Rick Thomas

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

It is with great excitement that I write this as a partner of the Pilot team. As I have shared this pending development with those familiar with my work in Activate Leadership, more than once I've been asked, "What does leadership development have to do with wealth management?"

It is a great question and my response is one I will share with you, however, a little background first for those I haven't had the opportunity to meet just yet.

Managing The Gap


“You were wrong,” Phil stated confidently. “How so?” I asked, though I could tell where the conversation was going. I had worked with Phil and his team several years ago. With a couple dozen employees and ten million in sales, we implemented a strategic alignment of the business; a process of creating the foundational vision, mission and values along with the strategic processes to achieve the business objectives.

“Our growth," he continued. "We are achieving what we set out to do, but it hasn’t happened like you said it would.”

I don’t ever recall telling him how it would happen, but I wasn’t going to argue the point.

“When we put our plan together for how we would get there, we calculated it would take a double digit growth rate, year over year. We were on track the first couple of years, then the economy dumped and our sales went flat. Then we had a down year. We all took a pay cut to avoid laying off anyone.”

“Good for you Phil. Sounds like to you did the right thing.”

“Yeah, but my point is the goals and metrics became so unbelievable that I finally stopped sharing them. They became meaningless.”

Screen shot 2013-04-12 at 10.44.08 AMIt was at this point that it took everything in my power to keep from telling Phil this is where he missed the opportunity—in managing the gap between the goal and the current performance.

“So, what did you do?”

“I told them to just focus on their job and I’ll worry about where the business is going.”

Phil’s reaction is an all too familiar refrain I hear from many businesses owners. When things are going as planned managing the business is easy. The truth is however, we are learning much less when business is going as planned than when it isn’t.  It’s not easy to do, especially when everyone is looking to you for answers. Rather than bailing on the process as Phil did however, there are some simple steps you can take to stay the course, as follows:

  1. Have a defined goal – As simple as it sounds, many leaders fail to clarify what the target is yet they expect the organization to perform as if they should know, or worse, as if it doesn’t matter. Don’t kid yourself…it matters!
  2. You don’t have to know all the answers – The sooner you stop acting like a problem solver, the better. Become a solution promoter, viewing problems as an opportunity to involve employees in the problem solving process.
  3. Seek small, successive wins – One of the biggest temptations when things aren’t going as planned is to look for big win. While understandable, it is not a recipe for success. Stay the course and seek small but measureable successes. A popular refrain of a friend and sales mentor, Jerry Vieira of QMP Associates is, “succeeding in business comes from doing a thousand small things right.”
  4. Be patient and persistent – Edison once said, “most people don’t realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” You are likely closer to success than you think.
  5. Don’t miss the larger moment – Whether you recognize it or not, you are modeling how to lead through challenging times. How you choose to act today will likely become the standard for the team tomorrow.

Yes, Phil is experiencing success. The larger problem he hasn’t recognized however is it is largely on his back. It is arguable whether the team has learned anything other than to keep their heads down and not ask questions. While it may have worked for Phil this time, he’s done little to prepare for tomorrows challenge. Either Phil can start working with his team to become part of the solution, or he’d better make sure he has his A-game on. It’s not a matter of if the next challenge comes, but when.

Take the time to start working with your team to manage the gap and you will create a foundation for performance that will pay off when it really matters.

What legacy are you leaving?


American business is at a unique pivot point in history. With the tidal wave of retirements by Baby Boomers upon us, and the influx of Millennials beginning to shadow the doorways of businesses across the country, at no other time in the history of our economy has the potential existed for a transfer of wealth on a scale we have never seen. And yet with all the promise, the daily busyness keeps us from asking the deeper and more profound questions we as business owners should be asking—what legacy are we leaving, and as importantly, to whom? Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 2.21.47 PMShow me the money According to an Accenture report (Jun,’12), the total wealth that will be transferred by 2045 is in excess of $30 trillion dollars. Further, according to another study by the consulting firm Fair Market Valuations, this wealth consists of 7 million companies, owned by Boomers between the ages of 44 – 62. The Family Firm Institute concludes that only 33% of those companies will successfully transfer their business to the next generation. The implication is 67% of you will not succeed in transferring your business to your kin, and will be left fighting for buyers the open market. Businesses are no different than real estate—when the supply is high, the prices are low.

Under the hood of the demographics Millennials, born between 1983 and 2001 (aka Generation Y), represent the largest demographic wave, (~80M) to enter the workforce since the Baby Boomers (~76M), born between 1944 and 1966. As many of us have experienced, Generation Y is wired very differently than those preceding it. The majority of Gen Y have never known a time when instant access to information has not been at their finger tips, and has created a culture that is demanding, ambitious and creative, yet dismissive of the hallmarks of success highly regarded by their parents. The definition of the American dream is literally being redefined and the influencers are no longer contained within our communities or even this country.

Getting to legacy Within this dichotomy of experiences and values lay both the challenge and the promise of success. I have had the opportunity to facilitate a number of family business successions and the consistent challenge in the process regardless of the industry, size of business or background, is the inability between the exiting and entering generation to define common ground. This “value gap” is further compounded by the myopia on means, namely money and control, versus the vision, values and legacy impact the family wealth will ultimately have. In our family succession engagements, (of which by the way, I do in collaboration with qualified wealth advisors. I have worked with Pilot Wealth Management, www.pilotwm.com, and have found Jason and Nick to be outstanding in their focus on creating value for the client), we focus on the big picture by asking three key questions: What legacy do you want to leave? I love this question because it is the most difficult for business owners to answer (let alone most anyone else!). Yet this is what it’s all about—creating legacy. While the dictionary defines legacy as a gift or inheritance, we like to look at legacy more broadly—the impact the wealth will leave on successive generations. The longer the impact, the greater the legacy. To whom do you want the legacy to benefit? Simply put, this is about being clear in who is being granted the responsibility for stewarding the legacy, and what the frameworks and support mechanisms are required to ensure it sustains. How will the legacy be managed? This is the leap of faith most of you will struggle with. The reality is, unless the incoming generation is given the opportunity to co-create the vision and values, you will never find peace in letting go and allowing them to steward the resources. If you are like most business owners that find all kinds of reasons not to begin these conversations, then put down the smartphone and start asking the questions. You are in a race to see who can preserve and sustain the legacy of your hard fought efforts. Don’t let yourself be left in the cold with the rest of the 67%!

The Monday Minute - Making Metrics Meaningful

Key performance indicators are only as good as the plan that is built behind them. In this video you will learn the five critical principles necessary to put the meaning behind your organization's KPIs. These include knowing what the goal is, looking for small wins, be a solution facilitator, be patient and monitor your daily responses.

The Fear You Name


Flying to San Antonio for a conference recently, I had an unlikely conversation that got me thinking about personal change, a subject I love to talk about. Settled in my seat on row 31, a guy heading down the aisle caught my attention. Sporting a weeks worth of stubble and greased back hair, he was a shoe in for Mickey Rourke (a younger Barfly Mickey that is…). The smell of alcohol enveloped me as he stumbled into the middle seat. The euphemism rode hard; put away wet immediately came to mind. “There’s something you should know about me,” he rasped in a Pall Mall voice. “I’m bleeping scared of flying.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I reassured. He didn’t look convinced. He grunted and quickly went to sleep, snoring for a couple of hours until we hit some turbulence. Jostled awake, he turned to me with wide eyes as he death gripped my forearm.

“What are you afraid of?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he slurred. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“The fear you name is the fear you conquer,” I heard myself quip before I’d hardly thought it.

Staring nonplussed for a long moment, he released my arm and punched the attendant call button. “Coupla’ beers for me and the Doc,” he shouted at the flight attendant, gesturing to me with his thumb.

“I’m no doctor,” I said laughing. The beers came and we filled our cups. He drained his in one gulp, finishing with a belch.

“Ok Doc,” he said smacking his lips, “Explain, ‘cause I’m not gettin’ it!”

Having resigned not getting anymore work done, I launched into the story. It was the winter of 2008. My partnership with another consultant had just bit the dust and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Business being slow to begin with, my ex-partner had just left with my most of the business. I was burning through cash reserves fast and contemplating pulling the plug on this rodeo when I got some advice from the most unlikely of sources – my tax accountant. Who knew?

“Predict the date of your demise,” he explained, responding to my bout of self pity.

“What?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard him correctly.

“Write it down. The date you expect to go out of business.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “How the heck is that supposed to help?”

“Trust me on this Rick,” he said. “By writing it down it forces you to name your fear and it becomes less scary than it feels right now. You’ll also start solving the problem rather than avoiding it. But you have to write it down!”

Though I promised I’d do as he said, I did nothing for a month. By March however, my situation was much worse, being one month closer to bankruptcy. In a fit of desperation, I did what he said. I drew a line in the calendar – June 24, 2008. That was my D-Day. My day of demise. While nothing happened at first, I soon noticed that the stress I’d been carrying was gone. I couldn’t believe it was that easy! Sure enough though, it was real. I wasn’t obsessing about the lack of business anymore. Just the opposite, I began to focus on the possibilities. Sure, I thought about the coming date and would ponder it endlessly at times, but I didn’t fear it anymore. And then amazing things began to happen – good things like referrals and unsolicited phone calls from prospects…and business!

“Not only did we make it past that date, but in every year since then our business has grown.” Mickey stared at me with bloodshot eyes.

“That’s-a-nice-story,” he patronized slowly, “But what the heck has that got to do with my fear of flying?”

Realizing it was pointless to explain further, I laughed it off and ordered another round. It may have not meant anything to Mickey, but it meant everything to me, and I’m certain it can mean something to you as well. I challenge you to write down your biggest fear going into 2013, and then see the fear for what it is – misplaced energy. And prepare yourself to be surprised by the outcome.