Author Frank O’Connell: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
First, leaders need a strategic plan that addresses their company’s path, that it recognizes all necessary changes, is owned by management, and communicated throughout the organization. The plan should be highly data-based starting with an internal analysis of the business, plus a thorough study of the external environment. This includes current and expected competition and overall industry trends. In today’s environment, identifying and speculating on trends is critical. I insisted on a review of the strategic plan annually. But in today’s environment, this needs to be done more frequently. Even some big companies are making major shifts within a year.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Frank O’Connell.
Frank O’Connell, author of JUMP FIRST, THINK FAST is known for his unconventional approach for high performance through his strategic thinking, brand building, breakthrough marketing, and new product ideas. His accomplishments include serving as president of Reebok Brands, president of HBO Video, CEO of Indian Motorcycle, and chairman and CEO of Gibson Greetings, Inc. He spent the first fourteen years of his career developing well-known brands at Arnold Bakery, Mattel, Carnation Company, and Hunt Wesson foods, among other brands in the baking and natural foods industry.
O’Connell was a senior partner with The Parthenon Group, a top strategic consulting company for seven years. He also spent sixteen years on the board of TreeHouse Foods Inc., and he is an investor and board member at Schylling, Inc., a toy company and is cofounder of Tuckerman Capital. He has also served on numerous Cornell University boards where he earned his B.S. in Economics and an M.B.A.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up as a farm boy in a small town of 2,000 in Upstate New York. My father died when I was two-and-a-half and my mother stayed on the farm to provide a stable environment for me and my older brother. During our childhood, we drove tractors, sold eggs, and won 4H prizes at state fairs. I learned the value of hard work from my mother, who told us that we could surpass everyone by outworking them. I was married and a father at age 17, but education was a major focus for us, and I was able to go to Cornell, earning my B.S. and MBA in 5 years.
I landed my first job at Carnation Company in Los Angeles where I learned best practices of a major consumer products company. My curiosity and drive pushed me on to other well-known companies and products, as well as it pushed me out of my marriage. I managed brands at Hunt-Wesson and became a general manager at Oroweat Baking Company after I remarried. Later became head of sales and marketing at Mattel Electronics. The entrepreneurial bug was biting hard, so I jumped into the unknown and started Fox Video Games as CEO. After that, I became President of HBO Video, followed by a move to Boston as President of Reebok Brands. I managed the team that developed the Pump sneaker. The Pump was introduced in 1989 at $150 and generated $1B in its first year, propelling Reebok ahead of Nike.
Next was SkyBox Trading Cards which had lost $80 million the previous year. But we managed a turnaround and spun the company public. Gibson Greetings was the next company to be rescued and eventually sold to a competitor, American Greetings. Then, my favorite position, although not as successful, was as CEO of the re-emergence of Indian Motorcycles.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There have been a lot of them but here is one. I was a newly minted assistant product manager at Carnation Company. I had a great boss who took risks by throwing me into situations. One day he said, “Frank, this is your big chance. I want you to give Mr. Olsen (Everett Olsen, President of Carnation) a presentation on our progress. I was excited to be giving a presentation to the President. Olsen was a strait-laced, non-expressive numbers guy. Unfortunately, when I walked into his big office, I was my usual, smiley self. Mr. Olsen was dead pan, smoking a cigarette with his half glasses part way down his nose. I started my presentation and all of a sudden, he wadded up my presentation notes and threw them at me, saying, “Come back when your numbers are right,” just as his glasses slide off his nose and he casually caught them. I was completely embarrassed. Damn, I never had a wrong number in a presentation again. As I progressed at Carnation and continued to make presentations to the President, I knew every number and so did he.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Hands down, it’s Robert P. Kirby, a Harvard Business School graduate who started as a grain trader at Continental Grain Company, one of the largest grain trading companies in the world. When Continental Grain decided to start buying bakeries, Bob was named president of the baking division and began by purchasing Oroweat Bakeries. I had been heading marketing at a startup, but my objective was to get into general management. Bob was a strong numbers and financial guy. I told him that I would teach him and the organization marketing, if he would give me a shot at general management.
After a year as Director of Marketing, Bob took a big risk on me when the general manager in Seattle left the company. Bob promoted me and said, “Frank don’t get creative, the employees will teach you how to become a general manager.” He also mentioned that there was an old head baker there whom I might want to terminate. Instead, I formed a great relationship with the baker who knew everything about fermentation. Fast forward, we developed Bran’nola, the first high-fiber bread that tasted good. At its peak, it generated $500M a year in sales.
I worked for Bob for seven years. I learned a lot about general management, finance, acquisitions, and managing by the numbers. Eventually, I was on the board of one of Bob’s companies and he was on the board at Gibson Greetings when I was CEO. Our families became friends, and we have stayed close throughout our lives.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
While I could discuss the purpose of the brands and companies I have run or started, I think it might be more informative to talk about what happens to a company that can’t find its purpose. Reebok has struggled throughout its existence to find its unique purpose, or in marketing terms, positioning. What does the brand stand for, what place does it occupy in the consumer’s mind, and what benefit does it provide?
Reebok had overtaken Nike as the number one athletic brand in the mid 80’s but it was beginning to slide when I was contacted about the company. In 1989 when I was hired as President of Reebok Brands, I conducted consumer research to identify what Reebok stood for in the consumer’s mind. Nike stood for athletic performance, but Reebok was all over the map. Because Reebok lacked a strategic plan, it was whipped sawed by the latest product line development tactic, not a long-term purpose. After many years, its stated mission now is “To be the best fitness brand in the world.” As you may know, Reebok was sold first to Adidas, and recently to a retail group for a fraction of its original value.
This is what happens when you have a company that doesn’t have a purpose that is consistent and sustainable
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. First, leaders need a strategic plan that addresses their company’s path, that it recognizes all necessary changes, is owned by management, and communicated throughout the organization. The plan should be highly data-based starting with an internal analysis of the business, plus a thorough study of the external environment. This includes current and expected competition and overall industry trends. In today’s environment, identifying and speculating on trends is critical. I insisted on a review of the strategic plan annually. But in today’s environment, this needs to be done more frequently. Even some big companies are making major shifts within a year.
2. Next, the right talent is crucial. Leaders must get the right people to execute the plan, and remove people whose skills don’t fit or who don’t believe in the plan. They must assess the current team for fit. There are a number of ways to do this, but I encourage hiring an outside consulting group that has made thousands of observations and can provide good normative benchmark data.
3. Then there’s accountability. Leaders must build a performance-oriented organization where the plan’s goals are translated to those individuals who are held accountable. The plan should have time-measured metrics. These should be communicated throughout the organization and must be included in everyone’s performance appraisal. The key pillars of the plan including, Mission, Values and Purpose, should be published for all employees to see. If you ask any employee “What is the plan?”, they should be able to articulate it.
4. Agility is next. Leaders need to be risk-takers with a keen sense of the environment, and what is and is not working in the company. Leaders need to be willing to make quick changes. Growth requires risk taking.
It sounds like a cliché, but everything is changing rapidly from technology to consumers to channels of distribution. Trends have shortened cycles. Leaders can’t wait to decide whether it is a fad or a trend. Long-term stability seems fleeting. Spotting and surfing the waves seems more appropriate. You can’t wait for that perfect wave. You must take chances knowing you might crash on the beach.
5. And finally, culture is key. Leaders must instill the right culture starting at the top. Frequently a cultural shift is required to get on a winning path. It has been said that “culture trumps strategy.” I agree that getting a turnaround or growth strategy pinned down is much easier than getting the culture shifted. Doing turnarounds often requires a major culture shift.
There is no substitute for being highly visible during this period and not just with management. I walked the production floor and all office and warehouse areas every day, so people could see me and talk to me. I had lunch with the employees in the cafeteria if there was one. My reason for addressing all employees instead of letting mangers deliver my message was to avoid miscommunication and interpretation, plus it let the employees address me directly if they felt the need to get out some of their expected anger.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When I went to SkyBox Trading Cards, I hired a consulting firm whose analysis showed that the company had actually lost $80M the previous year. To salvage the cash on hand, we needed to move fast to avoid crash landing and to give us some runway for a new take off. First, we did an analysis to determine where to stop the bleeding. We moved from our expensive headquarters building to an old tobacco warehouse. Next, we cut the work force from 375 people to 75.
I was brutally honest with the employees whom we needed to let go. I allowed them to see the financials, making it very clear that we couldn’t survive with the current cost structure. I showed as much compassion as I could muster, and I tried to make the cuts once with a sharp knife. I did this with the help of a long-time business associate, who is a compassionate HR person, plus I personally counseled people to find nearby companies that were hiring.
Next, we turned our attention to the people who were staying who are often forgotten. This became a very tight knit group that took on added responsibility. We turned the company around.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not sure I understand the term “giving up.” I would like to rephrase the question. Do you know when to get out of a bad situation where you can’t win? Hell yes. This occurs when there are critical elements necessary for success that you can’t control. Or when you have tried all the tricks you know, and they are not working.
The best example in my career is what happened at Gibson Greetings, which was being squeezed out by the two biggest competitors. For example, we did everything possible to create contemporary greeting cards for millennials with relevant young messages, recognizing that we were in the relationship business. In the end, however, with bigger war chests, Hallmark and American Greetings constantly outbid Gibson to buy shelf space in stores, regardless of what the consumer wanted or what would sell through. This was a banking business, not a consumer products business. It was time to bail and sell the company ultimately to American Greetings, to try and salvage some value for shareholders.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I honestly cannot think of a single book that has much impact on me, and I have many books on my shelf. But, I have enjoyed Daniel Pink’s books, Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and A Whole New Mind — Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future. I also like Scott Anthony’s The Little Black Book of Innovation.
Every day I read multiple publications and articles that are relevant to business or what is going on in the world. I am particularly interested in innovation and brain research. I tend to focus on spotting trends and less on history. I am also a big consumer of data-based research articles on a wide range of subjects, especially from the Harvard Business Review. And because of my passion for mentoring, I read a considerable amount about millennials and the changing work environment. Much of the world is changing too fast to be captured in a book.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leaders must have a plan with a path forward that everyone in the organization understands. They must be highly visible, self-confident, positive, and show they care about their employees by listening. They should smile, have fun, be fun, and share the perspective that business is not life threatening.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
A strategic plan with a clear path forward communicated throughout the organization translated into individual accountability.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that
Not moving fast enough. Making marginal moves versus bold strategic shifts. Not getting current facts on the market environment and forecasting future trends upon which to build a plan. Not communicating often and deep enough — you need to over communicate and involve your organization in the solution.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Have fun, be fun.” I have always had a smile and have the ability to keep the business in perspective. I routinely say, “Business is not life threatening.” People want to be around positive, fun people. I have used humor to deflate conflict and get through difficult times. This can be particularly helpful in intense board and management meetings
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!