Karl LaPan begins his morning routine the night before (which is no surprise because he is always three steps ahead of everyone else). During the last hour of each night, Karl spends time researching and reading research, reading entrepreneurial stories and reflecting on where certain industries are going, and analyzing trends and scanning current events. Each morning, he wakes up and focuses on rhythm, speed and accountability in order to guide the rest of his day.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm
My 7:30 AM meeting with Karl LaPan, President and CEO of The Northeast Indiana Innovation Center (NIIC), started by me quietly approaching him in the back corner of one of his favorite breakfast places—Bob Evans. Working diligently, he was surrounded by scattered papers and his Mac. He had been camped out in his booth since Bob Evans opened at 6 AM. As I approached Karl, I didn’t want to interrupt his concentration.
From the moment I met Karl, I realized I had to know everything about everything.
I sat down across from him and the waitress came to take our orders—well, my order. She already knew what Karl wanted for breakfast—he’s a regular. As I enjoyed my Bob Evans western-style omelet with and a biscuit, I began to explain the premise of our breakfast meeting.
If you read last week’s Insider Influence blog, you know that I was tasked to write a blog post on leadership. This transformed into a series of interviews with influential thought leaders in Northeast Indiana. As I thought through leaders to connect with for the blog, Karl was the first person I jotted down.
Leadership is Learned through Experience
I reached out to Karl about a year ago after I attended The NIIC’s annual Ideas@Work event. He has been at the center of one of the most influential entrepreneurial communities in the region, and I wanted to learn from his experience. From the moment I met Karl, I realized I had to know everything about everything.
...decisions he makes now are different in year 18 from the decisions he made during during the first few years.
During our breakfast, conversations went from President Trump’s North Korea summit to advancements in technology and support tools to assist entrepreneurs, and everywhere in between. I wanted to discuss his leadership tactics, knowing he’d hold nothing back (candor is a leadership quality) and provide thought-provoking advice.
The NIIC has been supporting and nurturing the launch and growth of entrepreneurial businesses for over 18 years, and Karl has been involved from the beginning. He shared that the decisions he makes now are different in year 18 from the decisions he made during the first few years.
“Early on, when you haven’t proven yourself yet, you take more risks,” Karl added. “Your risk temperament often changes as your organization grows older and more established because you have less degrees of freedom and more external stakeholders to satisfy.”
Karl’s understanding of organizational leadership has only grown by being part of The NIIC. He mentions that people are the toughest aspect of an organization.
“As your organization continues to grow, building an effective team gets tougher and tougher… the culture adapts and evolves but some people just don’t fit,” he shared.
After he said this, I was curious as to how he helps new employees understand the unique culture of The NIIC. Karl said new employees go through multiple weeks of training and shadowing, as well as reading a few books that help teach them about providing the best service experience and effectively contributing to organizational culture. Every month, there is an all-employee Happy Hour to intentionally celebrate successes, communicate and reinforce the vision and metrics, and to train on service excellence. Of course, Happy Hour is at 10am at the NIIC and not in a bar!
Early on, when you haven’t proven yourself yet, you take more risks. Your risk temperament often changes as your organization grows older and more established because you have less degrees of freedom and more external stakeholders to satisfy. – Karl LaPan
Leaders are Influenced by Other Leaders
In Karl’s perspective, the nature of the work world has evolved greatly since he first entered the workforce. After graduating college, he immediately entered into one of the best career training programs at GE. Establishing a strong skill set was a top priority for him, as well as remaining loyal to his workplace. According to Karl, a career path is less defined in today’s society. Moonlighting, or working for multiple organizations at one time, is the biggest contributor to this.
If you’re taking on a leadership role, the advice is twofold: find someone older and wiser to seek as a resource, then prioritize your challenges and opportunities.
Karl’s biggest piece of advice for someone taking on a leadership role for the first time is twofold.
First, find someone much older (and wiser) than you to seek as a trusted advisor and mentor. Ask this person about their past experiences and allow them to provide you with insight and honest advice. Ask questions often and take advantage of their wisdom.
Second, prioritize your challenges and opportunities. Throughout life you will be presented with many obstacles and choices—don’t let these overwhelm you. Allow yourself to grow through the struggles and choose the opportunity that provides a space for your performing at your best.
Personal Growth is the Most Important Leadership Tactic
Karl’s thirst for knowledge is something I aspire to have as I become a seasoned businessman and leader. Once each quarter, Karl embarks on a learning journey. He hits the road and travels to different organizations in various industries to learn how they operate. He is able to learn from their successes—and their struggles—and he applies this knowledge to his own organization. Daily, he has breakfast and lunch meetings with a variety of thought leaders looking to connect dots and forge new connections for The NIIC.
Furthermore, Karl serves on several boards throughout Northeast Indiana including Physicians Health Plan (PHP). He most recently joined the Ball State University Entrepreneurship Center Advisory Board. Giving back is part of The NIIC way. All employees are encouraged to get involved in causes that matter to them. Karl is passionate about healthcare and education.
“You need to get into a room with smart people that allow you to stretch your skill set,” Karl told me.
Karl also spends a lot of time reading. He is continually seeking new knowledge that helps round him out. He picks a part of himself that he wants to improve, and he strives make progress and maintain consistent personal growth. Along with reading, Karl recently wrote a book that will be available for purchase soon. Proceeds from his book, Guard Rails, will benefit the NIIC Connected Communities initiative.
You need to get into a room with smart people that allow you to stretch your skill set. – Karl LaPan
Lastly, Karl challenged me to surround myself with good people. People often imitate those they spend the most time with. If you spend time with positive and productive people, you will be more likely to reflect this attitude.
One thing that stuck with me above everything else during our conversation was this: “How relevant are you?” Karl challenged me to ask myself this question on a regular basis. There is a lot of noise out there, and if you’re not relevant, you’re not going to be effective. Maintaining relevance is an essential part of being the best leader possible.
There is a lot of noise out there, and if you’re not relevant, you’re not going to be effective
Karl’s insights were enlightening and encouraging, and I look forward to putting what we talked about into practice in my own life, although, I can’t promise that I’ll start my morning routine the night before.
Check back next week for Insider Influence: Episode 3 with State Senator Travis Holdman. Be sure to follow our social channels to see each Insider Influence episode!
Follow Reusser Design on Social Media!
Bonus Insight: Karl recommends reading “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth. He said it has been influential in his personal and business life.