Heather Mcgowan is a highly-recognized innovation virtual keynote speaker, strategic consultant, Amazon best-selling author, and LinkedIn’s 2017 top influencer on Lifelong Learning & The Future of Work. She helps leaders and organizations make ready on the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices, using modern smart technology. McGowan’s clients range from start-ups to publicly traded Fortune 500 companies, including AMP Financial, Autodesk, Biogen, Citi, Accor Hotels, AARP, The World Bank, and BD Medical.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I did not fit any particular mold and I think most folks had pretty low expectations for me. I think that gave me some liberties to carve my own path. I did not have the burden of high expectations and I wish we would give that liberty and support to more folks to find their lane.
I grew up in Massachusetts with internationally adopted siblings, which I think helped give me a broader view racially, culturally, and globally.
When I was 18 my brother, who is adopted from Korea, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that was only treatable with a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow transplants were pretty novel in 1992. The hospitals in Boston, near where lived, were considered some of the best in the world. The doctors there said they could not save him.
My brother wanted to keep fighting so my parents flew around the country to find a doctor or a hospital that would treat him. At the time, the University of Kentucky Medical Center was experimenting with bone marrow transplants between related but not perfectly matched people.
Friends of ours in Korea found his biological mother, who was not a perfect match, but who ultimately traveled all the way from South Korea to be his donor in 1992. Although he continues to struggle with health issues, he turns 49 in a couple of weeks.
While trying to find his biological family members in Korea, we ran testing drives to find that needle in a haystack by finding an anonymous, unrelated donor. That did not work but over 7,000 people rolled up their sleeves and gave a sample of blood to try to save the life of someone they never met.
Collectively, the experience gave me hope in people as most people want to help others—even ones that they had not met. I also came to understand that expertise is an informed opinion. Those doctors in Boston are amazing but it was an unlikely place, Kentucky, where we found my brother’s path forward.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Calm down, be curious, get engaged, and enjoy the ride. We live in a society that asks young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and then we ask college/university students to “pick a major” and myopically focus on it. We ask each other “What do you do?” This sets up expectations of a singular occupational identity at a very young age when we live in a world that requires continuous learning and adaptation. That learning and adaptation will lead us to multiple identities.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I believe most of our advice of the past is harmful now.
Get good grades in school suggests a secure future by having the right answers when in reality most of us will deal with continuous uncertainty and change. Technology can find the right answer to a known question. We need more folks who can find and frame new questions.
Get a good job and climb the ladder suggests locking in on a single company and focusing on how to stay there when leaving that company or entity for new experiences or a better fit for your own growth may be a better path.
And finally, technology may consume tasks that humans used to do but I do not believe the robots are here to replace us.
Technology is here to augment us and extend our potential. We must put the policy and, borrow from my friend Tom Friedman, the trampolines in place to allow folks not to simply bounce back but bounce forward.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
The best growth comes from tough situations. I learned a tremendous amount through my brother’s illness, which was very difficult. I also learned a great deal when I got fired from a job when I was in my 20s. I had spent most of my life largely getting what I wanted and suddenly I was denied and deemed unnecessary talent. Both taught me impermanence and uncertainty are norms and it is best to create new value every day.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
The generosity of others. I have and have had outstanding mentors and advocates throughout my life. I try to extend the kind of generosity I have received.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up between 5:30 and 7 am. I do not set an alarm unless I have a flight somewhere or an early meeting. I spend the morning reading across a broad range of topics. I walk my dog or do something similar that allows me to think about the new information and make connections.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I think making time to be present with friends and family is particularly important to recharge. The purpose of our lives may just be a connection.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I do not think I am particularly productive, and, in fact, I think even that notion of measuring our output is a relic of prior industrial revolutions. I think I use my time most effectively if I sleep well, connect with others, recreate, eat well, and generate new ideas and insights. I might even prioritize that order. We are a society of overworked, sleep-deprived, isolated humans measuring ourselves by hours worked or units produced in a world ripe to hand much of that productivity off to technology. We have an inflection point, brought in part by the pause the global pandemic created, what kind of world do we want to live in?
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I find anything by Tom Friedman, Brene Brown, and Simon Sinek insightful and I appreciate the simplicity and clarity they all bring to complex topics.
Tom Friedman brings incredible insights into the changing nature of our world (The World Is Flat, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thank you for Being Late).
Dr. Brene Brown (Dare to Lead, Daring Greatly, Gifts of Imperfection) questions our societally induced reactions to avoid shame when they are, as she describes, the birthplace of courage and creativity. In short, we should not avoid vulnerability but embrace it as that is where true innovation begins.
Simon Sinek (Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last, Infinite Game) challenges our assumptions in business strategy and management. I believe Alex Osterwalder (Business Model Generation, Value Proposition Design, The Invincible Company) has made incredible contributions to business that are just beginning to be understood with his groundbreaking work on business models, value propositions, culture, and resilience.
Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline) should be read again now as his insights into learning organizations are now particularly apt. Dave Gray is a master at simplifying the complex, particularly in visuals, notably in the book Liminal Space.
I have recommended Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin to anyone who needs help organizing their thoughts for presentations.
Dee Hock’s One of from Many tells the story of how he created the modern credit card in the late 1960s based upon systems in nature. Dee was way ahead of his time when he created the most valuable company in the world with such trust and resilience that no one noticed when he quietly stepped down as CEO in 1984.
Julia Butterfly Hill occupied a redwood tree named Luna for over 2 years in an effort to protest deforestation. Her book (Legacy of Luna) about the experience is particularly relevant today. In the book, she details how a one-day tree-sit evolved over two years and, in particular, the empathy she developed for the loggers determined to cut down the tree as it was the basis of their way of life and their multigenerational identity.
I could go on in suggesting books, but I will stop there. I make my living as a speaker explaining the changing nature of the future of work, which includes substantial considerations about identity, empathy for ourselves and others, and a need to understand the rapidly changing world around us.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
The best bumper sticker I have ever seen was “Life go on, until it don’t” and the expression, “Live every day of your life like it is your last, and sooner or later, you will be right”. Both of those I think and say often. More specific to my work, I say both “Learning is the new pension because it is how you create your future value every day” and “ABL: Always Be Learning”