Key Points From This Episode:
[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builders podcast. Helping middle-market professionals connect, grow, and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.
[00:00:20] AD: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Branch Out podcast. I’m your host, Alex Drost. Today’s guest is Thomas Bohn, President and CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth or ACG. Which is the premier global community for middle-market M&A dealmakers and business leaders focused in driving growth. Tom shares his thoughts on disruptive leadership and driving change in uncertain environments to take organizations to places they never imagined they could go. I hope you all enjoy.
[00:00:48] ANNOUNCER: Connect and grow your network. We are on LinkedIn. Search for Connection Builders.
[00:00:56] AD: Tom, welcome to the Branch Out podcast. Excited for our conversation here and excited to have you joining us.
[00:01:01] TB: Alex, thanks so much for having me. I’ve been watching your podcast. You do an amazing job, so I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
[00:01:07] AD: Awesome. Well, thank you. Talking to our listeners for a minute. Tom and I over the last handful of weeks have had a few conversations. One of the key themes that has come out is Tom’s view of disruptive leadership, and kind of the mindset of leveraging the power of disruptive leadership. For our discussion today, Tom, what I love to just start with is, can you share one. What is your thought of what is disruptive leadership? What does it mean to you? Then we’ll peel into that a little bit about the effectiveness, and how to apply, and how that really helped you be successful in your world today.
[00:01:42] TB: Yeah. Thank you so much, Alex. This whole concept of disruptive leadership or disruptive strategy, it certainly didn’t originate with me. There are some great people who talked about it, and some great books. In fact, Stetson College now in DeLand, Florida actually has a disruptive leadership certificate program, which I found fascinating. I haven’t done it, but I think it’s pretty interesting that this type of thing is starting to become more and more prevalent in conversations. What I mean by disruptive leadership at least from my perspective is that, when you are looking to really change the strategic trajectory of an organization, it’s no longer enough, in my opinion, I think from a lot of people’s perspectives to just kind of do the basic types of things from a strategic planning.
You really need to look at how are you going to utilize the organization to disrupt the normal channels of communication, disrupt the normal channel, and the sales channels you have. How are you going to take the organization from where it currently is to a place that no one imagined it can be. Oftentimes, that process is incredibly disruptive. I mean, I remember for the last organization I was with, we went from 11 to 26 million in revenue in five years. Part of that was reimagining a place for the group that no one thought it could be. There were some really powerful media players within the veterinary industry. We had determined early on that we had all the components to be a strong media player if we’re able to execute.
We disrupted the whole thing. It became the number one dominant media group in veterinary medicine in a year and a half, through mergers, through acquisitions, through all these different things that’s developing in a fabulous team. But nobody had that thought of, this is what that group could be. I think one of the things that we’re having now, a conversation with ACG is certainly around our governance and our process. Right now, we are 59 separate chapters, and we’re now going through a process where three chapters just voted to merge into the national organization. Tomorrow we’re about to do that, creating five really strong regions, perhaps six regions here shortly. No one thought that could have happened a year ago. Here we are about to make that happen, and really changing the trajectory of what ACG is. Preserving that local flavor, that local culture but nationalizing the benefits of membership, so that it remains the same and it is consistent through our entire network.
[00:04:18] AD: I like what you said there, that this really is coming down to taking an organization to a place where no one imagined it could be. I think that’s a really powerful way to look at this, right? If we really peel it back, disruptive leadership, what we’re really saying or disruptive strategy. regardless of the word that we’re using there. Disruption is really the key word, right? We’re here saying that this is shaking things up, this is taking it in a new direction. To your point, the reality is, if everyone is sitting around the table could easily imagine where we are going, then we are probably on that track and it still takes quality leadership and somebody driving the organization forward, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shaking everything up. But in this case, when we talk about disruptive leadership, we’re really saying, “Well! Hey, we’re sitting here. We’ve all thought we could go to X, but what if we could actually go to Y? What if we could take it to this place that no one ever really had put thought into? And hey, if we think we can do it, the only way we’re going to be successful at doing that is we’re going to have to be disruptive in nature. We’re going to have to rethink what we’re doing.” Is that a fair way to summarize it?
[00:05:24] TB: That’s spot on and I think there’s a couple of components from a personal leadership perspective that needs to be in place for it to be successful. Because so much of what we do when we’re doing it, we’re moving quickly, we’re changing things, we’re turning a ship and people are now going, “Wait! This isn’t what we originally — because that’s what we knew.” It’s changing that much. Not in a bad way, and wow, but we need to catch up. I think the three key components from a cultural perspective needs to be an abundance of transparency. You need to be constantly telegraphing where you’re going. And anyone who doesn’t know where I’m going, they’re not listening because I talk about it to the point where my wife jokes. I’ve heard the same pitch so many times on a Zoom call that she could tell it now in her meetings, in her business or with her friends. I think it takes an incredible amount of honesty, by honesty, I mean — what I love from that book, Good To Great which was which was a compassionate, an autopsy compassion.
Essentially where you’re able to look at things and take the emotion out of it, whether that’s people’s performance or where they’re headed, my own performance, the boards, others to say, “Look, this may not of regretted my own performance the boards others to say look this may not be the best fit and this is not personal, this is simply in the best interest of the membership and here’s where we’re going.” Constantly being honest even when that’s difficult and approaching that head on.
Then I think the third one is really being willing ,available and able to connect with people on a personal level, about their families, about their anxiety. Because all of the bits of cheese, if you will, are moving on them. I’m moving cheese on a daily basis, they’re starting to move cheese and making sure that they feel anchored to something bigger than just themselves and that they’re protected, their family’s protected, that we're going through a lot of unknown but we’re in this together as a family. And when you’ve got now a 35-person organization growing very quickly will be 50 in short order. That is for the most part working virtually. You’ve got to constantly have that conversation about, “I’m with you. Do you hear me that I’m with you? Do you know what I’m saying? Please tell me you understand that you’re good, that you’re safe.” And hearing them echo back, “Yes, I get it” as opposed to just saying, “Mike, I think you’re great. You’re doing a good job.”
But to really make sure that they’re understanding that, and I think a little bit apart that’s out there as well is giving them — those three things really give them a playing field to make mistakes, and to make them in a way, I love that whole thing about failing up, right? To me, that’s all about failing up, because I know that we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to mess things up. Whether it’s in this integration with these other chapters or a roll out of new products, but intent is everything. If as long as we have that frame of mind that is, we’re there for the members, we’re there for each other, we’re going to make it right. It may take some time. It may take a couple of times. But the intent is positive. I think that’s where everyone gets to a really good place.
[00:08:25] AD: What I think is really true about what you’re saying here is, at the end of the day, going back to the start of this conversation, disruption. We’re taking an organization to a place that is never gone before that we could never have imagined. Ultimately, that means a lot of change, a lot of change, right? Again, if we were already on the course, there’s always change and business inevitably has changed. But if we’re going to a place we could never imagine, we’re going to have extreme levels of change. Change is hard for everyone no matter who you are, right? No one likes change. I think human nature is wired to want to very much have consistency. and predictability, and not having unknowns and changes brings unknowns. The point you brought up, the abundance of transparency and consistency.
What I hear loud and clear there is, you have to communicate what is the plan, where are we going. Being transparent around that, being honest about what you’re saying and has a lot to do with the transparency, the consistency around that, true to your word. Then most importantly, being available to connect with your team, and with others around you, and others that are affected by the change. The connection component as I’m hearing you describe it, is really around alleviating anxiety. Again, change is going to cause anxiety. There’s no way around it. That the anxiety by nature is the thought of the unknown, the worry of the unknown. When we’re in these times of drastic change and going to a place that we never could have imagined going to, that ultimately means that anxiety levels will inevitably be high. But when you’re taking that time to talk to people, to make sure they feel protected, to make sure their thoughts are being heard. And I like how you said that you’re not just saying, “Hey, you’re doing a good job,” but you’re really having a conversation having that dialogue.
What all of that does, and I love that you said that you’re giving them a playing field to make sure that they feel comfortable making mistakes. Because when we’re going into uncharted territory, people are going to make mistakes. That’s inevitable. That’s part of the world. That’s part of business. The more comfortable you are admitting that, knowing that, and setting people up for success when they do make a mistake, helping them. “Okay. You’ve made a mistake, but now let’s rebound.” That could even be your own mistakes alone. Everyone’s going to have mistakes that are made when you’re in these uncharted territories. When we’re in a safe zone and a safe environment, it makes it much easier to not only make the mistake, which is helping move forward many times, right? We’re taking risks, we’re moving in the right direction. But we’re also making it much easier to raise our hands and say, “Hey! I had made a mistake. This isn’t working.” Right? Because this is a safe environment, which is a critical element behind all of this.
[00:11:04] TB: Well, I think it’s also a matter of not taking the element of being afraid to make a mistake. But also, making clear that we’re not going to have all the answers. I think two of the things that make organizations fail or not even fail, because I don’t even think most organizations know they’re failing at any given day. I think what they fail to recognize is that they’re not growing, they’re not getting ahead, they’re not changing in a way that’s going to allow them to be competitive or dominant. Which to think, look, you have to. There are businesses, entire industries that are opening and closing within a decade now. The fact that this is not just a speech that you make about, you must stay with the times and change. That’s the reality of what we’re facing now, and I think this pandemic accelerated that mindset even more.
But it’s also about saying to them, “Look, we’re not —” and being transparent to these chapters and others.” We’re not going to have all the answers. If you want all the answers, then you’re looking for a crystal ball that doesn’t exist. A lot of times, people use two things as an excuse to not grow and do not really reach their heights, and that is fear of failure and then fear of not having all the answers. You’ll always hear, “Well, we need more detail. We need more detail.” No, you really don’t need more detail. What you really need is to believe that this is the right path forward. Not believing is the path forward is very, very different than not having enough detail. Either you’re disagreeing in concept or you are landlocked and myopic to think that you need to cut, dot every I and cross every T. That’s never going to happen.
[00:12:39] AD: It’s a really good point you make there, that at the end of the day, decision-making by nature has the possibility of being wrong. At the end of the day and any time you’re driving an organization forward or even driving your own personal life, your personal growth, your career, any way to look at this. When you are driving things forward, it is all about decision-making at the end of the day. The execution obviously is the important part of it, but you’re making decisions about what to do, and you don’t have a crystal ball that tells you what the future looks like. No one does. It’d be great if we did, but we don’t. At the end of the day, you have to make an informed, educated decision and you have to be able to move forward from it. I think there’s always the right of people to question, “Okay. Why is the decision? What are we doing? What is the outcome of this? I do believe it’s incumbent on the leader to communicate the why to make sure that those around them understand what the underlying mission is.
But to your point, we cannot get caught up and not make a decision, simply because there’s not enough detail. I think what’s so often forgotten is that not making a decision is making a decision.
[00:13:48] TB: Every time.
[00:13:49] AD: In failure to act — absolutely, right? I’m curious and this is a little bit of a segue around the world right now, the constant change you brought up, in industries that come and go in 10 years and totally evolved. You are the leader of a large membership-based organization that relied primarily on live in-person events as the lifeblood of what they did. You have joined the organization very shortly before COVID hits, so you’ve had a heck of a ride coming into this. Can you just share some of your general thoughts around, you very first hand have seen an industry that has gotten turned on its head in a matter of a year now. But frankly, in a matter of a week last year, the whole thing was turned on its head. What are some of your experiences around that?
[00:14:38] TB: Great thought. I think a lot of that has to do with, how do we look at the organization that we lead? For a lot of folks, it was you and the organization that has live events. I pushed back on that and my whole take is that we are a connecting and media-based company that is in middle market deal making. That could involve live events, and in fact, it does. But that also involves online connectivity, that involves media, that involves publications, that involves research, that involves magazines, that involves all those different things that encompass the world that they live in, and that does not have a geographic boundary to where we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
We’re only limited by the fact that we say, “Oh! We are just about live events.” Well, I didn’t have the baggage of being with the organization for all those different years. At least I had that ability to go, “Well. Okay, great. We can’t do live events, but guess what we can do. We can put together a very simple off-the-shelf tech stack that allows us to meet, and communicate, and do deals, and secure rooms, and other types of things that mimic that aspect. By the way, we’re going to keep investing in that because we know this is not the end of it.” We will always utilize now virtual platforms as a before, or an after, or a continuing conversation point to a live event. It doesn’t go away, so it gives us an impetus to invest, and invest heavily.
We’re going to be that single source of information in middle market magazines and in its offshoot newsletters, and in growth TV that we’ve developed and grown significantly. We’re going to create a certification program so that people in this environment and others can learn online, and train when they’re in their younger or early, middle part of their career to say, “How do I distinguish myself from other people who are trying to be movers and shakers in the M&A word?” We are constantly looking at all those different aspects to say, “How are we ubiquitous to the conversations that are being had in middle-market deal making?” I think that's a very, very different conversation than how do we put on a live event. Because at the end of the day, I can’t control that, but I could control all these other aspects of it that can be impactful and beneficial to our members.
Now, look, that’s not to say that we haven’t had challenges. We’ve lost membership because the feeling was, “Oh! I can’t do live events. I can’t do anything.” I think that’s short sided. But to those who have stayed with us for a large part, and in a strong way, they’ve gotten more out of this past year than I think they frankly would have gotten out of it just in the mode of local live event type thing. Because now, the world is unlimited. It used to be, “Well, this is just my chapter.” Then there were those folks who would go from chapter, to chapter and their platform is a little bigger. Well now, we’ve gone from about 25% of our members being multi-chapter engaged to over 50%. Now, it’s like, “Wow! I can do deals. I’m in Miami and I can do deals in California, and I don’t have to go anywhere, and I can get the same meaning out of it as I did at a cocktail reception.
I wasn’t as daunted by that as I was, the cultural aspects of changing an organization that for years looked at something like, well, this is chapters, this is national, and the two never worked together. That’s a huge one. Then one that said, “We’re only about live events.” Those are the biggest aspects to me that we had to focus on, is really changing that focus to be. We are anything our members, our customers need us to be and we’re going to do it quickly and better than anyone else out there. We have the benefit of being able to have things be there longer, and not having to worry about “profit.” We’ll drive it longer to keep out competition, and then figure out the upside later. I think that’s a model that’s worked really well and is a for-profit digital side of things. How long did it take for some of the bigger players of all to really see a profit in some of the things that they did?
That’s okay, and I think we need to get used to that, because some of these takes time to figure out and how do you monetize it. I think we’ve made some big investments in areas that are going to take two or three years to see the return. But I think it will be much better off.
[00:19:03] AD: Tom, what really stood out to me you said there, at the end of the day, the growth or the growth inhibitor in many cases is a way of thinking. As an organization, the way of thinking historically and not pointing to any individuals, but just saying conceptually as a broad organization, the way of thinking was, ACG was a live events organization in many cases. I think that if you talk to, if you survey 100 people that are familiar with the organization, that’s what they would have told you on March 1st of last year. Fast forward to today, post-COVID, the entire world was obviously turning its head. If you were an organization that did nothing but live events, well, you’ve had a really rough year.
To your point where I think a lot of the value that you have brought and the interesting view is that you didn’t come in with as you said, that baggage, that previous thought pattern. Because we all have thought patterns, we all have ideologies, we all have perspectives and prisms that we see the world through. That’s how we process and we engage with our environment. But at the end of the day, you didn’t come in, having any of those preconceived notions. You knew what the organization was, but you didn’t have five, ten years of previous history thinking a certain way, and then having to say, “Oh wow! This is different. How do I rethink this?”
Now, that doesn’t mean that the plans you had or thought processes you had weren’t challenged. Everyone experiences that, but it’s a really good point that — even at shows, think about it traditionally, especially in the public company world. There’s generally a turnover at the leadership every handful of years. That tenure changes depending on the organization's performance, but there is a reason to bring new people in, to have new sites come in. Because at the end of the day, you’re able to have a fresh way of thinking, a fresh way of approaching that. It sounds like that was a big advantage for you coming into this, and navigating through what’s been a challenging 12 months for everyone.
[00:20:58] TB: I remember vividly in the interview, with the hiring committee, and they said, they introduced the organizations. They said, “We are an event deal making organization.” I said, “Well, look, I hate to start our conversation off by disagreeing with you, but I actually think you are looking at your organization incorrectly. You’re a membership organization that has a large amount of live events. I think if you don’t get back to focusing on the member and serving them across multiple modalities, we’re going to fail. That involves online, that involves in print, that involves on social media.” It’s actually the beginning of a great conversation, because right there, we start to turn it away from, “We’re live events.” I tell you, a lot of the chapter execs, especially the ones that have been doing this for a long time, that’s their whole entire mindset of, “All we do is live events.”
That is not a recipe for long-term success or a networking member-based organization. We have to be more than that, because as we’ve seen, that can ebb and flow, and needs can change, and technology is certainly changing, and we need to meet them where they’re at. That is not necessarily at the Hilton.
[00:22:15] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a connection builders podcast.
[00:22:25] AD: Tom, let me ask you this. This is talking as a leader. I’m going to ask the framed in your world today, but I think for our listeners, this is applicable for anyone in a leadership position. You are bringing disruptive change, your disruptive strategy, you’re reframing and rethinking the organization. As you just point out there, there’s many individuals that work within the ACG network, specifically in the local chapter levels that have a different way of thinking, because of how it’s been done for years. I’m not saying that the way of thinking is right or wrong, but just simply that if you have a different prism, that have experienced it differently, you were coming in, executing on a grand change, a very large disruptive change to where the organization is going. Again. to take it to a place that no one ever thought possible.
Going back to change, anxiety, everything that comes out of there, inevitably, that starts [inaudible 00:23:18]. I have to assume that you’ve heard comments around that or there has undoubtedly been angst. Because again, it’s changed. It changes that. How does a leader best address that? There’s no simple answer. I am not expecting you to have, “Here’s the three-step process to make sure that that never happens.” But how do you as a leader step back and say, “Okay. I know what I’m doing is going to cause a lot of angst. I know that the change I’m bringing here is going to cause people to really have anxiety. But I believe it’s the right thing to do, I have a reason for what I’m trying to do. I have to communicate that”? How do you deal with that? How do you manage that as that’s coming at you?
[00:23:56] TB: Yeah. That’s a lot of that. I mean, it’s interesting, when I first started the conversations around One ACG and the mergers, there were some hot words that would come out from people who are like, “Hell, no! It’s not going to happen.” Eventually, it became a unanimous vote supporting it. I think the key part for me at least has been that willingness, and that ability to have the conversation and communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime with no subjects off limit, and walking them through that. I think, hopefully, people start to see after a while that this is built-in logic, this is built-in a strong plan, this is built on experience. The intent is for all to rise, the chapters to rise, the members to rise, the national to rise.
I think after a while, people start to see the sincerity and the real core belief of that. They want to know that you’re really committed, you really, really believe this. I think as much time as I spend doing this. I mean, having to have accomplished some of the things we’ve accomplished without being in person, there’s a lot of these types of conversation and that consistency of message, that consistency of commitment. There’s also been a lot of show us, and having to take on some things to show that we had the capability to follow through and get them done. We were perfectly willing to do that as well, and to get by, and to get support.
But I think like anything else, it’s that ultimately that understanding that you’re going to be criticized. I always joke, one of my things that everyone laughs about is, I love you naysayers. That literally gets me going. I want you to bet against me. Please do, because I’m hoping and that’s always worked well. But I also have that willingness to — I want every single time to be an anonymous vote. It doesn’t have to be. All I need is 50 plus 1, but 50 plus 1 means that we haven’t gotten all of the stakeholders to agree, and to see the vision. And so far, even in the toughest circumstances, we’ve gotten to that unanimous vote. That’s not always going to be the case, but that’s important to me because it says, okay. I’ve listened to everyone, I’ve addressed their needs, I’ve made those tough calls. I’ve said, “Hey! How do we need to get you there? What’s holding you up from not seeing where we’re going. I think that’s been really a strong component to where we are today.
[00:26:29] AD: It’s important here, your point of you’re going to be criticized. Every leader is going to be in a position to be criticized. Because at the end of the day, not everyone’s always going to agree through decisions. The purpose of any leader is to make the decision drive forward. I like that you said striving for having consensus, right? I very much believe in consensus forward. If you can get the group on the same page, whatever the group you’re leading is, it makes everything a lot easier. That doesn’t mean 100% consensus. That doesn’t mean everyone around the table is going to say, “Yes.” But I also find that many times, and I think again, it’s human nature, we like to agree with each other. It’s hard to find someone who really wants to sit in the corner and say, “I’m against all of you” and generally not a good team player at that point.
[00:27:15] TB: Against everything, right?
[00:27:15] AD: Yeah, exactly, most of the time. But that said, you will inevitably start a place where there’s going to be some people that aren’t in agreement with it. The whole purpose of leadership at the core is to bring the group to consensus. And what I want to be really clear on is that doesn’t mean that if I’m the leader and I’m trying to drive towards consensus, and let’s just say, I start that vote where answer one is 51%, answer two is 49%. Maybe I think that answer two is the right way to go, but at the end of day, we end up at answer one. It doesn’t mean that the answer that I brought in is the right answer. What’s important is that, when we get to that final decision-making point, it’s not 49 to 51. It’s 85 to 50 or maybe 100, maybe 99, whatever it might look like, right?
[00:28:04] TB: But I think it’s also not being — consensus is important, but conflict is okay.
[00:28:08] AD: Yes. It’s a great way to say it.
[00:28:10] TB: I think people [inaudible 00:28:13] this out. I’m not unwilling to have the conflict. I’m not unwilling to have tough conversations, and I’m not afraid to say, “Hey! Look, man. I completely disagree with what you’re saying.” It doesn’t mean we have to be personally antagonistic towards one another, and that’s where my line is. I always say, “How do you succeed working with me is just don’t be an asshole” and I think everything else usually kind of falls in place. To me, it’s always, if you’re willing to have a conversation, if you’re willing to debate and discuss, I think once that pops over into, it becomes emotional, or it becomes personal. That’s when it’s detrimental and then there’s no good side to it. But I believe in what we’re doing, I know our board believes in what we’re doing and I’m willing to fight for that.
[00:28:58] AD: Well, consensus is important, but conflict is okay. I like that a lot.
[00:29:04] TB: Frankly, it’s necessary sometimes.
[00:29:07] AD: Yeah. I think it’s Pat Lencioni that talks about agreeing to disagreeing being one of the worst things you can do as a team. When you all sit around and say, “Well, we’ll just agree to disagree.” Well, what you’re really saying is that you’re just not willing to engage in a conflict, but you have to, to get to an answer. It doesn’t mean that at the end of the day, that everyone is going to agree with what the final answer is, but there should be conflict, dialogue, debate, and a real, open conversation. Not a personal attack, nothing on the personal front, but purely logical, taking the emotions out of the conversation dialogues that allows people to discuss. Why aren’t you okay with this? What is the challenge? As that dialogue goes on and this is obviously applicable in your specific role, but I think it goes for any of us sitting in a leadership position. That that conflict, working your way through that, fundamentally, all that allows you to do is, it either lets you evolve your own thoughts, because you hear things in perspectives that maybe you didn’t fully appreciate or understand before, or it allows you to share your own thoughts and perspective so that the person in the other side of the table sees where you’re coming from.
And as long as you’re coming from a good place, and as long as you’re making sound rational decisions, and you have a real reason behind what you’re doing, your job as a leader is to move things forward right back to the decision making.
[00:30:29] TB: I think you nailed it when you said, if as long as you’re coming from a good place and I say that all the time, that’s critical to this whole thing, because people can see through that. People see through when it is a power player or something else. If they can see the reason and the thoughtfulness — I told you, I said earlier, one of the things is, you’re not going to have all the answers. When we first rolled out One ACG, it was designed to be a framework. It was not designed to have all the answers. Some people say, “Well, we need more detail.” Really? We need more detail? How about we build the detail together and you’ll get to a comfortable place. Frankly, that’s what made it work, because they felt the ownership and the connection to put the framework beyond kind of thought points to say, “Here’s how it’s going to work in terms of operating.” That was a big distinguisher between success and failure.
[00:31:23] AD: It comes down to trust. If you have trust, if you can build that trust and trust is something that takes time to build, and also breaks very easily. But as long as you consistently work towards building that trust, and that trust is in place, I think that’s the best way to move a group forward.
Tom, I want to take us down just a slightly different path for a few minutes here. As any of our listeners know, if you’ve kept up on our recent episodes, we have spent a little bit of time talking around the importance of diversity. Tom, you and I have talked a little bit about this before. You are the leader of an organization that certainly lacks diversity at its core, and we all know that, and it’s not pointing fingers. It’s just saying, “Hey! These are the simple truth, this is a simple reality of where we are.” We are in a time where we understand, diversity is very important to all organization’s success and to all of our success in general. I would love just to get some of your general thoughts around the importance of diversity in an organization and what a leader can do when faced with leading an organization that maybe lacks diversity today, but is looking for ways to affect that change in the long run.
[00:32:37] TB: It’s interesting, because when I first came on board, not only did I have the pandemic to deal with, but Black Lives Matter and the protest around the country and some of the major fault lines. Within society, we’re starting to really come apart and in an organization. Then I had this whole challenge of the fact that we weren’t really coordinated in an effort to respond at a national level. I had eight different chapters coming to us with eight different statements on Black Lives Matter, and they contradicted one another. Oftentimes, they were not very good, frankly and it made us look like we had split personalities, like we were civil, like we’re coming from all different angles on this whole thing, depending on where you were.
I immediately got with our Office of the Chair, which is our immediate past, current and future chairman of the board and I said, “Look, we cannot tackle an issue like this on a one-off. It cannot be based on let’s address every symptom as it drips out. This needs to be like anything else we do. It needs to be coordinated, it needs to be strategic, it needs to be well-funded, it needs to be supported, and we need to have buy-in. This can’t be lipstick on a pig. I immediately got, “Well, how can we do this if a couple of us are white males?” I said, “Look, just because we’re white males. I’m a 48-year-old white male. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice in something that is a particular problem in this country. What it means is I’m not going to see all angles of it, because I know the background I come from and who I am and what I am. But I very much felt that we needed to all be part of the equation of meeting it head on.”
We’re able to pull it together very, very quickly a number of passionate people, champions for this and we’re both on the board and outside the board who said, “Yes! Yesterday, please. Bu let’s not just do this ready, fire, aim. Let’s do it in a way that we contemplate the outcomes, and then we can hold ourselves accountable. I said every time, my board chair, Marty Okner, who is very, very passionate about this, I said, “Marty, here’s the deal. It needs to be something that we can measure, and it needs to be something that’s funded. Without those two things, it’s going to be just another document that we create and never do anything with.” He was all in and supported it as well as all the other folks.
What we started to see happen very quickly was, not only a real commitment, and a need, and a desire but a recognition and an understanding that my God, it’s not these big things, it’s the little things we’re not doing even to move this needle forward, and to become more diverse, and more inclusive and all those types of things are important. We started down this journey, Alex and you’re a part of it, and you’ve been passionate about it and thank you so much for that. Where we created a kind of an overarching statement and plan, and now, we’re starting to look at how we can make the most impact and hold ourselves accountable. I’m happy to share that.
We agreed to become part of a group called parity.org. Parity is an organization. I’m absolutely in love with this organization, because they essentially have you sign to a commitment. To me it’s the lowest bar you can possibly get to. If we can’t all agree that this is something we should do, then that’s a bigger issue. But it basically says, for every senior level position that you’re hiring for, you will include one person of the opposite sex, which are limited in. It could be male, it could be female. It just depends on the organization, and one person of color. That they are serious, actively considered for that. That alone they have found was enough to completely change the dynamics in any organization.
The other part that you work with them is building dashboards for your organization to track and measure a lot of this. What’s great about the dashboards is that they’re not dashboards that judge. They’re not here to tell you you’re failing, they’re not here to tell you anything other than you have work to do if you really want to be an organization that is representative of the world we live in. We have found and we have seen the research out there that that always often mostly equates to a more successful, profitable organization. I think that’s an easy sell for the people in the middle market deal making world. I think all those elements together and with really talented engaged people, for the first time, we’re starting to say, “We could do more, we could do better and here’s some practical ways to make it happen.”
[00:37:20] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading, middle-market professionals.
[00:37:29] AD: Tom, your point that I really enjoy there is, you are a middle-aged, white male that said, “Hey! I can actually affect this too.” This isn’t something that just because I — and you’ve brought up, you have awareness that you are going to have a different perspective, that you have lived a different life, and you aren’t going to fully understand it. You and I will never be able to fully appreciate this. But at the end of the day, we can stand up, have a voice and look for ways to bring change. At the end of the day, we don’t know all the answers, we have to look around, you have to invite people around you that have the experience, that have the perspective, seek out the resources to help make that truly come and bring change. But you’re able to stand and say, “Hey! This has nothing to do with me, really knowing where to even start,” but just saying, “I know I can make a change. I know I can drive this forward.”
I like the approach of making sure that we have this fund, and making sure that we can measure this, and making sure that we really know this is going to work. This is something that we know if we’re moving in the right direction, so this isn’t just putting lip service on. This isn’t just making a statement to try to appeal to the current times, and what people are thinking. But really saying, “No, this is a problem.” We need to fix this. This is something that we want to be actively involved in and it’s the little steps at a time that will move the organization for. I think for any of her listeners, it doesn’t matter what your organization is. As Tom described, this is a great way to start. This is just step back and say, “Hey! How do we start this? How can we make it measurable? How do we make sure that there’s resources behind it to make sure that we’re moving this forward?
From there, you’re going to figure the answers out. It’s going to take time and effort, and painful is maybe the right word, maybe not the right word. It’s going to take effort and it’s going to put you in uncomfortable conversations from time to time. There’s going to be some deep thinking that has to go in behind it. But anyone can make a start, anyone can start making that change. And as you described, once that starts and once that progress starts moving forward, obviously, no one knows what the answer is, no one can see what the success is today. It will take years to truly see long-term success. But I think we can all agree and as you mentioned, I am sitting on the committee and aware of some of the internal happenings with ACG, and progress is being made. Where we’re today, 12 months ago, we’re a lot farther today than we were 12 months ago, and truly finding a way to create real diversity across the organization. It’s not solved, and it’s not going to be solved in 12 more months. It’s going to take time. There’s no easy way.
[00:39:55] TB: I think you hit the nail on the head. Being a middle-aged white male doesn’t disqualify me from being part of the solution. In fact, I think there is perhaps an onus on you and me, and I think I’m older than you, but on us to be part of the conversation. But to realize and understand that our life situations are very, very different than the average person of color may experience on any given day. I talked with you about this once before. We have a person in our life who has become part of our family for the past eight years or so, and essentially, adopted but not legally, but lived with us. He’s at Harvard right now and he’s discovered the whole world of private equity, and everything else, and all those crazy things and he’s just an amazing kid.
But when he first kind of moved in with us in Florida and was there all the time, it was in our neighborhood, which was predominantly white. There was this question of, “Who is this? Where is he at?” To the point where my wife had to send an email to the neighborhood to say, “Hey! We just want to let you know, this gentleman, this kid is going to be staying with us permanently. He’s going to be playing.” As kids do, they play in backyards, and there’s all types of things happening. At the time, if you remember, Alex, there was all that craziness about guns, which still continues. Not a judgment on any of that, but the fact that you can easily have a very simple situation, run a mock.
She sent that email out to the neighborhood, and the conversation that started around that was incredible. But we had one of our neighbors who is a Black family at the end of the street saw us in the supermarket and they said, “I just want to thank you for sending that out. I’m sad that we still have to send it out, but I appreciate the fact that you know that what he deals with every day is very different from what your son who has red hair and blue eyes deals with every day.” I can tell you in the course of the years he’s been in our lives, in our neighborhood of College Park in Orlando, Fred who is black was pulled over by the cops or stopped by the police when was walking in the center of town for no reason more than five times. Our son who is constantly doing the same types of things was never, never had that happened to.
I am fully versed in the fact that the world that I grew up and the world of my biological son grew up in is incredibly different. I think that’s where we need to attack a lot of this, which is understanding that, I get you think that you wake up, and everything is around you, and everything that you deal with is the same, it’s not. We’re all at a different place and trying to understand what that looks like I think is helpful to get into a better place.
[00:42:41] AD: I couldn’t agree more with you. Tom, last time we spoke, you had a book that you recommended to me. Can you remind me of the title of that?
[00:42:49] TB: Yeah. It’s Your Black Friend’s Advice or — I have to look it up now. It’s an incredible book, but I’ll think of it. But it’s one of those books that basically gives you kind of a deeper understanding of — it’s called The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. It really is interesting, because it really looks at a number of the things we take for granted, I would take for granted certainly. I would never even think about it. It really opens the kind of your eyes to the fact that there are all different levels of discrimination, and segregation, changes in approach. We focus on the whole policing thing, which I think having a lot of very close police friends know that they are amazing people. Then there are those who make really bad decisions, or act in dishonorable ways.
But that’s only a tiny piece of what folks deal with, whether it’s now this whole thing about calling it the Asian flu as related to COVID or we just live in a word where it’s so easy to get caught up in that our lives is — it is for everyone, it’s not. It comes not only from a place of race, or religion, but it comes from a place of all socioeconomic issues that are vastly different than what you and I as middle-market dealmakers may face at any time.
[00:44:17] AD: You couldn’t be more right on that. What I would say for all of our listeners, at the end of the day, this comes down to a function of educating yourself, of spending time reading books, getting out in the community, talking to other people and becoming aware of it because it’s very easy to live in an isolated world. It’s very easy. We all live in our own worlds. We only know the world through our own eyes, and through our own experiences, and there’s no other way to it other than, you only know what you know, you don’t know what you don’t know.
At the end of the day, I think it’s incumbent on us, especially those of us that are Caucasian and listen, if you are a white American, I hope it’s easy to the acknowledge that you are very fortunate. Being born Caucasian on this piece of land is, it’s winning the genetic lottery code in many ways.
[00:45:01] TB: Without a doubt.
[00:45:01] AD: And acknowledging that, and accepting that and saying, “Okay. I have that. I’m grateful for that. It’s now incumbent on me to educate myself. It’s incumbent for me to open my perspective and learn as much as I can. Because at the end of the day, I think most of these challenges arise out of what I would call an empathy gap, an inability to have empathy towards someone else, and really understand what they’re going through, and rather having kind of a prejudged mindset about, “Well, they did this” or “They did that.” Instead of really saying, “Well, what’s going on here?” What are they living with? What challenges? What challenges has Fred had to live with because of his skin color that your son has it?” When you have that, when you take the time to educate yourself around it, it opens up your mind.
Again, there’s no solution. It’s not, “Okay. I read two books and I solved it. But having the mindset that it’s on me to continually educate myself and open my mind up to it, it’s the only way we can move forward on it.
[00:45:58] TB: I actually think it also gets back to a lot of insecurity, whether that’s economic insecurity or personal insecurities that people have through their lives. That’s in everybody, and I think that we look at a lot of these situations as a zero-sum game, where one kid doing well, and going to Harvard, and is black is somehow at a lost to a white kid who may be equally as smart or something. I think when we continue to frame everything in our lives by one person’s gain is my setback. That is really to me the beginning part of the problem where we struggle so much. Whereas, we all should be thinking, everyone in this community should be so lucky to have her shot to go to Harvard regardless of what their socioeconomic background or any school for that matter, that it gives them an advantage. But we so often, and I see this so much. It becomes a matter of that deep-rooted insecurity that comes from all types of stuff that people have built up over time.
[00:47:08] AD: No way around it, and we all have insecurities. Every single one of us has our own insecurity in our own ways, right? It comes down to, you have to address those, you have to look inward, you have to put in the work and it’s not easy. There is no way around it. If it was easy, we wouldn’t have it. The hard work is doing the introspective work, really stepping back and asking yourself what is causing me to think or act this way. What is my underlying belief system that is making my thoughts this way and then addressing it. That takes a lot of maturity, it takes a lot of time.
But again, talking to the listeners of our show here, I know that our listeners, our general audience are those of you that have means and resources and are in a position that you’re very fortunate in life. Use that good fortune to find time to invest in yourself, to do that work so that you can gain that perspective, so that you can find a way to go out there, and really affect change, really find ways to make the world around you a better place. I don’t think there’s any better way to approach it than that.
[00:48:06] TB: Yeah. Look, as much as I’ve dealt with all different types of people in all different types of backgrounds, I really believe most people are not coming from a bad place in the heart. They simply don't know, or they haven’t been made aware, or they simply haven’t taken the time to understand, or they’re facing some personal insecurity that is enabling them or disabling them from really understanding the world that they live in. That’s our job, to make that better and to really give everyone an opportunity to compete fairly.
[00:48:39] AD: What a great way to wrap down the show here, Tom. We’ve covered a lot. I’m going to give a quick overview here. Let me know if I miss anything, but just kind of starting top to bottom. We talked in disruptive leadership, and really changing directions, and looking and saying. “Okay. If I’m going to come in and I want to have a disruptive strategy or be a disruptive leader, I’m looking to take an organization, take my team to places that we never thought possible, we never could have imagined.” You broke it down to saying, to be successful at that, to really make sure that works, you have to have three pillars. You have to have an abundance of transparency and consistency behind your messaging and what you’re saying to people. That really comes down to having honesty, and being true to your word, and in being inconsistent in what you’re sharing.
Then more important than any of that is really being available to connect and talk to people. This is part of that, your messaging, and how you’re getting out there, but really making sure that those around you, those affected by this change will understand what you’re trying to accomplish and they’ll feel protected, and that you can help address some of the anxiety that’s going to come. Because again, if you are a disruptive leader, if you have a disruptive strategy that you are executing on, you are going to bring change and change will inevitably bring anxiety, it will bring some thought, someone unknown from people. It’s your job to communicate your way through that and make sure that people are starting to understand that. It doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers, it doesn’t mean you’ll know everything, it doesn’t mean everyone’s always going to agree with everything you’re saying. But it is your job to try your best to communicate what you are doing and why you are doing it to move that forward.
Something I thought was really great. There are two excuses not to grow or reach your potential, and that’s usually a fear of failure or lack of detail. Someone is saying, “Well, I need more details.” But as we said, at the end of the day, you have to make decisions, you have to make choices and you have to move forward. Yes, there is a need to get details, and to understand what you can but at some point, you have to move forward. You can’t let that always hold you back by saying, “I need to know more. Fear of failure is something. I know we all have our own fears and failures, something no one is looking forward to, but we have to move forward on things. We can’t just stand still. I believe that’s failure on its own.
Then when we look at your kind of long-term success and how do you make all this happen, you have to step back and say, “Okay. I’m going to commit to what I’m doing. I’m going to communicate what I’m doing, and I’ve built this on sound logic, and I have a true reason for what I’m doing. I understand that there’s going to be critics to do what I say, and I’m going to have people, they’re going to question what I’m doing. And I’m going to try my best to move towards consensus, because consensus is important.” But under all of that, conflict is okay. It’s okay to have conflict, and especially conflict that is not personal in nature, that is very much on the professional front. You take the emotion out of it, have the logical conflict. If it’s rooted in trust, that’s how you’re going to move decisions.
Again, underlying all of our discussion around disruptive leadership, it really is about bringing change and it’s going to affect people in meaningful ways. On the disruptive leadership side, Tom, is there anything I miss around that that you want to chime in on.
[00:51:56] TB: Look, first of all, that was much more articulate than anything I said. If I did say that, then it sounds pretty good, but yeah, thank you.
[00:52:07] AD: No. I’m just reading the notes I took from it. I think it’s a good way to look at it. And listen, on the diversity front, I’m not going to go through detailed notes for listeners under the diversity front. I’m just going to give a couple of thoughts off the top of my head. Tom, as we talked about, this really comes down to being successful in diversity is one, acknowledging if you are someone who is privileged and acknowledging that and saying, “Okay. I know that there is a need for change. I can affect change and I’m going to do that by looking to one, increase my own awareness and understanding of the challenges that others face. But also, looking for ways to affect change in my organization.” To your point around ACG, it’s making sure that it’s funded, making sure there are metrics that you can track then. I think that’s very important.
Again, regardless of what your organization, your team is, and that’s going to look different for everyone. But it’s stepping up and saying, “Hey! I can do this. I can affect change. I can bring a difference behind this.” The only way that’s going to happen is one, you have to be willing to do it, but you also have to put in the hard work to educate yourself and understand the different perspectives that others have.
For this week, for our call to action is actually going to be to read a book. The book is the one that Tom referenced here; it is called The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph. We’ll make sure that’s linked in the show notes. I really encourage our listeners here. In the next week, find time to pick up the book. It’s a pretty short book. If memory serves, it is — I am actually on-the-fly here looking at my phone. It’s five hours and nine minutes on audible. I measure everything in audible time.
[00:53:37] TB: It’s good stuff. It’s on Amazon’s best-seller stuff so it’s a good stuff, and I think it’s eye-opening, and certainly gives perspective that you may not normally have.
[00:53:47] AD: Absolutely. At the end of the day, you have to gain that perspective. I’m a strong believer in continuously reading to learn. To our listeners, find some time to do that in the next week here. I think it will be eye-opening. If you get a chance to reach out to us, let us know what you think. Tom, for our listeners, how can they get in touch with you?
[00:54:06] TB: Anyone can reach out to me at [email protected] or please connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m always looking forward to having great conversations on leadership, on disruptive leadership, on DEI, just on being a better human being. I look forward to continuing this. Alex, it’s always amazing to talk to you. I can do this every day.
[00:54:28] AD: Awesome. Well, Tom, I appreciate your time, I appreciate your contribution and look forward to talking again soon.
[00:54:33] TB: Thanks so much, man. Take care.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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