Whatever it Takes: The Geoffrey Canada Story

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Whatever it takesPaul Tough’s Whatever It Takes: I am excited to recommend this book because there are so many great take lessons and, best of all: it’s a ‘feel good’ book.  This should be on the ‘Parents’ recommended reading’ list for our kids’ schools because of the important lessons about parenting and education.  For entrepreneurs it’s highly inspirational for making the impossible possible with commitment and focus, and by applying sustained innovation and analytical discipline.  Finally, it’s a great example of the power of social entrepreneurism: a growing movement that I think will make transformative changes in our society.

The book is about an experiment, called the Harlem Children’s Zone, funded largely (2/3) through private donations. The project delivers an array of interventions and educational services to parents and students within a 10 square block area of Harlem. The aim is to eradicate the education/achievement gap between the poorest and the richest social economic groups in the community.  Canada insisted on taking a random allocation of students, to prove that his model would work for everyone. His goal is to build a replicable model so, once developed, it can be implemented everywhere. It’s hard to imagine a more ambitious or transformative goal for our society.   He is looking to wipe out poverty in one generation by giving every one of the kids the preparation, desire and opportunity to go to college.

The amount of innovation, learning and process improvement is amazing.  Rarely do you read an example of entrepreneurism at work where you get motivated by how a fellow entrepreneur deals with the challenge of blind alleys.  One of my favorite reads as a child was about the life of Thomas Alva Edison, my childhood hero, and his best quote was: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Geoffery Canada’s persistence in chasing down problems is entrepreneurship in action.  Many of his habits are similar to the process outlined in Talent is Over Rated – continual skill development,  and Super Crunchers – data-driven decision making for designing adjusting process innovations.  Finally his whole goal is a great example of Habit 6 in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – creative co-operation. His goal for his customers – the parents and students – is to have them achieve something that will transform their experience on this planet.  In doing this, he taps into their positive energy and helps them to make the very hard changes they need to make, and to unlearn behaviors they had been taught growing up.

A summary of the book
Geoffrey is a unique individual.  He was raised in Harlem but, through a divorce and remarriage, went to high school in a wealthy, suburban neighborhood.  He was very bright and driven so he witnessed AND recognized the gap between the two school and social systems: the Harlem kids had no shot at succeeding. They (the vast majority) were virtually doomed from birth. Geoffrey graduated from Bowdoin and got his Masters in Education at Harvard.  He then made it his life’s goal to fix the gap: to give the Harlem kids the same shot at success that the suburban kids have.

He secured funding from some high net worth individuals and began a process of introducing innovation in education:  Pre parenting classes; natal care courses; medical care support; tutoring services; a pre k school and finally an elementary, middle and high school.  The system is almost completely immersive.

The author, Paul Tough, did an amazing job, weaving four different informative stories at once through the book:

  • A start-up story with many of the trials and tribulations entrepreneurs will recognize: trying to innovate with management that have different learned skills, or deciding when to terminate staff and start over. There is a lot of failure, woven with some big successes. You can’t help but get caught up in the passion for his mission
  • The latest research in parenting and educational research, including a review of the famous Kipp school system
  • A review of the historical ‘flip flopping’ in Federal government philosophy on the causes and solutions for intergenerational poverty
  • Moving personal stories of the families, parents and kids that are undergoing a daunting change in how they live to achieve this ambitious goal

If you decide to read this book, it is applicable in several ways:

1. Whatever it takes – this philosophy is very motivating. Geoff’s accomplishments inspire us to reach for ambitious goals. The key to his success is in the title and in relentlessness: we will do whatever it takes! When you have that level of total commitment there is very little that is beyond our reach. As an entrepreneur, the key is to have this mindset and live it in our actions

2. Focus the team on the goal – Geoff inspired his team by setting a clear, measurable goal and mission and held everyone accountable. When results weren’t met he held people accountable. Some worked hard but others couldn’t learn the new skills needed for success, so they had to exit. In my opinion, he did a great job of managing this tension and we should look for those patterns in our businesses. Stay focused on the goal

3. You can’t manage what you can’t measure – Geoff put in place of system of constant rigorous testing and result evaluation to understand where they were, where gaps were happening and to target adjustments. A rapid feedback loop through testing, and results analysis is critical to rapid process improvement

4. Social entrepreneurship – Geoffrey is a good example of a new type of entrepreneur – the social entrepreneur. This community is growing with lots of interesting examples: Check out www.kiva.org or www.donorschoose.org

5. Entrepreneurship in Education – Education is undergoing a number of disruptive innovations. Many are driven by the application of technology and research findings like the ones in his book, and opportunities for massive efficacy improvements are being identified. The transformation is under way in for-profit colleges, and is starting to take hold in high schools: analysts predict that 50% of all high school credits will be delivered on line by 2018 ( Clay Christensen/Michael Horn, Disrupting Class). Look for significant wealth creation opportunities in this category.

CBS’s 60 Minutes did a segment on Geoffrey and his program 3 1/5 years ago and recently showed a follow up segment .This book is a window to finding the Geoffrey Canada in each of us: find the mission we are so passionate about that we will do “whatever it takes” to make it reality.


Author: Paul Tough

Who should read it: Company Founders, Entrepreneurs, Managers, Educators, Parents

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