Peter J. Boni: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Boni 1Peter J. Boni has advanced by taking on the tough assignments of repositioning organizations that had run aground. During his career, he added nearly $5 billion of value as a science and technology CEO (public, private, IPO), consultant, director, and private equity/venture capital investor. His firms were recognized on the Inc. 500, Software 100, Fast 50 and Fortune 1000 several times.

He was twice cited in Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year competition, most recently in 2011 as Master Entrepreneur in Philadelphia. Boni has commentated on CNBC, Fox Business, and The Street.com and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and Investor Business Daily. His book, All Hands On Deck: Navigating Your Team Through Crises, Getting Your Organization Unstuck, and Emerging Victorious, was published by Career Press (June 2015)/

In addition to a BA from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boni earned a Rice Paddy MBA in leadership through adversity on a “full scholarship,” courtesy of Uncle Sam. A decorated military veteran, he spent 15 months in combat as a special operations infantry officer.

Today, as Managing Principal for his consulting firm, Kedgeway, Boni serves as Vice Chairman of The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which has brought entrepreneurship training to 600,000 poor, inner city youth in 21 U.S. states and nine countries. He is founding co-chairman of its Philadelphia branch.

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Morris: Before discussing All Hands on Deck, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Boni: Due to the illness and periodic hospitalizations of my father, my childhood was volatile and disrupted. Between the first grade and high school, I attended 11 different schools in several states. My mother was a great source of example. She taught me that bad things can happen to good people. You may not control what happens, but you CAN control what you DO to improve your situation and max out. Making “ray” out of “disarray” became a talent that I have used both personally and professionally.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Boni: It’s not the “who” but “what.” Definitely the special operations combat experience.

Having the responsibility to lead a diverse group of highly competent people through the fear, chaos, confusion and stress of hostile enemy fire has made any stressful situation in business seem quite paltry by comparison. In school, your academic achievement in your field of study is largely an individual effort. In the military, and in real life, achievement is bigger than you.

I learned that I can’t do the seemingly impossible alone. Collaboration and teamwork are essential. In combat, I kept, embraced and collaborated with a diverse set of skills around me. We shared a natural sense of dependence and trust as well as a common sense of mission, goals, and purpose. We accomplished our missions with merit and stayed alive in the process. I learned to never underestimate the importance of attracting, retaining, and rewarding well-trained, capable people who could think out of the box, navigate complexity, and work as a team. Keeping good people in my foxhole became an essential ingredient of my managerial approach. Those good people softened the blow of temporary defeats and enabled many victories…shared victories. That’s part of the fun of leadership; celebrating when the team captures the enemy flag.

I learned that high performance decision making could happen at all levels within an organization if the mission and goals were well articulated. Within a combat unit, every person understands the meaning of a mission and his or her role to execute a game plan to achieve it. In a combat environment, reality needed to be faced straight up—no hearts and flowers– with a mind-set to think outside the box. I was trained to communicate in a crystal clear, can-do fashion. I saw firsthand how well defined roles and responsibilities facilitated well-coordinated timing and precision. And I learned that good leaders enable members of their team to lead as well.

Combat is the most stressful, dynamic, and difficult environment imaginable. You’re forced to make choices—life or death decisions, really—without having all the information. Sometimes when the shells are flying, not making a decision is the worst decision you can make. You know that, if you stand still, you’ll certainly get shot.

I took the concept of decisiveness under fire into civilian life. I also transferred the moral courage to do the right things, the focus on accomplishing the most important mission-critical things, and an enormous sense of responsibility for the welfare of the team. Those skills—and the perspective I gained in combat better prepared me for righting organizations that had run aground, or, better yet, keeping them out of a jam.

So many sectors of the worldwide economy are missing an enormous opportunity if they don’t seek out those who have recent combat experience in the Middle East. The lessons I learned in Southeast Asia and the accompanying skills are also found in more recent veterans across several countries. Intangible values like duty and honor translate exceptionally well to civilian life. Who else would you want in your foxhole to contribute to your organization?

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Boni: In spite of the constant disruption in my schooling, I excelled in school. That was important to my father, so it became extremely important to me. He often related a story of how he had run out of money and never finished his depression-era mechanical engineering education. I became keenly aware that a tool and die maker, even as a highly skilled machinist, falls subject to all the economic whims resulting from a recession’s impact on production. As part of the production crew, he was subject to the layoffs that come with lower-tier production schedules. What a major effect that had on his life—and on mine, I thought at the time. “This won’t happen to me,” I resolved.

Thanks to that influence, coupled with being in the same high school from start to finish, a peer group of fellow athletes and scholars, plus mentoring, scholarships, loans, and my own work ethic, I graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Armed with a psychology major, a management minor, and a growing interest in high-performance team dynamics, I felt ready to conquer the world. That college diploma—the first among those in my working-class family to receive one—has opened more doors for me than I ever could have imagined. A college degree was the qualifying price of entry.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Boni: As a management trainee, and then a sales rep in what was then named Standard Oil, my first job out of college and the military, I was enormously impatient. Just after starting my career, I was hit with a three-year interruption and a wartime combat assignment, courtesy of Uncle Sam and the U. S. Army. I was fortunate to achieve some rank and wind my way into an elite force. It saved my life, and, to a degree, shaped how I approached it. It defined my sense of teamwork, with highly competent people. We were kids really, in tough situations, scared as hell, covering each other’s backs to accomplish the mission at hand.

With real life’s lessons picked up in combat and happy to be alive, I returned to my first job to pick up where I left off, with a huge goal in mind…to advance to be a VP of a Fortune 500 company within 10 years. My original management training classmates had a three-year head start and I needed to catch up fast. Here’s what threw me off. I was a working class kid and the first in my family to get a college education. I had no notion of an old boys’ network, but saw first-hand that some plum promotional assignments, better known as ”the first big break,” were more likely handed out first to those with the old boys’ network stemming from their educational pedigree, or those who had more style, or a family members or close family friends in the top echelon.

After training, I was assigned a sales territory which was among the top performers in the District. I kept it in the top spot. There was no first big break in the near term offing. Bummer! What could I use as an edge to speed up the process of gaining my first big break? Adjacent to my top performing territory was one of the worst performers. After a bit of study, finding that its performance suffered due to neglect, I asked to transfer to that poorly performing sales territory. I convinced myself that I could make a difference and be better able to spring-board from that platform.

I crafted a deal with my boss. Blow the doors off in the new territory and he’d sponsor me for that first move up. I worked my tail off, clued some of my customers and prospects in on my ambitions and asked for their help. As long as I put out for them, they seemed willing to put out for me. I achieved some stellar gains, got recognized, and earned my first big break, actually ahead of some of those with the right “connections.”

Hmm, that worked out pretty well! A formula to leapfrog my career emerged. I could “kedge off”, a sailing term for how a boat, left to its own devices, can get off the mud, sand or rocks if it ran aground. It’s the way forward…the way to advance.

That VP goal was achieved within eight years. It took me another couple of years to want more. That led to my first CEO assignment at age 36 to fix a telecommunications company in difficulty. Over the ensuing 30+ years, I’ve been CEO of several medium-sized firms in various stages of growth, maturity, trouble or renewal. Add to that consulting, a Private Equity Operating Partner and the CEO of a NYSE listed venture capital-type of holding company.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Boni: While I was a poor kid in the inner city so the Horatio Alger rags to riches books written during the Industrial Revolution captured my entrepreneurial imagination. I wasn’t creative or talented enough to invent anything, but I had an ability to package, price, promote, sell, and scale. Later, I learned to lead. I bonded with the creative set who had the technical and inventive capacity I lacked. I brought others’ skills to the table. The Alger stories noted that risk has its rewards. Just be sure that you’re willing to pay the price of the risk. You want to have all your faculties and meaningful relationships in your life to enjoy those hard-won rewards.

I’m not sure about “the most valuable lessons” but I enjoy historical fiction and was quite taken with Conn Iggulden’s best-selling trilogy about Genghis Kahn that started with Genghis: Birth of an Empire. It reinforced for me the three fundamental essentials of extraordinary achievement.

I’ve observed that three things are generally present when there’s a major success, not only in business, but in life: passion, focus, and people. Genghis Kahn had all three. He had passion for his vision of a united Mongol people as opposed to warring tribes. He shared that vision and created a collective energy. He remained focused on achieving that vision and streamlined the activities of his people to focus on realizing that vision. And he kept and promoted the very best people, no matter what their tribe. Genghis Khan practiced the fundamentals of exceptional leadership during a brutal time in history and changed the face of history as a result.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Boni: That comes to mind most recently is The Social Network, the 2010 movie about the start of Facebook. The three ingredients for success were present; passion, focus and people. Mark Zuckerberg was fanatically passionate about his value proposition. His passion was infectious. Facebook was deeply focused in their market penetration strategy, to first dominate the college community. While he faltered on the people front at the outset, he did have the vision to eventually recruit the best people he could find. He shared both responsibility and authority to build the business.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Boni: Collaborative management with a diverse set of people breeds a superior plan that the people who must execute the plan will support. You can’t execute a plan alone. You need supportive people who also believe in it. That leadership technique at the outset of hatching a plan is the first ingredient to success.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Boni: The sacred cow or the status quo is often the biggest impediment to forward progress. “That’s odd” challenges the sacred cow or the status quo. That will better enable an organization to advance.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Boni: Many a thoughtful plan failed because of poor execution. It takes passion, focus and people. On the people front, I’ve found that once the team is aligned and executing, a key communication ingredient needs to be present. Transparent communication on the progress the team is making to realize the clear and compelling vision during the execution phase will get/keep a team on track to execute a game plan.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Boni: Focus on a goal or two, not a hundred or more. Streamline the activity schedule around what your team agrees are the absolute, have-to-do critical success factors to achieve that goal(s). Precious resources all aligned to do what is absolutely necessary, not just nice to do, will better enable success.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Boni: Too many organizations are siloed. Organizational execution needs to be integrated. When a game plan or a vision is shared, a collective energy is generated. High performance decision-making can happen at all levels and in all departments within an organization when there’s a shared game plan and common goals.

Linking daily behavior to common goals enables successful execution. That daily behavior can be reinforced when transparent communication puts momentum indicators front and center and gives recognition and reward for the behavior that produces those results.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Boni: Totally agree. Jesus? Napoleon? The list is endless. People aren’t likely to retain a key principle just because it’s stated. Tell a story that highlights the key principle that you want to communicate. It will be retold, spread, and retained for a good long time.

This is what led me to include a handful of memoir-style case studies in my book. There are stories told within six case studies…stories within stories. I felt that they would better communicate my key principles (the ABCs to Advance).

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Boni: Follow the ABCs to Advance.

First, develop a game plan in a collaborative way to help you gain the support of the core constituency that must execute the plan. Second, align your team around a handful of goals,…big, hairy audacious goals…that can be aspired to be achieved by executing the plan. Third, execute with gusto and transparent communications that rewards the very behavior that will achieve those goals.

o Change Initiative 101 shares a vison to create a collective energy. That energy often times will convert the naysayers.

o Change Initiative 102 recognizes that you can’t convert the unconverted. The disruptive naysayers have to go.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Boni: There are always new challenges to be found in either the competitive environment or in the megatrends that impact society.

The fundamentals always hold true: passion, focus and people. When any one is missing, any challenge can be a killer. The ABCs to Advance will help any organization out of a jam. Better yet, practicing them will help KEEP an organization out of a jam.

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Peter cordially invites you to check out the resources at his Kedgeway website by clicking here.

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