Communicating from the Heart (and Soul)

Purpose is our lodestone, but how well do we connect our purpose to our communications?

A way to focus on purpose is intentionality. Know what you want to say, why you are saying it, and how you are saying it. “I am so passionate about this because so often people are talking or communicating without any real sense of purpose,” says Sally Susman, executive vice president for chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer. Susman’s awareness of intentionality became more urgent when her company rolled out its Covid-19 vaccine. Communication had to be clear, coherent, and responsive to all those seeking information and clarity about the vaccine.

Intentionality also applies to interpersonal communications. “When I’m talking to my parents, I say before each call, be patient, be patient with them,” Susman told me recently. “If I’m talking to my adult daughter, I say, don’t be judgmental.” She also applied that sense of intention during our interview. “Even before speaking with you, I took a moment and said, I hope that I can engage your listeners in some provoking thoughts or insights that enliven their day.”

Evaluating what, why and how you express yourself is a key theme in Susman’s book Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World“It’s a big mistake to relegate your communications as a soft skill. I argue that it’s a rock-hard competency. It is as important for leaders as any other discipline they may have [such as] sales, marketing, inventory, [or] finance.”

Being honest

Reading Susman’s book, you will get a window into her career in ways that reveal more than her professionalism. According to Sally’s mother, perhaps too much, who read the book and said, “‘Sally, this is not a business book. This is a memoir of all your greatest and most embarrassing mistakes.’” She and her mother had a good laugh. As Susman explained, “That was very meaningful to me because I have made a lot of mistakes. And through those, I’ve learned so much, and I hope that I have built my resiliency.”

A theme of the book, says Susman, is to demonstrate that recovering from mistakes builds resilience. It also does something more. “People rally to you when they see you trying very hard, or when you have the strength to share your vulnerabilities.”

Delivering hope

Susman tells a story about a former boss, Kenneth Chenault, who became American Express’s CEO shortly before 9/11. Its corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan had been damaged in the attack, so the company brought people together in Madison Square Garden. More than a thousand employees showed up. 

Chenault had a prepared speech, but when he looked into the audience, he noticed that people were visibly shaken; some were even crying. Out went the speech. Chennault spoke extemporaneously, wading into the audience and occasionally hugging individual employees. His message was that the company would see better days. “Great leaders are purveyors of hope and optimism,” says Susman. Their pitch – as she calls it – resonates like music – with harmony and poetry.

Gratitude is fundamental to Susman’s approach to work and life. Every morning she reviews her calendar from the previous day. “Even if you’ve had a hard day or a stressful day, there’s probably something or someone in yesterday that you’re thankful for.” She then writes a two or three thank you cards to thank people for what they have done. “It allows me to be reflective. It puts a hopefulness that every day has something that you can be thankful for.”

Find the joy

One of the four values at Pfizer is joy. “We talk about joy. We know laughter is good medicine, too. We take our job seriously, but not ourselves.” Humor reinforces the humanity in each of us. “I have something in my team called Open Mic Night where we stand up and share our biggest goof,” says Susman.

Communication is most effective when it intrigues the mind, stirs the heart, and inspires the soul. Doing so, as Susman does, facilitates something more profound – the connection one to one and one to many. For good and for better.

Note: Click here to hear the full interview with Sally Susman.

First posted on 10.02.2023

Jorma and Jack Give a Lesson in Collaboration

Okay, so you’ve been playing a song one way for a couple of generations, and then someone suggests, “How about adding a sousaphone solo?”

If you are Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady – two legendary rock stars performing together since the early 1960s – you go for it. The duo was performing what had become a standard tune for them, “Good Shepherd” After each had soloed and riffed a bit, a horn player stepped up to a side stage microphone and soloed. The effect was magical, giving the Biblical-themed song a jazz-themed twist.

Good Shepherd,” recorded by Jimmy Strothers — a blind convict in Virginia imprisoned for accidentally shooting his wife, who had been abusing him. The traditional hymn focuses on salvation by caring for one another. Strothers’ version includes references to the marauding savagery of the Ku Klux Klan. The effect of the horn — with Kaukonen on guitar and Casady on bass in accompaniment — underscores the beauty and poignancy of the melody.

Power of friendship

Watching this performance on YouTube, something else struck me: friendship. Kaukonnen is in his early eighties, and Casady is nearing eighty, but watching them perform, you could see the same spark of collaboration that bound them together as teens. Kaukonnen invited Casady to join The Jefferson Airplane, a group that achieved superstardom in the late Sixties. Together with the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin – and so many other bands – the Airplane defined that era’s San Francisco rock scene.

Kaukonen and Casady formed Hot Tuna as a blues band concurrently with their years in the Airplane. It became their avenue for exploring the blues, country, and folk. Call it a passion project. And its passion burns brightly because it is still touring now – albeit on their final electric tour. 

Lessons to keep in mind

What we can learn from the band are a few lessons.

Remember the mission. Know what you stand for and build upon that as a foundation. 

Evolve when necessary. Times change, as do situations. Adapt when necessary in ways that complement your mission.

Keep experimenting. Try something new. Use the newness as a challenge and a way to invigorate yourself and the mission.

Joy of collaboration

And finally, what strikes me most when watching Jorma and Jack perform together is their respect for each other. Jorma on vocals and lead (or solo) guitar, and Jack on an often oversized bass of his creation. They complement one another in ways that harmonize their sound into something that demonstrates their deep connection. They are true collaborators.

And so it is fitting to close by citing the lyrics of the Strothers’ version of “Good Shepherd” – a plea for all of us to watch out for one another – as good colleagues do. 

If you want to get to heaven

… Over on, the other shore

Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit —

Oh, good shepherd,

Feed my sheep.

One for Paul, one for Silas …

One for to make, my heart rejoice.

Can’t you hear, my lambs, a callin’?

Oh, good shepherd,

Feed my sheep.

First posted on on 00.00.2023

Integrating the Leadership Equation into AI

While AI has been with us for 15 years or more, what is capturing attention is generative AI, the ability to compile information, sort it, and turn it into something creative. Think of it as 1+1 = 3. Or in a short time 1+1 = 5, 7, 9 and up.

To get a handle on where AI is headed in the workplace, I called on Mahesh M. Thakur, a long-time tech leader and now working as an executive coach to senior leaders. Mahesh began his career as a coder working in the banking industry. Back then skeptics thought internet banking would replace brick and mortar banks. That did not happen. As Mahesh explained to me, it enabled tellers to move the window to a cubicle where with more training they could become financial advisors.

AI enablement

Mahesh sees something similar happening with AI. While AI has the power to displace workers, it also has the capacity to provide employees with tools they can use to become more skilled and thus more valuable to their employers. For example, using AI managers can apply their cognitive abilities more effectively when it comes to decision-making.

Mahesh advises clients on how to integrate AI into their work flow. In particular he shows them how AI can enhance search results for Bing, which serves 1.3 Billion visitors per month. 

Culture is essential to successful use of AI. Empathy, as Mahesh explains, is necessary to make employees feel understood as well as knowledgeable about AI. When fear of the new is eroded, the enterprise can create conditions where employees use AI to enhance their skills.

“You’ve got to step back and first be very clear, very articulate about what is your business goal and then help then partner with your CTO, with your technology advisors on how exactly will you use AI to reach that goal,” says Mahesh. 

Learn by doing

Experimentation becomes the norm. “Everything becomes a test run, a series of tests to figure out what is working and what more importantly what is not working. When I work with CEOs, I help them understand how to be clear about those business goals and how to be clear about their AI enabled strategy.” From there the company can proceed with experimentation within the goals they set.

One example of experimentation comes from the Mars Company. When it introduced its product line into China and via Alibaba, the search engine cum-marketplace, it discovered via data from multiple sources that customers who bought Snickers also brought savory or salty snacks. Acting quickly, Mars created Spicy Snickers and soon the new product accounted for a significant portion of the company’s revenues in China. 

AI means re-skilling

According to the lead article in the September-October 2023 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “To design and implement ambitious reskilling programs, companies must do a lot more than just train employees: They must create an organizational context conducive to success. To do that they need to ensure the right mindset and behaviors among employees and managers alike. From this perspective, reskilling is akin to a change-management initiative, because it requires a focus on many different tasks simultaneously.”

IBM economist Martin Fleming, also contributing to HBR, writes, “As tasks requiring intellectual skill, insight and other uniquely human attributes rise in value, executives and managers will also need to focus on preparing workers for the future by fostering and growing ‘people skills,’ such as judgement, creativity and the ability to communicate effectively. Through such efforts, leaders can help their employees make the shift to partnering with intelligent machines as tasks transform and change in value.”

Know the risks

AI is not without risks. It can give false information, or as Mahesh says, “hallucinate.” As with all technology there are growing pains. Therefore, it is imperative that those working in the field continue to perfect it through relentless experimentation based upon feedback from end-users.

AI can be used to improve efficiency, but it can also be applied to give employees more skills, choices and ultimately more autonomy. As Mahesh told me, “What all of us need to do, in whatever field we work — whether we like it, fear it, love it, embrace it or shy away from it — it’s here.” Our challenge is to use AI wisely and humanely.

Note: The authors of the HBR article cited above are Jorge Tamayo, Leila Doumi, Sagar Goel, Orsolya Kovacs-Ondrejkovic and Raffaella Sadun.

Click here to watch to the full LinkedIn Live interview with Mahesh M. Thakur.

First posted on 10.00.2023

Leaders as Activists

Activism is a decision to make positive change, as is leadership.

“If you get to the essence of what an activist is, you say this is somebody who looks at the situation around the world and thinks about that situation. There’s something wrong, there’s something that needs changing,” says Lucy Parker, co-author of The Activist Leader: A New Mindset for Doing Business. “An activist leader doesn’t think ‘I’m the whole answer to this question,’ but they think this is mine to do and I need to mobilize others and mobilize resources, mobilize people, mobilize activity to tackle that challenge.”

Co-author Jon Miller concurs. As he told me in an interview, “Lucy and I have been working together for 12 years now working with businesses on some of their toughest societal questions, whether that’s climate change or biodiversity or plastics in the ocean or privacy and disinformation or human rights in the supply chain.” Miller adds, “There are people who have this different way of thinking about how their business can relate to those issues. And we call that way of thinking. The activist mindset.”

Corporate engagement

There is a business case for corporate engagement on activist issues. Apple recently began using recycled aluminum in its product line, thereby reducing the amount of scrap aluminum. Walmart teamed with over 200 specialists in biodiversity to help farmers grow crops more sustainably and with greater diversity. 

“I mean, the operating environment for business is changing,” says Jon Miller. “The set of risks that business needs to think about is changing. That will create opportunities too.” Leaders with the activist mindset “are thinking about those issues — and the environment [in which] they’re operating –in  a different way.”  

Miller and Parker like to say to their clients, “Show us the business case for not acting given state that the world is in, given the severity of the challenges that the world is facing and the pivotal role that business is playing. The world is looking to businesses to play a part in these issues. The sustainable profitability of business depends upon them doing so.”

The challenge for companies is to operate within a sphere where they can have the most influence. For example, a pharmaceutical company can tackle healthcare disparities, an energy company can focus on climate change, and a retailer may choose to address community issues. What businesses should avoid is dabbling. That is, selecting an issue outside their areas of experience or choosing too many problems that dilute attention and resources.

Expect challenges

Change can come even when it’s hard. “You’ll often say this is what leadership is, this is not business as usual, this is not management speak,” says Lucy Miller. “This is we need to carve new ways of doing things.” Leadership is rooted in “preparedness to walk into a new way of doing things.” And when that occurs, says Parker, “you can see people grow” into a definition of the kind of leadership they want to deliver. Such leadership activism “is inspiring to work in because people have to find it in themselves to have that conviction.”

Becoming involved as an activist business leader requires determination rooted in resilience. Leaders must decide that their businesses need to be part of the solution. “Any leader at any level of a business will always run up against the next barrier, fall over at the next hurdle. The whole thing derails again and again,” says Jon Miller. “I think the real grace is having that clarity of vision, that clarity of purpose” to mobilize for the common good.

Inspiring words that, when acted upon, change companies, society, and our planet for the better.

Are You Coachable?

Executive coaching is the process of self-discovery. We all can benefit from learning more about ourselves and exploring ways to improve ourselves. An executive coach — one hired from the outside — can be a resource that helps others see themselves more clearly. Additionally, through the process of gaining feedback from colleagues, executives can learn how colleagues see them.

But the question arises: How do I prepare myself to be coached? A new book, Becoming Coachable, by a trio of executive coaches, Jacquelyn Lane, Scott Osman, and Marshall Goldsmith, can provide insight. Think of it this way. If you want to get in shape, you want to ensure that you have the mindset to put yourself through the rigor of physical exercise. Half-measures do not work. It’s the same with coaching.

Getting ready to engage

Executive coaching is not for everyone, but its benefits are plentiful when you prepare to address the obstacles you face and the willingness to address them intentionally. I recently conducted an interview on LinkedIn Live with Jacquelyn and Scott, both of whom lead the 100 Coaches Agency, Jacquelyn as President and Scott as CEO. [Disclaimer: I am a member of 100 Coaches.]

“Since leadership is all about relationships and relationships are complex,” says Jacquelyn, “coaching is really something that helps cut through some of that complexity to allow you to collect feedback from key stakeholders, from all the people that work around with and for you. And that helps you become more self-aware, it helps you understand your blind spots and how to be in better relationship with all those people.” Essentially, coaching can help “transform not only a person’s leadership but also life as a whole.”

Relationships are better understood – and ideally improved – when we know our effect on others. That is why feedback is so critical. “One of the great things about feedback,” says Scott, “if you can change your perspective on what feedback really is and not hear it as criticism, but hear it as the gift that it really is.” Listening to feedback opens the door to what you need to change. That perception “makes feedback a lot easier to handle. It still can be painful, but I think with the perspective of if I know about it, I can change.”

The role of trust

Leadership crumbles when trust erodes. “Trust can be improved by engaging in the coaching process,” says Jacquelyn. “Trust is really built by being consistent in our words and our actions in living our values and having integrity, making sure we follow through on our commitments. And the great news is that a coach is someone who can help you do all of those things better [as well as] help identify some of those places where you may be falling short.”

Trust shows up in how you act as well as how you engage with others. Dr. Jim Kim, a physician and former President of the World Bank, has said that as leaders, “you don’t own your own face.” As Scott says, “Your face, your expressions, your emotions, your attitudes are almost property of the company because they do, they impact so many people.” It sounds harsh, but as Scott explains, leaders are playing a role, one who aspires to help the organization achieve its goals. Realizing it permits a disassociation from one’s ego. “By saying I don’t own my face, it allows me to disconnect from that and recognize that my expressions don’t have to be an expression of me. They need to be an expression of who I am as a leader. And that [notion] is very transformational.”

Coaching as an enabler

Scott likens an excellent coach to the solvent WD-40, “a little bit of grease to help them work through something that they, maybe if they pushed hard enough, they could work through on their own.” The benefit of working with a coach is that it avoids “grinding too many other people’s gears.” Coaching leads to insights that the leader may not have thought possible. Often, such changes occur rapidly within a matter of months. “And once you open up the sense of what’s possible, you can grow into it.”

All of us need an outside voice, or voices, to help us see ourselves more clearly and more honestly. Coaching can be that process of self-discovery that opens the door to greater possibilities for your organization, colleagues, and yourself.

Note: To watch the full LinkedIn Live interview with Jacquelyn Lane and Scott Osman, click here.

First posted on 11.07.2023

The Many Roles of Mentorship

So you have been asked – or told – to be a mentor. Pat yourself on the back. It is an honor to serve as a mentor. Now, you need to understand what mentoring is and is not. Mentoring is an invitation to provide development opportunities to someone younger than yourself, often but not always. Mentorships require a commitment of time as well as investment in others. As such, it is essential to understand your role.

So you have been asked – or told – to be a mentor. Pat yourself on the back. It is an honor to serve as a mentor. Now, you need to understand what mentoring is and is not. Mentoring is an invitation to provide developmental insights to someone younger than yourself, often but not always. Mentorships require a commitment of time as well as investment in others. As such, it is essential to understand your role.

A new book, The Ultimate Guide to Great Mentorship, by Scott Jeffrey Miller, a long-time executive with Franklin Covey company and now an independent entrepreneur, is a good starting point. As Miller writes in the prologue, this book is for mentors and focuses on responsibilities and roles – 13. [Disclosure: Miller is co-owner of the Gray + Miller talent agency, including a speaker’s bureau where I am listed.]

Multiple roles of mentorship

The roles of a mentor range from validation to challenging to navigating with many types in between. The good thing is that one or more roles can be employed during a mentorship or even a mentoring call.

“Number one is the revealer and number 13 is the closer. Everything else in between can happen in any style, go anywhere, start everywhere,” Miller told me in an interview for LinkedIn Live. The mentor serves as one who can help the mentee uncover their true selves. Asking the right questions is a good starting point. “What is it that the mentee your mentee is trying to accomplish? What are they trying to get done? Do they want to become a podiatrist? Do they want to go to law school? Do they want to become a vice president? Do they want to become a cupcake maker? What’s their plan? Your job is to help them uncover and discern your job is to uncover so that they can discover.”

Building on self-awareness

Choosing your mentorship role depends on your style and how you approach others. “It’s super important for the mentor to understand what it’s like to be mentored by them, to know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of feedback and instruction,” says Miller.

Fundamental to good mentorship is setting boundaries. The mentor should state what they can and won’t do; that is, it can help them learn but won’t help them find a new job, at least at the beginning. It is essential to build trust first. “There’s a difference between mentorship and coaching, mentorship and sponsorship and allyship,” says Miller. “I don’t think they’re the same. They can become the same when the mentee behaves their way into a reputation of being trusted and delivering on commitments.” Furthermore, by setting boundaries, the mentor is “preventing the mentee from being embarrassed or placing [the mentor] in an awkward position where you need to say no.”

Mentors serve as validators, too. At the same time, there are limits to validation, “This role that can be life-changing for someone where you are genuinely, authentically, judiciously validating your mentee’s genius. You slow down, take a pause, you change your voice inflection and your tone.” The conviction in your voice emphasizes the importance you place on your mentee’s plans. “Use it with great caution, and you have the chance to name someone’s genius in them that they never knew existed.”

A favorite role for mentors can be that of the navigator, who is just a step ahead of the mentee because they are learning along with the mentee. “You can ask smart, open-ended questions that will allow your mentee to avoid the potholes that you see right in front of you.” Your sense of curiosity and “a passion to help your mentee, to help them navigate the process.”

Reciprocity is critical

Mentorship is based upon reciprocity. The mentor makes themselves available to help while the mentee makes themselves available to be responsible with the time granted and the knowledge shared with them. Mentors should not aspire to control, nor should mentees feel obliged to follow through on advice given. Both need autonomy to determine the path that benefits them both.

“You don’t have to have all the answers,” says Miller, “you just have to have good questions.” These questions will open doors to a greater understanding of self and growth opportunities.

Note: Here is a link to my entire LinkedIn Live interview with Scott Jeffrey Miller.

First posted on 9.00.2023

Sheila Ford Hamp: The Responsibility of Ownership

Sheila Ford Hamp, principal owner of the Detroit Lions, spoke to Dave Brickett of the Detroit Free Press in October 2021 in the wake of an event honoring Lions Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson, where the fans loudly vented their frustrations with ownership. “Obviously, no one likes to be booed, but I totally understand it… And I’m as frustrated as the fans are and I appreciate their sentiment and hopefully what we’re trying to do here will turn to cheers one day.”

Hamp continued, reflecting her feelings about long-suffering and loyal Lions fans. “We do have fabulous fans as we all know and they’ve stuck with us forever through thick and thin, and a lot of thin. It’s been hard, so I agree. And this year (2021), it’s a rebuild, it’s painful. We knew it was going to be hard, but it’s hard to lose. No one likes to lose. I hate to lose, but we are working on things and I think we’ve got a good path.”

Tell the truth

Two years later, Hamp’s words echo the enthusiasm that Lions fans, just beginning their 66th year without a championship, are feeling now. The Lions started their season against the defending Super Bowl champs, the Kansas City Chiefs. The game marked the official season’s kickoff, indicating that not only fans believe the Honolulu Blue and Silver, but league officials do, too.

And the Lions delivered on the hype, downing the Chiefs 21-20. The game was a see-saw affair, but it is evident as it has been for the past couple of years, this team has no quit. It reflects the hard-nosed approach that head coach Dan Campbell brings to the team. As a former player – and one-time Lion – Campbell understands how to bring out the best in his players and coaches. As general manager, Brad Holmes is in his first job as GM, but he has drafted good players and positioned the team for future success.

How Hamp leads

Hamp, however, has yet to receive her due. Sheila played varsity tennis for Yale, just like her father, William Clay Ford, the long-time owner of the Lions, who passed away in 2014. According to The Athletic, Sheila wanted to work for the NFL when she graduated in 1973, but was denied the opportunity due to her gender.

Hamp is not one to shy from the heat. “I think that would be a stupid thing to do is to hide because I really don’t feel like I need to hide,” she said. “It’s part of what I’m trying to change around here, which is the open, communicative culture and I’m part of it.” And the culture is changing.

After the Lions closed out last season with a win at Lambeau Field over the hated Green Bay Packers, Dan Campbell gave Hamp a big hug and shouted for all to her in the locker room. “I’m just telling you, I’m just freakin’ telling you — I’ve been around as a player and a coach in this league. We’ve got the best owner. Everything you could possibly need, every resource — she thinks about you guys all the time, man, she knows everything about you; she’s rock solid and as good as they come.”

We will know more about the team as the season unfolds, but one thing is sure: Sheila Ford Hamp is playing the proper role – guiding, supporting, leading. “She’s competitive,” added Campbell. “And, boy, she loves to win.” And it will take that kind of competitive drive to push the Lions forward this season and for seasons to come.

First posted on 9.14.2023

F-35: How Culture Tames ComplexityUnknown

Simplicity is the goal of every design, but sometimes complexity is part of the puzzle.

The design and delivery of the F-35 Lightning fighter aircraft is one such example. For starters, in addition to Lockheed, the lead contractor, there were two other prime contractors and scores of subcontractors. Multiple nations were involved, and because the fight was paid for with government funding, Congress and the parliaments of countries like the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Australia, among others, needed to be involved.

Heading it was Tom Burbage, retired President of Lockheed Aircraft Systems and EVP for developing the F-35 and the F-22. He is the co-author of a new book about the project called, F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II

In a recent interview, Burbage told me that partnering with many parties was like dealing with a Rubik’s Cube. “We had many different interests. We had many different perspectives, many different countries, a huge industrial team, and we had to make all that come together into a pattern that actually worked.”

Ongoing technological advances

Because the F-35 is a next-generation aircraft, Burbage, a former Navy aviator, was heading a team developing new technology never tried before. “I think every program that pushes technical barriers along the way is under threat of being canceled. There’s always another group or another interest community that wants to program to go a different direction or wants to take the budget and do something else with it. So you’re constantly in a little bit of trench warfare as you go through these extensive programs.

Getting the pattern correct was getting people to agree to a joint mission, or as Burbage put it, putting on the Joint Strike Fighter t-shirt. “It was a big, huge team of people, a lot of really good leaders, good strong government program managers, good strong industry side, and people that were willing to sort of take off their company badges and put on their J S F T-shirt,” says Burbage. “We’re no longer trying to husband your company interests. You’re now totally committed to making the J S F program what it needs to be.”

Three-in-one aircraft

The F-35 is three different aircraft. One for the Air Force that uses long runway take-offs. One for the Navy using catapult launching short runways. And the third for the Marines, who needed the aircraft to take off and land vertically. “If I put the three airplanes in front of you… and sat in the cockpit, you wouldn’t know the difference. They’re, they’re identical.” 

The goal was to create a fleet where the planes could fly and fight together regardless of their branch of service. “Integrating those technologies those differences into an airplane that’s supersonic and stealthy” required the team to push the boundaries of physics.

When designing leading-edge technology programs, there are two essential types of individuals. Innovators can integrate new technologies in ways that enable new performance capabilities. You then need leaders who are “really good at managing teams.” As the metaphor goes, everyone has a seat on the bus. The challenge is matching innovators with managers who can cooperate and collaborate for the betterment of the mission.

Culture rules

In the Fort Worth facility alone, there were 4000 employees. “And every new employee that came on the program went through an onboarding process. Everyone got some of that ‘pixie dust’ sprinkled on them” to help them realize they were part of a team, not just the company that hired them. “You have to walk a thin line when you do that,” says Burbage, “because there are company interests that you have to respect.”

The team had to create a culture. “We had a common set of guiding principles. We had a common set of objectives.” Burbage employed what he calls “the best athlete concept.” That is selecting team leaders for their skills and abilities, not simply for the company that employed them.

Three top executives were called “The Wizards,” a nod to the Harry Potter series. “I didn’t want the wizards in their office. I wanted them walking around and mentoring the young folks,” says Burbage. The younger tech-savvy employees ended up “mentoring” their older colleagues. 

In turn, the veteran employees shared their experience and expertise. “It built this esprit d’corps among the team during some very challenging days.” Working on such programs is always demanding, so it was imperative that the culture be rooted in respect for one another, explains Burbage. It helped to drive “superior performance.”

Four leadership principles

Burbage told me that he gave his grandson, a recent graduate of the Naval Academy and now in flight training, some advice. His shared four principles are as relevant to aviators as leaders heading large teams. “The first is that enjoy every day, learn something new,” says Burbage. Challenge yourself to do more than you can because you can. 

“The second [principle] is to realize that every person has a unique perspective on the world. And a new sailor turning a wrench on an airplane or, or a new employee just out of college can be a valuable contributor and you can learn from him or her.” Get to know them. Advocate for them and remove barriers that prevent them from doing their best.

“Third, there’s no limit to what your team can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. You know, give the credit where it’s deserved.”

The fourth principle is to understand the difference between management and leadership. “Management is the ability to look at data” to determine the project’s health. Leaders focus on another kind of health. “Leaders inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

Getting the F-35 into service required the efforts of thousands of highly trained people and leaders who understood how to balance innovation, management, and budget with a culture that enabled everyone to do their best.

First posted on 00.00.2023

Leanne Morgan: Hard Laughs

For anyone who thinks – or has been told – they are not good enough to make it in their chosen career, then Leanne Morgan is someone you might want to know more about.

Leanne Morgan is a 57-year-old married mother of three grown children and grandmother of two. She lives in Tennessee and has become one of the most in-demand comedians on the circuit. She tourns nationally and has a new self-produced special on Netflix called I’m Every Woman.

As Tonya Mosely noted in her introduction to her Fresh Air interview, Morgan is not an overnight success. Morgan has been doing comedy for thirty years, starting as a jewelry saleswoman doing three engagements per week in living rooms. After a time, women began booking her for her comedy rather than for jewelry.

Morgan hit the comedy circuit, starting in Austin, Texas, at age 32. She also did four different pilot episodes for television sitcoms. None was picked up that, while disappointing at the time, turned out to be better in the long run. She was able to spend time raising her children and perhaps honed her comedy chops even sharper. 

In 2019 she hired a firm comprised of two brothers who distributed clips of her show via social media. One clip went viral and bookings took off. Morgan continued posting throughout the pandemic. “I just really did what I thought… was authentic.” Her clips addressed caring for her elderly parents and family. “And I had no makeup on. I looked like a picked jaybird.”

Heartland humor

Leanne Morgan is funny. “I’m nurturing,” says Morgan. “If I make fun, it’s of myself, it’s not of anybody else. I’m not confrontational. And so I think people find comfort with me.”

Here she is talking about her marriage. When her husband first met her, he “was so enthralled with me and so in love with me and pursued me and bought me presents and vacuumed out my car… And did all kinds of things for me. And we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this year. [PAUSE] And now I truly believe he would not pull me out of a burning vehicle.”

“I praise God Weight Watchers doesn’t have a limit on how many times you can join,” jokes Morgan. “I’ve joined WeightWatchers nine times… And lost seven pounds. Turns out you got to do it… I try to beat the system. And I’m signing up, and I’m paying them. And I’m like, I’m going to beat the man. I’m going to go in here, and they’re not going to keep me in those points.”

Lessons to learn

Those who do not make a living telling jokes in front of a live audience can learn a few things from Leanne Morgan.

Believe in your talent. Morgan calls herself the Mrs. Maisel of Appalachia. “Comedy is a hard business. I resonated with that character because she was fearless and she had those babies and her husband was a ding dong.” Like the fictional Midge Maisel, Leanne battled the odds, especially those telling her that women were not good at comedy. “When I saw that series, I thought, that’s what I did: I had three babies. I was in the Appalachian Mountains. I didn’t have a comedy club near me, and I just had to pave out another way than the traditional way that people do stand-up. And I did.” 

Know your audience. “It took me a long time to find my audience … but I always knew they were out there,” Morgan says. “I think Hollywood forgets us, and I think a lot of comedians that are cool and edgy and all of that, just forget about my demographic and I think we’re the best. I think we’re the people that make decisions to go buy tickets and want to get out and have a good time.”

Trust yourself. Morgan’s first husband, to whom she was married for a short time in her early twenties, told Morgan that she needed to take diction lessons to lose her Tennessee drawl. Her refusal reminded me of an entertainment executive advising comedian legend Bob Newhart to lose his stammer. “This stammer,” replied Newhart, “bought me a house in Beverly Hills.”

Leanne Morgan, like Newhart, knows her talent and herself. “I’m authentic. I feel like at my age now, it’s like this is who I am. You either like it or you don’t. It’s OK if you don’t. … I do find humor in hard things, but I think a lot of comedians do. That’s how we cope.”

First posted on 8.08.2023

Tony Bennett: Musical Memories

Music is the universal language. Or, to be more precise, a universal awakener.

On the passing of Tony Bennett, it is good to remember that he was still performing well into his nineties and after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. While his short-term memory was limited or nonexistent, his ability to singhis hit songs, whether in his living room or on stage, remained vibrant. In a recollection by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who did a profile of Bennett for 60 Minutes, interviewing him was challenging, but when he took to the piano to sing, his personality and energy returned as he performed.

Lifelong pursuit 

Bennett’s roots in music ran deeply. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown on NewsHour in 2014, Bennet spoke about performing for his relatives as a ten-year-old. Having lost his father, Bennett’s family helped nurture his talent, enabling him to pursue his passion for music and painting. 

Bennett served in World War II, saw combat in Europe, and later saw the horrors of Dachau. After getting out of what he and men of his generation called “the service,” he attended art school. He also pursued his passion for painting and, in time, started singing in public. His career was respectable, garnering respect from his contemporaries and elders like Frank Sinatra. 

At age 70, his career seemed stalled. His son, Danny, helped him gain wider recognition in part by recording with women and men a generation or two or three younger than himself. These included Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, and, most notably, Lady Gaga. As Bennett said on NewsHour, part of his reasoning for working with younger artists was to keep jazz – America’s homegrown music – alive and resonant. Fans of the younger performers embraced Bennett.

Bennett’s passion for music keeps his spirit alive. As Anderson Cooper recalled on CNN, Bennett brought him to tears when he watched him perform in his own living room. Cooper said that he may not have known who Cooper was, but he knew he was Tony Bennett, an artist with something to say. His example has heightened awareness of dementia.

Music as connection

Bennett is one of many musicians whose talent did not diminish with his memory. A few years ago, I was playing piano as a volunteer in a cardiac care center, and an elderly gentleman approached me to tell me that his wife used to play piano; then, he gestured to his head, indicating that her memory was fading. When his wife returned from her visit, I invited her to sit down at the piano and play. Which she did. Masterfully. No sheet music, just channeling the piece from memory. 

When I glanced at her husband, I could see tears forming. He put his hand over his heart and said, “You don’t know how good this makes me feel.” I urged him to continue having his wife play since they still owned her piano. He nodded, and when the woman finished, she rose from the piano bench smiling. Moments later, after I had begun playing again, she approached me and, with a smile, slapped a crisp two-dollar bill on the piano headboard as “my tip.”

Music can reach those with memory loss by enabling them to return a semblance of themselves when they hear music, especially played live. When I ask for requests, I seldom get a response, but when I play a tune, I can see smiles appear, and after every song, there is a smattering of applause. It indicates not my performance (always sorely lacking) but their appreciation for music.

Music speaks to us and maybe even more as we age and our memories dim. Music reminds us of our humanity and our connectedness to the world.

First posted on 7.25.2023