3 Lessons for Passing on Skills & Knowledge

Between the ages of 14 to 19 years old I was a camp counselor at Tomahawk Boy Scout Reservation outside Rice Lake, Wisconsin. My first summer they put me in the kitchen doing the grubbiest work possible. Washing pots and pans. Cleaning tables, benches and floors. My second summer I worked directly with the Scouts. For two years I ran the axe yard. I taught boys between the ages of 11 and 14 how to safely use an axe to chop wood. Eleven-year-old boys don’t care about safety. Or chopping kindling. They want to chop down the largest tree in the forest. (If Northern Wisconsin had redwoods like California they’d have cut those down, too.)

Then I went to the waterfront to teach swimming. Also taught cooking, which was a farce. I gave a Cooking Merit Badge to every Scout in my classes who put a wild flower in a tin can and something that looked like meat and a vegetable on a table.  I had to sample their “feast” before they got their merit badge. I was supposed to eat their meals then judge them. At first I’d ask other staff members to help me judge the scouts’ final meal.   It didn’t take long before I couldn’t get any friends to help. My Scouts were incompetent because as an instructor I didn’t know how to cook. So I taught what I didn’t know how to do. Eventually I became better (even was selected outstanding instructor…Hard to believe….eh?)

But I walked away with three lessons for passing on skills and knowledge which became the foundation of what evolved into the Compression Planning Institute 17 years later.

#1: Know my stuff. And where I don’t…admit it. So I’ve spent a lifetime as a student/doer alongside some of the most talented leaders imaginable.

#2: Make it fun and interesting. I don’t mean silly fun. I mean the type of fun and enjoyment you get by being fully engaged. Accomplishing legitimate work. Not make-work.

#3: Make it real. Work on real things. It has to matter.

Sometimes we hit home runs with the participants’ projects in our Institutes. Sometimes participants’ projects “crash and burn” but everyone always learns something valuable.

DURING Institutes participants work on REAL projects such as:

  • The people who developed the world’s first electric auto. They were the parents of today’s hybrid vehicles.
  • Canadian leaders from Montreal who put together 5 major hospitals into one patient centered health care delivery centered system.

We’ve had multiple generations in the same families attend the Institutes. The first Institute was in Little Falls, Minnesota. It was 120 below zero wind chill. Every attendee showed up except 4 hospital administrators who couldn’t because there was a big fire in a soybean elevator in their town the night before. They cancelled and brought the CP Institute to their hospital a few months later to train over 100 employees.

In the early years we ran the Institute out of the second floor of a restored fire station in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Yes, today the CP Institute is held in lots of fancy locations but our roots go back to the Tomahawk Boy Scout Camp. The principles I gained there as a camp counselor were inspired by so many talented leaders.


Principle #1: Know and master your expertise.

When I started teaching axe-man-ship I could barely split wood using the official Boy Scout method. By my second year I could do the “authorized contact-chopping method” so well that in 2 minutes I’d hold those Scouts spell bound. My 2-minute skill in front of them produced a stack of kindling, made a back scratcher, a toe tickler, and a Mona Lisa tent peg.  (I’d end by autographing the tent peg for the Scout to give to his older sister if he claimed she was the best looking older sister in the troop.) Frequently the Scouts applauded my wood chopping. And learned to do the same. Safely. Yes I learned you better pay the price and learn your stuff. If it was teaching tying ropes we’d sit on our bunks and tie hundreds of sheepshanks knots…even with a square knot in the middle.


Principle #2: Make it interesting.

If it wasn’t interesting to chop wood, I’d lose the Scouts’ interest. They’d wander off in the woods.  The same is true for adults. It has to hit them close to home.  If it isn’t fun and interesting people won’t put the work into learning CP. We don’t do lots of cute little warm-ups. We don’t play games. Instead we work lots of CP on real issues. And people love it. And when they love it, they have lots of fun. And learn. When folks accomplish meaningful work…even if it’s not ideal…enjoyment happens.

One time when we did an Institute for the engineering staff of Whirlpool in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the VP over the group said it was the three most productive…and fun days he could ever remember. Guess that says it. Work on tough, meaningful problems, issues and opportunities using a time tested structured approach (CP) while learning the system.  It works. Long time benefits.


Principle #3: Make it real.

We’ve had people check into a hospital emergency rooms where an ER doc was trying to fix the one she ran. Make it real. 

Another member of an Institute wanted to start a private airplane service with his own plane. His project was selected and the members paid him $5 bucks apiece to take them on a flight. They paid. He took them flying. He was in business. Make it real.

One company VP was trying to get an attachment working for a device which would clean leaves and other material (junk) from your home roof gutters. The group helped him do it, and he got his break-through answer. Make it real.

Another group had a project of recovering lost inventory in their precious metals company. The company president told me afterward that the learning project was worth $1.7 million to his company in documented results. Make it real.

One woman who worked for a dental supply firm was responsible for a national campaign for a new one-handed flossing system for dental hygienists. Her project was developed at the Institute she attended. She left with a game plan and called me to say she used about 80% of what her Institute team of non-dental folks developed. Her president told her it was the most successful new product launch in the history of their company. Make it real.


Got the idea? Make it real. We put absolutely every ounce of effort we have into Making It Real. One way is that all Institute attendees receive a personal phone call by one of our senior Compression Planners before their Institute to help them select the topic they will bring to their Institute. Because I make a lot of those calls, I guarantee you participants find them of immense value. 1 on 1 help. Beforehand. To answer all questions as well as make sure the projects are focused and not trying to save the world (naive in scope).

We follow my dad’s mantra. Try it. Show people how. Give them enough experience so they can experiment themselves.

My Mantra
“A DARN good plan with a broad base of support NOW is much better than a PERFECT plan 9 months from now.”

Jerry McNellis

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