Stu Shea: Advice From A College Professor, How To Expand Your Network, And The Social Media Community

Posted on May 23, 2011, by , under Featured Interview.

Stu Shea, founder of the non-profit USGIF, gives a thoughtful and informative interview about personal branding, social media, and how the best piece of advice he has ever received was from his college thesis professor.

Shea believes that an emphasis on community team building and that the wisdom of crowds sparks business innovation, social media is one way to start the discussion. Regarding personal brand, Shea suggests that most executives relay on a narrow set of skills to get through life, instead of engaging with a variety of people and outlets.

You are essentially the founder of the United States Geospatial  Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). Please tell us more and where the organization is today.

USGIF’s purpose is to promote the geospatial intelligence tradecraft and to develop a stronger community of interest between who share a mission focused around the development and application of geospatial intelligence to address national security objectives. I count myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to lead the USGIF for the past 8 years. USGIF has become the defining catalyst that has brought government, industry, academia and professional organizations together to promote the tradecraft of geospatial intelligence. The stand-up of the foundation was challenging in that we attempted to build a community or professionals, from multiple disciplines, who saw the benefit of the establishment of that community as more important than the achievement of their own personal agendas or goals.

Our approach was twofold: first, we set out to provide a public forum to allow for an interchange of what is happening in the discipline. The result of that was a series of symposia, most noteworthy being the annual GEOINT Symposium which has now become the largest gathering of intelligence professionals each year, attracting almost 4,500 attendees. Our second approach was to focus on education, and to have the community at large share the responsibility for bringing young professionals into our ranks. We have achieved that by promoting educational programs and accrediting university academic programs that meet the stringent requirements of our community. We have also supported that goal by providing scholarships to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students to pursue studies in the geospatial intelligence discipline. USGIF has become very successful. With that success, the time had come to bring on board a full-time president to help enable USGIF to lead the GEOINT community into the future. Two years ago I stepped aside as USGIF president, but I continue to serve as CEO and chairman of the board of directors. This step is a very important and exciting one for USGIF, and we are elated that our new president Keith Masback has taken the foundation to a whole new level of success, well beyond that which I could have ever envisioned. Keith and his team now sponsor numerous community venues, they have built an exceptional academic certification process, and have inspired a whole new generation of intelligence analysts to enter our community.

How would you describe your personal brand?

The hallmarks of my brand, maybe better termed a philosophy, is first built upon a set of core values: honesty, integrity, commitment, teamwork, honor, respect, urgency, communication, passion, and having a broad community perspective. I operate by a set of personal values and I openly share my philosophy with my team. Some of the elements of that philosophy are the following: I believe that we are all honored to work for this great nation and the contributions we make every day serve to protect and defend our nation; I believe in a culture of partnership, teamwork, and active, not passive, leadership – by actively embracing leadership principles, and by not just talking about them; I believe in an attitude of winning as a team, and believe strongly that the team is the sine qua non of leadership success; I believe in a strong, coordinated business rhythm across capture, proposal, and execution of business, and believe that extends through line, technical, program and management services—there can be no “us and them” in execution of business; I believe in financial rigor, focused on repeatability, and being good stewards of a company’s investments and our customers’ funds. I believe strongly in a sense of urgency and I expect the same of all that work for me; I believe in absolute integrity, ethics and fairness—there is no gray in this belief—it is black and white; finally, I believe in having fun; in fact, I believe strongly in a zealous need for it. How this all manifests itself in my “brand” is not what I can control, but what others think of how I adhere to my philosophical underpinnings. I would like to believe that my personal brand is one of a someone who has made a positive impact on peoples’ lives, someone who leads by example, who isn’t afraid of the unknown, has respect for the individual, delivers on my promises, and inspires people to dream more, to achieve more, and to go places that they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to.

What are some common mistakes executives make when trying to build their personal brand?

Leaders often fail because they generally don’t recognize that there is a wide set of conditions that they must operate in, and each situation may test their ability to stay true to their own value system. Unless they have the ability to morph to the specific situations, they also may be overly reliant on a particular set of skills they have attained in their ascension to the top. Likewise, they may not realize that they are constantly in a spotlight and that people will often hang onto every word, or see every action they take as literal interpretations of who you are. My suggestion is that you live by a core set of values (your own credo) that provides a moral vector and constant reminder of what is important, how you make decisions, and how you (and others) judge success and failure in relation to it. Once you have shared that set of values with others, you must live up to them, treat others  with courtesy, respect and dignity, and you must be consistent with how execute your role, specifically so that people who interact with you know how you reach decisions. Lastly, you must be impeccable in all your dealings with others with regard to trust and integrity; it only takes one misstep to erase decades of righteousness.

How has being connected to the right people helped your career?

I am not sure I can define who the “right people” are, but I tend to build a pretty broad network of “good people.” Everyone in their own right may provide a connection, an introduction, a job referral, etc. when it is most needed, but frankly you never really know that when you first meet them—so how would you know who is right? I take a different approach…I learn a lot from others’ successes, failures, experience, ideas, and I use them in creating my own brand. I accept an on-going process of self-discovery and personal growth, and listen to those who can help shape my thinking. I’ve been blessed to have had great mentors along the way, who have collectively shaped my philosophy and skills, both what to do and what not to do, and I am a product of their shaping, their style, their influence, and their actions. The adage “don’t burn bridges” is a critical element of building a network; you never know who your next boss, customer, or co-worker will be, so I work very hard to build positive relationships with everyone I can. In the long run, that “reputation” has served me well and has preceded and aided my career choices. Having said that, however, I believe we need to be more concerned with our own “character” than with our “reputation” because we can control the former; we cannot control the latter. If your character is impeccable, however, your reputation will most assuredly be the same.

How have you leveraged social media to solve a problem?

I have long been a user of blogs, on-line knowledge searches, etc., and have gone through all the fashionable social media applications of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc., but I find the utility in all of them is the look at connections and who is talking to who, and what they are saying. As you know, often the best way to solve problems is let as many people as possible solve it for you. It amazes me how a simple topic takes on global visibility when it goes viral on the web, so using that as a metaphor for shaping peoples’ ideas and thoughts, selling a concept, or just testing the waters on what opinions are out there has become a means to an end with me. I will often publish a simple thought at work in an e-mail or website posting that invites responses, just to see what concerns people, or what is on their minds. Likewise, I will often link up with people on email distribution lists, on-line contacts, etc., just to look at the “Kevin Bacon” connections of who knows who and how that changes over time. Lastly, I also am aware that just because something is written in some social media, it doesn’t mean it is true; I use all these forms of communication as sources, not as facts.

What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?

My Thesis advisor, once shared a quote with me from 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. He said “The value of what one knows is doubled if one confesses to not knowing what one does not know.” Schopenhauer suggested, in other words, as soon as you realize how little you know, you will be a whole bunch smarter. That advice drove as insatiable appetite to learn throughout my career, and made me more fully aware of the great benefit of finding something to learn from each and every person I interacted with. Building my personal brand, then, was made possible by constantly morphing and reshaping who I was throughout my career as I learned from each and every person and situation.  I extend that to everyone I work with. I will visit the mailroom, the IT person, the HR professional, the recruiters, the facility engineers, and everyone else that works hard to contribute to our success. I learn something from all of them.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

Like anyone else, I live a very public “private life” that makes it increasingly hard to keep something that I can add to that list as a surprise! Perhaps the more entertaining items that are not generally well known are the following: 1) Shea Stadium, home of the NY Mets for 45 years, was named after a distant relative; 2) my family owned the original dog used by Walt Disney in the movie 101 Dalmatians (in 1957); and 3) I played guitar and sang at coffeehouses to put myself through college.

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