By Charles Hallman
Overcoming obstacles and adjusting to changes in his life is Tommy Watson’s personal story.
“By the time I was in third grade, I lived in three foster homes…and lived with my grandmother,” said Watson in a recent interview with the MSR. “We were shuffled around.
“I remember many days watching my parents when we were with them come into the house sober, and go into the bathroom and shoot heroin. That terrified me.”
The motivational speaker and consultant used that fear of becoming like his parents as motivation to succeed. “At the high school, I met a coach that changed my life. What kept me going and motivated was the vision that there was a better life for me,” continued Watson. “It kept me taking one step forward and dealing with three steps back. That vision kept me going.”
The Denver, Colorado native eventually came to the University of Minnesota in the mid-1990s. The late Jim Wacker had recruited him to attend Texas Christian University, where he was coaching football, but then Wacker took the then-vacant Gophers job.
“Coach Wacker was an outstanding man, and I really admired his principles about how he cared for his players,” Watson explained, “So I followed him to the University of Minnesota. He had this tremendous way of motivating people to feel better and feel good, to keep fighting each and every time we were on the field. Although we didn’t have a great [win-loss] record, each and every time we were on the field, we were always poised and ready to go to fight the battle.”
After graduating from college, Watson worked for a time at a nonprofit organization. “I remember going to a meeting one day and was told that I was fired,” said Watson, who added that he was told that he lacked leadership skills. “I was married and had kids and was saying, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
During his job search, Watson kept running into a person from McDonald’s at job fairs who suggested that Watson consider his company. “No, I have a college degree and I don’t want to work at McDonald’s,” was Watson’s response. “After the third time, I wasn’t getting a catch from any other corporations, I tried it and went to work at McDonald’s for two years in their global management training program.”
Watson says the two years spent at “Hamburger U” from 2001 to 2003, was invaluable. “It was the most phenomenal work experience I ever had. They trained me with all the leadership skills I needed to lead an organization. I learned how to manage people, learned how to manage money, do sales, marketing and advertising. It was one of the most important jobs I ever took. The McDonald’s experience is the cornerstone of my career thus far.”
After McDonald’s, Watson went into education, got his administrative license and worked in the Osseo Area Schools for eight years, four as a principal. “I enjoyed motivating young people and motivating educators,” he noted.
He doesn’t see himself as a motivational speaker in the traditional sense, admitted Watson. “I didn’t necessarily see myself doing motivational speaking. I know I wanted my own business. I took a leap of faith a year and a half ago, and [I’ve] been doing it every since.”
That leap was first questioned by his wife, he remembered. “There was a calling inside of me to make a difference, to pursue my dream of motivating young people and educators on a broader scale,” said Watson. “My wife and I had some tough conversations around that. She asked me what was my plan B and I told her plan A — there was no plan B. Plan A is going to be the plan that works. I look back and there hasn’t been a day yet that I regret doing that.”
He loves speaking to youth. “One thing I told the students” during a recent engagement in Omaha, Nebraska, “[is] that if they can keep a glimmer of hope alive in terms of a positive future, it goes a long way. I also told them the importance of having a vision for their future. There’s a vision for their future out there whether they know it or not. They have to be very, very deliberate about making sure that they are going to be living the life they want later on versus the vision someone else has for their life.”
Watson believes that you have to look at what’s working “because we too often focus on what’s not working. Even in our neighborhoods that are filled with gang violence, poverty and drugs, there are still some elements that are going well. Let’s find out what those things that are going well [are] and how we can duplicate and transfer them over to help our communities, our schools and businesses, and personal lives.”
Watson is also working on a book with his brother Malcolm, who unfortunately chose a different direction and got into trouble. “He and I have been close all our lives. He went to federal penitentiary for his involvement in the gang lifestyle [in Colorado]. He got out of prison and I’m very proud of him. He started his own landscaping and lawn business and employs a lot of the gang members from the community and keeps them out of trouble.
“He was leading in the wrong direction, and now he’s being a positive influence and role model,” said Watson proudly, adding that he is glad his brother acted upon the entrepreneurial spirit.
“We’re resilient people,” Watson said, “And sometimes we get fed into this fear mentality where we are afraid to go out and do things… As African Americans, we have been through a lot, so take that same power and energy that helped us overcome those obstacles and problems and let’s use [them] to build businesses and build our schools, to build our kids and families, stronger churches and libraries. [Let’s] stay focused on the positives. We have brilliant young men and women in our communities.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]