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Jonno White

7 Questions with Mike O Donnell
7 Questions with Mike O Donnell

Name: Mike O'Donnell

Current title: Executive Director

Current organisation: Prairie Rose Development Corp.

I'm originally from Melbourne, Australia. I met my wife-to-be, from Kansas, at grad school in Sydney, Australia, lost the toss, and immigrated to the US, where I found a job (in 1989) working for and then leading the Small Business Development Center at the University of Kansas. I also served as an adjunct faculty in the business school and participated in a major USAID project with 20 emerging post-communist-era entrepreneurs from L'viv, Ukraine.

In 2000, the opportunity arose to relocate westward and join the nonprofit, mission-based educational lender, Colorado Lending Source. As the third of three employees and then the second of two employees, after the board fired the executive director, I began rebuilding the organization to expand outreach and capital access to new and existing small business owners across the length and breadth of Colorado.

From a staff of two, I helped build the organization to a staff of 42 as Colorado Lending Source became the most active SBA lender in the state year upon year. In 2019, my last full year there before stepping down in 2020, Colorado Lending Source had a $330.3 million impact on the Colorado / US economy facilitating 225 loans to small business owners who created some 1,405 new jobs.

In 2019, I received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Development Finance Agencies for my outstanding contribution to the development finance industry.

After twenty-years with Colorado Lending Source, I am refocusing efforts on democratizing access to affordable capital to more diverse populations of entrepreneurs, integrating character-based lending models into entrepreneurial ecosystems through a new nonprofit entity called Prairie Rose Development. I am currently writing the next chapter of my professional life.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?

For me, the biggest challenge is keeping everyone within the organization focused on the mission of my enterprise in the face of so many formal and informal distractions. With employees, in particular, clarity in communication is key. Generationally, different age groups have different communication styles so my communication has had to become more intentional, which has frankly been challenging for me, but finding and overcoming challenges is how I grow and hopefully get better.

2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My leadership style has always been about leading by example while working closely with employees as both a mentor as well as a leader. The two are closely intertwined.

How I became a leader is simply a function of not being a very good follower. I'm a lousy employee. In the various positions I've held during my working life, it has primarily been just me as I start out. Because my strength is in building organizations or enterprises, I have had to learn to lead others as I grow that organization or enterprise, so much of my leadership skills have come from observation, learning, trial, and error.

In reality, I'm an accidental leader, but a leader through necessity.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

This is a question I often ask successful entrepreneurs and the people who have most influenced me over the years. I have learned that most successful leaders and entrepreneurs have a defined routine which shapes their days. For me, it has become exercise on waking (I have been running regularly for more than 40 years), breakfast, work (my mornings are very productive), lunch, afternoon tasks and often meetings / classes / exploration, some outside activity (even if just walking), dinner, then reading and/or some external stimulus like a podcast or some show. I do not watch television nor do I subscribe to any video streaming services. I do like listening to music and I have hundreds of books on my "to read" list. I like to learn and absorb things constantly.

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

Another good question. I'm not sure I have a lot of "ah-ha" moments in learning about leadership. They have been more incremental, building one on the other over time. I am old enough and have spent enough time exploring all sorts of models and studying all sorts of successful and unsuccessful real life businesses aside from the ones I have been directly involved in. I learned very early on that leadership doesn't happen in a vacuum.

But is truly only perhaps in the last decade that I have realized that for a leader to be successful they need (1) a purpose or mission first of all; then (2) a team around them and surrounding them, which includes both internal members (often employees) and external advisors (mentors and advisors); and, (3) a network.

Without these three elements, I recognize that a leader wont be as effective as they could be.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I find inspiration in the most unlikely places. Experiences rather than books have shaped my leadership style: coaching a university soccer team; perfecting those skills by training with the coach of the Australian soccer team; completing an Outward Bound Survival Course; trekking across Papua New Guinea to help a tour company map out an adventure travel itinerary; backpacking through Europe in between years at university (and having my passport and funds stolen by a Canadian); traveling halfway around the world to build a new life in a foreign country ... leadership skills comes from life experienced more than the pages of a book.

BUT, if you do want a book, one of my favorite and one of the most influential on me early on was the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", the first of a five part trilogy (really), that challenged my imagination and encouraged me to look beyond the obvious and logical, and to not take life too seriously. It did have a significant impact on who I am, how I lead, and what I want to be when I eventually grow up.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?

Leadership capacity is built through curated consensus. Not top down. Not necessarily bottom up either. If the SME has a defined mission / reason for being (and not all SMEs do, unfortunately), it is easier to build leadership capacity and share that leadership capacity because all employees can be focused on that same mission. So the simple answer to your question is to define the SMEs mission and become laser focused on working towards achieving that mission.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?

My time as a leader has been largely spent challenging the status quo and not accepting that there is always one way of doing anything.

One story I recall dates back to my days in Australia working for Ford Motor Company, when I was given responsibility for motor vehicle sales to state government agencies in New South Wales.

At that time, the extensive government fleets were predominantly General Motors vehicles. The police department was 100% exclusively using General Motors vehicles. Over about a year of meetings (initially not very comfortable ones) and patiently providing responses to all the concerns the police had related to mechanical and operational issues (and I knew very little about how cars work, but was able to access the people within Ford who did), I was able to resolve all the issues and their previously unmentioned concerns about utilizing Ford vehicles. (No one else from Ford had bothered to take the time to get to know them and talk to them before.) The end result: within a year, they had switched their extensive fleet of patrol and high speed pursuit vehicles 100% to Ford, which allowed Ford in Australia, for the first time in their history, to outsell General Motors one year.