FIRESIDE No. 5 with Gary Moreau
Posted on October 4, 2017 by Blake Leath
"Trust, truth, politics & society"
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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 Gary Moreau.
Approaching his fourth decade of leadership, Gary has served as consultant, global executive, private equity partner, General Manager of a large multinational in China, and always as writer, thinker, and pragmatic philosopher.
As former President & COO of Oneida, CEO & Operating Partner of Lionel LLC (Lionel Trains)/Wellspring Capital Management, Managing Director and subsequently VP & GM (Asia Pacific) of Libbey Inc., Gary has thought often and deeply about the disciplines of leadership, collaboration, communication, strategy, and the nature of ethics in the workplace.
Author of Take God to Work, The Ultimate MBA: Meaningful Biblical Analogies for Business, Now You Are Lisa: A Contemporary Tale of Human Connection, Understanding China: There is Reason for the Difference, Understanding Business: The Logic of Balance, Understanding Life: Context is Everything, and several additional books under the pseudonym Avam Hale, Gary’s curiosity and thoughtfulness are animated through research, consulting, speaking, and ongoing contributions to scholarship and personal and professional service.
Gary studied Economics at Middlebury College, from which he graduated with honors.
Having spent eight consecutive years leading in China, Gary is now stateside again, where he makes his home in Rochester, Michigan, and can be found blogging and working on his next book.
Blake Leath: Thanks for your time today, Gary. Feel free to start wherever you like. I know you’ve always got some amazing book brewing, so maybe you can start there and tell us what’s on your mind.
Gary Moreau: Sure, I can do that. They say to write what you know, so my latest book grew out of the germ of an idea, or an observation really, that decades ago we began thinking of business as if it were analogous to science.
Blake: In what ways?
Gary: It’s learnable, quantifiable, and teachable, which gives rise to it being something that’s taught in business schools and applied by consultants. But as I reflect on what I’ve experienced, I think people have taken it too far.
Gary: There are countless examples, but let’s take three: financial modeling, skills assessments (the sort one experiences with a performance appraisal and a 9-box), or the process of succession planning. Maybe like you, I’ve spent an entire career evaluating businesses and trying to quantify somebody’s abilities, but nowadays I perceive it as rather impossible. I really can’t think of performance review feedback after which someone left my office and thought, “My God, that was one of the most enlightening experiences in my career!” I think it’s become a mechanistic, flawed process. That’s not to say there isn’t value, or that there shouldn’t be accountability or honesty, but I think the recency effect, which naturally emphasizes what happened in the last quarter, shouldn’t define our perception of an employee…in our mind, or in theirs.
With regard to financial modeling, I was a mathematics major in college for a while, and I began my career in accounting and finance departments—so I’m very comfortable around balance sheets and financial models—but I think my exposure to such things has enabled me to also see their limits. I recently read that American business spends about $2 trillion/year on acquisitions and mergers, and only about 20% of those ever come close to realizing the results that were predicted when the acquisition or merger was proposed. So here we have some of the brightest minds with all the numbers at their disposal, but we have at least 80% failure. What’s hard to grasp at the outset, and what matters tremendously in order to close the gap, is intuition and experience, and you can’t put a number on that.
Blake: That rings true to me, too. I think we’ll also see that truth when Jim Collins publishes his next work based on his time at West Point. The “metrics man” himself has come to the conclusion that “spirit” and “pride,” to name a few rather unquantifiable elements, are the differentiators between successors and also-rans. I think the same goes for culture, too, the great eater of strategy.
Gary: And trust. Trust is essential in any successful relationship or business endeavor. Whether dealing with colleagues, friends, children…I just don’t think we can measure it, and yet it makes all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of things in business today undermine trust, including Jack Welch’s notion of the forced bell curve (the bottom 10% must go), which itself is flawed because it assumes a business can predict which employees are essential and non-essential, and sometimes the people who struggle today are the very people we’ll need five years down the road when conditions change. Different seasons call for different skillsets.
In fact, beyond that point, my most recent book (Understanding Business) introduces what I call “Obligation Leadership,” which is beyond “Servant Leadership.” In the last twenty years, I’ve met with a lot of CEOs who talked about Servant Leadership, and frankly, I don’t think they practiced what they preached. I actually think Obligation Leadership is the order of the day, and it demands that leaders put the interests of others and one’s team above their own. It’s a high bar, for sure, but I think it’s what’s required for today’s businesses to succeed. And to attract new and tomorrow’s talent.
Blake: What does Obligation Leadership look like, in practice?
Gary: It means that in deciding, prioritizing, even funding, we put the interests of the people we are charged to lead above our own. If I were to give any young leader one piece of advice, it would be to build trust. Without it, nothing else is possible.
Blake: How does one go about building trust?
Gary: It starts with recognizing I’m not the center of the universe! I think trust and humility are two sides of the same coin, for the simple reason that no one will trust anyone who’s not humble. Arrogant, prejudiced people simply are not trusted. If you look at the greatest leaders of all time, whether Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ronald Reagan or Mahatma Gandhi, these were—at their core—humble people in pursuit of a larger mission, and generally without ego.
Blake: Knowing this now, is there anything you wish you could have changed earlier in your career?
Gary: I just don’t think I realized early enough that I wasn’t the center of the universe. Knowing it, and accepting it, are wonderful realizations early on.
Blake: I can’t help but think of our current political environment when I hear you describe an absence of ego. We live in a time when our leaders lack social currency, making it exceedingly difficult to push an agenda or find common ground, to say nothing of truth. And the absence of humility and trust worsen the fact.
Gary: I think today’s political process is incapable of offering us a humble leader. Every side is unwilling to concede, to compromise, and the gladiators we put forth—on both sides of the equation—are, by definition, locked in to an agenda that cannot change. It becomes very zero-sum game.
Blake: You’ve written so diversely. Have you always been a naturally curious person?
Gary: I’ve always considered myself a zealous thinker, yes. It’s a blessing and a curse because it both drives me and keeps me up at night!
Blake: How have you honed this curiosity over time?
Gary: Life has presented countless refining opportunities, but I owe a great debt to a college professor, a German gentleman who had immigrated to the United States to teach economics. He required we write one paper every week, no more than two pages, double spaced. The topics were broad and complex, but the two-page limitation, no exceptions, forced me to think broadly then distill concisely. I would fail miserably as an English teacher, because I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life or adequately explain the difference between an adjective and an adverb and a verb, but I love to think through things, am curious by nature, and yes, I think I can convey my thoughts in writing…and concisely as required.
Blake: Is this why you write, because you’re curious?
Gary: If I’m honest, I do it in part for my daughters. I want to leave something for them, a piece of myself, in a way they can get to know their father a little bit better. I hope my books will provide a window into who I am and how I think.
Blake: Well, you’re a great writer, Gary, and also a wonderfully lucid critical thinker. You’ve published a number of lines that stopped me in my tracks.
Gary: As an introvert, I’m surely a 10.5 on a 10-point scale, and writing is a wonderful way to be public without being public! Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York, described being an introvert at heart, and how much he really liked his alone time, and that he was never more comfortable than when he was alone. And some reporter asked him, “How can you stand in front of a room filled with people and give a speech or an inspiring talk?” to which he replied, “If you're an introvert, there is absolutely no better place in the world to be than in front of an audience, because that’s when you’re literally all alone,” and that’s been my experience, too. I don’t think being an introvert or extrovert really has anything to do with leadership or one’s ability to communicate effectively with others, be it verbally or in written form. I think these flow from you; it’s really just a matter of working at it, refining the craft.
Blake: Communicating effectively does require effort, and time, and thoughtfulness.
Gary: I'm a pretty big believer in the 10,000-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell described. It’s certainly been my experience.
Blake: Do you have a particular writing process?
Gary: Effort, discipline, routine. I usually get up at 5:30 AM, make a cup of coffee, and read the news to see that the world is still there. Then I write and write and write and write until 11 AM, then take a walk with my wife. I’m not a very structured person, but I’ve had to adhere to some structure in order to be effective and get it done.
Blake: If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about your childhood and your legacy, your past and future. You’ve mentioned writing for your daughters, and the fact that you’re a naturally curious person. Can you talk to us a bit about growing up, and then about looking ahead?
Gary: I’ve had a number of defining moments in my life, but let’s talk about two, because they’re interrelated. In 1962 I was eight years old. I was in the 2nd grade in a public elementary school living in a very small town and I started to experience seizures. They became increasingly more frequent and more severe. I would crash to the ground and often hit my head, cutting it, so I wound up having to wear protective headgear any time I was out of bed. I was ultimately at home with a tutor for about a year. It was a boon for me. I eventually ended up at Boston Children’s Hospital, a hospital for Harvard Medical School, making it one of the most renowned pediatric hospitals in the world. It’s a teaching hospital, so when you see a doctor, you actually see a whole team of doctors, maybe 8 or 10 of them. After several visits there for 2-3 weeks each, the department head met with my mother and said my seizures were incurable. But there was one member of the team, the only female on the team, who wanted to run one more test. A very unpleasant one, 100% diagnostic in nature (not curative), involving draining the fluid from my spinal cord and around my brain. This would allow them to get a clear X-ray of the brain, but they would have to do it without anesthesia because the brain has to be functioning normally when they take the X-ray. It remains the most painful event of my 62 years, but it did in fact prove curative, because it turned out I had a virus or bacteria that was residing in the fluid around my brain and it was feeding off that fluid. Once they drained it, exposing it to air, it died. When they put the fluid back in I was fine.
I learned a lot from that period. First, to always have hope, even when feeling isolated. I also learned perspective. And though most people might walk into a children’s ward and feel terrible for all the children there, being in a ward with other kids was a source of encouragement for me, because it was my social support system. Just by being there, with other children who were struggling too, I knew I was not alone.
The other event has to do with the Cold War, as we were living 20 miles from a strategic Air Command base, which was home to a B-52 squadron. At the time, they kept them in the air 24/7, armed with nuclear weapons, missiles, bombs. It was all part of America’s deterrence strategy. Our neighbors, in what was a very diverse socio-economic neighborhood, were much wealthier than we were, and they built this incredible bomb shelter deep underground, with 3’ thick concrete walls, a chemical toilet, and enough provisions to last a year. I remember my parents thinking it was ludicrous. “What if their kids are at school when it happens? Are they going to live down there alone by themselves for a year?” Just nonsense.
But both events, from the procedure to the bomb shelter, got my mind racing. I thought aloud, often told myself stories, and had marvelous fantasies in my mind. And often I was the hero or protagonist in my tales. As I look back on it now, this wild exploration of thought, it occurs to me that I’ve always been a storyteller, and curious, and interested in capturing these thoughts and sharing them, and most often through writing.
Blake: Has anyone in particular influenced your writing?
Gary: Freud said that our dreams are really a resolution of the unresolved conflicts from our day. Through writing, I’m both storyteller and audience, and the act itself forces clarity of thought. He also said that all life is personal, so while I’ve spoken about the importance of humility and not being the center of the universe, it’s true that there’s no escaping this fact: self-interest—and clarifying my own thoughts—motivates and animates a great deal of what I do when I write.
Blake: Any regrets?
Gary: I would do nothing differently, not that my life in any way has been perfect. Like Charles Barkley said of himself, I'm not a role model, because I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I did a lot of things (hopefully some good things), but also some things I’m not proud of, but I wouldn't change them because a perfect life is impossible. No one can live an explicitly, singularly noble life. I’m pretty happy with my life, my legacy, and the time I’ve spent with my daughters.
Blake: To the future, then. Do you have any thoughts or a philosophy on time or what time means to you now that you’re 62?
Gary: Well, my first observation would be that no one knows how much time he has left! I also acknowledge that while I began thinking of many of these things at 30 or 40, life goes by in the blink of an eye, and the way I think about things today is quite different. I realize I’m in the autumn of life, but it doesn’t cause me much angst because I honestly think I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a great life. I’m very fulfilled. I’m first and foremost a student of life. I’ve never longed for days of playing golf or sitting at the piano or of drinking more glasses of wine. I’ve always understood and accepted that I would be working, in whatever ways possible, until the day I’m gone, so I look at whatever remaining time I have and enjoy the process of becoming manic about or possessed by my next book project. I get so enthusiastic I literally cannot sleep, stay up ridiculous hours, and sit at the computer for days to capture all the thoughts racing through my mind. I do believe you have to be really turned on by what you have to say in order to have the discipline to commit it to paper.
Blake: We spoke briefly about our current political climate. Do you have any other observations regarding the times in which we live?
Gary: Many. Let’s start with the fact that I think the social contract has changed in most contemporary organizations. When I was starting my career, unless you did something illegal or immoral, getting fired was simply a last resort. Today’s worker understands that tacit agreement is in the trash can. I think this undermines an employer’s ability to develop trust, because employees enter into a work environment accepting that they may be disposed of at any minute and for any reason or for no reason at all.
Blake: What else?
Gary: I think shareholder activism proved to be a negative turning point for everyone involved. Today, at the first sign of a bad quarter or whenever there is shareholder dissatisfaction, the CEO is out. It's alarming to me, for example, that the average tenure of a CEO today is roughly 3 years. That's a damnation of the process if there ever was one, but also a strong reminder that we should do what we love, or find fulfilling, because there’s no reason to do something you don’t enjoy or for someone who’s moving on anyway.
Blake: I know that a lot of employees struggle with the notion of work/life balance, or reconciling their professional careers with their personal time and space. I’ve never really thought about it as “balance” so much as “integration,” but do you think the factors you’ve just described affected employees’ perceptions of work and their personal life?
Gary: We talk today about work/life balance, right, but you know when I started my career they never had that conversation because there was no distinction really. We worked all the time, but that was, in part, because many of the things we wanted from life—enrichment, fulfillment, social connection—derived from work itself. What we got from our jobs, and from colleagues on our team. Today, I think many people feel disposable, or transient, so the last thing they’ll do is grab a beer after work with a co-worker, knowing in their bones the relationship may only last 2-3 years, tops.
Blake: Having lived through it, can you pinpoint the time or era when the social contract changed between employer and employee? When shareholder activism and work/life balance became tipping points for employees to mentally check out?
Gary: Oh, I think there were a couple tipping points, one of which was globalism. In the early to mid-1970s, the “dark force” if you will of globalism was Japan. If there had been a balance to the world order of work, many Americans began to fear what Japan might mean to that equilibrium. I remember there were a number of magazine covers at the time, like “Japan Inc.” or whatever, that led many Americans to think Japan was going to take all our manufacturing jobs, and of course that never happened. That fear, though, continues, and many politicians exploit it or prey upon people’s fears. Japan Inc. has become Korea Inc. and China Inc. and Vietnam, Indonesia, or Honduras Inc. Whatever the latest boogeyman, real or perceived, as retail investors were eclipsed by institutional investors, in the form of hedge funds, today’s professional manager may in many ways feel like they’re paddling upstream. CEOs may often spend more time thinking about and focusing on shareholders who own the company rather than employees who make everything possible. I think it’s equivalent to letting gamblers own the casino. It’s just not the way it should work and, as a result, it doesn’t work.
Executive compensation is also a problem, with CEOs focusing too much on stock price, knowing that ticks up or down could personally be worth, say, $100 million. I think that’s absurd, and the polarization of classes in this country…the polarization of wealth…is perhaps the most fundamental challenge facing us as a society today.
Blake: Where does it take us?
Gary: Any student of history will suggest it’s untenable. Even a cursory review of the past suggests that “letting them eat cake” is a recipe for disaster. Making crappy, short-sighted decisions as a 3-year CEO who’s about to bail is not a sustainable model for the top organizations in this country. It never has been, and never will be.
Blake: Are you optimistic about the future?
Gary: On the one hand, I’m very frightened about the future my children will inherit. I’ve described the tossed social contract, political division, the polarization of wealth, and the unsustainability of these trends. The jury is out about how it will come to a head, or when. I don’t know if it will simply collapse or if the townspeople will arrive at the front door with pitchforks!
I think technology is an undercurrent throughout, though, connecting people in new and surprising ways. I think in the end it will prove net-positive, but it comes with a lot of baggage. Social media, for example, appears to me to be entertainment. It doesn’t replace true conversation or face-to-face relationships, and certainly doesn’t replace touch, which I think is an important element of human communication and connectedness. I also think social media has undermined the integrity of language.
But I’m a big believer in sine theory, like electricity, magnetism, wind, waves, even ripples of sand in the dunes. I think the universe operates this way, and for all our self-destructive, artificial distractions, nature will swing the pendulum for us if we don’t do it ourselves. It will force us back to the middle.
Blake: In what ways?
Gary: I just think, or hope, that eventually people will tire of their time on Facebook or Snapchat, and eventually choose to walk over, sit down, and talk face-to-face. They’re two completely different experiences, and I think despite all the distractedness with our screens, we ultimately will hunger for human connection because it’s hard-wired into our brains and being.
It’s true that people are, ultimately, tribal. Clans. And we’ve seen the dissolution of nuclear families in one generation, so I think it’s unrealistic to think they’ll ever come back, but I do think we must embrace the fact that we’re all in this together. No one is an island, and no one exists on his or her own. What we do to ourselves, or the earth, affects others in and on it. I think a lot of people talk today about inclusiveness, but very few act inclusively.
Blake: Can you give us some examples?
Gary: Just look at our political discord. I see lots of people talking about the importance of free speech, but to me it feels very judgmental, so it’s free speech with a caveat. This is a dangerous development. Again, it goes back to technology. Today, a person—no matter how extreme—can upload a few thoughts and garner a tremendous audience. This makes the proliferation of hate speech, for example, much easier. 75% of Americans claim they’re disillusioned with life, so I think we’ll continue to see more and more polarization, more extremes, more alienation from society and life. I think these are worth focusing on in coming years.
Blake: We live in tricky times, to be sure. Bastions of free speech, from UC Berkeley to your own alma mater, Middlebury College, have found themselves in the very ironic position of thwarting free speech, have they not? And Harvard recently rescinded acceptance letters to students who shared hateful memes.
Gary: That’s right, and you know that a huge part of college is about the process of learning to learn, and to question, and if we lose the tolerance for differences of opinion, of listening to contrarian views, then the future becomes very bleak indeed. I don’t think there should be “shades” of free speech. It’s either free, or it’s not. We shouldn’t only listen to those who agree with our opinions. To do so means we condone judgment of others, and I think judgment leads to arrogance, and arrogance is the surest path to ignorance. Having vibrant, civil, public discourse is important to any thriving society, so we can’t afford to lose this.
Blake: I agree. I think we label people conveniently, and once we’ve done so it’s easier to dehumanize them and then marginalize them. I found it ironic that when Ice Cube was on “Real Time with Bill Maher” to discuss Bill’s use of a racial slur, no one took offense to Ice saying “sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker.” Here, a slur was invoked while discussing another slur. The more -isms and subgroups we create, the more divided we’ll become as a society. People are increasingly entrenched, insensitive, unapologetic, and I’m not witnessing much contrition on behalf of the offenders.
Gary: I’ve stopped watching the news because I think watching people chant has got relatively little intrinsic value in terms of learning or understanding, and that’s what it’s become. Particularly in Washington. Chanting.
Blake: I’m personally having a harder and harder time watching the news, regardless of the channel. It’s become gladiatorial spectacle and entertainment, not journalism. Zuckerberg let the genie out of the bottle, and for all its good, I’m concerned that his original algorithm (to determine attractiveness between two students) is what’s currently in play worldwide. Us vs. Them, and the debasing of shades of gray into simply black and white, broad-brushed categorizations. I don’t know when the sine wave kicks in, or how much more divisive our world can become, but I don’t have confidence the media will solve it. It’s not in their interest or job description to solve it.
Gary: If you look back through history to when have societies reached the tipping point, or when collective consciousness is moved in the other direction, unfortunately a lot of times it happens as a result of catastrophic events which are, obviously, reflective periods. They cause people to sit back and take stock. I’m hoping it’s positive leadership that emerges to lead us out of the desert, not more traumatic events that cause us to ponder our navels again.
Blake: Will we see this transition in our lifetime?
Gary: I honestly don't expect to see it in my lifetime, because these things take a lot of time, but I do think a number of thought leaders are laying trail markers down that perhaps tomorrow’s charismatic leaders will find. Someone will have to enter the vacuum and be able to catalyze and crystalize these ideas into sustainable, doable action.
When I worked in China, I implemented a program called “Power Up.” We had every leader identify his/her Top 10 most important values. One of mine was, “The Good Guys Win in the End.” Though we may be experiencing a fallow season in the U.S. or Corporate America right now, I have not lost faith. I think Lombardi said, “We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.” If I didn’t believe the good guys would win, I’d have a really hard time getting out of bed in the morning, but I decided a long time ago that collective consciousness can tip entire cultures and societies. If I can, through my writing, place one more grain of sand on the right side of the scale, I’m going to give it a try each and every day.
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