Ten lessons from Reagan on building a brain trust

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As a business leader, how do you make decisions? Be honest! Do you believe that as the leader (or should that be, ahem, dictator?) you always know best? Do you surround yourself with yes-men in an attempt to validate your ideas and gain “consensus”? Do you keep your distance from other “experts” to ensure that your opinion will go unchallenged? Or do you pull together the best and brightest you know to challenge your preconceived notions and share fresh ideas you’ve never considered?

While you’d love to say the first three examples bear no resemblance to you, if you’re like most leaders you may admit to having a pretty healthy ego. Author Dan Quiggle says that’s not a terrible thing—hey, it goes with the territory and it does give you the mettle to get the job done. Fortunately, there is a way to ensure that your ego doesn’t grow to unhealthy proportions: take a cue from Ronald Reagan and put together a strong Kitchen Cabinet.

“President Reagan would be the first one to admit (using his self-deprecating humor) that he wasn’t always an expert on everything,” says Quiggle, author of the new book Lead Like Reagan: Strategies to Motivate, Communicate, and Inspire (Wiley, June 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-92845-5, $25.00, www.quigglegroup.com). “He knew that he couldn’t achieve everything he wanted if he was always the smartest person in the room.

“Reagan knew that the mission and its goal were much more important than his ego,” Quiggle adds. “He purposely surrounded himself with expertise in all areas of his life so that he could make informed decisions. He understood that seeking out opinions, expertise, and advice from others wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was strong leadership.”

Even before his presidency, Reagan sought out highly successful advisors who shared his vision and were committed to seeing it realized—and who would be brutally honest with him. This group became known as Reagan’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” They advised him throughout his journey to the White House and even helped him choose the members of his first Presidential Cabinet.

“Whether the arena is politics or business, the difference between mediocre leadership and exceptional leadership often is defined by your ability to cultivate and engage your own Kitchen Cabinet,” says Quiggle. “Business owners and other leaders have a lot at stake—and you should waste no time in putting together a brain trust of your own.”

In his book, Quiggle uses Reagan’s example, as well as that of other prominent and influential business leaders, to highlight key skills for leaders to develop. Quiggle, who began his professional career in Ronald Reagan’s California post-presidency office and is now a successful entrepreneur, witnessed firsthand the traits, habits, and principles that made Reagan so effective.

Here, he shares 10 things to consider when building your own brain trust, Kitchen Cabinet, or whatever you choose to call it:

First, get over your desire to be right. According to Quiggle, Reagan chose to fill his Kitchen Cabinet with trusted advisors who were accomplished in their own rights, and whom he knew would be tough with him when necessary. In other words, they were not nodding, sycophantic yes-men. They were independent thinkers who weren’t afraid to speak up when they saw an issue differently from the president.

“Know up front that putting together your own Kitchen Cabinet won’t always be a comfortable experience,” Quiggle comments. “In the process of helping you and advising you, sometimes your brain trust will tell you that you’re wrong. They’ll disagree with you. They’ll have better ideas than you. And you (and your ego!) need to be okay with that! To put it bluntly, if you always want to be the smartest person in the room and are unwilling to surround yourself with people whose strengths are your weaknesses, you’ll be limited by your own capabilities…which might not be as sufficient to the task at hand as you think.”

Stock your cabinet with a variety of viewpoints. Say you’re a financial advisor, and you’ve just opened your own firm. Of course you’ll want to include current or former owners of successful financial services firms in your brain trust. They’ve walked the path on which you’re just embarking, and they can give you invaluable advice on how to navigate the obstacles you’ll be facing. But Quiggle cautions you not to limit your choices to older, wiser, within-your-industry types.

“In the example above, you might include someone with banking expertise, successful business owners in different fields, and someone who represents your target customer base,” he suggests. “The point is, you want your Kitchen Cabinet to represent a variety of different viewpoints and knowledge sets. If everyone advising you has similar experiences and opinions, they’ll be of limited use.”

Look to your opposition (but make sure they support you). After being elected president, Ronald Reagan reached out to James Baker for advice. This move raised more than a few eyebrows, because Baker had managed the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford in 1976 and George Bush in 1980, who had both been in opposition to Reagan’s own candidacy. Was collaborating with the competition really a good idea?

“Absolutely,” confirms Quiggle. “Ronald Reagan was able to put away any lingering hard feelings and focus on the expertise and effectiveness that James Baker embodied. This proved to be a wise decision, as Baker is credited with having significant positive influence over the first term of the Reagan presidency, particularly domestically.

“Of course, in business, you won’t want to include your direct competitors in your brain trust,” Quiggle acknowledges. “But you could seek the advice of a retired competitor or someone in your industry who has a different specialty from you. For instance, if you’re an ad exec at an agency that specializes in retail, you might stock your cabinet with the leader of an agency that specializes in manufacturing. You can also adapt this tactic by making sure your advisory team includes people who disagree with you or who have played the part of devil’s advocate in your ventures. Just be sure that at the end of the day, these habitual dissenters do have your personal and professional best interests at heart and won’t try to maliciously undermine your efforts.”

Keep it small. You don’t want to blast your concerns, challenges, and goals to your network of 1,000+ people…or even to a “slightly” smaller group of 15 or 20. In fact, Quiggle recommends starting with a Kitchen Cabinet of only two to five people whom you trust and admire. You can always add more members to your brain trust as your business grows and your need for specific types of advice changes. It’s substantially more difficult to scale down!

“When it comes to the size of advisory groups, more isn’t always better,” Quiggle says. “In fact, no matter what their purpose is, smaller groups are often more effective than their larger counterparts for many reasons: They’re nimbler. It’s easier for members to hear one another out and come to a consensus. There’s less of a chance that individual egos will take over, since everyone needs to pull their own weight. And, of course, it’s easier for meaningful mentoring to take place.”

Don’t overformalize things. Reagan’s first meetings with his Kitchen Cabinet took place in their living rooms, not in the Oval Office. The lesson? Don’t overcomplicate things.

“No formal invitation to ‘Join My Kitchen Cabinet’ is required, and you don’t have to use parliamentary procedure during meetings,” comments Quiggle. “Just ask business associates, mentors, and acquaintances you admire if they’d be willing to let you seek their advice and share professional insight with you. Yes, leading your business effectively is an incredibly important undertaking, but meetings with your brain trust don’t have to feel like war councils. The goal is to have a meaningful, enlightening, and educational conversation.”

Keep in mind that you may need more than one brain trust. While Ronald Reagan relied heavily on his Kitchen Cabinet and Presidential Cabinet, he also assembled many other, more specialized teams who could help him make informed, intelligent decisions in all areas of his administration. He looked for experts across the nation within their various fields and persuaded them to give back to their country by sharing their time, their talents, and their expertise.

“You’ll probably need to assemble different brain trusts for different tasks, too,” points out Quiggle. “For instance, you might meet with one group to advise you on business expansion, another to discuss product development, another to help you identify new client prospects, and yet another to support you in handling employee issues. Receiving the best guidance on growing the many facets of your business isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal.”

Use their time wisely. You have brought your Kitchen Cabinet(s) together to advise you, true…but that doesn’t mean they need to weigh in on every single decision and dilemma you face. Part of using a brain trust effectively is knowing when to call on them…and when to tackle a challenge yourself.

“The type of knowledgeable, successful person you want in your Kitchen Cabinet simply won’t have a lot of time to spend in useless discussion,” Quiggle points out. “To determine if a matter should be brought up with your brain trust or not, ask yourself, If this doesn’t work out, how severe are the consequences I might face? Is this a lesson I can afford to learn on my own? Is the answer readily available from another resource?

“And always keep meetings and phone calls as short as possible,” he adds. “Again, it’s very likely that the members of your brain trust will have big problems of their own that need tackling. If they start to feel that advising you is too time consuming or that you’re wasting their time with questions you should be able to answer on your own, it won’t take them long to bow out of your Kitchen Cabinet. Those are losses you shouldn’t risk.”

Hear everyone out and take their advice to heart. As Quiggle has noted, a Kitchen Cabinet that really works won’t always tell you what you want to hear. He underscores how important it is to hear your advisors out, even when you’d rather stop listening. And if a majority of them seem to agree on a course of action you aren’t excited about taking, strongly consider changing your own plans. Remember, you asked these people to advise you for a reason.

“When I need to make a crucial business decision, I talk to my Kitchen Cabinet,” shares Quiggle. “I trust and value their various backgrounds, experiences, and expertise to steer me appropriately. As my father used to say, they usually give me ‘just enough rope to hang myself’ if I choose to, but I trust their judgment and know that they’ll tell me the truth, even when I do not really want to hear it or may disagree. If a majority of them tell me not to do something, I probably won’t do it.”

Make sure everyone shares your success-oriented vision. It stands to reason that your Kitchen Cabinet won’t be very effective if its various members have different visions for your business. If one member wants you to open a second retail location while another believes your resources would be better spent on new product development, for instance, they’ll probably spend more time locking horns than helping you make progress.

“It’s important to note that the responsibility for making sure your Kitchen Cabinet shares a vision falls on your shoulders,” says Quiggle. “Never forget that you gathered these people to advise and guide you as you pursue your own success, not so that they could turn you into a puppet whose strings they control. Make sure you can articulate what you hope to accomplish, as well as your mentors’ role in helping you achieve it.”

Return the favor. As your business grows and matures, don’t be surprised if others start coming to you for advice.

“Don’t look at this as a negative,” says Quiggle. “If you can, you should absolutely pay it forward. After all, you might not have reached your level of success without the wisdom of your own brain trust, and now you have the opportunity to help someone else do the same. Plus, joining others’ Kitchen Cabinets is a great way to meet new mentors and connect with people who can help your own business.”

“While you may not have set your sights on the White House, you can still reap substantial benefits from assembling your own Kitchen Cabinet,” concludes Quiggle. “In a business world that’s becoming more complex and competitive by the day, no one should be trying to steer the ship all alone. No one can know it all. But when you talk through the issues that are bothering you with knowledgeable people who share your vision, you’ll maximize your chances for success. Clear solutions will come to the forefront, and you’ll bypass many common pitfalls. As Ronald Reagan knew well, two (or three, or five) heads really are better than one.”

Dan Quiggle, author of "Lead Like Reagan: Strategies to Motivate, Communicate, and Inspire," is the founder of The Quiggle Group, president and CEO of America’s Choice Title Company, and dean of faculty for the Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C. He began his professional career in the office of Ronald Reagan and learned leadership directly from the “Great Communicator” himself. For more information, please visit the book’s page at www.wiley.com.


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