Thursday, September 24, 2009

Well Said Fred

When Fred was a brash 22-year old Marine, he thought it would be cool to puff himself up by wearing a mustache and smoking big cigars.

Then he bumped into Sergeant Jackson.

Before too long, Fred asked the more experienced Sergeant Jackson what he could do to improve his performance.

The response caught him off guard.

"Well, the first thing, shave off that ridiculous mustache, and quite smoking the cigars -- because you look absurd -- and be yourself."

Fred readily admits he never forgot the lesson and instantly gave up being a smooth-faced kid trying to be something he wasn't.

That lesson in personal grounding would come in handy the day Fred experienced a vision of how he might change the world from what he learned in the military. And Fred has been more than happy since then to share some of what he has learned with others who hope to change their world.

In retrospect, Fred realized his military experience allowed him to view risk with a different perspective since the currency of exchange in business is just money - not people's arms and legs, or lives. He may have been more willing to take chances because losing money wasn't the worst thing in the world that could happen.

And he believes his military background taught him other valuable lessons that have come in handy at FedEx:

"When I was in the Marine Corps as a lieutenant, I had come up from a good background, went to a fine university at Yale. I wasn't exactly exposed to folks that were in the blue collar professions and occupations. And then here I was in the Marine Corps, and became a platoon leader, and I was surrounded by kids like that. I maybe was three years older than they were. I was 21, they were 18. But these were youngsters from very different backgrounds than I was. You know, blue collar backgrounds, steelworkers, and truck drivers, and gas station folks. And there we were, out in the countryside in Vietnam, living together, eating together and obviously going through all sorts of things. I think I came up with a very, very different perspective than most people that end up in senior management positions about what people who wear blue collars think about things and how they react to things, and what you should do to try to be fair to those folks. So in that regard it was an invaluable experience. And a great deal of what FedEx has been able to accomplish was built on those lessons I learned in the Marine Corps. The fundamental principle behind fast cycle or express transportation is that you are substituting your services for other processes. If an electronics manufacturer is going to operate without inventory, or field service engineers are not going to have the parts and pieces to fix things rat-holed in the trunk of their car, then when they need the part or piece, or they need the item delivered to the customer, you've got to perform. You've got to be able to let them know where this item is all the time.It's not like we're carrying sand and gravel. You know, we're carrying chemotherapy drugs, and important manuscripts, and electronic parts, and pieces for airplanes that are grounded. So when we pick it up and say, "We're going to have it there early the next morning," I mean we have to deliver. There's nothing else to it".

"The most important piece of advice that I could give is to take advantage of the tremendous reservoir of knowledge that's out there today. Spend some time learning how the world has evolved. There are a lot of good lessons in history, and other peoples' experiences in the past, that could be exactly the solution to the problem you're looking for".

Without the pursuit of money as a prime motivator and a military-influenced work ethic and leadership style, Fred Smith could be accused of being overly zealous in his focus on an idea far beyond what any ordinary person should be.

Maybe that's why people like Fred are referred to as "extraordinary".

Today, Fred's vision has created jobs for 290,000 employees and $16 billion in revenues. While Fred may shrug it off and say he had the good fortune to be on the rising tide of history and being in the right place at the right time, Fred was still the one rolling the dice and willing to step up to the plate and be accountable for his vision.

Rarely, if ever, will the pursuit of a vision that matters go in a straight line. The zigging and zagging, the winning and losing will only be paid by the strength of a double-sided coin marked with "conviction" and "persistence". In other words, absolute faith in your vision coupled with the perseverance to bring it to fruition.

Is there something you dream of accomplishing that borders on the extraordinary?

Would any of Fred's experiences and insights come in handy the day you decide to roll the dice and place vision ahead of money?

"There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and those who have met them in battle. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion"

1 comment:

Ian Varty said...

A great story well told!