Catalyst for Thought is a local nonprofit organization with a goal to advance the community by educating and motivating individuals to create, develop and act on their entrepreneurial ideas. Through its MINDS series, Catalyst for Thought seeks to create a unique synergy between featured speakers and a small group of local entrepreneurs to empower each individual to help create solutions that affect society and inspire others.

Recently, in the library of the University Club of Santa Barbara, serial entrepreneur Kathy O’Dell spoke to an intimate group about how to create and empower a successful team and keep it moving in the right direction, which according to those who have worked for her is O’Dell’s highest and best skill.

Most entrepreneurs are blessed with the gift of vision, to be able to create something that no one else has ever done before. But what most lack is the ability to be error-free in every aspect of business — accounting, marketing, human resources, funding, selling, etc. You cannot be good at everything, so at some point you will need to rely on a team to help you reach your goals.

Kathy O’Dell

Kathy O’Dell

But in order to trust your idea, product or vision to a team, you first need to assemble a truly great group of people whom you can trust. During her talk, O’Dell revealed her advice that she’s amassed during her 20-plus years of leadership experience in high-growth technology enterprises.

O’Dell’s entrepreneurial career began in 1985 when she co-founded Medical Concepts Inc., which grew to become the world’s leading designer and manufacturer of video systems for minimally invasive surgery in just over five years. In 1990, the company was acquired by Karl Storz Endoscopy GmbH, at which time O’Dell joined the organization. Over the next nine years she served as the managing director of Karl Storz Imaging, as well as president of Karl Storz Veterinary Endoscopy America.

From there she served as founding CEO of Inogen Inc., a manufacturer of advanced oxygen therapy devices for treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Inogen attracted more than $53 million in capital from top-tier venture firms and is currently one of the leading firms in the portable oxygen concentrator (POC) segment of the durable medical equipment market.

O’Dell is currently president of Active Life Scientific Inc., an early stage company commercializing reference point indentation, a technology platform licensed from UCSB. The first commercial embodiment of the technology is being marketed to life science researchers for the study of calcified tissues.

O’Dell’s favorite quote by Margaret Mead says a lot about her vision for the efficacy of a good team: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” O’Dell noted that one of the first steps toward creating a successful team is to have a vision, which she defined as a “dream in process.”

“Accomplishing your vision is not a matter of wishing and hoping and dreaming and praying,” O’Dell said (like the old Dusty Springfield song from the ‘60s). “It becomes a reality by taking disciplined actions on a consistent basis.”

In order to see that vision through to reality you will first need to acknowledge that although you may be the leader, you cannot do everything by yourself. O’Dell, an avid football fan, likened a successful team in business to a Super Bowl-winning football team. The quarterback knows where the goal line is and knows what moves he must make to get there. Often this means running, passing or handing off the ball, and the entire team must react in real time in order to decide what’s best given the circumstances. Although it’s often the quarterback who ends up looking great in the stats, it’s because he was given options for successful plays by his teammates. In much the same way, a successful business team is comprised of a team of people with diverse skill sets who help create numerous options and who, more importantly, understand when to use each option.

“Be honest with yourself,” O’Dell said. “Most competent people can do many things, but we don’t do them all equally well.” Whether you’re a team leader or team member, it is equally important to understand what you do really well and where your passions lie, because when you exist in that realm you increase yourself as an asset to the team.

Although a leader oftentimes must wear a number of hats at first, as you begin to build your team you should eventually be able to move into just one hat in order to go deeper in your role. In that sense, it is important to know what needs to be accomplished, and then be able to communicate that to your team members. But, O’Dell warns, be careful.

“If you’re always trying to delegate the outcome, the only outcome you’re going to get is your own,” O’Dell said. There is a fine line between delegation and empowerment, and a good leader needs to trust his or her team and resist the temptation to control the outcome. “When you empower people to do their best work, you’re empowering yourself to get the best results.”

By empowering your team, a great leader will then be able to recognize that everyday there is a different hero on the team. Sometimes it’s the marketing director, others it’s the CFO or someone in parts. By giving team members a higher purpose, it allows them to come to work knowing they’re doing something good at work.

O’Dell said she is reading Touch Points: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest Moments by Doug Conant, the CEO of Campbell Soup Company, which he suggests that the daily interruptions that leaders face are in fact moments that offer the greatest leadership opportunities. Conant argues that these “interruptions” are actually points of contact that can be used to promote a company’s values, purpose and agenda, which ultimately results in higher employee engagement, improved revenue and better relationships.

“It is important to have a tough mind about goals but also be tenderhearted and treat people with respect,” O’Dell said, adding that by keeping this golden rule at the core of your company’s mission and actively seeking to create a great team, you will be able to move your vision to success.

Catalyst for Thought does not have any upcoming MINDS events for the remainder of 2011, but make sure to check the website for upcoming speakers in 2012.

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— Carolyn Turner is a writer for Catalyst for Thought and works at Avalan Wealth Management as its client care director.