Don Gleason helps people make smoother life, career transitions

Photo taken by Christian Del Rosario

I attended high school with Don Gleason in Madison, Wis., but because he was a year ahead of me, we really didn’t know each other. Ironically, we connected again seven years ago at a John Maxwell event. Today, Don is a Maxwell coach and teacher who offers leadership training to clients around the world.

Before getting into coaching, Don had a penchant for cleaning America’s waters. As a child, he would go fishing with his father and saw first-hand the impact of pollution on waterways.

“We would come up a river and see yellow scum and smell the stench of dead fish,” he explained. “I wondered why we bothered to fish there because we would never want to eat anything we caught in that water.”

That was about the time Congress was passing legislation in the early 1970s, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

Because Don was really good at math and science, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to get a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. Unfortunately, when he graduated from college in 1982, there was a recession underway. He received 454 letters from companies explaining they weren’t hiring anyone at that time.

While it was bad news at the moment, it opened the door to a fascinating career as a U.S. Air Force officer. His first assignment was working in environmental planning in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Don was responsible for managing environmental programs, hazardous waste disposal and uncovering past disposal sites which may be potentially contaminated.

That experience led Don to pursue a career in civil engineering focusing on environmental issues. He retired as a full-bird colonel who commanded three civil engineer squadrons and a mission support group.

Private work

Before Don decided to retire, he spent several years thinking about what he wanted to do in civilian life. He knew he didn’t want to do the same things he did as an officer, such as project design and facility maintenance. None of those really excited him.

“I felt pulled right back into environmental issues. I wanted to find a company where I could work in different areas of environmental compliance, conservation or restoration by helping to clean up old sites,” Don explained. “I really wanted to go back to cleaning America’s waters.”

However, he also loved the challenge of emergency management in cleaning up spills and responding to environment disasters. He found an opportunity to do that working for Booz Allen Hamilton.

Don oversaw projects first at Shreveport Air Force Base in Louisiana, and later at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. He then worked on uncovering cost efficiencies for Department of Energy projects in Amarillo, Texas, and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

“That was not my forte and I struggled through it,” he explained. “The experience led me to become a career transition coach to help people figure out what excites and energizes them.”

Turning around careers and companies

It was Thanksgiving 2014 when Don spoke with a program coordinator from the John Maxwell Team.

“We talked while I was on a walk and the program sounded really exciting,” he said. “Whenever I traveled by air, I would pick up a magazine behind the seat and read about entrepreneurs and business executives. I always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, like my brother is in Houston.

“But I also loved leadership and wanted to continue growing my leadership skills,” he added. “One of my most exciting memories about being in the service was helping individuals who were lost or moving in the wrong direction and helping them get turned around.”

Don remembers being a commander and having to administer an Article 15, or non-judicial punishment, or issue a letter of reprimand because someone was moving in the wrong direction.

“We both knew the person was about to get kicked out of the service. But after having a conversation to understand the person or situation a little better, we figured out how to get the right resources for that person to move in the right direction,” said Don.  

“I loved being able to take an organization to places the people in it didn’t think they could go by challenging them and demanding performance,” he added. “It wasn’t from a dictatorial perspective, but from an out-front leadership perspective.”

Don realized there was an opportunity for him to impact other companies and leaders.

Becoming an entrepreneur

While still working for Booz Allen Hamilton, Don became certified with the Maxwell Leadership Team in 2015. Two years later, at age 56, he started his own company on a part-time basis.

“I remember being on a company business trip in Oak Ridge, Tenn., while sitting in a restaurant with some of my colleagues. I looked at my watch and announced, ‘It’s 7:30. I have class at 8 p.m.,’“ Don recalled. “The people I was with said, ‘Dude, you’re 50-some years old. What are you doing going to school?’

“But I had class three nights a week where I could get on John Maxwell Team calls with my mentors and go through different topics. I’d ask question and was excited about what I was learning,” he added.

Starting out in business for himself while working for another firm was a struggle for Don because he wasn’t able to connect with people he wanted to work with in San Antonio, where he lives. But, he made the best of the time by continuing to grow and try new things.

“I would do some mastermind events with the staff in Tennessee, and we would play the Maxwell Leadership Game. It’s a team assessment tool that plays like a game. So, I was trying out different things as I got to know the material,” he explained.

Making the transition

Eventually, Don grew tired of the responsibility of contract work for his employer. His clients wanted things done one way, but his employer insisted they be done a specific way. It created stress and challenges to the point his job just wasn’t fun anymore.

“I would sit in my room at night listening to songs about people quitting their jobs and I started paying attention to that emotion. I sensed my job was about to end,” he explained. “In 2017, while attending the company Christmas party, someone said something and I thought, ‘I’m done. It was time for me to leave the project.’“

The experience reminded Don of the time he was transitioning out of the military. He was attending an executive career transition program, and the homework consisted of a lot of basic questions.

For example, Don knew he loved supervising people, but he really didn’t want to travel more than 35% of his time. When asked about going into business development, he had no experience in that field, but it sounded exciting.

“A lot of people shy away from business development, but I looked at it as an opportunity,” he explained. “When I finished all those questions, I really knew what I wanted to do as well as what I didn’t want.”

It was an experience that paid off a few years later when Don started guiding others through a similar process. He said too many people get frustrated at a job and start looking for other opportunities without giving any consideration to what they really want to do. It’s a bad way to step into the final stage of a productive career.

“When you change how you look at things, then the things you look at change,” said Don. “There are a lot of jobs available to people who are looking for work today. But, they don’t stop to ask, ‘Do I want to do this job?’ Rather, they ask, ‘Can I do this job?’

“When people ask “Can I do this job?’ they often respond affirmatively because they can do a lot of things,” he explained. “But, do they really want to do that job? That answer is often very different.”

Energy drain or gain?

How people answer those questions ties directly into the energy they get from working.

“When you are in a job that you really like and it’s exciting for you, then you’re energized in the morning. You can’t wait to get to work to take on the challenges of the day or work through issues and advance a team toward the goal,” he explained. “Those days just run by quickly.

“But, when you’re de-energized by a job, then the days drag by. You think it’s quitting time, but it’s only coffee break time,” said Don.

There is a condition afflicting many people on the job today called the “Sunday scaries.” It’s a debilitating condition that gets people anxious about having to go back to work on Monday morning.

“They can’t sleep and they almost become dysfunctional on Sunday night thinking about getting ready to go back to work on Monday,” he explained. “They would regret going into the office, and then do only what was required. They were not at all excited about it. The day just ticks by slowly when watching the clock.

“Everything goes wrong and you return home exhausted with all the energy drained out of you,” said Don. “Once you get home, all you want to do is grab a beer, sit down and watch television. That’s no way to live.”

Don read a study recently that suggested 75% of people are disengaged at work, and that comes back to a lack of purpose. Today, as a career transition coach, he knows people desire change, but don’t know what they want to do next.

“They start by writing a resume, but struggle with what to put in it,” said Don. “So, I get them to think about their skills, passions and experiences; the latter being the most powerful of them all.

“When you get people talking about things they’ve done that have been most exciting for them, all of a sudden you see their eyes perk up as they display different type of energy,” he added. “They likely recall facing a problem that was really hard, but wound up resolving it and having a huge impact.”

Asking people about their worst experiences often signals what they don’t want to do. For Don, that was facility maintenance.

“I didn’t want to be managing people’s toilets, lights in the building and the heat. It was not the best use of my skills,” he explained. “There are people who want to do that, but not for me. My mantra now is ‘to find the job that energizes you and it creates a life that fulfills you.’ They both go together.”

Mentally checked out

By the time many people come to Don for career coaching, they have already mentally checked out of their jobs. They’re just biding their time going through the motions as they figure out what to do next.

Yet, Don said it is possible for people to alter the direction of their careers by having conversations with their supervisors.

“They don’t want to have those discussions with their boss because they’re under the mistaken impression their boss should already know how they feel,” said Don. “But bosses doesn’t know. They are often too busy doing their own work to notice an employee is dissatisfied on the job.

“Having an honest conversation may open doors to a better, more fulfilling opportunity within the department or the company,” he added. “But the bottom line is that we get to choose what we do with our time. If you can’t find an alternative, then you can choose to leave.”

In his book “E-Myth Revisited,” author Michael Gerber explains the question isn’t about what you want from the job, but rather what do you want in life?

Is self-employment an option?

Many people dream of owning their own business because it gives them an option to do things they want to do. But, self-employment comes with a cost – and that is sometimes a heavy price to pay.

“Entrepreneurs have to do all things from marketing, content development, social media, and everything else until you bring in enough money to hire other people,” Don explained. “A lot of people aren’t willing to do that because it takes so much effort.”

That’s one of many reasons why 80 percent of all small companies fail in the first five years, and another 80% fail five years after that, he said.

“About 96% of small businesses fail within 10 years,” he added. “In ‘E-Myth Revisited,’ Michael Gerber writes that failures occur because entrepreneurs don’t put in place the vision, mission, goals, strategies and organizational structure up front.”

Personality assessment

If there is one thing Don wishes he had done earlier in life, it would be to take a personality assessment when he was still in college, if not high school.

“That assessment helped me understand who I am naturally and why I do certain things,” he explained. “On the DISC inventory, I am an SC, which means I am both very analytical and process oriented as well as people oriented. I have to develop things step-by-step as I walk through it, and I have to do things the same way in an organized manner every time.

“I’m also very teamwork and collaborative oriented. I want to get things done, but as a team,” he said.

Don wishes anyone who works with different people, especially teachers, would take that assessment to help them understand why people work and react the way they do.

“When I was in fourth grade, my teacher told my parents I had great ideas, but I was too slow to participate in classroom discussions. She said I had to raise my hand more quickly,” Don explained. “But she missed understanding that I always think things through before I speak. By the time I processed the information or the question and was ready to jump in, she was off to the next question. So, I started the process all over again.”

A leader who understands how people process information can work with their natural tendencies to help them excel, he noted.

“People can’t change the way they interact with others because they have a natural tendency to do the same things the same way all the time,” Don explained. “Leaders need to look at people and situations in a different way.

“One of our Maxwell team members was always at odds with her teenage daughter until someone suggested they take the DISC assessment together,” he said. “When they reviewed the results, the daughter looked at her mother and said, ‘Oh, now I understand why you do what you do.’

“Once they saw why they were different, then they could accept each other and work together. The stress was gone and today they are getting along great,” he added.

Get a coach

The first thing people need to do when they are struggling to identify a purpose for their lives is to hire a coach and explore, Don explained.

“If you are 52 right now and don’t know what you want to be doing at age 59, then you need to work with someone who has the skills to get you to that point,” he added. “If you keep doing the same things, it’s not going to happen.”

Don is working with a man now who has changed jobs twice within a few months and doubled his income with even more opportunities coming his way.

“He is excited about what he is doing because he’s using his skills to take on new challenges. The process has changed his perspective,” said Don.

To help people develop a new perspective for their lives or their jobs, Don is offering a complimentary 30-minute conversation to anyone who wants to connect with him. Just visit his LinkedIn profile at Don L. Gleason and send him a connection note indicating you heard or read about Don on Forward From 50.

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