"truth, contrarian views & legacy"
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I'm an organizational sociologist, strategist, writer, and teacher, but am—first, foremost, and always—a student of enterprises and those who lead them. In my 2007 book, Cultivating the Strategic Mind, I explored the transition from leader to visionary, creator, and architect of strategy. Today, I continue studying strategists and leaders but am increasingly haunted by what I see as a more fundamental, personal quest: understanding and improving the dying sub-disciplines of management, whether time, conflict, self, or life-management. Leadership gets a lot of glory, but management is the nuts & bolts practices of every day that gets it done. Fireside (which admittedly began as a series of ruminative 1 ½ to 2-hour one-on-one conversations with seasoned management executives reflecting on their life’s work) quickly evolved into dialogues about work within the context of life and life after work. This ricochet took me by surprise, but I found it an exceedingly pleasant one. After all, “Though we hire employees, we get people.” My sincerest hope now is that—in an oft-discouraging world—Fireside might prove a respite, a source of light, warmth, energy, encouragement, safety, nourishment, perhaps even inspiration in your own career or life, whether at home or out in the big, bad world. Around the fireside at the end of the day, it’s clear that we are all in this together, and everyone has a story worth sharing and hearing. You will be the ultimate arbiter, of course, but I predict we shall learn a great deal about management, yes, but even more about ourselves and this enterprise we call life.
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Today's guest is Alan Friedman.
For 36 years, Alan Friedman has developed, financed, marketed, managed and acquired commercial, mixed use and lifestyle properties. He is also active on several boards, as a trustee, and in a couple renowned service organizations in his community.
Blake Leath: Alan, thank you for doing this! You’re one of the best communicators I know, so I have high expectations of you, Sir!
Alan Friedman: [Laughter] You need to get out more. Meet some new people.
Blake: I’m sure that’s true, but take me at my word!
Blake: To get us started here, why don’t you take a few minutes and walk us through how you think. Specifically, knowing that you’ve been involved in so many enormous, drawn out, complicated projects—dealing with states, municipalities, even impactful philanthropic organizations—I’d be curious to know how you think…and how you approach such beasts.
Alan: Okay. Well, whether it’s work or charitable commitments, I think one of the most important things is the pursuit of truth. Peeling back as many layers as possible, checking and cross-checking, getting a 360° view. And if you don’t have that ability, surround yourself with people who do. Where are the blind spots? Find people who can tell you when you’re out of bounds.
Blake: Which causes friction, of course.
Alan: Sure, but good decision making usually has positive abrasion. If you want to make an informed decision, you want information…and you’re most likely to get good information, total information, from people who are truthful and are willing to speak up.
Blake: Do you find that it’s difficult to get the real deal?
Alan: Sometimes. You get a lot of anecdotal information, and sometimes ‘he said, she said’ stuff. You’ve got to find the source, cut out the middleman, go straight to the truth. Find it objectively, and without as much bias as possible. A lot of times we look for the conclusions we want. With big, complex deals, you want to cut out as much unbiased information as you can. Fast, early, often.
Blake: Besides unbiased truth-tellers, who else do you prefer doing business with?
Alan: I like dealing with people I can trust, but also with people who are looking forward. Confident in their mission. Who can add value to the bottom-line, toward the given effort. Honest people—problem-solvers who complement your weaknesses—are priceless.
Blake: You’re talking, in part, about perspective. Perspective is one of my favorite topics.
Alan: It’s essential. Some people will sit by their flat tire on the side of the road forever. I want people who will problem-solve their way out of it. Keep moving forward, communicate what they need.
Blake: When you’re stuck on that metaphorical shoulder, though, how do you problem-solve your way out of it?
Alan: Sometimes the best way is through writing. Dialogue is great, and often ideal, but sometimes verbal communication includes too many interruptions, side tangents, misinterpretation. There are times I like to step back, commit all my thoughts to paper. Get my logic and thoughts and conclusions corralled.
Blake: Writing is a lost art. Do you do this often?
Alan: When it’s important, yes. There are a lot of times I need to get all my thoughts down on paper. One of my favorite things is to journal.
Blake: Wow, that’s crazy. You’re my sixth interview, and the third person who’s mentioned journaling. I’m kind of surprised that many people journal anymore.
Alan: At the end of the day, it helps in a lot of ways to think through what I’ve just experienced. Was I present, what did I learn, what did I learn about that person, or their goals, or a way forward? I think journaling can be a helpful way to organize one’s thoughts. It’s of high value, particularly to those of us with short memories. [Laughter]
Blake: Agreed. Before we move on, I’d like to unpack this truth-telling thing for a moment longer. I think all great managers and leaders are intentional about seeking contrarian points of view, but it can be atypical in young leaders. Can you tell me how you arrived at this practice?
Alan: I came by it naturally, growing up in a family where my dad was Jewish, my mother was Christian, and my siblings were agnostic, atheist, hedonist [Laughter], and a Buddhist. Half of us were right-brained, the other half left. Half Republicans, half Democrat. We were like the rainbow coalition. So, I found myself defending my fort a lot!
Blake: Did you win?
Alan: I say all that in jest. Dinners were lively, of course, but I always knew I was loved. Mom and Dad complemented each other really well. She ate so slowly, so we knew we were guaranteed to be at the table for at least an hour. We’d pass the food around, and she’d push that last piece of lettuce in her salad forever. We’d get really anxious waiting for her to spear that thing so we could move on. I always felt their support, loyalty, dedication, concern. As for winning, let’s just say that I held my ground.
Blake: And at work? How did you learn to surround yourself with truth-tellers at work?
Alan: When I got my first big break, I found myself in a position where I was surrounded by a lot of talented people. I’d begun reading a bunch of books on management, one by Harold Geneen. That was the first time I’d heard the phrase ‘true truth.’ He was a taskmaster, but his book was really good. He talked about putting forth your best effort. “If you haven’t given me your best effort in your presentation, why should I bother reading it? Don’t put it on my desk.” He was tough, but a loyal man, and he’d roll his sleeves up and get his fingernails dirty. He wouldn’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do.
Being in real estate, sometimes you might wonder whether the Marketing guys had really made the cold calls or were the tenants’ needs really what the tenant needed. It’s just another reminder to bring everyone to the table, to get to the truth, the real answers. Marketing guys, lawyers, accountants, engineers, designers…get ‘em all to the table.
Blake: As for pleasant side-effects, it also saves time and breaks silos.
Alan: And leads to better documents, and more buy-in through involvement, and fewer do-overs. Sometimes people—and departments—lose sight of the whole. They operate independently. You’ve got to look at what the overarching goal is, and make sure everyone is collaborating with one another.
Blake: Why do you think so many people prefer to operate independently, when it seems to violate such common sense?
Alan: From the outset, it can seem easier to them. Less hassle.
Blake: How do you find intrinsically motivated people?
Alan: I like to ask people what they like to do in their spare time. If someone says, “Watch TV,” I think, “Pass.” I want to hire someone who likes to bike, or who’s into photography, who is involved in life. People with outside interests—with diversity—have typically been really, really good hires. Now, I’m not judging people who like TV, but whether it’s reading books, needlepoint, or fishing, it’s indicative of someone with passion.
Blake: What else?
Alan: I also look for team players, not individualists. You need individual skills, but you also need to be able to communicate well, to want to, and to have a good attitude about working with others. People who are in it for themselves might have one or two huge successes, but team players win in the end. They land more deals, more often, over a longer period of time.
Blake: When you think about your own career, and alignment of personal and professional goals, what sort of things interest you now? What do you hope to do in the next 5-7 years?
Alan: Well, you know, things change in life depending on your phase. I’ve got grandkids, and I wouldn’t say I’m in the first phase of my career, so I’m not interested in 15-year projects, although I do find myself in a few, like infrastructure. Those kinds of projects involve a lot of politics and take a long time to get done, but represent a huge opportunity in our state [Texas], because by 2050 our population is going to double. So, perhaps we can get a few teed up for others to complete.
Blake: Are you optimistic about the future of this country? What advice would you give a 25-year-old?
Alan: Mercy. I wish
I guess to a 25-year-old person I’d say, “Get the information, filter it, sort through the challenges, and just keep doing the best you can. Don’t just check the box. Think about your thinking. And most importantly, remember that it always boils down to people.”
Blake: In what ways?
Alan: In all the little ways, whether inching across the line because one more person voted for you, or by deepening a personal connection by sending handwritten notes. People are astute, and no one needs another email, but you better believe if you write me a handwritten note…it’s going to be saved in a drawer. Really get to know people, do things that are meaningful to them. That’s rare these days. If I know someone likes to fish, I might take ‘em fishing for a week. That’s an experience, a memorable one. There’ll be a card, a picture on their credenza of that trip. Every time they see it, they’ll remember how much fun they had. The tiniest things are huge. If you’re just responding to an RFP, or hoping your algorithm is going to beat the next guy’s algorithm, you’ve already lost. At the end of the day, it’s people. And memories. Find out someone’s passions.
Blake: It may be premature to be thinking about legacy, Alan, but how would you like to be remembered?
Alan: Ooh, that’s a toughie. Maybe we should talk about my dad. My father was my best friend. I've never had anybody more devoted to me, and there was nobody I feared more than him. I learned to fear God from him! He wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I always knew he loved me. He died relatively young, at 71, but we had the best conversations, even late in life. He loved tennis, his stamp collection, classical music, and his motorcycle. But most importantly, he cared about people. He was fiercely committed. His mother passed away just 2-3 years before he did, but he’d go by and see her every single day on his way home from work. I’d have lunch with him once a week, and he’d always call me 2-3 hours later and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said.” I loved his wisdom.
When he passed away, my mother gave me a picture which he had hung in his office. It was of a little boy swinging on a gate. I remember him telling me it was his favorite picture. It reminds me of my relationship with him, how devoted he was, how much he loved me.
Blake: Is this what you want to pass on to your kids, your grandkids? This love that you felt from your dad?
Alan: That they are loved, yes. To be courageous, and confident. To be wise. To make room for others’ opinions.
When we were 7-8 years old, Dad paid each of us $5 to memorize the poem “If—” by Rudyard Kipling. Part of it may insinuate a little too much independence (standing alone) from the world, but I always read it more compassionately than that. It reminds me of Psalms, or Proverbs, which reminds me of my dad’s advice, like, “No matter how bad things get in life, sometimes you just need to tie a knot at the end of the rope and hang on.” He knew things would always work out in the end. In the late 1980s, times were tough, real estate-wise, and it appeared to me as if I’d be working for the government forever! [Laughter] I thought my problems were worse than everyone else’s. My dad listened and replied, “In a few years, this weight is going to be like a leaf falling off your shoulder. It won’t always feel like a boulder.” I thought to myself, “This man has lost his ever-lovin’ mind,” but sure enough, he knew what he was talking about. The only regret I have is not listening to him more often. His advice was always right.
“If—” by Rudyard Kipling, 1895
Blake: He sounds like a really neat man.
Alan: He loved me and cared about a lot of people. I remember one time, I attended some really fancy recognition dinner for a businessman in Fort Worth. Black tie. I’d parked in the garage of the bank where my dad was Chairman. When it was over, 9:45 or 10:00, I go to my car. There’s only six cars left in the garage, and I’m assuming the gate would be open. It wasn’t. Clyde’s working the booth, and I realize I have zero cash in my pocket. I roll up in my car and tux and say to the attendant who is wearing his name badge, “Clyde, I know this looks really bad, but I have no money. I’m in Fort Worth every week though, and I can bring you cash next week.” He leans out the window of the booth, looks over his glasses at me and says, “You’re one of Mr. Friedman’s sons, aren’t you?” I say, “Yes, I’m Alan.” He says, “Don’t you worry about it, your dad is always takin’ care of us garage people.” [Tears]
That’s what I want to leave, Blake. I’d like to be remembered like my dad. When you’re my age, you realize the rest is just stuff. You can stick it over in the trash pile for all I care. In that moment, Clyde reminded me what’s important in life.
Blake: What a blessing that you learned that lesson so early.
Alan: The power of a role model.
Blake: Great role models are harder and harder to come by.
Alan: That’s absolutely right, and it goes back to the little things. Listening, words of encouragement, acknowledgment. A lot of kids feel isolated or alone. They don’t have access to mentors, no way to fill those holes in their life. We never know what someone is going through, but to stop…to pause…to look people in the eye, say thank you. We all get too wrapped up in who we are or what we’re doing. One kind word can change a person’s entire day.
For a period of time, my dad carried a silver dollar with him every day. Somebody would win a silver dollar every day. And when he gave it to them, he’d tell them why. “I give one of these away every day. Today, I’m giving you this one because you did such and such.” Just imagine society if everyone was seen, acknowledged like that every day. It’s a tremendous gift.
Blake: I was at the car wash three weekends ago, and as I sat in the lobby waiting, one of the employees—dripping with sweat—came in, walked over to the soda machine, mashed in a couple bucks and bought herself a drink. I asked, “They don’t provide your drinks?” She shook her head. When I collected my car, I swung over to Sonic and bought five sodas, five slushes, and ten hot dogs. I swung back through and handed them to her. Tears streaming down her face, she asked, “For us? For us? God bless you.” I’ve done that twice more since then, and I can guarantee you that every time I can, I will be tipping them with sodas, too. It’s the best feeling in the world, and is worth more to them in that besotted moment than a king’s ransom. And it costs me a few measly crumpled bills and ten minutes’ time.
Alan: Right. That’s recognition, appreciation, empathy. We have a mutual friend, Michelle, who is so good at that. Just out of nowhere she will send someone a random message or a book she thinks you will like. It just feels so good to know you were on someone’s mind today. She knew a friend of mine who was going through a tough time, and took the time to send him a couple books she thought would be helpful to him. A week later he described how blown away he was. “She’s got a million things going on, but she thought of me and made time.” That’s what it’s all about.
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