Dan Redford has built a life at the intersection of China/Michigan relations, doing international U.S./China business in raising millions of dollars of investment from Chinese clients into the United States. Knowing he wanted to be involved in U.S./China business, his first large opportunity came as a result of being a paid attendee covering the Shanghai Expo, and connecting with traditional media throughout Michigan as part of that trip. All along the way, he's connected with great people, lent a helping hand, and taken leadership roles in organizations.
In this interview to promote his GiveGetWin deal, a Group Class on Establishing Leadership and Influence, he tells his journey towards leadership and influence positions, and gives you extremely practical guidelines on doing that in your life.
"The Journey Through Fear To Influence" by Dan Redford, as told to Sebastian Marshall
My family really helped me become a leader. My younger brother is a famous basketball player where we're from. As the oldest of our family, it was a really big challenge for me. Seeing my younger brother rise as an athlete in the community and I didn't have to the skills to do that, it hurt.
I didn't pursue playing basketball in high school for a year because I anticipated my younger brother would be starting as a freshman and not wanting to compete with him.
But i decided, when he started playing in high school, I'd try out for the team even knowing he'd likely start and I'd be a benchwarmer. Instead of playing "poor me," I decided to own the role. It was one of the best experiences I had.
Our team was 44-5, we were leaders in the community, we sold out the gym for the first time in 20 years. I was never a starter, but I was looked at in the community as someone willing to support his brother and establish my own leadership role on the team in a way that was really unique.
People really respected that, and I never looked back from there. I realized I am who I am, and if I really own that and am willing to go out and show myself in front of people, that's something worth doing and worth striving for.
I saw the importance of standing for something, standing behind who you are, and doing it in public.
"In public" is important for leadership. It means doing things in front of people. In public, not private. Share things with other human things. Doing things in public means you're willing to stand behind something, sign your name to it. It means taking a risk, someone might challenge you, and it means owning it.
Sometimes it's scary as hell. You have to confront things that you are not really too sure about. You need to face your fears. Most people think they don't have the personality or expertise to go out in public, or think they don't speak well. But there's different ways to go out in public. You don't need to be a naturally good speaker.
I'm always amazed by people doing things that I can't do, and putting it out in public. Anyone who sells things, or makes things. I saw a friend of mine in Shanghai with a little boutique graphic design service that they provide to people. They're not a billion dollar company, it's probably just something they do on weekends.
They put up a website, and people go there to make pamphlets and graphics and brochures. That's being out in public. That's saying, "Here's something I find value in, you can hire me to do this."
I really respect that.
The web is really a great equalizer in the world we live in today. You no longer have to do this stuff where you put out all these flyers, get up on a soapbox, or talk in public to get people to listen to you or buy your product or get your idea out there.
You can just use your own website. Start a blog. Don't wait for people to come around and listen. Websites are great. Facebook and Twitter too. You should use them all.
If you don't know the message you want to stand for, keep trying. Everyone has a purpose. You have to go out there and find it. That's your job as a human being. Eventually you try enough, you will find that message, what the purpose is of your life. I am convinced beyond a doubt that everyone has a strong purpose in their life. You have to; you have to contribute to existence.
That's actually a question I get a lot from people, about purpose. When I realized a leader was when people started asking me about leadership. A question I get all the time is, "You seem to have it all together, you seem to have a purpose to your life, but I don't feel like i'm there."
I just say, "Listen, I just decided I had a vision for where I wanted to go. A pie in the sky. I put it in the sky. And it's still very challenging."
When you decide to really care for something, to stand for something, there will be a consistency to the message you put out. If you keep looking and keep it in your mind that you want to find the message you want to put out, you'll get there.
For venues to connect with people… I love to hold events, bring people together. It's easy to get good at holding events around themes you understand. For me, it's always been natural to hold events around Michigan State University, I serve as President of the MSU Alumni Club in Beijing. I saw I cared about my university, and nobody was bringing together the alumni here, so I just did that. It was natural. It was fun. And it had a bigger impact than I could imagine.
Events are probably my favorite way of establishing leadership. We created something from nothing. And I found there are people out there who agreed with the message, and people came, and it was fun, and we kept doing them. Events are huge.
Writing and getting published is good. Editorials. I keep a blog and that's a good way, but for what I do, I also like to operate in what I call "old people's channels" -- traditional forms of media. Local newspapers. Detroit Free Press, Holland Sentinel. They not only have strong leadership, but having names like that give indications that people should listen to what you're saying. People still see it that way, if you're published in newspapers they know, they assume there's some quality in what you're saying.
To connect with newspapers: Send a lot of emails to them. Once you start getting published, it's a domino effect. If your objective as a leader becomes to influence people, it snowballs. You have to practice. When I started trying to get published, I used any channel I could imagine to get people to publish my work.
You also realize there's people in your network that you didn't realize you had, that'll help you get published. I got the Detroit News to publish an article about my experience in China four years ago when I first started blogging. That led me to a guy named Tom Watkins, who read what I was writing, and got in touch with me. He kind of took me under his wing, and it turns out he has access to papers and periodicals all over the State of Michigan which is what I care about. Tom introduces me to lots of editors and associate editors of various papers, and then I sent them my materials, and they liked it -- and now it's easy to get published in those areas.
All you need to do is care enough, so that you try enough times to get in. The snowball takes over from there.
Events, periodicals, and newspapers are good. TV is good too.
You do TV similar to newspapers. People at the newspapers know people in TV, so there's a way to meet them once you get into newspapers.
For TV, you have to be saying something timely and important. Timely and important, people need to care about it. The content needs to be important, and it needs to intersect with the timing of what people want to talk about in the public square at the moment.
Media is a way for us to talk in the public square. The couple times I've been on TV, once was in high school when I was on a local show called Currently Speaking with Andy Rapp. We were discussing an important topic in my town of Frankenmuth. It's a very religious Christian community, and somebody was trying to institute a Bible curriculum, the history of the Bible as a historical book.
It was about the role of the Bible in history. Not an evangelistic curriculum, but a history. I was a sophomore in high school, and I thought we should do it. I spoke out in favor, and another student (who I respected and still respect to do this day) was against; the TV show had us both on. As a 15 year old student I was talking alongside my pastor, and the other student and the head of the Michigan Association of Atheists were on the local television show.
That was my first time on TV. I learned, I was on TV because people cared about what was going on. And it was timely, because of this debate.
I was on TV in China, which was a unique experience. Sometimes discussion shows want a Chinese-speaking foreigner to add flavor. An alumni network member, Ray, his wife was on a CCTV channel where she interviews famous people who have been successful after the opening of the Chinese economy.
Then they have a group of people called a hudongtuan, a discussion group of 3-4 people filmed behind the scenes who commenting on the main participant and the host. Later, it's edited together to give a complete show.
Ray reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be on it. They needed a foreigner who spoke Chinese, and it was to me a pretty simple thing. The network I built brought that opportunity to me.
Take those opportunities.
Personal relationships help you get a lot done.
I genuinely love people and like working with people, and am curious about who they are and what they do. So, I've always found that if you want to get somewhere, chances are that someone is going to have to help you get there.
There's no way for you to ever know everything about everything. But if you're willing to go out there and learn from others and listen, they'll help you where you want to go.
An example: When I started coming to China, I knew that somehow I wanted to find a way to get back to China and work here as a professional or businessperson. As a junior in college, my skills and ability to understand the China market weren't there yet. But I knew if I put myself out there and met enough people, I could work to establish my reputation as being interested in being a young expert on China. For two years I was going back and forth between China and Michigan as a student, and I made a point to meet as many people and get out there as much as possible.
I talked to professors, business people, Chinese and Michiganders, and putting the pieces together. I let everyone know, I'm a young guy and I want to go back to China, and be involved in U.S./China business. I ended up taking an opportunity to work at the World Expo in Shanghai, and at the time I made it a point to keep a personal blog with my friend Charles.
I used that blog to stay in touch with people back home in Michigan to let them know that I was in China, and having this experience. I wasn't really providing, at least to me, earth-shattering information to anybody. But it was interesting for people in Michigan to hear about somebody from there actually living in China, which is a very important country around the world.
This is a tool I used to get my name out there.
I realize this now, but I didn't realize back then how much I was building personal relationships. I did radio spots and appeared on newspapers about the Shanghai Expo. Often I was getting to know people even though we didn't meet in person, by connecting through the media.
I got my first job out of college with a real estate developer in East Lansing, who wanted to build a Chinatown because Michigan State is home to almost 4000 Chinese students. It was an opportunity created through personal relationships. Before I got out there and started blogging and making relationships, Pat and I hadn't met. But I build a reputation of being a young leader in Michigan State and in China, so Pat started voicing he had an idea for a Chinatown and needed to find someone to help, people referred me to him. So we got introduced.
So it was really just a combination of meeting people, using the web to meet more people and build reputation virtually, and the foundation of being a leader and someone who could be trusted. That's what led to that opportunity, and I keep operating in that fashion. I grow my career, my expertise, and my personal network, and it brings me opportunities I can't really see right now. But I know they're going to be there, because people are amazing.
Final Takeaways --
Eight takeaways for someone who wants to take a leadership role, but doesn't know how or is afraid…
1. If you're thinking, "Am I a leader or not?", then you are. Everybody can be a leader.
2. Maybe you haven't found what you want to lead about. If not, keep it in mind and keep thinking about it, and keep trying.
3. Make a blog. It's simple, and you'll never know how interesting what you have to say is until you write it and put it out there.
4. Once you've picked a topic you care about, email your local paper to get something published. Keep doing it. Get published somewhere. It doesn't have to be the New York Times. Just the local paper, they want content from people. It's a good start.
5. Hold an event. For something you think you might care about.
6. If you don't know how to hold an event, go to an event. Take notes. And then later, ask the organizer how they did it. They might help you run your first one.
7. You know more people than you think you know. If you find out what it is you care about, start asking people "How do I build this?" or "How do I get this message out there?" The person you ask can lead you to the next person, who helps you get to the next person, who takes you where you want to go.
8. The world needs more leaders. Just go be one.
Redford is graciously offering a GiveGetWin deal covering a Group Class on Establishing Leadership and Influence. It offers pragmatic guidelines on how to develop your own leadership and influence in the community and marketplace.