LEADING WITH COURAGE, CANDOR AND CARE
Brandon and I met for lunch on a sunny day in May. Over a light meal of salad and tacos, Brandon shared his views on the current state of education, commitment to family and his desire to see more equality in the world. Brandon is a realist with ideals. He is aware of the challenges inherent in changing the status quo and challenges himself just as much as he does others by regularly pushing his own boundaries physically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. For Brandon, there is always an opportunity to question why. He makes a conscious effort to “face the facts on a daily basis.”
I walked away from our meeting confident that I had just met a very unique and inspired individual. Someone who is sure to create change in this world. My interview questions were designed to give you insight into the man, professional and advocate that is Brandon Sammut.
Brandon, what is your role with Teach for America, and how has your career progressed within the organization?
I am a managing director for Teach For America’s recruitment and selection team. We are charged with attracting and selecting teachers for classrooms in low-income rural and urban communities. I am the chief of staff for our team of 180. Like most chiefs-of-staff, I support my team’s executive and advance a handful of special projects, including some efforts intended to diversify our teaching corps.
You are very passionate about your work with Teach for America? Why is that?
Don’t get me wrong: Teach For America is not a silver bullet to our country’s educational inequities. That said, I’ve yet to find an organization that has leveraged as much fresh thinking and energy against the enormous educational disparities that we see today. I also work with some of the most strategic, resourceful, and caring people I’ve ever met. Teach for America has been a great place to learn and grow over these past four years.
You co-founded an organization called DreamJob Chicago. Tell me a bit about that.
I founded DreamJob Chicago in 2008 with two good friends after talking with young people across Chicago. This was at the peak of the recession, mind you, and most of our friends were either unemployed, underemployed, or unhappily employed. That made me nervous because we were literally talking to the future of our country’s workforce, and they were all having very, very rocky starts to their careers. Meanwhile, we were also struck by the ineffectiveness of the conventional wisdom about how to find a good job. Drop your resume, try to network – the old adages simply weren’t working, although I suspect that they never did. My two friends and I started DreamJob Chicago to prepare young adults to take a fresh approach to finding work that they love. Our DreamJob “fellows” met in cohorts of 15 for three months at a time. Our sessions focused on building real, authentic relationships with professionals in Chicago, shadowing and apprenticing to ensure strong job fits, and leaning on other DreamJob fellows for support and accountability along the way. Today, DreamJob Chicago is on hiatus. My co-founders and I weren’t able to invest the time needed to scale up the program to meet demand.
When we first met, our discussion was on Diversity and Inclusion. What’s your thoughts on this topic?
Diversity and inclusion, or D&I, is a Loch Ness monster of sorts. Most organizations entertain the idea that it exists or should exist, yet no one seems to know what it looks like. And it can be a little scary, with its focus on race, class, and sexual orientation. D&I can mean something different for every organization, yet generally it is an effort to ensure that (a) everyone is at the table, and (b) everything is on the table. D&I is an effort to ensure that an organization can bring out and benefit from the best within its people.
What is your passion in life?
I’m professionally passionate about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her potential. I have many other passions as well, including photography, cooking, and Ultimate Frisbee. I have a ‘go big or go home’ mindset about most of my hobbies.
Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
Based on my experience at Teach For America, I’d like to ultimately advise other, more fledgling education organizations so they can reach their intended impact as quickly as possible. I like to tackle new, tough questions. An advisory role would enable me to work on new challenges every few months, all within the education space that I care about so deeply.
You followed your intuition in deciding to stay in Chicago when you met your current partner. You recalled having a brief but authentic and honest conversation with her. It obviously created a strong impression. How often do you operate from such a strong place of intuition and instinct?
I firmly believe that we know the right thing to do most of the time. Beyond that, I believe that what makes many personal (not moral) choices right is our conviction that it was indeed the right choice. It’s essentially an ‘attitude is everything’ mindset to decision-making. Like many of us, I also weigh the costs and benefits of big life decisions. For example, when deciding whether to stay in Chicago for romance despite plans to move, the potential of having an amazing long-term partner far outweighed the opportunity to move elsewhere. And let’s be honest – I love Chicago.
Some believe that operating from a place of intuition requires self-trust, optimism and the courage to be vulnerable. What do you think?
For me, the two most important ingredients for strong intuition are self-knowledge – a deep understanding of one’s values, fears, and motivations – and knowing the limits of one’s perspective. These two qualities are essential – one unto itself does not make for strong intuition or even strong decision making in general.
What has been your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge in life is living courageously – doing the right things when the right things are hard. It can be so easy to procrastinate, or avoid a difficult but important conversation. When I realized that these decisions are not just about me but also impact others, it was the wake up call I needed to “face the facts” on a daily basis.
What has been your greatest success?
I’ve made some strong progress against my challenge to live courageously. I’m fiercely proud of that because it has been truly difficult. I’m prouder still about the role that I am beginning to play in my family. As I get older, I’m consuming less time and energy from my family and giving more back. It’s satisfying to be able to pour back into loved ones the love and care that made me the man I am today.
Though you don’t have a wide network, you mentioned having a smaller network with deeper connections. At a time when “knowing as many people as possible” is considered an asset, why have you chosen this more intimate and focused approach to relationships?
Don’t get me wrong: big, broad networks make sense for many professionals, especially young professionals who are working to define themselves and find questions and challenges that inspire them. When I was in high school and college, a series of events forced me to consider what really mattered to me a bit earlier than most. And while I’m still exploring and learning like we all do, I have a firm enough sense of what I want from life to be picky about the types of people I relate with.
I also often question the value of traditional networking as a way of getting ahead professionally, with its focus on swapping business cards and relatively surface-level relationships. I’ve found much more success when I’ve built meaningful relationships with contacts, often working with them on something that we both care about. And when the time comes for that person to vouch for me, they can do so with conviction because s/he knows what I care about and has first-hand experience with how I operate.
When I first met you, I was most impressed with your ability to capture a person’s attention. I think of it as an ability to be fully engaged. Have you heard this from others?
I have heard this from others. I suppose I take it for granted. I’m genuinely interested in people, so I suppose that curiosity carries over into my eye contact and body language. Although ironically, I struggle to remember people’s names. When I meet someone new and she tells me her name, I repeat it back in acknowledgement and picture its spelling in my mind. If it’s not awkward, I also write it down. Writing down a name by hand is the best way that I can commit it to memory.
How would you describe yourself?
Oh goodness. I’m sensitive and a bit quirky. Equity is one of my most cherished values – I want my career and relationships to expand opportunities for those who lack privilege. I have a love of culture – especially cooking – that I inherited from my mother, a chef. I like being in nature and pushing myself to my physical limits. I’m an introvert by nature yet find myself feeling lonely if I’m by myself for more than a few hours at a time.
What motivates you the most?
My driving force is a belief in equity. For example, humanity produces enough food and resources to care for everyone, and yet millions starve and hundreds of millions never have the opportunity to reach their potential. It doesn’t have to be this way and I want to be part of changing the status quo, the erroneous belief that there will always be the haves and have nots. I usually find that it’s the ‘haves’ who hold this belief. Convenient, wouldn’t you say?
Would you describe yourself as conventional?
I’m not sure what conventional means these days. I know that we in my generation, the Millennials, all want to be unique snowflakes. There are some ways in which I want to stand out, particularly by living simply and resisting the urge to keep up with others’ consumption. Yet there are other ways in which I seek to belong. For example, I belong to a great church here in Chicago, Old St. Pats. I find it meaningful to share spiritual experiences with others, to sing songs in unison and talk about our lives through with the language of a shared faith tradition.
What is your personal mantra?
I don’t know that I have just one personal mantra. Although I do have a leadership mantra that I wrote for myself based on the ways in which I know I need to grow. For me, leadership is about the three C’s: courage, candor, and care. I try to put my words and deeds through that filter every day. Am I acting courageously? Am I being honest with myself and others? Am I exhibiting care in all that I say and do?
In closing, what do you want your legacy to be?
On my tombstone, may it be said:
- He was kind, passionate, and generous.
- He said what he meant and meant what he said.
- He was loved and loved much.
- He left the world a better place.
Interview by Sherry Clayton on May 23, 2012 in Chicago. Sherry is a Project Manager by day and blogger, mentor and volunteer whenever inspiration calls. Sherry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.