A Friend, Big Ideas, and Team Building

"To me, Andy's life embodied all the traits a leader needs to drive the creative process," like being a good listener and nurturing others' ideas

As I walked toward the center of the stage at the 2007 Innovation Challenge finals to present a rather expansive idea involving Hilton Hotels and green marketing, I thought of Andy.

Andy Durk was my lab partner in eighth-grade science class. Unable to follow directions, color blind, and science deficient, I found new and creative ways to raise the classroom disaster count, while sinking Andy's GPA, but he stuck it out with me.

In ninth grade we started recording music together and would often spend countless hours after jam sessions talking about "big ideas." One night we stayed up until two in the morning trying to discern the meaning and purpose of life, ending in near tears when we agreed that it was simply "to grow."

The actual conclusion was nearly superfluous. The fact that we'd taken my philosophical whimsy and blended it with his scientific acumen to find a singular conclusion was to become the foundation of a lifelong friendship and the inspiration for my later opinions on team building.

Life's Challenges

Eventually Andy's ideas got bigger than big and he started having a hard time stopping them from coming. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a form of manic depression, right around our senior year in high school. I would have lost hope. Andy gave hope. He didn't hide his challenges and consistently reached out to support others even when he was hanging on by a thread.

I stayed in Massachusetts, he moved to Tennessee, and our friendship, while at times strained, continued over the phone for many years. Through all of 2004 and 2005 we pondered going into business with each other. When I committed to Kenan-Flagler at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in early 2006, it meant moving only a few hours away from his home.

He got into a very bad car accident several days later and passed away on Feb. 1, 2006.

In his last days Andy was recording music and working at a bagel shop—what most people didn't realize was that he was a hero. At his funeral, the word got out. People told stories of redemption, of suicide attempts that never came to pass because of Andy's guidance. Buried traumas healed by his attentive listening. Life passions and dreams aspired to through his encouragement. Andy was often shackled by his ailment, so he dedicated his life to helping others ascend.

To me, Andy's life embodied all the traits a leader needs to drive the creative process. A good leader is a good listener and helps others grow their big ideas. He shows that he cares and actively invests in his teammates, even if it isn't always convenient in the short term. Good leaders value process over outcome and avoid measuring themselves using external norms, often succeeding without fanfare. Best of all, they not only understand their own shortcomings, they let their teammates know about them.

They are, in short, the exact opposite person of who I was as captain of the second-place 2006 Innovation Challenge team. Self-centered and brash, overly aggressive, and focused on winning, I failed to learn from my friend's legacy. This year, I vowed it would be different.

A New Approach

Last year, our diverse team was built on the principle of creative friction. We excelled at the brainstorming process but our differences got in the way of producing content and presenting our ideas. Despite our second-place finish, we left as a team divided, and my style in particular left some competitors alienated.

A select few saw through it: I've maintained a yearlong friendship with the couple that led the winning team from McGill University and found the business school yin to my yang in Challenge teammate Sara Sparks. She is remarkably strong where I am weak: a patient listener, a visual/brand genius, and a highly independent content producer. After a long talk we decided to go for it in 2007, promising each other a whole new approach.

This new approach meant building a team with talent synergy and the commitment to use process to inject creative friction. It meant committing to a work schedule, interdependent teams, and rotational leadership positions. For me it meant transitioning from the guy with all of the ideas to the guy who facilitates the team's excellence—a big shift.

Building a Team

I brought in classmate Tyler Mills, who would inevitably prove to make up for my management missteps with his irascible charm. Brian Stempeck came in with entrepreneurship chops, marketing savvy, and understated leadership—the perfect fit. Rachel Kuhn was the person who I considered to be the brightest in our class and a naturally gifted public speaker, as well as someone who would challenge ideas.

We had fun making it out of the first round of 287 teams to the final round of 10. We came up with some groundbreaking idea-creation processes and sacrificed a lot of time and effort to pushing ourselves and each other. In the end, as we were driving up to Charlottesville, Va., it occurred to me that the outcome didn't matter anymore: This was the best team I'd ever been on.

Whereas last year's team wasn't beloved, this year's was voted People's Champion by our fellow competitors. The final balloting came down to a statistical dead heat between our team, and competitors from the Indian School of Business and London Business School, but we narrowly captured the $20,000 and title of Most Innovative MBA Team in the World.

Heavy Schedule

Most second-years don't do case competitions—they're too busy trying to get a job. During preparation for the Innovation Challenge I interviewed for two positions that I was really excited about.

The first was with a local consulting firm that I'd had a lot of contact with throughout the beginning of the year; I found out that I didn't get a second-round interview with them several days after getting back from the challenge.

The real apple of my eye became a marketing manager position in the emerging products division of a computer company. It involves creating launch plans for new and innovative products, including but not limited to some environmentally responsible ones.

This division sponsored a product plan competition, effectively offering the chance to do the work of the marketing manager for a real-life product launch. Unfortunately, the three-week process had a 50% overlap with the Innovation Challenge. Boldly disregarding past lessons on overscheduling, I put together a new team and entered the contest. Three-quarters of the way through, during a team meeting, I found out that I didn't make the second round for that position either—you could have scraped me off the floor with a spatula. To make matters even more painful, I was having the time of my life working on the product!

I was tempted to quit. There was a mix of embarrassment and disappointment that made the thought of presenting to the judges, some of which had just decided to take a pass on my candidacy, a little tough to imagine. Then I had a good laugh with myself. When my old pal Andy used to have really tough episodes, he'd struggle with speaking and controlling his hands but still go out at night to meet people. What was my excuse? After all, if the judges hated the idea it would be further confirmation that I wasn't the right fit.

A teammate and I put in a good 18 hours each over the last two days to complete our 20-page submission. We put together a fun presentation and stuck to a fairly outside-the-box strategy. It turned out the judges liked it just fine—we won first place and $2,000.

Looking Forward

I still need to find a job, but I don't want to overlook all of the amazing things going on at school. Kenan-Flagler is a vibrant place and we've had a lot of exciting things happen this year with even more to come.

On the news front, earlier this year UNC Net Impact President Beth Richardson and I launched a sustainable-idea competition with our counterparts at Duke University; and UNC will be hosting its first private equity symposium in February.

In addition, my two favorite events are rapidly approaching: Casino Night and MBA Follies (check out this Brian Stempeck joint from last year's Follies, with 25,000-plus YouTube views in nine months).

Our third mod is approaching and I will be taking classes in sales, organizational development, and strategic innovation while preparing for a 14-day study abroad in India. I'm excited about finding a great job. As much as there is an empty part of me that echoes with sorrow every time I think about Andy, I feel like I'm still learning from him every day—in an MBA community with people who embody his values and have become new, lifelong friends.

This post is dedicated in loving memory of Andrew Durk.