In today’s episode, Adam Tank joins us to talk about purpose, sustainability, and self-improvement. Adam is the Chief Customer Officer at Transcend. He founded a robotics company inside General Electric, spun it out of the Fortune 100 behemoth into a Fortune 50 behemoth, and sold it to a publicly traded company. Adam also invented a revolutionary robotic device that helped over 60 million people to get clean water.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have a talented guest with us today. I’ve been looking forward to it. He is a sustainability-driven entrepreneur and public speaker whose career has spanned leadership roles in Fortune 100 companies, international small businesses, and venture capital-backed technology startups. And he currently serves as the Chief Customer Officer of Transcend, which is a VC-backed generative design SaaS startup — and their software enables capital planners, project developers, and engineering professionals to rapidly generate preliminary engineering designs for critical infrastructure, including a variety of water and power assets. Welcome, Adam Tank.
Adam Tank: Hey, Steve. Thanks for having me. Great intro.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, yeah, well, we’ve had a fun time visiting before we started our show today, we’ve got a lot in common. And I’d like to just tell you a little bit more about Adam before we launch. First of all, there’s some really interesting things. Adam solved one of the world’s leading water challenges by inventing a revolutionary patented robotic device and helped over 50 million people obtain clean water. So nice going on that. I want to talk about that. He founded a robotics company inside General Electric and then spun it out of the Fortune 50 behemoth, grew it, and sold it to a publicly-traded company. And he’s also accomplished a number of other things: growing sales pipelines for early-stage tech startups from zero to $80 million and increased lead conversion by 95% in less than 30 days for multiple companies. So he has a lot of background. In addition, he’s spoken on the stage a lot, touched lots of people on a variety of subjects — one is How to find product market fit for early-stage companies, How to give presentations that don’t suck, Whether graduate school is worth it, and How to speak a foreign language fluently in three months or less. Okay, I’m on that one. Do you speak foreign languages?
Adam Tank: I do. Yeah. You bet.
Steve Shallenberger: What do you speak?
Adam Tank: Portuguese and Spanish.
Steve Shallenberger: Bueno. Muy bien. All right, so I speak Spanish fluently, but it took me more than… Well, it took me a few weeks, that’s for sure.
Adam Tank: There you go. There you go.
Steve Shallenberger: And then, beyond his professional work, Adam believes in serving his community as a foster parent, a volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America, and mentoring currently and formerly incarcerated persons. In addition to his countless other talents, he believes that being present in conversation and being a good listener are among his superpower. So, well, Adam, let’s just start this off. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you, and on what you’re doing today.
Adam Tank: Sure. Thanks, Steve. I think it’s important to note that I grew up in an environment that had no idea about what business can do for you, from, say, a freedom and independence point of view. My relatives, my immediate family, my grandparents were all government workers, by and large — paycheck every two weeks, do the consistent, conservative, sort of slow-going approach to life and your professional career. And so, when I went to school, that’s what I thought I was going to do. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I got a degree in microbiology. And when I graduated, I had an MCAT book, and then a job offer in hand, and had to make a tough choice. Do I go the professional route, or do I go to graduate school? And one of the things that really shaped my worldview and actually took me down the entrepreneurial path as opposed to that conservative paycheck every two weeks perspective that was taught to me, was reading the book Think and Grow Rich in college. Napoleon Hill had a tremendous effect on my life. And at about the same time, I actually found Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, and that also had a tremendous impact on my life, which I continued to pull through to this very day. So those books were certainly incredibly inspirational. And then since then, I’ve started a number of companies, I’ve lived overseas to learn a foreign language, I’ve done a lot of public speaking, a lot of volunteerism — they’ve all helped shaped who I am today. But I would say that those two books, in particular, I would recommend to anyone in their late teens, maybe early 20s, as ones that can completely change the trajectory of your life for the better.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, amen. Those are powerful books and just kind of liberate your thinking and let you see that there are principles that can be learned that really free you up to experience better results across the board. And they are extremely powerful, and they’re timeless.
Adam Tank: Yes.
Steve Shallenberger: I love them. Good job on that. First of all, if you don’t mind, would you take a few moments on talking about your experience with the water challenges and inventing a revolutionary patented robotic device?
Adam Tank: Sure, I’d love to.
Steve Shallenberger: What’s that all about?
Adam Tank: Yeah. So water is something I’m incredibly passionate about, personally and professionally, and it’s what I’ve spent the last decade of my life basically focused on. And the one thing to note, Steve, is that in, we’ll call it developed economies, water is an afterthought. When was the last time you thought about what it takes to have clean water delivered to your home, and then, of course, your wastewater taken away? If you ask 10 people on the street how much they pay for their water bill every month, you might get one that knows. But if you ask them what their cell phone bill or WiFi bill is, they can almost tell you down to the penny. And so, this idea about the value of water in our society is a really interesting topic to be had because, by and large, our infrastructure is actually in pretty poor shape. So the pipes that transmit our water, the sewers that take it away, the wastewater, the treatment processes, water to industry, the lack of water — speaking of in Utah, western states, Northern Arizona, California — we take it for granted. And, as it turns out, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make this stuff happen. So one of the challenges that we face is that almost 30% of the water that’s treated for our consumption is lost between the treatment plant and your home. 30% goes into the ground, leaks above the surface, wherever that is. And one of the ways I helped solve that challenge was to develop a robot that could actually go inside of drinking water pipelines and fix leaks from the inside, to both save on water, but then also save on costs of construction, permitting, etc. And ultimately, you and me as taxpayers save that cash. It was a heck of a ride. You know, if you want to get into it, we can, but suffice to say it’s definitely one of the sort of the crowning achievements in my career so far.
Steve Shallenberger: That’s awesome. How did you get into that?
Adam Tank: I stumbled into the water industry out of graduate school. So I was fortunate enough to intern with General Electric who had a water division at the time. And like most other people who are in the water industry, you stumble into it, and you never leave because you just find that you work on both very technically challenging problems, but also problems that you feel good about solving every day. And once I got in, I never looked back, and here we are.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I love it. And it sounds like that was a passion of yours. It still is a passion.
Adam Tank: Right. And I mean, it developed out of nowhere. Early on, I had no clue that I’d be interested in the water industry. Again, it’s something that I took for granted. You don’t think about it, but basically, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, it all involves water. Every single aspect of it; you brew your coffee, you use the restroom, you take a shower, you brush your teeth, you have a meal with friends, you have a glass of wine at night — it all involves water, and we don’t think about it. And without it, we’re in really bad shape. And for the rest of the world that’s, you know, outside of developed economies, it’s a serious deal. You’re spending hours and hours of your day trying to procure clean water and treat it effectively, and not get sick.
Steve Shallenberger: I think that’s great for every one of our listeners to identify their strengths and what their passion is, what do they feel passionate about? It might be being among the very best within the companies that they work within; they might be a technician — so how can I be a top technician and make a difference and change the world; or a sales rep and creating opportunities for people. But I love that you did that.
Adam Tank: Yeah, I feel very fortunate because what I’d say to the listeners is like, people often say, “Find your path”, “Follow your passion”, “Follow your passion, do what you’re passionate about.” But it’s not something that happens by thinking about it. You just have to go and do stuff. And I don’t care what that is. Go and try a whole bunch of different things and be honest with yourself about the things you do and do not like doing. And eventually, you’ll come to find what it is that you enjoy. It’s not something that someone can just put into your lap and you figure out. You have to try stuff, you actually have to go out and take action and do things.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, good, yeah, amen. That’s great advice. Now you’ve worked in the prisons.
Adam Tank: Yes.
Steve Shallenberger: So what’s the most important thing you’ve learned, not only about business, but in life in working in the prisons?
Adam Tank: I’d say the most important lesson is that just because people make bad choices, it doesn’t make them a bad person. A lot of times, people are the product of their environment. If you think about children who grew up in, let’s say, an inner city, who were exposed to nothing but gang violence, drug dealing, poverty, lack of education, how would you expect them to do anything different in their life? That’s literally all they know. That’s all they know. So I would be shocked for a kid in that environment to go and then go to college, as an example. It’s almost unfathomable that they’d be able to make that transition. Just like someone that has grown up in the lap of luxury, had a solid family, had a nuclear family, had opportunities presented themselves, and then ended up in prison. That’s also unfathomable. So what I learned working with these folks is that you have to assume positive intent. Generally, I don’t feel like people are bad people. There are, of course, bad apples. But by and large, people want to do the right thing. They want to be a good person. You have to show them what that looks like. You have to show them what a future could look like for them. And oftentimes, people will rise to the occasion. So in prison, that’s certainly the case, I’ve seen folks go from convicted felon of 20 years behind bars to incredibly successful entrepreneurs upon their release. And I’ve seen people in my workplace that I have managed or that I’ve hired, who have gone from underperforming or low performing to being top performers because you set the expectations high, and you let them flourish. You train them, you coach them, and they’ll achieve whatever it is that they can. But you have to give them those opportunities, you have to present that to them as a possibility for them to become.
Steve Shallenberger: Adam, from your experience, what have you found is the best way to light that fire with people in that situation?
Adam Tank: I’m curious what you think about this too, Steve, because it’s something I ask myself all the time. All the time. There’s a book I read long ago and it’s called, I want to say it’s called something like How To Be Rich, which is sort of a provocative title. But what this person argued was that, for those that are in poverty, or those that are, let’s say, not excited about pursuing more exciting or lucrative possibilities for their lives, the best way to get them there is to show them how incredible it is to be there. So it’s not by giving them a handout, it’s not by basically trying to put everything in their lap so that they can then take it from there and run with it. It’s actually to say, “This is how great it is when you have money”, or “This is how great it is when you have a spiritual life”, or “This is how great it is when you have a solid family.” And by them experiencing it, they go, “I want to experience that for myself.” And then they work to achieve it. That’s what I have found personally to be the best avenue to do it. But Steve, I want to get your take on it.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, well, we’ve had fun visiting about some of the books that you’ve read. And you mentioned them here. It was Stephen Covey, of course, such an inspirational mentor to so many people and certainly to me, and I think he gave me the inspiration to do deeper research on this subject. And so, what I did over 40 years was I interviewed over 175 CEOs throughout the world and what I was looking for is what set apart high-performing individuals from everybody else, and high-performing teams. Well, what we discovered was really shocking on one hand, but not really on the other. First of all, none of them were perfect. We all have issues.
Adam Tank: You bet.
Steve Shallenberger: But second, these were individuals that really made an extraordinary contribution for good in our world and had sustainable success in their own lives and others. They had solid families, good people, built their communities. And what we discovered is that we observed 12 things that were there over and over again. And that’s what we put in the book Becoming Your Best — The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders. So I don’t think I’d have done that without the inspiration of Stephen Covey, and our association, and certainly his book was part of that. So what we observed is that these principles are things that people can learn and gain the same result. They’re the things that you’re teaching right now. So, for example, one of them is — the first one — be true to character. I mean, if we’re not honest and don’t have integrity, it’s really tough to be successful in just about any way.
Adam Tank: Sure.
Steve Shallenberger: The second one is that highly successful leaders lead with a vision. So whatever they do, they create a vision and it produces this inspiration. And I think that’s what you’re describing.
Adam Tank: That’s correct.
Steve Shallenberger: With the prisoners, they see this vision and they start believing, they say, “Hold it! I can do this.” And it starts unleashing this vast potential that people have.
Adam Tank: You’re spot on. And it’s said differently in Stephen’s words with Seven Habits, is begin with the end in mind. So what is the end that you want to create for yourself? Once you have that Northstar, it’s a lot easier to work backwards and figure out the steps you need to take. And that’s what you and I and other leaders can help coach someone through. You have to have your own vision. But I can help you get there if we understand what that is because we can create metrics, and we can track it, and we can hold one another accountable.
Steve Shallenberger: I love it. That’s good. So, you have a lot of experience, Adam. You’ve done a lot of things. What would you say are among the very most important things? Like, if you’re gonna go back and give advice to your 21-year-old self, or to young people of today, what advice would you give them that would be helpful to them to find success in the future?
Adam Tank: There’s two pieces. The first piece is bet on yourself. Bet on yourself early and often. Take control, take extreme ownership of your personal and professional life. Don’t make excuses. And just trust that you can achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve. For too long, I believed that that paycheck every two weeks, the big company would take care of me was the path I needed to go down. And it wasn’t until I really trusted in myself as an entrepreneur, as an individual in my own talents, in my own capabilities that I really felt like I was hitting my stride. That’s the first. The second one is that the ability to be genuinely curious and an active listener when you’re with people will put you leagues apart from almost anyone else because people can feel when you actually care about them. And so, if you not only trust in yourself, but can show others that you care about them, and you’re interested in what they’re trying to accomplish, and you can help them get there, you have basically the two parts of the equation that I think you need for success. One is your own internal locus of control, and then the ability to inspire and lead other people. Those two are, you’re off to the moon, you’re off to the stars.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that’s outstanding, Adam. Good job. Good recommendation. Good advice. One of my friends, you may know him or may have run across him, Charlie Tremendous Jones. He was a motivational speaker maybe 35-40 years ago, he wrote a book called Life is Tremendous. That’s where he got it. But he shared with me at that time, he said, “You know what? In five years from now, you will be the same person you are today, except for two things: the books you read and the people you meet.” That’s exactly what you’re just talking about, the curiosity, being open and you get new ideas and this allows you then to lead others and have ideas in the work through current issues. And so, what are some books or podcasts, seminars, places that people can learn, get new ideas that you found are among the best?
Adam Tank: Oh my goodness.
Steve Shallenberger: Of course, besides Becoming Your Best.
Adam Tank: I was just gonna say, besides the book I have sitting here right next to me. So two I’ve already mentioned: Think and Grow Rich, it’s particularly important to read it in a certain phase of your life where maybe you’re exploring who you are and what you want to do and what you want to become. I would encourage anyone between the ages of like 18 to probably 25, maybe 30 to read, Think and Grow Rich. Seven Habits for sure. Again, really great book. It’s phenomenal for anyone both from personal and professional standpoint. You know, believe it or not, I’m not a huge podcast listener because I find I can read much faster, so oftentimes, I’ll just read the transcripts of podcasts. But there are a number out there. And I actually, I wouldn’t recommend anyone in particular, but I would say, do your due diligence about finding ones that fit your particular niche. You would be surprised, almost shocked, at how many podcasts exist that are for such a particular challenge you might be facing or business that you’re trying to enter, or a passion or curiosity that you might have. So don’t just say, oh, you know — as an example, I listen to My First Million, it’s a podcast about entrepreneurship. If you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re interested in those types of topics, great. Listen to it. But I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But you may be interested in music, as one example, or language. Go down the rabbit hole. Find one that’s particularly insightful for you. It doesn’t have to have a massive following, but find one that you think is really going to resonate and land, that you want to spend time with. You know, another thing that I would recommend, and this will be my last one is, it’s actually not about consumption; it’s about production. So I would encourage people to start writing earlier than they probably would otherwise. So, set up a website if you feel so inclined, have a personal blog, write on pen and paper, whatever it is, but I find that when you get your thoughts out in the world, magic happens. I don’t necessarily know why that is, but I would encourage people to start producing instead of just consuming content.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, I think that’s a good idea. It causes you to refine your thinking. I have a good friend Joseph Grenny. Joseph was one of the founders of Vital Smarts. He wrote Crucial Conversations.
Adam Tank: Great book.
Steve Shallenberger: It’s a great book. And somebody referred to me, we found out we live in the same community, but we had a common friend in Florida. He said — this is like 12 years ago before I wrote Becoming Your Best, and well, I’d worked on this for a long time, as you know, as I mentioned, but I was getting ready to put it into a book, so following up on your comments, And so I called Joseph and we went to lunch, finds out we were raised in the same city in California, Vallejo. And, you know, our paths went in different directions and brought us back to the same city in Utah. We live in the same city and we’ve become fast friends. He’s extraordinary, what a wonderful fellow. And I was getting ready, I had the manuscript to Becoming Your Best doing just what you said, Adam — how do you take these thoughts and you have to get them into a form that are defensible, that you think about and they’re solid, they’re not just throwing down there and that you weigh out the magic of the words because they make a difference. And one of the things that Joseph recommended, he said, “Now, Steve, before you publish this book, be sure you go out and deliver a seminar 10 times on this subject, before you put it in print.”
Adam Tank: Wow, wow.
Steve Shallenberger: I thought that was pretty good advice. But been fortunate with Becoming Your Best, that’s been a great blessing, and it’s led to so many other things that I could have never imagined. I mean, we’re all over the world and just finished our fourth book on Do What Matters Most, a time management and productivity solution. It’s been quite a ride. So what you’re saying, Adam, is a great observation.
Adam Tank: Thank you. I found that writing for me has been certainly clarity of thinking. This is not a term that I coined, but I love this term, it’s called a serendipity vehicle. When you put a book out into the world, or you have a public blog online, or you even post on social media — it doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary — somehow the power of the internet and the power of people find you. It’s almost like a magnet to attract like-minded people. And we live in an era now where you can have anyone from around the world seeing this content 24/7 that’s being attracted to your thoughts, your opinions, the things that you hold near and dear, and I just find it tremendously powerful. So Steve, like, I mean, phenomenally well done on publishing the book, and of course, multiple others. I want to make sure people understand that it’s not something that’s out of reach for the average person. Yes, it takes time, grit, it takes perseverance, it takes persistence, but I honestly believe anyone has a book inside of them. I really do. So start writing.
Steve Shallenberger: You’ve got a message. Okay. We’re almost at the end of our interview today. I’m always amazed at how fast things go and this has just gone bang! Just like that. Today, I’m thinking of the millions of people like technicians, people that are really on the front line making a difference and they have all the worries of everybody else in the world trying to support their families and be the best they can and some of them are kind of in the middle of the road. Some of them are struggling a little bit in their various professions. Take an HVAC technician — and some of them are at the very top of their game. They’re doing great, they’re highly productive making the most of every day, they love their work, they’re making people happy, leaving the world better than they found it. They’re saving money, they have a family. So for people in those areas, what’s your recommendation of how they can go from wherever they’re at to be at the top of their game in their industry?
Adam Tank: I would say it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, Steve, which is create that Northstar for yourself. Begin with the end in mind. Have a vision. It’s going to be very difficult for you to get out of that sort of monotony, or that grind that you might be facing in your day-to-day if you don’t have a reason or a why for what you’re trying to accomplish. Once you have that, the world is going to start working in your favor. But you’ve got to start there first.
Steve Shallenberger: That’s a great answer. I love it. You know, it applies to all industries, all professions. Last week, I had dinner with a fellow who played in the NBA — National Basketball Association — I think it was for 14 seasons.
Adam Tank: Wow. Okay.
Steve Shallenberger: And he said, “You cannot believe what a grind.”
Adam Tank: Like any other job.
Steve Shallenberger: He said, “We get by 20 games, man. We’re ahead. We have another game tomorrow.” I think it applies to everybody. You know, it’s how do you motivate yourself, whether you’re president, the NBA, an HVAC technician, is that you find your vision, your passion, and you grab hold of it and let it go. I think that’s what you’ve been saying today.
Adam Tank: That’s right, Steve.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s been fun. Any final tips for our listeners today, Adam?
Adam Tank: I would say if anything that we’ve talked about today catches your attention or inspires you, reach out — either to you, Steve, you’re publicly available; you can reach out to me, adamtank.com, you can fill out my form. You can also email me firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’m always happy to help where I can. And I think you’ll find that not enough people take advantage of those kinds of offers. It blows my mind that people don’t reach out. Because we — you and I, others — genuinely want to help where we can. And this is not because we’re trying to make money on the back end. It’s not for any other motive other than a rising tide lifts all ships. So that’s what I would say is, please reach out if any of this interests you.
Steve Shallenberger: I love what you’re doing, Adam. Congratulations.
Adam Tank: Thank you.
Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful work.
Adam Tank: Thank you. Likewise.
Steve Shallenberger: You bet. Well, thanks so much to Adam Tank for being with us today. And we wish you all the best in your work.
Adam Tank: Thank you, Steve.
Steve Shallenberger: And to our wonderful listeners, we are so grateful that you would join us today. And we’re inspired by you. I mean that. I mean, you’re the ones who are showing that curiosity that Adam talked about, and thinking how do I take my good and make it better and my better best, and that is what makes the world a better place. We wish you the best today and always. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host signing off.
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.
CCO, Sustainability-Driven Entrepreneur, Public Speaker, Volunteer