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The Business Lessons of Service

Standing on the frigid bank of the Tred Avon River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, John Sutton thought only about his imminent swim in the icy waters, not much about how the experience could contribute further to his leadership skills. Sutton, chief operating officer of KeyW Corporation, participated in the annual Maryland Polar Dip, an event he founded in 2014 and held this year on February 10 at the Tred Avon Yacht Club in Oxford, Maryland. 

Sutton created this annual fundraiser benefitting Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, after the introduction to Camp Sunshine’s mission a few years ago. Sutton knew he needed to help in a greater way. 

KeyW’s John Sutton (right) with his youngest son, Alex, at the Polar Dip.

I watched as the family endured years of treatments and surgeries. That’s how I learned about Camp Sunshine and its one-of-a-kind retreat in Casco, Maine, where families get to take a break from the grueling routine of doctors, hospitals, radiation and chemotherapy. Instead, they connect with other families going through the same thing.

“My reason for wanting to help is largely due to my own history,” said Sutton. “Growing up, my father was a WW2 veteran and both parents grew up in the Depression so I volunteered a lot, held various jobs and helped older family members needing assistance. This same sense of service compelled me, years later, when the daughter of a good friend was diagnosed with cancer. I watched as the family endured years of treatments and surgeries. That’s how I learned about Camp Sunshine and its one-of-a-kind retreat in Casco, Maine, where families get to take a break from the grueling routine of doctors, hospitals, radiation and chemotherapy. Instead, they connect with other families going through the same thing.” 

The goal to establish the Polar Dip in Maryland required a year of serious logistics planning and a search for event sponsors. From project initiation to management and execution, Sutton recognized the reciprocal value of his volunteer and professional experiences. For him, service is an attitude that transcends business into the community.  

You listen more, manage diverse teams, encourage folks, accomplish what may have seemed impossible at first and perhaps even change some lives for the better.

“I’ve found that service offers many opportunities to sharpen business and leadership tools. The job of an executive is to provide coaching and service—to employees, customers and communities. You listen more, manage diverse teams, encourage folks, accomplish what may have seemed impossible at first and perhaps even change some lives for the better.” 

For Sutton, a seasoned business leader, years of community service, and coaching youth hockey, introduced him to a wide variety of people and exposed him to life-changing experiences, like the Polar Dip. Donating time to a cause greater than ourselves seems a conduit for interesting things and events to take place. Volunteering may also supplement one’s professional development.

Sutton’s advice to anyone thinking about community service is to first determine your interests. Think about what you’d like to get from the experience and figure out where to volunteer and how much time you can donate. Then, go for it. 

We lead people, get things done, achieve goals and serve as mentors and role models—all of which are equally important to our careers and personal development.

“We might not get involved with volunteering for the leadership lessons, but through those service experiences we really hone excellent business skills. We lead people, get things done, achieve goals and serve as mentors and role models—all of which are equally important to our careers and personal development,” Sutton reflected. “You’ll learn a lot about yourself as a leader when you volunteer—not to mention how the experience will completely enrich your life. You will find that your time and attention is worth far more than your money. You may even encourage someone to try something they might not otherwise have considered doing in their free time—like jumping into a river in the middle of winter!”