Interview: Brian Strobel, Best-selling Author

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Brian Strobel, best-selling author, talks about how to take a company from good to great

Brian Strobel has spent 30 years helping organizations push toward excellence. His education put him on track to become a physicist, but “life had other plans.” Throughout his career, he has “led large-scale military operations and change across large companies.” This experience has given him a stellar and “deserved reputation as a leading authority on change and helping organizations achieve Operational Excellence.”

Previously, Brian Strobel had a “decorated career as a field grade Marine Officer.” During his days in the military, he was able to “hone the mettle of what would become a foundational belief in servant leadership.” He was consistently selected for several military assignments that needed to “turn-around struggling units.” The pinnacle of his military service came when he was selected to serve as a “Congressional Fellow.”

After his military service, Brian Strobel entered the corporate world. He has “quickly earned a professional reputation as a change agent and enabler of excellence.” As a manager and leader, he has gained a wealth of experience across the spectrum, “from the communication, aerospace and defense, food service, healthcare, and retail sectors.” He has also become a senior executive, “serving in leadership roles within multi-billion-dollar companies.” While in that position, he has “achieved positive change through values-based leadership and a keen understanding of the systems involved.”

Brian Strobel has also written several books about leadership. These books include “Pursuing Excellence: A Values-Based, Systems Approach to Help Companies Become More Resilient” and “Leading Change from Within: A Road Map to Help Middle Managers Affect Lasting Change.”

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Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

Brian Strobel: I grew up dirt poor in Western Pennsylvania. I was the first member of my extended family to attend college. My initial academic pursuits trained me to be a physicist. But life had other plans. I joined the Marines after college and saw the world. After serving fifteen years in the Marines, I transitioned to the civilian world and corporate leadership roles. Then I experienced a life-changing event when I got to study under Dr. Ken Blanchard while pursuing a Master’s in Executive Leadership. Ken and the amazing program at the University of San Diego taught me the power of moving beyond the mind to lead from the heart.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Brian Strobel: I was an excellent procrastinator through college. This delivered positive results that reinforced the negative behavior. As my career progressed, and life became more complex, I continued to procrastinate, but didn’t always get positive results. This especially became true as I was balancing a career as a corporate executive, writer, and speaker. I learned the hard way that not taking the time to prepare for important events and deliver polished presentations was a mistake. I often wondered if I was continuing to bite off more than I could chew, or as my Grandmother used to tell me, I was burning the candle at both ends.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Brian Strobel: As I mentioned above, my early success was plagued with a false belief that it is fine to procrastinate. I was working 50–60 hours a week as a corporate executive and finishing the first draft of my second book when I was invited to give two talks. One was a TEDx talk and the other was a paid presentation to a large group of HR professionals. Something had to give — there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to meet every demand. Although I was able to complete almost all of the work, I failed to memorize my TEDx talk. I was thus forced to use note cards to get through the 14-minute presentation. It was not an ideal solution. My take-away from that situation has been to better manage my time, and when necessary, to know when to say “no” and respectfully decline additional tasks or opportunities.

Jerome KnyszewskI: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Brian Strobel: In order to achieve excellence, and lead a company from good to great, executives must fully embrace values-based leadership. And within values-based leadership, the three most important things are to lead with humility, authenticity, and transparency.

Humility is an attribute recognized in our most successful leaders. Research reveals that leaders who underrate themselves on leadership effectiveness are rated highest by direct reports. And leaders who overrate themselves are perceived by direct reports to be low in both self-awareness and effectiveness. This tells us something — and that something is about humility.

Here’s the interesting thing about humility. People lacking this trait, who have essentially no humility and couldn’t care less about being humble, possess a fundamental absence of leadership. They may even brag about their humility. This simply underscores they don’t get it. And the companies they lead will never become Great.

Near equal in importance to humility is the need for leaders to be authentic. Authenticity means presenting ourselves as we truly arecoming from a real place within. We are authentic when our actions and our words are congruent with our values and our beliefs. It means being who we are, not falsely portraying ourselves to be something we think we should be or being what others tell us we should be. A leader who is authentic approaches their work in a truthful and transparent manner. It sounds simple enough, but it’s another trait absent too often in our leaders.

Transparency, like authenticity and humility, is another characteristic that forms the essence of who a leader is, and how they view the world. A leader who approaches their work with transparency quickly gains the trust of subordinates and seniors alike. A transparent leader emphasizes openness and persuasion over control. For senior leaders, running the company with transparent behavior does more to build trust than any other action.

In addition to these three values-based traits, leaders must embrace accountability. Accountability can be likened to one of the “rinsing your cottage cheese factors” Jim Collins identifies as fanatical behavior present in all great companies. Accepting accountability for our actions is strictly a human act. Accepting accountability for our actions forms the essence of our integrity. A refusal to accept the link between our behavior and its consequences often ends up ruining an individual’s life. Collectively, denying accountability and consequences will destroy a company.

And finally, to transition companies from Good to Great, leaders must discard old beliefs and embrace new ways of thinking.

We live in a new world, with new rules that are being defined before us. The previous ways that people managed companies must change. Many of the old ways simply won’t work going forward, unless average or mediocre performance is the desired outcome. Examples of new ways of thinking include system thinking, design thinking, divergent thinking, and both/and thinking. These new ways of thinking will help leaders frame problems differently and allow them to achieve extraordinary results required by this new world.

Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Brian Strobel: Earlier I discussed the importance of values-based leadership being one of the most important criteria to lead a company to Great performance. A company cannot be a “purpose driven business” if it does not embrace values-based leadership. Well, I guess it could profess to be so, but it would be a façade.

I write about red herrings in the business world, companies professing to be something they are not with an intention to deceive. These actions can lead to temporary success, but they won’t sustain and will never allow a company to become Great. Today, purpose-driven businesses move beyond the old analogy of the triple bottom line. Its inherent that companies must focus as much on social and environmental concerns as they do on profit. If they do not, in our world as it has become, they will struggle to even be Good.

Companies are made up of people which means that leaders are in the people business. Millennials and Gen Z, who together make up the largest part of today’s businesses, represent the future. They think differently. They have a much higher concern for how their work connects to the environment and social world. If we aren’t connecting with them as their leaders, and as the foundation of our companies, we’ll never move towards becoming Great.

And to pick on the question a little bit, I don’t think this can be any sort of “angle.” I believe this needs to be part of the very fiber of the company. If not, it will be quickly exposed as a red herring.

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Brian Strobel: When we talk about conversion, what we’re really talking about is how do we move forward and close the deal by providing the customer our products or services. I believe there are three key requirements to improve the likelihood of this occurring, and they are all focused on understanding the why behind the products and services.

Most importantly, as Simon Sinek has helped many of us better understand, it’s important to know why a company does what it does. The why that Sinek speaks and writes about directly correlates to the company’s beliefs. A company that doesn’t clarify its beliefs and understand its why will struggle to optimize these conversions and will never achieve excellence.

Similarly, the stakeholders in the company, from the shareholders to key members in the marketspace to the employees, must also understand this why. If people don’t understand the why behind the company, and understand what the company believes in, then it will never achieve an optimized ability to covert inputs into outputs and deliver value to the customer.

The idea behind understanding the why is so important, yet may not be clear to everyone. Understanding the why means that we understand what someone believes. It ties directly to what people believe to be true. And when we want to change behavior, which in this case means improving the conversion rates, we don’t try to change the way people act. Instead, we must change the way they think. And we do this by first understanding what they believe to be true.

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Brian Strobel: In general, we don’t tend to do a very good job of understanding our customers and what they really think about us, our products and the services that we provide. The reason that many of us struggle here is a lack empathy with the customer and what they believe about our products and services.

With this as my starting position, I believe there are three ways we can begin to earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand.

The first method relates to how we manage change within our companies. While this may be a stretch for some people to think this way, I believe it’s important that we manage change with the customer in mind. Change that isn’t implemented to benefit the customer is likely change that is not required and very well may be implemented for the wrong reasons.

Regarding the second method, I’m a big proponent of incorporating elements of Design Thinking into our companies. Design thinking originated as an approach to designing products and services by focusing on customer perception, needs, and wants during the concept development phase. It’s a simple three-step process: discover, define, and develop. The methodology emphasizes empathy with the user. It departs from other methodologies by intentionally delaying problem definition until better understanding the customer perspective.

Within the context of pursuing excellence, I suggest combining these ideas into a new concept, referred to as Customer Assurance, to reconnect with our customer base. Implemented across an organization, Customer Assurance can become a galvanizing force to keep our focus on the customer.

Customer Assurance can move companies beyond a simple tally of satisfaction to a focus that empathizes with the customer. It seeks to understand customer needs and wants, and then take a leadership position to satisfy those needs and wants. Doing so will become a value discriminator the customer will notice. And it will differentiate excellent companies from those that choose to remain average.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Brian Strobel: Most of my online content can be found at brianstrobel.com or linkedin.com/in/pursuing-excellence.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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