When successful people give talks about their careers, they rarely discuss the first five years, though these are the years we are most desperate to understand.
Right now we are on the bottommost rung of the ladder. We are not leading anyone else, just trying not to drown, task oriented and…
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THE BOSS MAN, JEFF OKITA
What Makes The Unsure Founder of Six Taste and Delta Omicron Zeta a Stand Out Leader
This week I had the pleasure of having dinner with Jeff Okita. I first met Jeff through Delta Omicron Zeta, the only co-ed leadership fraternity to ever exist. Jeff and six other rambunctious over-achievers released the organization onto USC circa 2008. Since I met Jeff in 2009, I have admired him for his poise, judgment, and overall boss-ness. For real, Jeff actually is a boss; he started his own Los Angeles food touring business right out of college. It’s called Six Taste, and it beats the pants off other LA foodie hangouts like Urth Caffe, Wurstekuche, and Father’s Office on Yelp. (And by the pants, I mean by a whole star).
During our dinner, I had the unique opportunity to peek into Jeff’s ongoing process of progress. For Jeff this starts with analyzing how he allots his time. Next, he attempts to understand what he wants most out of life. Finally, he figures out how to change his routine in order to satisfy these innermost ambitions.
An inspiration? I’d say so.
But Jeff doesn’t see it this way. He denounces his own obsession with watching TV shows, reading books, and playing video games. He feels guilty about his itch to leave old ventures for new ones. He even shared that his girlfriend Celeste, who is as rowdy as he is reserved, fears that his uncanny ability to analyze situations with complete ration may be slightly sociopathic.
On the contraire, when I learned more about the way Jeff thinks, I concluded that he is not a sociopath nor a commitment-fobe but indeed an impressive leader.
“I just want to do something great,” he told me, frustrated. “I just don’t know what that is yet.”
Let me break it down for you, MDA 365 style, just a few reasons why Jeff Okita is a boss, or in laymen’s terms, a stand out leader.
Jeff is future oriented.
“I never think about the past,” he said to me. “I’m okay as long as I am moving forward, even if I find out that I need to turn around and go in the opposite direction. When I’m not moving anywhere, that troubles me.” Jeff naturally ignores sunk costs by only focusing on the future (see Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership). This perspective allows him to actively construct his own future and think big about its possibilities. No regrets, just 180 degree turns and progress. How else do you think Jeff has been able to scale Six Taste in such a short period of time?
Jeff is self-aware.
Jeff maximizes his strengths and confronts his flaws as habitually as anyone else would go on Facebook. He is able to articulate his tendencies, irrationalities, and internal conflicts with ease. He knows exactly what causes him stress, how much instability is too much, and that the only thing that has kept his attention for years on end has been Celeste. Acting on this information, he implements such things as a “relationships” tab on his work manager because he knows building relationships makes him happy, but he often chooses to work instead.
Jeff even takes the time to analyze why he likes certain shows, books, and stories. He knows he is drawn to strong male leads (think Don Draper, Walter White, and Rick Grimes), so he actively seeks to become one in his own life. A well-read protagonist, Jeff can tell a compelling creation story for his business in order get others on board (see Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds and Warren Bennis’s “The Leader as A Story Teller”).
Jeff balances ego and humility.
Jeff fears the organizations he started and manages will crumble without his leadership (Delta Omicron Zeta National Council and the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Club to name a few). I would call that ego. At the same time, Jeff acknowledges that many people’s efforts move these organizations forward, and he believes he could have done a better job in these roles. Jeff will address his company’s successes: stellar consumer ratings, multiplying tour locations, and a new focus on strategic partnerships, but he will also be the first to tell you that when he turns 26 this year, he wishes he could have his career figured out. In my opinion, Jeff has enough ego to believe in his audacious plans and also enough humility to make him relatable and driven. This balance marks a true leader who does not trip over power but pulls in others on the way to the top.
What leaders inspire you? I invite you to share their stories here.
WhenEVER my Dad signs off on the phone, he always ends with “Have fun. Go Trojans. Love you!” What more could I ask for to guide me in this life? Thank you to my family and friends who have supported me through my journey at USC. I could not have done it without you. In these past four years, I have grown more than I could have ever imagined, and I know in my heart, I will always be a Trojan. Congratulations class of 2012!
I must thank Laura for keeping me grounded and never failing to tell me like it is. That is friendship.
If I had no idea what your career plans were, I would say you would be a great mediator. – Naader Banki
With a thoughtful answer to one of my many questions, Naad helped me to rethink my future. I always loved ‘the means’ in advertising (messaging strategy) but have worried about ‘the ends’ (selling stuff to people in a hopefully entertaining way). I have wondered if this wil satisfy my desire to make a positive impact with my work. Naad’s comment prompted me to explore a different career path that I had never imagined, if I decide the ad world is not for me. My so called neutrality and ridiculous amounts of question asking could be put to a good use mediating family related and business negotiation cases. I appreciate Naad’s keen judge of character, as well has his ridiculously animated stories.
You were really the only one who took this class as an opportunity to identify a change you wanted to make in yourself and do it. – Brad Head
At the end of MDA 365, Brad and I were talking about what we learned, and he surprised me with what I took to be a sincere compliment. He told me, “You were really the only one who took this class as an opportunity to identify a change you wanted to make in yourself and do it.” I had never thought about my participation this way. Brad was referring to my concern about being compassionate to a fault and watering down my true opinions to feeble suggestions, so I could avoid conflict. I had been inspired by the Dutch and my abroad semester in Amsterdam to become more honest and direct. Afterwards, I made a concerted effort to do just that, and I believe I succeeded. Brad made me realize that I rarely let experiences slide by, I try to maximize them, and I should never stop doing this.
“I never expected you to be the leader of our group.” – Megan Lambert
My MDA 365 group’s countless hours putting our heads and hearts on the line to create Practicing Entrepreneurship with Trojans, a high school entrepreneurship program, finally paid off. We had just presented our work to President Steven Sample, Warren Bennis, and of course, Sadie. In the reflective excitement, Megan – one of my closest friends through the process – told me, “I never expected you to be the leader of our group.”
I appreciated her honesty and respected her opinion. I was not upset to hear this, just surprised. Megan gave me the opportunity to think about how I come off to others in a first impression, something I had never considered. I remembered the first time I met Megan and Brad I was very emotional, almost distraught, exploring the idea that I was merely a people pleaser and could not confidently stand for my own opinions. Mind you, I had never talked to the pair before in my life. Megan continued, “You were just so short and so sweet. I never expected you to be the one who held us together.” I didn’t blame her. I just never thought of it before. I must admit, I was happy to prove her wrong.
I don’t believe in leadership. I think leadership is something that can just happen if you really care about your work. - Stacy Smith, Professor of Communication
When I met with Stacy Smith, one of the most engaging professors at USC, who specializes in effects of the media, she had a view of leadership that aligned with Courtney. After studying leadership with HOBY and DOZ, it was refreshing to hear a skeptic of the practice. “I don’t believe in leadership. I think leadership is something that can just happen if you really care about your work,” Stacy Smith told me. In her opinion, passion drives people to make things happen and care for others; leadership is a complete afterthought. Coming from a professor who knew the name of all 200 students in her entry level course, Stacy reminded me to take a step back from the leadership analysis and just do what I love.