Collaborate — The ability to learn and work from others and leverage their knowledge.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Bryan Gillette.
Bryan Gillette is the founder and Principal Consultant for Summiting Group, a leadership, and organizational development consulting firm. He coaches individuals and teams to aim higher, reach new peaks, and align around common objectives. He is the author of “EPIC Performance: Lessons from 100 Executives and Endurance Athletes on Reaching Your Peak”. Bryan is a former Human Resource executive, ultra-distance athlete, and world traveler.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
Personally — I am driven by big goals and adventures. Now that COVID is moving behind us, I am happy to be back traveling and experiencing different parts of the globe. My family and I did a humanitarian mission to Germany and Poland in 2022 to help with the Ukrainian war and we personally raised over $60,000 to support refugees, orphans, and those in medical need. With matching funds, we were able to get the equivalent of over $150,000 of medicine into Ukraine. We are heading to Alaska soon with hopes of seeing the Northern Lights in my neverending quest for an adventure. And, as a long-time ultra-endurance athlete, I’ve set an exercise goal to complete 20,001 situps. Why 20,001 you ask? The goal is to do my age in situps every day for a year in 2023. Easy goals are easy. Hard ones are rewarding.
Professionally — I just published a book after having interviewed 100 impressive leaders. Too many times I have heard people say, “I could never do [FILL IN THE BLANK]” and wanted to understand how high-performing executives and accomplished athletes avoided those words and then achieved extraordinary results. In the book, I share what I learned and a framework for how someone can replicate some of what many of these 100 do. The framework is called EPIC Performance which stands for:
Envision the dreams you have for your career, your company, and yourself.
Plan to make those dreams become reality by setting a path to achieve them.
Iterate your plan to work out the kinks and scale your accomplishments.
Collaborate with others to learn the successes and failures of others before you.
Perform to your plan and persevere to the finish line.
I find it rewarding to speak to different companies about how they can replicate these behaviors in themselves or their teams. I have also started teaching a graduate leadership course at California State University.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
I have been fortunate to work with many great leaders — some multiple times. And, I still keep in touch with several of them. One that comes to mind is my former EVP of Human Resources at a mid-sized, global technology company while I was in the middle of my career. The entire leadership team was exceptional from the CEO on down. By far the best-led company and one I refer to when coaching clients. He had a strong understanding of the business and knew people well. He understood how people were motivated, how to drive toward the desired behavior and results, and how to move both the people and the company in the same direction. While he was strong in his convictions and knew long-term where he wanted to take the organization, he was also good at listening and leveraging the strengths of his staff to best arrive at that vision.
He is now retired but I still talk to him every other month. What I appreciate is he taught me not only how to be a better leader but how to be a better individual.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes and continue to still make them. Most of the time I learn from those mistakes to reduce the error again.
I was promoted very early in my career and was managing over 250 people. Part of that early promotion was because I demonstrated I could get things done on time and within budget. I would often push a project through quickly worrying more about the task getting done versus the person. Early on I focused too much on the task and not enough on the people. Short-term this got results but impacted long-term results. Early on I focused too much on the task and not enough time on the people. I have learned to balance this out more as I grew. I still have opportunities.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved? What does it mean to be a leader now?
I need to think younger. I have been working for almost 35 years and have learned many ways to succeed. That is one of my greatest strengths but is also one of the areas that I need to not overuse or it will be my Achilles’ heel. The younger generation brings a lot to the table and I need to recognize that more for two reasons.
First, they can sometimes move more quickly and adapt to the changing technology faster than I can. Heck, I rely more on my kids to learn the technology than my peers. Think about this for a moment because when you are having a problem with your iPhone, who is your best source?
Second, they are the generation that is being led, and often whom I coach, so I have to understand what their motivators are. What makes them tick? Today’s generation is more concerned with global warming, humanitarian crisis, or worldwide challenges whereas my generation was concerned with making more money. I still believe that a business has to be concerned with making money and growing or it won’t exist. But, they can also be concerned about the earth as well. Or, it won’t exist. The two are not mutually exclusive.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
Surround yourself with a wide variety of people and information sources. Our social feeds curate information that supports our beliefs. This reinforces our views and minimizes our ability to see another side. The same thing happens as we build our networks. I’ve worked in groups where most people look like me, are educated like me, and have similar views as me. In some ways, this is great because discord is lowered. But, discord provides different views which often may provide better solutions. One exercise I do with some clients is to have them identify their mentors or people whom they rely on. Then look at how those people are different from themselves in these areas: Age, class, education, ethnicity, experience, gender, geography, marital status, politics, religion, or sexual preference. If there are differences between your network and you in these areas then you are getting a broader perspective allowing you to understand where someone may be coming from more easily. And, you can likely make better decisions.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
The job you had yesterday is very different than the new job you just took on. 60% of it could be different as now you are required to get things done through people versus you doing it yourself. Find a few trusted sources whom you can share problems or issues with and get their input. Share your challenges and listen to their ideas. Then once you have heard a different perspective, choose your course of action. It is important to surround yourself with those who have done the job so you can learn from their successes and their failures.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.
There are hundreds of traits effective leaders demonstrate. As a coach who is often brought in to help someone be a more effective leader, I often hear from their manager, “They could improve their ‘leadership’ capabilities.” In reality, that means very little to me because “leadership” is so broad. We have to break it down. These are five behaviors I write about in my book that successful leaders demonstrate.
- Envision — The ability to see and communicate what the future looks like that gets people excited about that vision. Example. I worked for the founder of a software company. The core of the software was to provide pharmaceutical companies with a way to manage all their FDA documentation. The Food and Drug Administration requires a tremendous amount of documentation for a drug to be approved for the market. Seemingly boring stuff. Our software managed this content. Some founders would have said we are developing a software program to manage documents but he always talked about how our goal was to cure cancer. While we weren’t dealing directly with the drugs, we were making it easier and faster for drug manufacturers to get approvals from the FDA and hopefully get cancer-curing drugs faster to market. The vision was to cure cancer.
- Plan — The ability to lay out a reasonable plan and reach that vision. Example. The level of detail in a plan varies quite a bit. It can be a high-level plan on the back of a napkin such as one of the founders I spoke to or a detailed project plan based on what one CEO of an engineering firm told me. However, a key element is at least getting started and not waiting too long in the planning stage. As my former English professor once said about writing an essay, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” That is a powerful statement for anything big. All the people I spoke to recognized that action is far better than inaction — when headed to the vision — and sometimes it is best to start moving forward. It is good to have a plan but you don’t have to wait until the plan is 100% baked to start. One person wanted to start her consulting practice and was hesitant to pull the trigger and quit her current job until everything was lined up. I encouraged her to start at least one thing in the next 72 hours, no matter how small, and move forward. She ordered the domain name for her company. And then, I encouraged her to do something else to move her down her path. Then repeat. Eventually, she quit her job and had the best year of her career with her new consulting company.
- Iterate — The ability to start small, build confidence and experiences, and learn. In some cases fail, learn from those failures and then try again, to improve toward your long-term vision. Example. A well-known CBS television reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area was telling me how she worked her way up to her role in one of the top markets in the United States. She had always envisioned reporting in a major news market but knew it would take time. Iterate is all about starting small and working your way up to bigger and bigger goals. She started in a local market for a TV station that served three mid-size cities. Then she was promoted into a larger market, and so on. Eventually landing herself in a major news market. After each newscast, she would pull the tape, watch it, evaluate herself, learn, and make changes for the next time. Leaders make mistakes. They then learn from those mistakes to make them better the next time.
- Collaborate — The ability to learn and work from others and leverage their knowledge. Example. Great leaders learn from those around them. One CHRO was preparing to move to a much larger role overseeing human resources in the United States to a global company with tens of thousands of employees. The level of complexity was tenfold but she explained how she found several mentors who she could rely on. She had to admit what she didn’t know and be open to input from other people. It really required her to leave her ego aside and ask questions her mentor likely thought was very basic.
- Perform — The ability to get it done and persevere through challenging times. Example. This is often the hardest part because it requires you to keep going when the sh*t is hitting the fan. Or, in some cases, pivot if the idea is too early. The leaders I spoke to had confidence in their plan and their ability but that confidence didn’t come overnight. When you learn to swim, you don’t jump into the deep end of a pool the first time or you’d sink to the bottom. You start in the shallow end and build up your confidence. You then work your way to deeper waters until eventually, you are in the ocean. The ability to swim in the shallow end gives you the confidence to go to the deeper end. As one leader said to me, “Confidence comes from incremental wins.”
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
From my early 20s, I can remember thinking, “If I were to die today, would I have lived the life and had the experiences that someone my age should have had?” So, I didn’t have to travel the world by the time I was 20 but I sure would have had to by the time I turned 50. I am 54 and have traveled around the world twice. Once for 7 months and once for 12 months with my wife and two boys. I also look for opportunities to push myself each year. This is how the 20,001 sit-up challenge came to be. And lastly, in 2022, my wife and I got the idea to go to take our boys to Poland and support the Ukrainian refugee population. Within two hours of our initial discussion we asked ourselves, “In 10 years, will we regret not doing this?” The answer came quickly as we knew we would regret not going. We were able to get over $150,000 of medicine into Ukraine and also help set up a refugee center and orphanage in Poland.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
With my book, my consulting, and my volunteer work, I am hopeful I get people to think a little bit bigger today than they might have thought yesterday. Too many people say, “I can’t…” when likely they could.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.