5 Questions That Matter with John Cammack

John Cammack was an executive at T. Rowe Price Group Inc. when issues caused by Lyme disease forced him to retire in 2009. “Life 2.0” led him toward a second career of investing in and advising early-stage education technology and other startup companies in the Baltimore area. John is a managing partner of Cammack Associates in Towson.

“If you assemble people around a cause you can move mountains.”

What are you trying to do?

There have been models in my wife’s and my families as to not holding back as you get older, and to keep chasing down your passions. I think I have a model about how to improve the world around me. I want to leave the world a better place. I find the way to be in the world, as an individual trying to get systems to be more functional, is by looking at talented people who are social entrepreneurs.

My mental model is that I try to understand systems and networks. And try to position myself to be influential as a thought leader and as a financial supporter. I keep my eye out for the most talented people. That if I move them into a position of greater visibility and impact, they will leave a very positive circle around them. This person could be a social entrepreneur. The domain I do this in is education. If our public education system isn’t working well we as a society will not perform well. Societies fail when the succeeding generations aren’t equipped to deal with what is left by the previous generation.

When I worked at T. Rowe Price I had all these people working for me and I could command resources, ask people to do things that were relevant to my part of the business. Then I walked out of there. I had to figure out what I wanted to do. How I could go about it with the resources I now had, including reputation, some money, some passion, and some generalized expertise in two areas. How networks operate and how public education is exacted as a profession and business, and how the brain operates. Those are disparate things, but to me there’s some coherence. What I’ve been trying to do is find great education entrepreneurs. If they have the right chops and a good idea I’ll give them some money and I’ll advise or coach them, whatever they need.


How does it work?

I initially built this platform of nine companies in Ed Tech I’ve invested in. I’m on the board of half of them. I’m learning as much from them as they are from me. If I’m not learning more than the people around me I’m not in a good situation.

What keeps me going is I’m a learning machine. I’m always trying to figure out how to be graceful and effective in the world. Improve it in ways that require less effort on my part to get better outcomes around me, that are tied to my principals and values.

One of the things I’m good at is seeing where the silos are and being a silo buster. I think a lot of innovation is getting the right people to sit down and realize they are all working towards the same goal.

I began to play with this idea—recreate a new network, find the best functional leader, put them in a position of visibility and the rest of the network gets better. That can be in a really poor neighborhood on the west or east side of Baltimore or it can be in an industry where you find young talent that can go in and run an Ed Tech business. I try to read systems and networks, find people that, if they are repositioned and resourced, can have the most positive impact. Support them and get out of the way. That’s my game plan. Empower other leaders.

On the non profit side, a chronic problem for Baltimore is violence. Violence is the norm.

So, I have this model where you have to reduce violence in neighborhoods. Kids have so much stress around them that their brains don’t develop and they won’t or can’t learn. For kids still exposed to violence we have to find ways to do these restorative practices with their brains. The thing I’m behind is introducing mindfulness training into schools, cognitive games that you play for kids with disrupted neural circuits. Introduce bio feedback and neural feedback. Get more integrated so their brains become a resource for them rather than a detriment. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with integration.

The science is that chronic stress delays the development of your brain. There are now ways to offset that and I want to bring those interventions to Baltimore City schools.

I’m a brain hacker. I hack my own brain. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I have at home that does this and it works. The brain is a very facile organ that responds to feed back. You can retrain it.


Why now?

I’m 62. I went on this journey when I was 58. I had all this life experience and I underestimated what you can do using networks if you have a clear vision and a little bit of talent, the ability to enlist people to a great idea! If you assemble people around a cause you can move mountains.

I regained an immense amount of faith in the goodness of human beings by what I’ve seen happen and how people have rallied in Baltimore to support ideas they think will make the world better.

I get up every morning and I go, it’s a wonder to be here. Today I get to either support someone else’s great idea or people will rally behind mine. The quid pro quo is companionship and the ability to be associated with something that you can be at peace with.


What makes you an effective leader?

What I’m good at is when something gets to the point, an idea or a community, where it may need to be resourced in a formal way. When do you start the not-for-profit? When do you link in the greater Baltimore Economic Alliance? When do I introduce you to somebody who has no idea you’re doing this? Maybe we can convince them this is something they should support even if it’s out of their comfort zone.  Being older and having a little wisdom means knowing when to make those pivots for somebody. A lot of it is curation, curating networks to bring the best resources possible, ideas and effort and capital to achieve an outcome.


What do you have to do to remain an effective leader over time?

Every morning I create a context for all the things that will emerge that day that I need to prioritize, pass on, or defer.

I keep myself grounded by having a document, my life path that is simply for me. Where I hold myself accountable for what I choose to be in the world, as a husband, parent, in civic engagement, and maintaining my health. Establishing a good relationship with myself where I come to terms with who I am, what I’m good and bad at, and how I want to operate in the world. I had to bring processes to this to do it well.

If you don’t, invariably, we end up accommodating other people’s visions and ideas. Rather, define yourself, put a stake in the ground and say this is who I am and what I aspire to do. Enlist the energy of other people. I told my sons, all you need to do is get other people’s energy enlisted around your ideas 52% of the time. The other 48% is reciprocal. We want to help other great people. But if you’re too oriented around being a pleaser your idea will never get done.

So, it’s creating that internal mechanism. I struggle with that every day. I try not to see it as a contradiction, So, I keep the document (8 pages) and I do a two-day retreat twice a year where I update it.

It’s more than goals. It’s how I function and develop and understand the systems around me operating and what I have to do to get them to function better. I use it to optimize the little choices I make every day. I want to be spontaneous and receptive but I’ve got to be grounded.

It’s built on the premise that I am responsible for my own happiness and legacy. I have to have a strategic plan. If I take the time to do that then I’ll be more present in the world. It’s a priority thing. It has to be an inner thing.

I’m a big believer that to be in a busy world we need disciplines and practices where we can self reflect, know who we are, play to strengths, and look at things towards the long term. Who am I? What are my principals? What am I trying to accomplish? I need practices to help me. A social contract with myself about how I want to be a human being. It goes very deep. It is true north for me.

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My goal with the leadership column is to create a bridge between the up and coming cultural creatives and entrepreneurs driving the Baltimore Renaissance and established leaders who have made an impact in the world. We have much to learn from each other.