Being Chief: The Power Of Individual Influence with Rick Miller
For this episode, the guest happens to be a very special gentleman, one who started as a sales trainee. After learning important lessons about relationships, accountability and constant change, he emerged as the leader he always was. After his time spent as a Vice President and General Manager for Sperry Corporation, he was snapped up by AT&T as their first Senior Corporate Officer not hired from within. It was there he tripled the growth rate and was promoted to the President of Global Services later. He led a Fortune 10 company as the President of the Government Division of Lucent Technologies, which took him directly into the war zones of Iraq. Now, he speaks on stage to thousands about his most important message ever. He released the book that has taken 40 years of experience to create. That book is called Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title. Welcome, Rick Miller.
It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
It’s my pleasure, Rick. It’s fantastic to have you.
I’ve been looking forward to it.
Rick and I have been friends for quite a while. We met in 2011 at an event run by Larry Benet called SANG. Since then, we have been great friends ever since. We have shown up together at various places, masterminds and other events. The best thing about our friendship is that we are able to hold counsel for each other and that to me is so precious. Since then, we’ve enjoyed some time at Fenway Park together and all kinds of other fun stuff and we will continue to do so. Rick, I want to hear about the story of how you started and how you emerged as a leader after starting as a sales trainee.
The multinational work that I was able to do, the startup work, the work that I’m doing as an entrepreneur, and working for myself all started at the kitchen table in Marlborough, Massachusetts with my dad. My dad was a personnel guy. Before there were human resources, there was personnel. Dad was the personnel manager of a machine tool shop in Western Massachusetts. What’s remarkable about my dad is that dad was the HR director and personnel guy in the only non-union machine tool shop in central Massachusetts. I learned growing up at the kitchen table lessons about compensation, performance management, and connecting labor to management so that there wasn’t a need for a union. Dad’s claim to fame is in 27 years at the Heald Machine Company, there was never even a union vote.Being in a position of power is about relationships and treating people well consistently and fairly. Click To Tweet
It was practically rare to have a labor-oriented business that did not have a union, particularly in those days.
I’m not anti-union, but sometimes they’re not needed if people have good working relationships, if they go the extra mile to make sure they’re understood, and if they listen to others. Those lessons were so fundamental in all the work and all the businesses that I’ve been proud to be part of.
It’s not a matter of whether there’s a union or not, it’s the lessons about how to treat people, how to respect people and make them feel respected at every turn. It’s not only is great for the business, but it’s great for life. It’s a wonderful place to work at if you feel that every day.
Business is a tough place. It’s a war out there. In the machine tool industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was a tough time then too. The foreign competition, Japan, in particular, was brutal. Nobody gave the Healed Machine Company a pass on results. It wasn’t that we were creating a feel-good enterprise, but at the same time, we were treating people well. There were very high standards. What dad taught was, “We can exceed numbers.” We talk about revenue, profits, things that are important in business and other things we measure. You can achieve tremendous results by doing it the right way. That was the central lesson that brought me to business school and to graduate school and to a number of other companies. I’m blessed to learn that key lesson early on.
It’s that mix of respect and leadership that he taught you every day. He illustrated it in his own life as he did with Heald every day for his company. That took you as far as business school and then onto your career. How did that start to show up later for you? When you got your first job, you were so well-steeped in the way that your dad taught and the way that he treated people. When you ended up at Sperry or any particular organization, did that seem odd that you acted that way to others?
I was fortunate to start as a sales trainee. In sales, it’s all about relationships and making your numbers, which dad taught me, even though he was on the personnel side of things. It is about reaching objectives. What I learned in the computer industry, which is less prevalent than what dad dealt with, was the constant change. The technological changes never stopped, although they’ve accelerated now. It was such a great proving ground to take the lessons that dad talked about, generating results through relationships and adding that component of change. There was no pass for making your numbers on a quarterly and annual basis, you had to make your numbers. You had a quota, you were accountable for it. You are responsible for deepening and building relationships that could go beyond me or customer satisfaction towards customer loyalty. All those things work together as you build stronger and stronger relationships. Also, as you understood your products and services and brought those to market to solve problems.
There’s never an excuse for not making your numbers. Business is business. You could be the nicest person in the world, you could have empathy and everything else, but all of that without productivity, a winning attitude and the ability to kick butt in business aren’t going to get you very far. There will be no business as we now all know.
The next rung of the ladder was that we had a little bit of success early on. It was great, and I found myself three years into my time as a Sperry Sales Manager. Then I got a chance to apply the lessons that dad gave me to the team of people who were my peers when I showed up as a trainee. As an account rep, I eventually ended up managing my peers, which brought back the lessons that dad taught, “This isn’t about your position. This isn’t about any power that you think you have of authority, it’s about those relationships and treating people well, consistently and fairly. It’s having their back and supporting them.” Those lessons started as a sales manager and then went up through a district manager and vice president, then eventually general manager of a North American division for that first company.
That was management recognizing those qualities that you had. You made the business successful and made people feel good about that success. Tell us a little bit about how you ended up in Iraq in the middle of a war.
That was the last major corporate job that I had. I had come over to Lucent in 2002. Pat Russo had come back as CEO after Lucent’s big decline. Everybody had Lucent in their stock portfolio and probably it was challenged when they saw that 401(k)s dip. When Pat came back as CEO, I was her first hire to come in and run Global Sales for what was then, when she took over, was a $23-billion organization. We were struggling. We clearly had dropped a lot of market value, but we went to the board and said, “We need to find an area to expand.” We had moved away from the commercial space and the board strongly supported us jumping back into the government business. Pat asked me to take over the government businesses as president, leveraging the assets that Lucent had. One of which was a wonderful set of relationships that we had through our Bell Laboratories group where we did information management and some areas of dark space that we don’t talk about classified programs.
It was our strength at DOD. When we went into Iraq in the early 2000 period, General David Petraeus put out a bid for all of DOD to ask the business community to bid on communications. They needed a Communications Prime Contractor to supervise all the communication needs of the Department of Defense in Iraq. It was clear when the RFP request for the proposal came out, the customer was not only US DOD but we’d be working very closely with Iraq’s Department of Defense. There were two customers. At that time, as the president of the unit, we decided that we wanted to put in a couple of bits which you could in the government. We would be a subcontractor to major providers like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
We also took a long shot, which nobody thought we could do it because we had just reentered the government space, but we put in a bid to be the prime contractor. Some of those others were subs to us. In fact, it surprised everyone, including Pat Russo, that we won it. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, Lucent was selected to build out the wireless infrastructure that supported the first free elections in Iraq’s history in February of 2005. At that time, we had 70% of the country of Iraq covered by a public safety wireless network that, in addition to the great leadership that General Petraeus provided at the time, allowed Iraqis to vote for the first time. I had an incredible team in the green zone, working in the green zone and traveling to all parts of Iraq. Ed Eldridge, my team, and in Greensboro, with the folks that lead that effort. It was an eye-opener for all of us as we work hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm with the US DOD and the Iraqi DOD to support the first free election in Iraq history.
To be at that place in history and in time and location, it gave me the chills when I read the story in your book. The details that you provide in the book are fascinating. The whole process of how this all happened and how you, as the leader of this entire group, ended up there on site because of how you believed you needed to be there in order to make sure that this came off without a hitch. All the lessons your dad taught you, all of that came to play even on the war field of Iraq.
The only correction there is that I was not the leader in Iraq. I was a leader. That’s the whole essence of the book. The reason that we were successful in Iraq is that we had a team of what I call Chiefs, a team of people who chucked their title at the door. They lead in their own areas of expertise. Ed Eldridge was the Project Manager. Ed would be the first to tell you that the team of people that served our country without being in uniform were all leaders. They did an incredible job. What I tried to model were those same lessons that I learned at the kitchen table in Marlborough, Massachusetts.Once you determine what you stand for, you can take one. Click To Tweet
The book is absolutely a fascinating read and it breaks some tradition. It breaks the way people think about leadership and chiefs. Give us your philosophy on what that all means.
The title of the book captures the whole thing. It’s Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title. The term Chief has been around for a long time. When I went to business school in the ‘70s, I wanted to be a Chief. At that time, the two chiefs in a business were Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. These days, there are a plethora of chief titles and we’ve gone away from the Vice President, Senior Vice President, Executive Vice President kind of titles. Everybody’s a chief fill-in-the-blank officer. In business and leadership, people are very focused on the title of chief and people assume that the chief titled brings with it a certain authority and a certain amount of control.
The big issue for a lot of people who don’t have chief titles is there’s a feeling that chiefs are in some way superior. They rose to that level and there’s an element in the chief title which is of superiority. If you think about the way people think about the term chief, they do think about the title, position, authority, control and a bit of superiority. One of the things we do in the book is we say, “That does not need to be the definition of the chief.” I talked about the great team that I worked with in Iraq. Forget titles, being a chief was all about being powerful, and power was about clarity, energy, influence, confidence, and making an impact. None of those five things require any kind of title. The whole idea of redefining what it means to be powerful and to be the chief and then give people some ideas about how they could measure it.
The language of business is numbers. We can talk all we want, but people in business want to measure things. It was, “What number was it before? What number can it be now?” We’re trying to grow things. The book gives you a really simple way of measuring your power. Whether you’ve got a title or you don’t have a title, you’re a frontline worker or an entrepreneur, you have a small team or you run a company, you can take a very quick quiz and determine how powerful you are. Power is defined by clarity, energy, influence, confidence and impact.
What we teach in the book is that once you understand your power, we also deal with this topic of the power of individual influence. As I become more powerful, the people around me become more powerful as well. The most important lesson I’ve learned in business as I’ve had these different turnaround assignments is the power of individual influence, whether you have a title or not, it doesn’t matter. Once you understand that power and measure that power, you can make choices to increase your power. That’s when organizations, whether they be small or large, can accomplish some amazing things.
There is an element that is refreshing about this definition because you don’t need a title to rise up and lead, that’s what the book is communicating. Can you give us some examples of people without titles who have embraced the message in your book and done exactly that?
Many of the clients that I work with do it. I had the privilege of working with some people who probably define power as both. They have titles, positions and authority, but they understand that real power is empowering others as they become more powerful themselves. The ones that are the best are those people that have been exposed to the material in the book and who are frontline workers, frontline workers who would have said, “I have no power. I’ve got no influence,” but being introduced to what they can do and measure it. They say, “On this particular scale of zero to 100, I can see that I’ve made choices that are currently putting my power at number 67, but I can see simple choices that would drive my power up. Although I might not get a title bump or a pay increase right away, the influence I can have on my environment is greater if I make those choices.” The choices are not difficult. These are simple choices and repetitive things that you can do regularly. It can increase your power.
I’ve got a good friend, a frontline worker at a manufacturing facility up in Massachusetts. We’ve been using these concepts for years. We’re good friends. I asked him, “Tell me you read the book before the book was out.” This book was a long time coming, but the principles are ones we’ve used. This good friend says, “I’ve approached it and I have been doing it for about a couple of years now.” He’s walked into his manufacturing job with a new attitude and he’s attempted to try some of the real simple tips, tricks and tools that are in the book. He’s found that he is far more influential from a position that he would have defined three years ago as having no power. It’s a frontline manufacturing example of something that everybody can try.
You don’t need to have a strong personality to do this. You don’t need to be assertive. Talk a little bit about the type of personalities that can benefit from using some of the ideas in your book.
For those that have not read the great book Quiet by Susan Cain, Susan’s a good friend and one of the leaders in understanding the role of introverts. Susan and I collaborated on a section of the book. I brought out a story that I probably wouldn’t have put in Susan’s terms until I met Susan. The story I shared is about a team of wonderful folks that I was working with at Bell Laboratories. Before there was Google and other companies like Microsoft, back in the day, Bell Labs was the repository of some of the smartest people on the planet. When I had the privilege of being assigned to lead them, I became very aware that leading this group of primarily introverts was going to be very different from leading a group of generally extroverted salespeople.
I had to modify what I did to create an environment where they could be their best and they taught me incredible amounts. It was the basic lessons that dad taught me of, “Go into a situation with your ears wide open.” There are many times you’ll take over a new assignment and you’ll go in ready to share your vision, ideas and strategy rather than going in and just listening. Particularly with the Bell Labs folks, we not only share some stories about that Bell Laboratories, but we’ve given the book of specific things you can do to work with the 30%, 40%, 50% of those in any workforce who have introvert tendencies. These wonderful people are looking for someone to work with who understands how they can be their best. The stories are great, some of them are funny, but the issue is the practicality of giving you tips that you can use to be more effective with the introverts in your community. I’m indebted to Susan for the time she spent to help me understand it better.You are, in a certain way, how you want to manifest your choices. Click To Tweet
There’s an incredible application for what you’re talking about in so many other areas of life. I’m going to tell you a story and it’s about my time spent in drug rehab at sixteen years old. I became addicted to heroin and I needed to go into rehab as a way to recover parts of my life. Rehab is run by people with very strong personalities because they’re around a bunch of drug addicts. You’ve got strong personalities who are always trying ways of getting around the rules.
In my experience, there was a woman who emerged in effect as the voice of the population of this little community. She helped us all align with the role and the goals of the organization back when we weren’t able to find our shoelaces. It wasn’t like she was part of the staff. It wasn’t like she was even a leader at any level, except the fact that she was a thought leader and an emotional leader. She’s the one that we got behind and she helped us all through this process of not just being better people, but our primary goal, which was to recover from the use of drugs. Leadership can be anywhere, it can be in families, it doesn’t have to be in companies.
Some of the great opportunities I’ve had is to work in a different environment. The book is primarily about business, but I’m enjoying a lot of the time I’m spending now in colleges and universities. There are some great students who want to get this lesson, not necessarily applied to business, but to apply it where they want to go in the future. I’ve had a wonderful acceptance from those in the different religious communities because they see it as a way of connecting people with what they do to who they are. I’ve had had a doctor talk to me about how these concepts could be helpful to the medical community. Whether it’s education, your government, families, these are simple ideas that are applicable broadly.
What would be one of the first lessons that we could teach somebody as to how to approach leadership and maybe even change some of the patterns in their life?
Success is connecting what you do to who you are, that’s the highest level. You will be more successful if you, Mitch, are not trying to follow Joe’s recipe for success. Mitch has got to follow Mitch’s definition of success. Many times, you’ve got a lot of great literature out there that talked about doing this this way. One of the things that has been successful for those that have worked with the book’s principles is we do strike the right balance between what you do and who you are. This idea of insight, which I would start off with, is important.
I was with a group and I said to a group of senior leaders, “It’s important to develop self-understanding.” A well-intentioned senior executive turned to me and said, “Rick, is this some of that Oprah stuff?” I said, “You can call it whatever you want, but let me give you an example of why you might think of it differently. Have you thought about how important it is to be present?” He said, “That’s definitely that Oprah stuff.” I said, “Are you a fan of the Matt Damon series, Jason Bourne movies?” “Absolutely.” I said, “Let me bring it back to a particular scene. In the first Bourne Movie, Bourne Identity, Jason’s sitting at a table with a friend. The friend is questioning whether Jason knows his background and Jason turns to the young woman in the diner and says, ‘Why can I tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars in the parking lot? Why can I tell you that the most likely place to find a gun is in the cab of the gray truck outside? Why can I tell you that the waitress is left-handed and why can I tell you there are four exits to this building and the quickest one I get to? How would I know that?’”
I said that to the individual, “What was Jason Bourne demonstrating?” He said that “He’s a badass.” I said, “That’s probably true, but Jason Bourne was demonstrating that he was being incredibly present. He was being incredibly aware of his circumstances.” When we think about this topic of insight, we can talk about supporting our people, compensation plans and recognition systems, but I encourage people when it comes to leadership to slow down. Also, to recognize how aware you are of the environment in which you are currently working in. How aware are you of the issues and challenges that people around you are facing? How much information is available to you that you may not be registering? Because you’re thinking about vacation two weeks from now or the meeting that you just walked out of and you’re not sitting there totally aware of your surroundings, what opportunities are you missing because you are not doing that?
I asked the individual after I went through the Jason Bourne story, “Would you like to be more like Jason Bourne?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “Would it be okay if we talked a little bit more about being present and in insight?” He said, “Keep going.” That’s an example of something that we talk about in the book, which is how you understand yourself better. If you understand yourself better then you can make decisions that are consistent with who you are and then you start to become a lot more powerful.
Connect who you are to what you do. Now I’m understanding that statement better. It’s not what you do as like, “I’m a cab driver,” it’s what you do when you are present. That, to me, is the key point. Quoting from the materials in the book, “Be present, be still, be accepting, be generous, be grateful.” Those are your keys to insight and acquiring that energy of insight. To me, being present is when you aren’t thinking about the future or the past, but simply in a place where you could observe. Insight surrounds us and is available all the time if we’re present enough to see it. The bus that goes by, there’s a sign on the bus, there’s a word in that sign that may have a message for you. That message could change your life, but if you’re not present and you can see it, what’s the good?
I’ll give you another one in the book that’s important. You hear the term values a lot. Every organization seems to have a values chart on the wall or a wallet insert. What I advocate in the book is that every individual who wants to become more powerful takes the time to understand what values are most important to you. This came up in Iraq. As a person with Type One diabetes, I can’t serve in our military. Although my father, uncles and grandparents have served, I couldn’t. I had an opportunity to meet a three-star when I was over in Baghdad. This was in the early days of our time there. That particular three-star had a mental picture of people who were in Iraq who weren’t wearing a uniform. He believed that either you’re wearing a uniform or if you weren’t wearing a uniform, you were there to make money. He did not have a particularly good feeling for contractors even though we were a necessary evil. He said, “If you’ve got a uniform, you’re there to serve. If you don’t have a uniform, you’re there to make money.” I fell into the latter category. We had an interesting relationship a period of time. It was after we completed our work that I got a letter from him. He sent me the letter and it’s one of those things that you’ll never throw out. I have it in the top drawer of my desk, which tells you how important it is to me. The letter that this three-star sent me said, “Rick, I’m sorry we got off to a rocky start. It helped at the end when I finally learned what you stood for.” We demonstrated in our actions.
This is the point that I would make on values. We talked about self-understanding and insight. Take the time to understand what values are most important to you. Once you determine what you stand for, you can take one. When you take a stand for your values, the people who are around you will feel your power. They will understand your conviction and they will relate to you differently. That might not be the kind of advice you’d get in many business books. Taking time to understand your values so that you can stand for them is important. It’s one of the tips that a lot of people have told me in reading prior copies of the book that they are implementing and getting a lot out of.
Many people don’t stop to evaluate and question their values. They make assumptions, “I was brought up in a nice family. I’m an honest person. I care about people in general. Those are my values.” I think what you’re saying is this goes much further than that. That gets you admission into the theater of life. What you are talking about is something that defines you in the eyes of others. That is far more valuable and more important than the average things about a human being that we all take for granted. When somebody gets to know you and see what your values are, even if they don’t share those values, they will admire you for being able to share them, state them and make them clear.
It is that word, stand. Once you determine what you stand for, you can take one. When you take a stand on values, how does that connect that to what you do? When you talk, write, act, when you line up those creative forces and it’s consistent with a set of values that you stand for, you become powerful. Other people might not stand for the same things, but they will identify you. Here’s a little quiz that we advocate for the book that works. Once you think you’ve taken a stand for certain things, talk to ten of your closest friends or family members and say, “You know me well. Would you write down on a piece of paper and hand to me a list of four or five or six attributes that you think I stand for?”The people who have the most impact in your life are probably those people who act consistently with their values. Click To Tweet
You can think you stand for something, but if you’re getting ten different pieces of paper that say all different words, the question is, “Are you as consistent in the things that are most important to you that the people who are closest to you should feel? Would you make different choices in the way you speak, write, act, and think so that those things that are most important to you over time are identified those people closest to you and say, ‘When I think of Mitch, I think about this attribute. I think about this value. I think about these things that he is so consistent in everything he does. These are the things that matter to him.’” It’s a little litmus test. We’re talking about power, influence and impact. Think about yourself, the people who have the most impact in your life are probably those people who act consistently with their values.
I like how you walked us through this process of insight and being present and values, determining what you stand for. You mentioned creativity and that I believe is a key to impact. Finally, you said that that becomes how we make the choices that we make in life, which this is how we can be a chief.
You are in a certain way and how you want to manifest that. We are creative beings. In the book, I talked about both internal and external creativity and how the alignment of those two are so important. Some people are less comfortable with the branding of creativity in terms of how you feel and how you think. There is a lot of great literature about being aware of your feelings. The body knows before you’re aware of it but understanding your feelings and being aware of your thinking process is the beginning of your creative process. Externally, people will observe your speech, what words you choose. If you choose to write, there are a lot of great examples of how the written word can move mountains and nations. Then you have to act consistently with whatever you speak and write.
In the book, we talk about aligning those five incredibly creative forces, it’s about impact. When you align how you think with how you feel, speak, write and act, you are making a fist out of the fingers and the impact you can have because of that consistency and creativity, being aware of how the feelings lead to thoughts, speech, write and actions, it becomes an incredibly powerful tool. In the book, we’ve tried to simplify it and make you aware of the choices that you are making so that you can make slight tweaks to make yourself more powerful.
There’s an incredibly beautiful compass formula that you’ve created in the book. You use the analogy of a compass and then the assessment questions all lead to taking what you teach in the book and distilling it down into a series of very practical steps. Rick, you’ve done an amazing job of summarizing the key points and key elements of what your philosophy is. I know that readers are going to get a lot of value out of this. Who, in all of space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
If you limited me to living, I’d love to sit down with Angela Merkel but since it’s any space in time, I’ll go with Lincoln. I would go with Lincoln because I have always been a fan as many are. There was something in the way that Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him in the movie years back that showed an individual who had incredible courage. We talked about values, the four that I’ve chosen to stand behind are truth, service, equality and connection. While Lincoln never took my survey or filled out a compass, those would probably be on his list. If I think about the times that he faced challenges, I can’t even imagine uniting a country, and the way he faced it. If I had that one hour to walk in the park and feel the energy of a true servant leader who accomplished so much for so many, that would be my choice.
It’s not your choice, but it’s many people’s choices. That movie and book opened our eyes to the amazing individual that he was. His name has popped up before because he was so inspirational. If you want to use the word technology of that era, how do you communicate a message across a country that has no wires? It’s amazing. The ability for him to mobilize the country and eventually share his message with the world was astounding. Everybody is here to change the world. What is it that you are doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?Live your best life. Click To Tweet
I’m doing it after a business career of working for one company at a time and for the past ten years for multiple companies as a business advisor. I am actually doing what I want to do, whether it changes the world or not and I hope it does, and that is putting out an idea in this book that is meant to do a couple things. It’s meant to help people who feel powerless to feel powerful. Many people are not feeling their best, they’re underutilized and their potential is not being realized. The incredible gift of human beings on this planet, from a business standpoint, we’re sub-optimized. The turnaround specialist in me walks into a situation and says, “How do I optimize assets?” That’s the left brain. The right brain says, “There are wonderful souls across this great planet that are not feeling their full power.” The power of individual choices that people can make to have themselves feel powerful and to redefine the term. Oprah says, “Live your best life.” It’s all the same idea, but for me, this is about boiling down and providing a simple tool to help people do that. If the powerless can feel powerful and I can play a role in helping that happen, I’ll feel like my time was well spent.
That’s a great mission and you are accomplishing it with every single person who hears your words. It’s a message that I believe you live every day. I see it in who you are and I’m so grateful and honored to be your friend. Thank you, Rick Miller, for joining me on the show. It has been a privilege. I have so enjoyed our conversation. Readers, if you’ve enjoyed this conversation, go get the book. You can get it at Amazon. Thank you again, Rick.
Thanks so much, Mitch. I appreciate the opportunity.
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