Bradbury H. Anderson's Acceptance speech at the 2009 Transformational Leadership Awards Gala
I'm going to turn sixty in about a week an a half. Yeah, it's amazing I've made it this far. It's my great achievement. I would like you to imagine if you lived your life, and for the first thirty years of that somebody was picking a team to go compete. Imagine if almost always, you were the last person picked —that's my life. Thirty years, almost always, invariably, the last person picked. And then you have the following thirty years, almost always you're nearly the first person picked. That schizophrenic has been the story of my life. And it's not like a story where, like in one of those transformational journeys, where in the first thirty years I thought it was so unjust that I prepared to really learn how to do something well and that was the second half of the story. Nothing close to that. I just had two different experiences. One from one side —they didn't like me —and the other side, they did. So, out of that you do develop a deep, deep appreciation for transformation, although some mystery about what it is. I don't know if any of you were ever guidance counselors, but in order to sort of set the table for that I have to sort of share the story because I'm like a kid who my high school guidance counselor told not to go to college because I would never get out. And believe me, he had abundant evidence.
I was inspired by Churchill's C+ grades. When I left the seminary, the inspiring job I took that really thrilled my family. I told them I'm not going to fulfill your dream and be a pastor, but I've got a career path —I'm going to be a clerk in a store. Where, was the choice that I made afterwards, and I did make it. I went to the place where I bought my stereo in college and I knew I could listen to music and get paid at the same time. And during the first two weeks of that job, I made $69. Which is today illegal, but at that point in time, if you sold that little, it was fully legal. Then I spent time in a little three person store that did $400,000 a year in business, which, by the way, is the same job I've got today. It started this way. I worked in this little three person store for seven years. I did work my way up to managing the three person store which was quite an achievement, but the founder of our company, I subsequently discovered, felt that anybody who stayed in one of those jobs for more than two years was an idiot because the job was so profoundly boring that you couldn't do it unless you were an idiot.
Well, what happened to me. I started in 1973. Our company, Best Buy was founded 1966 and it made its first dollar profit in 1977 and it started losing $200,000 a year in 1978. So, by 1979, we were losing $200,000 a year, huge negative cash position. You literally would run to get your paycheck cashed because who got paid was set in order of who arrived first at the bank.
The founder of our company came out to visit the store that I was managing, and I thought he was coming out to fire me because he was doing that in some other circumstances.
And he took me outside the store and he said, "You know things aren't going well," and I said, "Yeah I know." And he said, "I need to make some changes." And I said, "Yeah, I know, I know." And he said, "I'm going to replace the two people I've got running the company and I'm looking at two people who used to work for you. Which of the two do you think I should hire?"
And completely out of character, totally out of anything I would have ever said, I said, "You should hire me. Just pay attention, they worked for me, you should hire me." And to really imagine this, you have to imagine some long haired hippy —I had hair at the time —tells you this and you're in desperate straits, but he for some strange reason listened and gave me a part of the job that he had envisioned.
What I had done in the course of that seven years was, I had been in a store and I had been thinking about why things didn't work. Why all these decisions didn't work. And I was in a store and we were serving —because it was such a small store, we only served a few families. So you got to know the families, so if this decision didn't work for the Jenkins family, was it really a good decision? By the way if you read Outliers, some of this might register. So all of the sudden now, I'm in the office and I can make some of those decisions. I'd spent seven years that close to a few families and I started making decisions and they worked.
Not all of them, believe me, but a lot of them worked. And I won't take you through the rest of the story, but we somehow had this magical journey where we took —the company at the time was sixty-five people doing four million dollars a year —and we managed to take that into today's forty-five billion dollar Best Buy company in a span of about a little more than twenty years… closer to about 25 years.
So, I had this unbelievable journey of the transformation between being convinced by everything I saw in the world that I had nothing to offer, and then all of the sudden people seem to think that I've got something to offer. Same person, same skill set, same background, same experience, same brain —totally different response from the world. So what do you suppose your big conclusion would be that you would draw out of that? And how deep would that conclusion be? And for me, the conclusion is, I'm not the only one. That there's lots and lots of other people who have something to offer, who first, may not know it, second, may take a while to find it, and third, may never get a chance to do it.
It's pretty much pure luck that I got a chance to do it. Now, from a business standpoint, what makes a business successful? You do something better than your competition. How big of a competitive advantage would that be? What if you could hear what other people couldn't hear and what if you could recognize the talent that other people couldn't see? What could you do with that from a business standpoint?
There are a couple people from Best Buy here and this it actually induces pain every time I talk about this, because I do it so frequently. About twelve years ago Gallop shared some research which basically showed a bell curve. Gallop's core premise is that, which one I deeply share, that we add value in the world and things we're talented at and each of us has some talents that are unique.
But this particular piece of research was very meaningful to me because it said essentially that, and once you take those talents into organizations, the very thing that makes you unique, also makes it impossible for people to hear you, because it's unique. You started with the video showing Steve Jobs, who I've had the great joy of getting to know. The first time I got a chance to meet Steve Jobs, he was fresh into the job. Apple was not making any money and I was summoned out to see the great Steve Jobs. I went in to meet with him and he starts off talking about how he's got twelve thousand people, this is right after the crash of the dot com era. He's got twelve thousand people working for him at Apple that aren't doing anything. And he asked me, "What do you think I'm going to do about it?" And I said, "I don't know but I presume something." And he says, "No, that's, the Apple way is we're going to keep them, we're going to find a way to make it work. That's the Apple way."
Well I subsequently found the rest of the story out. In 1999, when the dot com boom crashed, what do you suppose HP and the other companies did when they went to Stanford for the graduating class for the engineers and technicians that were going to be graduating from those schools? They quit hiring. Jobs hired. He completely moved outside of the range of what any other normal human being would do and created incredible return. The premise of this research is essentially, that in large organizations, and the larger the organization the worse this is typically, communication is difficult. We find for people to be accepted as good workers you have to be able to understand them and none of us would understand Jobs because it would be too abnormal. So the more you have a unique insight, the less likely people are able to hear it.
So if that's true, what does that really mean for leaders? What should you be doing? How often should you be doing what everybody thinks is good leadership inside an organization? The research tells you not very often, because the actual thing that's unique and that's going to add value, is the thing that is hard to hear. Often times it's in the point of view of the angry person in the corner who thinks they're misunderstood. They are. How do you find that unique insight? And is it predictable? Was it predictable some long haired, fat hippy would have it inside Best Buy? No, right? Except that statistically, if you have enough curiosity, it actually is where it usually is. This premise sounds kind of sensible, easy to prove mathematically, and almost impossible to do. It is so against the grain of the way we operate in normal organizations or what we standardly think about leadership in general. The desire many of us and leaders have is to have the approval of the people we lead instead of challenging the people that we lead.
I think that this is the great opportunity of our age. We have two things colliding at the same time. Right now we are writing checks on future generations that we have no idea how to pay. And its not just the United States, everywhere in the world to the tune of nine to eleven trillion dollars this year, we are writing checks. Now there's a lot of discussion, when I talk to other leaders, people say, "Well, what we're going to have to do is reduce everybody's standard of living in order to make this real." I don't think that's actually what most people want for their children. I can't imagine that's what most people want for their children. And I'd say there's another scenario to paint. Which is that we're sitting at a blessed moment in time in which, not only do we understand more about what it is to be human and what it is to lead, but we have more information about it and have an opportunity to lead differently. Think about the tool sets we have today. Imagine if you were growing up in China twenty-five years ago and you were Steve Jobs. There would be statistically close to zero chance that you would be able to have any big impact. I met a guy named Jack Ma who runs basically the China's version of Google. He's an unusual individual. He's got an opportunity to be utterly different and to be heard and to be able to have an impact potentially on a global stage because of the era we've got. We've made it possible to communicate across so many channels and to hear so many different voices at the same time, and to be able to use such a divergent range of people's skills. The core story we're just embarking on at Best Buy, and the core dream for the future is that we take this sort of simple insight, that innovation, and connect it to trying to do something of significance. The value we each have as individuals is what's different about us, not what's the same.
Bob, I deeply appreciate what you said about, our lives have to have some meaning. We need it. You can see it in everybody's behavior. Look at someone who has no sense of it and how it impacts their lives. Connect that sense of lasting, meaningful contribution with the tool sets, many of which are just freshly available. The internet's thirteen, fourteen years old is just an example.. Now look at the problems we've got. They're big, but they're hardly insurmountable. No other generation in history has had anything like the tool sets that we have today. So my central dream, point, passion in my life, the central life experience I think, is that there's an enormous wealth of gifts that people have that haven't been used yet.
To unlock that, we've got to have the curiosity and the passion and the compassion for our fellow man that has us looking for those gifts. And then we've got to find a way to help them reach somebody to serve which gives them their meaning. I think that's an incredible point of opportunity for our era that is absolutely historically unprecedented and I think it means that the kind of work that everyone in this room is doing tonight, in terms of trying to explore it and understand what is transformational leadership, is of great substance. So, I don't deserve this award. I'm deeply appreciative for it and mostly, unbelievably grateful to have had this tremendously fortunate life experience I've had. And thank you so much for listening to me tonight; I really appreciate it very, very much.