Chris McGoff

The Business of Empowerment

On November 1, 2001, Chris McGoff first came face to face with himself.

No one could claim that he hadn’t been successful up until that point.  Chris spent ten exhilarating and enriching years at IBM before launching three separate companies, honing his innate skills as a business builder while building his family as well.  On that day in 2001, he and his wife Claire had six lovely children and a relatively happy life, yet his current business, Touchstone, was experiencing some instability.  “In terms of revenue and profit patterns, deviations from a straight line should be minimal in a well-run business,” Chris remembers thinking.  His business partners couldn’t put their finger on the problem, so Chris decided to look inward.

It is often said that with great power comes great responsibility, but Chris’s story demonstrates that the reverse is also true.  By taking great responsibility, especially for one’s self, one actually heralds great power.  On that November day, when he took his future into his own hands by embarking on a personal journey inward to better understand himself, he commenced the breakdown of the inner limitations that were preventing him from being the best leader he could be.  “Up until that point I had been operating under a mindset that a lot of kids growing up in the Depression era had,” he recalls.  “I was always jumping to the next complex and exciting project, never finishing what I was working on.  I was designing intricate webs in which my company, my family, and I were stuck always struggling, never achieving.”

By identifying and naming this convoluted set of internal dynamics, Chris was able to control and limit the behavior that used to control and limit him.  “What you resist persists, but what you embrace disappears,” he remarks now.  Once he empowered himself in this manner, Touchstone’s success skyrocketed, and the relationships around him transformed.  In the aftermath of this miraculous transformation, he sold Touchstone to SRA and founded The Clearing, a problem solving company dedicated to empowering leaders throughout the DC metropolitan area to realize their visions by literally creating a clearing within their minds and schedules to focus deeply on their goals.  So driven by the empowerment of himself, he went into business of teaching others how to do the same.

Primarily serving government leaders, presidential appointees, and leaders of companies that service those entities, The Clearing knows that historical data indicates the average government leader has 18 months in their position.  Considering this limited time frame, The Clearing urges these leaders to work quickly to establish their intentions, thereby maximizing the time available for effective implementation such that the system can’t retract once that leader leaves.  This is accomplished by establishing within a group of people a shared perspective of a problem, a shared intention of how to solve it, and synchronized actions to accomplish this intention.

“To implement systemic changes in today’s cash-strapped environment, we help leaders to really think through the intricacies of these changes, enabling them to get in touch with their core mission,” Chris explains.  “We help them eliminate all the superfluous activity, anything that doesn’t add value, and then build a strategy to bring the system into alignment with what they’ve imagined, which is usually radically different from the status quo.”

Though the end goal of Chris’s work is the accomplishment of transformation and new systems, the means used to do so are far from cutting edge.  Rather, Chris and his team see themselves as archaeologists, dusting off big rocks and chipping away at the benign stimuli and interruptions of everyday life to access deep focus—that timeless essence which has allowed humanity to coordinate in the name of creation for hundreds upon hundreds of years.  “We believe that the essence which allowed the pyramids to be built is the same essence that will develop warp drive,” he affirms.  “The Clearing explores these timeless principles that are so deeply embedded in systems, and in people themselves, asking how we can bring them to the surface so they’re clear and useful to today’s problem solvers.”

According to Chris’s philosophy, people are blessed with God-given gifts, and virtues are what we do with those gifts.  The Clearing empowers people to truly embrace, maximize, and capitalize upon their gifts, thus enabling them to be as virtuous as possible.  Through the facilitation of transformations in how leaders and teams conceptualize of and work toward their goals, The Clearing in turn facilitates transformations in broad societal structures through the accomplishment of those goals, and therein lies the fundamental value proposition of the company.  “Through these troubling economic times, we identify a wonderful opportunity for the large U.S. systems to clean up their acts and to move into a position where they can have sustained value creation in the future,” Chris affirms.  “We’re learning to do this shoulder to shoulder with some of the most remarkable leaders in one of the most difficult times to lead, and in one of the most important cities in the world.  I can’t imagine anything more exciting than that.”

Chris’s entrepreneurial interests were first sparked as a young boy growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when his father quit his corporate job to assume the role of director of the family business, a funeral parlor.  “The funeral business is not about dead people,” he reflects today.  “It’s about helping living people who are going through a tough time.”  He and his family took great pride in their work, and he still recalls the great compassion and care with which his father treated each and every customer.  “I knew I could start a business because my dad did,” he adds.

In high school, Chris was selected for an accelerated medical program, yet he realized several years into it that he wasn’t passionate about the idea of becoming a doctor.  Thus, he left to enroll at the University of Scranton, where he continued on the science track and earned a degree in biophysical chemistry.  Then, while working as a researcher at a battery plant, his supervisor said that his experience and degree qualified him for a scholarship to become an industrial hygienist, which the industry sorely needed.  Analyzing and responding to market need in this way would become a crucial skill later in life, and a cornerstone of his success as an entrepreneur and business builder.

Upon finishing his studies, he was offered a job at IBM, which he reflects on as a tremendous environment in which to learn and grow.  “In most companies, the management takes the credit, but not at IBM,” he gushes.  “Young engineers did the work, and management stood behind them to help guide them when necessary and to outfit them with the tools they needed for success.”  He was later transferred to their headquarters in Bethesda on a special assignment and absolutely loved the experience, but after ten years of working there, he felt an inner voice beckoning him down a different path.

Chris first lent gravity to this voice one evening when he and Claire were washing dishes together, casually mentioning that he might someday try to start a business on his own using his father as a reference.  “Are you telling me you’re not going to be at IBM until retirement age?” asked his wife.  When he said no, she didn’t miss a beat when she answered, “Then go in tomorrow and quit.”  Though they had three kids to support with another on the way, she explained to him that their health would never be as good as was at that time, that their expenses would never be as low, and that she wouldn’t want to live with him when he was 55 and wishing he had taken the chance when he could.

Thanks to Claire’s wisdom and bravery and to Chris’s own willingness to follow the calling within, he suddenly found himself unemployed, and he launched GDSS in 1990.  The engineering company got off to a decent start, but falling prey to a common error of young entrepreneurs, Chris tried to do too many things with too few people, and the business failed four years later.  “It was a blast putting that crater in the ground,” he laughs now.  “I learned that it’s pretty risky to try and run a business, but it’s impossible to run one that acts as three or four business at once.  The big takeaway from that was focus—an idea that The Clearing revolves around today.”

Chris also launched SoftBike, a software development and collaborative technology company that ushered him into the wild ride that was the Dotcom era.  Though that company also ultimately failed, he remembers it fondly as well.  “I wouldn’t have missed being part of the Dotcom thing for the world.  Why would I want to sit that one out?” he exclaims.

Having had enough with products, he then moved into services and launched Touchstone.  “We reflected back on what we’d seen in the DC market in 1990,” he reminisces.  “We knew that the biggest games were cross-enterprise and cross-agency, and that all the big projects delivering substantive value would require agencies to work across their boundaries.  What this town needed was a very high level of collaboration literacy.”  Touchstone was built to address this need by providing tools and techniques that would enable large-scale collaboration between influential people.  The company continues to fulfill this goal successfully today, but The Clearing illustrates yet another shift in understanding of market need.

“Consensus leading is still valuable in certain circumstances, but today’s leaders have to operate across a spectrum of techniques, and the opposite end of that spectrum is the benevolent monarch—the person who takes control of a situation,” Chris explains.  “The Clearing starts with this command and control style because it’s the fastest and cheapest way to achieve an outcome, yet leaders must have a situational awareness of what style to use when, and we help them do this.”  The business does so by pulling together an array of best practices, crystallizing them into methodologies, and creating a system that allows a company to scale effectively.

In advising young people entering the business world today, Chris advocates for a confident, purposeful attitude.  “Be intentional and persist variously,” he encourages.  “Do your thinking behind closed doors and in private with close friends.  When you’re out in the real world, always have an answer for what you want to do and why you want to do it.  You can change those answers whenever you want, but go someplace quiet to make your adjustments.  When you’re out in the world, always be clear with what you want, because the world will listen and help you get it.”

Beyond this, he also attributes his success to his firm belief not only in himself, but also in the concept that the world is a wonderful orchestration of a divine plan in which each individual has a unique role to play.  “You are here on Earth perfectly designed to do something, and as long as you’re playing into that strength, you’ll be okay,” he says.  “If you play against it, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle, so try to figure out what your strengths are and follow that route.”  Only through the business of empowerment can one truly fulfill one’s potential, and Chris continues to produce value and create jobs everyday by working to bring this empowerment to the leaders so that they might effect the most substantive, lasting, and meaningful change possible.

Chris McGoff

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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