Brain Cook- Common thread

Making the World Better One Mentorship at a Time

One of the best things that can happen when you are a junior employee at an organization is when a more senior colleague takes you under their wing, mentors you, gives you advice, and helps you grow. It gives the collective endeavor of “work” a meaning beyond simply shareholder profit—and it ultimately leads to greater team cohesion and goal success.

At least that’s what Brian Cook, a student in Antioch Online’s MBA program, believes. And he takes this belief seriously in his job at one of the world’s largest financial institutions, where he leads a global team of infrastructure engineers. Every other week, he makes time to meet one-on-one with each of his subordinates, asking them questions like “Is there something you need me to escalate or reach out to? Is there another area you’ve had trouble with? Or is it you just want to talk?” He wants to make sure that they feel supported and appreciated and that they have “someone to help them with their career.” Often they ask him for coaching and help building skills and confidence.

Cook remembers one person he worked with who was shy and very focused on the tasks he was directly assigned to. “A very typical IT-like person,” explains Cook. This person expressed a desire to advance his career, but at the same time he was afraid to step out of his comfort zone. So Cook challenged him to set up a half-hour meeting with someone completely outside of their unit. After some initial hesitance, the employee went ahead and scheduled a meeting with one of the unit’s clients. After the meeting took place, he was full of enthusiasm. “I learned so much from this guy,” he told Cook. And, he added, “I would never have done that, unless you challenged me.”

For Cook, being able to help people socially like this is a big part of why he loves his job. “Building up that team and helping them move forward,” he says, “it’s a personal sense of accomplishment for me to see them succeed.”

This sense of mission and social responsibility is part of why Cook is a natural fit at Antioch and especially in the MBA’s Leadership and Teams concentration. He’s passionate about the accounting framework emphasized in the MBA program: the “Triple Bottom Line” that asks for equal weight to be placed on People, the Planet, and Profits.

This drive to do right by the people around him has brought him a satisfying career and growing responsibilities. It has also brought him now twice to study at Antioch, where he finds both kindred values and an encouraging environment in which to build skills—and the confidence to push beyond the known and the comfortable. “I want to be a better leader,” he says. “I want to make a difference in my organization and at the end of my career be proud of what I accomplished.”

Learning by Doing as an IT Professional

Cook grew up in Eaton, Ohio, a small city near the border with Indiana, surrounded by farmland. From a young age, Cook knew that he didn’t want to be a farmer like so many of those around him. “I was always kind of like the oddball there,” he says.

He was fascinated by computers and other forms of technology, so out of high school he pursued an associate’s degree in computer programming from Miami Jacobs Business College in Ohio. He graduated in the early ‘90s, and straight out of school he was hired by the large company Electronic Data Systems, which offered him extensive on-the-job training. “I knew that they had a training program for the next two or three years,” explains Cook. “They would train me in every single thing I would ever need to know.”

He became a strong computer programmer, and for over two decades he didn’t think of returning to school. He eventually left EDS and took a job at a large financial institution, where he’s worked ever since. (Due to company policy, he cannot identify his employer.)

A man stands behind a lectern, next to a giant screen on which a presentation is being projected. He is evidently speaking.
Cook leads a presentation at a conference.

In his career as an IT professional, Cook has been able to keep busy and keep his work interesting. “I think I get bored easily,” he says. “So after a couple years I change teams for the most part. And I take on a new challenge.”

Eventually, these challenges he craved came to include not just technical problems but also the skill of managing other people. He started managing global teams that have included people across the US but also in the United Kingdom, in Argentina, and in India.

On one work trip he was able to visit a team he had been working with in Bangalore, in southern India. It was a cool trip but also gave him a deeper understanding of how these colleagues often were being asked to work in the middle of the night just to attend meetings scheduled for mid-day in the US. “You learn, like, This isn’t cool. I’m not going to schedule a meeting, just because it’s convenient for me,” he explains. “It’s really inconvenient, and these people have families… They want to do things outside of work.” Ultimately, this trip was one of those experiences that helped him develop more of what he calls “cultural intelligence.”

Completing His Bachelor’s at Antioch

Despite the many ways that Cook’s job allowed him to grow, he reached a point several years ago when he realized he wasn’t totally satisfied. “I kind of hit a real stagnant point,” he says. He wanted to do something for himself that would help him grow in different ways.

So he enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts in Management through Antioch Online. It was busy to be in school while staying at his job. “I would come home, like four or five o’clock, and then be online till midnight, one o’clock every night,” he says. He could not have completed a Bachelor’s degree or gone as far along in the MBA program without the support and love of his amazing wife, he says, but he also just loved studying at Antioch. He admired the way that “being diverse, being inclusive, making sure it is as fair as possible across whatever you’re doing” is baked into the university’s culture.

Maybe his favorite part was the way that he felt seen, nurtured, and individually encouraged. “It’s that personal feel and that personal touch that you don’t see in a lot of other places,” he says. “To have that interaction with instructors and even my teammates or classmates—you just feel it.”

If this experience resembles anything, it is the personal, caring encouragement that Cook today works hard to share with those he manages. Ultimately, the program helped him be a stronger leader of global teams. As he says, “I think getting my Bachelor of Arts in Management really helped.”

Taking on More Leadership Roles at Work

“After my BA in Management, I noticed a change in myself,” says Cook. At work, he started taking a more proactive role in trying to make sure the company was living out values he agreed with. As he explains, “I figured I had nothing to lose, so [I] started putting myself out there and networking with senior leaders in my organization.”

He was selected to be part of a Cultural Engagement workgroup, where he works to foster those values in senior leadership. “We’re pushing hard for making sure that we’re being diverse and inclusive in our hiring,” he says. He’s encouraging more senior leadership to value diversity in their hiring and recruitment, and he’s working to make his workplace hospitable and inclusive to a wide variety of ideas and voices.

“We need to have diverse perspectives,” Cook explains. He knows this from spending his days on calls with teammates from across the globe. “The woman sitting in India and working through the same engineering problem as my team sitting here—they’re just two different ways of tackling it,” says Cook. “It’s really refreshing because you do see completely different sides of the story and different aspects of solving a problem.”

He’s come to see his own engagement in issues across his workplace as a potential model for others. Recently he stepped out of his own comfort zone to lead a workshop in “taking the initiative when you see one.” As he explains, “All your manager can tell you is, ‘No.’” But lately rather than being stopped, he’s been encouraged.

He negotiated with a vendor that was hosting a technology conference that he and his colleagues weren’t going to be able to attend, and he managed to get the vendor to offer a slimmed-down one-day free conference at his job location—reaching 250 of his colleagues. Later, he put together a series of dozens of workshops that were recorded and shared with the rest of the company. These have so far been attended by about 2,000 people.

Pursuing an MBA to Change the World

Ultimately, these successes in leading and innovating have led Cook to seek further education in the field of business management. He’s set his sights on becoming an executive director, managing multiple global teams. “I think I need an MBA for that,” he says. “I really feel the scope and scale of that, and some of the skills I need to know. An MBA is coming in very, very handy.”

He started looking at different programs before deciding to search to see whether his alma mater, Antioch, offered an MBA. During his search, he found that Antioch’s online MBA program was just launching—a great serendipity. Once he saw that this program existed, the choice was made. “Antioch’s values align with mine so I chose them over the other colleges I was looking into for my MBA,” he says.

He began his studies in January of 2020, and so far the program has been an excellent fit for him. “There is just an ‘Antioch way’ or ‘feel’ to a class, if that makes sense,” he says. “The focus is always on the people behind the scenes or who is impacted—such as the environment—instead of just all focused on doing more with less and making a profit.”

He especially likes the Triple Bottom Line concept. This idea holds that businesses should measure success not just on the metric of profit but also on the basis of people (how it impacts employees, customers, and others) and the planet (how it affects the environment on local and global scales). “Triple Bottom Line was a new concept to me,” says Cook, “and it really helped me appreciate the good work that organizations do to focus on the environment and their people. Partly due to taking the course “Principles of Triple Bottom Line” taught by David Deziel, Cook has joined the Triple Bottom Line workgroup at his employer.

He’s also loved classes taught by Dr. Kenneth Baker, including “Organizational Leadership and Change” and “Ethical and Legal Issues Facing Leaders.” Dr. Baker often asks students questions like “Has anyone ever seen this?” or “What’s your weirdest HR story?” Cook is never short of answers.

“I’m like, ‘Dude, I’ve got them.’ I’ve seen it all,” he explains of his 30-year career in IT. “It gives me a lot of experience, which can really help, especially when you’re writing papers.”

Ambitions for a Bright Future

Currently, Cook is working to improve his workplace and nurture the people he manages. The pandemic created more work than ever before, as his teams worked overtime to help create the infrastructure to administer Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans funded by the US Federal Government. As when he completed his BA, he once again found himself working late into the night to finish his MBA coursework.

Two men with long flowing beards wear matching jackets and point at each other.
Cook and his father-in-law stand in front of one of their projects, wearing matching jackets.

But it wasn’t all toil. On a more personal level, Cook used the pandemic as an excuse to get really close with his father-in-law, who was part of his quarantine pod. They would get together every weekend to do woodworking together in the father-in-law’s workshop. Cook has gained much proficiency in woodworking this last year. He built an arbor, an outdoor bench for his garden, mid-century modern nightstands with hairpin legs, serving trays, beer caddies, and even a Viking shield and matching Thor’s hammer. He likes the immediacy of this hobby. “Within a matter of a couple of hours,” he says, “I can create something and build something with my own hands.” He and his father-in-law now have matching woodworking jackets and continue to enjoy spending time together

In this and in the rest of his personal life, Cook is trying to be supportive of his family. He tries to be the best father and grandfather he can be, and he appreciates all the support his family has given him over the years in his journey.

In his professional life, Cook is also working towards new skills. He’s well down the path to becoming an executive director in his company, managing multiple global teams. And the events of the last year, including the George Floyd protests, have only left him more committed to ensuring his employer is hiring diversely and incubating an inclusive and nurturing workplace.

Someday, he hopes to write a book capturing his own managerial experience and knowledge. And maybe, he thinks, he might even have the chance to teach at Antioch, sharing his insights with a new generation of leaders working to make the world better from inside the world of business—just as he is today.