It’s true what they say that it’s lonely at the top. Former CEO Todd Ordal says he gets where CEOs are coming from because he’s worn their moccasins and felt their pain. Todd’s new company, Applied Strategy, was developed over years and years of screwing up and making mistakes. He now works with CEOs and helps them lead better, profit more, and sleep soundly at night with coaching strategies that work and has more organizational effectiveness. Todd talks about the problems he came across and the growing pains of setting and building up an organization.
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Applied Strategy: Helping CEOs Lead Better with Todd Ordal
In this episode, we have Todd Ordal who is the CEO of Applied Strategy. He is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip on a Hot Day, a great book. I’ve been through the book. I would recommend if you have not. It is a how-to and it tells you specific things you can do. Todd, thanks so much for being a guest on the show.
Thank you, Bob. Welcome to the People’s Republic of Boulder.
Tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve.
I’m a former CEO and I now work with CEOs and help them lead better, profit more, and sleep soundly at night and hopefully without narcotics. That looks like coaching strategy work and has more organizational effectiveness, mostly CEOs of $50 million to $10 billion in range that I work with. Industry diagnostic and my work’s all over the country, a little bit of international. I hail from Boulder but don’t do much work here.
For the folks who don’t know your background, when you’re out in the space, there are a lot of consultants around on there. You did this for a living before consulting?
Yes. The reason I have a voice in this world is that there are all the mistakes I’ve probably made so there’s not much that my clients can screw up that I haven’t already screwed up. I can hopefully help them make different mistakes. I’m an operating guy so I can come at this coaching consulting thing from a senior’s perspective as opposed to a psyche community. I got an undergrad in psych, but I’ve made all of those mistakes. I had been in their moccasins and felt their pain and know it’s lonely at the top, so I get where they’re coming from.
I was going through your book before the show and you have experience with Kinko’s and some rather large store. Let’s talk a little bit of the backstory or background of you and Kinko’s.
I stumbled into Kinko’s on a college long family connection, ran a store, then ran more and more stores. I eventually ended up on the board there and had 7,000 people working for me. This was during the growth years of Kinko’s and we just had an absolute blast. Building that company was so fun and I was there for twenty years. It was just a riot. In fact, one of your friends, Larry Hay, used to work for me when I was at Kinko’s, but I had a division office here. We eventually rolled that thing up and sold it to a private equity firm. I stayed for three years after that and ran a couple of other smaller organizations. That’s the short story.
You were working for Kinko’s and for those that don’t know, it’s an office supply event, correct?
FedEx eventually bought them. They killed the name but it has been FedEx Office, which you would probably know them as now, that’s closest thing to what it was.
There’s that time frame and you see it grow, you see the growing pains. I would imagine pretty much every problem that you could run across, you ran across. That’s part of the employment. There’s at some point where the organization started to mature. You guys were approached by the private equity group. When the offer first came in, not the specifics, but what was going through your mind after twenty years at Kinko’s?
It was our desire to sell the organization. I was not a large equity holder, but very unusual structures. You’re a financial expert so you’ll appreciate this. It was 128 different escorts with an umbrella organization. The question was how do we get out of this thing? There were three problems that we had at that point. Number one, if I’m partnering with the founder and I own a handful of stores, let’s say Oklahoma City is my territory and I own five stores in Oklahoma City, what do I do with them? How do I get out of this? I can’t release my capital tied up here.
Number two, the Internet was just coming around. We had to learn how to spell it back then. It’s like, “I wonder how we leverage the network effect of all these stores we now have?” Because we were not at that point.” There was a reinvestment piece. A lot of those owners were not reinvesting in their business and this is what we’re about to put in wide area networks, mobile area networks, some of the technology expenses that’s happening, the capital expense we had to start working on. People were unwilling to do that. How do we solve all those problems? We got to sell the company. We brought Goldman in and he helped us package it. It took us about three years of hard work pulling up together to get it ready to sell and then we went out to the market with it. That’s the way that thing happened.
That’s probably the first circumstance like that I’d heard of. It’s all packaged up, Goldman’s done whatever they’re going to do, and you’d finally get an offer. When you came home and talked to your bride and said, “Honey, I think it’s going to sell,” and then it sold. What was that like for you mentally knowing that it went from Kinko’s that you know to Kinko’s sold to another entity?
My perspective was not so much as a shareholder because I did have equity in a few stores, but I was more of a hired gun and some of the partners weren’t. At that point, I had enthusiasm for new ideas, a new capital, and new ways of doing business coming into the company. There’s a whole lot of work to be done because it was 128 different S-corps on December 31st, turned into a C-corp January 1. All of a sudden you’ve got 128 different HR platforms, payable platforms, and leadership styles that have to be resolved. It was an awful lot of work. A lot of the original founders left. We ended up replacing a lot of that homegrown talent with some folks who had more traditional business skills. I was enthused when we got the same pull together. I also was of the belief that if we didn’t do something then we’re going to start to deteriorate.
When we rolled it up, we were still growing 30% a year. It’s still a very healthy growing business but I knew that without some leadership changes, without changing the way we’re doing things, it was not going to continue. I had enthusiasm for it. Some of the equity folks, those people who owned ten, fifteen, twenty stores who weren’t working that hard probably reduced just a big payday for them. For me, it was more about what’s the next big job. Which is what turned into for me. It was fun.
You went through the transition melding the other hundred plus HR systems. You get to the period where your career ended with the new entity and you transitioned into the next career, which was what?
When I transitioned to the end of that one was 45 days of skiing and a couple of trips to Ireland with my kids just for fun. I don’t mind telling you the story. I ended up working for a guy. The roll-up was fun. We brought in a whole bunch of senior leaders and I ended up in one of those senior leadership roles. At one point three years after the roll-up, I ended up working for a guy who I had zero respect for and that one didn’t work. I said, “After twenty years of fun, I don’t want to ruin this.” I don’t know if you had any similar experiences in your life or not. I left without knowing what I was going to do. For the first time in my life, I had to go find something to do.
The people you thought were good friends turned out to be only business associates.
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What was that like?
It was humbling and in fact, I didn’t tell my wife I was going to do it. It was during a phone call and this guy wants again something and I thought it was just ridiculous. I just said, “This isn’t going to work. Let’s figure out a way for me to get out of here.” They asked me to stay for six months. It was an interesting experience, but to go look for a job initially scared the hell out of me. I came back from my hiatus and all that skiing and I walked into my office, I was like, “I wonder if I unplugged my phone. It hasn’t rung for a long time.” The people you thought were good friends turned out to be only business associates. Some other folks whom you didn’t know at all were willing to jump over a blazing fire to help you. I thought it was a fascinating experience.
We had four young kids at that time and we determined that we were going to stay in Boulder. The natural thing for me was to go be a multi-unit retail guy somewhere in a big city. I said, “I’m just going to do that, so I’m going to figure it out here.” I ended up running some smaller organizations in a sporting goods company. It was the first CEO gig which was a turnaround thing that I did for a private equity firm and that was a mess. I’m happy to share that story.
We talked about stories before. In the age of all the technology and all of a sudden, I still think that we’re all very well-wired for the story side. I think that’s both in our preference. Going from this massive organization, then you did the consolidation of all the back office and left there for integrity reasons sounds like a good idea.
Twice in my career, I did that.
You only get your integrity one time, then you go to a massive turnaround situation. There may be a lesson or two in there. Let’s dig into that.
There are a number of lessons that I learned. This thing had been started by two entrepreneurial smart young founders and they had grown rapidly. They took an investment from a PE firm and the wheels fell off very quickly. One of the founders left and they asked me to come in and fix it. Banking covenants are broken, we got manufacturing problems in China, product recall issues. It was a disaster and I didn’t know that business model or whatsoever. I had never been to China. I’m selling through that retail channel and dealing with the clowns in that industry. There were a bunch of them. Interestingly, that industry at the time, a lot of the executives were former frustrated high school football player. You’d understand what they’re all about.
We fought fires for two or three months and that thing was about ready to go broke. We got them out of the tailspin and about three months in, I walked into my office one day and I thought, “That fire is smoldering. This one’s smoldering. The bank’s relatively happy. I’ve been to China and done some work there. I got half of the team who now like me because I was the fixer guy. The other half still hated me, but that’s okay. What do I do now?” I’m not out of answers, I’m out of questions. For me, that was a seminal moment.
If I can share a quick story about that time I had read this vignette about a guy who won the Nobel Prize. His name is Isidor Rabi. In his acceptance speech, it was for Physics, he credited his mother and he said, “When I was a little boy, I would go home, and all the other children’s parents would say, “Did you get the right answers today?” My mother would say, “Isi, did you ask a good question today?” For some reason that just resonated with me, so I shut my door in my office and I thought, “What are the questions I have to ask to be able to succeed in this environment?” I guess it was self-learning through that. I crafted this list of questions to keep me on track. That was perhaps one of the most similar learning experiences I had in my career frankly.
You talked about that in your book. I think about the evolution you got from a long career in one firm, the transition from that into private equity firm and then departure from there and doing a turnaround. Obviously, the turnaround worked.
We got them going again. I got recruited with a good way to a startup. I had that experience as well. I then went onto another interim CEO thing and eventually came into this consulting coaching world. I just experienced an awful lot of stuff, made a lot of mistakes, and that allowed me to have some context when I’m working with clients now, trying to help them figure out, how do I solve this problem, how I get to the next level, how do I get through the crap I’m going through on a daily basis, because I get where they’re coming from. I feel their pain.
Shifting gears a little bit, we’ve touched on some of your backstories and you’re now in the consulting role. When you left the employment and operating world and you went into the consulting world, what do you think are the key differences between running a company and running a consulting firm?
A lot of folks who have operating backgrounds at one point in their career say, “I’d liked to be self-employed. Perhaps I’ll go consult.” What they don’t realize is running things and helping others run things is way different. The biggest issue is you have to hold back and not share the answers. You got to ask questions. I don’t show up in buildings and tell people what to do. What I do is try and bring good questions and help them sort through their own problems. It’s the process part of consulting that has to be learned. I can still leverage my business back on all those mistakes and some of the successes I had, but I have to do it in a different way.
It’s not show up and tell them what to do. It’s showing up and ask them questions to get them to come to their own answers. It’s the process of consulting and the process of coaching. I spent oodles and oodles of money and time learning that after leaving the average career. Much like you’ve been, you spend a lot of money and time learning how to do these podcasts venture you’re doing. I see people make that mistake. They think I run something, therefore I can consult and that’s not the case. It’s a different skill set.
You’re either working or looking for work. From many of the consultants that I ran across, you’re either good at one or the other and it’s rare that you enjoy both.
I had to learn to enjoy looking for work. I just view it as a puzzle at this point and that makes it fun for me. Like you, I enjoy relationships and conversation. Life’s about conversations. How do I get into more conversations? I enjoy that piece of it as well. The client work itself is fun as well, but I don’t mind the marketing piece of it. Learning to balance that as a solo premier is difficult. You go from 7,000 employees to zero.
I think about the continuum reference to snow skiing. For you, when you went on some of your ski trips, did you find that that was useful when you were thinking about your clients or did much come to you on the slope?
Yes, it does. I do my best thinking sometimes in a chairlift, at least that’s my way of justifying. One of the things that probably both you and I have to do is set aside that time to reflect and think about what’s working and what’s not and how can I apply previous experiences to current experiences. I build in time in my weekend and every day to do that. In fact, I have a list of eight questions I ask myself every night. I score myself on them as a reflection tool.
I learned that from a guy by the name of Marshall Goldsmith who’s a very famous coach. It keeps me oriented. You have to find that time, especially doing the work I’m doing. There are some consultants who are very process oriented. They’re helping folks install SAP, which would bore the hell out of me quite frankly, but their work is different. That’s different work than I do. Mine is more about thinking. How do I help this woman, or this man think through the issues they have? This is a reflective work.
How did this most recent fly-fishing illness arrive?
My brother and his wife came out to visit. We were both executives. He said, “We should go fly fishing.” I said, “Sure. I’ll find a guide,” and we did. I had done it before, but the bug didn’t catch me back then. We went out and had just a wonderful day up in Rocky Mountain National Park. We caught mostly six or seven-inch trout which was fun. It was fun enough that I went back out with that guide a few times and I said, “Would you help me buy a gear?” and I did.
I’ve been out with a bunch of other guides. Now it just turned into an addiction. Once as we sit here and it’s June, I’ve probably been out from January through June. I bet I got 30 days in already. Some of it are partial days and some of them are in the snow and I lasted fifteen minutes. It is the most peaceful activity. Standing in some moving water and watching that thing float until something grabs it. It’s just fun.
I think about people that don’t have the fishing affliction. I’m wondering why into it is a great deal and things come unbidden. You think about it and it comes in and maybe two disparate thought processes link up for those folks and for the guy that’s gotten us to the grindstone a 100% of the time. I would urge whoever’s listening that doesn’t have a bad affliction like you do bicycling or skiing. My sport was water skiing.
Thinking a little bit in your book, you mentioned that your son served in the Marine Corps. I think about the role of the parent at some point when they’re younger, it’s more you do, and they by and large most of the time. How do you see your role changing from pre-service to post service for your son?
I admire all my kids. We have four. Danny specifically, he’s always just been a very service oriented young man. He would come home from school and watch the Military Channel.
My kids are 28 and 30, I think of what I’m doing now versus maybe what I thought I would be doing. Being that you’re a consultant and a coach, I was curious where you see those things crossing over with your kids.
I now realize that when they were about five, they quit listening to me. I don’t tell them what to do anymore. In fact, it’s interesting I find myself calling my kids for advice occasionally now, which is fun. The table is turned. Learning from our kids is an interesting venture as they get older. One of our daughters is very much like my wife who’s just this very, very creative artist. When she was young I thought, “This is just frustrating. She and I don’t speak the same language.” Now I think if I want to see the world in a different way, I need to see it through her eyes or through Danny’s eyes, the Marine. The conversations that you can have with your children when they do get into their 30’s are fascinating.
I learned a lot from my kids at this point. They do call for counseling occasionally and if I’m smart I respond to the question rather than here’s what you should do, because that still doesn’t work that well. It didn’t work for my wife either by the way and it doesn’t work with me when she tries to use it on me. It does help to go through all that coach training and all these thousands of hours of coaching I’ve had under my belt. It is a wonderful learning experience. I learned a lot more with clients than they ever learned from me, which is fun.
I’d describe it rather poorly as on the world’s first business lawyer. I love going inside the business and going, “How did you think of this? Why are you doing what you did?” You’re successful doing this and you hear the backstory. Many folks that have never owned a business have a misconception. They have no idea by and large.
About a lot of things, the stress level that it can put on you, what it feels like you have to make payroll when things are tight, signing personal guarantees and all that stuff. If you’re an owner or even if you’re a hired guy, the responsibility for all those lives. You take this personally, their successes as well as your own. It’s a daunting role to be in, but fun too. If you believe in capitalism as I do, if you believe that businesses are what makes the world tick or economics as I do, where else would you rather hang your hat? It’s a good place to be.
We just end up serving. It’s all the problems and helping folks out. That’s what I see as we’re sitting here. You’re sitting next to the bookshelf and as I was driving over, I was listening to something. The average CEO reads about 60 books a year, and I think about my reading habits. Part of this one, part of that one, back to this one around. For you, do you still find yourself as engaged reading as you were when you’re in the organization?
When I was young, I used to think there was an answer to everything, so I read constantly looking for the answer. Now I realized that there are multiple answers. There are just multiple paths and you have to choose one. When I think about the reading I do now, I do more history reading and more biography reading than, “Here’s how you should do that.” A book by Drucker called Management, that’s probably from 1970. I don’t think that anything better has ever come out.
I probably couldn’t quit reading. It’s probably the best book I ever read and the most influential person I’ve ever run across. I wish I would’ve met him personally, but I never did. A lot of the other stuff on that shelf is rehashed Peter Drucker. I read less and less of that stuff. It’s not as though I know it all, it’s just through the lens of being 60 rather than 30. I get how the levers of business operate. Things change. We have to worry about things that we didn’t worry about before.
Business is still business. You have to identify a need you can profitably serve.
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Cryptocurrency is of interest to folks, security and all the stuff that with your background, you know something about. At the end of the day, business is still business. You have to identify a need you can profitably serve. How do we do that? I still read a ton. I like a lot of fiction. I’m a spy. I like the spy world. I still do read business books as well. As we were talking about strategy, I piled up all my strategy textbooks.
It’s a big pile and as you said at the end of the day, what do you do with it? I’m more interested in what’s the application law and stuff rather than some in theory. I still love to read, but that Drucker book was seminal. I still pull that thing out frequently and it’s just as valuable today as it was in 1970 or whatever that thing was written. It’s a wonderful stuff.
You talked a bit about leadership. Do you get much question or conversation about how do I take in and lead? Do you get much of that?
I’m probably not asked exactly that way except for maybe younger folks. Most of my clients end up being 50’s or 60’s although I have a couple of younger coaching clients. I’ve had some in the past who ended up in very senior roles. I have a C-level executive who’s 40 in a large company. He has those questions and so we talk through that. There is no one right way. There are some things that work better than others. You got to care about your people.
We can run through the litany of things that I think are important, but leading and managing are things you can learn. You’ve heard different methodologies from lots of different folks who have been successful. You have to combine what works in management and leadership role with your own value system and answer those questions yourself, but searching for the answers, struggling to come up with the answers to those questions and asking the right questions, who do I need to be as leader? That’s something that I spend a great deal of time talking about.
Periodically, you run across folks and you go a little concerned about this or run across the folks and say, “We don’t think that leadership is taught very well.” Of course, the military probably does it more regimented, systematic method of teaching and developing leaders than probably any other disciplines that we have because I didn’t have a choice.
I didn’t understand that until our son went into the Marines, but it’s a wonderful organization as every all the service. There’s an awful lot of learning that goes on there that the rest of the world would benefit from. Part of the problem is you go to school and you’re trying another leadership from folks who’ve never led anything. That’s a challenge. Just like my coaching and consulting practice quite frankly. There are a lot of folks out there coaching executives who’ve never been in a leadership role, who never had to worry about making payroll or the HR problems that have come up or a shift in strategy or there’s a benefit to having that background.
One thing I did want to touch on as I was reading the book, the difference between strategy and tactics. You just said, both of those and for many folks, I don’t think that they get the differential.
I’m sure you have a perspective as a military guy about strategies and all those words that get talked about frequently. If you ask 100 CEOs what it means, you’re going to get 400 answers. I’ve got multiple ways to describe it, but you’ve got to answer at the end of the day that strategy has to say where do we play and how do we win. One way I’d like to think about it is vision is where we’re going, and strategy connects current reality to that vision. It’s what do we do to get from here to here and tactics are the how.
A strategy has to start with a global statement that says, “This is what we’re going to do to win in our marketplace. This is why they’ll buy from us versus somebody else to get from here to here and the tactics are how.” There’s no real bright line there. There’s a wonderful quote in the Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, he says, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” You got to start with the big level stuff. That’s fun work and I enjoy helping folks sort that out.
The vision statement is not just something on the wall.
It’s got to mean something. It shouldn’t be, “I want to be rich,” because your people don’t care about that.
I think about that one comment that you made where you said it’s not just about you, that you’re responsible for the people in your organization. If you have some level of concern, that they can go, “I have a lot of other mouths to feed other than just my family. I’m responsible for their well-being and development.” That sounds easy to say.
Leadership has obligations. You can’t just preside. You got to lead.
Nothing like leading from the front. Shifting gears, for you, what’s the most recent book that you’ve read or influential book that’s altered your perception on what you do?
Probably a book by Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist called Enlightenment Now. The subtitle is fascinating. It’s not specifically a business book. It’s a book that I’ve been buying for all my clients and a bunch of my friends. What’s fascinating it is there are a lot of data in there and what you discover is the world’s pretty good place. It has been getting better and better when you take the long view. Getting all amped-up about the headlines every day in the paper it’s maybe not worthwhile. There’s a lot of Economic Theory in there and this is an admitted liberal guy from Harvard who brings all these lessons too. That’s one that I’ve been commending anybody I can get in front. It’s about reason and about rational thought versus just all this emotional crap that goes on in the world. It applies to business and applies to life in general. That one really hit me. It’s a good book. I’m going to reread because I probably missed a few things.
It is interesting when people forget that the news channels are in the business of selling ads. If they can take an extreme common regardless of what you believe and cause you to tune in to again. It doesn’t necessarily equate to being useful news.
I think we have a dearth of fact-based conversations going on in the world. You pick the reason and I can give you a couple of mine, but that’s unfortunate. There are a lot of foster out there. In that book you probably come away from it learning some things, but also saying even the long view, things are pretty good and they’re getting better. We still got lots of problems in the human race, but there are a lot less than they used to.
I was thinking about this as you were talking as a licensed pilot you. When you look at the broad range of business folks that you know and there are the pilots and the non-pilots, do you think there’s a key distinction between the two?
You learn the process of learning to fly airplanes or you’ll kill yourself. It’s about checklists. It’s about doing things in a sequence and about learning those things that will harm you and ignoring some of the other stuff. It’s about preparation. You got a bunch of instrument conditions and you got to know what you’re getting into. You got to know what to do when this happens and that happens. It’s about problem-solving. I don’t think I ever thought about it in those terms, but it’s a unique experience to learn to do that and to be able to apply it to the rest of your life.
I think about the difference between being in a car and being on an airplane. The car is not multidimensional. As my friend says, “The enemy of flying is a lack of altitude.” I think about the aviators and their perspective.
I’m not sure that I ever thought about how I learned life lessons from my flying experiences, but you do and I’m not anymore. In fact, I used to fly a lot and I quit flying. I was legal and current by FAA standards, but I didn’t feel comfortable, so I quit. I thought this is not a good place to be if you don’t feel competent. The difference between legal and competent is different.
I flew in college and that was scholarship. We flew with a little assessment. It was probably the most dangerous thing when I was in the air. I had little knowledge and lots of freedom. I didn’t know what they were thinking.
When I look back now and you can get your license in that first trip, you go on by yourself and then I look back on it and go say, “It’s a wonder we don’t all kill ourselves.”
You’re flying with the map on your knee. Now you look at it on iPad, GPS. For you, looking back over your career, I presume there was a failure at that time, it was an apparent failure. How did that serve you or your company best or set you up for future achievement and why?
Every time you fail in an organization, even if it's a minor failure and if you don't fail, you're not trying.
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I twice left jobs for what I would call ethical reasons. You might consider those failures, but in a way, they were very good learning experiences. They were both high-paying jobs, so it wasn’t easy. The benefit of being able to consider yourself self-employed even when you’re not is maybe what I learned and reinforce the lesson that leadership is everything in those organizations. You might call them failures, or someone might, but with the hindsight of a lot of years now they feel like good learning experiences. Every time you fail in an organization, even if it’s a minor failure and if you don’t fail, you’re not trying.
One of the things I’ve had to learn is not to be afraid of failure as I’ve gone into the soul piece which I’m doing. Those two experiences were both very good learning experiences. I wasn’t comfortable at that time saying, “I’m out of here,” but it was the right choice. The failure stuff is more fun for me now than it used to be. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. For me to say, “I don’t know” is now easy. It used to be hard to do when I was 30 years old. Even with clients, I get questions occasionally and say “I don’t have a clue how to answer that question. Let’s go figure it out.”
If you could put an ad on the local paper, your favorite paper, sharing your message or advice, what would it say and why?
It would be a bold headline that said, “It’s lonely at the top but I can help.” We talked earlier and in your experience with a lot of the executives and business owners or your friend at the NSA, who do you talk to? Where do I bring my problems? Sometimes the problems are about my team and so who do I talk to about that? Sometimes the problems are about my board so who do I talk with about that? I have to in some regards appear as though I know what I’m doing. If I believe our strategy is incorrect, who helps me through that process? I’m that guy because I’ve been in their shoes and I can bring the process and questions to help them get through those issues. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top. That might be the headline.
Most of the time you think that there’s this problem or there could be a technological shift, or a regulatory shift and your company is running fine until you have the regulatory shift. What used to work doesn’t and now what?
It happens. Unfortunately, many executives don’t think about changing until the brick walls are too close and you got to have a methodology to scan the horizon and see what’s out there, what’s around the corner. What might we be thinking about that will change our business? Some of it is predictable. In the Wall Street Journal, they were talking about the number of folks in our age group and how it’s increasing and causing impact on social security.
That stuff’s predictable and some things aren’t. A new ruling by the National Labor Relations Board had a significant impact on one of my clients at one point years ago. Nobody saw it coming and all of a sudden it was a huge threat to their business model. They perhaps couldn’t have predicted that, but a lot of the businesses ended up with challenges that they have to deal with. They could have predicted them if they’d been looking at.
On time allocation, what’s the best allocation of the time or initiative that has helped you the most with what you’re doing?
The practice if this is what you’re asking is I’ve learned to become more of a slave to my calendar. I spend Monday mornings planning for an hour, Friday afternoons I recap. I’ve got a daily recap as well to keep me on track. Those practices as simple as they might keep me relatively organized. I’m a relatively organized guy to begin with, but without those practices and they can be, I can get off track.
We all can, with nobody around here telling me what to do. If I don’t do it, I’m in trouble. I do have a coach though. It would be in some ways ludicrous for someone who does coaching, is learning to have a coach. I do have an accountability partner who keeps me on track. I share my objectives with him and talk about how to best meet those objectives and he asks me questions and next month we’re going to sit down and talk about what I got done, what I didn’t and why, and usually answer why I didn’t do something in here.
You said you have this habit, there were the eight points that you look at every day.
The question is, “Did I do my best?” There’s a psychological reason for asking it that way. Seven of those eight things are not business-related. One of them is learning, one of them is eating healthily, one of them is be kind to my wife. I’ve got those things in there and I rate myself on a one to ten scale. I don’t do that on weekends. I do it every Monday through Friday at [5:00]. There’s a little alarm that goes off. I sit down, and I answer those questions.
It’s almost irrelevant what the answers are, the scores, but it does drive my thinking. It drives what I’m going to do the next day. It causes me to look back at my calendar and say, “I just squandered a couple of hours doing something when I should’ve been working.” When I first started, I kept looking at numbers and I got a little too wrapped up in that stuff and now I just answer the questions.
It is interesting when you have a group that feels like a great day. You can’t tell and you don’t know why because those things hit my value system as well. I answer those questions and they ended up being pretty good scoring and now I know why. Where in the past you go for a pour over that Martini and say, “I had a great day but I’m not sure why.” Now I know why, or if I feel frustrated at the end of the day, I now know why. It causes me to change my behavior a little bit which is the only way we can improve.
What’s the most unusual habit or what others may consider out of the ordinary that’s helped you most?
I’ve started to ask my clients to do this technique and I’m getting some real a-ha moments from them. First, let’s identify what those questions are for you because they’re different for everybody. That’s when it’s helped me tremendously, but it certainly helped my clients quite a bit as well. It is a tool.
There are a lot of these consultants, they come in, create a report, drop it on your desk and go, “We’re all counting on you. Good luck.” This is an application where you can go through and conceivably you could change your questions over time. You think about that as a feedback loop again. I’m all about actionable tools. For the past three years, what belief or protocol have you established that helped you in this company most?
Probably my esteem around my ability to help executives has continued to increase since I’ve been doing this. I don’t know if we’d call that a three-year horizon. It goes back further than that. We all deserve to have healthy self-esteem and I’ve brought that up to the table the more confident I am with my clients. I’ve asked my clients a few times, “What value did you get from this? Was this helpful and why?” Whether it’s a strategy project or a coaching assignment or whatever.
For many of the listeners, they’re going to go, “What do you think about this? What’s the tool I can use? What’s your insight that you brought to the table? What changed for you or your clients?” This is a way to prompt that. What advice would you offer to a new CEO that’s assuming the role of CEO for the first time?
It is interesting when you get into that role. I went from being president of this larger vision with 7,000 people, but I was not CEO. I know P&L, I know strategy. That turnaround thing was my first real studio title and it felt a whole lot different. One of the questions the first day is like, “What do I do here?” There are some answers to that question and there are different answers, but you’ve got to pick some. Maybe in some ways what I tried to replicate was, “How do I become a CEO?” It’s not that long book.
The one thing I would tell them, go to work and learn every day. Don’t eat lunch by yourself. Read and engage with others in your community because when you’ve got the title, even if it’s in a smaller company, you can call other people and they’ll respond to your phone call. Go find other folks you can learn from. At Kinko’s, we were a very non-traditional company. We didn’t have a bunch of X whatever. In our company, there were no X, Procter and Gamble people in there telling us how to market the organization. We all just figured it out.
One of the smarter things I did was I realized that passion and interest alone won’t get you there. How do I run this organization more effectively with processes and tools that I put in place? How do I communicate more effectively? I would go out and search out people in the community. I had this phone call and say, “Here’s what I’ll do. Can we have a cup of coffee? I’d like to hear what’s going on.” It’s as much what you’re doing with this podcast series. That increased the speed of learning for me, just trying to find as many smart people as I can talk to. That’s what I would do.
Looking over, what work should you have said no to and why?
This will maybe be more of a generic answer than you’re looking for. We can always go make another block, but we can’t make another minute. It’s probably the things I should have said no to, the category of things were things that I should have just said. “This is a time suck and I don’t need to be doing this.” I like to be pleasant with people, but there are some folks who want to meet with you that you just shouldn’t meet with. That’s probably it. I’ve learned to say no. I’m assertive, but I’ve now say no to some things that perhaps I would have said yes to in the past just to try and be nice.
One of my best clients who is a brilliant CEO but he was such a pleaser. He wouldn’t turn down any requests for lunch. He finally realized, “I just can’t keep doing this. I’m burning but the answer’s not working.” Sometimes you have to risk offending people to do the right thing. He learned that lesson, but that’s probably where it falls. There are some things I’ve done that was wasted time. I don’t begrudge wasting some money to try in something new, learn something new, but wasting a bunch of time on something, that bothers me.
In the day to day operation of your company, what’s the personal habit or self-talk dialogue that keeps you and your company focused?
There are a few lessons. Those eight questions keep me focused. The other thing is in spite of the fact that I’m fairly high-priced and I do this for a living and doing this to help people. It’s that nice versus kind thing you just referenced. It might be nice for me to tell my clients what they want to hear, but it’s not kind. It’s not the right thing to do. For me, it’s just to be brutally honest. Trying to help people get some insight into the things that they don’t see. That’s probably it. The context is always a little bit different, but many of the challenges are similar. You could make a list of them probably. I bet with twelve, thirteen, fourteen you get most of them.
For folks to find you, how do they find you on social media?
I don’t spend much time on Facebook or some of the platforms but I’m on LinkedIn. They can certainly get to my website. They can find me on Amazon and buy the book. My website is ToddOrdal.com or AppliedStrategy.info. I spend some time on LinkedIn. I’ve got a blog I write weekly, so they can connect with me on that one too and signup on the website. The website or LinkedIn would probably be the two easiest ways to find me.
The quote that you find meaningful or one that you use frequently.
We talked a lot about the value of questions. There’s a French nobleman, I think his last name was Gaston, who said something to the effect of, “Judge a man by the quality of his questions rather than the answers.” I keep coming back to that whole question thing, but I think life is about slowing the game down just enough to ask the right questions because the right answer to the wrong questions is always going to be wrong for that situation. What I see with the executives and my habit as well is to try and rush to the answer when you have to take more time asking the right question.
The right answer to the wrong questions is always going to be wrong for that situation.
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It’s not simple to say ask the right question, but you have to have some level of experience or intuition or something to make sure you ask the specific question.
You can go find knowledgeable folks and say, “If you were me, what questions would you be asking?” You can find some wonderful books out there and ask some of those questions. I’ve got a list of a few of them in the book that might be helpful. I speak to CEO groups and one of the pieces in that presentation is around asking the right questions. We go through some similar ones that I think would be important as CEO to ask. One of the challenges is to try and get CEOs to talk less and listen more. It’s a potential in all of us I guess.
If colleagues were asked what you’re best at, what would they say and how do you utilize that particular strength on a day to day basis.
It’s speaking the truth. I don’t mean to tell you it’s always easy because sometimes the messages are hard for people in leadership roles. Like you’re messing up and you don’t even know it but look at what you’re doing to other people or your organization. Speaking the truth is probably the one that I have heard as best feedback from clients. It’s the one that I think works best with my coaching strategy organizational work. You have to be willing to put a client relationship at risk. You have to be willing to get thrown out of the building to say the truth. Otherwise, why are you there? It helps to get paid upfront too.
You can tell people what they want to hear and it’s not usually on it useful.
You can make some money doing that, but if they go, “Todd came in for a couple months and kicked around here and we had a lot of fun together, but nothing changed,” then we both screwed up. If it means there’s some discomfort coming but we got to where you want it to go, I want to help you achieve your objectives. If we have to have fun along the way, that’s okay too. If it’s only about fun, they’ve got to hire a comedian, not me.
With that being said, Todd, I really appreciate you taking the time and the hospitality in your house and your office. Thank you so much. Thanks for being on the show.
I enjoyed it. Thanks. My pleasure.
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About Todd Ordal
He leverages his rich leadership background to help executives lead better, profit more or sleep soundly. As Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s said about Todd, “He brings order to chaos” and as Blaise Simqu, a highly successful CEO said about Todd’s coaching ability, “I am a much more successful CEO as a result of our work together.”
Todd’s clients are most comfortable working with someone who has walked in their shoes (or boots or flip-flops). Prior to founding Applied Strategy, Todd spent 20 years at Kinko’s where as Division President he had accountability for $500,000,000 in revenue, 300 stores and 7,000 people. During this period, he opened over 100 locations and added critical management strategies and practices to manage this large growth. Todd joined Kinko’s in its early stages and helped lead the company to its eventual $2.3 billion position and—as a board member—participated in its eventual sale.
In addition, Todd Ordal has also been a successful CEO in three different industries: sporting goods (where he turned a negative growth/7 figure loss to a 30% growth/7 figure positive bottom-line within 2 years), learning disabilities testing and remediation (start up to $3.5M run rate in 18 months) and a leadership training organization.
In his coaching and consulting practice, Todd has helped leaders profit more, lead better and sleep more soundly (without narcotics) in multiple environments including:
• Consumer products
• Financial services
• High-end homebuilding
• Oil and Gas
• Business services
• Health care
• Private equity environments
• Public, private and non-profit entities
Todd has served on numerous boards of directors and advisors including Kinko’s, Classic Sport Companies, Enginuity, Dore Achievement Centers, iSatori Technologies, Habitat for Humanity Boulder Valley, and Colorado Youth Program. Todd has been a recognized leader in the consulting world through his work with the Institute for Management Consultants as President of the Colorado chapter and as a Director on the national board. He is both a Certified Management Consultant and a Certified Professional Coach.
Todd has a BA in Psychology and a Masters in Business Administration.
Todd is married with 4 adult children and lives in Boulder Colorado. His wife allows him to ski 30-40 days a year. He is trained as a sommelier, a cook and a multi-engine, instrument pilot though he has never practiced sommelier skills while flying.
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