A discussion with Clay Cousins, Entrepreneur
“Clay Cousins is an organizational change leader and visionary entrepreneur. He uses his distinctive facilitation style and collaborative model in leadership coaching to support individuals and organizations in reframing their perspectives to effect sustainable change. Clay’s abilities to connect seemingly unrelated ideas and identify innovative solutions have been shaped by his dyslexia, which was identified in early childhood. This out-of-the-box thinking and his natural ability to build and maintain relationships have emerged as his greatest strengths.”
Clay agreed to share his story with the Headstrong Nation community. Because of dyslexia, his early years in school were difficult, intensifying in college. However, the challenges he experienced as a student helped him to discover the skills and strengths that he relies on as an entrepreneur today. Clay uses this unique experience to assist businesses and individuals in reaching their full potential.
I Thought I Was Doing Great
My parents were initially made aware that I was not reading at grade level in the second grade. I was placed in a remedial reading class. Since I had no reference point to identify how I was supposed to be reading, I personally didn’t see a problem and thought I was doing great. However, in the fourth grade I was formally diagnosed with dyslexia.
I’ve always had a huge thirst for knowledge, and thought I was moving forward in school. However, I was receiving feedback from my parents and teachers that I wasn’t quite making it. Elementary school was a confusing time for me. I came to the conclusion that the formality of school didn’t inspire me and seemed to hold me back creatively.
One of my outlets during this period was Physical Education – but not the typical PE class. The PE teacher was really ahead of the curve and had created an indoor ropes course in our school. I had two friends at the time who also had an interest in the ropes course. (It turns out that they too had dyslexia.) The PE teacher allowed the three of us to come in and set up the ropes course during the week and even on weekends. The course and other activities in the gym allowed us to escape the day-to-day stress of the classroom. This PE teacher influenced many of my choices during my elementary school years.
My Special Education resource teacher was also a strong advocate for me in elementary school. However, because of their lack of understanding of dyslexia, many of my other teachers were not very helpful. I believe they were very invested in trying to help me, but often said to me, “You need to try harder and focus more.” I wanted to reply, “You don’t know how hard I AM focusing;” but, I didn’t have the language or ability to share with them what I was experiencing.
Hitting the wall in middle school.
By middle school, the only aspect of school that I enjoyed was socializing. I enjoyed the process of learning but I wasn't able to demonstrate what I knew, so I checked out more and more. However, I did have advocates. My parents attended all my annual IEP meetings and always asked questions.
During one meeting, while reviewing my IEP, my mother noticed that another child’s name was used throughout the document, although my name was on the cover. It was apparent to her that no one was reading, much less implementing the plan. She confronted the IEP team about this and threatened to sue the school because they weren’t providing me with the appropriate resources. The school agreed to reimburse my parents for all the outside tutors they had hired to help me stay at grade level. I actually only learned of this about five years ago.
It is interesting talking with my mother now. I’ve learned that back then, it was a difficult period for her because nobody had any answers as to how to help me learn and she couldn't relate to what I was going through. She tried to find tutors who could help me. I struggled with the tutoring. They used different methods than the school’s approach, but it still wasn't effective for me. I wasn’t confident that I was making any progress. The one bright spot that was emerging, with some help and observations from my father, was my self-awareness. Through this self-awareness, I was able to start advocating for myself.
Working the System in High School
When I moved onto high school, my mom was worried about what I would do, how I would manage. I didn’t think anything of it. Since academics were hard for me and I wanted to graduate, I looked for alternatives to the traditional school day and realized the school was made up of systems.
I figured out how to work the system to my benefit. I knew my weaknesses were reading and writing. I was decent in math, if I had the right teacher. I creatively scheduled my courses to include study hall in the resource room. There I got much of my homework done using the school’s tools to my advantage. I used my social skills to get what I needed from the resource teachers. My needs appeared minimal compared to the more severe disabilities they had to deal with.
My greatest challenge in high school was my friends. They were a relatively intellectual group. Because I compared myself to them and wasn’t performing at their level, I bought into the idea that I wasn’t very smart, since I wasn’t performing at their academic level. They were accepted to college with scholarships in programs that I felt I could never attain. That was my mindset
My parents were adamant that I go to college because they believed I had the ability and could succeed. (They also believed that I would always regret it if I didn’t try.)
I was accepted to the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. They had a very good program and an understanding of dyslexia, so I received support there. Despite the resources available, college was very difficult for me. Up to this point, I had intentionally worked hard to get out of doing much of what was required of me in school (by working the system).
On top of this, I didn’t know what to major in; what I wanted to do for a career. I barely made it through the first semester and wondered why I stuck with it. I had a better attitude the second semester, however. Ireached out to one of my professors in recreation management to discuss this field and she helped me to set up an appointment with an advisor to explore what the program offered.
On the weekends, I hung out with my high school friends who were attending Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins. I shared this information with them and they encouraged me to transfer to CSU.
In my second year, at CSU, I decided that I wanted to do more than survive, so I put all my effort into it. I was gaining confidence, knew I was smart enough to succeed, and pushed myself to do the best that I could.
However, I once again experienced a lack of understanding of the accommodations needed for one with dyslexia. While the University recognized my need for more time on projects and/or tests, professors did not, resulting discouragement rather than support. I resorted to what worked for me: working the system using my inherent skills.
I realized that I had strengths that I could use to my advantage in the classroom. I was an auditory learner, and had good negotiation skills. I rarely missed class, as listening to lectures was something that I could do easily to learn information. I had good presentation skills that enabled me to obtain high grades in group projects. This balanced out the lower grades I may have received on multiple choice or written exams.
I met with each of my professors to introduce myself and to discuss my disability and abilities. Once I shared the accommodations essential to my success in college (a list from the college’s office of disability programs) they were more than happy to help me achieve my goal: a college degree.
Reading was difficult for me and the resources were few and outdated. The disability office was stretched thin, with staff helping students with many types of disabilities. Although they did want to help, I found that many of their resources didn’t really work well for me. I had difficulty finding my rhythm. However, I realized over time that I am pretty high functioning, so I believe I developed strategies drawing on talents I didn’t even know I had.
I have to admit that I was kind of disillusioned in college. My major wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, and I had felt like I was not going to pursue a career in it. However, I realized the value in getting a college degree, and I did learn important life skills. They have helped me hone my social and interpersonal skills, which I use in my work today.
Early Career – Finding my way and understanding my strengths
During college and after, I worked at a ski shop renting equipment. I was later offered a position as a snowboard buyer and assistant manager. My transition from college to work was a pleasant one in comparison to that of my friends who had difficulty finding work after college.
Then, I started looking around for different career opportunities, but I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do. The area I had majored in (Recreation, Natural Resources and Tourism) no longer interested me. I saw a myriad of other possibilities, which is both a strength and curse of mine: too many choices and not idea how to choose one.
I got a few leads and ventured into construction, then the oil and gas industry. Through these, I discovered my greatest asset: big-picture thinking. This enabled me to objectively see and evaluate the needs of business owners: what was working, what was not and what they might do differently to be more successful. Although, the jobs were temporary, and not very satisfying, they were the start of my self-journey.
In these positions, I was given very diverse responsibilities: act as liaison between departments, manage PR events and other projects, coach department heads in change management. Because of the variety of tasks and my unconventional approach to achieving the desired outcomes, it was difficult to measure my value through established metrics.
These various responsibilities helped me to see what I was good at, what my true strengths were, and how I might leverage these strengths in a different way. I realized that I was very intelligent (I just expressed it differently) and I understood how to connect with people. These experiences gave me an understanding of my skill sets and placed me on a new trajectory.
I Started my Own Business - Changing the Status Quo
I took the plunge and started a consulting business with my wife and life partner. We focus on Coaching, Group Facilitation, and HR advisory work (my wife’s specialty). Our whole business is built on developing self-awareness and mindset. This is a natural outcome of the work that I had to do around my own self-awareness.
A message that I’d like to share with others with dyslexia is that just because the past may have been filled with negative experiences, it doesn’t mean the future has to be the same. The status quo can be changed and this awareness opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
If I believe in the status quo: that I have to read a book in a certain amount of time, then write a report on it, I feel like a failure from the get go. But if I can listen to a book and present my knowledge of the material in another way, then I have accomplished the same goal. If you carry this book analogy into your personal and business life you can open up all sorts of possibilities, increasing your level of success.
The thought of unlimited possibilities really gets me fired up! Looking at work through the lens of “This is how we’ve always done it” can be very limiting. I would hear this a lot in the corporate world. Many limiting beliefs and ultimately processes and can be improved. It’s important to understand why things work. If they don’t work, you have an opportunity to innovate. I look for that deeper meaning and that’s what excites me.
Another thing that excites me is being able to give people the language and tools to recognize and maximize their abilities. I’ve seen people stuck in a role that was defined for them. They think they are limited by that definition. Helping people understand that there is “transferability” of their skill sets across industries is a really exciting part of my role as coach. I thrive on giving people the tools and ability to develop their inherent leadership skills to guide others. In this way you can model leadership to others on many levels and help change outcomes.
I believe we are seeing an exciting entrepreneurial movement and this is inspiring! People are rethinking their current situation, assessing their strengths, and moving forward boldly and creatively. However, one does not have to be an entrepreneur to realize one’s potential. In addition to having a positive mindset, resilence, and authenticity, possessing an understanding of one's strengths, and how to best use them, will help a person to achieve any goals he sets for himself.
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