words “to this sense of champagne weekends as the norm”. We shouldn’t believe that kak and misread the world.
Heroes can exist to inspire us. But I think a better way to inspire ourselves is to use them to paint a very clear picture of our future selves - the future hero who we wish to become. The neuroscientist Paul Kalanithi, in his book “When breath becomes air”, wrote “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving”. The those of you who, like me, couldn’t recall your matric maths syllabus, an asymptote is a line in a graph that another line tends towards but never quite reaches. At GetSmarter we described this asymptote through our One Page Strategic Plan, with emphasis on our values and purpose. Each one of us get to the do the same in our personal lives, but often don’t because it’s hard, vulnerable work.
I’ve learnt that instead of making heroes out of our people, a better way to appreciate them is to acknowledge their outsized contributions as they happen. At GetSmarter, these outsized contributions have lead to promotions into positions of authority that give weight to these individuals further actions and an expectation of ongoing performance. This is the result of many behaviors, and always the result of paying attention to the right detail.
This has been our strategic value, and it was only something Rob, I and the Exco team began to value four and a half years ago. It’s no coincidence that this was just before our potential curve increased exponentially.
In 2015 after realising that we weren’t as connected to our students as we should be, Georgie and I made a point of calling our students every week. One of our surprising discoveries was how often the word ”strategy” was used by them. In response to my question “why did you choose to study with us?” we would hear things like “I want to play a more strategic role”, “The course helped me think more strategically”, “I want to be more strategic and less operational”.
It’s true that the word strategy is aspirational. And I think it’s overused and misunderstood. I took two learnings from this.
First, we really do help our students believe in themselves. And to be clear, we help them believe they can move towards a desired future version of themselves. Our purpose statement, before it read “we improve their lives through better education”, read “we help people believe in themselves”. This runs deep for me, and it’s undoubtedly what we do for our students. I think we do it for our team members too when we lead them well.
The second thing I learnt was that the word “strategy” is misunderstood.
Strategy is the child of scarcity. If we didn’t live in a scarce world with limited time and resources, we could do everything. But of course - we do, and we can’t. So we have to choose. And wow, does 2U Cape Town and the broader 2U group have a lot of incredible choices right now. I’ve learnt that there are always 2 or 3 variables that have the greatest results on a given outcome. Sustained results belong to those who pay attention to the few right details that matter. I remember when Ryan O first joined our reformed Exco almost 4 years ago and started saying “Is that really what we should be focussing on? You can do everything, but then you aren’t being strategic.” It was great trade off thinking, and ran contrary to the existing view I held at the time, which was that we would just do everything we could, always! It’s important that we make sure our ladders are placed against the right wall before we start climbing. If it’s against the wrong wall, it doesn’t matter how hard you climb - you’re just going nowhere faster.
One of the details that mattered to me was writing a statement of who I wished to be - the version of my future hero self. I first thought to do so four years ago after reading about a leading South African businessman’s personal manifesto. I was lucky enough to end up having him as a mentor for a focussed 3-year period. I can’t recommend mentorship highly enough. I do want to add a word of caution though. One of the mistakes I made was worshipping my mentor. It had the effect of me notionally outsourcing the responsibility for my own development. This is a dangerous place to tread, and when he realised I was dependent on him he helped me decide to end the mentorship. We should always, always take responsibility for our own development. Our best heroes are a statement of the future selves we wish to be. Dale’s mentorship of me and the Exco team has been nothing short of phenomenal. I love that he has already been shaping GetSmarter for the past 6 years and is now in a position to shape it deeper and further.
One of the key things I learnt through mentorship was the importance of writing things down.
I never used to write much. I’m the kid that couldn’t wait to finish my matric English essay, and never bothered to read it through to see if it actually made sense. I didn’t do much deep reading either. And 4 years ago I discovered just how important both were to leadership of myself and others. My personal manifesto - for me - and our One Page Strategic Plan - for us - were good examples of the power of writing things down. I never really believed in its power until every time we wrote something down we ended up achieving it. It was uncanny how this simple act transformed our business.
In 2013 we wrote down “50% growth in short courses” and in the dying moments of the financial year, led by Chris Vella, we did it. Damn, Chris lead us well! In 2014 we wrote down “400 students on postgrad”. It seemed impossible, but through blood, sweat and tears, we did it. In 2015 we said we would sign 3 top international Universities - something few of us believed possible. 9 months later, we had done it and counted MIT and UChicago as our partners. In 2016 we changed our brand promise from “proactive personalised support” to “help people stand out from the crowd”, and we overhauled the operations of our Student Success team to truly serve our students needs. There are countless examples of how this applies in the lives of the people who take their 90 day priorities seriously.
The written word is a powerful thing. Ain’t no other animal on this planet that can do it. And the one that can sits at the top of the food chain.
You don’t know this, but one of my quirks since day 1 is that I can’t walk past a piece of paper or rubbish on the ground without picking it up. This seemingly small thing is embodied in our value of rude to poor process. I believe that shared responsibility begins with the little things. When I come across something that doesn’t seem right in the context of something I care about, like GetSmarter or my family, I take responsibility for its resolution. This behaviour starts with seemingly insignificant acts like picking up someone else’s rubbish from the floor, and builds to manifest in deep loyalty to the people around me. Rude to poor process can also be described as “I’ve got your back.”
Speaking of familial-like behaviours, Rob and I grew up in a family where harmony was valued over conflict. Perhaps some of you can relate. My wife Keri, on the other hand, grew up in a family where raw honesty was valued. She doesn’t hold back, and I mean she really doesn’t hold back. You can imagine how challenging it was when we first moved in together with one aspect of our value systems being fundamentally at odds. At least we knew it. And thank goodness for her, as she has helped me value raw, emotional honesty. Of course, it’s hard to do well. And as I have progressed in my ability to be more honest and straightforward, so too has this company. I still believe one of our challenges today is valuing candor over harmony. For those of you who have been here for long enough, I know that you know what I am talking about. We have work to do. My experience is that 2U values candor highly, and this has already strengthened and will continue to strengthen us.
We also don’t have a history of being numerically strong. So much so that 2 years ago we had a company-wide theme called “What’s your number?”. It was about defining our work in numeric terms, and then breaking our own records. And damn did we break many records! Everyone had to define their key numbers and Exco went about defining our company numbers. So let me throw a few numbers out here in relation to people.
Did you know that 97 people joined this team in the past 4 months? In looking through Bamboo, I think I know about 158 of you well. And there are a further 135 of you that I don’t know well. There’s a number called Dunbar’s number that describes the number of people in a community that can hold stable relationships. That number is 150, so it looks like I beat Dunbar by 8! I remember standing up here two-and-a-half years ago, almost to the date, to confess that I didn’t know everyone anymore. I wanted to cry, but of course I didn’t because I wasn’t a cryer back then!
I didn’t realise this when we started GetSmarter 10 years ago, but it is one of my clearest truths today: our happiness is a function of the quality of the relationships with the people closest to us. That’s it. Relationships matter more than is immediately obvious. I love that Chip and the broader 2U team share this value with us. It is, without a doubt, our founding value, which isn’t surprising considering we were founded by a family business and in families, relationships are the bottom line.
While Georgie isn’t physically here today (she’s FaceTiming in from Mexico) my five-and-a-half year working relationship with her has been one of the highlights of my career. Georgie, this is also your farewell and although you aren’t here I want to say: you are a special woman, you made me a better CEO and, more importantly, a better human. I love you and I wish you well in your next chapter.
Back to relationships that matter, and on to the final few paragraphs. It’s also not surprising then that companies exist to serve their stakeholders - the people they have relationships with. We’ve been clear that we serve our students, our university partners, our employees and our shareholders.
In our quest for stellar growth, we made the mistake - I made the mistake - of not paying enough attention to our students. This is where our notion of providing heroic support to our customers originated, and the mascot that was Sajeev was born. Those of you who were here around acquisition time will know that Sajeev was then magically transformed into none other than our very own Harsha Mokkarala, CMO of 2U. Funny, not funny. I know that the sustainability of any business is based on its ability to serve its stakeholders in balance over time. And if we make that principle personal for a moment, there are points in our lives, both professionally and personally, when we need to rebalance our service of our stakeholders. I’ve found it to be a crucial lens in my life - what are my roles, how am I serving, and what do I need to change? I am CEO, husband, new father, son, brother, uncle, friend, dog owner and community member. How am I performing?
What are your roles? And how are you performing?
When I first asked myself this question, I didn’t know how to evaluate myself. And then I paid attention to the great Peter Drucker who explained that our real values and roles are implicit in two simple documents. Can you guess what these are?
They are our calendars and our bank statements. Simple, objective truths of the roles we actually play and things we actually value.
Playing to win is a big part of my life. And to be clear, I’ve been losing since as long as I can remember. I gave a talk up here once on the paradox of success. The paradox is that success is built on failure. I have since added a slightly deeper view from Ray Dalio: Pain + Reflection = Progress. One cannot overcome meaningful obstacles without failing, feeling pain, reflecting and trying again.
Winning is what we have done here over the past 10 years, and it’s what we’ll continue to do for years to come. Personally, I am going through a transformation in the way I think about winning. For this company, winning at scale with 500+ people necessitates a change in how we win. I am confident that this team is evolving to understand sustainable victory. It hasn’t always felt like what we’re doing is sustainable around here. One of my personal values is speed. I walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, sleep fast, live fast. And while I’m proud of it, it has a shadowside to it that can be destructive. I’m not proud of that shadow side, and something needs to change.
So I am in the process of redefining what winning looks like in my life. I know the beast I am. I like to create, to build and to win. And with two little people in my life now, the way I go about serving them is very different from how I have gone about my life to date. I remember attending a wedding 4 years ago where the pastor was describing love. Just five simple words: “you can’t love at speed” - the words hit me like a lightning bolt. It was either that, or Keri’s sharp elbow to my ribs because she knew I needed to pay attention. I need to expand my definition of winning to include “slow” at times. This is one of my themes for the next few years.
I want to end with a thank you and a wish.
Thank you for serving this company over your tenure. Thank you to each of you for, in your own individual way, making this the most meaningful decade of my life. I used to hand out small notes called #YesPleases to team members living our values and/or doing stellar work. Today, I have 8 wishes for all of you:
I wish for you all the right obstacles.
I wish for you meaningful space between you and the people who matter most.
I wish for you a healthy dose of bad luck.
I wish for you to define your own hero. And soon.
I wish for you ever evolving clarity of thinking and attention to the right detail.
I wish for you many pieces of paper on the floor.
I wish for you integrity between who you say you are and who your calendar and bank account says you are.
I wish for you winning and victory, however you may define it.
It has been my privilege to serve you.
As Exco likes to say, “thanks Ant”.
And as I want to say today, “Onwards and upwards, 2U Cape Town! Thank you”.