Jim McCorkell has built a big organization on a simple idea: People should be able to go to college. His own parents never finished high school, but they raised five children who all went to college. "I saw how difficult my parents' lives were without a college degree, and by contrast how good my and my siblings' lives have been," says McCorkell, CEO and founder of CollegePossible
, headquartered in Saint Paul.
Founded in 2000, CollegePossible is a nonprofit that provides ACT and SAT test preparation, college application assistance, financial aid consulting, and other services to low-income students. The organization McCorkell started out of a spare bedroom in his apartment now has three sites (in the Twin Cities, Omaha, and Milwaukee), 130 full-time employees, and an annual budget of $6 million.
McCorkell spends most of his time on the organization's strategic plan to grow its existing sites to scale, expanding its reach to 10 cities, working with the board of directors, and raising the funds CollegePossible needs.
Some of McCorkell's leadership philosophy could be described as "What would Wellstone do?" McCorkell met Senator Paul Wellstone while he was still in college, and describes Wellstone as an early mentor with a major impact. "He used to say something that became my philosophy too: 'Leadership is calling on people to be their own best selves,'" McCorkell says. "Good political leaders call on everyone in society to do that, while in an organization, it means trying to attract really talented people and then enable them to be the best they can be."
For that reason, McCorkell says, he really doesn't feel like he does much, because his mission is to help the people his organization hires to do it all, and to help develop them so that they're able to take on more and more responsibility as time goes by. "To me, leadership is about creating an environment where everyone on the team gets chance to play their part and excel at it," he says.
Don't Try to Do It All
The woods are full of leaders who lead by trying to do everything. But McCorkell points out that it's not just that those leaders tend to burn out sooner; they're also not serving the organization well. "The organization is really going to bottleneck if the leader tries to do too much and doesn't share responsibility for achieving the mission with a lot of people," he says.
He's in a position to know; when he started CollegePossible, they served 35 kids in their first year. Last year, though, the organization helped 9,000 kids. With growth like that, no organization can ride on any one person's shoulders, and the leader who does everything doesn't allow anyone else to develop.
As an example of that sharing of responsibility, McCorkell points to one of CollegePossible's employees, who was just promoted to become the associate director for the Twin Cities site. "She's been with us for 11 years, and she's moved through many titles: program coordinator, program director, and so on," he says. "She keeps being challenged to do more and more."
Know What You're Good At and What You're Not
Leadership literature is full of admonitions to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. McCorkell agrees with that, but disagrees with the school of thought that says good leaders should spend a lot of time and effort to overcome their weaknesses. You certainly want to address your weaknesses as best you can, he explains, but a deficit-based approach where you overfocus on those weaknesses will create a missed opportunity. "Why not focus on your strengths and leverage those to the max?" he asks.
Nobody is perfect at everything, he explains, so focus on having at least a minimum of skill in every category without expecting to eventually be the best in every category. Instead, know yourself and be realistic about what you do well and what you should probably leave to others. "You want to build a team around you that can help compensate where you aren't strong," he says.
Be Realistic About Conflict
McCorkell is one of those rare leaders who will actually admit that he isn't good at something. That something is handling conflict. "It's not my strength," he says. "But a big part of leadership is being aware at what you're not good at as well as what you do well."
McCorkell knows he isn't alone in that, citing the most common approach to conflict: ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. "You learn over time that that doesn't work," he says.
So McCorkell is trying to evolve toward a style of open communication that makes it easier to get conflict out on the table where it can be dealt with. His goal is to create an environment where people believe that if they share their concerns or conflicts, they'll at least get a fair hearing. "With conflict, you have to be able to live with the fact that you might not make everybody happy," he says. "The best you can hope for is for people to feel like they can bring things up, be heard, and be treated fairly without politics."
Let Go of Control
It sounds counterintuitive, but McCorkell argues that a big part of leadership is letting go of control. Many leaders start out as individual contributors who are promoted because their performance stood out, he explains. "Most people are used to an environment where their impact depends only on their own performance," he says. "So if they just work harder, they can hit their sales numbers. But leadership is more complex."
It's more complex because a leader's success depends on others performing to the best of their ability. And for the most part, people are motivated to do extra work and achieve more by leaders who help them succeed, not by leaders who tell them what to do and make them do it.
"The command-and-control style works in life-or-death situations, but mostly the command style is the last thing in your arsenal," McCorkell says. "The last thing you want to say is, 'Do it because I said so.'"
In fact, McCorkell says, he learned from his work in political science and public administration--he has a master's in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master’s of Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government--that leadership is about persuasion, not command. "A good leader has to be able to persuade people, and there are a variety of tools for it that I learned in a course on persuasion," he says. "I draw on that a lot."
Holly Dolezalek's last article for
The Line was a Faces of Leadership profile of Scott Severson, for our May 2, 2012 issue.