“It’s a Scandal!” – Transcript
The number one threat I believe that I see most often is overconfidence.
Welcome to Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast. Our goal is to mine the stories behind our region’s innovators, inventors, and thought creators. We’ll be talking to experts in subjects from fashion to neuroscience to find out what lies behind the passion for their work, the inspiration for their ideas, and the motivation for their creativity, I’m your host, Maurice Baynard.
Carl Francis has been an adjunct professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business since 2005. He’s a strategic advisor who works with senior leaders to resolve difficult or threatening situations. Carl knows a thing or two about dealing with crises and scandals.
This was a first for 10,000 Hours. We’ve never actually recorded remotely like this. So thank you for being a pioneer.
Oh, well– and you put it that way. That’s very nice. I just saw myself as being high maintenance.
No, not at all. Carl, I feel like so much about your life is pioneering. Let’s start at the beginning. So where did you grow up, and what kind of kid were you?
Oh, wow. Well, I grew up outside– in the Western suburbs of Philadelphia in the Lake Bryn Mawr area. And then my family moved out to Chester County, which was a new land. It was unexplored practically. We kind of believed that there were Indians still out here. But it was a lot of fun, and it was a great place to grow up.
And so there were a lot of new things, and that fascinated me. There was– everything was new. There were new stores. There were new things to do. There were a lot of new people, and that was wonderful. That was exactly what I was looking for.
And I was always a pretty well-behaved kid except when it came to pushing the limits of things that– if there was something I wanted to do or accomplish, I was very much an ask forgiveness, don’t ask permission kind of kid.
So what did your dad do? And do you think there were some lessons that you learned watching him as a professional when you were a kid?
Well, yes. My dad was a big company guy. He had his dream job working as an executive in a big insurance company– one of those Philadelphia ones that was– it was a great company, and he loved that. And he would bring home work. And every night he would sit at the kitchen table, and he would work on office work, as he called it.
And that– watching him do that, that was just a very everyday kind of thing. I could always find him at the kitchen table in the evenings. And he was always there, and he’d stop and he’d talk to us. And he was a great dad.
But that was his thing was you use that extra time– you think, you plan, you get stuff done. And so that was– that set a good example for me later in life. Because I will– I work at home a lot. And so that’s just very natural to me.
But then something happened with my dad, and that was in the– oh, I think that was right before about 1970 when I was about ready to graduate from high school and go to college. And this insurance company he loved so much brought in some new leadership. And they decided that they were going to shake things up.
And they fired a whole lot of top executives, of which my dad was one. And it was heartbreaking for him. It was very hard on him. It was difficult for the family. It was– there was some questions as to whether or not I’d be able to go away to college. And he figures that out, but it was very, very difficult.
And so I made a very conscious decision, and that was that I was never going to go to work for a big company and put myself in the same situation and be vulnerable to that kind of thing, getting fired at this great time in your life and for no real reason other than to make a point. And so that fueled my belief all through college that I wanted to go into business for myself, for better or worse. And that’s what happened.
It’s interesting. The time frame of that story is really interesting in that before then– well, we live in an entrepreneurial culture now, and probably many students that go to college envision that they’re going to work for themselves. But prior to the 1970s, everybody thought that they were going to find a great job at a good company and stay there forever, right? You were going to retire from whatever company it was that you got your first job in.
Yes. That’s absolutely right. This was long before all the big layoffs and the restructurings and the downsizing and all the things that went on later on. This was before that. And you’re absolutely right.
Yeah. So you were there at the dawn of sort of the entrepreneurial wave. So what college did you go to? What did you major in? And how did that sort of fuel your ambition to where you were going?
Well, I went to Ohio Wesleyan University. And in part because I wanted to study under one of the top journalism educators in the country at that time, whose was Verne Edwards. He was a wonderful guy and a huge influence. But I never wanted to be a journalist.
And the reason was there were things I wanted from it. I wanted the skills. I wanted to learn how to write well. I wanted to be able to write, to edit, to think, to interview, to figure out how to write in a way that would influence people and inform people. And I loved all that.
But I never wanted to be a journalist because of the whole deadline and stress thing. You’re constantly under pressure, and it’s a dog-eat-dog kind of environment. But it’s also one that’s very important.
So I was always looking around for what am I going to do when I get out of school to make this all work? And I found it. I found my answer in my sophomore year, and that was what led to a lot of what I did career-wise.
This is great. So what did you find in your sophomore year?
Well, they gave us this– keep in mind, this was about ’77– ’71, ’72. There was a lot of concern about political activism in colleges. We’d come off all the Vietnam protests, and that whole mess in Vietnam was just about wound down. But they were– but a lot of the schools were very aware that they needed to have constructive channels for young people.
And so there was a lot of– there were a lot of political opportunities I got involved in. But they gave us [INAUDIBLE] to take a term off, our fall term in 1972 and do political work for any candidate we wanted. And so I came back to Chester County. I knew people then, and so I got a job. I was running the political headquarters and a lot of the campaign through there, and that was the Nixon/McGovern years.
What really transformed me was I met all of these people who were contributing their skills. They were able to do things really well. They were writers. They were designers, graphic artists– people who were very good in TV and in all kinds of broadcast and making things happen, building events. And it was a lot of excitement.
Of course, in that, I got to see the president, and I got to see a lot of things. And I said, OK, the whole advertising world, the whole marketing world, the whole political consulting world– these were things that I could do and be good at. And that set in motion what later became a lot of my career for the next many, many years.
I looked and I decided I can translate these skills into the corporate realm. And I did over time, and that’s where I went was into corporate marketing and brand building. But there was always an element there of strategic management and leadership, because the problems that I was running into seemed to me to be much bigger than, well, our sales are flat, or we don’t know what to do about this.
I wanted to get in and deal with the top management problems– the way they think, the way they act, the way they plan. That’s where I really wanted to go. And that’s, of course, where I ended up.
So as you saw it, what were some of the major shortcomings of leaders in their ability to think strategically about markets or about their business or about threats to their business’s survival?
Well, there are– your question goes to what shapes some of my courses today. After being at Drexel for 15 years and teaching probably close to 60 different courses, a lot about management leadership, there are a couple of things that I try and work into every class. One is what’s the number one job of a leader, of a top– a leader at any level? And so we go through and we have this discussion.
And I hear all these different things. And then I go, OK, here’s my definition. It’s one word. A leader must deliver. It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re being asked to do. You have to deliver. And people won’t look as closely at how you did it as that you did it.
And so that ability to deliver as a leader is first and foremost. But then there are a lot of side questions that come in. What is the biggest threat to a leader or to leadership in general? And that is where it gets interesting for me.
And the number one threat, I believe, that I see most often, is overconfidence. Oh, I got this. I can do this. I know. Because they’ve been able to do other things, they think that they can solve the problem at hand. But in a way that it stuck. They’re out of ideas. They’re out of options, or they’ve never seen it before.
They mean well sometimes. Sometimes they don’t. Or they don’t like the idea of [INAUDIBLE] leadership to some guy from outside the company or some team of consultants. And so they think they can do it. And that leads to things that now play very much into the realm that I’m in, which is dealing with a lot of trouble and turmoil and threats.
Because leadership, believing they can do it, or believing the answer will be sent on high– from on high and that the answer will appear, which it rarely does, they squander time. They mislead themselves on the resources and the talents and the skills that they or their people have. And they need a set of skills that they don’t have and a way of thinking they can’t do.
And that’s what I try and bring to them now, because so much of my day job, as I call it, is working with companies who have a major problem they’ve got to solve. And they have very little time– you never have enough time. And they don’t have the ideas and the options that they need. They’re relying on old ideas about how things should be done.
So Carl, I know that one of the things you specialize in is in scandal. Could you– I guess, without revealing anything particular, give us a great example of a project that stands out in your mind?
Sure. There have been a number of them. And you’re right. Some I can talk about. Some I can’t. But let me tell you about one that is fairly recent, within the last year. There is a municipality in the suburbs of Philadelphia that had a major, major embezzlement issue.
It was a township. The township manager, who was beloved by many, many people– and this has been in the newspapers. But she was secretly– instead of being– publicly, this wonderful, capable, skilled township manager that was getting awards– got an award from the governor and from lots of organizations and was citizen of the year, all of that. She was stealing money.
And over the last six years that she served, she embezzled $3.2 million from the township. And she did it in a lot of ways. It took a team of criminal investigators, a team of forensic accountants, about eight or nine months to sort through and find everything that she’d stolen– $3.2 million dollars.
And so it was a huge shock to everybody. People loved this woman. And that’s typical of embezzlement situations is it’s usually by someone that you just don’t suspect, that you got great confidence in.
And so first of all, everybody felt betrayed or they didn’t believe it. And then you have– well, how much money was stolen? Well, nobody knew. She had moved money between a series of more than a dozen accounts to cover her tracks, and it was a nightmare to figure out what was what. And she was giving all their documents that were presented in public and signed off by all the leaders. And this thing kind of just kept blowing up and blowing up.
And so what you have to do in most crisis situations is you have to buy time. Because the answers aren’t clear. You don’t have all the information. You won’t have for a long time. And yet people, they want it to be like a bank robbery, that you have three guys come in from over here, and here’s who they were, and this is how much money they got, and it’s over and done with. But it isn’t like that in these complicated situations.
So you’ve got to keep it– here again, you’ve got to keep things calm. You’ve got to keep them contained. And you’ve got to protect the leadership who need to be there to straighten this mess out, to bring in the right people, to get the investigations going, to report and communicate with all the taxpayers and all the residents. And there’s just a lot of moving parts to this thing.
And so one of the difficult parts of this was that it was going right into an election year where one of the three supervisors was up for re-election. And you had a lot of partisanship came in. And it was, well, if you elect our guy, this would never have happened. He would have seen this.
But in fact, the other party was in place when this woman was hired, and this went on all during their administration. So it’s just– on every level there was some new complication. And so our job was to help sort this out and to help leadership think clearly about it.
And so we went through it step by step. What do we know? What don’t we know? How much time do we have? What does the district attorney want? Well, the district attorney, like many lawyers suggest, wanted all the leadership to say nothing because it might interfere with the prosecution of the case, the investigation and prosecution. And so how do you communicate and serve your constituents and inform them when you’re not allowed to say anything?
So there were a lot of pieces to this. This would take hours to go through it all. But the basic idea is that you need– sometimes you need somebody that’s experienced, that is objective, that can stay calm, where you don’t have– nobody is attacking me, they’re attacking the supervisors and the leadership and the battalion of accountants and auditors and people who looked at the books and never saw anything wrong. I’m hesitant to say that it’s been a fun assignment, because so many people have been hurt.
Most find it in other ways. But it’s been challenging, and it’s sometimes very exciting.
Never, at least as of our recording, have many of us seen sort of the world working the way it is now. Most people out of work, most students not going to school. We’re all sort of trying to find different ways to live, which means that this is sort of a really interesting time in life. It’s always hard to analyze a moment while you’re in it. So let me pose my question to you this way.
So you are called up as a senior strategic advisor to whatever leadership board our country has. And they go, Carl, what are the first couple things we should do to get our hands around on both this crisis and trying to move the country forward? What is your advice?
Well, that’s a really big question, Maurice. And let me answer you as best I can. The first thing that I think would be doable and could start today would be to earn back some trust, that we have in this country been making a lot of statements that it’s us first, me first.
And we are in, of course, a global environment, and people have for many years looked to the US for leadership. But if this problem, if this threat is to be contained– and I don’t think it’s going to be conquered anytime soon, but it could be contained. And we need to have some simple– we need to have some simple guidelines.
And so here’s– if I were going to draw up a plan. If I had to go up to the whiteboard, and they said, all right, tell us what to do. I would put up three words. The first word would be calm. We need to calm people so that they will understand what’s going on and will do what is asked of them– to self-quarantine, to avoid other people, to do all those things. And that takes– that’s going to take rebuilding trust.
So I would say that we’ve got to forget the partisanship, the selfishness, all the other things that go on, and we’ve got to set that aside for now, almost put that in quarantine itself, and say, all right, we’re going to have– we’re going to really work to earn the trust of the American people and the people around the world, and America is going to assume a position of leadership and cooperation of sharing information and knowledge and working together. And so calm would be the first word in big letters.
The second one is containment, is contained. We’ve got to keep this whole thing contained. And here are the principles of how we’re going to do it, how it’s been done, what’s worked, what hasn’t, and share that information and help people.
I think we need not only to have– we need to have a mirror of what is said from the highest offices in the land in America and in– not only in Washington, but in every state. And all around the world there ought to be somebody trying to bring together agreement on what people need to do to be safe and to help others.
And then the last one is we need some confidence. We need to hear from people like Tony Fauci, I think his name is, who has a great ability to speak clearly. He’s the one who’s been kind of correcting everybody’s inaccurate comments and their limited knowledge. And he has the ability to speak confidently.
And so confidence is that third. We want our leaders to be confident, because they listen to people who are experts, and quote the experts, and let us see the experts and do all that. So that’s three things that could start and be done quickly within days.
Well, Carl, this has been really helpful and enlightening. Thank you for being on the 10,000 Hours.
It’s been a great pleasure, Maurice. I’ve enjoyed every second of this. And I wish you great success with your program.
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