Profiles in VUCA

After 7 years as a state senator, what made you decide to run for Governor?

There are two main reasons. First, Colorado faces a critical set of challenges over the next decade. Solving these challenges will require leaders who can build a vision for where the state is going, and can bridge the divide to build a coalition that can accomplish those big ambitions. These are qualities I feel I bring to the table.

The second reason is we are at a time in history where people are losing faith in our ability to solve big problems around progressive values using bipartisan coalitions built through democracy. I still believe in this principle. So in a broad way, my team is motivated by the opportunity to demonstrate that democracy still works, and bipartisan solutions still exist, when we bring people to the table around mutual concerns and shared values.

So it’s a combination of concrete problems in job development, education, transportation, energy, and the environment, as well as the bigger question—how do we set an example that democracy still works when people come together to try to accomplish big things?


How are the challenges you’d face as governor in 2018 different from those you would have faced 50 years ago?

Back then, I probably would have been able to take a much more linear and iterative approach to solving problems. But now we have to build solutions for a world that looks quite different from what we’ve seen in the past.

For example, if we look at something like economic development, it doesn’t make any sense to build solutions that fit the economy from 50 years ago; we’ll need to look ahead 50 years and craft novel solutions for that future economy.

In that economy, volatility would be the rule, and we can expect that people will switch careers around every 4 years, and 90% of new job types that would pay a family-supporting wage will require postsecondary skills. Today, only 40% of people in Colorado have those skills.

Considering all this, we have to create a system that re-skills or upskills people every 4 years so they can jump from job to job. It’s drastically different from the norm of training people for one job that they’ll stick with for 50 years.

Compared to 50 years ago, today’s leader has to be a lot more forward thinking, with an eye on building solutions for new types of problems.


What characteristics would a leader need to be successful in this new environment?

We’d need someone who is able to listen and fully understand the challenging situations people are struggling with. We’d also need someone who is a visionary, who can take that information from listening to people, and craft a path to get us out of situations where we feel stuck.

This leader would need to be able to build coalitions and engage a really broad and diverse set of people to work together to accomplish that vision. Lastly, we need someone who’s always looking at the first version of a solution, doing more listening, and gathering feedback to make the solution better.

So those are the main characteristics—being a listener, a visionary, a coalition builder, and a reflective practitioner: someone who is able to make changes and improve along the way.



How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?

The first example that comes to mind is the shift in jobs. We are looking at an environment where old industries die off and more people are put out of work. We have to figure out what jobs will replace the obsolete ones, and what skills they will require.

The scope of the challenge is 50% of the jobs people have won’t exist 10 years from now, and half the state will have to be ready to make a job change in a decade. This is the core anxiety of American life in coming years, and as governor, I will help prepare Coloradans for this impending reality.

A key example of uncertainty is in the area of transportation.

We know we’ll have a million more Coloradans over the next 15 years. We’ll have to figure out how do we move those Coloradans around, and how we move the products that they need.

We’ll also have to weigh this need against the uncertainty of the direction that technology and infrastructure will take. There may be autonomous vehicles and drones in use to deliver goods. This technology would also impact public transit, but how? And would it be affordable?

So we have a clear challenge—how to accommodate significant population growth with our infrastructure. Uncertainty comes into play when you factor in new technologies, how soon they will be available, and how affordable they will be.

The main question here is how to grow the state of Colorado in a way that matches our values. We want to welcome in more neighbors and residents, but we also want to protect the environment and maintain the natural beauty of the state. It was in this spirit that part of my platform is to get Colorado to 100% renewable energy by 2040.

Yet there’s complexity here in terms of how much to invest in wind, how much to invest in solar, how much storage battery technology will allow, and what other new innovations will emerge that we’re not yet prepared for. We would have to find a way to align all this with the existing exploration of oil and gas and coal.

So we’re clear on the desired outcome—target resources and investment to get the state using only renewable energy in the next 20 years. But we have to be ready for unknown innovations and potential setbacks.  

There is dramatic change and some ambiguity around what the institution of K-12 education will look like 20 years from now.

Throughout my decade as an educator, I found that the structures I worked within were largely unchanged from those Horace Mann worked in 250 years ago. It was still essentially 25 kids in a class with a teacher at the front writing on some type of board (chalk or white) and students taking notes, researching, writing papers, presenting their results, and we’d move on to the next unit.

But in the last 5 or 10 years, we’ve seen more change than we have in 250 years, and they will continue to change in the next 20!

In a world where all you have to do is ask Siri, where does the old idea of spending 5 years learning US and world history fit? Therein lies the ambiguity. What is the role of the student? What is the role of a teacher? Who has access to the content and who is responsible for interpreting it?

We need to be clear on where the current system needs to improve, but also be open to ways the system could change entirely.


When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?

For me, there’s a profound sense of excitement. It’s how I imagine the first European settlers must have felt when they set foot on the new world 350 years ago. In the same way, we have a chance to discover unimaginable things, and be a pioneer in uncharted territory.

The rapid acceleration of human capacity, technology, and global connectivity has created a blank canvas where I see unlimited possibility. To lead in this environment is a chance to be a builder of unprecedented scale—creating things that once seemed impossible, and solving problems once labeled intractable.

This moment requires leaders who are incredibly driven, yet humble. You’ll have to be driven enough to pursue amazing possibilities where others only see roadblocks; but you’ll also have to be humble enough to listen to feedback and be able to course-correct.


How do you react to VUCA?

Mike’s zeal and excitement at exploring the unknowns the future holds is the mark of a transformative leader—someone is undaunted by change or setbacks, but rather uses this uncertainty to create something brand new.

Now it’s your turn. Take our quiz to find out what kind of VUCA leader you are.