An Interview with Best-selling Author Brian Strobel

Brian Strobel served in the Marine Corps before entering the corporate world, where he found success as a “change agent and enabler of excellence.” In the world of business, he applied his military experience as a manager and leader across various fields, including “communication, aerospace and defense, food service, healthcare, and retail sectors.” As a senior executive, he has been a leader in several multi-billion-dollar companies, where he also achieved “positive change through values-based leadership and a keen understanding of the systems involved.”

Previously, Brian Strobel has also earned a master’s degree in Management and Executive Leadership. He also learned directly from Ken Blanchard. He has earned certifications as a “professional coach, a lean six sigma expert, an Instructor in Situational Leadership, and an ASQ Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence.”

Likewise, Brian Strobel’s work has brought him to “more than 65 countries on six continents, including academic study in Europe and Asia and foreign service for the government of Australia.” He has “directly observed excellence and what could be classified as the opposite of excellence in the realm of cruelty, abuse, and neglect.” His experiences “provide a global view of how we can do things better.”

Brian Strobel has also written books on excellence, including “Pursuing Excellence,” and “Leading Change from Within.” The latter book has received a “series of national awards.” His latest book also delivers “innovative ideas and thoughts for how companies can approach our new world differently in their pursuit of excellence.”

Check out more interviews with successful change agents here. You can also check out Brian Strobel’s books here.


Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Brian Strobel: I’m in the early stages of launching a new company that will help organizations achieve excellence based on the methodologies that I have developed over the last 30 years in my roles across private industry and the government.

I want to provide an interesting example of my journey to excellence. It was one that I participated in from the other side of the world. I once served an exchange tour with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) from 1999 to 2001. My role was to manage maintenance and flight-line operations for a twenty-one plane Australian F/A-18 squadron in Williamtown, New South Wales.

The day I joined the unit, less than half the planes were airworthy. Not one of them was combat-ready. The RAAF men and women were proud people, but a sense of complacency dominated the culture. Fixed-winged RAAF aircraft hadn’t seen combat since the Korean War. The daily target for serviceable aircraft was ten, or less than 50 percent readiness. Activity-based goals drove the measurement for combat-readiness. Success meant completing 100 percent of the inspections, regardless of results.

The “way things get done around here” was permeated by a lack of urgency. Labor times to complete maintenance actions were twice as high as similar US units. As an example, RAAF mechanics would take more than two hours to replace an aircraft generator. I was used to it taking less than sixty minutes. We started changing everything my second day.

We increased the daily readiness target to fifteen aircraft. Within six months, we consistently met this new target. The combat readiness checks were changed to an outcome-based goal and at first reported dismal results. But changes were implemented, and within the year were regularly exceeding 90 percent fully-mission-capable.

Our Commanding Officer, Geoff Brown, was a beloved man and a strong leader. A year into our transformation, he announced his planned retirement from service. The traditional retirement send-off is a large fly-over for the officer’s final flight. I challenged the maintenance team with a breakthrough goal of having 20 of our 21 aircraft for the fly-over. At first, they thought this would be impossible. But as we began to approach the goal, they challenged me in return and decided to try and have all 21 aircraft participate. The squadron hadn’t had all 21 aircraft serviceable in the last 20 years.

The day of the fly-over arrived, and 21 RAAF pilots “walked” to 21 combat-ready F/A-18 aircraft. During the start-up routine, one of the planes experienced a failed generator. I thought we were doomed. But a team of mechanics responded. With the pilot still in the cockpit, they replaced the generator in fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes later, a 21-plane formation screamed above RAAF Base Williamtown, providing an honorable send-off for Wing Commander Brown.

Several months later, Geoff Brown was retired and selling real estate on Australia’s Gold Coast. I was back in the States, assigned to the Commander, Naval Air Forces, Atlantic Fleet. And then nineteen terrorists hijacked four planes bringing their war to America, and the world.

Geoff Brown came out of retirement and rose through the ranks to eventually lead the entire RAAF as Chief of Air Force. And that squadron from Williamtown, deployed a contingent of fully combat-ready, operationally excellent aircraft as it allied with America in the Global War on Terrorism.

Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Brian Strobel: I’d like to credit Marshall Goldsmith for the following piece of advice and mention that Marshall has provided an advance review for my latest book Pursuing Excellence. I’ve worked with Marshall on several projects and have always respected the clarity with which he sees things. He likes to give advice about the importance of recognizing the things you cannot change and learn to be “okay with it.” Leveraging from this, I often re-introduce people to the Serenity Prayer in my coaching. Applying the sage advice requires that people have sound situational awareness, moral courage, and judgment. Everything doesn’t need to be fixed. It can drive you to organizational insanity to try and do so, and lead to burn out. The key is to concentrate your energy on the things that matter, the things that must be fixed. And being “okay” with less than perfect for those things that aren’t as important to your success.

Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Brian Strobel: I’ve always believed the key to success is surrounding yourself with good people. There’s a lot of information out there about how to hire the best people. The importance of this advice is often under appreciated. One of the best strategies is to hire for character and train for skills. Earlier in my career, my first mentor used this strategy when hiring me.

As I transitioned from the military to the corporate world, I was aware that many former military leaders struggle to find a civilian role with equivalent authority and responsibility. After leaving the uniform behind, my first job was senior manager at a Fortune 500 company. I was hired for a position they had been actively trying to fill for more than a year. It was a quality management role in a multi-billion-dollar business unit. As part of an extensive interview process, I told the vice-president that I didn’t have private-industry quality management experience. He explained that he wasn’t worried about my experience, because he could teach me quality management. What I brought to the table in character and leadership was what they were really seeking.

Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Brian Strobel: I would define a “good” company as “average.” In many cases, this will be a company that seeks to conform to one of the many standards defined by the International Organization for Standardization, ISO. More than one million companies currently seek certification to the most popular ISO standard, Quality Management System.

The problem is that average is a learned behavior. We tend to seek comfort in a shared mediocrity. A “great” company seeks to move beyond average, or “good.” To do so, they must reject this comfort with mediocrity.

The best companies are seeking more. They are seeking to become “great.” They are seeking to become operationally excellent. In my book Pursuing Excellence, I define Operational Excellence and how it is not a certification, but a state a company reaches.

For me, Operational Excellence is the readiness level achieved when a business becomes aligned in its strategy, the culture is committed to the continuous improvement of performance, and the environment allows people to accomplish their work. Realizing Operational Excellence results in a more resilient business capable of executing strategy better than competitors, with higher revenues, lower risk, and optimized operating costs.

Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Brian Strobel: Such a pattern is actually quite common. In fact, it’s even predicted by the Competing Values Framework theory that is fundamental to my work.

Organizations evolve predictably over time. And their cultures follow a predictable pattern. The Competing Values Framework demonstrates how new companies are dominated by an adhocracy culture in their early years. Through their middle years, they evolve to a clan culture. Eventually, most mature to a culture dominated by either a hierarchical or market focus, depending upon their marketspace and product portfolio.

But such a path doesn’t have to be a pre-defined destiny and is always capable of being redirected and refocused. Application of the Competing Values Framework provides us tools to help restart our engines, when required. In general, this includes assessing our value-drivers and the leadership traits of those in decision-making roles. New ways of thinking may be required.

Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Brian Strobel: When companies stop focusing on just being average, and instead are genuinely pursuing excellence, a residual benefit ensues that helps them become more resilient. And by resilient, I mean able to withstand these turbulent times and possibly even grow stronger within some sectors. This is actually one of the primary take-aways from Pursuing Excellence. There are several strategies that I believe are important in accomplishing this. And each of these strategies requires that we discard some of what we believe to be true and employ new ways of thinking.

As we move forward in this current crisis, and the next crisis that has yet to reveal itself, we must approach our world through a different lens. My Lens of Operations Excellence helps us frame the problem differently and ensure we are focusing on those elements that can help companies become more resilient.

Crucial to these new ways of thinking is the requirement to move beyond traditional thinking that believes we must choose between one or the other. Instead, applying the Competing Values Framework and a thought process that is based on the reality that we can accomplish both this and that, we can create solutions that help us become more resilient.

As an example, most leaders are familiar with the idea of Blue Oceans and now consider this to be a business truth. Fundamental to a Blue Ocean strategy is the need to develop a corporate strategy that moves beyond choosing between differentiation and low cost to creating a Blue Ocean, pursuing both differentiation and low cost. Although the authors don’t identify it as such, this is the essence of both/and thinking and the Competing Values Framework.

Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Brian Strobel: I believe the importance of documenting a strategy and then tangible action to achieve this strategy are very, very underestimated. Relative to strategy, some companies stumble around trying to figure out what works and avoiding what does not. But they never stumble upon a strategy to focus where they’re going. Strategy is something documented through planning and intentional actions. Or rather, it’s something that should be documented through planning and intentional actions. It’s also something that’s hard to do. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be so difficult to find documented strategies that establish the path forward for our businesses.

A documented strategy is possibly the greatest-held secret within our companies. We need to reject this tendency.

Senior leaders must establish a clear purpose, a strong set of core values, and a plan to translate strategy into action. Within the book, I introduce my favorite tool from the Lean enterprise, hoshin kanri planning, or Strategic Goal Deployment, to discuss specific measures companies can take to translate strategy into action. The SGD process helps align a company to a common strategy focused on breakthrough objectives while moving the corporate strategy out from the shadows of the boardroom.

Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Brian Strobel: The best stories of great customer service are well-known. There are legendary tales from companies like Zappo’s, Ritz Carlton, and Nordstrom that most of us have heard many times. And there now are many new stories, soon to be legendary, telling of company heroics serving their customer during the coronavirus pandemic. But while my book and this question focus on that kind of relationship, I am going to pivot here.

We can optimize the customer experience through four specific actions: doing the thing; being responsible; taking the initiative; and enabling an environment for others to thrive.

These aren’t the typical actions we think of when we envision how to improve customer satisfaction. But these are the very things, if executed with precision and passion, that will delight customers and enhance their overall experience.

Doing the thing simply means completing our tasks. Doing them well. And consistently doing them to the best of our ability.

Being responsible results in ensuring what needs to get done, is done, and again, is done to the best of our ability. Our values and beliefs guide our actions here, not the conditions in which we find ourselves. There is no room for victimhood when discussing excellent customer service.

Taking the initiative results in action in the absence of direction. We seek to empower a team that understands and pursues the vision. We don’t want a team that waits around to be told to do the thing. We want one that does so on their own, guided by their judgement, intuition, and situational awareness.

Finally, enabling an environment for others to thrive is one of the fundamental outputs from realizing Operational Excellence. Remember, we’re seeking to achieve continuous improvement of the environment for those accomplishing the work.

These four concepts above are derived from a short but famous article written more than 120 years ago, A Message to Garcia. I doubt we’ll find these same ideas in any other leadership discussion about customer experience. But that doesn’t change their relevance.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Brian Strobel: I share concerns about social media, but I believe the real problem has been misunderstood. Social media has changed over the last five years. The magnitude and velocity of that change continues to increase each year. But reputational risk may actually be one of the lesser concerns.

Companies seek to understand their data and use it to create positive relationships between their products and their customers.

For most industries, this doesn’t create any sort of ethical dilemma. But in the social media arena, we must acknowledge that the advertisers have become the customers and we, as the users, have become the product. This industry’s growing ability to influence, control, and manipulate what we see, and therefore what we believe to be true, is a significant concern. Behind the scenes, the largest social media companies — and we all know their names — are engaged in big data and prescriptive analytics beyond anything that most of us realize.

I’m growing increasingly cautious about social media and the growing impact it has on our lives, both as private individuals and as leaders of our companies.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Brian Strobel: Most founders start out with a vision about a problem they want to solve. During the early stages, I believe it’s important to document that vision and the ensuing strategy needed to achieve it. Many founders do not do so, and as they grow and realize some success, they eventually deviate from that vision. Having it documented increases the likelihood of remaining true to the pursuit. And as the company expands, having a documented strategy helps others understand the actions necessary to achieve the desired vision.

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Brian Strobel: We need to start noticing things.

The fact that we fail to notice things has been subject to interesting studies. They even have a name for it — perceptual blindness. The studies argue stimuli overcome us to the point that we limit our focus and therefore fail to see the obvious. One of the more entertaining experiments here is “The Invisible Gorilla,” made famous by the video and then book by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Count me within the group that initially failed to notice their gorilla.

Research into this area focuses on how we use our brains. I’m not qualified for such assessments, but there may be another reason we don’t notice things. I believe we’re conditioned not to notice them. We see things that are wrong, but we don’t notice them.

Our education system teaches us to disregard our perceptions. We’re taught that examining our thoughts and perceptions is unimportant. We’re conditioned to document our research by citing another author’s work instead of exploring our own thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This results in a conditioned mindset that what we think is somehow less important than what others more famous have thought. Over time, we eventually struggle to notice ourselves.

We need new thoughts to believe that what we notice matters. What we notice is important. We notice things because they are important.

We can take some time to notice things around us right now. This means using all of our senses. I’ll bet we become aware of something we previously didn’t notice. Do this simple thing frequently, just a couple of times each day, and suddenly the world around us starts to look different.

Noticing things, and then thinking closely about what we notice, may result in looking at our world through a different lens.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Brian Strobel: Most of my online content can be found at brianstrobel.com or linkedin.com/in/pursuing-excellence.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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