Getting to Know the La Piana Team: Scott Cotenoff

Scott Cotenoff is one of two new consultants to join the La Piana team in 2013.  To learn a little bit more about him, Scott and I sat down for a mini interview of sorts.

Scott Cotenoff is one of two new consultants to join the La Piana team in 2013.  To learn a little bit more about him, Scott and I sat down for a mini interview of sorts.

When did you decide that you wanted to dedicate your career to the nonprofit sector?

I wish I had a good story, some kind of “aha!” moment.  The reality is that it happened over time. Starting in college and being exposed to different cultures—both as a Northeasterner going to school in the South, and through travel abroad—and also people with different wants and needs, I began to get a sense of how lucky I was to have what I had.  Then, as I entered law school, I never would have imagined that my career would include being the executive director of an AIDS organization, working with folks who were homeless, or developing programs for kids living in orphanages around the world.  At that point, I wanted to be an agent, represent musicians and athletes.  Over time, my coursework and summer internships fertilized a feeling that I should be contributing to society, a desire to be of service, and, I came to realize that what I really wanted to do was work in the public sector.  My first job out of law school involved working on employment discrimination.  I transitioned into HIV/AIDS discrimination, and then legal services for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS. From there I moved into HIV prevention and education.  It was a natural progression.

You have a unique background in that you have degrees in law and public health.  How do you think your experience shapes the way you approach consulting to nonprofits?

I think having the two sets of education and experiences has broadened my perspective.  Lawyers approach situations in a very different way than people in the public health sector.  Being able to see a situation from a variety of perspectives gives me the ability to take a more comprehensive approach to challenges.  I think it helps me to help organizations think more broadly, too.  I do not think there is only one path to a solution; there are multiple paths to achieve success.  The challenge is in identifying those paths.

What excites you most about your new position on the La Piana Consulting team?

I am excited to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individual organizations, which, in turn, means making a difference in the lives of many individual people.  Perhaps what I am most looking forward to is the opportunity to really think about the sector as a whole.  To take the lessons we’ve learned through our work and apply them to the greater sector.  I want to take what I’ve learned throughout my career working in the New York metropolitan area to other parts of the county.  And vice versa, to bring the knowledge gained from working in different parts of the country to my home.  The more shared learning that happens, the greater impact the sector will have.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

One of things I really enjoy is thinking about groups.  How do groups function?  What’s the dynamic? How do the folks involved best fit together to make the group successful?  How can I help a group reach decision points and move into action in a way that is thoughtful and inclusive as well as mindful of the many challenges and struggles that individual group members may be facing?  Group processes are valuable beyond coming to an answer or reaching a decision.  The learning that happens through the journey is as important as the ultimate solution.

What was the last book you read that really inspired you?

Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo.  It is about a guy who appears to have the perfect comfortable life. He works at a publishing company in New York, lives in Westchester with his perfect family and perfect dog.  After learning that both of his parents were killed in a car accident, he embarks on road trip to his hometown in North Dakota.  His sister tricks him into taking her guru, a Buddhist monk, as his traveling companion.  Over the course of the drive to North Dakota, he learns the value of looking at your life from different perspectives and the importance of being flexible enough to experience life in different ways.  It is about having the courage to open that dusty little attic door in your mind that all of us have, but most of us are too afraid to open because we fear that what lies on the other side may call into question everything that we have done and valued in our life.

Although I did not read the book intentionally because of the work I do as a consultant, the lessons the book teaches are really relevant to the work we do at La Piana Consulting.  We help organizations take a close look at themselves, to examine how they operate.  It often requires going to that dark place, but done in the correct way, opening that door can be incredibly liberating.

If you could have lunch with anyone, who would you choose?

I’d take Bill Bradley and the Dalai Lama to lunch.  Bill Bradley was a basketball star at Princeton, a Rhodes Scholar, an NBA player, and eventually a three-term U.S. Senator.  As a kid, I wanted to be like Bill Bradley—smart, athletic, he even got to be a senator!  Although I do not necessarily agree with all of his politics, what I find refreshing about his political career is that he always approached things from a practical, not ideological, perspective. And the Dalai Lama is…well…the Dalai Lama! I think it would be fascinating to sit down and have a conversation with them, combining the practical insights of Bill Bradley with the spiritual and philosophical perspectives of the Dalai Lama, and seeing how the two of them would respond to each other.

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