Episode 13: Mike Feiner on High Performance Leadership

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May 31, 2017

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


Will Bachman: What was unique about the people policies at Pepsi that generated so many successful leaders? 

Mike Feiner: I’m a consultant, so I’m not going to spend time deciding what the Pepsi can should look like or what a Frito bag should contain. I’m going to focus on the quality of the strategy and the quality of the leadership. That focus created a platform around which certainly many HR organizations within PepsiCo had the license to build a world-class organization at every single level. The mantra that Andy Pearson created for creating an academy company and a world class company superseded every other bias. It cascaded through the organization. Many companies focus on the C-Suite to build world-class talent. What separated PepsiCo was our focus on building world-class talent at every single level, down to the plants, down to the sales warehouses, down to the factories.  

 We ran talent reviews at every level of the organization. Every senior manager would have his or her direct reports present on the talent and the capabilities of every individual within their sphere of responsibility, and ultimately those reviews were rolled up to myself and the CEO.  

That’s what’s required to build a world-class organization— when there’s an enormous premium on being able to demonstrate that you have talent.  

Your book is called The Feiner Points of Leadership: The 50 Basic Laws That Will Make People Want to Perform Better for YouHow do your laws translate to the independent professional?  

 There are lots of laws in the book that are applicable to consulting situations. I find in my own consulting practice that diagnosis is the easier part of the issue. The trickier part is trying to communicate it in a way so that the client doesn’t hear it as criticism. I also think it’s very important for the client to understand you are genuinely and personally committed to helping them solve their problem.  

There’s a law in the book about the law of intimacy – that to lead people effectively, you really have to know them. It’s very important to understand clearly what the client’s issues are, but at the same time you have to understand who is that client, and what’s the best way to communicate with them? I think the law of intimacy is just as important with a client as it is with a direct report.  

Some clients are easier than others and more accepting than others and more fun to work with than others. It doesn’t matter. You’re getting paid to provide help and support to their organization, and you owe it to them 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. You can never treat a boss like a bumbling fool and you can never treat a client like a fool.  

Do you have any advice on maintaining your integrity and giving tough news to a client— to be the person willing to tell the emperor that he or she is wearing no clothes? 

It takes intellectual courage. If getting the next assignment is more important than how you feel when you look in the mirror, you’re not going to tell the client what they need to hear. That doesn’t mean you just blurt out that the client is doing a horrible job dealing with strategic issues. You have to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, different scripts that you think might be the best way to communicate what the client needs to hear. I’ve often used phrases like, “This is as difficult for me to communicate as it is for you to hear, but I’m doing it because you’re paying me a fee, and I owe you the truth and I think you expect that.” 

If you’ve established 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 you’ve created a context where it’s received in the spirit in which it’s meant. 

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 them.  

You’ve on your fourth successful career. What type of work are you doing today? 

I do a lot of C-Suite coaching, especially with CEOs, and in many cases rookie CEOs. I’m often being asked to help a CEO and a team get its mojo back. And I’m asked by smaller, early-stage startups how to scale a business. Those are the three sorts of consulting assignments that I’m involved in right now. 

To what degree do you apply role play exercises in your work today? 

Quite a bit. It’s actually quite effective. It demonstrates that having a conversation with a direct report, particularly around performance, takes a lot of thought, a lot of care, a lot of planning. 

I find all too often that CEOs or even C-Suite executives have a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s a bad strategy. In the course of role playing — with me being the direct report and demonstrating how it might land — we get the coachee to come up with a much more refined, more effective, more thoughtful approach. 

You place a lot of emphasis on fitness and things outside of work, and the need to think of yourself as a professional athlete in a business setting. What do you mean by that? 

I’ve been in organizational life and around CEOs for most of my professional career. Every senior executive I’ve ever met is talented and has an enormous achievement orientation. That’s what it takes to make it in organizational life. 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.  

I think a program to deal with those pressures is very important. There’s no one program. It can be yoga. It can be Pilates. For me it’s running every day. To deal with the pressures and stresses of organizational life you need a fitness program and you need to think about what to do outside of work so that your life at home isn’t spent looking at your tablet and responding to emails and texts. If you leave it to inertia, the job will take up almost all of your waking hours.  

Careers are long races. They’re ultramarathons. Unless you pace yourself, you’re never going to be able to finish that race. Time for leisure and time for fitness is crucial.  

What advice do you have for independent professionals on how to assess their own strengths and develop a deliberate program to build new capabilities?  

I think that professional development is as important as fitness throughout one’s career. You need to be a learner, because what got you here won’t get you there, whether you’re in corporate life or you’re an independent professional. I think it’s really important that people take personal responsibility for meeting with other independent professionals or with people who are in big firms, to sort out what’s going on, what’s on the horizon. Tap into your network. to talk about the challenges you’re facing and the lessons they have. Unless you do that, you get very stale very quickly.  

What are some of the books that have been personally meaningful to you or that you’ve gifted most often?  

I still love The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. There’s a lot of genius and a lot of wisdom in that, and I go back and reread it fairly often. There’s a book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things that I often go back and reread. 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. There are a lot of blogs out there that are good. 

I think you need to be a learner and there are a million ways to get all kinds of information. It’s not always from books. It can be blogs and it can be the newspaper. I’m always looking at opportunities to find out where those articles might be. 

What are the daily routines that you’ve found make you productive? 

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. I make a plan for the following day — what is it that I need to get done, what’s absolutely critical despite distractions that I need to get done? That includes personal issues that I need to address, so they become just as important. It could be a family birthday. It could be calling a friend who’s got an illness. Unless you plan what’s really important, the personal stuff doesn’t get done, and people feel you’re not there for them.  

I would also say that as important as the daily plan is, every week or so I look out a month or two or three to see 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.  

Do you do any kind of self-assessment or plan for the future and long-range goals 

I do. I’m not sure I do it in as organized a way as I should, but I’m blessed with being married to somebody who is not afraid to give me feedback. I get a lot of feedback from my family and from my wife.  

After an assignment that hasn’t gone as well as I would expect, I ask myself what it is that I’m doing or not doing that’s contributing to something other than a home run. I often ask the client what I’m doing that is meeting their expectations and how I could be more helpful, what they might not have been willing to talk to me about to maximize my effectiveness.  

They have to genuinely believe that you really want the feedback. If you really want feedback, you have to reflect that. From each mistake I learn, I try to incorporate it into the kind of exchange I have with the next coachee. Once they know you want it, I think clients are willing to give it to you. It’s a gift for them because they’re going to improve the coaching you’re going to give them going forward, and it’s a gift for you because it’s making you a better coach. 

You emphasize values-based leadership. Talk about the law of the tombstone and what that means to you. 

For people who are achievement oriented and who want to get ahead and be successful there are a lot of pitfalls. It’s a lifelong struggle and challenge to be honest with yourself and represent the kinds of standards that you want to embody. The law of the tombstone asks what you want on your tombstone. Highly successful? Made a lot of money? Lots of vacation homes? There are some people who want that on their tombstone, but what are the three or four words that you want your family to look at on your tombstone and feel great pride in who you were as a father and a spouse and a parent? 

 To this day I ask myself what my clients are going to say about me at the end of the day? What are people who worked for me at Pepsi — 400 of them all over the world — what are they going to say? I would hope that they’d 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. 

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.