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Brian Strobel: “Way things get done around here”

Transparency, like authenticity and humility, is another characteristic that forms the essence of who a leader is, and how they view the world. A leader who approaches their work with transparency quickly gains the trust of subordinates and seniors alike. A transparent leader emphasizes openness and persuasion over control. For senior leaders, running the company […]

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Transparency, like authenticity and humility, is another characteristic that forms the essence of who a leader is, and how they view the world. A leader who approaches their work with transparency quickly gains the trust of subordinates and seniors alike. A transparent leader emphasizes openness and persuasion over control. For senior leaders, running the company with transparent behavior does more to build trust than any other action.


As part of my series “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Strobel, author of PURSUING EXCELLENCE, is Vice President of Quality for a major aerospace and defense company. A leadership expert and former Marine officer, he has been leading people in operational environments for thirty years. He’s directed large-scale military operations and change-management programs across major companies.

Strobel has a bachelor’s degree from Slippery Rock University, a master’s degree in management from Webster University, and a master’s degree in executive leadership from the University of San Diego School of Business. He’s certified as a trainer for Situational Leadership, a professional coach, a Lean Six Sigma expert, and a Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. Strobel, whose first book, Leading Change From Within, was published in 2015, is based in Reno, Nevada.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up dirt poor in Western Pennsylvania. I was the first member of my extended family to attend college. My initial academic pursuits trained me to be a physicist. But life had other plans. I joined the Marines after college and saw the world. After serving fifteen years in the Marines, I transitioned to the civilian world and corporate leadership roles. Then I experienced a life-changing event when I got to study under Dr. Ken Blanchard while pursuing a Master’s in Executive Leadership. Ken and the amazing program at the University of San Diego taught me the power of moving beyond the mind to lead from the heart.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I was an excellent procrastinator through college. This delivered positive results that reinforced the negative behavior. As my career progressed, and life became more complex, I continued to procrastinate, but didn’t always get positive results. This especially became true as I was balancing a career as a corporate executive, writer, and speaker. I learned the hard way that not taking the time to prepare for important events and deliver polished presentations was a mistake. I often wondered if I was continuing to bite off more than I could chew, or as my Grandmother used to tell me, I was burning the candle at both ends.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

As I mentioned above, my early success was plagued with a false belief that it is fine to procrastinate. I was working 50–60 hours a week as a corporate executive and finishing the first draft of my second book when I was invited to give two talks. One was a TEDx talk and the other was a paid presentation to a large group of HR professionals. Something had to give — there simply wasn’t enough time in the day to meet every demand. Although I was able to complete almost all of the work, I failed to memorize my TEDx talk. I was thus forced to use note cards to get through the 14-minute presentation. It was not an ideal solution. My take-away from that situation has been to better manage my time, and when necessary, to know when to say “no” and respectfully decline additional tasks or opportunities.

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

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

In order to achieve excellence, and lead a company from good to great, executives must fully embrace values-based leadership. And within values-based leadership, the three most important things are to lead with humility, authenticity, and transparency.

Humility is an attribute recognized in our most successful leaders. Research reveals that leaders who underrate themselves on leadership effectiveness are rated highest by direct reports. And leaders who overrate themselves are perceived by direct reports to be low in both self-awareness and effectiveness. This tells us something — and that something is about humility.

Here’s the interesting thing about humility. People lacking this trait, who have essentially no humility and couldn’t care less about being humble, possess a fundamental absence of leadership. They may even brag about their humility. This simply underscores they don’t get it. And the companies they lead will never become Great.

Near equal in importance to humility is the need for leaders to be authentic. Authenticity means presenting ourselves as we truly are — coming from a real place within. We are authentic when our actions and our words are congruent with our values and our beliefs. It means being who we are, not falsely portraying ourselves to be something we think we should be or being what others tell us we should be. A leader who is authentic approaches their work in a truthful and transparent manner. It sounds simple enough, but it’s another trait absent too often in our leaders.

Transparency, like authenticity and humility, is another characteristic that forms the essence of who a leader is, and how they view the world. A leader who approaches their work with transparency quickly gains the trust of subordinates and seniors alike. A transparent leader emphasizes openness and persuasion over control. For senior leaders, running the company with transparent behavior does more to build trust than any other action.

In addition to these three values-based traits, leaders must embrace accountability. Accountability can be likened to one of the “rinsing your cottage cheese factors” Jim Collins identifies as fanatical behavior present in all great companies. Accepting accountability for our actions is strictly a human act. Accepting accountability for our actions forms the essence of our integrity. A refusal to accept the link between our behavior and its consequences often ends up ruining an individual’s life. Collectively, denying accountability and consequences will destroy a company.

And finally, to transition companies from Good to Great, leaders must discard old beliefs and embrace new ways of thinking.

We live in a new world, with new rules that are being defined before us. The previous ways that people managed companies must change. Many of the old ways simply won’t work going forward, unless average or mediocre performance is the desired outcome. Examples of new ways of thinking include system thinking, design thinking, divergent thinking, and both/and thinking. These new ways of thinking will help leaders frame problems differently and allow them to achieve extraordinary results required by this new world.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Earlier I discussed the importance of values-based leadership being one of the most important criteria to lead a company to Great performance. A company cannot be a “purpose driven business” if it does not embrace values-based leadership. Well, I guess it could profess to be so, but it would be a façade.

I write about red herrings in the business world, companies professing to be something they are not with an intention to deceive. These actions can lead to temporary success, but they won’t sustain and will never allow a company to become Great. Today, purpose-driven businesses move beyond the old analogy of the triple bottom line. Its inherent that companies must focus as much on social and environmental concerns as they do on profit. If they do not, in our world as it has become, they will struggle to even be Good.

Companies are made up of people which means that leaders are in the people business. Millennials and Gen Z, who together make up the largest part of today’s businesses, represent the future. They think differently. They have a much higher concern for how their work connects to the environment and social world. If we aren’t connecting with them as their leaders, and as the foundation of our companies, we’ll never move towards becoming Great.

And to pick on the question a little bit, I don’t think this can be any sort of “angle.” I believe this needs to be part of the very fiber of the company. If not, it will be quickly exposed as a red herring.

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”?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

When we talk about conversion, what we’re really talking about is how do we move forward and close the deal by providing the customer our products or services. I believe there are three key requirements to improve the likelihood of this occurring, and they are all focused on understanding the why behind the products and services.

Most importantly, as Simon Sinek has helped many of us better understand, it’s important to know why a company does what it does. The why that Sinek speaks and writes about directly correlates to the company’s beliefs. A company that doesn’t clarify its beliefs and understand its why will struggle to optimize these conversions and will never achieve excellence.

Similarly, the stakeholders in the company, from the shareholders to key members in the marketspace to the employees, must also understand this why. If people don’t understand the why behind the company, and understand what the company believes in, then it will never achieve an optimized ability to covert inputs into outputs and deliver value to the customer.

The idea behind understanding the why is so important, yet may not be clear to everyone. Understanding the why means that we understand what someone believes. It ties directly to what people believe to be true. And when we want to change behavior, which in this case means improving the conversion rates, we don’t try to change the way people act. Instead, we must change the way they think. And we do this by first understanding what they believe to be true.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

In general, we don’t tend to do a very good job of understanding our customers and what they really think about us, our products and the services that we provide. The reason that many of us struggle here is a lack empathy with the customer and what they believe about our products and services.

With this as my starting position, I believe there are three ways we can begin to earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand.

The first method relates to how we manage change within our companies. While this may be a stretch for some people to think this way, I believe it’s important that we manage change with the customer in mind. Change that isn’t implemented to benefit the customer is likely change that is not required and very well may be implemented for the wrong reasons.

Regarding the second method, I’m a big proponent of incorporating elements of Design Thinking into our companies. Design thinking originated as an approach to designing products and services by focusing on customer perception, needs, and wants during the concept development phase. It’s a simple three-step process: discover, define, and develop. The methodology emphasizes empathy with the user. It departs from other methodologies by intentionally delaying problem definition until better understanding the customer perspective.

Within the context of pursuing excellence, I suggest combining these ideas into a new concept, referred to as Customer Assurance, to reconnect with our customer base. Implemented across an organization, Customer Assurance can become a galvanizing force to keep our focus on the customer.

Customer Assurance can move companies beyond a simple tally of satisfaction to a focus that empathizes with the customer. It seeks to understand customer needs and wants, and then take a leadership position to satisfy those needs and wants. Doing so will become a value discriminator the customer will notice. And it will differentiate excellent companies from those that choose to remain average.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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. 🙂

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 areimportant.

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.

How can our readers further follow you online?

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

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


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