Why Any Job Can Teach You Executive Leadership Skills

Mark Woodward delayed college to get his hands greasy in car engines. And he learned lessons that serve him now as a tech CEO.

Why Any Job Can Teach You Executive Leadership Skills
[Photo: Flickr user Mark Ittleman]

Growing up, Mark Woodward spent his weekends with his dad (his parents had split when he was five). Woodward’s father was a high school teacher with two master’s degrees; his father, though, had been a carpenter who had taught his son the value of being handy. So Woodward’s father was always teaching Woodward, in turn, how to take things apart and put them together. It was when Woodward was 12 that this tinkering habit began to focus on cars.


Woodward–who is today CEO of Invoca, a call intelligence platform–had saved up some money from his paper route. At the same time, Woodward’s father learned of an opportunity to buy a classic car, a ’58 Chevrolet Bel Air, for just $50. It was going so cheaply for a good enough reason: Its owner had been driving it, and it caught on fire. Surely the thing was a death trap. But Woodward’s father went ahead and bought the car off the man.

Mark Woodward

“I was like, ‘Dad. Why’d we buy this car? It’s gonna blow up!’” recalls Woodward.

Replied his father: “It’s not gonna blow up. The guy who had it just didn’t understand it.”

Woodward and his father took apart the car. The problem was eminently fixable. “The timing was off,” recalls Woodward, “and it caused a spark plug to fire when it was not supposed to, which made flame come through the carburetor.” That in turn had caused some insulation in the car to catch fire. There wasn’t some sort of black magic at work, and the car wasn’t a death trap. All they had to do was replace a three-dollar part called a “point,” which regulated the firing of the spark plug. “That was literally the only problem.”

“I was in awe of my dad,” recalls Woodward. “He had all this knowledge that other people didn’t have.”

Woodward, his father, and his twin brother taking apart Woodward’s first car the Bel Air

From there, Woodward was hooked. Most nights, he was tearing down or building up engines. And when he was 17, he took a job at the local gas station, an eight-pump concern open 24 hours a day. Most days he worked the swing shift, from 4 p.m. until midnight. Sometimes he powered through on a double shift, going till 8 a.m. the next morning. (During one shift, he and a coworker saw a robbery underway at the nearby 7-Eleven; they chased the guy off with crowbars.)

Woodward found the experience so enriching that, when most classmates chose to go to college the following year, he told his parents he intended to keep working as a mechanic. Despite their own high levels of educational attainment–his mom had a Ph.D–they agreed. “It’s kind of bizarre,” he acknowledges now. He went from the gas station to go work as a mechanic at a country club a year and a half later.

And while Woodward wound up transitioning into tech rapidly enough–running the computer room of a data center while doing UCLA computer science classes at night, then becoming a three-time CEO–in many ways, those early years as a mechanic taught him some of his most valuable and enduring lessons about business.

Here are a few he singles out.

Know Systems

No matter what line of work you’re in, the path to advancement may come from both understanding the big picture, and all the constituent parts. When Woodward’s father bought a $50 car, it wasn’t just because it was a steal. He wanted to take apart the engine piece by piece with his son. “That’s how you understand how it all works,” says Woodward now. “You physically take something apart, and you physically put it back together.” And to be good at solving problems, you need to understand how the parts fit together with the whole. Someone might come in insistent that the problem is X (“this is making a weird noise”), when really X is just a symptom of Y. “You need to know how the field system works, how the electrical system works–how those work independently and how they work together. Then you can test and diagnose what the specific problem is.”


Don’t Get Overwhelmed

“I see this almost every day in my business life,” says Woodward now. “When you approach a problem, there always seems to be 20 different ways to approach the solution.” Needless to say, to tackle all 20 would be a big mistake. This was a lesson he learned in his wrench-turning years. “I’d always ask, ‘What are the one or two things I can do that will have the greatest impact on resolving this problem? Then I focus on only that, till I solve the problem or exhaust the possibility.” The path to success, insists Woodward, comes from choosing one or two things to focus on with laser-like precision.

Photo: Flickr user Bob Villalobos

Stay Curious

Fundamentally, it was curiosity that made Woodward a good mechanic–and that makes him a good businessman. He just had to know what his father knew about that car that others didn’t know. Likewise, with Invoca’s clients, Woodward’s curiosity serves him well. Dish Networks is one of his biggest customers, and he says he was fascinated to learn that Dish is focused not on attracting as many customers as possible, but rather focusing on ones with higher credit scores (since customers with bad credit are more likely to cancel service). When Woodward’s curiosity led him to learn that, it meant Invoca could better use its tech to serve Dish’s needs. “If you’re truly curious about their business, you’re in a much better position to help them.”

Have Faith

Being a mechanic wasn’t easy. Woodward has memories of lying on the ground, having just slipped with his wrench and busted his knuckles, “pissed, swearing, bleeding.” But after enough instances of seeing a physical problem, diagnosing it, and fixing it, Woodward has generally come to feel a kind of faith that all problems are fixable. “I may be trying to reach a bolt I can’t see, but I know–just know–that at some point in time, maybe five minutes or an hour, I’m gonna get that bolt off.” The same holds in business, where colleagues call him unflappable: “OK, I may be looking at a hairy problem now, and I’m not sure how to get through it–but I know I will.”

Put another way: “People tend to apply worry to a problem–instead of energy towards a solution.” Working on cars taught him never to make that mistake.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal