Time & Attendance
By James Tehrani
Apr. 11, 2015
This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here.
Some say a leader never looks back.
Eh, I disregard this silly advice and start reflecting on what transpired earlier in the day.
As I'm waiting for FUBU co-founder and "Shark Tank" star Daymond John and author Liz Murray to finish their book signing sessions at Express Employment Professionals' Refresh Leadership Live event in Rosemont, Illinois, in hopes of landing interviews, I have time on my hands. Lots of time. The lines are long. Very long. No FastPasses either.
Earlier in the day, Elwood Blues, himself, aka Dan Aykroyd (a coneless Beldar Conehead made an appearance, too), did his talk at the event being taped for an April 15 simulcast. After his presentation, my contact at Express Employment, Sherry Kast, came up to me and asked me if I wanted to interview the company’s CEO. Of course, I said yes.
She had mentioned it on the phone in passing, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen and I had very little time to prepare as I’d just found out about the event the day before and had spent most of the night before prepping questions for the three keynoters.
So as I walked to a private room off to the side with Kast to talk to the staffing company's CEO, Bob Funk, I cleared my head and thought about what I would ask. It’s a leadership-focused program, I thought, so a leadership theme it would be.
During the interview, I noticed Daymond John, the founder of FUBU, walk by with a couple of people. I’ll get to talk to him later, I thought to myself. Spoiler alert: That interview never did take place.
Listening to Funk
What are some of the problems you’re seeing in leadership today?
Bob Funk: Well, in leadership, the challenge, of course, is for people to give the opportunity to their employees to have the freedom to think and make decisions. Certainly they’re going to make mistakes, but we’ve all made mistakes in life.
Not me. <We laugh.>
Funk: So learning by the mistakes is really the important thing. And I think a leader really has to care for their employees. You really have to show love and compassion and concern for the future of their employees, not necessarily the future of themselves. Some leaders can’t do that; some leaders look at themselves as the individual that’s most important. I think the most important person is every person that’s within a company and working together as a team.
What mistakes have you made that you learned from that have made you a better leader?
Funk: Sometimes I have not been as good a listener as I perhaps should have been. I have to listen to see what their issues are and how I could help them to be successful because, having managed so many people, I sometimes give them the answer before they ask the question, and it should be the other way around.
As a leader, how do you get workers to be innovative?
Funk: I think you have to give them the freedom to speak and to analyze what they need to do and how the company needs to improve. The best improvement comes from the employees, not from the management. And the employees have the better ideas because they’re on the firing line everyday when they’re working in an office.
Where did the idea for Refresh come from? Was that an employee’s idea?
Funk: No. It was a franchisee’s idea that we needed to give an opportunity to our offices to relate to the community and give them some education that will help them, our clients, to be better leaders and better communicators in the community and help our clients to give them some depth, if you will. And they brought it to the management team and, of course, we felt the same way that if we could give back to the community in a leadership way — and leadership is always a challenge — because you’re trying to build leaders. You know, they’re not born; they are developed. And if we can help develop leaders in the companies that they’re at, it will help their careers and help the quality of the company as they lead their people.
Succession planning is a big issue nowadays. How come companies have a hard time getting that right?
Funk: I think many of them do get it right. It’s developing the people and developing the leadership skills in the people, and people have to be willing, of course, to be a good leader. You have to have the willingness of the younger generation to want to be a good leader, and a good leader is not always one who is dogmatic but someone who is collaborative like Dan [Aykroyd] was talking about. Teams always win. Individuals very seldom win.
Back to the Present
So two of the three co-presenters, John and Murray, the author of “Breaking Night,” have come to a table near the front of the theater to sign copies of their books. I decide to ask Kast if it’s a good time to talk to Aykroyd while the others sign away. Kast goes off to find out. She comes back a little later and tells me to follow her. Aykroyd’s in a VIP room signing DVDs and taking pictures. He owns the room as he greets people one by one. I head over to a corner to wait my turn. Ten minutes, I think to myself, as it seems the line is nearing the end.
As I’m waiting, Murray enters the room. I also want to talk with her about her inspiring rags-to-riches story. Kast stops her for me, and Murray agrees to an interview. The problem is my mind is still on the Aykroyd interview. I need to switch gears. Quickly. I go back to my sheet of questions I have for Murray. After hearing her speech earlier in the day, I had crossed out all of my questions except one. I wrote a few others during her talk.
Murray and I walk over to a corner. I pause for a few seconds to collect my thoughts and then begin the interview. Halfway through, Aykroyd walks past us, I try to stay focused but I realize I am still wearing my red backpack over my suit. That must look professional, I think to myself.
Liz Murray is the author of 'Breaking Night.'
Photo courtesy of Express Employment Professionals
Listening to Liz
Why is it so hard for people to believe in themselves? And what can companies do to help their employees improve themselves?
Murray: Of course, there’s many obstacles in the way of people believing in themselves. So you can only address little parts at a time, but I think that some key issues: They say success builds on success, so I think that people sometimes need to have an experience that what they’re doing is working and that it matters. If you have a small win at something, it helps you feel capable for another win, and I think in context of companies, what I’ve seen at least, and I’ve been speaking at companies for about 14 years and I’ve done a lot of employee trainings. The companies where I see people really happy and they’re retained and they’re doing well, built into the structure of the company is some form of acknowledgement of what you’re doing matters. We appreciate you. There’s a purpose to our business. We’re part of a higher purpose.
That’s sort of the gratitude that you were talking about in your speech but from the employer’s side?
Murray: From the employer’s side, and its opportunities to move up, of course, but people have to feel appreciated. They have to feel what they’re doing matters and that there’s a purpose and they’re all pitching in as part of something greater than themselves. And there’s that camaraderie with a sense of purpose, with visibility, with appreciation.
We just did a story about returning from rehab, knowing what you know (editor's note: Her parents, now deceased, were both drug addicts), what can companies do to help people who are going through addiction?
Murray: I think one of the main things I’ve seen, I’ve worked with people in my psych program at grad school, my parents had addiction, and I’ve done a bunch of work at halfway houses, one thing that I’ve noticed is that the first thing you can do is — there’s stigma around addictions — I think the way you talk about it matters a lot. So people have employees dealing with that, I’ve gone to certain companies where people pull me into the corner and admit like an illicit secret, ‘Oh, I have an alcohol problem or I had one’ and they don’t want anyone to know. Not like you want to advertise it, but I do go to another company and they say, ‘I have the disease of addiction. I’m struggling with alcoholism, and as you know that’s a medical condition, and my employer supported me.’ And it was the way that it was talked about. You were still a human being. If you were dealing with that and it wasn’t something forbidden to have but you did have to take responsibility for treating it and get on top of it, we were going to help you. And they would plug them into local resources — like they actually had someone in human resources that would say, ‘Here’s the three areas in our community that can serve you in your income bracket. We can connect you to them. Here’s the stipulations of your employment. Unfortunately we can’t continue to employ you if you violate these things because we need to run our company. However, we would welcome you back with open arms if you meet these stipulations. We understand that this is a medical condition.’
Is there any part of your personal story that’s not well known?
Murray: Oh… You have some interesting questions. I’m writing a second book now about a lot of that stuff. Well that’s like a to-be-continued-type thing. … The New York Times gave me a scholarship [to go to Harvard University], and they actually also helped me out with everything. They took me to the dentist. In fact, they gave me housing in a building in Times Square for a little while. Not fancy. A little, tiny room between breaks when I needed it from school.
I guess I shouldn’t have done it, but I invited like all my friends who had nowhere to live <laughs> live with me. We’re like all bunking up, and so we had this time period where we had a nice apartment and we lived together.
You bring up an interesting point though, is there anything companies can do, there’s so many homeless people out there, and some people think ‘homeless, hopeless.’
Murray: Oh no, not at all.
What can people do to bring those people back into the workforce?
Murray: Oh my gosh, so much. First of all you have to ask the company: ‘To what extent are you committing?’ And if you really are committed, it all goes back to: How committed are you? And so if they’re very committed to creating those kinds of opportunities, I think just being cognizant of people’s struggles when they’re coming out of homelessness, be able to differentiate a reason from an excuse. If a person can’t afford their phone bill because they’re homeless and they have to choose between a phone and a meal. … The person says, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a phone, and if it’s possible for you to find another way to work with that,’ and then build in some structure into your company where you can work with people. … And then you can get people in at entry level and then give them opportunities to earn credentials while they’re there.
I saw one company had a literacy program that was built in. You could take a certain amount of time off if you went over to the literacy coach that taught you how to read. I thought that was really amazing. Some of the factory workers who would come over from Mexico, they couldn’t read, they didn’t speak English, and so they set them up with somebody who taught them how to speak English and taught them to read and write in English. And they would do that on the dime of the company that they would write off the hours, and then the employees found a real affinity for the company, and they stayed with the company with more opportunities to keep going.
The interview ends. I thank Murray for her time and Kast leads me backstage to the other side of the theater to interview Aykroyd. On the way, she tells me there’ll be time for two questions. I nod, but inside I'm freaking out. “Two questions? I have about 20 questions." I've seen so many of his movies and "SNL" skits.
Coincidentally, I even watched "Trading Places" with my Mom recently. I was up at 3:30 in the morning thinking about this interview and a plot line idea for a sequel to "Trading Places."
I try to stay focused. Entering the room, I see Aykroyd sitting on the couch talking on his phone. He doesn't seem happy.
Good grief. Where’s Dr. Venkman when I need him to make this right?”
To be continued …
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