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December 2014
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TD Magazine

Kevin Carroll

Founder, Kevin Carroll Katalyst LLC

Portland, Oregon

Kevin Carroll is a consultant, speaker, change agent, and founder of Kevin Carroll Katalyst LLC, a company committed to elevating the power of sport and play around the world. Carroll has worked with organizations such as the National Hockey League, ESPN, Nike, and Starbucks. He also is the author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, What's Your Red Rubber Ball? and The Red Rubber Ball at Work.

How did Katalyst came into being?

When I first got hired at Nike in August of 1997, I didn't have a job title, function area, or job description. Nike simply hired me based on my talents and what they envisioned I could add to the company as it related to the power of play, teamwork, and esprit de corps. I received the following direction: to introduce myself to people during the next 60 days. "Come back and tell us where you think you fit in. That's probably where we'll have you work."

So I went around and asked people why they came to work there every day; what they cared about. And then I shared a bit of my story. I met people from all function areas within the company—shipping and receiving, food services, marketing—and I just loved their stories. I loved why they came to work every day, and I basically said, "I want to help all of you. I don't know what that looks like, but I will work with everybody."

When I shared that with the people who gave me the task of introducing myself, I was told, "You're like an internal consultant; you're going to work across the company. As senior leaders, we'll give you directives on places we think need an injection of inspiration, teamwork, or better communication with another part of the organization. You can call yourself whatever you want."

I literally had magazines and books out one night, and there was a lunar eclipse coming, so I thought, wouldn't it be great to tell everybody that my inspiration came from the lunar eclipse?

I kept looking at the lunar eclipse, and thinking, "What was that thing in science that brought stuff together, that activated things? Oh, yes. That was a catalyst. That's going to be my title. But I'm going to change the C to a K because my name is Kevin."

That's how Katalyst was born. People at first asked, "What does that mean?" and I would explain the same thing—an excitatory agent that speeds up or changes the process. That's what I ended up doing for seven years. Now I'm a catalyst at large. I left Nike in 2004 to be a Katalyst@Large, spelled like that.

How can an organization develop a culture of play?

I think enterprises, businesses, organizations—whatever your daily endeavor might be where you're bringing people together to turn an idea into reality—you need to think about how we build rapport, how we connect. I go back to the Plato quote, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." I think that you really can discover a lot about people—how they communicate or they don't, how they connect or they don't, how they build bridges or they don't—through play.

There are so many things that happen because play is a wonderful distraction; people will surrender to the games but they will also reveal who they are. Are they selfish, are they empathetic, are they leaders, are they communicative, are they team builders, are they supportive? All of these things play out, if you will, in a game: softball league, bowling league, card playing, whatever hobby or avocation you do with others.

How do you convince organizations that they should be inviting play?

When businesses start to see that play is serious to the business of advancing an idea, they will not marginalize it anymore. They'll celebrate it.

There is plenty of research out there: the National Institute for Play; and Sparks of Genius, a wonderful book written by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, that cites the stories of Nobel laureates and MacArthur Genius Grant recipients.

I think organizations and enterprises will be pleasantly surprised with the outcomes of investing in more play, specifically play with purpose, play that has more direct outcomes. You want more teamwork? Let's design something to help you get that, but let's do that around playing a game for coming together. "Oh, we want more innovative spirit, we want more ingenuity. Let's design play, let's design moments around that."

That's why I use the term "playing with purpose," not just play for play's sake. You can do that on your own time. In business you need to have an outcome or an idea behind it.

What advice do you have for individuals who are at a loss for determining what it is that is their "red rubber ball," or their inspiration?

You need to go back to your youth, to your childhood, and think about the things that tickled your brain—the things that made you laugh inside. Those things are still available. We all had them when we were children. Many times when we grew older, someone actually told you to stop thinking about those things and get serious. "You need to stop daydreaming."

Well, daydreaming is where the breakthrough ideas come from. So many innovations came when someone was having a bit of a fantasizing moment, visions of "what if?" Look at The Jetsons. That's actually a great example of someone who was creating a cartoon that's now real.

A woman told me this story: Her father tricked her. She loved art and creativity in her youth, and her father was concerned that she'd never make a living being an artist. So he took her downtown, and pointed to this group of people huddled around the corner with their signs, "We're starving artists. Please help us. Buy our stuff." She was terrified when she saw that. She said, "I'll never be an artist. I'm not doing that," and she literally put her art away and went on to college. But she just couldn't get art out of her system, so she minored in fine arts and majored in business, and now she has her own studio.

Well, lo and behold, her father revealed to her—now that she's successful—that, "You know I wasn't fully honest with you when I took you downtown. The name of the company was Starving Artists." He had set her up the whole time. "But you figured it out anyway."

What if someone celebrated what brings you joy and said, "You should bring that to the workplace because that joy is going to flow into the work you're doing. That love is going to actually bolster what we're trying to get accomplished here." If we celebrate the whole of you, all the gifts and talents and joy that you could bring, we can maximize that.

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How can talent development professionals inspire others to tell their story?

They have to have the courage to share their story, the why behind them.

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Talent development professionals should also be a curator of stories; should collect more stories about others and have them at the ready so they can share them. Just like the story I shared about that woman with the dad and the Starving Artists. You need to have an arsenal of these moments, these insights. But it all starts with your own story.

Why are you endeavoring to raise people up? As a talent development professional, why are you in the business of bringing the best out of people? Someone probably did that for you, and now you want to do that for others.

In your own way, you're that wonderful teacher. You're Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. You're that encourager and the challenger; that person who holds people accountable.

If you can recount your own journey and tell people, "That's why I'm investing in you, because someone did that for me, and I wanted to be that teacher, that encourager." The Robin Williams's "My captain, my captain" moment, right? I want people to feel that. To be so inspired about what they endeavor to do on a daily basis, and how they bring their gifts and talents to an organization, or their own professional and personal endeavors.

Hopefully you're in the business of talent development because it's your calling, not because it's your job.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to companies and other enterprises and organizations today?

We've got to find a way to bring high tech and high touch together. We've got wonderful automated programs that sift out talent, with people doing online application processes now. But I think it doesn't tell the full story.

Nike would probably never have gotten me in this day and age if they were using the automated system that many people have. They would have seen my crazy background with all these different experiences, and thought, what do we do with that guy? But someone saw me at an event.

I was working for the Philadelphia 76ers when I was invited to be one of the speakers at an event at a park for youth. We had five minutes to share with the students, so I shared my story. A Nike executive there pulled me aside and said, "You're going to be at Nike one day." I asked, "Why would I be at Nike? I'm the head athletic trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers. I've got my dream job."

And he said, "You're going to be at Nike. Nike needs you." He was the person who saw something in me; he's the same person who identified Michael Jordan to be signed by Nike.

"One thing I do well is identify unique talents," he said. And he even said to me that once I came to Nike, "You're not going to be here long. There's bigger work for you to do. We'll be glad to have had you for the length that we have you."

But that's without the technology. How do we marry that high-tech system with a high-touch one? I know you need some kind of program; there are just so many applications now. You have to have some way of filtering.

But what is that other piece, the human piece? Talent development personnel have to be willing to put that work in. You can't just leave it to high tech to ensure that you're getting the right group of people.

How can companies use what they do best to contribute to social change?

I think you have to be intentional about it, have in your midst people who are your social conscience, who have the responsibility of keeping you aware of opportunities to advance the human condition. You have a group of people—and it's not necessarily your corporate social responsibility (CSR) team, your foundation or whatever, but people within the organization who are active on their own. How do you bring them into the conversation and invite them to talk with your foundation and CSR team about what they're doing in the community?

The greatest advocates and assets are your own people who are doing amazing things in the community out of their love and concern for their neighbor or children, or the next generation. They're football coaches for youth leagues. They're public library support people in reading and literacy. They're doing things in health. They're doing all these things because there might be a personal connection, a story.

How are we getting those stories shared and then supporting people around that? I think that's one of the key things around social change and this whole idea of how companies can make a difference. It's your people who are a reflection of what you do best.

What do you do for fun and relaxation?

It's the primal sources of joy that feed and fuel me, and I like to say it's a thing that's stuck to my creative soul. I work out only when I'm home. On the road, I just do a bit of yoga. I'd rather be home and truly be able to get lost in my workout because there's a comfort in knowing where I'm at and where I'm going and not "Am I making a left or a right at this corner?" You have to be more concerned about getting lost than really enjoying getting lost in the workout. Because that's what you want to do, right? For me, it's meditative. That's one thing, working out.

Another thing is I've been dabbling at playing the cello for the last dozen-plus years. I love classical music. I rescued a cello at a violin shop that had been banged up. I love being bad at something. When you have a level of success that you endeavor to do daily, it's good to have something that humbles you. And I love the other set of friends I have when I go to the violin shop and talk shop with them about classical music—the conversations that are unique to that world and that culture.

I'm also an avid collector of Daredevil comics and have been for decades. I met Daredevil when my grandmother passed away when I was 10 years old. I happened to stumble upon a newsstand and that's where I noticed the tagline, "Daredevil: The Man Without Fear." That made me pause and I realized I needed to be courageous. I needed to be like Daredevil, a man without fear even though I was 10 years old. I gravitated to Daredevil and I've always stayed connected to it.

Lastly, chocolate. I love being in the search for the perfect dark chocolate caramel with sea salt. That's my quest. People send them to me from all over the world, but I'm in search of the best of the best, dark chocolate caramel with sea salt. Who can say no to chocolate?

So, those are the things that feed me. My workouts are fantastic, there's my cello, comic books, and chocolate.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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