Dr. Mac Powell is an executive in the world of higher education and is passionate in developing strategies for the growth and development of the community. He has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Missouri and has taken his skill in helping people to roles of leadership which have helped countless numbers of people. He is the Chair of ACE Commission on Education Attainment and Innovation and of Council of Applied Master’s Programs in Psychology. When Dr. Powell isn’t pouring his heart into his work, he enjoys spending time with his partner, Tuan and their dog, Maximillian or playing a little golf as a Master Professional in the PGA.
How did you get started in your career? What inspired you to choose this path?
Which career?! I started as an eager grad student looking for a job in Los Angeles and took a lot of meandering turns along the way. I worked in the entertainment industry, golf industry, the mental health field, and higher education. Often all at the same time. The common theme, and what inspires me, is trying to make a difference in the world – Performance, improvement, and change. It is exciting to see clients grow in their relationships, to see institutions prosper, and to see athletes and leaders reach their highest potential. Growing alongside them is even better.
How do you make money?
I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful partner who is thriving in his career, so I have to say that money is more about our partnership than how I make money. He is an immigrant from Vietnam, and I was born very poor in rural Southwest Missouri, so any money that we have feels like a lot. We both make salaries, and we’ve both had friends over the years that have allowed us to invest in their companies, so we are happy, reasonably well-off, and on our way to “retirement.”
When you were starting out, was there ever a time that you doubted it would work yourself? If so, how did you handle it?
I think that doubt is a very healthy part of life. It helps you question what you believe, why you believe it, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it to. If you don’t have doubt, then you’re not realistic about all of the many ways life and fortune can intervene in any endeavor. I’ve seen a lot of fantastic companies, athletes, leaders, or institutions that had it all “figured out,” until a recession or a scandal or a competitor derailed their best-laid-plans. For me, personally, I think it’s fantastic to have just enough insecurity and doubt to want to do better constantly.
How did you land your first role job?
This is another tough one to answer. It depends on context. My first job out of graduate school was in a foster family agency and group home in Compton, California. It was actually the first interview I went on after I earned my PhD, and half-way through the interview, a kid in the next wing had a complete breakdown; screaming and breaking things, and completely lost control. The person interviewing me and I ran down the hall and helped subdue and sooth the kid. I started the next day. I knew that working in South Central Los Angeles would give me experiences I wouldn’t get anywhere else and that I had a lot of work to do if I was going to be able to relate to and help people from all walks of life.
What is the toughest decision that you’ve had to make in the last few months?
The toughest decisions I make are around how to help companies and their leadership. In my investments, with my clients, or work with mentees, I am typically speaking with people that have experienced tremendous success to get where they are. And often, my job isn’t just to support, but to share where I think they can grow, improve, or shift. Those are never easy conversations. We all have a built-in bias about our own growth and trajectory – and having a mentor either agree, or God forbid, share without solicitation that a change in course should probably be considered can be extremely uncomfortable.
A very wise friend of mine who also practiced in healthcare and works with executive leaders shared something that has helped me a lot in this regard. He expressed that most people aren’t generally fully-formed and any time you start talking honestly and begin to see what is truly authentic and genuine, there’s going to turmoil. Being very truthful with people about how they can improve – even if you’re in a professional role, even if you’re very kind, and even if it’s solicited – is tough. Watching people become great leaders or companies achieve their goals is about watching how people deal with their own insecurities and limitations, and whether they have a sense of humor and drive toward being as good as they can be (rather than staying safe or static while the world and their field changes).
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
The people around me have made me successful. Period. I don’t think anyone is smart enough or hard-working enough to be a success without a lot of support. I’ve had fantastic mentors, supporters, donors, friends, and partners. There were times when I thought an athlete or business would be a success only to have it crash and burn – and I’ve had things turn out far better than expected. And in each case, it wasn’t the idea or the strategy as much as the people who made the difference between victory and defeat.
What has been your most satisfying moment in your career?
All of the most satisfying moments are the same: a great employee got hired to do a much bigger and better job, an athlete overachieved, and a company got so successful it was bought by someone who could take it to the next level. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing the people you’ve worked with succeed.
What does the future hold for you?
Hmm. I don’t think anyone has an answer to that question. Twice in the last decade, I’ve had some very sudden, unexpected (and luckily treatable) health scares. Both times, I had to sit down and evaluate whether I was doing things the right way, living life in a way that brought joy to those around me, and in a way, I could be comfortable with if I didn’t come out on the other side. I went to therapy. I took long walks. I meditated. I changed my diet. I changed all my habits. And now, after two health scares, I don’t think too far down the road. Life comes at us quickly, so quickly that we don’t notice much of anything. I try to be present and enjoy everything I can – and to be VERY conscious about what I leave behind every day.
What are you most excited about?
I currently work with two companies that I’m particularly excited about. Briotech is a manufacturing company that is producing a compound that is changing the world in disaster relief, infectious control, and health. Watching it grow and change the world is going to be fun.
Eye Tracking, Inc. is a company that has patented how to recognize cognitive states and their relationship to performance. The company is helping rethink how we train and support airline pilots, soldiers, and peak performers around the world. Getting to see these companies grow, and their leadership flourish is very exciting to me.
What books have inspired you?
I try to read a book a day, and at that pace, I’m sure I miss a lot. But, the book I really got the most out of last year was “Never Split the Difference.” It’s an amazingly well-written book about negotiating well.
For my relationship and how I go about life, there are a lot of books that come to mind: “The Two Step,” “Tuesdays with Morrie,” “The Last Lecture,” and all of Irvin Yalom’s books on existentialism.
What is a recent purchase that you have made that’s helped with your career?
The best money I spend is on health, so the purchases I make that really make a difference are time with my trainer (who I simultaneously love/hate, but with whom I am incredibly close); good food; and experiences that help me regroup, unwind, and get back in the game.