FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Steve Mesler
June 2, 2020
I struggled with how to start this article …
Who is Steve Mesler, and why is he having an impact in Calgary, and across North America?
Budding track star who failed to make it big in his sport after showing so much promise?
American, living in Calgary?
Or maybe I should begin with, Olympic Bobsled Gold Medalist in Calgary? But not for Canada …
These are exciting elements, parts of the story. Still, none of them are THE story – one I am so glad I pursued, and to say this story, his story, underscores the importance of building success from humble beginnings, hard work and spring-boarding from failure to high achievement would be a massive over-simplification.
I had no idea who Steve Mesler was. I’d not heard of him, but I had become familiar with Classroom Champions because, for the last couple of years, they have been the charity recipient of funds raised by the annual Peter Burgener Memorial Benefit Concert – because we’ve promoted those events here at FACILITYCalgary. I know Ross Roy, and I knew Peter Burgener. Curiosity about Steve Mesler grew, and that led to this interview – conducted recently in person via Zoom …
Born in Buffalo, New York to teacher parents. Mom and dad were both special education teachers. One sibling, a younger sister. More about her later.
His school days were marked by strong performance in the classroom – high achievement academically, in swimming and track, and a scholarship. “Dad got me into it”. National champion in the decathlon. Scholarship to the University of Florida, where he earned this B.Sc. degree in Physical Education. While in Gainsville, each year plagued by injuries and failing to achieve his anticipated goals – Steve contemplated a future of recognizing his track days were over, he could coach, the could apply to graduate school – until a suggestion by a coach, talking about a track athlete who had switched to bobsled.
His research led him to say, “Try this!”, and it turned out to be, “The most important day of my life.”
Steve stayed in Florida after finishing his degree and began training for a sport he’d never done, while asking himself, “How am I going to do all I need to stop getting hurt?” That began with a realization he had to do things differently – and what brought him to Calgary to train was not just our Calgary88 legacy facilities, but because he had team mates in Calgary, and his coach was here.
And for 10 years he didn’t miss the American team, competed in three Olympics, won 40 world cup races, won 2 world championships – and in 2010 at Vancouver, won Olympic Gold in the 4-man bobsled. That year the Germans won Silver, and Canada won Bronze. Clearly a great year for bobsledding in Calgary.
But that’s not the story here.
In 2010, retired from bobsled, what comes next?
In 2009, without expectation it would be his new career, Steve co-founded Classroom Champions with his sister, Dr. Leigh Parise. The partnerships began with five schools – one of which was Crescent Heights in Calgary. At that time Steve was earning a living with leadership consulting work and public speaking engagements - some ‘for fee’, and many for free, establishing relationships which would prove valuable in terms of building Classroom Champions and raising funds. He kept getting invited into conversations and events – and held to the view, “You gotta say YES as much as you can.” He credits many people with helping him along the way, but none more emphatically that Mark Fitzgerald, “… for believing in Classroom Champions, and for believing in me.”
May 2013, at 34, a turning point for Steve, while making a good living at consulting work, “I felt empty, and I made one key decision – to dedicate myself full time to Classroom Champions – and we’ve not looked back since then. And that meant we had to fundraise. A lot. Crescent Point were our first sponsor; Shaw was next.”
The connection of schools, athletes, fundraising, and consciousness-raising continues. And, another Peter Burgener Memorial concert is scheduled for this fall – and sponsors, partners, and donors are more important than ever.
Our discussion continued at length – Steve shared a lot, but rather than reciting it here in my words, I encourage you to check out the website so you can get the Classroom Champions story in Steve’s words.
Along his path, Steve met and married University of Lethbridge professor Dr. Rhiannon MacDonnell Mesler – they live in Calgary and have a daughter.
Classroom Champions has an annual budget of $4.5 million, and a team of 13, full and part time contractors and a lot of volunteer athletes on their team.
Why are you successful?
“I’m a reluctant loser. I believe that surrounding yourself with good people – and enabling them, believing in them, and supporting them has been and continues to be the key to all the success we’ve achieved.”
What has held you back?
“I don’t think I’ve reached my potential yet. I need to get better.”
How do you see your business – a not-for profit charity – going forward over the next quarter?
... We're looking at new ways for us to leverage our programs to make a difference in the current landscape for kids, teachers, parents, and communities. We're leaning on our reserves right now, working with individual donors, and foundations to make sure we've got the income to keep our staff fully employed and implementing the crucial work our teams do. Right now, once kids are fed and housed - we have to make sure they come out of this mentally and emotionally strong - and that's where Classroom Champions comes in.
And over the next five years?
- I think that's yet to be seen. How will education come out of the COVID crisis? Will we be able to return to schools as normal? I would assume so, once there's a vaccine, but how will this new experience change education? We don't know that answer as of yet but I'd anticipate virtual relationships (like everyone is building on Zoom right now!) will be more acceptable and be seen as a way to engage schools - much like we've been doing for a decade.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… Those who believe there's a different, better way to educate kids and connect communities. Those who have supported Classroom Champions - both financially and value-in-kind - have been people who didn't accept the status quo and were looking for ways to have a bigger impact on society at a lower cost per child. Scaling mentorship, as we have done, and using the power of sport and athletes to give kids tangible people who are living their moments, have attracted a large group who all believe we can, collectively, do better.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Steve Mesler and Classroom Champions, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I think I may have answered your question here a bit above. Sport inspire people, celebrity and athletes inspire people - we're able to take those things, extract the good and powerful from it, and create a measureable impact with programs that schools want to use. That's what makes us different. We're not just having celebrities "champion" our cause - we're putting them in a position to be the change. That's inspiring to people.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I believe people are motivated through what Daniel Pink described as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. If people have the freedom to work when and how they want; have opportunities to dive into what they're doing and own it - thus mastering an area, task, project; and feel that their work is making a difference to society, others on the team, or contributing to something larger than themselves, then people will be happy, motivated, and productive at work. I consistently try to do my best here, and often fall short, but that's the north star.
… I believe in Inspired/Stress balance. If you can balance the stress in your life - at home and at work - with being inspired, then you'll be happy. My lens tells me I have great work/life balance, whereas someone else may look at me and say I don't.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… everything has so dramatically changed in the COVID-19 world, how do we keep people engaged, how do we keep people employed – and how do we open this, Classroom Champions, to the world …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… I’ve had a lot of people help me. Coach Garnham in high school – he trained with me, believed in me, and the driving force to help me win a scholarship. Dave Pottruck, chairman of our board and a former Charles Schwab CEO – for believing in me and helping us win a lot of donor support; and my mom, for all her support and teaching me to never say NO.
What do you read?
… a broad variety of things – mostly work-related. I like reading about change-makers. I’ve been shifting from books to Audible.
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