Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ten years, same mission, same man,
a different tone

Part preacher, part everyman figure, part boyish charmer, part CEO — and all business. As I listened to this guy speak to a group of about 40 business people, the question popped up. Could I possibly find anyone in the Cleveland area that’s more unassuming, professional, passionate and effective in his work to make a difference Cleveland’s future? As he continued to present and alternately charmed, educated, cajoled and occasionally scolded a culture that misplaces its resources, the more the answer the first question came into focus.

Nope  — there isn’t a person in Cleveland quite like John Zitzner. 


A lot has changed over the past 10 years since I first met John – a mutual friend said, “There’s this guy you have to meet,” – but John has absolutely not changed. The fire in his belly burns brightly as does his vision of a new, successful way of educating a large, underserved group of Cleveland students. John’s expansive view is that when this group succeeds, the entire region succeeds, too — socially, economically, emotionally and even spiritually.

More than once I’ve heard John say, “I was fortunate enough to be able to send my children to University School. I want every kid to be able to have that kind of opportunity.” The first time he says that, you think that this is a sweet but perhaps elitist and certainly na├»ve guy. Everyone should get a high-quality education experience? And But the next times you hear him say it, and say it again, and again, you realize he means it.

John and the staff of the Breakthough Schools  — “a nationally recognized network of high-performing, free, public charter schools located in Cleveland, Ohio” — have the data to back up John’s vision and claims. At the heart of the story is that a new educational paradigm can make a difference in how students learn and more importantly, how they perform and achieve in school and life. On this day, as he illustrates his words with some nicely animated charts and a conversational manner, you start to think that just maybe this really is possible. Maybe we can return our city to the prestigious position it enjoyed in nationwide education circles (as recently as the 1960s) when a high school diploma from a Cleveland Public School was almost equivalent to today’s Bachelor’s degree. And maybe this improved educational ecosystem can provide a kind of gravitational vortex that will spin a new era of prosperity for the region.

And so John will to speak to many on this day, and virtually every day as he has for over 10 years now.
  • to students (‘Keep going, it’s worth it, you’re going to make it and we’re going to help you; don’t you want to be part of something special?’)
  • to parents (‘When your child has a high-quality education, nobody will be able to take that away from him or her; won’t that be the most special act you can perform’)
  • to teachers: (‘OK, I know this mean you have to do more and get paid less, at least for now; don’t you want to be part of a special team that makes this happen?’)
  • to educational administrators and legislators: (‘Is our current educational system and funding model really the legacy you want to leave behind? Can’t we find a way to do something different, something better, something special?’)
  • to donors: (‘Can you think of a more special place to put your money to work?’)
After a while, turns out I did notice a few changes in John and his manner. He’s lost any previous lack of confidence about not having an educational background  — he speaks with experience and authority on a variety of curriculum, pedagogical and educational administration issues. And he’s also gained a bit of an edge – he uses the word ‘crap’ to describe broken systems, schools and policies in a way that makes you hope he never associates the word ‘crap’ with you. And while he’s still easy going, still in it for the long-term, there’s a little more impatience about him ­— but it’s an impatience he has earned by virtue of his longevity on this mission.

Ten years ago when he presented he sometimes said, “This is simple. I’ll work as hard as I can on this, we’ll make lots of progress, and then I’ll die and someone else will take this up and carry on and move it forward.” 
In one gathering, a few uttered an audible gasp as if to say: ‘Is John ill? Is there something he’s not telling us?’ Those who know John well are aware he doesn’t engage in melodrama and there’s very little John doesn’t tell anyone. He’s professional but he’s also candid to a fault. He’s senses the urgency as another large group students is socially promoted though an educational system that didn’t prepare them to succeed.
Later that day, John will speak again. Maybe to a student, a teacher, a parent, a legislator, an administrator, a benefactor, a reporter, whoever. But the message will be the same:
  • We can do better. We must do better.
  • Don’t you want to be part of something special?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lost and found: Valuable stories

  During a recent chilly baseball game (another win for the first-place Indians – Go Tribe!), my wife and I left the bleachers to stretch our legs and warm up. We happened upon a very nice monument area, Heritage Park, located just behind center field. Sheltered from mid-April winds, we strolled while reading plaques and engravings detailing notable players and achievement over the team’s 110 year history. And on a wall near the front of the Park we read about a sad story that is also a great story – a story that provides an important lesson for anyone who is responsible for the content of any organization.

Great content can be discovered without anyone dying
Memorialized on a gorgeous bronze plaque is the tragic story of Indian’s player, Ray Chapman. In 1920, Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch from Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays. You can read more complete (and slightly gory) details here, but because Chapman played 30 years before batters wore helmets, the pitch was deadly - twelve hours after being struck, Chapman died in a New York hospital. The Indians won the World Series that year after dedicating their season to Chapman. And the next year, this beautiful plaque was struck and placed at League Park and then later, at Municipal Stadium. And because of what happened next, this tragic tale turns into a great story.

That’s because for over a dozen years, this plaque worthy of Cooperstown went missing. Long before the Indians moved from Municipal Stadium, the Chapman plaque was crated up and stashed in storage. When the Tribe moved in 1994 to Jacobs (later renamed Progressive) Field, the crate was carefully moved – then promptly forgotten. It wasn’t until 2007 that the plaque was discovered, cleaned, restored and hung in a prominent location at the stadium. And Indians officials publicly said, “We goofed.”  In fact, their oversight became a story in itself as most people commended them on their very public admission of their oversight. Much of this part of the story is detailed in the separate plague on top of Ray

But this misplacing of great stories - great content - is hardly unique in all types of organizations. Every day, great stories and histories of organizations are packed away in boxes and forgotten, never to be seen or heard again. Even worse, organizations typically don’t even take the time to record, either in words or images, the important milestones or “lessons learned” that make up the fabric of the company’s culture. Someone is always going to get around to it, sometime in the future during one of those mythical “slow times.”

In a future post, I’ll share three key strategies for ensuring that your organization’s stories aren’t locked up in some storage room – or in the memories of veterans. And if the Indians can continue their improbable first-place ways, that will be a story worth telling, too.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I(T) opening opportunity?


 The year was 2005, and I wasn’t yet aware that Ohio had a statewide bioscience association. A meeting I attended that year opened my eyes to a world of biomedical opportunities in our state, many of which have been capitalized upon. But six years later, at least one large opening still seems to be ours for the taking.

Co-sponsored by BioOhio, BioEnterprise and NEOSA, that meeting brought together almost 300 professionals who were eager to learn about IT opportunities in the biomedical industry, especially those brought on by HIPAA and other new regulations. I can clearly recall the energy – in the presentations, in the Q&A and in the networking session that followed. It’s interesting how one session can open eyes to new business and new connections.

Last night Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the commercialization outpost of the Clinic, presented a workshop on “Creating a Start-up Company.” And six years later, my eyes have been re-opened to the opportunity of commercializing Information Technology for use both in lab and clinical settings. Even though last night’s session was not focused on IT (an early workshop in this 9-part “Inventors’ Forum” series did that – see the full workshop list here), speaker after speaker inevitably worked into their presentation messages like these:
  •  early IT companies are getting biomedical funding.
  •  less capital is needed for IT venture deals.
  •  IT biomedical companies are likely to benefit from healthcare reform initiatives.
  •  Funding for compounds and pharma is almost impossible right now – the easiest path to the money is though projects that are led by IT.
  • It's not unusual for IT biomedical start-ups to secure $2 million in funding and then generate sales of $8-10 million in two or three years; those numbers are usually flip-flopped with most other bio start-ups ($10 million in funding/$2 million in sales) - and that's considered acceptable.  
So, sketch out an IT concept on a napkin, secure easy money, cash out handsomely? Hardly - success is not guaranteed to any start-up company. In fact, one of the great lines from a presenter was the admonition that it will likely take even the most skilled start-up team three companies and 15 years to finally write their success story. So the path isn’t smooth – but staying on sidelines isn’t quite a success strategy, is it?

The workshop session brought together a combination of business leaders, biomedical leaders (clinical, research, entrepreneurial), and legal (IP, commercialization) talent. Three of the six panelists were from outside the region and/or those not formally associated with Cleveland Clinic. Besides the undercurrent of enthusiasm for IT funding, these panelists repeated over and again that Cleveland already has in place the open and integrated resources needed to foster bioscience start-ups in ways that surpass Boston or San Francisco.

So, are we up to seriously exploring the opportunity to open the world’s eyes to Cleveland as the center of biomedical IT innovation?