You might be inclined to label Toby Stansell, COO of AcumenIT, as a technology guy. But you would be missing a lot. Stansell has many passions, including education, leadership development, global cultural awareness and an abiding sense of fairness. In a wide-ranging conversation, we struggled to keep up.
You seem to be involved in a lot of things, from civic organizations to training and leadership education. Most of it is not connected to your field. Why?
Your legacy of leadership is not what you do or accomplish, but what others become, do or accomplish as a result of any influence you might have in their lives. It’s not about you. Three things hold the key to having a better life, and they are inexplicably linked together: quality of health, quality of education and economic prosperity. A lot of my civic responsibilities have revolved around those things.
Many of your activities involve education. Is that Greenville’s area of greatest need?
There is a level of discomfort between academia and the commercial world, when there really ought to be a dovetailed connection. The path to economic prosperity does not begin when you get your first full-time job. It begins in preschool.
Is that occupational training at the expense of an education?
For years, I had very little appreciation for unapplied thought. But now, in every educational track, there’s a general ed piece and a more specific piece. We aren’t trying to drive a student down a particular path, but expose them to things so if they find something that is really attractive to them, they can see it at an earlier age.
You lived abroad for many years. What did it teach you?
We think the world is like we are, that it thinks like we do, values the same things we value. The world is way more diverse. [While on business assignment] I began to go to all these countries and got fascinated with going to places where I didn’t know the language, didn’t know how to get around and I didn’t know anything about the food. And I decided, if it isn’t going to kill me, I’m going to try it. It changed my life.
I believe you are well served by having a natural intellectual curiosity and interest in everything. Don’t say, “I don’t like those kind of people, I don’t like that kind of food, I don’t want to go to those kind of places.” The reason we don’t learn any faster than we do is that we stop things at the door and say, “I don’t like that.”
You do not seem like a typical IT guy. Are you?
I’m not an IT guy, I’m an industry specialist. We’re not selling technology; we’re selling business performance improvement. Technology just happens to be the tool. We have to express what we sell. Other people sell the technical gimmick of the week. We’re selling a new way of life. We have to do things that business executives care about: reducing risk, reducing cost, improving productivity.
IT started as a break-fix business. Then it moved to a managed-service business. Now it’s strategic guidance. The industry is transforming from a way to transact business into something that provides us with a strategic competitive advantage.
Who inspired you?
Seven people had a big impact on me. But the three who shaped my career certainly didn’t know they had that impact on me. [An IBM manager] who made me do what I wouldn’t make myself do; Greenville’s R. Hunter Park, who knew how to push my buttons and get more out of me (even if it left me crying in a parking lot sometimes); and [one of my first IBM accounts] who could have had me fired, but used the moment to teach me instead. It changed my career.
With so many interests, committees, organizations, speaking engagements and a demanding job, what keeps you going?
Everything in life follows this pattern: Believe, think, do and teach. No battle plan survives unscathed first contact with the enemy. There’s a huge thirst out there for people to understand frameworks that can be successful in developing into an authentic person and then into an authentic leader. People are starting to say, “How do I do that?” There are models out there that you ought to learn. That’s what I’m passionate about.