Staying Power – Techniques for Longevity by Charmon Parker Williams

There are senior managers in corporate America who achieve these feats despite turns in the economy and regardless of what administration is in office. Read more about top executives get to the top and stay there.

Longevity. Staying power. There are senior managers in corporate America who achieve these feats despite turns in the economy and regardless of what administration is in office. They embody a class that has demonstrated commitment to their professions and each among them has managed to climb steadily to the top and remain there. How do they endure? Their strategies have been chronicled in numerous resources. One is the book “Staying Power : 30 Secrets Invincible Executives Use for Getting to the Top – and Staying There” by Thomas A. Schweich. He bases the book on interviews with more than 35 successful top executives, including Earl G. Graves, J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr., Janet Reno and a host of others. He cleverly recaps 30 “rules” associated with “The Invincible Career Path,” “The Invincible Personality,” and “The Invincible Management Style.” Here are a few samples:

  • Discover your talents early, and discard your fantasies immediately
  • When you suffer a set-back, come clean and bounce back
  • Work is a member of the family
  • Find a job that you look forward to every day
  • Harness your fear to sharpen your professional judgment
  • Value loyalty, but do not depend on it
  • Wield a spiritual shield, but not a spiritual sword
  • Take the high ground and never give it up
  • Intimidation chases away talent, opportunity, and creativity
  • Spend more time on information inflow than information outflow
  • Wring the emotion out of risk analysis

Do these rules resonate with African-American executives? In talking to three senior careerists, it appears that there is some common ground between philosophies. William McKnight Farrow, III, Joleen Spencer, and Moses Brewer personify staying power within their industries. Farrow is the chief information officer for the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). Spencer is senior vice president of marketing with Shore Bank. Brewer leads marketing and sales for Coors Brewing Company.

Defining Staying Power

Farrow talks about the brutal reality of this concept and suggests that people underestimate staying power. “People have a warped view that all of a sudden successful individuals are plucked out and put behind a mahogany desk. Success stories don’t all of a sudden emerge,” he said. “You have to pay your dues and your family and support systems are paying dues, too. This involves many sacrifices, including hard work and horrible hours. Success doesn’t come overnight.”

Spencer is responsible for leading marketing efforts for Shore Bank and its holding company. She is accountable for marketing, public relations, advertising, and product management. She helps to build local and national brand awareness, markets to retail businesses and faith-based customers, and manages mission-based deposits (i.e., from socially responsible investors). Spencer has been at Shore Bank for less than a year. Previously, she worked for 20 years as a senior vice president in marketing at Harris Trust and Savings Bank. In fact, Shore Bank was attracted to Spencer in part because of her many years in the banking industry. “Shore Bank currently is such a wonderful opportunity to bring my wisdom and express it in an organization that is dedicated to building its community and creating a new vision,” Spencer said. She has a simple yet profound definition of staying power. She considers it “the ability to stand in good times and bad times coupled with the ability to be gracious in victory and resilient in defeat.

Brewer is charged with leading marketing and sales development and has been with Coors for almost 23 years. During his career, he put together campaigns such as the “Coors Heritage Series” and has been responsible for shaping Coors’ image in the community and to several opinion leaders across the country (e.g., the NAACP, the Urban League, Black Accountants, Black MBAs, and the National Conference of Mayors). He defines staying power as survival. “You decide when you want to leave, don’t let others make that decision for you,” he said. “People have a warped view that all of a sudden successful individuals are plucked out and put behind a mahogany desk. Success stories don’t all of a sudden emerge. You have to pay your dues and your family and support systems are paying dues too. This involves many sacrifices, including hard work and horrible hours. Success doesn’t come overnight.”

Specific Strategies

What specific strategies worked for these individuals? Three key practices evolved from these discussions:

  1. Define your worth – your value proposition
  2. Proactively build solid relationships
  3. Have a sense of purpose and principles

Define Your Value Proposition

The CBOT is purely about technology – the physical exchange of information, Farrow said. In his role as CIO, he may have roughly 7 minutes to make a decision to shut down trading. Farrow, an MBA graduate of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is in his 5th job and 5th industry. Prior to his post at the CBOT, Farrow was employed in the consulting, consumer goods, and banking industries. “Early in my career, I decided to practice a discipline versus going into a specific industry – a discipline that could be leveraged across industries,” he said. “Find something you are good at so that you have a distinct value proposition. I can take an organization from A to Q in the life cycle of a business. … I leave it to others to take the business from R to Z. Understanding your value proposition requires you to recognize what you are good at as well as what you are not. My tactic has been to take the difficult job no one else wanted. That guarantees me a seat at the table. Consequently, I have always managed to get the kinds of positions where I am in the room with the first wave of key players.”

Spencer’s value proposition is her knowledge and creative ideas. “I fought to keep up in the initial years of my career,” said Spencer, an MBA graduate of Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “I felt like I was treading water. I read journals, networked, and went to conferences. But it was not until I became proactive about what I wanted to learn that I moved from not being in control to taking control. I have always been an avid reader. I used to read three to six fictional books a week. A while back, I committed to reading one nonfiction book a month on creativity and innovation. Then I started talking about what I had read at work and became known as the ‘business book guru.’ I was fairly knowledgeable about the latest management ideas and translated them into applicable strategies for my work. I know that if you read for one hour a day for 5 years, you would know more than approximately 95 percent of people. I didn’t take it that far but within my profession, I recognize the criticality of being viewed as a value added resource of information and new ideas.”

Brewer earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in communications at the University of Denver. This is also where he started his career. He views John Rice (father of Condoleeza Rice) as being a strong mentor to him while he was at the University of Denver. “Rice was the dean of student affairs at the time and helped me understand survival. He helped me establish relationships with key constituents,” Brewer said. After he graduated, Brewer and Rice put together a proposal for how they could have a more significant impact on student affairs. This led to Brewer’s first job— coordinator of recreational activities. Eventually he became assistant dean of student affairs and then university ombudsman. “My constant interaction with students, faculty, and administration was the springboard for a basic understanding of organizational structure,” Brewer said. “I developed negotiation, arbitration and deliberation skills.”

Coors Brewing Company saw these experiences and skills as assets and hired Brewer in 1993 to work in community affairs. He has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with this organization ever since.

Build Solid Relationships

How has Brewer been able to stay prominent at Coors for so long? Was Brewer or Coors immune to downsizings and restructurings? Certainly not. Coors has definitely been impacted by the down economy. Brewer’s staying power is based on a couple of strategies, including leveraging his relationships. Brewer touts the importance of building coalitions both internally and externally. In Brewer’s role, he is very visible within the community. You have to balance creating value for the organization with showing your commitment to your community. Brewer has spearheaded “cause-related marketing” (aka relationship marketing), where the community is aware that proceeds from Coors purchases will go toward a worthy cause (e.g., the Magic Johnson Scholarship program).

Brewer also credits his many mentors with shaping his career direction and influencing his commitment to his community. He was mentored by many of the early giants in corporate relations – pioneers such as H. Naylor Fitzhugh of Pepsi and Henry Brown of Miller Brewing. Similarly, Farrow has benefited from several mentors. They often were his sounding boards. “I have had amazing mentors to observe and bounce ideas off of,” he said. Farrow’s mentors include such notables as Forrest Fenton, Mike Miles and Alan Lacey of Bank One, and others. Spencer adds that being a team player tracks with being viewed as a valued resource and recommends staying connected to others on the management team. For her this means staying connected within the course of work and raising her hand to offer new ideas.

Have a Sense of Purpose

How do these successful leaders stay ahead of the curve and remain competitive? “Staying current is not the challenge,” Farrow said. “Staying invigorated and enthusiastic is.” Comments by Spencer and Brewer echo Farrow’s declarations. Spencer committed to exploration of professional development. “I developed a mission and purpose statement,” she said. “I looked at what I did well and started to hone these skills. I asked myself ‘what do I love to do?’ As I found out, I started to gain more confidence. This confidence coupled with my intense desire to learn, led to me just getting better within my career. So continue to refine what you have and love. Use this to build your competitive strengths.