The meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I turned 43 recently. On my 42nd birthday, I quipped on Facebook that this was my Douglas Adams year. The exact age when I would discover the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

William and Pizza

Photo of me eating pizza (back when I could still eat pizza) at a Vancity branch by Terry Davis

Little did I know how right I was – that this was the year when I was to go through the most profound career shift I’d made in a dozen years (and perhaps ever).

My first career was in filmmaking. I got into filmmaking to make films that were personal, hopefully important. Films that I wanted to provoke thought and conversation and make a statement. But after a dozen years of slogging through projects, I found that life as a filmmaker just wasn’t fulfilling for me anymore, and I was hungry to do something that I felt could replace film as my life’s calling, and enable me to do more than just make “product”.

At exactly that time, filmmaking was going through a major disruption. Digital technology was, for the first time, giving the ability to make films to people without extraordinary means. The technology and tools – which hadn’t had a major innovation in the hundred years since Edison invented them – were being democratized. It started in the editing room with Avid editing systems, and continued to DV cameras and editing films on a home computer. I embraced this new technology, and became an early adopter of digital filmmaking.

In Nashville last year at the Credit Union Water Cooler Symposium, I gave a talk called Everything I Learned About Leadership, I Learned From Filmmaking. In it I talked about the tension between persistence and delusion. To be a struggling filmmaker is to know that tension well. I got into a great chat with the audience about this tension in my Q&A, and it was Ron Shevlin who pointed out that, simply, it had to do with maintaining a passion for, and love of what you’re doing. As long as that spark is alive, it’s persistence; when it’s gone, it’s delusion (did I get that right, Ron?). I always promised myself that I’d only make films if I couldn’t not make films. After a dozen years struggling as a filmmaker, I hit a point where I could absolutely and happily not make films. It was on to the next challenge for me.

My second career was in digital. When I made films, I used to read about the early pioneers of filmmaking, breaking into a nascent industry and jumping in where no one else had. I envied them. I saw the web and digital as an opportunity to do that for myself. I followed the path from digital filmmaking tools to producing web and digital projects. It’s rare in life that we get to experience something new, something untried. The migration from film to digital was a natural one, and one I enjoyed tremendously. I got to be there for the birth of a new era, and was lucky enough to be in Seattle, an epicenter of the new medium, to experience it.

One day while walking on the beach with my wife in LA, where I worked as a digital producer, we chatted about what we wanted from life. Walking in the sunshine, we decided that what we wanted was a reality in which our life choices and core values were inseparable – that when we described our lives (everything from where we lived and where we worked, to what we drove) we would really be elaborating on our values. That, we felt, would not be possible for us while living in LA.

The next several years were a circuitous adventure, leading me and my wife back to my hometown of Vancouver, having our son, and, for me, eventually aiming for and landing employment at Vancity. I am immensely thankful to work for a generous and special kind of organization that took chances with me and allowed me to jump into new areas and new roles, embracing new opportunities without having to leave the organization.

It was the jump into social media in 2006 that provided me with a new purpose, the biggest opportunity I had since filmmaking to embark on something career-defining and bold. It was the leaping off point to new destinations, new relationships and a powerful sense of fulfillment. Unexpectedly, it was social media that led me to community engagement, which led me right out of digital and into my current role in community investment, where I am further discovering the meaning and fulfillment I have always been looking for.

The one defining theme in my life has truly been: Do what you love, and the money will follow. I loved filmmaking, but when it was no longer my singular passion, I moved on. I loved social media and tinkering with it to fulfill an organization’s mission a little before others did, but when it starting getting stale for me, I was happy to try new things. Following my bliss led me into film, and past it into a world of working with a virtual community, and finally to working with community partners to hopefully help make my hometown a better place.

So we know that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42. The unknown part remains: what is the right question? In my case, I think that the right question is simply: At what age will I make a huge pivot toward doing my life’s work?

Three kinds of leaders.

Cool Bird Formation by deapeajay

Cool Bird Formation by deapeajay

Today, I was at an event called Vancouver ChangeCamp, which is a “participatory event to imagine and build new ways to collaborate for social change in the digital age.” Similar to the BarCampBank events I’ve attended and organized over the last several years, but focused on social change in Vancouver.

One session today was on leadership, and a man in the session said that in any organization there are three kinds of leaders: hierarchical, raw talent and popular. I’ve never thought of it that way, but it struck me as a very simple, effective and clear way to describe leadership opportunities.

I reflected on the times in my life when I’ve been a leader, and which of those kinds of leaders I was.

When I first moved to the States when I was 22 years old, I was the assistant manager of a chain retail store called Natural Wonders. I was in a position of hierarchical leadership, but honestly didn’t care about the company. I was in change because I was installed in that position, but hadn’t earned the mantle of leadership, and didn’t particularly want it. I was purely a hierarchical leader, a leader in name only.

When I made films, I was perhaps a popular leader. People were attracted to be a part of my productions and often gave me their time, equipment or services for free or a greatly reduced price. I was always humbled by this, but people believed in me and my projects and wanted to be involved.

I thought of my early days in social media, when this blog became a centre-point for my interest in this emerging field, and I gained a leadership position due to my thought leadership, and ability to communicate my thoughts. That was perhaps a demonstration of a raw talent leader. I was invited to speak at numerous conferences and events and, over time, was seen as a leader both within my organization and beyond.

For the past five years, I have been a leader within my organization, managing managers and their staff. I am glad this has happened after achieving the other kinds of leadership positions, because I have learned from each type (without knowing the vocabulary I heard today) of leadership opportunity I had.

I take leadership very seriously. I think of the great bosses I’ve had and what I learned from them, and how they coached me in ways that went far beyond that job or company. In fact, I consider leadership to be sacred, helping people achieve things, understand their strengths and limitations so they can harness them or rise above them. It’s something I’m honoured to do, and truly love doing. It’s a trust I wish more hierarchical leaders took seriously.

I like the idea of these three types of leadership, and will think about how to harness all three together in a meaningful way.

What other kinds of leadership do you see?

What a difference a week can make.

Vancity Staff

Vancity staff at one of our new prototype branches.

Late last year, Vancity launched its new Employee Immersion program. Up until that time, we had a pretty traditional employee orientation. Sometime in the first few weeks on the job, new employees spent a day learning about the organization, our benefits packages, where they fit into the organizational structure.

As a mission-driven organization, we needed a way for new employees to deeply experience the organization they are joining. Last year, HR led the way to a very different way of thinking. All new employees now have fixed hire dates, and their first week on the job is at our Immersion program with a cohort of other employees from across the organization. They spend a week learning about the co-operative principles, the history of Vancity, our vision of Redefining Wealth, our model of values-based banking. They visit community partners to learn how Vancity invests in community organizations to help them create positive impact in our community. They spend a day at a branch and a half day at the call centre to learn how our member service ties back to our approach. They map out the impact Vancity can have in community (a module I helped co-create and deliver regularly). They immerse themselves in what Vancity is, so, when they actually start their jobs the following week, they understand how to best apply themselves to help achieve our vision and strategies.

At the end of that intense week, if new employees are not excited about what they experience and what the organization is doing, we’ll thank them, and pay them a small fee for their time and lost-opportunity cost. We recognize that the Vancity vision isn’t for everyone, and it’s okay if some people opt out of the organization based on their experience of the Immersion week, because in order to achieve what we’re attempting we need people who are engaged and committed and rowing in the same direction. So far, however, no one has opted out.

Because its such a transformational program, not just new employees are getting “immersed” this year, but also all people changing roles in the organization and all people leaders. That way we level-set the entire organization around our mission, and engage all our people in our strategies and business model. It’s a hell of an investment, one that I believe will pay off.

This week, I’ve been attending the Immersion program in one of three senior leader sessions held this year. It’s been an honour spending time with peers and colleagues, challenging each other to look at what we’re doing differently, learning more about the organization I’ve worked at for more than seven years and growing in my understanding of our potential to continuously improve the way we serve our members and the organizations and businesses in our communities.

It’s an exciting time to be at Vancity, we’re leaning further and further into our mission. I know at times I can seem perhaps like too much of a Vancity cheerleader, but programs like this Immersion and the areas we’re investing in to become a social-purpose financial institution are a strong reason why I’m so passionate, committed and inspired.