The Wealth Cast Episode 12 with Dr. Joseph Pica

We all need direction in our lives. The alternative is wandering aimlessly without achieving anything. One central concept to helping us find that is by having a mission.

In Episode 12 of The Wealth Cast, Chas talks to Dr. Joseph Pica about the importance of having a clear mission in both personal and professional life. Dr. Joseph earned his doctorate in organizational theory at Indiana University. He served as MBA Program Director there and built a highly ranked program. Lending his experience, he shares the things he has learned throughout the years about benchmarking and how it helped improve the quality of candidates and education of the students. At the heart of it is making sure that decisions are in line with the mission, because this is the best way to be successful.

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In this episode, I discuss the importance of having a clear mission in both your personal and professional life with Dr. Joseph Pica. Joe earned his doctorate in Organizational Theory at Indiana University, where he was the MBA Program Director and was instrumental in helping the program achieve a ranking of 7th in the nation. Joe is also a successful entrepreneur, having founded Educational Benchmarking Inc. in 1994 and selling it to Macmillan in 2012. Joe, thank you for joining me on the show. I appreciate your time.

It’s a pleasure to be here, Chas!

When we were discussing the idea of having this podcast, we talked about lots of different subjects that may be of interest to the listeners. We settled on mission—and the importance of mission—as the central concept. There’s a step before that. You and I have had these conversations many times over the years about the central idea. The first step is you need to think about doing well in your career or with your business, by doing good. Why don’t we start the conversation there and then move on to the importance of mission?

That’s a great place to start. I look back over my career and recognize that the mission part of trying to make a difference in the world drove my professional career from beginning to end. It also created the opportunities for me. Having something I care deeply about that I was invested in and gave me the opportunity to focus on what was important in my life. Knowing that if it was important to me that I would be motivated. Every job that I had, I was focused on making a difference in the lives of college students. That was my mission in life. Along the way, that is how I thought I could do good. That’s where I wanted to do good. I would do that in my job, and I would also do it outside my job—I would volunteer to do things. I never had any other drive except to make a difference. By volunteering to do those things, it drove my career path in ways I could have never anticipated.

My company started not because I sat down one day and said, “I think I want to start a company.” My company evolved from the fact that I was driven to make a difference in the lives of college students. I volunteered to do a project that I thought would do that. I volunteered to do a benchmarking project with my fellow professionals who were all directors of MBA programs. I said, “I think this will make a difference in the lives of the students who we work with every single day.” They agreed and said, “That’s a good idea.” So on my own time, I put together a benchmarking study that said, “I think this would be of value to us.” They all agreed. I put it together.

I made a presentation at a conference with who was going to be my business partner. Everybody looked and said, “This is valuable too.” I looked at my business partner and said, “I’d be willing to do this on my own time, as he said he would. We’ll charge enough money that we can break-even. If we can get twenty schools to do this project, it will be a great start. We can expand our mission to many more college students.”

We put it together. In the first year, we had fifty schools signed up to do it. In the second year, we had a hundred schools. All of a sudden, I’m faced with, “Wow! This is turning into a business. This is turning into a way for my partner and I to expand our reach for our mission. Now we can make a difference in the lives of not only hundreds of MBA students, but thousands of MBA students.”

Can you explain how the benchmarking improved their lives? What was the output that the universities or schools would use to change their offering in a way that made the life of the student better?

There were two different approaches to benchmarking. I’ll give you the two that we did and how each had an impact. One of them was a quantitative approach. The institutions provided us with information about what their budgets were. Where did they spend their money.? They gave us information on how effective they were in recruiting students. What was their marketing budget? How many people applied to their program? What was their yield? How many of those people accepted? How many of those people attended? Nobody had a sense of how effective their efforts were without being able to compare it to their peers.

The other thing we did is we let them pick their peers, which had never been done before. At the time that we were generating and starting this, there had not been a successful benchmarking project in higher education. We were breaking new ground with the way that we wanted to approach this and to do it. What we recognize is if people saw that they were being inefficient or that they were below an average, that they weren’t getting nearly as many applications or they weren’t able to attract the level of quality. We let them look at all the elements that they looked at to make a decision. We said, “Our quality is—we thought it was (good)—but it’s not.”

It allowed them to turn and focus their limited resources on those things that they felt were most important in improving the quality of candidates, and then the quality of education. That’s what benchmarking powerfully does. The real benefit comes from after gathering this from hundreds of programs. We were able to identify those people in the different areas that were really good at what they did.

We went in and we did an in-depth research project because we could identify best practices. These are the people that have come up with a methodology that allows them to excel at what will drive mission fulfillment. We shared that with everyone because our goal wasn’t to make one institution better—our goal was to make all of those programs better so that MBA students across the country could benefit.

You raised the level as a whole, which raised the level of all the ships or all the schools at the same time. That was the goal.

Exactly. Then, after doing MBA programs, we said, “Why not do residence halls?” I had a background in residence halls and there are thousands of students that are living in residence halls. The residence halls have a mission about the impact they want to have on the lives of the students that live in their facilities. We developed an assessment that would give the students the ability to provide the administration feedback about how they perceived the quality of their experience. We went back and tied that to the mission statements of the professional organizations. I ended up working with housing organizations, nursing organizations, engineering and education organizations. When we created our assessments, we went back to their professional organizations and we looked at what their mission was as a professional.

The reason we did that was we discovered that many of those programs had mission drift. They got involved in things they thought were valuable but weren’t focused on their core mission. Our goal was to bring them back to the mission, first of all. Secondly was to give them information that was actionable. We wanted to be able to say, “We’re going to let you know exactly where you should put your limited and scarce resources to have the impact of doing good based on your mission.” It was all statistically based. One of the things we faced in working in higher education is that our clients who I call partners were all essentially highly educated, scientific people who wanted to have statistical evidence of our outcomes. It wasn’t good enough to say, “I thought it worked.” I had to provide them with hard evidence, and they were researchers, so there was a standard of research that had to be met. The beauty of that is it drove us to be experts because we understood that the way to fulfill the mission is to be able to provide the evidence that it actually works.

It’s making decisions based on your mission. Making sure that your decision-making as a business owner is in line with your mission and is improving someone’s outcomes is the best way to be successful. Can you share an example of a decision that you had to make at EBI that you decided not to do because it wasn’t aligned with the mission that you were trying to achieve? Were there opportunities that you had to forego or that you decided to forego?

Yes, there were people who came to us and said, “We would like you to do some work for us.” They were private companies, or they were driven to say, “Our goal is to make more money. We look at what you’re doing and we think that you’d be helpful.” I’d have a discussion and say, “That’s not what we’re about. We don’t want to talk about making more money. We want to talk about you fulfilling what your mission would be.” With our clients and our partners, it was a revelation to them in what we were able to provide them that changed the way they did their business. What we recognized was we couldn’t change the way that they worked. We couldn’t improve the quality of what they did. I’ll give you an interesting example of how that works.

We developed surveys where students could provide feedback about all the critical elements that were driven by the mission of that profession to say, “These are the things that we do. These are the students’ perceptions of what they are.” Students would fill out a 100-question survey. (It’s amazing they were willing to do it!) They wanted to provide feedback because they had some things that they were concerned about. The revelation to our clients, when they got the survey back, they wanted to go fix what students like the least. They’re most unhappy about this—“Let’s go fix that.” By doing our regression analysis, we were able to say to them, “What you want to focus your limited resources on is what’s most important to them.”

Because we now know that if you fix what’s important, their overall perception of the quality of their experience will go up. If you fix what they don’t like, it won’t. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but that’s the power of using a scientific method to determine what to do. Curiously, the thing they liked the least was never the thing that was most important to them. They were spending the resources to fix something that had no impact on the overall perception of the quality of their experience. Once we directed their efforts to what was important, in that next survey—if they were successful in addressing that issue—they saw that the student’s overall perception of the quality of their experience, improved.

That’s an example of something that we’ve talked about in our previous conversations about giving the client what they need rather than what they want, or telling them what they need rather than what they want. It dovetails perfectly in that concept.

What we recognize as we developed an expertise, I was looking across all of our client areas. There were 2,500 academic programs that we had information about. In any one particular discipline—say, full-time MBA programs—we knew more about what was going on in the nation than anyone. We had a responsibility to say to our client, “We understand this at a very deep level, we’re going to do presentations, we’re going to write papers to give you insights about what’s happening beyond your small microcosm.” Your depth of understanding will be improved because we have developed an expertise that is for the entire nation and all programs, not just yours.

They would come to us and say, “This is what we want to do.” We would say to them, “That may be so, but it’s not part of your mission. It won’t drive the outcomes that are most important to you.” Keep them focused. You become the expert. You educate them so that they have a better understanding of what their role is supposed to be. The wonderful part at the end was after gathering all this information, we would go back again and do best practices. How do we help you, not only with identifying what your issues are and what is having a negative impact on that perceived overall quality? Here are methodologies and approaches you can use that will improve those things, because they’re always the things that are hard to improve.

Presumably, many of these educational institutions had missions that were very similar.

They’re identical! They’re not similar. Because their professional organization has specifically outlined what their mission should be. So, we stop mission drift, we reinforce what they’re trying to do—and that wasn’t hard because almost all of those people were there because they care deeply about it. Their mission was the same as my mission. There was no difference in what that would be. Our goal was to focus on continuous improvement. That really was at the heart of how I ran the company and about how we played a role in the lives of those professionals. We said to them, “You can’t do this once.” Our approach is—we’re going to evaluate, we’re going to give you information that’s going to be prescriptive about what you need to do to better improve your mission, you’re going to do an intervention, and as soon as we think enough time has gone by and that should have made a difference, we’re going to assess immediately.

We want that timetable to be as short as possible. We want to give you feedback along the way. Sometimes what you do will have a positive impact. You’ll build it in to how you’re going to do things in the future. Sometimes your intervention didn’t work. You need to know that so you can go back, look at best practices again, figure out what you did that didn’t give you your expected outcome, and try it again. You can always be better.

This is not, “I’m going to be better tomorrow.” It is a process of, how do we continually get better over time, and keep our finger on the pulse of an evolving population of people and an evolving profession? If you do that, you’ll always have your finger right on the pulse. You’ll always be getting information that will point you in the right direction. You’ll always have people that will help you with a methodology that worked for them. The people in your organization will be driven because they’re going to see positive results. There’s nothing more rewarding to people in your organization than having hard outcome evidence that their efforts had a positive impact on the lives of the people that they cared most about.

Their efforts are helping to fulfill the mission. It’s interesting to me that it’s a series of dominoes as I see it. You’re sitting in your office at Indiana. You had a desire to improve the lives of the students based on your experience. You saw a need that was based on the fact that the data wasn’t available for these institutions to act upon. So you developed a mission to improve that situation, to improve the students’ lives by creating a tool that these institutions could use to continuously improve their own student experience. You then proposed this idea, and it was wildly successful in the first year and second year, up to 100 universities and institutions. You eventually built an organization where everyone was aligned around that mission where you develop the capabilities, and that organization became valuable and you were able to sell that organization after sixteen years.

There is a perfect example to me of doing well by doing good. You started with the primary mission to help these people have a better experience. It almost accidentally turned into a really successful business. I know there’s a lot of work.

Let me qualify “accidentally.”

That’s an extreme statement, I acknowledge.

But it’s a good one! Because a lot of people think what they are doing is either luck or accident. What I’ve discovered over time was that’s rarely the case—not that there aren’t circumstances that were supportive and helped you or made that opportunity better. Having known many people through my experience as an MBA director of watching a lot of other people be successful and doing little research to find out that luck was the lesser part of people’s success. A quick example is, this benchmarking effort was my third attempt.

Ten years prior to my doing and volunteering to do the MBA benchmarking study, I had done a benchmarking study with a group of fellow professionals because we got to a conference and everybody said, “We don’t have any idea of how much we’re being paid. It has always been a secret. No one wants to say it. We don’t know whether we’re being underpaid in comparison to other people in the country.” I raised my hand and said, “I volunteer to do a benchmarking study. I’ll keep everybody anonymous, but I’ll be able to do it by size of the institution. There will be enough of us that we’ll be protected, and I’ll do the analysis and send it back to everyone.” That was my first benchmarking study.

When I went to the MBA world and I started to go to meetings that the graduate management admissions council, the same thing happened. People said, “I don’t know my salary.” I offered to do it and I did it again.

Then I went to a conference on higher education benchmarking. It was a national study that was done by one of the big seven because there were seven big accounting firms at the time. They talked about a project that they did, and what they learned from it, but had failed. It wasn’t successful. They recognized how complicated and difficult it was. It was from that conference that I went back to my Big Ten directors and said, “I want to do this.” There were 300 people at that conference. One guy stepped out and said, “I want to take this another step further and I want to do it.” It’s evidence of what happens when you’re mission-driven.

You’re so driven to make a difference that you’re always looking for a better and most effective way that you can do it. Not only for yourself—but now I have the opportunity to do it for a larger number of people, and to bring them along—to educate them. My job is an educator. Within our company, what we said was, “If we are really good at what we do, we’ll do well, because we’re not in it for the money, we’re in it for making a difference.” If you make a difference, people are going to want to be a part of your program. Whenever we sat down, the first thing we would say is, “Whatever we were talking about, is this part of our mission? Secondly, how will it help us better fulfill that mission?”

Doing well by doing good is a battle cry in terms of keeping you focused. It’s not the only way to do well. You don’t have to do well that way, but it has to be the most personally fulfilling way to do well. You sleep better and it’s easier to get motivated if you believe in your mission. As Joseph Campbell used to say, “following your bliss.” Follow the thing that gets you moving, gets you energized. I can tell just by having this conversation how energizing that was for you.

How about the lessons that you learned in that whole process over more than sixteen years? As you said, you had some pilot programs before you started EBI that were stepping stones to that. How did you take that experience and coming full circle—back to the students? I know for years you would go speak to each MBA class at Indiana and share your experiences with them and some ideas for them to percolate on. What was the central message of those presentations or those discussions?

What happens to successful people—I know that everybody has experiences in their career—is that in the beginning when you have a mission, you’re typically working right at the “base level.” You’re in the roots of it. When I started my mission of helping college students, I was doing it personally. I started as an RA in the residence halls because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students that lived on my floor. It was great because I got to know them and to see them. When I made a difference, I could see their faces—and that was extremely rewarding.

For anybody marching through a career, the more successful you get, the further away you get from that direct contact. Working with MBA students, which was the group that I was focused on, was valuable. As an MBA program director, I got to know those people. It was fantastic. But as I evolved in the company, while I was able to help far greater numbers of MBAs, I got distanced from them, because I’m running a company and fulfilling my mission through other people.

One of the things I didn’t want to lose was that direct contact. At Indiana, I was fortunate that they invited me to work with a class for every single incoming undergraduate student. I would do the first lecture of that class. Over the time that I lectured there, I stood in front of 30,000 students. I was able to give them my messages about what I thought it took to be successful. It was rewarding because I got a lot of feedback from those people. Not only immediately after my lecture, but I would have emails come to me years later of people saying, “I remembered what you said. It was extremely helpful to me.” That’s what drives us knowing that for every person who told you, there were probably a lot of others who felt it, but they just didn’t make the effort.

I’m sure that knowing you as I do, circular experiences were coming back to the students, going back to work, and working on the mission. Those experiences, I imagine, gave you a lot of fuel. From my perspective, whether it’s in academic or business or wherever it may be, that you’re going to hit a rough spot. You’re going to hit a difficult period for whatever reason—every business has it, every career has it. But being on a mission that you believe in and have dedicated yourself to, it gives you the energy you need to go through or over or around whatever that blocking thing is.

That’s a great point because I got to know a lot of other entrepreneurs. When you are one and you’re connected to a business school, you end up having access to a number of those stories and you get to see them. One of the things I learned was the people I saw that were extremely successful were the truly mission-driven ones. There were some people that said, “My goal in life is to make a lot of money.” For twelve months, I worked 80 hours a week. I’m not in any way saying that’s a smart thing to do, but it was what was required. I was driven to do it because I could see it starting to come together. I was eager to do it as quickly as I could. I would fight through and investing those hours. I was excited about doing that.

What I discovered was that those people that were driven by money faded quickly when the road got difficult. It wasn’t enough of a driver for them to be able to do it. The people that had a mission were driven beyond any sacrifice because it was an intrinsic return for them. They cared about it deeply. That’s why they did what they did. That made a difference not only in the amount of time, but their drive to find a way to fulfill it. We look at entrepreneurs and we have this assumption because we see a lot of young tech entrepreneurs that all entrepreneurs are young people.

We know that in the research because I always go back and say, “What do we know about entrepreneurs?” We know that the average age of entrepreneurs is in their 50s, not their 20s. Those people that we’re seeing in the tech world are the people that are the exception. They are not the rule. I’m encouraging older people not to give up. You’re probably in your prime and have a greater chance of success because the reason people are older when they become entrepreneurs, is that they have a tremendous amount of experience, education, and contacts that put themselves in a position to be able to do that.

That reminds me of a quote that said, “If you limit your choices to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want and all that’s left is compromise.” That can apply at any age. It also speaks to the idea of tilting at windmills a little bit. Set your mission big. Set your goals big. Because anything else is simply compromising.

When I started there were a lot of people that looked at me and said, “You’re wasting your time. This isn’t going to work. Here are a hundred reasons why this is going to fail. You shouldn’t be doing this. There are other things you should probably be doing that would make a bigger difference in lives.” I remember when I was at this for a while, I overlapped. I was working as a director of the MBA program and an assistant dean and I was getting this company started. At some point, the growth exploded and I had to make a decision. I left to try and make this venture work.

I can remember one of my fellow professionals inside the business school came to me and said, “You’re crazy to be leaving here. We have the best retirement plan. It’s an easy place to work. You’ve got good colleagues. You live in a great town. Why would you take this risk? It probably isn’t going to work out for you.” I said what I heard many other entrepreneurs that I knew, “I have to do this. I am driven to do this. This is what’s important to me. This is my mission in life. I’m willing to take that risk because the return will be greater than I could have ever imagined.” That’s a difficult thing for people.

Without that focus and without having the fuel of the mission, you may have succumbed to the naysayers. They may have beaten you into submission. I’ve seen that many times. I’ve heard this similar story from other people as to the importance of having that source of energy. That is a great place to stop for this conversation. From my perspective, the central message is that the mission is the fuel source. It is what gives you the energy that you need to overpower the difficult situations and to push it through to completion in the difficult periods. If that mission is built on helping people do well by doing good for them, it’s even more powerful.

It has to be something that you care about beyond what you see as a perceived return. You do it because you have to. You do it because you love it. That positive feeling of knowing that you’ve had a positive impact on somebody’s life is the most rewarding thing you could do on a profession. There are many professions that that’s how people got drawn into them. It was not driven by the amount of money they wanted to make. The corollary to that is working in the MBA world, I saw MBAs make decisions about their careers based on what their income would be. They said, “I’m really smart. What I want to do is make a lot of money. I’m going to do this because these people seem to make the most money.”

I knew a number of MBAs who became very wealthy. I also knew a number of those that were very unhappy. While they were able to make money at what they did, it wasn’t fulfilling to them. Many of them eventually left that to go do something different. The good news is that their wealth gave them the opportunity. Once they discovered a mission that was more intrinsic than extrinsic, they didn’t have to worry about how much money they would make doing it. The number of people who are driven that way that left to find something else, I wasn’t surprised each time that happened, that it didn’t fulfill them.

After they’ve filled up their bank account, they realized that wasn’t enough. They had to go find something that they deeply cared about. It’s the role of education to give people a broad enough view to find that thing that they care about. College students take lots of different courses. Many times, they discover something they care deeply about because they took one class and it lit their fuse. It pointed them in direction of what their future mission was going to be. It is one of the purposes of higher education.

That’s very well said, Joe. Finding the thing that lights your fuse and that creates the mission is the central message here. I want to say, thank you so much for this conversation. I’m sure we’re going to have various topics in the future. I look forward to those as well. I can’t thank you enough for spending some time with me.

Thank you. This was a pleasure. I enjoyed it.

Thanks for joining Joe Pica and me for our discussion on the benefit that a clear mission can play in your personal and professional life.


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About Joe

Portrait of Dr. Joseph PicaDr. Joseph Pica was the Founder and CEO of Educational Benchmarks, Inc., from 1992 until its acquisition by MacMillan and rebranding to Skyfactor Benchworks in 2012.

EBI developed researched based assessments to inform decision making in support of continuous quality improvement for higher education institutions, the military, and corporations. Statistically valid and reliable assessments were the foundation for predictive analysis that identifies where clients should invest their scarce resources for the greatest impact on mission outcomes. EBI developed 76 higher education national benchmarking studies assessing over 15 million students at more than 1,500 colleges & universities; created over 30 corporate assessments, and a study for the U.S. Army assessing over 750,000 soldiers on 50 military posts. EBI developed MAP-Works (Making Achievement Possible), a student retention and success platform deployed on over 150 college campuses. EBI embraced a mission to empower management to use assessment to inform decision-making and drive continuous quality improvement. Macmillan New Ventures acquired EBI in 2012.

Joe earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Education from Pennsylvania State University, and his Doctorate in Education from Indiana University. He served as the Assistant Dean and MBA Program Director at Indiana from 1983 to 1997.


Original Release Date: September 23, 2020.

This podcast was originally distributed on September 23, 2020, by Independence Advisors. Independence Advisors officially merged with Modera Wealth Management on December 31, 2020. Please note that the information provided in these recorded conversations may no longer be current or may refer to events that have since passed.

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