Frank Buono: Trust, Loyalty & Destroying Doubt – From $0 to $50 million
On this week’s special episode of The Motivational Intelligence Podcast, David Naylor interviews Frank Buono, the President of NEXT! Ad Agency, a Division of CGI Communications. Frank has been a fixture at CGI since it was started in 1988, helping to grow annual revenues from $0 to nearly $50 million. This interview covers his journey and the lessons he’s learned along the way – namely, how trust, loyalty and destroying doubt have been keys to his and the company’s success.
His path through CGI has been characterized by his philosophy of, “I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” and an unrivaled driving passion. As the leader of NEXT! since its onset in 2010, Frank brings this passion to his clients and his team.
Frank resides in Webster, New York, where he lives with his three sons, Michael, Jeffery, and Eric. In his free time, Frank can be found skiing, boating, biking, and participating in anything outdoors. He also loves watching and playing sports with his friends and family, while exploring his passion for red wine. Frank hopes to be an advocate for “Main Street” businesses: watching their backs and always keeping them ahead of the curve with new technology and marketing trends.
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Frank Buono: Trust, Loyalty & Destroying Doubt – From $0 to $50 million
David Naylor: Well, hello everybody. We have a very special guest today. We have Frank Buono with us and Frank has a pretty incredible story in life, actually. He’s a gentleman who helped to co-found an organization that has a very unique approach. They leverage what they call “Authority Marketing.” They refer to themselves as a “Digital Media Factory”, and in many ways were a pioneer in that field long before the likes of companies like YouTube and organizations like that and very much working in what in many cases can be an underserved market in small and mid-sized companies. They support those organizations, they built a wonderful organization. They have about 350 employees now, offices across six states, so pretty neat success story. So, Frank, welcome!
Frank Buono: Great to be here, Dave and thank you for that kind introduction.
David Naylor: Well, you’ve worked hard to earn it. So Frank, why don’t we kind of start in the beginning? You mentioned in one of our earlier conversations that you and Bobby are the co-founder and you guys met when you were in college in Connecticut.
Frank Buono: We did meet in college.
David Naylor: Did you grow up in Connecticut?
Frank Buono: I did grow, I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. Although, I did meet Bob, our CEO, in college.
We really have kind of come full circle, we’re actually acquiring a company right now, which brings us full circle, but in sometime around 1986 shortly after I got out of college, I was working at a local family deli back in my hometown. I ran into Bob at the bank.
And in those days you cashed your check at the bank, right? And I didn’t know him well, but I see him cashing his paycheck and I’m like “Damn, that’s a hefty paycheck.” So I learned about what he was doing and as it turns out he was selling advertising, directory advertising under the umbrella of the Better Business Bureau colluded to authority marketing, authority advertising so it was having that third party endorsement.
So I took a position there as a straight commission sales person, went out on my first sales call and I think I earned more than I normally would earn in a month on one call. So pretty much got hooked and then it was not long after, through a series of events we ended up one day being in Western New York.
I was in Buffalo, Bob was in Rochester. We had another guy in Syracuse and not long after that we started what was called Community Graphics at the time, which became CGI Communications. We sold cartoon maps, drawing buildings with business logos. We’d go into any community from Des Plaines, Illinois to Fairport, New York, to you name it, Waltham, Massachusetts and we would create these cartoon maps and we would have a hundred or two hundred and fifty local businesses involved. So we learned very quickly in the power of small businesses, because one of those mouths would represent about 50,000 dollars in advertising back then.
David Naylor: So when you were growing up, did you have aspirations to be an entrepreneur, did you go to school for something along those lines?
Frank Buono: I don’t know that I would call it being an entrepreneur? I mean I had a marketing degree. I think you know again, I don’t know that anybody has anything really formed at 17, 18, 20, 22, 32, but I always thought I either wanted to be a sportscaster because I really like sports or own a sports shop because selling baseball gloves and skis are all things I like to do and so I had aspirations for that or possibly I worked in a family deli that was in my family, but spent eight years there. Unique fun fact about me: I’ve only had three jobs in my life. Truly. I thought I would own a sporting goods store or possibly a deli. I saw myself doing that and then this life kind of unfolds and this opportunity came along and I was like, “Yeah, sure, Bob, let’s go.”
David Naylor: That’s a seemingly fairly big risk, you were young….
Frank Buono: Yeah I was 23 years old, although I had gotten engaged recently, it wasn’t a huge financial risk because it was a five-year plan. We were going to go make millions and head back to Connecticut short while later and here we are 30 plus years. It’s been fun, mostly fun. Challenges are fun too. It’s really where the reward comes.
David Naylor: Especially when you have the benefit of hindsight, it’s when you’re in the throes of it is not as much fun. So talk to us a little bit about those about those early years. So you mentioned that basically three people who are starting this senescence from a kitchen table it sounds a little bit like, so what were those early years like? Were you successful right from day one or were there lean years that you kind of had to fight yourself through?
Frank Buono: We always made enough to live. Truthfully there was never a time, I mean there were some challenging moments where you’re like, “okay…” but always had a paycheck in a sense because we earned what we sold so we always believed we could sell our way out of problems.
So if I can give anybody advice, you can have the best products, you can have the best company, but if you don’t have anyone selling it, you’re going to struggle. Things don’t sell themselves. We were always paranoid about that driving new business. So I think that served us well, and again, it was also that coupled with being relevant.
I always believed in being niche so back in those days, we had a niche. We had a product that no one else was real selling. There was tons of people selling advertising but we were the only ones doing this and then we had our authority partnerships with the countless cities and mayor’s office so that put us in a different category that worked and served us well.
So we’re rolling up to 1989, 1999, 2000, 2001 and we were introduced to this CD-ROM that had a series of videos about a city on real estate education and healthcare, a welcome video and that became our flagship product. Not long after, series of videos about a community which we then took this concept and sold advertising to local businesses around and that really started in 2003. So long before Google video or YouTube certainly, Bob was brilliant here in forcing us to go to video on the internet. It’s commonplace today of course, we can’t live without it. But we made a really strong decision to start moving our company. So we were a five million dollar print company in 2003 and we started shifting to digital. We had a really tough year in 2002-2003, a little bit of growing pains and our own stupidity, a little bit of 9/11. Although I will also say that we never bought into reasons for not doing well. It’s tough to always point the finger at yourself because sometimes you can point the finger at yourself and not really believe it, but we would look really hard and say, you know, this is our fault.
It doesn’t have anything to do with tax season, it has nothing to do with the holidays, has nothing to do with the economy. We’re not doing well because of us. We have to figure it out, either work harder, work smarter, whatever. Whatever you want to do. But not long after 9/11, we went through some challenges. We had gotten a little fat. We weren’t really understanding how p&l statements work and some fundamental math, right? So we woke up one day and our CFO and myself and Bob sat down and he said well, we were probably backwards about 4 million, we had sold a bunch of stuff and hadn’t delivered it.
So we had a real decision to make, either we could say goodbye or we could figure out how to pay that million four down while still getting everyone paid. Our CFO laid out a plan that said this was the number we’ve got to hit and everyone will get paid and we’ll take care of all of our quote unquote debt.
Bob went out with one of our guys Jim Podlaski and recruited like a madman and I went out and got acquisitions and contracts with cities and we basically came back in October and we’re like, okay we came in at the end of the year, we ended up doing 7.4, so we took care of what we needed to, we were big boys, we took care of the contingent liability and in essence haven’t looked back. By 2005 we were fully immersed in video on the internet. So this again this goes back to the days of dial-up. Forget video on the internet just websites were almost new exactly. The idea of putting video content is unfathomable in comparison to today because if you could get a video to play and I know we’re not in front of people right now, but if the video screen was a 2 inch by 2 inch box that would buffer for about 3 minutes if it would even play, but we work toward that and actually have several patents around streaming video technology and identifying your preferred media player. So back in the day, if you were playing a video on a Mac, for example, it would go to Quick time. You would have to select it, or you would have to you have to choose your internet speed whether you were on DSL, Broadband, dial up…. we had a recognition software that identified that for the end user so that was an innovative move for us. We launched that product and it’s still in play today, some 18 years later.
David Naylor: So, here you are, you’re coming out of a tough time. You’re getting the company back on solid financial footing and you’re totally changing the direction of the way that you guys were moving, moving more towards a video focus. One of the challenges that organizations always face when they’re kind of in those transition phases is getting people to buy into that. So you built a workforce, they were accustomed to moving one way and now you’re kind of changing the direction of the organization. Did you have any problems getting people to buy in?
Frank Buono: Oh, absolutely, as you probably know there’s no magic answer to that. So again returning to fundamentals, part of what I believe is time will enforce, meaning if you have the time and you will something and again will is very subjective, but if you have an element of unrelenting will you can move things and then of course if you return to those fundamentals of building belief and getting understanding you want to have empathy for your staff, but not too much empathy, because you can almost become sympathetic toward your staff and if you have an unrelenting belief and you can look somebody in the eye and really looking someone in the eye only goes so far but if in terms of leadership, yes, they have to know you’re in the trenches with them, they have to know that you can lead by example.
So we were out on sales calls, consistently, we were generals from the front. I think that carried a long way. The other part of that is you have to do what you say you’re going to do, whatever it is. The foundation of any relationship is trust so people will slowly mold, change, adapt. Some did not. We lost some very good employees that stayed stuck and rooted in their print advertising and didn’t want to move but we continued to move the majority of the company and transitioned ourselves to where by 2007 we were 100% digital online video internet advertising company.
David Naylor: Wow, that’s phenomenal transformation in a relatively short period of time too.
Frank Buono: It helped that we were a small company. In the mid- 70s we were about a hundred employees, give or take.
David Naylor: So…….
Frank Buono: Still not a small number, but…
David Naylor: Exactly. Obviously being a successful entrepreneur, you’ve talked a little bit about the will and the belief that you had, that Bob had, and that really your senior leadership team had.
Did you learn anything along the journey of how you take that you know that core, strong knit of senior leaders, how do you transfer that to that workforce to really get them to take that same level of ownership and when something doesn’t go right point the finger at themselves and say “Hey, I need to move differently, I need to do something differently.” Did you learn anything along the lines that helped in that?
Frank Buono: Again, I think it still goes back to those fundamentals and I touched on it already, but it’s leading by example. So if I’m accountable to my team and understanding and most importantly that we serve our coworkers, we serve our employees, they don’t serve us and then you start to get one or two people following and then hopefully others follow them and then the rewards have to be there as well. So there has to be visible signs of a difference of improvement, but be it compensation, be it lifestyle, be it incentives, those things are all part of that mix. You can build a great belief in something, but if you’re not delivering, the belief goes away. Like I said, they have to trust you. So, it’s getting people to and I guess getting people to believe. I think sometimes I did it through osmosis.
I don’t know that I was always conscious of it. There’s certain things but I don’t know that I can really articulate it.
David Naylor: Well, but I think you’ve really pointed towards the most important thing and that is in the example that you and the other senior leaders really showed that cause people to buy in. Talk to us a little bit about the culture too, that you guys have worked to create at CGI.
Was that something that you thought about in the beginning of things? Is it something that developed over time? What are the key components that you think kind of helped make it so successful?
Frank Buono: I don’t know if it was the product of our environment. We tried to not make excuses and that was something we try to instill and we still to this day, we really work to accept the blame for when things didn’t go well and not take too much credit for when things went well., so that a lot of big egos, mine included, but we tried to remain humble when things are going well and again, look at creating a culture of winning as a unit, whatever cliché and there are clichés for a reason but, you may go faster individually, but you’ll go farther as a group. Its one thing to say that but it’s to demonstrate it and then along the line you have people believing but then there has to be some proof behind it. As you continue to build proof, then the core gets wider. Then you pick people up and it ebbs and flows in people. A big challenge you can have is that you yourself can be a Stallworth, you can be killing it. You may have personal challenges, life challenges, professional challenges, and we always talked about trying to Silo those things, which is extremely difficult. You have stuff going on in your personal life, it bleeds into the workplace. We prided ourselves, it was almost a badge of honor to be able to work through things. And that was a culture.
That was that was who we are, right after 9/11 we decided we’re getting on a plane, as soon as the airport’s opened up. We’re not going to let the circumstances dictate our behavior. We’re going to let our behavior dictate our circumstance. So that was a big mantra of ours as well in those years.
David Naylor: I love that. We’re going to let our behavior dictate the circumstances. What a wonderful way to turn it around. You talked a little bit about how the rewards have to follow the successes. How did you use the rewards to kind of pull the team together, were there things that you found that seem to inspire people a little bit more outside of just the paycheck kind of thing?
Frank Buono: So I think for most people and everyone’s a little different, having some level of autonomy and feeling as though they have control over the outcome is critical. I think for most people, feeling valued in what they’re doing, they make a difference and that they matter so it’s important. It’s pretty fundamental, but it’s extremely important for leadership to value and recognize what their team is doing. So in the early start up days of Next, I would be on our company intercom shouting out record weeks.
It was obnoxious. My team might’ve appreciated it. I love doing it because I love the sound of my own voice. It may have been somewhat obnoxious to some of the other people in the company at the time, but I was really tied into recognizing and rewarding recognition.
Giving people authority and responsibility is a big part of that. Trusting people, so what do I mean by trusting? Someone’s making a recommendation about someone on their team like they did to me today, they had five people that they recommended and I said “You don’t have to talk to me about them because I don’t know them well enough or their position. I trust you, go ahead.” Give them or do whatever you’re doing. Let’s talk about something else. That’s part of it too. I think that’s it; showing trust and belief in them. You can’t get trust and belief from them if you don’t trust and believe in them, right? So it’s reciprocal.
David Naylor: So to that point, I was on a call this morning with a client and they’re working on this major transformation in terms of their organization part of the problem they’re having is that they want to empower their people. They want their people to kind of step up and take that ownership but there’s an underlying fear in the minds of the people of “Geez, if I do this and I screw it up, what’s going to happen to me?” So people are kind of waiting to be told what to do rather than taking the initiative, right? So, how did you create an environment where people feel safe to try those things?
Frank Buono: That too is a tricky thing. Of course, it’s really difficult to mandate change, or “Everybody let’s be in power today and let’s all run through the wall together because we know we can break through this wall,” and you know at the same time there might be a door, that you can open the door and get to the other side.
In terms of really making it safe for people, that has to come before that in my opinion, meaning people have to be encouraged and almost applauded for trying and failing. And again, failure is only temporary. It’s a learning experience and I for one I know that in 2007, I started a team and it was a niche team inside of our flagship product and we were very successful and I wanted control over all of it. Not necessarily because I’m a control freak, but I wanted to be responsible. I wanted to be accountable, whether it was successful or not, if we were bad I wanted the blame, not as much, but I still wanted the blame, but I also wanted the blame if we were doing well.
As part of that process of learning I learned a bunch from it. It was successful but not as successful as it could have been. It wasn’t sustaining, perhaps, my ego will say it’s because I left it. Reality is I didn’t build it strong enough. That’s the reality.
So when 2010-2011 rolled around I had a really good sense of what I and what we but certainly what I needed to do to instill a message. It’s really comes back again to the fundamentals of clear expectations. People are afraid because they don’t understand what to do.
They’re waiting to be told what to do because they don’t really know, “What’s the benefit of my taking this action?” So there has to be some clarity we can talk all “We have all the opportunity in the world,” but what does that opportunity mean to me in my position in this place where I have five or six or seven senior people ahead of me?
I don’t ever see myself passing them or being on an equal playing with them. So those require conversations and effective conversations to say, this is the path and then of course you cite examples. You need the people that were there to reinforce your story.
They have to hear it from the people that were, as I mentioned again, this morning we were in a conference room, at one time that was the entire division. There are now 90 people but I think this was the entire division. So if you were sitting here 10 years ago, you would be going “Yeah, yeah, sure I believe, yeah.”
You walk in here today you go, “Oh, of course,” it’s matter of fact, right? So it’s instilling whatever the essence of faith and belief is and you need to have people reinforce your message. It has to be a consistent message. You have to work at it. You have to be paranoid about it, culture is a very liquid, very ambiguous thing.
You don’t really know it’s bad when it’s bad. You don’t really know it’s good, it just feels right. You think everything is cool and it ebbs and flows, it’s a living breathing thing.
David Naylor: I think that’s such an important point and I think it’s one that so often gets missed in organizations: the importance of really selling that vision and selling that picture to people of the why.
Frank Buono: This is who we can become.
David Naylor: Exactly, it becomes sort of the, today we’re fighting this fire and tomorrow we’re fighting that fire. But they never see the big picture and I think you’re a hundred percent right that inherently its going to influence the fears that people have, the uncertainties that people have, all the negative stuff.
You’ve grown tremendously over the years. You’ve brought hundreds of people into the organization. You’ve got this very special culture that you’ve created. How do you bring people into the organization and immerse them in that or for lack of a better word, indoctrinate them into that?
Frank Buono: Well, I think that’s an area that we could probably improve on truthfully. There’s formal elements of training, but it’s done informally and probably the most critical part of that informal indoctrination is because we have so many right employees, they take it upon themselves to mentor. While we recognize the value in that and we’ve encouraged that, we haven’t formalized it and that’s a conversation that’s occurred over the years. It’s something that as I’m sitting here now going, “Yeah, we had to revisit that again,” some things we did not cement as of yet, which I know would be a great catapult for our company as well as we are doing, we could be so much better if we had a formal mentoring program. I think that’s an area where we’re weak, frankly. But it’s done, as I said, informally and when things are done informally, they’re done happenstancenly and that’s a trap that many companies fall in, so you may have people doing it in some areas and not in others.
You may have people doing it, but not doing it right. I think when someone walks through our building in an interview, they pick up an energy and they like that, but then it’s six months later, as we all do, we wake up and we were like “hmmm,” doubt creeps in. I think our number one job, maybe not number one but its certainly in the top five, is destroying doubt. And again, it all goes back to the fundamentals. If they don’t believe you based on your actions and forget to talk because everyone is pretty good at talking but if doubt comes in they may have doubt in their performance, they may have doubt in certain things in their own abilities, but if they have doubt in the company, they have doubt in leadership. It blows up essentially, it blows up. So you have to be able…
David Naylor: It almost becomes a cancer that spreads.
Frank Buono: So you have to really be able to understand that. We’re in a constant role of destroying doubt and trying to work with employees and understand whatever the psychology is, but I often will say that it’s how much pain are you willing to endure?
Because it’s how we cope. It’s not so much that someone has more pain than someone else or more hurdles because we all do, but it’s how we cope, how we manage that. How you cope with rejection. How you cope with doubt, how you cope with feeling worthless.
Those are those are real human emotions that people go through and so much of that is in the encoding of a message, so you can deliver to a room of individuals and I could be talking to 30 people and 20 of them might hear this way, right? But there’s 10 people and then there’s 4 that really got a completely different message.
So you have to be aware of that. You’ve got to have your soldiers. You got to have your mentors reinforce a consistent message. Whatever that message is.
David Naylor: Just making sure they all know that same message because it you can see the power, I love how you said that you’ve got the senior leaders but you’ve got other ambassadors who are there when you’re not there and delivering that message when you’re not delivering it, and so it sort of surrounds people. It feels like if I’m one of those folks and I’m battling those doubts or those inner demons, whatever they are, knowing that there are people around me who are helping with that, it would almost feel like it would give you strength to figure out “How do I get past those things?”
Frank Buono: Yeah, you try to make it as relatable as you can and of course, we’re a little older than, without saying how old I am, I will say that I’m older than the majority. Our average age is 27 years old. So for me to think that I’m relatable to a 27 year old borders on delusion. I can relate as a parent, perhaps. So it’s understanding that. But we can all relate to certain things. We can all relate to certain fears, I’m not living their life, they have different fears than me and I’m going to different wherever and therein, you know, I’m not worrying about student loans, right? But we both can have dogs at the vet that we’re concerned about. Yeah. So you try to find a common ground and again it comes back to serving our employees, helping them get what they want. If you really make helping people get what they want and all walks in any part of life and I have lived this and have been influenced by this greatly.
But certainly when you when you find that the rewards come back to you tenfold and again it’s a little bit of hindsight, of course,because you don’t realize it at the time. So again, you have to trust some of those things that you’re doing but giving up, I think the natural tendency for people is to not want to give something up, it’s to hold on to it, it’s to protect, this is my piece of the pie and it’s I want to control, this is the job that I do really well, if I let somebody else do it, I’m not going to be as important. You have to get people to understand that letting go of that actually creates more opportunity, not only for the rest of the company but for themselves and they become better.
Leadership struggles at the very top to bottom in any organization because so many of the things that “I got there because of this,” and “this is the way I was and this is what I did,” and now you have to basically gift wrap it and hand it off and that’s my baby or I have my blood, sweat and tears in that and “I need to do this because I’m the one,” you know, and that actually is debilitating to the growth of an organization.
So this company that is trying to make this broad sweeping change, the leadership has to be able to get out of the way in a sense too, but they certainly have to build trust. And again trust is not a mandate, trust can’t be built overnight, but it can be done certainly and even if it’s dysfunctional, I don’t ever think that… I think everything is temporary. Like I said, positive cultures or temporary negative cultures or temporary…. there are thousands of examples throughout history of dysfunctional cultures that have been righted through the will of leadership.
It’s literally one stone at a time. We have an executive and he does this all the time, it was what his baseball coach taught him years ago when he played college baseball, but he would have a stack of nickels, but there would be one crooked nickel in the stack.
So if you ever try to stack nickels, they’ll stack nice. But if you have a crooked nickel in there, what happens to the rest of the stack if you start to build on top of it? Topples over, right? So I think the magic again for any company, and every company under should understand this, is you want to cultivate and keep your great employees and you have to make decisions to get the non-performers out, and so often that’s a struggle because you have personal relationships with non-performers. So in order to work through those things you have to have clearly defined expectations so that people can be held accountable so that you can feel and the leadership can feel and coaches can feel and mentors can feel like we gave that person every possible shot.
David Naylor: Right. It wasn’t our failing, it was theirs.
Frank Buono: I’ve often said, if you give a hundred percent, you’ll get a hundred percent from me, from that guy, from that guy. So in essence, you’re going to get about a thousand percent if you put in your hundred, because we’re all going to fight for you if you’re fighting for your job. You don’t always agree, you certainly don’t identify that in an interview.
You don’t identify how someone is going to respond to change. We have it going on right now, we’re moving offices and locations and I’m pumped. “These are my friends and now I’m going to move and but oh yeah, I embrace change. I want to grow, I want to evolve, but I want my friend.
David Naylor: Cheryl Adas, the wonderful lady who works with us, she said something to me and you made me think of it. I a training class one time, she said, “Whatever you hold onto ultimately holds you back.”
Frank Buono: That’s well said. That’s what I said in my three minute dissertation.
David Naylor: Her words, not mine. But like you, I was moved enough. I was like “Wow, that’s profound.”
Frank Buono: It takes a while to learn that. It’s counterintuitive, it goes against human nature.
David Naylor: Because you have to get outside your comfort zone, you’re right, to let go in that sense of trust and trust and have faith that maybe this person you’re handing something to won’t do it as well as you will do it, at least not in the early phases. But the only way they’ll ever get better at it is you have to allow them to do so.
You mentioned the recruiting phase because that’s really where it all starts. What do you guys look for when you’re bringing people and you mentioned, the average employee I think you said was 27 , so likely you’re bringing some people in right out of college or but it sounds like probably maybe more have their feet under them a little bit. So what do you look for in the interviewing process?
Frank Buono: So we like to see someone with a little bit of, call it work life perspective. We do hire college grads, but of course college grads don’t have that real-life work experience, but we’ve done very well, we have interns that were interns four, five, six years ago that got jobs with us while in college and are our best employees today, in our in our top 20 percent.
But in terms of finding that person it’s all the intrinsic values. I believe very strongly that you can teach skills, especially in our company. We’re not engineers. We have video editors and we have videographers that require a certain skill, but even that skill can be taught.
So it’s really trying to get the right mindset, what’s the want to? Again, difficult to measure but what’s their desire to be part of a team? Are they coachable? Give me proof of that. What have you done? When have you been at, you know, part of it is me, you know in an interview, I’ll ask someone you know, and “What basically irks you off about your co-workers?” and see if they’ll give me an honest answer. I have a lot of pet peeves. People that take credit for someone else’s work drive me nuts. People that make excuses? Not my favorite people. But I understand it, so trying to see you know where that transparency is.
I don’t think in an interview specifically, you’re sizing each other up, sure. Everyone’s putting their best foot forward and the reality is if I’m telling you the truth and you’re telling me the truth, then it’s real easy to make a decision. I want to work for this company and I want you to work with this company. But if you’re not then, so I try to get to there or I try to encourage my staff to get to there with the people they’re hiring.
David Naylor: So to get people to let down their guard because you’re right, you know, interviewing is a lot like dating, you know, everybody is you know, putting their best foot forward on those early dates. So is there any way that you guys have found to let people get their guard down or to get a little more transparency into people when you’re interviewing?
Frank Buono: Well, I think I do what I just said I will basically, and I try to have my team do that as well, to have her team do that as well, be that real with them. We also have people shadow the position prior to hiring.
So again, it’s all part of this is what the job really is. This is not what I’m telling you it’s like, this is what it’s like. Of course when people are in a different environment and they’re not being interviewed, they tend to be more open. So we’re doing a circle interview without actually people knowing it in the sense because they’re sitting down and their guard is down just because they’re just “Oh, I’m just chilling with this person a little bit, looking at what they’re doing from a work standpoint.” So we found that to be, the shadowing part is really important for us.
David Naylor: It makes perfect sense.
Frank Buono: It eliminates a lot of the “Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be like this.” That works for us, may not work for all companies, but it certainly works for us.
David Naylor: But again, it goes back to what you said about truth and honesty and so if you set that tone, then you’re more likely to get that same back from them, and that’s one of the things that kind of struck me in our conversation today is that you’re very much an individual who, you walk the walk and it sounds like you’ve worked hard to create an organization that does the same and because of that people model it in themselves.
Frank Buono: You know, and while the recruiting process is important, I think the critical piece is certainly developing people. Like we said, where you’re willing to give up that influence or that direct authority and then you know, what’s fun is when you turn around and understand that they are better than you and that’s not a bad thing and feel good about that. Feel good about helping “Get the best out of people” and the more you do that obviously the company lifts and you end up individually with more influence because now you have people that are killing it and that’s the fun part of the work life thing.
David Naylor: Well people can’t help but be more loyal and dedicated. They step back and they look at the difference that you’ve made…
Frank Buono: that the company has made.
David Naylor: Well, yeah, exactly, that the company has made in their life and really help them to get what it is they want, in their lives, Inherently, when somebody has done that for us or an organization has done that for us, we’re more loyal, more dedicated, we’re more bought in. It becomes part of our family, so to speak
Frank Buono: Again, we can’t expect loyalty without giving it. I know it sounds so fundamental and so basic but the idea that we should expect employees or customers or clients to be loyal to us if we are not loyal to them is absurd. So you have to work at that, you have to work at culture. We spend a lot of time working on building people up and cementing our culture. We’re going to deliver the best customer experience possible for digital media and we’re going to control what we can control, I’m not going to worry about what the sales person did and what was promised, we’re going to control what we’re going to deliver and we’re going to put a smile on the clients face, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to be the best. We’re going to be the best at that. We’re going to have empathy for our co-workers and I will often say at CGI because we have those authority partners, we have three client categories and I think this is a miss for a lot of companies, our clients are our partners in our case, they’re our business clients, which is a second category and then there’s our staff, our co-workers, our employees are also part of our clients and we are here to serve them and I think that isn’t always so clear to people. Are you a leader or are you a boss? You know we could get into that whole thing, but you know a boss is telling people what to do, a leader is obviously bringing people along and I think that’s really important. I think and the way you do that is by serving your people and it’s not always easy. This was all talk right here. The talk part is quite simple. It’s putting it into action, which is obviously the challenge.
David Naylor: I love what you said earlier about, you know, really one of the ways you do that and as an organization you do that, is attacking the doubt because I think that’s a piece that is so often overlooked in organizations. It’s that doubt, the insecurities all of that, that causes people to move the way they move, positive or negative and so just taking the time to recognize that’s the real enemy. And how are we going about attacking that doubt?
Frank Buono: Raw empathy is a good place to start. Being vulnerable. You as a leader, you as a mentor, you as a coach, being vulnerable and saying “Hey, not only do I understand that you may feel that way, but I feel that way or I have felt that way. And let’s talk about ways that we can manage that or understand that 90% of the stuff that we’re all worrying about never happens.” Let’s think about that a minute and let’s really see where you’ve had a life experience that you can draw from that gets you through that. But that’s really what we are, we’re the sum of our life experiences.
David Naylor: Was that something that was always easier for you to have that empathy or was that something that you kind of had to learn?
Frank Buono: No, I think instinctively we communicate and I learned a lot of this at 2logical if I can say that but…
David Naylor: A little impromptu plug there, but what we’ll let it slide.
Frank Buono: So I was not conscious or aware of it and I understood in myself, we all tend to lead people the way we like to be led. When you think about it, it makes sense that that doesn’t work for everyone. So because my you know because I was passionate or short-tempered depending on how you viewed it or intense or whatever and I was like “Just tell me what to do, you want me to go through the wall,” not everybody responds to certain types of leadership. Some people need to be patted on the back, other people need to be kicked in the butt. Some people respond. Some people are better at delivering messages. Some people are better accepting messages. So being aware of that, so that developing that empathy was challenging because I just felt everyone felt the way I did.
So why aren’t they just responding to me? I would do this. If someone told me that, I would just go do that and that that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. So really trying to understand as I said earlier, having empathy but not being so sympathetic that you don’t expect people to move. The tail wags the dog, in a sense.
David Naylor: Their self-doubt start to rule at that point in time, so you can’t, if you buy the fact that they can’t succeed then that inherently is going to cause you to move certain ways. But if you truly believe in them and you truly believe in their capabilities, then its “Okay, I understand where you’re coming from. Let me help you get to another place.” So if you don’t mind, let’s go a little deeper on that because I’m kind of curious because that’s a big thing. I think for leaders it is. I remember when one of our folks John Casey, he shared, I think it was David Barr who at the time was the CEO of Baker Hughes, he had come into a meeting that we were doing, I think was in Dubai and he was kind of addressing the group. If I remember right, he was talking about something he called new managers disease and he said “There are two symptoms or two conditions of new managers disease. First is the fundamental belief that you have to know everything and second is the belief that you have to be tough to get anything done. What I’ve learned is that both of those things are fundamentally false.” I think that being vulnerable is something that for many people is it’s a very difficult thing because then it’s almost..
Frank Buono: Indicative of weakness
David Naylor: Exactly.
Frank Buono: We as leaders don’t want to appear weak. Certainly so again, instinctively we try to say “Oh, we have the answers because everyone’s looking at us for answers and if we don’t have an answer…” but again, that is a fundamental flaw of many leaders certainly and they feel that they have to provide and have to know the answer.
But again, I think you as much as you understanding where your team sits, they understand where you are that you don’t have all the answers, but you’re confident. I say this often times, I’m a confident person but a great deal of the confidence that I have is because of the team I have around me.
I’m extremely confident in what they’re capable of and I feel that they believe that when I say that most and then again I try to walk the walk and all those fun things. When you have that and you can truly be like “Hey, what could I have done better there? What do you feel I needed to do better there?” rather than just critiquing them and you are open to true feedback, if you can build a team that you trust and they trust you where they can actually critique their boss to some extent, it’s a great thing in my opinion because self-reflection is paramount for anybody in life. Looking inward and looking at things and really simply, of course, looking at it and saying “Yep, these are a lot of things I did great. But what did I do poorly and what can I change?” and getting people to understand that and see that and understand that they’ve done it in their lives, their entire life, but it’s really about trying to give people formulas, and it’s almost like you had a combination to a safe and you’re trying to find.. and every combination for every person is different. There may be similarities, but you’re trying to unlock the safe. You try to connect. It’s fun.
David Naylor: So to that point and I think you’re a hundred percent correct, the value of self-reflection is woefully underrated, and people, they love to focus on when they hit the home run or when they turned in the great sale or whatever it is, but don’t spend anywhere near enough time taking the time to really reflect, “Why did that come together the way it did and what can I learn from that?” and equally as valuable when things don’t turn out well, why didn’t they turn out well and how can I do it differently or how can I do it better next time? So is there a formula that you found?
Frank Buono: I think you just hit on it. The formula at its very simplest form, is to look at what went right? Not only, what went right with this outcome? What went right with past outcome? It’s challenging though because things aren’t always easily repeatable. So because you were successful in one time, it’s very difficult to recreate the same aura or chemistry. But there still are foundational elements of that are foundationally true, but you look at what you do. It’s looking at what you did poorly without beating right each other up. In making it a bitch session quite frankly because that doesn’t really serve any purpose, but if people understand that you’re looking to see what we can do better, it becomes an act of self-improvement, not a critique of “You’re a horrible person and a horrible human being,” and I think that’s important.
David Naylor: You have to depersonalize it, I think. It’s more about actions and less about self-worth.
Frank Buono:. Exactly. I think that’s where we instinctively when we say, “What did we do wrong?” the behavior was wrong, like with parenting. You’re not a horrible child, just that behavior is unacceptable. What can we do to improve it? I think those are all things that we need to learn and part of that learning is a desire for wanting to get better. There are a lot of people that don’t necessarily understand a lot, but there are people that don’t want to get better.
David Naylor: Or maybe they don’t believe that they can.
Frank Buono: But there has to be a willingness and if people are willing, then that’s fun. Those are the people I prefer to be around, of course, who doesn’t.
David Naylor: You said it earlier in the conversation, it’s always in the want to, and if somebody has that want to, they’ve got that burning desire in their gut, there’s not going to be a lot that stops them. Undoubtedly, for you and for Bob in those early phases, that burning desire is what fueled the start of the company.
Frank Buono: And continues it. Again, this is part of it, people have successes, co-workers have successes and it’s always getting to that point and then now that you’re there, how do you go to the proverbial next level? It’s whatever that is for you. Like for me one of the things that gets me out of bed is my commitment to the folks that I work with, my promises. Early on it was more about “They told me I couldn’t do this.” I didn’t think I could do it, I didn’t think I was good enough and whether it was true or not, I convinced myself that was what was happening. So I had a chip on my shoulder and then you know, there’s different elements now. Now it’s, as I said, wanting to prove to people that they made the right decision to hitch their wagon so to speak to CGI. That’s an important piece, I don’t want to let people down it.
David Naylor: I think you bring up a great point, so often people, they have a picture in their own mind of something they want to achieve or something they want to accomplish and they get there and then they’re kind of standing going… and they just spin you know, and they don’t feel the enthusiasm. They don’t feel the burning desire,the passion that they once did because they never reset the bar. I love where you reset the bar of where you know, okay, it’s not so much about now, proving that I can do it. Now it’s about I don’t want to let all these other people around me down and I want to see them succeed and see the difference. To me, that’s the real essence of leadership.
Frank Buono: It feels a lot better even.
David Naylor: You look around and you think about those men and women’s lives and how different their lives are because they chose to become a part of your organization.
Frank Buono: Yeah, I think one of the most fun and proud moments for me is, as an organization, and while our average age is 27, but it’s now when we have bring your child to work day, it used to be like eight kids, now it’s like 80. So it’s people buying homes. It’s people building families. It’s all of those kind of things and to see a physical, visible, tangible proof of that is pretty sweet and while you know, there’s always the work-life balance, although when we were younger, Dave, there was no such thing as work-life balance.
David Naylor: You never even heard of the term before.
Frank Buono: You see that and you go. “Wow,” it’s awesome to see the significant others and the spouses and it feels as though they’re part of the family. It is exceptionally rewarding to see that.
David Naylor: So, I’m curious, Frank, knowing what you know now and what you’ve learned through the journey, if you had to give the younger Frank advice when you were back in Connecticut before you moved to Rochester and you started the company, what advice would you give your younger self?
Frank Buono: Oh, golden nuggets? I think for me having done a lot of self-reflection, I would have had to say, I went through school and I was good with the “B, B+” without a lot of effort, played sports, I was decent athlete but I was reluctant to really put myself fully out there to go for the “A”, to be the best player on the team because I was afraid of failing.
Took a lot to come to that. It was “I’m good here, but if I go for that and I don’t get it, then I have to rationalize something to back to myself.” So I think I would convince myself, and I’d advise myself that failing is just part of the journey and it was okay to do that stuff. I think that would be an important piece. I think I would certainly talk about managing doubt and how to turn challenges into fuel. I mean, I like a challenge, but when you’re getting beat up and like I said when doubt is creeping in and you make it fun and you make the challenge fun, and you make overcoming that challenge and then you learn how to draw on life and it’s essentially saying, “Okay, I’m going to get through this,” and building your own sense of self-worth when nobody else is. I don’t know how you convey that to somebody necessarily, but that’s what I would tell myself.
David Naylor: So much of that is …
Frank Buono: Positive visualization, I will get to this place. I see what I want to become and keep that and let the subconscious mind do its thing a little bit but trust in that and it’s hard to trust when you’re not doing well or you’re struggling but again, letting yourself know that 90% of what you worry about doesn’t even happen. So having the benefit of hindsight, I probably would have shared those thoughts, I think.
David Naylor: That’s what really allows someone to break away from being ruled by fear. To your point, being ruled by that positive visualization and where you want to go instead of where you don’t want to go. I think that’s pretty good advice to give to young Frank, you know.
Frank Buono: If only we could take it back because I would go back because as you know, the only thing we can’t get back is time. You can replace anything you want in life, but time is not one of those and I think even if I didn’t know what I know now, I’d want to go back in time, I think.
David Naylor: It’s always those little things that make you appreciate things more.
Frank Buono: So yeah, we’re excited. As I mentioned in the very beginning, coming full circle, we recently acquired a company that has relationships with Better Business Bureaus and advertising and authority advertising. So it’s, and while our journey is certainly not done it certainly, there’s a bit of a loop right there and it’s pretty wild to thirty years later be back in that environment again and to see just randomly out of it because that model has carried through our company and has been a foundation for us. So it’s kind of a nice little footnote in CGI’s story,
David Naylor: Very, very cool. Well Frank, thank you so much for coming in.
Frank Buono: Happy to do it.
David Naylor: And for you sharing your wisdom today. There’s no doubt in listening to your words the reasons why the organization has been as successful as it has and it really does come back to great leadership.
Frank Buono: Well, I appreciate that. And as I said, I enjoyed it and look forward to obviously more of these. This was fun.
David Naylor: There you go. Thank you, Frank.
Frank Buono: Thanks a lot, guys.
*Transcription was edited for clarity
1:48- How it began
8:58- Figuring it all out
12:20- Time & unrelenting will
18:50- Behavior dictates circumstance
24:00- Clear expectations are key!
26:50- How to indoctrinate people into the workplace
37:51- What is looked for when recruiting new people
40:30- How to get people to let their guard down during interviews
49:27- “New manager’s disease”
55:18- The “want to”
58:59- Final thoughts