Podcast

Episode: 13 |
Mike Feiner:
High Performance Leadership:
Episode
13

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

michael-feiner-pepsico--new-york-ny

Mike Feiner

High Performance Leadership

Show Notes

Our guest today is Mike Feiner, who has been an influential figure in my own life since I took his class High Performance Leadership at Columbia Business School.

Mike is now on his fourth career.

He was the Worldwide Chief People Officer at Pepsi – so the head of HR and the top advisor on all people matters to the CEO.

Here is a factoid: in the last three years, according to The New CEO Report by Feigen Advisors, 81 individuals have ascended to the CEO role. in the Fortune 250.  Of those 81, eight of the CEOs had worked previously at Pepsi, several of them while Mike was the head of HR.  Something special was clearly going on.

After Pepsi, Mike developed and taught one of the most popular courses ever at Columbia Business School.

While he loved teaching, after ten years he wanted a new challenge and took the role of Senior Managing Director at Irving Place Capital where he Lead firm’s efforts in guiding portfolio company management teams build, grow & develop their leaders & managers.

And now Mike is an independent professional, serving as a consultant to CEOs and senior leaders.

Mike is also the author of the bestselling The Feiner Points of Leadership: The 50 Basic Laws that will make people want to perform better for you. I’ve given out copies of this book dozens of times – it is the most practical book on what leadership is that I’ve ever read.

In our wide ranging conversation, we talk about how to apply these basic laws of leadership as an independent professional

We talk about the Law of Intimacy, the Law of Feedback, the Law of Professional Commitment, the Law of the Emperor’s Wardrobe, and more.

Mike’s been a lifelong runner, running nearly every day for over 40 years, and we also talk about his suggestion that business professionals need to think of themselves as Professional Athletes. We’re in a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to think about personal fitness, broadly conceived – exercise, diet, sleep, mindfulness all factor into our long term success as much, if not more than our knowledge of valuation methodologies or the latest digital marketing techniques.

You can read more about Mike’s work on his website, feinerconsulting.com

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Hey there, podcast listeners, welcome to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. I’m your host, Will Bachman.

Mike Feiner: They stopped me and said what would we talk about for four or five hours? I said, I just want to find out about you.

Will Bachman: Our guest today is Mike Feiner, who has been an influential figure in my own life, since I took his class High Performance Leadership at Columbia Business School. Mike is now on his fourth amazing career, he was the worldwide chief people officer at Pepsi. So he was the head of HR and the top adviser on All People Matters, to the CEO.

Now, here’s a factoid for you. In the last three years, according to the new CEO report by Feigen Advisors, 81 individuals have ascended to the CEO role in the Fortune 250, 81. Of those 81, eight of those CEOs had previously worked at Pepsi, several of them while Mike was the head of HR. Something special was clearly going on. By the way, you can find that report, the new CEO report, at the newceoreport.com. It’s a pretty cool report.

After Pepsi, Mike developed and taught one of the most popular courses ever at Columbia Business School. And while he loved teaching, after 10 years, he wanted a new challenge, and he took the role of senior managing director at Irving Place Capital, leading private equity firm, where he led the firm’s efforts in guiding portfolio company management teams to build, grow and develop their leaders and managers. And now, Mike is an independent professional, serving as a consultant to CEOs and senior leaders.

Mike’s also the author of the best-selling The Feiner Points of Leadership. The 50 basic laws that will make people want to perform better for you. Now I love this book, I’ve read it like multiple times and I’ve given out dozens of copies of this book to friends and clients and other consultants. It’s one of the most practical books on what leadership is that I’ve ever read and I highly recommend it.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about how to apply these basic laws of leadership to our lives as independent professionals. We talk about the law of intimacy, the law of feedback, the law of professional commitment, the law of the emperor’s wardrobe and many more.

Mike’s been a lifelong runner, running nearly every day for over 40 years, and we also talk about his suggestion that business professionals need to think of themselves as professional athletes. We’re in a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to think about personal fitness, broadly conceived, exercise, diet, sleep, mindfulness, all factor into our long-term success as much if not more than our knowledge of valuation methodologies or the latest digital marketing techniques.

You can read more about Mike’s work on his website, feinerconsulting.com and definitely check out his book, The Feiner Points of Leadership. Our conversation inspired me and I hope you find something valuable as well.

Mike, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show, you’ve been such an important influence on my life and it’s really a thrill to be speaking with you today.

Mike Feiner: You were one if not the best student I ever had at Columbia Business School, and I don’t say that to all the girls. So it’s as much a pleasure and an honor for me as it seems to be for you. I’m glad to be on the show.

Will Bachman: That’s incredibly kind of you to say. Mike, I wanted to start with one fact which is in a lot of sense pretty disappointing about the state of America, but also kind of amazing for some work that you’ve done. You’ve had a series of careers, you were chief administrative officer at Pepsi, you were one of the most popular professors ever at Columbia Business School, then you went on to a leading role at a private equity firm and a very thriving, independent professional practice yourself.

At Pepsi, the factoid is the Feigen Advisors just came out with a new CEO report and they’ve been tracking all the new CEOs in the Fortune 250, and over the last three years, there’s been 81 new CEOs in the Fortune 250. And out of those 81, six of them were women, which is a pretty sad state about gender equality in the U.S. Eight of those Fortune 250 were alumni of PepsiCo, where you were the head of HR for a number of years.

And I wanted to ask you, that is an amazing record for Pepsi and for a lot of the work that you did, what were some of the things that you think were unique about the people policies you had in place at Pepsi that generated so many successful leaders?

Mike Feiner: I really have to reference a guy who was the president of PepsiCo for many years, his name was Andy Pearson, he died about three years ago. But Andy was a former McKinsey consultant hired by the then chairman, Don Kendall, to run the operating businesses, a collection of Frito Lay and Pepsi and in those days, Wilson Sporting Goods and North American Airlines. Andy Pearson was division president when he joined.

I’m a consultant, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time deciding what the Pepsi can should look like, in terms of design or what a Frito bag should contain, in terms of its weight. I’m going to focus on two things. I’m going to focus on the quality of the strategy and the quality of the leadership. And that mantra, that focus created a platform around which certainly many HR organizations within PepsiCo, but particularly the one at Pepsi, had the franchise and had the license to build a world-class organization at every single level.

And you reference the disappointing numbers about women in very senior leadership jobs, specifically, you reference about CEOs. We all have biases, everybody on this planet has biases, but the fact is that with that mantra that Andy Pearson created, the bias for creating an academy company and a world class company superseded every other bias. 

So if you were passionate about muscle building and top grading your organization and you saw a great talent that happened to be female, it didn’t matter so long as that was the best talent you saw for a particular role or a particular job. And that sort of cascaded through the organization, which is why in the ’80s and the ’90s when I was there, PepsiCo was viewed as quote, an academy company. And it takes enormous discipline to muscle build at every single level.

I think the issue that many companies get into is to focus on the C-Suite or the top couple of levels of executives and to look to build world-class talent. I think what separated PepsiCo, I think what we did was to focus on building world-class talent at every single level, down to the plants, down to the sales warehouses, down to the factories. And I think that kind of discipline doesn’t often take place in many companies. It stops at the first couple of levels, which frankly usually represents 1% of the total employee head count of an organization.

Will Bachman: That was very powerful, so you would really work down even down into middle management at cultivating the future leaders and coaching them and giving them opportunities to develop?

Mike Feiner: We ran talent reviews, we had a fancy name for it, I think human resource planning reviews, but they were essentially talent reviews at every level of the organization. And every senior manager would have his or her direct reports present on the talent and the capabilities of every individual within his or her sphere of responsibility. 

And it got to the point where ultimately, those reviews were rolled up to myself and the CEO to whom I reported and those reviews were rigorous. And we would challenge, you really think he’s a superior performer, do you really think that she’s promotable? So these weren’t dog-and-pony presentations.

So that’s what I mean about discipline and process and system and focus and rigor and that’s what’s required to build a world-class organization of both men and women, when there’s an enormous premium on being able to demonstrate that you have talent of whatever gender it represents.

Will Bachman: So a lot of the lessons that you learned at Pepsi, you incorporated in your book and I’ll mention title here, it’s The Feiner Points of Leadership, the fifty basic laws that will make people want to perform better for you. And this is one of my favorite books on leadership or I got to say my favorite book on leadership.

What I really like about your book is that it doesn’t talk the way some leadership books do about kind of leadership in general, but you really break it down to very specific behaviors that are extremely tangible. Like don’t treat your boss as an old duffer, establish a career covenant with your boss, the law of building a cathedral around establish a mission. Some little cleverly named laws and very kind of discreet and memorable ones, that are about specific behaviors.

And I wanted to ask you about, the book is, I think, written and positioned more for someone who’s in a traditional corporate organization or government or some kind of hierarchy. Could you talk a little bit about how some of the laws can translate to the independent professional and how an independent professional still needs to think of himself or herself as a leader? How would you translate some of those laws to the world of independent professionals?

Mike Feiner: That’s a great question, well, you’re right, I wrote this book based on my experience in corporate life for over 25 years and many of the laws were predicated on mistakes I made, that hopefully would be do-overs if I had applied the laws that I reference in the book.

But for example, there’s a law in the book about the law of intimacy and that is to lead people effectively, you really have to know your people, you really have to know them. And I don’t mean just the names of their spouse or the names of their kids or the names of their pets, you really have to know who they are and what they are and how to motivate them. 

I used to tell people this in traditional corporate organizations they’d say, well, you don’t understand, I treat everybody the same. And I only said, well, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard, everybody’s different. So you need to treat people equally, but not similarly. 

I think the same goes for clients. I think very often it’s very important to understand clearly what the client’s issues are, that’s for sure, what the business problem is, but at the same time, I think you have to understand who is that client, and what’s the best way to communicate with that client? And what’s the right script to use so that he or she is going to hear what you’re saying and without being offended when you’re trying to point out some problems or some issues in his or her organization? So I think a law of intimacy is, for example, just as important with a client as it is with a direct report. 

So as an example, there are lots of laws in the book that I think many of them are applicable to consulting situations, and very often, I find in my own consulting practice, that the diagnosis is the easier part of the issue. The more tricky part is trying to communicate it in a way so that the client doesn’t hear it as criticism, the client doesn’t get defensive, the client understands this is not a personal failing on his or her part. 

So I think that’s the tricky part of consulting. I think some situations are more difficult to diagnose than others and some solutions may be more difficult to implement than others, but I think trying to figure out how best to communicate with a specific client will differ from one to the other.

Will Bachman: Any tips on how to build intimacy in a client situation?

Mike Feiner: There’s a law in the book, one of them is the law of professional commitment. I think it’s very important for the client to understand you are genuinely and personally, not just professionally, but personally committed to helping that client solve that problem. You are personally, as well as professionally committed for coming up with a solution or a change effort that’s going to make that CEO or that C-Suite executive more effective, and his team or her team more effective.

I think all consultants, whether you’re part of a practice or a small practice or even a larger practice, often come in with a protocol and I think the protocol sometimes conveys to a client that it’s boilerplate and this is the way I’ll be told to would be able to solve my problem. I think first and foremost, the client needs to understand that the consultant is really personally committed, really personally engaged, because he or she really cares about the client and his or her success.

Will Bachman: I haven’t told you this story, but chapter four of your book is leading bosses, never ever, ever treat your boss like a bumbling old fool. And I took her class and later after I graduated, I was a young associate on a project and we were in a situation where the three vice presidents and our client were kind of going in different directions a little bit, or each off on their own agenda to some degree. And the team started calling them the three-headed monster. The partners on the team were using that language as well, and I sort of hesitate even to share this story because I don’t want to be kind of tooting my own horn here, but after taking your course, that just felt wrong to me. If we were going to use that language in the team room, we weren’t going to be able to serve the client effectively. 

And so I might not have had the courage to speak up if I hadn’t taken your course, but I just spoke to the partner kind of quietly, I said, like we should really stop using that language, because it’s not productive. Plus, if the client heard us, they probably won’t be too happy. But I think from that point I’ve tried to always recognize that like the client has a whole host of stuff going on that we don’t see as consultants and they have a whole bunch of pressures on them that we’re not aware. So that was a real valuable learning for me, learning from some of your mistakes that you share in the book.

Mike Feiner: There’s no perfect boss and there are times when we work for knuckleheads, that’s just part of the narrative of working in organizational life. It’s also the narrative of consultants. Some clients are easier than others and more accepting than others and more fun to work with than others and more fun to advise than others. It doesn’t matter, there will be clients, there have been in every consultant’s life who are just the client from hell. It’s part of the territory of being a consultant. 

The fact is, it doesn’t matter how difficult he or she is, it doesn’t matter how abrasive he or she is. The fact is you’re getting paid to provide help and support to that client and their organization. And you owe it to that client to try to figure out how best to convey the information that you’ve collected, how best to communicate what’s required to implement your recommended solutions. It doesn’t matter whether you love this client or not, that’s irrelevant. So you can never treat a boss like a bumbling fool ever, ever, and you can never treat a client like a fool.

Will Bachman: I think one of the most important laws of the 50 laws for independent professionals is number five, the law of the emperor’s wardrobe, where sometimes it can be challenging for a subordinate to tell a boss that he or she is naked. And it’s not easy as a consultant because it could result in your contract not being renewed and it’s not necessarily pleasant to hear. But if anyone can provide sort of a neutral, outside, professional, independent opinion, that’s kind of what we’re being paid to do.

Do you have any tips or advice on how you can maintain your integrity and tell tough news to a client, be the only person who’s willing to tell the emperor that he or she is wearing no clothes?

Mike Feiner: First of all, it takes intellectual courage. We ought to start there. If getting the next assignment from this client is more important than how you feel when you look in the mirror in the morning, then you’re not going to tell the client what the client needs to hear. So first and foremost, it takes intellectual courage. Secondly, that doesn’t mean you just blurt out that the client is mismanaging his organization or she’s doing a horrible job dealing with the strategic issues in the firm.

The fact is, you have to have a plan A, plan B and a Plan C. And by plan A, B, and C, different scripts that you think are going to potentially be the best way to communicate what the client needs to hear. No one wants bad news and no one wants to be told bad stuff about their leadership or their agenda or their priorities, nobody does. And it’s up to the client to figure out one, how best to communicate it, how best to position it so that it’s conveyed in a way so that the client understands this is in his or her best interest. And I’ve often used phrases like, listen, this is as difficult for me to communicate as it is for you to probably hear it, but I’m doing it because you’re paying me a fee, and for that fee, I owe you the truth and I think frankly, you expect that.

And those sorts of phrases often can soften the criticism, if it may be perceived like that, but I think those kinds of phrases can be helpful if you’re going to give what the client might perceive as bad news. I also think if you’ve established up until that point, earlier in the assignment, that you really are personally as well as professionally committed to the client and the issues that the clients are trying to solve, then I think you’ve created a kind of context and a kind of relationship, so that when you say, listen, I owe you the truth and I’m sure you expect me to tell you the truth, even though it’s not going to be easy to hear, it’s received in the spirit with which it’s meant.

Will Bachman: David Fields talks about, when he suggests in a context discussion, of even before you start an assignment, asking questions not so much only about the project and what it means for the business, but also what it means for your human client, the executive, personally. If this is successful, what will it mean for you personally? Or if we don’t succeed with this, what does it mean for you personally? To try to  open up room for some vulnerability and kind of the personal impact of it.

Do you have any additional thoughts around how to build that kind of a rapport or  be vulnerable yourself with your client?

Mike Feiner: First of all, I agree with David, I do think … I have referenced several times already this morning that establishing a personal kind of relationship, demonstrating personal commitment, personal allegiance, as well as your professional commitment to doing a good job is critical. 

I often tell the client a little bit about me and my background and some of the personal issues that I’ve faced in dealing with issues similar to the one that I may be addressing with a particular client. Without making it an autobiography, because clients are interested in their problems and having somebody solve their problems, or advise how to solve their problems. Often early on in the conversation, I try to talk about that reminds me of something that happened to me earlier in my career, where I wasn’t sure what the best way to handle that was. I once worked with somebody at Pepsi where they were dealing with a similar issue, and frankly, it was so demanding and so stressful that it actually … they lost sleep about it.

So I try to convey through my own personal experience. That often prompts the client to disclose some more personal stuff about themselves. So yeah, I think that’s important.

Will Bachman: So showing yourself a bit of vulnerability gives the other person some room to do that as well. 

Let’s talk a little bit about your practice now. So you’ve had … some people are lucky to have two successful careers. I think you’re on number four, if I’m not losing count, so chief administrative officer and a right-hand person to the CEO and then one of the top professors ever at Columbia Business School and then you had a role at Irving Place Capital, very senior role, like chief people person, and now your own practice.

Talk to me a little bit about the types of work that you’re doing today.

Mike Feiner: That probably falls into a couple categories. One, I do a lot of C-Suite coaching especially with CEOs, and in many cases rookie CEOs, and we just point out here that often rookie CEOs, whether they’re promoted from within or they’re promoted from another company and hired into a rookie CEO role, I try to convey to them very quickly, you’re not on a bigger job, you’re in a totally new job. This is not just if you’re promoted from within you have more people reporting to you. You are in a totally new role.

So I do a fair amount of senior coaching and I also often help a CEO who’s trying to up the game of his or her team, they’re not performing up to a level that he or she is happy about. There may be some conflict on the team, there may have been some turnover on the team, so I’m often being asked to help a CEO and a team get its mojo. 

And then probably third, which is a smaller part of my practice, I’m asked by smaller, early-stage startups how to scale a business. They’ve got a great product, they’re 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 people, but scaling from early-stage startup to the next level is very difficult. Where they knew everybody by their first name and now they’re not even sure the people’s last names. As you get this 80, 90 people, close to 100. So I would say those are the three sorts of consulting assignments that I’m involved in right now.

Will Bachman: And what would an engagement look like for you? So the sort of traditional executive coach model where they do a bunch of 360 and get everyone’s feedback, but talk to me about your model, if let’s say a CEO is saying, hey, we just had either someone leave or some conflict and they say, yeah, we need some help, they call Mike Feiner, what are the phases going to look like, what’s day one, what’s week, month one, what’s the course of the engagement look like?

Mike Feiner: If I’m called in to be an executive coach usually by a board or usually by the CEO himself who wants me to coach one of his or her C-Suite direct reports, the first requirement for me is I have to meet with the coachee or the potential coachee and the coachee needs to get comfortable with who I am and what I look like and what my style is and my behavior. And so we meet for probably an hour and a half.

and I explain to him or her what the protocol is. First protocol is we’re probably going to spend a half a day talking about him or her and they stop me off and say, what would we talk about for four or five hours? I say, I just want to find out about you and they’ll say, I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, my father owned a haberdashery store, my mother was a housewife, I have an older brother, what else is there to talk about? And I’ll say, well, that’s interesting, but now we need to get serious, what was it like growing up in your family, how did you handle conflict, how did you react to conflict, what was it like being the second of two? 

So we spend a fair amount of time doing that over four or five hours and the person gets to understand why he or she behaves in certain situations and organizational life, the way they do. In addition, after that, so I need to talk to everybody that works for that person, every direct report. And those are usually an hour and a half to two hour conversations, and in addition to that, I probably want to have some group meetings with the direct reports, two levels down, so direct reports to direct reports.

So I’m probably talking in two hour interviews with 15 or 20 people, and I ask questions, what’s the culture like in this place, what are some things that you think this coachee might do differently, which by the way, I should state, implies that everybody who’s going to use me as a coach has to go public with the fact that they’ve hired a coach. It can’t be secret, it can’t be private, there’s nothing embarrassing about it.

And also during that first conversation, I try to get a sense for whether the coachee genuinely wants coached, genuinely knows that there are some issues that they need to work on, as opposed to the board wants me to get a coach or I suppose I should get a coach, because my next-door neighbor who’s a CEO has a coach. Because frankly, if you’re an executive coach, everybody knows and unless you’re personally committed to changing your behavior, the odds of doing so are very small.

So after collecting all the data, after all that interview, I sit down with the coachee for several hours and talk about the good news, the bad news and what’s really ugly about his or her management style and what they need to do differently. And we come up with an action plan, and then we probably will talk every week, sometimes two to three times a week. I’ll probably go back two months later, this is a six month gig, I’ll probably go back a couple months later and have some spot conversations, not necessarily with 20 people, but with probably six to eight, maybe 10, depending on how serious the situation was.

And then I’ll go back in three months and have a conversation with the boss of this person or the board to see if there are any changes that they identify, any changes that they recognize. And then at six months I’ll have a conversation with the coachee and the boss, where we will talk about what the boss has seen or not seen in terms of changes that were hoped for.

So my protocol is very intensive, very hands-on, and with the option after six months that if both parties want to continue, we continue for another six months. So that’s a quick sum up, it’s probably not so quick, that’s the summary for what the protocol is for my executive coaching.

Will Bachman: One technique that I thought you employed so effectively in your class was using role plays, which just put you on the spot and make you feel something emotionally, so much differently … like if someone was saying, oh, I would say to the vice president of supply chain that this and that. You’d say, no, I’m the vice president of supply chain, tell it to me as if you’re telling it to that guy. And you put people on the spot in class. And those five minutes or two minutes of interaction in a role play environment, you remember it like 15 years later, just emotionally, whereas you would forget it if it’s just talking in third person. 

To what degree do you apply that kind of role play exercise in your work today?

Mike Feiner: Quite a bit, if I’m coaching someone who’s viewed as highly successful, highly effective, highly productive, great results, but their people are scared to death to walk by their office, their people are scared to death to tell them what they really think. And I report out that information, your people are scared to death of you and your people think you’re an ax murderer or your people aren’t willing to tell you what you really need to hear, so through that coaching process where we’ll address an issue that he or she has brought up with a direct report out, I’d say, how are talk to the … make believe I’m the direct report and you want to have this performance. Let’s role play that.

So I do that quite a bit in the practice and it’s actually quite effective. And often, it demonstrates that having a conversation with a direct report, particularly around performance and performance feedback takes a lot of thought, a lot of care, a lot of planning. Who is this person, how is it going to land on him or her, what’s the best way to communicate it? 

Whereas I find all too often, CEOs or even C-Suite executives have a one-size-fits-all, here’s the approach I’m going to use, this is the approach I typically use when I communicate performance information to the direct report. That’s a bad strategy. 

So in the course of role playing and me being the direct report and demonstrating how it might land on this person, we often get the coachee to come up with a much more refined and much more effective and much more thoughtful approach.

Will Bachman: I wanted to turn to kind of another topic that I think you emphasized, which is this idea that you are a professional athlete and you’ve always been physically fit. I think you’ve ran every day for 40 years. Could you talk a little bit about just fitness and things outside of work and how to think about yourself as truly a professional athlete in a business setting?

Mike Feiner: I’ve been in organizational life and I’ve been around CEOs for most of my professional career. And every senior executive I ever met, for sure, is talented, but each of them has an enormous achievement orientation. That’s what it takes to make it in organizational life, whether it’s a law firm, whether it’s a consulting firm or whether it’s a typical corporate structure. As exciting and energizing as organizational life can be, I think business can be a cool or demanding institution.

And I’ve seen many senior executives get the jobs of their dreams, only to find how stressful it is and how demanding it is and the pressure to perform, the pressure to produce the pressure to meet goals and objectives. That’s stuff that many senior executives don’t anticipate being as excruciatingly painful as it ultimately is. Particularly rookie CEOs, who find out they actually have more bosses than they ever had before in their life, because now they have a board, as well as a whole lot of outside constituencies that they need to manage, like the street.

I think a program to deal with those pressures is very important, and there’s no one program, it can be yoga, it did it can be pilates, for me it’s running every day, it can be cycling, it can be meditation, it can be some or all of the above. But I think to deal with the pressures and stresses of organizational life, first of all, you need a fitness program. Second of all, I think you need to think about what to do outside of work, so that your life isn’t spent at home looking at your tablet and responding to emails and texts. because organizational life and the pressures therein can be a grind. They can eat you up and I’ve seen it and I witnessed it. I’ve had in my career when I was the chief people officer at Pepsi, I’ve had spouses call me, in most cases, women in those days, worried about their husbands, who were peers of mine.

So I think the fitness program is important. I think activities that you’re going to do outside of work with friends and with family are particularly important, because if you leave it to inertia, the job will take up almost all of your waking hours, if you let it.

Will Bachman: That’s something that I think you reinforced and especially in independent professional life, it’s almost even more so than corporate life, where there’s no vacation days and it’s easy to just try to keep billing time or developing work. And you almost have to decide, I think upfront, like why am I doing this, and how much time per year am I going to carve out and book those vacations, like nine months in advance, when you’re not worried about it? To just get those big rocks into the schedule.

Mike Feiner: Careers are … it’s a long race, they’re ultra marathons, they’re 100 miles and unless you pace yourself, you’re never going to be able to finish that race. So time for leisure, time for fitness is crucial if you’re going to have a career that is rewarding on the 18th hole as it is on the front nine.

Will Bachman: I want to ask you and particularly given your decades of experience advising and coaching professionals inside and outside organizations, professional development. When you’re in a corporation, there’s someone who’s maybe monitoring you, looking over your shoulder, telling you need to work on this. As an independent professional, there’s nobody doing that, you got to do it yourself, what advice do you have for independent professionals on how to kind of assess their own strengths, think about gaps or think about strengths they want to build on and develop, and then develop a kind of a deliberate program to build new capabilities? Any thoughts or advice on that for independent professionals?

Mike Feiner: I think professional development is as important frankly as fitness throughout one’s career. You need to be a learner, what got you here, won’t get you there. And I think everybody, every person, whether you’re corporate life or you’re an independent professional, needs to take personal responsibility for their development. And that means given the network you’ve built up, there are ways to connect with people telephonically once a month for coffee. I think it’s really important, beyond reading and beyond books that are out there, I think it’s really important that people take personal responsibility for meeting with other independent professionals or with people who are in even big firms, to sort out what’s going on, what’s on the horizon. 

But it’s not going to happen unless the independent professional takes personal responsibility for that. And once you decide that you … whether it’s once a month, once every two months, are going to tap into your network to talk about some of the challenges you’re facing, some of the assignments that you face that were more troubling than others, what have they learned from those kinds of assignments, what lessons do they have, unless you do that, you get very stale very quickly. Whether you’re working at PepsiCo or you’re working in your own consulting practice.

Will Bachman: You mentioned books and I got to say that I have given out your book The Feiner Points of Leadership at least a dozen times to clients of mine and they’ve always appreciated it. What are some of the books that have been personally meaningful to you or that maybe you’ve gifted most often? Curious to hear what your book recommendations are.

Mike Feiner: I still love The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I think there’s a lot of genius and a lot of wisdom in that and I often go back and read it and reread it fairly often. There’s a book out there and I may mess up the title, but I think it’s The Really Hard Things and I think that’s the title. But I often go back and reread that and frankly, I’m reading blogs all the time, I’m reading stuff on LinkedIn, I’m reading articles in the New York Times, I’m reading articles in the Wall Street Journal.

So I’m reading a lot, but I just think you have to pick and choose, there are a lot of blogs out there that are that are good.

Will Bachman: Any that you recommend?

Mike Feiner: I usually get the blogs through LinkedIn they’re usually recommended when I go to the daily articles that I read, and I’m usually tapping into what they’re recommending. You’ll often hear a recommendation as you go through that, often if they’re people that I know or they’re part of my network. So they’re different all the time, but it’s part of being a learner. 

The most successful and effective people I’ve ever met are not always just the smartest. I think being smart and having processing power, having a good engine, that’s of course necessary, but it’s not sufficient. I think you need to be a learner and there’s a million ways to get all kinds of information and it’s not always from books. It can be blogs and it can be the newspaper, so for me, I’m always looking at opportunities to find out where those articles might be.

Will Bachman: So LinkedIn has a pretty powerful recommendation engine and that’s the source of a lot of what you’re seeing. Routines and practices, I’m curious to hear, you’re a guy who seems to me, at least from the outside, give me the impression of someone who never procrastinates, who is just crunching and cranking out and getting so much done. What are some of the daily or morning practices you have or daily routines that you have, that you found that makes you productive?

Mike Feiner: It’s a pretty simple one, every evening after dinner, I make a list of what I want to get done the next day. There are a million distractions during the day, there are a million phone calls, there are a million emergencies, whether you’re a corporate executive or a consultant, there are a million changes and deadlines. But I make a plan for the following day, what is it that I need to get done, what’s absolutely critical, despite distractions, I need to get done? 

And that often includes what are those issues personally that I need to make sure I address, so that they become just as important? It could be a family birthday, it could be calling a friend who’s got an issue with an illness. So I think unless you plan what’s really important, both personally and professionally, all too often the personal stuff doesn’t get done, and so people feel you’re not there for them. And  people who are important to you need to think you’re there for them.

But as importantly, the distractions get in the way of not just the back stuff, but some of the professional obligations that you need to make sure you complete for the following day. It probably takes 30 minutes, maybe 45. I’ll have a piece of paper, so what do I want to do at nine o’clock that I must do? So I’ve got a fairly basic plan for the following day with obviously opportunities for flexibility.

Will Bachman: Interesting, so I’ve heard several other very successful people doing something similar, doing something the day before, and other folks have said that your mind somehow just works on that overnight, somehow unconsciously, and prepares you to really knock it out the next day, if you prioritize the day before. 

Mike Feiner: I would also say as important as the daily plan is, I would say probably every week or so, if I’m looking out a month or two or three, what’s coming up on the horizon both personally and professionally, what do I want to do for my kid’s 25th birthday that’s coming up in three months? Is there something special? I might want to flag that and talk with my wife about it that evening.

So I do think it’s important, day-to-day, to make sure you’re productive, because it’s easy to get sidetracked, very easy for any of us and all of us. But I do think it’s important to look at a couple of months to make sure that you’re looking at some events that you don’t want to be surprised when you realize it’s a week away and it’s your 30th wedding anniversary. This would not be a good thing.

Will Bachman: To what degree do you do any kind of periodic self-assessment? Say a somewhat weekly basis you’re looking ahead, do you do any kind of where am I at, gap analysis, self-assessment plan for the future and long-range goals, anything like that?

Mike Feiner: I do. I’m not sure I do it as organized as the way as I should. I’m blessed with somebody and that I’m married to who is not afraid to give me feedback. My kids often tease me at the dinner table when we’re together for their getaway place in Connecticut, my four kids might say, dad, I have ever given you the gift of feedback? My whole life I’ve sort of talked to them about the gift of feedback. So I get a lot of feedback from my family and I get some feedback from my wife.

I would say on a fairly frequent basis, usually after an assignment that is either going well or hasn’t gone as well as I would expect, I ask myself, what is it that I’m doing or not doing that’s contributing to something other than a home run? Why might I not get a standing ovation after this assignment?

So I am pretty … and most achievement oriented people are pretty hard on themselves. So I’m usually getting either feedback from my family, I might get, Mike, you’re not available the last couple days, you seem distracted. So I’ll get feedback like that, but often I’ll do that self-assessment.

I think it’s also important as long as you’re raising this issue, I’m often asking the client what is it that I’m doing that is meeting your expectations? And I’ll often ask, what are some things that I could be more helpful doing in this particular coaching assignment? What is it that you might not have been willing to talk to me about yet, but what is it that you think I need to ramp up here, to maximize my effectiveness?

So I’m often doing that as well. I’m often asking for feedback, often from clients.

Will Bachman: On that note, Mike, and if I remembered four words from your class, it was feedback is a gift. And a little bit of vulnerability here, but do you have any stories to share of where you’ve heard feedback from clients and where you’ve asked what could be more helpful, where they gave you some feedback, and then you went and worked to adopt it? Any kind of constructive feedback that you received that you have then taken underwing and worked to implement?

Mike Feiner: First of all, I think they have to genuinely believe that you really want the feedback. If they think you’re doing it to be polite, it’s usually because they are smart enough to figure out you are doing it just to be polite. If you really want feedback, you have to reflect that. How did the last session go? You’ve had time to process it and often I’ll get, I wouldn’t say often, but once in a while, I’ll get, I thought you were really tough on me on that one. And it made sense at the time, but I’m not sure you were willing to hear my rebuttal for why I might have behaved the way you did. I think you might have been preemptive.

That’s happened a few times in my coaching experiences and that’s informed sometimes when I have been tough, I often go back the next time with a different coachee and say, have I been too tough on this one? You think I’ve heard you out and understand the circumstances around that?

So from each mistake I learn, I try to incorporate it into the kind of exchange I have with the next coachee. But I do think the coachee has to generally recognize that you really want the feedback, then feedback is sometimes hard to hear. I would say, once they know you want it, I think clients are willing to give it to you. 

Will Bachman: And it really is a gift when you receive it.

Mike Feiner: It’s a gift for them because they’re going to improve the coaching that you’re going to get them going forward, and it’s a gift for you because it’s making you a better coach.

Will Bachman: Mike, we’re coming to the end of the hour here and I wanted to ask you as we get close to wrapping up, you really emphasized values-based leadership and that’s something that seemed incredibly important to you. And that you told some real personal stories in class and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the law of the tombstone, and how you express that, and what that means to you, and any kind of thoughts for independent professionals related to the law of the tombstone.

Mike Feiner: As I said few minutes ago, organizational lives, professional lives can be energizing, it also can be innovating. And for people who are achievement oriented and want to get ahead and want to be successful, there are a lot of pitfalls, easy to duck, not tell the client the truth, it’s easy to duck and not tell the client that his or her people think he or she is an ax murderer.

So I do think it’s a lifelong struggle and challenge to be honest with yourself and represent the kinds of standards that you want to embody as someone who tells the truth, is direct, says what you mean, doesn’t have a personal agenda, wants to be held accountable, wants to produce results for the client. And I think so that you don’t fall down a slippery slope of telling the client a lot of nonsense, so you can expand the assignment, and extend it longer than you really need to.

I think the law the tombstone is, what do you want on your tombstone? Highly successful, made a lot of money, lots of vacation homes, there’s some people who want that on that their tombstone. But I think the law of the tombstone is what are the three or four words that you want not just on your tombstone, but you want your family to look at that’s on your tombstone and feel great pride in who you were as a father and a spouse and a parent?

Because I do think there are many ways to slide down the slippery slope and many pressures to duck and many ways to take the easy road. To this day, I always ask myself, what are my clients going to say about me at the end of the day? What are people who work for me at Pepsi, 400 of them all over the world, what are they going to say? And I would hope that in my own case, I hope they would say, tough-minded, good boss, told the truth, committed to helping people be as good as they could be, high integrity, produced results in the right way, as well as great father, good spouse, great friend. To me, that’s as important as people talking to you about how smart you were, how much money you made, how many clients you had.

So I do think the tombstone and the values based leadership is what it’s all about and frankly, I think clients respond to that. I think clients recognize that if you’re high integrity, that says something to them about who you are and what you’re not. 

And as you know, in my class, we should probably end this way, I think values are the oxygen of followership. If you want people to respond to you and follow you, because leadership is all about followership, they need to believe in who you are, what you are and what you represent as a human being.

Will Bachman: Mike, thank you, that’s probably a good place to wrap. In your book you talk about the law of the tombstone, actually writing down the last few lines that you’d want your tombstone to read. And it’s such a useful exercise and I love the way you express it there.

I can’t thank you enough for joining, Mike, this has been fantastic, and totally inspiring.

Mike Feiner: I’m proud of you, you’re a good man.

Will Bachman: Thanks a lot.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top-tier independent management consultants. The mission of Umbrex is to create opportunities for independent management consultants to meet, share lessons learned and collaborate.

I’d love to get your feedback and hear any questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at unleashed@umbrex.com. If you found anything on the show helpful, it would be a real gift if you would let a friend know about the show and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher, and if you subscribe, our show will get delivered to your device every Monday. Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson, our theme song was composed by Gary Negbauer and I’m your host, Will Bachman. Thanks for listening.

Related Episodes

jay-altizer-bain-alum-dallas-tx

Episode
440

Food Industry 101

Jay Altizer

Episode
439

Craig Beal on the Travel Business

Craig Beal

Episode
438

Rob Ristagno on Customer Segmentation

Rob Ristagno

Episode
437

Equity Research

Neeraj Monga