[WE Talk] Bryan Carruthers – Winning the Long Game in Life and Business

Bryan Carruthers

Winning the Long Game in Life and Business

On this episode:

  • how a Waldorf education cultivated “big picture thinking”
  • the essentiality of creativity in business
  • creating an office culture of respect for and celebration of the individual and the whole organization
  • how a Waldorf education teaches “long game” life skills

Episode Transcript:

Nita Davanzo: Hello and welcome to WE Talk. A podcast that explores the role of Waldorf Education in helping children, parents, and families thrive in an ever changing world. WE Talk is brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and this is your host Nita June Davanzo.

Hello and welcome my dearest WE Talk listeners. Today I am proud to bring on the show Bryan Carruthers who graduated from Shining Mountain Waldorf High School in the class of 2001. After graduation, Brian attended the Colorado School of Mines and received a BS in Civil Engineering with a minor in Public Affairs. Brian has taken on quite a few endeavors since this time, spent both at Shining Mountain and at Colorado School of Mines from project management in construction to founding his own project management firm, to now being a partner with a private equity group and founding a company called Answer Advisory, a project management consultant firm of which he is the CEO.

Their guiding principle is an exceptional company is found when in the mirror of each employee, the whole community finds its reflection and when in the whole company the virtue of each employee is living. If this quote sounds a bit familiar, it has been adapted from a Rudolph Steiner quote. We’ll hear a little bit more about that from Brian in a moment. Brian currently lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Karen and his two lovely children, Natalie who is five and Owen who is two who are both attending a Waldorf inspired pre-K program.

Welcome Brian to this episode of WE Talk. Thank you so much for being with me here today.

Bryan Carruthers: Thank you so much for having me.

Nita Davanzo: Bryan, I must say you are quite the renaissance entrepreneur, from civil engineering to budget management software to your current position as co-founder and CEO of Answer Advisory, a project management consulting firm with a few other turns and twists along the way that I’m sure we will get into in a little bit. You, Brian, you’ve done a lot. You’ve done a lot in your relatively short life. It’s quite impressive. From your perspective, I don’t know if you think about all these twists and turns in your career, if it feels like kind of a seamless transition from one thing to the next or if it feels like more of a, “What am I going to do next? Or what am I going to do next?”. 

But can you share with our listeners just a bit maybe about each time of transition and kind of the flow of your career changes in your life.

Bryan Carruthers: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I set out after I left Shining Mountain thinking that I would follow some master plan and that that master plan included all of these shifts in what I was doing at all. But I do think that if I reflect back to just really how I always thought that my professional career would actually be, I always envisioned it including starting and creating new things and new businesses.

So I think if you look at it through that lens, the shifting of different entrepreneurial endeavors is it actually feels like a natural flow to me. And like they’ve just led from one to another as it feels like the right opportunity. So not a master plan, but also something that feels natural when I look back on how I’ve moved from one focus to the next.

Nita Davanzo: And a question for you on how do you as an entrepreneur like since that you’re done with something or that it’s time to move on, is that just an intuitive sense? Have there been bigger “signposts” along the way that you’re like, “It’s time now.”?

Bryan Carruthers: Yeah, I think it’s a gut thing mostly where it has to… If I’m not feeling passionate about what I’m doing anymore and if I’m not feeling like I can continue to add value in the next steps in a way that are passionate, that’s generally been what’s led me to taking the next step or deciding that it’s time. In a couple of scenarios, I would say that having sold one company and then started working for the firm that acquired us, I would say after a couple of years that one was driven by just feeling like I wasn’t aligned anymore with where they were headed.

So in some cases it has been a specific decision of doing it this way as in the way that I want to continue doing it based on some of the changes that come along with the sale. In others, it’s really been just a decision of I think I’ve taken this and contributed to this to the extent that I’m able, and it’s now time for somebody else to take it. Or in some cases this isn’t actually going to be a viable business, so it was a great effort but not something that’s worth spending a lot of additional time and energy on.

Nita Davanzo: That’s quite an ability to be able to see the big picture of that I feel of whether something is going to be successful or something is going in a different direction that you’re not quite in alignment with. And for me personally and from other alumni who I’ve spoken with, I do feel like that’s an element that comes from a Waldorf Education is this ability to see the big picture and also the ability to have a sense of self within the big fullness of whether it’s the world or a company.

You attended Shining Mountain from third all the way through 12th grade. What other strengths or capacities do you feel like from your Waldorf Education might be significant factors for you in your work and your life?

Bryan Carruthers: Yeah, sure. I think that the fundamental piece that we all gained from a Waldorf Education is this understanding of self and understanding of how self also then ties to community, whatever that community may be, whether it’s personal life, whether it’s business, whether it’s neighbors. But that understanding that you gained through attending a Waldorf school is important to the ability to then see the big picture. Because you understand the big picture, you understand where other people are coming from, and you also understand what you’re bringing to the table and how you fit or in some cases may not fit with that.

So I think that’s pretty key. The second piece, and I think Shining Mountain always had the motto, I don’t know if they still do, but Arts Imbued College Prep. I think for a while that was how they were conveying the education. I think the big part to me of art is not necessarily that I can still do fine art. Well, that’s great but hasn’t necessarily contributed a lot to my success post Shining Mountain. But it is the understanding of the creative process and being creative and that is such a foundational and fundamental part of Waldorf Education. And that translates to so many things in life and it’s such a powerful tool to be able to understand. So the ability to see when it’s time to walk away or move on. Well, I think that’s just inherently part of being an artist, frankly, or creating is once you feel something is created, or you’re done creating it, it’s time to move on and create the next thing. So I would tie it back to that.

Nita Davanzo: Nice. Yeah. Right. Because being an entrepreneur it’s in its essence creative, you are bringing new concepts, strategies, ideas, people, communities together into reality. Yeah. It’s an incredibly creative endeavor.

Bryan Carruthers: And more and more I think any career, whether entrepreneurial or not if you’ve read books like Drive by Pink. I don’t know if you’ve read that or not, but there’s actually… So it’s entirely about how employees are driven and motivated and more and more I shift toward away from employees sitting down and manufacturing and creating the same part every day and doing that. But rather most employees’ jobs now are more and more shifting towards having a creative element within them. And so I think that applies beyond just being an entrepreneur.

I think industry in general is increasingly reliant upon the ability to be creative. And there is a bit of a shout out at the end of that book actually to Waldorf Education as a potential model for better aligned at dictation with where careers are headed as opposed to the public education system, which is pretty still rooted in turning out students that are ready to go sit in a company kind of really more designed around industrial revolution type of positions.

Nita Davanzo: Well, I think that’s a really actually vital point of civil edge that you bring that up, that it’s not just entrepreneurs. No, I mean I think in even to broaden what you’re saying and expand upon what you’re saying that I believe human beings at our core, we are creative, we are creators. We’re creating our lives, how we want to live our lives. And so yeah, whether it’s as an entrepreneur, you know who in that creative capacity or just in a business that as being a part of a business, when we can feel valued in that way, that we’re contributing something of our ideas ourselves, of our hearts, of just even our work, then we feel clearly much more recognized within a community. Which actually totally brings me to my next question, Brian.

You are the CEO, as I noted of Answer Advisory, and your company’s guiding principle is “an exceptional company is found when in the mirror of each employee, the whole company finds its reflection and when in the whole company, the virtue of each employee is living”. This is one of my favorite Rudolf Steiner quotes and I love that this is one of your company’s guiding principles. What led you to choose this ideal for your company and how do you see it playing out on a daily basis?

Bryan Carruthers: Well, I think the original Steiner quote, isn’t it about an exceptional company, but a healthy social life, right? I think just the way that the quote goes, but really it’s about this balance and tension I think honestly, between group and individual and that the individuals contributing to the group, everything that they can contribute, but then also the group… and the group is a reflection of each of those individual contributions, as well as the group then imparting something back on the individual and having a common piece coming back from the group to the individual.

So the context that’s important here is that Answer Advisory is a professional services consulting firm. So currently we’re around a 300 person firm that provides project management consulting services. So that means that our business, quite literally the assets of our business are people. We don’t sell widgets, we don’t have equipment and manufacturer things. We sell knowledge and time and that knowledge and time comes from people. And those people go home every day and have personal lives and then you hope they walk back in the next day so that you still have a business that can provide those services to customers.

So I think that’s pretty essential to understand in terms of why I felt that this quote was an appropriate guiding principle because really our business is nothing more than a large community and social community. And if we’re doing this right, we are creating a community that is harnessing and representative the best attributes that we’re each individually bringing to the table, as well as ultimately then having the community be a location that attracts and retains and is the type of environment that all of those individuals want to be a part of. And so the quote just one, I was probably a little bit lazy and going, “Oh, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what we want to do.”

So I thought I could take it and re-purpose it, but I think it’s really true to the form of what the original quote was, which is that our business is just a different type of human community.

Nita Davanzo: May all businesses have that as a core guiding principle. And as CEO, how do you see your employees responding to this?

BryanCarruthers: So I think it’s pretty fascinating because we’ve actually grown this firm out of combining seven much smaller firms. So we’ve acquired seven companies and brought them together, each from different geographies or with different end market niches that they were serving. So we brought in smaller groups of individuals with defined interactions and cultures and are now really collectively defining what it means together to be Answer Advisory. So I would say that this guiding principle is pretty foundational in terms of setting an expectation that we’re going to recognize each individual coming in and where they’re coming from and bring it together now as Answer Advisory.

But by the same token at Answer, we’re going to have certain ways of doing things and developing our business that we need each of them to be willing to take on. So I think they respond to it quite well because it tries to capture the very real scenario that we’re all in, which is pulling from individuals and past legacy companies as we build now together this new company moving forward. And again, that natural tension that exists between the individual and the group. So it puts nicely I think, something that employees feel every day when they come to work at Answer. At least with the phase we’re currently in, in terms of building this organization.

Nita Davanzo: Nice. And that’s what we all want. We all again want to be a part of something that we feel valued and recognized and really a part of, not just a cog. Yeah. Brian, one of the predominant Waldorf myths or stigmas is that while the education does not prepare you to go into a career in the sciences or a career that is possibly heavy in math or business, you are a living example of disproving this idea. How would you respond to that statement or belief about Waldorf Education?

Bryan Carruthers: The first one, probably as somebody who studied engineering, which I don’t think the data is correct. I think you’re right in framing it as a stigma, because I think when you look at Posner surveys or other things, it’s actually a pretty common path. And I think that you would know that better. Maybe you would speak to the numbers better than me, but I think it truly is a stigma and not necessarily something substantiated by the data. That would be my first response. The second response though would be that it probably isn’t reflected in the data, because it all ties back again, particularly business and the sciences. And then I would define probably engineering as a subset of broader sciences.

But for both business and the sciences, there is an element of exploration and ability to be creative and to adapt that is foundational to doing things within business or science. Engineering is then a subset of the sciences that also follows a similar vein. So my sense of where that stigma originates, which you didn’t ask me, but I’m never shy about sharing my opinions on things as most Waldorfians, but I don’t think are ever too shy about sharing their opinions. I think the stigma originates because it’s not necessarily an IB program. It’s not AP science or math that you’re learning, particularly in high school.

And so you can, if you’re just looking at a student’s ability to regurgitate facts or crunch through formulas, for some student who may have been in a public school who were in one of those advanced programs that focus a lot on that versus say a Waldorf graduate, there probably is a difference at that period in time. I think that’s probably true. I don’t think that having the foundation of being able to just regurgitate back is a stronger foundation to be starting from in terms of a desire in higher education to go on and study the sciences or business or something that’s more analytical.

And I’ll give a specific example of why I think that, which is, I went to Colorado School of Mines right after school and i was the only Boulder student there and was in freshman entry level classes with students who had a deeper understanding at the time of a lot of the equations that we were being taught. They had even studied some more of those specifics than probably I had at a time, but where they struggled was then the need to expand beyond that. And really start understanding truly why and answering why and also taking those concepts and applying them to new problem sets, instead of just regurgitating it.

I think one of the starkest things that I noticed early on was a number of broader questions on… I think it was freshman chemistry tests where… There were broader explanations of a concept behind and then demonstrating and understanding of the why. Those were so easy for me. And I would say in general, most of the other kids in the class with me, those were the ones they hated and they struggled with. Whereas maybe I had a little bit more work to do on, “Hey, can I crank through this equation. Probably took me a little bit more studying to get comfortable with that concept, but I would far rather understand the why and I think it’s so applicable for where we’re heading as a society as well.

Understanding the why, being able to speak to that, being able to question that and have a foundational deep understanding, I think is far more valuable than being able to crank through an equation because you’ve done it a bunch of times and go look that up anymore. Go look it up, understand it, apply it or have artificial intelligence probably increasingly do it for you. I think the piece that can’t be substituted is the understanding of why.

Nita Davanzo: Yeah, Bryan, I feel like talking about you needing to perhaps study a little bit more just buckle down on memorizing the formulas or it sound kind of rote concepts is actually, I would venture to say easier than also understanding the why. There’s a lot more to understand the why behind a concept and its ability to then bring that deep understanding to other things.

I remember so often talking about this, the exact piece of what we’re saying in math classes with… I had both Jamie York and Marty Levon, excellent math teachers. And I remember even especially as a high school student, it was like, “Oh my gosh, can you just give us a formula and tell us what to do?” I just wanted to do it, so much harder to like actually… I mean even remember some of them like we’d have to come up with a formula ourselves by going through step-by-step of the different equations and it was really, really challenging.

Now of course looking back on it, I’m so grateful for that, but as a high school student maybe just wanting to get through and get done with the homework, I was like, “Really?” Yeah. Interesting. So speaking of students in Waldorf schools, you have very two young ones currently attending a Waldorf inspired pre-kindergarten program. How has it been as father to see them step into this education and how do you see them flourishing, growing and developing as they take their pre-kindergarten steps so to speak?

Bryan Carruthers: Yeah, well, what we’ve found so far, and I think it’s important for everybody to note that education and what the right education fit is for an individual is probably just that, right? Each individual may have the right fit, maybe it’s Waldorf, maybe it isn’t, and maybe a particular Waldorf school at the time has the right fit or it isn’t the right fit. I think it’s helpful to remember, I mean we’re all individuals, we may all have the right fit. So that’s kind of how my wife and I have looked at this, which is okay what Natalie, my daughter who’s five and a half and Owen, our son who’s two and a half. “What is it that is the right fit for them right now?”.  And the right fit for them right now is to be in relationship with other kids, experiencing the world with wonder and learning about it through play.

Not all programs do that. In fact, very few necessarily do. So that primarily is what the right fit is right now. And I would just say, I mean it’s interesting with our daughter who has expressed a deep interest in learning letters and numbers and writing and wanting to start to learn to read. Well, she’s in a 3-K program right now that’s doing none of that, but she still has that interest and we can still foster it, but we know because we’ve seen it. She is far happier and healthier and developing such a strong base by focusing and instead on the wonder and the play and the interactions instead of that other stuff.

But she has an interest of her own accord. So that’s the primary reason. I think it goes back to this belief actually that education is just that. It’s educating the entire person, not just their heads, not just a logical side of their heads. It’s educating the entire person. Head, hands and heart. And that’s really key. I think see it as really key so far anyway for our kids as well and their happiness and their development. They’re not happy to just sit and be taught and regurgitate it back. They’re looking for something far deeper than that in terms of their learning in the world.

Nita Davanzo: And to speak to your point, you noted that your… I think you said your daughter is really eager to read and write and do all those pieces. I remember when I was in my teacher training years ago that that was a question that I had was how should that desire and passion be met? And the answer that came back was, “Oh, it should be encouraged and supported. That’s wonderful.” And at the same time, we’re also going to balance that out. We’re not going to push our young being into only focusing on what they’re passionate about at that point in their lives, because there’s so much more to learn.

So again, as you spoke to of like providing all these other outlets for someone to grow in their heart, in their spirit, in their head, with their hands, that I think it can… I’ve seen just in some of my friends and peers around me with their children kind of following, “Oh, my child is really interested in this all the time.” And so they do that 100% of the time and then that switches what else 100% of the time. And I’m like, “Huh, interesting.” Well, who’s guiding that? The five-year-olds with their whims and fancies or kind of this [crosstalk 00:00:27:21].

Bryan Carruthers: Yeah. Exactly. Well, it’s always tough I think as a parent where you don’t want to impart your experience too much on your kids or what was right for you. But I will give the example of, because I was in public school prior to going to Shining Mountain in third grade as you mentioned. In public school I was in the advanced math classes and I was doing the advanced academic everything in third grade. I had already different paces and break out and you’re going to be in the dance track. And I was playing soccer a lot and very competitively at that age already.

And remember the shift so distinctly of the… And I was profoundly unhappy too by the way, which was why my parents started looking for alternatives, a purchased education and so wound up at Shining Mountain and found this whole side of myself in terms of the creative that I wasn’t doing at all. Because it just wasn’t anything that was the focus in the educational programs that I was in. Now, my parents were the same parents. The opportunities at home were the same opportunities at home, but it was not where the focus and the time and the effort was.

So I look at that and how profound of a change that was for me in this entire side of me that I became to recognize and spent an equal amount of time cultivating and growing and educating. And if I look at what has led to the greatest contribution probably to what I’ve achieved post-school both professionally as well as in life, it’s not the advanced math and science. That’s not it. It’s the creative, which I think was my answer to one of your earlier questions. That is really what has more broadly contributed and so if I hadn’t made that switch, if I hadn’t found that in third grade, how different a person would I be is the question that I kind of always ask myself.

Now, I might’ve found parts of it anyway and developed, but it wouldn’t have been something that I’m so comfortable with and I know that I would not be as well rounded or happy as an individual without having found that and become comfortable with it.

Nita Davanzo: Yeah, I think about that often myself. A similar story to yours, which I won’t go into, but just had my parents not found Waldorf Education, for some reason I’m like, “I think I would be a really stressed out and unhappy lawyer”. 

Bryan Carruthers: Which isn’t to say that there aren’t attorneys who are Waldorf grads because I think you’ve even interviewed some, but yeah.

Nita Davanzo: There are many, yeah and I think like the key and not just like lawyer but like depressed and unhappy. I don’t think I would have been feeling a –

BryanCarruthers: Yeah. Exactly.

Nita Davanzo: … sense of advancement in my life. Well, Bryan, in closing, one more final question for you. If you were to go back in time or simply go back to Shining Mountain and give yourself or current students there today, a few choice words of wisdom, what might they be?

Bryan Carruthers: I think the first one would be there is no end in life, right? It’s not a race, which I think is why circling back to the other questions, can be so much comfort in, “Okay, you’ve got a little more work to do to learn some formulas on science and math.” This isn’t something where you get to the end and then you’re there and you get a gold star because you got there faster. That’s not what life is. So the advice is I think it’s easy when you are at a school that is “alternative education” which it probably shouldn’t be by the way. I think all education should be more similar to what it is in a Waldorf school. But currently in the world we live in, it’s “alternative”.

So you’re surrounded by a lot of folks that might be on slightly different paths or have different focuses. It’s really important and I would tell myself, and I think anybody who’s at a Waldorf school currently should tell themselves, that it’s important to remember that you don’t win any gold stars by getting somewhere by the time you’re 18 instead of when you’re 20 or when you’re 20 instead of when you’re 40. You’ve got your entire life to live and to live it fully, to impact the world in a positive way, to do it in a manner that keeps you happy, healthy, excited and engaged is a long game and Waldorf Education is setting you up with the tools to excel at that long game and that’s what counts.

Nita Davanzo: I think that should be a bumper sticker. Waldorf prepares you for the long game. It’s so true. Yeah. Thank you so much.

Bryan Carruthers: That’s my next business Nita. There it is.

Nita Davanzo: The bumper sticker.

Bryan Carruthers: That’s what I’m doing next. The bumper sticker. Yeah. I’ll let you in on it.

Nita Davanzo: Thanks. It’s going to be huge.

Bryan Carruthers: Yeah.

Nita Davanzo: I love it.

Bryan Carruthers: That’s right.

Nita Davanzo: I know. Well, Brian, thank you so much for your time. I so appreciate just speaking with you about your insights and your journey and I’m very excited to see in the future what next entrepreneurial endeavors you may be taking on.

Bryan Carruthers: Thank you so much again for the opportunity and thank you for continuing to have these interviews and share the inspirational and tremendous insight that so many graduates have.

Nita Davanzo: Thank you for listening to WE Talk, brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and hosted by Nita June Davanzo. WE Talk is made possible because of listeners like you who invest in production of the show. Share your appreciation for what you’ve heard today. Help us explore the value of Waldorf Education and preparing our children for the future by going to patreon.com/wetalkpodcast. If you’d like to be interviewed, have a suggestion for an episode head or simply wish to share feedback. Please email us at wetalk@smwaldorf.org.