Challenged Onto the Stage

by  David Greer  |  Leadership Development
Challenged Onto The Stage

While I was still a computer science student at the University of British Columbia, I joined a young software startup called Robelle, named for the two founders Robert and Annabelle. I was the first employee.

As a requirement of my employment Bob and Annabelle insisted that I had to write my first technical paper, submit it to the 1980 International Hewlett-Packard General Systems User Group, and if accepted travel to the conference to present my paper.

That first paper, Checkstack & Controlling COBOL Stacks, was accepted. I had to ask permission of my UBC professors in fourth year to take a week off so that I could fly to San Jose, where I did my first ever professional presentation, at the tender age of twenty-two.

I remember how anxious I was before going on stage that first time, but I had no choice. My paper was in the proceedings and my time slot was booked. Here’s an image from that paper:

Greer Paper

My only prior public speaking experience was when a previous employer had me take a weekend long public speaking course. In addition to forcing me to practice public speaking during that weekend workshop, the instructor taught me three important things that you should do in every presentation:

    1. Tell them what you are going to tell them.
    2. Tell them.
    3. Tell them what you told them.

Like most good advice, the principles are very, very simple. It is the practice of how you do this that is the challenge. I still follow these principles today, being as creative as I can be so that people are not obviously aware that this is the pattern of my presentations.

I think that we often do our best work when we don’t know what we are doing. Free of the shackles of previous experience we just go out and try things. Sometimes, we just repeat the mistakes of others. Other times, we strike out into a completely new area.

No one told me that 22-year olds are not supposed to go to international conventions and give presentations. At least in 1980 we weren’t supposed to. Today, it’s normal as the next generation of breakthrough technologies are often being invented by people much younger than I was then.

What does this have to do with leading others? I take away these powerful lessons:

      • We should not assume someone young in age or role is incapable of taking on something new and ambitious.
      • It is up to us to challenge those that follow us so that they have the opportunity to grow into what is next for them.
      • When stretching those that lead, you need to provide a safety net so that the whole company or organization or company is not brought down if the person cannot rise to the challenge.

In my case, if I hadn’t written the paper or if it had not been accepted by the review committee, little harm would have been done to Robelle. Bob and Annabelle did take a reputational risk for their young company by having me, completely inexperienced as I was, get up on stage to represent the company. Fortunately, we did practice runs beforehand so that I was as prepared as I could be to do a good job.

In the end, it worked out for both Robelle and me. While I remember some stumbles and lots of “ahs” in that first presentation, I got through it. For the twenty years after that both Bob and I wrote a paper every year and traveled the planet presenting to technical and management audiences to create belief in our relatively small software company that people trusted their entire company to.

It all started with Bob and Annabelle issuing a challenge and taking a risk on what I could do.

What challenge and risk are you going to give to someone you lead today?
Photo Credit: Morguefile

About The Author

Articles By david-greer
David is the catalyst who gets you to fully live your dreams now. After time with him you feel equally scared and hopeful. Scared at the audacity of your dreams and hopeful because you have someone in your corner with the experience and desire to see your dreams become real.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John Smith  |  16 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi, David – great story and great message:)

Your experience was valuable, the more so because it was and still is rather unusual. Most people of ANY age do not have these opportunities, unless they intentionally seek them out and remain open to possibilities.

I smiled when I saw that familiar Tell Em Times Three mantra, since I was also taught this at any early age and continue to use it. Your comment ” … being as creative as I can be so that people are not obviously aware that this is the pattern of my presentations” caught my attention because this is something that folks do not always do well.

Many times, I have seen both verbal and written examples of a mechanical application of this principle, often accompanied by the annoying (to me) phrases “I am going to …” or “I have …”, just to make absolutely sure that their intent is obvious. The more this structure can be cleverly disguised, the more engaging the message will be.

A little creativity goes a long way toward making a speech, presentation, or lesson less plodding or tedious and more energetic. You have given us a great reminder of this simple, but challenging truth.


David Greer  |  16 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi John,

I first want to acknowledge and thank you for your thoughtful comments. I so appreciate that you take the time to comment on my Lead Change Group blog posts.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have amazing opportunities put in front of me throughout my life. I was sharing with friends this morning how in the early 70’s I was lucky enough to go to a high school with a data processing teacher and class. It was there where I got to write my first computer program at a time when kids in Grade 11 never had that opportunity.

Then at both the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia, I was exposed to the Michigan Terminal System (MTS). This operating system was at least a decade ahead of its time, although there was no way at the time that I could know that. My “norm” was so far in front of what was happening that being in front was and still is my normal.

I have also been blessed with an adventurous spirit, which has taken the initiative to step into these experiences. While few 22-year olds get the opportunity to speak at an International User Group meeting, even fewer would take up the challenge and actually do it. I’m not certain what the larger life lesson for others is. I just know that I continue to explore and challenge myself to both find and step into big new opportunities.

May you have both the chance and spirit to do the same.



Jane  |  16 Dec 2015  |  Reply

I can certainly appreciate this, David! Super story! What an awesome leader you had to give you the opportunity – take a risk – because they believed in you. Not even close to the degree that you experienced but something similar happened to me. I had only been working for a few months when my boss told me he was sick and I would have to do his presentation to a group of Executive VPs. When I told him I was scared to death he said as long as I was prepared why should I be scared. I got through it -only to see him at the back of the room when it was over, not sick at all. I guess he knew I needed to gain some confidence. Or maybe it was throwing me to the sharks and see if I could swim.

David Greer  |  16 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Hi Jane,

Nice story.

To me, your boss did exactly what Bob and Annabelle did for me. Your boss challenged you to step way outside your comfort zone. He did it with deception, but when the time came he was there in the audience for you. I can only guess, but believe that he was there so that if you needed some rescuing, he would be there do it. And you didn’t, because you knew your boss believed that you could do the presentation.

And you did.

We can create incredible growth for someone else when we believe in them and we let them know it.



Paul LaRue  |  17 Dec 2015  |  Reply

David, I see some similarities between your post and Noah Megregian’s post from yesterday.

No matter how young (or “older”) you are, break out of yourself and just charge forward. Learning is only by doing and experiencing. We grow when we stretch and push the limits of what we have previously done.

A great inspiration and lesson for us all. Thanks!

David Greer  |  17 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Thanks Paul.

For those of you who missed it, here is the link to the post “Opportunity Knocks – It’s Up To You To Open The Door” by Noah Megregian:

It was, of course, complete coincidence that our two posts came back-to-back. Noah sounds about the same age now as I was then and our feels make me feel that we were both equally fearful of going on stage.

Stretching is how we grow. I am thankful to those who have pushed me so that I have stretched over the years.



Join The Conversation