FIRESIDE No. 1 with Joe Brouillette

FIRESIDE No. 1 with Joe Brouillette


Posted on September 6, 2017 by Blake Leath





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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 surprise. 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 telling 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 Joe Brouillette.

Joe earned his undergraduate degree in Business with a minor in Psychology and began his career in the early 1970s, starting first with AT&T. After a decade learning the telephone business, Joe set out on his own and launched TelAmerica, an early competitor of MCI, Sprint, and others who entered the long-distance telephone arena just as soon as they were able.


Blake Leath: Joe, I know you’ve always had an entrepreneur’s heart. Talk to us about the early days with TelAmerica, when you went head-to-head with long-distance carriers in a burgeoning, crowded field.

Joe Brouillette: Yeah, I was right in the thick of that crowd in the early 80s and did the classic entrepreneurial thing: mortgaged the house, put the money up, got started, and I and a lot of other really talented people grew TelAmerica to a fairly large sized company, then sold it. I stayed on a couple more years then got involved in a company called Behavior Tech, which pioneered AI programming for educational material to be used in a computer format. Behavior Tech really helped launch the CBT [computer based training] movement, which has now evolved to online/web and mobile-based solutions. I eventually joined American Airlines, serving as President of the AMRIS division, responsible for their training, development, information systems and entire technical profile, globally, ultimately leading ten, fifteen, then twenty-thousand employees worldwide.

Blake: I’m not sure where one goes after AMRIS!

Joe: I joined Andersen Consulting, now known as Accenture, and helped them flesh-out their practice around the telecommunications industry and led the global business development piece of their technology practice. I retired from there in 2004, and have since participated in a number of investments and taught at University of North Texas, Texas Christian University and, most recently, the University of Washington, as I find myself living in the Pacific Northwest now. I can’t stop tinkering, though, having helped Verizon along the way, and launching another tech start-up that consumes much of my time today.

Blake: It sounds a bit like Dori, “Just keep swimming!”

Joe: That’s right! Today, I continue with these interests, and am equally involved in my community, my church, our town’s library, you name it. I stay active in civic, private, and academic affairs as much as possible. I like to stay busy, and engaged. Along the way, though, I’ve had some pretty rough periods personally.

Blake: Are you comfortable sharing those?

Joe: Sure, because they contributed—in great part—to the man I am today. In 1996, I lost my son, Josh. He had made some bad choices, getting involved with drugs and alcohol early in his life, at 13-14 years old. I struggled tremendously with his addiction, but am proud to say that he was indeed able to overcome it, getting clean and dry. But he got pneumonia, and due to the damage to his body in prior years, and its weakness, we lost him after 28 days in the ICU. His brother, Logan, who was younger, really emulated Josh. He was his hero. About ten years later, we faced the same thing with Logan. He had fallen for the lure for a number of years. He, too, overcame it all and moved to Prescott, AZ, an area renowned for its number of rehabilitation centers and services. He was doing really, really well, and then one weekend he just vanished and we didn’t know what happened to him. I talked with the Sheriff’s Department on the following Tuesday, and they went to his apartment and found him deceased. We think a friend came to visit, with heroin and cocaine, and his body—clean for a couple years by then—couldn’t tolerate the amount or combination, and it killed him immediately. So here we were, ten years later, dealing with the exact same loss. One of the most difficult days of my entire life was the day I had to drive to the high school where my wife was teaching and tell her that we lost Logan. Losing Josh was immeasurably difficult, and losing Logan was something unfathomable. Madlyn and I lived a parent’s worst nightmare, becoming members of the club no parent wants to join. Twice.

Blake: Joe, that’s devastating. How in the world did you go on?

Joe: It was a struggle. A struggle to keep it together, to keep the marriage working, but Madlyn and I worked through it and I am able to say that we had a beautiful marriage for 44 years. Then, four years ago, Madlyn came down with some aches and pains in her back. It turned out to be cancer in her muscles and bones, and she passed away in May of 2014. I consider it a privilege and a blessing to have been able to be her love and her caregiver in those final months. Our final days together were probably the finest of my life.

Blake: And these tragedies, coming as they did, Joe…one after the other. I’m not sure how one processes that and endures, but I do know that death is part of life, and to live means to learn to come to terms with loss and grief, yes?

Joe: That’s right. In the midst of these enormous personal losses, one still finds him or herself having to work, to positively influence others, to care for a business, to keep moving forward. It was quite a struggle, but we also can’t forget that at the very same time I was still a father to my daughter, who remains the light of my life. She has a beautiful family of her own, and I’m Grandpa. Obviously, she has had her own struggles, but together we just keep moving forward and onward. God has a plan, and my faith has pulled me through all that. We call it “God’s amazing grace,” because that’s exactly what it is.

Blake: How is your daughter today?

Joe: She continues to move forward, like I do. Just last night I joined her at one of my grandson’s baseball games; we had dinner. Like each of us, she struggles with loss and misses her mom, but she continues working through it. Life is always a work in progress, is it not? The loss of Madlyn deeply affected my grandchildren, too, as you can imagine. Madlyn was a wonderful grandmother, very involved, and always there at all times. She provided a lot of physical and moral support for all of us, and it’s tough to say goodbye to those we love. We persevere, and know there is purpose to it all, and that our faith will see us through to the other side.

I’m an intentional guy, Blake, a planner, a structure guy, a focused thinker, and I can say that grief—and learning how to grieve and to get to the other side—is a process. It doesn’t come naturally; you have to learn to grieve, and to get to the other side. I can promise you this: it doesn’t happen by accident, or simply with time. Time does not heal all wounds. Some wounds barely close, and some not at all, but we learn to live, to learn, to carry on. We have to. It’s not flippant to say that death is part of life, or that life goes on. It’s truth; it does; it must. We do have to keep moving forward, or you’ll just get stuck.

Blake: How do you create a new plan after so much loss? How do you get back on your feet and start moving forward again?

Joe: That’s a great question. You have to start with the realization that grief leaves a hole in your heart that you may never be able to heal up. Grieving is a process, one that eventually migrates from shock and anger to resolution and acceptance. It can take weeks or years, and frankly, some people never find the end of that cycle. It’s serious and it’s devastating, but yes, it’s life. We are endowed with the capacity to carry on, and that’s eventually what one must learn to do. I’m convinced that every loss enables me to get through any future loss. It’s not easy. Believe me, losing children is as tough as it ever gets, but something about that lays you bare, and yet also demands you keep going. For me, my reliance on faith, and the belief I’m not given more than I can handle has always gotten me through. You step up, tackle one day at a time, and keep moving.

My caution to those who experience loss is to not stop moving. Wake up, get something done every day, and keep moving forward and living. After the passing of Madlyn, I can tell you that I was probably in a zone for about sixty days…a fog where I can’t really tell you what I did, or how. But I tried to accomplish one small thing every day. Losing a spouse involves unwinding a lot of things, from finances to selling a car to maybe downsizing a home or moving altogether, which is what I did. But I put one foot in front of the other, starting with putting together her memorial service.

It's a blur to me now, but I can attest that I felt lifted up: lifted and protected by God’s amazing grace. Through purpose, I was able to get more and more done, and achieve more and more clarity. Friends and family are key, and my church family. You have to humble yourself, put yourself out there, put it all on the line. I find that when you’re honest about how you feel, people are honest in return, and all the more inclined to open up and to open their arms. People will step up, and that’s a blessing for any of us.

Blake: What do you see happen to people who don’t keep moving? To those who get stuck in grief, or who retreat from relationships and life?

Joe: They start to create a downward spiral, and let’s face it, there are a lot of ways to hurt yourself in this world, both physically and emotionally. You see people turn to drugs, alcohol, or self-damaging behaviors. They do it to cope and distract themselves from the pain they feel, or to outright kill the pain they feel in their life rather than stepping up and facing it. To never face one’s pain and loss means it never goes away; it just gets buried and deepens its roots.

A lot of people don’t have the skills or techniques or methodologies to manage the grief in their life. At our church, I participate in Grief Release, co-facilitating five evening classes to help people move through their grief with tools and love and support. In the course of a year, we help up to 200 people, and that’s just our little neck of the woods. Imagine all the loss out there, and people who feel underequipped to sort it out. It’s like most things in life: you can’t wallow and hide, you have to face your fears and move forward.

Maybe one of the most profound things I’ve learned about grief is that people grieve at their own pace. Madlyn and I had some real struggles after Josh’s death because we grieved at different paces. It caused a lot of conflict, our each having unrealistic expectations of the other. It took us a long time to realize this, but once we did, and saw progress in one another, we eventually found ways to live through it.

Blake: How, at the end of her life, did Madlyn work with you to prepare you, and to carry on in her absence?

Joe: We talked about that, for sure, part of which included her asking for some private time with our minister and his wife, which I have to believe included something like, “Please take care of Joe for me, and make sure that he is watched over by family,” because that’s how Madlyn was, always looking out for others before herself, an incredibly loving person. In her final days, she released me to live the sort of life she wanted me to live after her, which we both knew to be that of an honest Christian man. She wanted me to keep it real, and to be happy. This last conversation we had, the final lucid one, was very difficult, as you can imagine, but I would equate it to a hand-off. “I love you, do right, and be happy.” She died of lung cancer in hospice a few weeks later, but I know she’s in a better place than I am.

Blake: How are you today? I understand you have some news to share?

Joe: That’s right. I recently remarried, on March 25th, a lovely woman from church named Deanna. She’s 63 and I’m 70, but the key to everything is that we are very spiritually aligned. She has tremendous character and integrity, and if you can find someone who is equally aligned, you can handle anything life throws your way.

Blake: Do you have shared goals with her, things you want to accomplish together?

Joe: Absolutely. We’re both committed to continuing Grief Release together, and I continue to minister to leaders and managers in all sorts of ways. From a family standpoint, I’m blessed to have a wife who had great respect for my late wife and who has no desire to usurp Madlyn’s memory in my mind or in the minds of my daughter and grandchildren. Deanna is supportive of these relationships and that memory, and continues to honor it in all ways imaginable. At the same time, she has a large family of her own that I’m properly integrating into myself. She’s a piano teacher, a music minister, a really talented and amazing woman.

Blake: Joe, I love this conversation. I guess I’m not surprised that—as a world-class manager—some of your greatest lessons for the rest of us are so personal, dealing particularly with loss and faith and moving forward. Your losses are admittedly unusual, but I do find that everyone has experienced personal or, for that matter, professional loss at some point in his/her life, and the more I remind myself that everyone is among the walking wounded, the more tolerant and gentle and accepting and less judgmental I am of others. Whether it’s dealing with a retiree who has lost a sense of purpose, identity, routine, the dignity of contribution and feeling needed and connected, or the parent or spouse who loses a loved one, can you talk to us about how we continue to find purpose and connection after loss?

Joe: Sure, though there is a difference between the loss we choose to bring upon ourselves, like retirement and exiting the workforce, and the loss we feel after losing a child or a spouse. In the latter cases, I’m certain that one of the most difficult emotions to resolve is guilt. Guilt is an enormous burden—things unsaid or undone—and the only way to remedy it that I have found is forgiveness. There’s no other way to put it behind us and move on.

Regarding retirement, though, 70 is the new 50! A lot of people check-out or close-up their practice or partnership and wonder, “Now what?” My advice in those cases is to go find a place where you can connect your values and your value. A place where you align and can make a difference. And do so before you cut the cord, not after. There are ample places and ways to plug in, and lots of people who can benefit from your time and talents. Service work, church, community, all sorts of places. Every community I know is literally crying out for help from talented people who care. Libraries, food banks, you name it.

Blake: On those occasions when you’ve shared your testimony about Josh and Logan and Madlyn, what percent of people open up and share their own stories of loss?

Joe: Almost 100%. When you take the initiative to expose your wounds and heart, I find it establishes immediate rapport and trust, because all the defenses are down at that point. The key is having the willingness to be vulnerable, to open yourself up and expose the most tender feelings you can have in your life. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it courage, but the more courageous you are with others, the more courageous they’ll be in return. A lot of people think they are the only walking wounded, but that’s not true. We all are. There’s a lot of comfort that comes from knowing we are all in the same struggle. Isolation is a prison that boxes you in and won’t let you out; it’s essential to stay connected and on purpose.

Blake: Can you talk a little more about courage?

Joe: There’s physical courage, sure, but also emotional and moral courage. As an employee, a manager, a coach, a friend, whatever, there are times in life that call us to step up. If you’re not careful, loss can shackle you to the floor, afraid to move or pursue much of anything, but having come through the other side, the losses I’ve endured have emboldened me. I’m not so cautious anymore. Ironically, the vulnerabilities in my life have imbued me with more confidence. Confidence to survive, to thrive, to live again. “Push the courage button,” I say. “Get off the pity potty and rise to your feet.” As unnatural as it may feel, loss itself is inevitable, and therefore natural, and we’ve got to learn from it, deal with it, and move beyond.

Blake: As someone who works with a lot of people in a variety of settings, I notice a pattern. At the outset of a relationship, there’s a lot of posturing and pretense and profiling, but in true and deep friendships, airs give way to authenticity and “being real.” I love knowing that we all have guilt, shame, anger, fear, worry, resentment, loss…and yet we find ways to move past it, beyond it, up and over it.

Joe: People often ask me about my leadership roles, and particularly, “What’s your greatest leadership lesson?” It’s actually what you just described: being real, being honest, being open, and speaking truth. It’s a cliché that the truth will set you free, but it’s true! Everyone wants to ‘spin’ something based on their perceived need or interest or ambition, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could all ‘get real’ in the first few minutes of a relationship, or at least by the end of day one? I’m convinced the greatest contribution a leader can make is to be authentic and tell the truth. This frees people from the masks they hide behind, making most anything possible.

Blake: You’ve shared some heavy stuff, and I appreciate it, but I want to pull on a lighter thread for a moment, if you don’t mind. You described working at American Airlines and AMRIS, and I wonder if you knew Bob Gaines, who was one of my early mentors.

Joe: [Laughter] Yes, I hired Bob! In fact, I ran an incubator, if you will, a group that spawned a lot of smaller companies, and I recruited Bob, who was a coach and owned a sporting goods store, to lead one of these companies. He started as VP of Operations for me, but eventually became President of one of these companies.

Blake: It’s a small world, is it not?

Joe: Oh man, you’ve got that right. In fact, at 70, what a kick to think that perhaps my most ‘reflected glory’ is to hand out fifteen copies of The Magnolia Story, signed by Chip and Joanna, to all my blue-haired friends at church! In fact, to pull the thread all the way through, Josh and Chip were best of friends, involved in baseball together, playing baseball and football at Grapevine High School, and that’s how I first met Bob. We lived in the same neighborhood in Colleyville, TX. Apart from Chip’s craziness, which is wonderful, he’s a really solid guy, and a great example of the product of excellent parenting, as Bob and Gayle were very intentional parents. I think the dizzying successes Chip and Joanna have achieved are testaments to their parents and the values they instilled in their kids.

Blake: What has been your greatest surprise as a leader?

Joe: People do much better when you influence and support and encourage, rather than micromanage. There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large influence works way better than supervision or management. When you let people execute their own ideas, in accordance with the vision, mission, and values of the enterprise, morale shoots through the roof.

Blake: I have met tons of leaders, particularly young ones, who spring out from behind their title…issuing orders, directing people around, and it always fails. People talk about them behind their back, withhold personal energy, or even sabotage them. I find they have to be humbled in some way, or broken, before they learn that respect begins with relationship.

Joe: Until people learn that it’s more important to produce results than to be right, they’ll always fail. It’s an uphill battle to lead by behaving as if you’re the smartest person in the room. Being right about everything is a burden. One of the greatest gifts any leader can experience is failure at an early age. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Better to learn early than late or never.

Blake: What other advice would you give to a young leader?

Joe: Keep people focused on reality. There is so much information, so much distraction. Being able to keep a group of people focused on something realistic and achievable is an incredibly valuable skill.

Blake: It’s more difficult with each succeeding year.

Joe: That’s right. Media, technology, mobile. Distraction is the water in which we swim.

Blake: I think focus, and discipline, are essential. I’ve met lots of talented people over the years who had excellent ideas but failed to execute, or reliably so.

Joe: Exactly, but here’s what’s cool: the fundamentals of good leadership do not change. They are timeless. What changes is the context in which one applies them. Discipline, rigor, focus, stick-to-it-iveness, understanding the work, who you’ve got to work with, vision, the team’s capabilities, all these fundamentals are constants, whatever the era or generation. Appreciating that the core is about developing relationships, not conducting transactions. Anyone who has built any enterprise of substance will tell you it’s the relationships that make it work, not the transactions. It’s important advice for young leaders, because let’s face it, we’re in a device-centric world. More and more people learn machine language, but who knows his neighbor’s birthday? We are strangers to most of those around us.

Blake: That’s funny, and more than a little convicting! I think the only time I see my neighbor is at the mailbox or the trash can.

Joe: All the more reason to build community!

Blake: Final question. On your journey, who have been some of your heroes?

Joe: My biggest ‘hero’ is Jesus Christ, because He represents the most consistent demonstrator of physical, emotional, and mental courage that I’ve ever had the privilege to learn about. Then my dad, my mom, my uncles, my family. I was blessed with a lot of heroes in my family. But then also some sports guys, like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Landry, some of those old-time guys who were just solid players and great men. They knew a lot about what they were doing. And heck, Ronald Reagan! I thought a lot of him and what he accomplished. And it clicked right away for me that Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing the right thing, had the right message, and was trying to achieve a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people. He was a personal hero of mine, but I also had great neighbors and great friends who helped manage and mentor me. But Jesus has always been the savior and driving force of my life. I cannot thank my parents enough for grounding me in that as a child, for sharing the fundamentals. The greatest blessing of my life is that I have been blessed.







To learn the impetus behind Fireside, click here or here, and please join us again next Wednesday for another chat.