Mark Allen is an award-winning educator, internationally recognized speaker, executive consultant, and decorated author who specializes in talent management and corporate universities. He is a Professor at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School, as well as the Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Mark consults with both new and mature corporate universities and has served on the Board of Regents of the University of Farmers at Farmers Insurance and the Board of Advisors of the Global Council of Corporate Universities.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Jackson Heights, Queens—a neighborhood that has been called the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the United States. My parents were brought up in immigrant families and did not have the opportunity to attend college. From my earliest memories, education was stressed as being important and it was always assumed that I would go to college and have the opportunities that my parents lacked. My parents saved their money to ensure that they would be able to send me to college. I am grateful for that and have strived to impart the same ethic to my two children.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I had realized sooner what my career was meant to look like. I worked through some pretty bad jobs in my 20s and early 30s before I discovered that I love the worlds of higher education and corporate learning & development. Of course, this is strictly a hindsight realization as I would not have ended up where I did if I had not spent the early stages of the journey learning what I did not want to do and what I was good at.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Focus on technology because the future of learning is about technology.” I’ve been hearing that one for 25 years and I’ve always disagreed with it. And I’ve always been right (with the exception of 2020 when COVID forced educators to rely on technology). The future of learning is about learning. While technology can provide us with great access, in-person learning has persisted because people still value the experience of being in a room with other learners. While studies have shown that technology-enabled education can be useful and productive, I’ve never seen a study show that it works better than in-person learning. Just look at how eager everyone from K-12 through higher education was to get back into classrooms after COVID forced education online. We should explore ways that technology can enhance face-to-face learning rather than replace it.
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?
22 years ago my younger son was about 6 weeks old and was hospitalized with a severe and potentially life-threatening respiratory ailment. My wife and I were taking turns being at the hospital with our baby and caring for our other son who was 3 at the time. That same week I was facing the deadline for my Ph.D. dissertation. Needless to say, that was an extraordinarily stressful week. Fortunately, our baby survived and my dissertation got finished.
Ever since then, any challenge I’ve faced has seemed trivial by comparison. I love the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff”—since I faced a life-threatening situation for my infant son, everything else is small stuff. That was life and death—other situations can be stressful, but I always remind myself that they are not life and death.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I like to say I’ve been pretty lucky, but I realize that doesn’t really answer the question. The reason I think I’ve been lucky is that I have put myself into positions to get lucky. I guess the thing that I do is say “yes” a lot. When people ask for a little of my time—for example, to speak at a conference for no pay or for a phone consultation or informational interview—I say yes rather than asking for money or complaining about being too busy (how many times has someone complained to you about “not having enough bandwidth” or “too much on my plate?”). Rather than focus on fictional bandwidths or plates, I just usually say yes. Much of the time I never hear from them again and gain nothing from the interaction (except for a large deposit in my karma account). Occasionally I get “lucky” as that free talk turns into a paid consultation or a business opportunity. Another favorite quote: “Luck is the residue of design.” (Written by John Milton but popularized by the baseball general manager Branch Rickey).
What is your morning routine?
I usually wake up between 6 and 7 am but spend the first hour or two of my day in bed relaxing and reading. First a quick check of the news, then a longer check of the previous day’s baseball action and box scores. Once I’m out of bed, it’s animal time—feed the cats and feed and play with my dog and maybe a short walk. In other words, I definitely ease into my day. I generally hit the computer and/or phone somewhere between 9 and 10, but by then I’m definitely ready to get to work.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
It seems small, but I strive to keep an empty email inbox. Things in my inbox represent a “to do.” I try to respond to emails quickly so I can remove them from my inbox. If I have dealt with them, I can either delete them or move them from the inbox to another folder. You have no idea how great a relief it is to go to bed knowing that there are no emails to deal with. I can’t say I get there every day, but I do keep the outstanding emails to a minimum and frequently get it to zero. It is very liberating to feel fully caught up with work.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Work time is work time and non-work time is not work time and there are clear boundaries between the two. Especially since so much of my time in recent years has been spent working from home, I make a concerted effort to not have my personal stuff drift into my work time and not have work interfere with my time off. When I shut down my computer at 5 or 6 pm I’m done for the day. It’s not a dog park, dinner, and then a little work before bed—it’s done. And other than my occasional Saturday classes, I draw a line against working on weekends. By focusing on work during work time and having clearly designated downtime, I find I’m much more productive.
On the same note, a vacation is a vacation from work. It’s not to travel somewhere and relax, but check emails a couple of times a day and only do one or two phone calls. That still makes it a workday. A true vacation involves no work. It’s hard to get away for other than an occasional long weekend, but every year I shut down around December 18 (my son’s birthday) and don’t work—at all—until after January 6 (my birthday). A few weeks of true downtime is hugely beneficial in making me feel rested, renewed, and productive when I resume.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham. It’s the best book on leadership that I’ve ever read. Plus it’s a great deal—it promises to provide one thing you need to know, but it delivers three things you need to know: how to be a great leader, how to be a great manager, and how to be a great individual contributor.
The Bill James Baseball Abstract by Bill James. This was the first book to truly and deeply integrate two of my great loves: baseball and numbers.
Super System by Doyle Brunson. This is one of the most influential poker books ever written and it gave me the foundation to begin my journey into tournament poker
The Corporate University Handbook by me. It launched my career as a consultant and writer and I would not have had so many of the wonderful experiences I’ve enjoyed had it not been for this book.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“Living well is the best revenge.” I have learned (slowly, over time) that rather than hold onto petty grievances (or even big ones), by moving forward and trying to live my best life those grievances no longer have any hold on me.