Monday, February 13, 2012

Motivate Me

Catching up on some reading recently, I came across a story from the October 2 NY Times Magazine section entitled, “The Motivational Speaker Smackdown” ( It described the annual competition of paid public speakers, the genre of orators who kick off sales meetings, conferences and conventions, the type of inspirational force Herman Cain fashioned himself to be after he retired as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and dedicated his livelihood to the trade show and banquet circuit, before he inspired himself to believe he was qualified to be president of the United States.

During the course of my 30-plus year business publishing career, I must have listened to more than 150 motivational speakers. Terry Bradshaw gave one of his first public speeches at one of my publication’s conferences, a talk he mostly reprised when he was inducted into the football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. During the first keynote speech I heard back in 1977, I learned from Ken Blanchard how to be a One Minute Manager. I listened as Jim Hayhurst, a member of the 1988 Canadian Mt. Everest climbing expedition, explained success comes from teamwork, from trusting in the competence of others, that you can’t do everything yourself. He related those truths as he told of the moment during the climb when his twentysomething son lost his footing and got wedged on an outcropping over a sheer drop of several thousand feet. Hayhurst wanted to be the one to toss him a lifeline, but he realized someone else had a better chance of success, for one inadvertent move by his son reaching for the rope could mean he would lose his balance and fall to his death. His trust was rewarded. Ultimately, the expedition failed to reach the peak, but they all came back alive.

Most motivational keynote speeches leave you with a warm feeling. Often emotionally charged, with lots of humor thrown in, they try to instill life-lessons during their hour-long time slot. One common, central theme is the individual can control his or her environment, both at work and at home. Presentations often draw on the personal experiences of the presenter, whether it was overcoming some tragedy or illness or accomplishing a heroic or athletic feat. Rarely do they translate into identifiable business experiences for the retail industry audience hearing them.

With the notable exception of when Randy Lewis spoke. He delivered such a powerful message in his first appearance at one of our conferences that I brought him back to speak to a different group of corporate leaders eight months later. Currently senior vice president of supply chain management for Walgreens, Lewis was senior vice president of the drug chain’s distribution and logistics division when I engaged him to speak at a supply chain summit in Oakland.

A Peace Corps veteran who worked his way through graduate school as an Arthur Murray dance instructor, Lewis related the unexpected rewards of staffing Walgreens’ distribution centers with handicapped workers. Now, most people when told about handicapped workers think of men and women who perform menial, repetitive tasks, such as sweeping floors or pushing mail carts. Lewis turned that paradigm on its head. He hired workers with severe cognitive disabilities to do the same jobs as non-handicapped staffers. He paid them the same wages. He used technology to simplify processes within the distribution centers, a decision that helped all workers perform at a higher level. In fact, the performance of many handicapped workers at Walgreens facilities exceeds expected norms.

Lewis’ dedication to hiring equality was fostered by his own son’s handicap. Not content to just find a place to warehouse his son during the work day, Lewis created an environment he willingly shares with other companies. When he finished his presentation, he truly had earned his standing ovation.

My Link to the Super Bowl Champs: Though an avid NY Giants fan, I don’t go overboard (at least in my estimation, not shared by Gilda). But in the wake of their Super Bowl triumph, I found myself reading articles about their road to victory I would not ordinarily spend time perusing. One blog I read late Saturday night traced their resurrection, from a 7-7 team to league champs, to their exposure to Afterburner Inc., a “management consulting firm founded by a former US Air Force Pilot (that) visited the NY Giants and gave them a seminar on process improvement” (

It might sound a little suspect, one of those touchy-feely, feel-good seminars, but I can tell you from first-hand experience Afterburner is a dynamic program that stresses open and complete communication underpinned by zero tolerance for mistakes. Following the Afterburner seminar, the Giants’ defense, which had often looked helpless and disoriented during a four game mid-season losing streak, solidified. The return of injured players surely helped, but the principles of flawless execution espoused by Afterburner contributed as well. On its Web site Afterburner is promoting its link to the Giants’ success story (

I approved Afterburner in 2005 to be the featured presenter at a conference produced by my magazine for some 80 retail industry senior executives. It was one of the most well-received conferences we ran. It’s rewarding to see the Giants came away with equally impressive results.