The Magic Sweet Spot Between Need And Love

It's there that you will find an opportunity—and the will to act on it.

Niccolo Machiavelli is famous for advising that it’s better to be needed than loved.

But why choose? In the sweet spot between need and love lies an empty field, without competition, without resistance, for us to do what really matters.

Lincoln Educational Services (LES) is playing on that field. At $402.7M in revenue for 2012, the for-profit training firm is one of the largest in the Unites States. Every year about 20,000 students "check in" to an LES program, dressed in a mechanics jumpsuit or nursing uniform, and get hands-on instructed experience fixing cars, running CAD design software, operating manufacturing machinery, and tending to hospital patients.

President and CEO Shaun E. McAlmont was an NCAA track star at Brigham Young University. He specialized in the 400-meter hurdles. So he knows how tiring it can be to race neck-and-neck against a field of equal opponents all hopping over the same challenges. At LES, he plays things differently. He finds that sweet spot, the empty field, between need and love.

The Need
Let’s start with "need." LES fills the gaps in our country’s education system, focusing not on producing traditional bachelor’s degrees or even helping knowledgeable workers advance their careers. There are already thousands of institutions dedicated to those challenges. Instead, McAlmont explained to me, "We take a market-driven approach. We won't offer a program that just doesn't make sense in the marketplace. . . . We focus the student on the skills they need to get a job, nothing extraneous."

LES will work with major employers in a metropolitan area to identify what skill gaps they are finding. As a result, said McAlmont, "The market has kind of pulled us to the sectors we serve." LES is guiding a strategic principle of filling the needs. In 2010, 40% of LES’s revenue came from programs in health sciences, 30% in automotive, and 11% in skilled trades. You can hear this in how McAlmont describes LES’s strategy: "Automotive needs are growing, also the engines of today are not those of yesterday, so there is a lot of retraining needed . . . Strategically, we are looking at manufacturing programs. There is so much talk about manufacturing coming back. [Such as] CNC machining—machines that can craft anything you program, they can fashion screws over and over again for an airline, car parts, and car rims."

Scan the system, look at what needs are not being filled, act like water continually morphing to fill the gaps. This approach keeps you flexible . . . and needed.

The Love
You don’t often hear stakeholders shout declarations of love at corporate CEO presentations. But Apple is an exception. Even as its stock price declines, as competitors seem to be closing in, as the market worries if the company can still launch radical innovations, Apple fans will interrupt a presentation by CEO Tim Cook with, "We love you!"

Love matters. Love gives you a tangible advantage. The more people want you to succeed, the fewer will want you to fail, and the more likely your success.
McAlmont explains that, "A typical [LES] student, when they graduate, they have an opportunity to make a salary about equal to their total tuition. One-to-one ratio." In other words, within one year, your salary will have paid for your entire tuition.

And this is one reason why people love LES. Their programs can take a single mother living in poverty, sleeping with her child on a friend’s couch, looking hopelessly for a way out without marketable skills, and in nine months transform her into a career woman with a salary that exceeds her wildest dreams, that supports a sustainable life, a home for her and her child. An LES automotive graduate that gets a job working in luxury dealerships in Manhattan can be making six figures a year.

This dual mission—to fill the educational gaps (the need) and get its students in a self-sustaining career (the love)—is what drives McAlmont and LES to keep sprinting, hopping the hurdles. As McAlmont shared with me, "We really would like to be seen as the leader of career-based training in the country. There is this population that is sometimes forgotten. We reject the view that these jobs are somehow lesser quality. We're giving people who otherwise would not have a shot . . . a shot."

Ask yourself:
1. What is your "need" strategy: What gap could you fill that is not being met by the system?
2. What is your "love" strategy: How can you have a meaningful, inspiring impact on people by filling this gap?

In the overlap of your answer to these two questions lies an empty field. Take it on.

[Image: Flickr user See-ming Lee]

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