Preface to A Not So Subtle Art…
The Family Business
“Der Apfel nicht gerne weit vom Baum.”
(“The apple does not like to fall far from the tree.”)
German proverb – 1585
In September of 2010, I was asked if I would move to Fort Smith to lead a wholly owned subsidiary of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company which was underperforming expectations. My first question was, “Where’s Fort Smith?” Upon learning it was in Arkansas, my second question was, where in Arkansas?” I’d soon find out.
On my first day, I was loaded on one of Goodyear’s three corporate planes, and flown from Akron, Ohio to Arkansas by a group of executives on their way further west. As the plane circled tiny Fort Smith, looking out my window on that beautiful Fall day, I had my own sort of Princess Diaries moment. But instead of having my footman welcome me to Genovia, one of our pilots announced that we were about to land in Fort Smith, population 86,297. As my escorts left, one of Goodyear’s VPs clapped me on the back and encouraged me by suggesting that I “don’t eff this up.” Then I was on my own.
I was about to meet around 100 of our 2,700 employees for the first time. Our business didn’t have a conference room. So, I addressed the assembled body of HQ associates in the rear parking lot by standing on the loading dock. I’m not so tall, so the loading dock part was a bonus. I’m not a boisterous extrovert, so the parking lot part wasn’t. My speech was short: a story about Moses; that things were about to become very different; that I was intent on helping them win; that they were the most important thing in our business; and that when we’d win, their lives would improve. It felt good to finally be able to say these things.
It was the first time in my career I had complete and total responsibility for anything. Until then, I had led large groups of human beings. But never had I been given the opportunity to set not only the strategy and budget for a business, but most importantly for me, the culture as well. It was finally my chance to prove that what I believed, knew in my heart, about leading others was correct.
I knew it because I had seen it work for most of my life. I’d also seen what didn’t work, as recently as the day before – namely top-down, command and control management by apathetic extroverts concerned almost entirely with their own incomes, and whose last interaction with a customer or front-line associate probably involved a photographer and a self-serving press release.
Despite multiple research projects including a 10-year study called the CEO Genome Project, from the leadership advisory firm ghSmart and published in the Harvard Business Review (Botelho, E.L., Powell, K.R., Kincaid, S., and Wang, D., (Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017) “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart”) which have concluded that despite America’s predilection for hiring loud, outgoing leaders as CEOs, their introverted counterparts actually perform better well more than half the time, US boards continue to hire to the loud, back-slapper formula, never seeming to conclude that these folks have a fundamental leadership flaw. They’re not the right person for the job. They’re not wired to do it the right way.
I had seen it done the right way since I was a boy, watching my father, a truck dealer and leader of men, inspire others. My father was a servant leader before there was a name for it. My father was also a storyteller. He’d tell stories to make a point. And you’d remember both – the story and the point. And you’d follow him anywhere. I grew up not wanting to be any of a doctor, lawyer, or an Indian chief. I wanted to be my dad. I went to a college 30 minutes away from home so I could skip school on a near daily basis to be with my father, to learn from him. Eventually, after finishing school and hoping to start work for my father, I learned that he had a rule – same as his dad – that I could go to work for him, but I had to go to work somewhere else first.
So, I did…for another servant and storyteller by the name of Tony Kaskocsak. Tony believed that his one role in life was to give those he led whatever they needed to win, then pretty much spend the rest of his time on vacation, telling stories about human kindness and winning. Which he did. And I learned about both.
Later, along my way, I met a Catholic priest from Nigeria by the name of Father Casmir Maduakor who used stories to bridge his language gap while making a point and touching my life in the process.
And so, standing there on that loading dock that day, having just recently seen another American board fall for the tall, dark, and handsome extrovert trick, I was determined to prove there was a better way.
And I did. We did. In just 15 months we drove a dramatic turn in the business. We did so by fundamentally changing the way people were spoken to and treated. We told stories for sure. More than anything we cared more about others than we did for ourselves.
That’s what this book is about after all. It’s about a better way to lead others. It’s about winning, by choosing to put others first. It’s about making a case for introverted stewards. It’s about listening to those closest to the work. It’s about investing, not cutting. It’s about integrity, gratitude, and trust.
It’s about The Not So Subtle Art of Caring.
Caring is hard. Caring requires personal investment. Caring requires ensuring that those one has the privilege to lead have whatever they need to be successful. Sometimes that means having difficult and critical conversations with others when they let you down. Caring requires recognizing that the needs of others are primary to your own, and that there exists something or someone somewhere which is a greater power than you. Caring requires taking the time to ensure that those you lead understand exactly what they are being asked to do, why they are being asked to do it, how to do it, and most importantly that their lives will improve when they do it. Accomplishing that requires reaching every single person in your organization. And that requires talking to them, a lot – in terms they can understand, relate to, believe in and fight for. Fortunately, people relate to stories, making the task a great deal easier.
I learned that first from my father, a few heroes I met out in the world and from my own 30 years in business. I’d also learned it from arguably the most notable man to have ever lived.
Using stories that connect to a point about how we should choose to do what we do has enabled me to create winning cultures and teams that have delivered extraordinary results throughout my career. It’s because stories help people better grasp the point, then better internalize the message. When this happens the chance of people acting on the message increases factorially. According to a well-known Stanford study by Bower and Clark, those informed through stories were seven times more likely than those informed via list to recall the information presented – 93% v. 13%. (Bower, G. and Clark, M. (Stanford EU, 1969) “Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning”)
But this isn’t just about storytelling. Storytelling is merely a tool or a means, albeit a tremendously impactful one, to effect change. It is the change itself told by the stories that matters most – a change in the way that we think about treating, caring for and leading, others. Behind the stories is the fundamental truth that there exists a kinder, more effective way to lead people. Stories have simply been a way to prove the point.
I used stories in the form of a letter that I wrote to my team in Arkansas, and other teams I’ve been fortunate to lead, before and after, every Friday throughout my career, to reinforce the key leadership traits that result in winning the right way, the behaviors behind The Not So Subtle Art of Caring. The practice began as a recap of what we did in our business during the prior week, but quickly morphed into a discussion less about what we did than how we did it, which is, I believe, as or more important. The letter, unimaginatively called The Week, used a story about a happening or observation from the prior week to make a point. These lessons from unlikely places, if we are open to them, help make us better businesspeople, spouses, parents, friends and members of a community. My goal each week has always been for just one person to take something away from these short notes. As a result, over time, the whole of us would begin to think differently. When that happened, we won more, which, after all, is really the point of why we wake up each day.
Many of those letters are assembled here, arranged under chapter headings which highlight the required behaviors for the next generation of caring leaders. Each chapter also includes a brief introduction to each topic with some how-tos and a contrast to the old, doesn’t work anymore way of doing things. My goal is to help you win.
Business, after all, is a game in which score is kept. The Not So Subtle Art of Caring isn’t about softness, or a celebration of shyness. Remember, even Jesus flipped over a few tables. It’s about winning. But it’s about making a conscious choice to win the right way, by first and foremost, choosing to care about others. Letters on Leadership is meant to act as a manual, of a kind, for a new generation of leaders, intent on finding an alternative to the traditional, self-centered, Baby Boomer management techniques of the last century. There is a better way. I’ve seen it. I’ve proved it. And I’d like to tell you a story about it…