Joe Curcillo: “Managing a team”

Give your people a sense of purpose and meaning. I manage my law firm and several businesses using the theory that I teach of creating a unifying vision. It is my belief that if your vision is big enough to be all-inclusive, people will find their sense of purpose in making your vision come true. […]

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Give your people a sense of purpose and meaning. I manage my law firm and several businesses using the theory that I teach of creating a unifying vision. It is my belief that if your vision is big enough to be all-inclusive, people will find their sense of purpose in making your vision come true. The bigger your vision is the more an opportunity exists for your team to find their own sense of nobility in your vision. Once they find a place where they belong, they can contribute, and they feel like they have meaning, they will commit their heart and soul to your cause.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Curcillo, a former trial lawyer and litigator who currently serves as the CEO of his think tank, Thought Emporium LTD. He has helped countless business leaders to improve their effectiveness by adopting and carrying out the missions by harnessing the power of what he calls a “unifying vision.” Curcillo is a celebrated author, business coach, lawyer, mentalist and motivational speaker Joe Curcillo helps companies to thrive by focusing on the idea of having a unifying vision. For more information, visit the site at:

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

My career began at a very young age when at 10 years old I told my family that I needed to go to work. I always knew that I was driven to get things done very young age. My father was a union carpenter in the city of Philadelphia. I looked up to him in awe. Every time he and his team would complete construction of a neighborhood, I remember the excitement in his face knowing that they were providing people places to live as the young baby boomers of the 60s were moving out of the city into residential neighborhoods. My father’s focus was building homes for families and building people a future.

I knew that the only way I could do that is if I too went to work, so I began working on Saturday mornings at the intake desk of the local YMCA. About 30 jobs later, I graduated from engineering and then law school. I later began my career as a trial lawyer litigation cases in front of juries all the while focused on gaining a better understanding of society and the people we deal with on a daily basis. Eventually, as a CEO coach, consultant and advisor, I began reaching out to people from all walks of life to improve their future. This was my way of building people a better future, just like my dad.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

That is a difficult question to answer as there are so many moments that I call “interesting.” So, I will interpret interesting as the most rewarding. For most of my career, I was a criminal defense lawyer representing individuals who had hit hard times. But, during that same period of time, I also served as a juvenile judge reviewing cases wherein the government has stepped in and taken children from parents who were deemed unfit. I had one woman brought in front of me whose three children were in care because of the mother’s long-term drug addiction. I spent a considerable amount of time speaking with the mother and sensed true remorse deep within her. Instead of making the removal of the children in “permanent,” I made a decision — over the objection of everyone in the courtroom — to give the mother a chance. With a list of conditions, I returned the children to our care and monitored the case for the next year. After that year, I no longer heard anything about the case.

About 20 years later, I walked into a Dunkin’ Donuts and ordered a cup of coffee. The woman behind the counter stared at me and was nonresponsive when I placed my order. I looked back at her asked, “Is something wrong?” She ran around the counter and immediately hugged me. I was initially taken aback. But then she proceeded to show me photographs of all three of her children. They had all graduated college, gotten married and have families of their own. She told me that she would never forget me because I was the person that gave her a chance with no one else would. I bought my cup of coffee and left the Dunkin’ Donuts with tears in my eyes. I never knew if I did the right thing, but, that day I realized the power behind giving people an opportunity to create their own destiny.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At the beginning of my career, as a young wet behind the ears prosecutor, I was very focused on understanding the law. As I went into my first jury trial I had everything ready to make every legal argument that could arise. The case lasted approximately two days. Throughout the course of the trial, I felt that I had mastered every aspect of a jury trial. I had confidence that I blame upon my youth. At the end of the trial, the jury rendered a verdict for my opponent.

As I was leaving the courthouse, the jury foreman approached me followed by several other jurors. As they stopped me, he asked, “Was this your very first trial?” I responded yes but was rather confused as to how they knew. So, I inquired, and he proceeded to tell me that they understood my case and believed my evidence, but they felt ignored.

Ignored? I froze. I did everything right but, I made the decision-makers feel alienated. At that moment I realized that no matter how smart I was or how much I knew about something, the emotions and feelings of the people involved, were the most important factor in decision making.

One of the jurors then came forward and said that they voted against me, but, since they thought that I seemed likable they should talk to me rather than being upset. Thank them profusely, and I asked how they knew it was my first trial. They answered, “We could hear the sweat squishing in your shoes as you walked. That is why we chose to approach you and help you get on the right path.”

I never ignored a decision-maker or an audience again.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

Give your people a sense of purpose and meaning. I manage my law firm and several businesses using the theory that I teach of creating a unifying vision. It is my belief that if your vision is big enough to be all-inclusive, people will find their sense of purpose in making your vision come true. The bigger your vision is the more an opportunity exists for your team to find their own sense of nobility in your vision. Once they find a place where they belong, they can contribute, and they feel like they have meaning, they will commit their heart and soul to your cause.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

Initially, it is important that your teams understand your vision. Secondly, you must ensure that each member of the team understands, acknowledges and accepts their role in your vision. If you think of people is simply “having jobs”. Personality gets lost. Relationships suffer. And a feeling of purpose and nobility will dissipate. If each person understands the big picture and sees where they fit in to that picture, they are more likely to contribute to the whole more effectively. Also, each member of the team must be fully empowered to fulfill their role and complete their purpose in your vision. Accordingly, each and every manager at every level, embrace the concept of empowering people to accomplish within the parameters of the role. Every manager must likewise be given the power and authority to accomplish within the parameters of his or her brain.

Building a relationship that allows everyone to know where they fit in, will allow them to work together in one harmonious direction.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

The five most important things that you, the Manager, needs to know to be successful are:

  1. Know your place. You need to know where you fit in in the company’s vision, mission and goals. What is your team responsible for? And what is your team’s role and its overall purpose? A manager who does not understand their place in the big picture, cannot successfully manage the small picture.

I always think of a gentleman that I called Dr. Ted. He was a friend in my younger days. He really didn’t have a clue about how to run his office. And, as expected, it was failing. Why? Because Dr. Ted never actually understood what each person in his office did to make his life easier and make it run. He complained that his people did not file things correctly or prepare medical charts correctly or do much else correctly. He blamed his team for the failing financial state of his affairs.

He described them as an inefficient group of bumbling people. He had no respect for them. I interrupted his rant one day and asked him why he treated his employees like puppies. He was rather offended by my first question. So, I asked a second. “Did you talk to the office manager about the problem.”

His response was very telling. He simply said, “She is an idiot too.”

Going for a third question, with great hesitation, I looked at his neurosurgeon and said do you think you should talk to her. He simply said, “She’s not worth the time.”

I always remember Ted — not so affectionately — as the person who taught me the value of understanding the roles of the people in your office. He never really understood their roles, his manager never understood hers, because he did not understand his. Without the big picture, his office eventually failed, and he was absorbed by a hospital. His dream of independence ended.

Until you know your place, you will never be able to understand where others belong in the grand scheme.

2. Know your team. You need to know the experience, capabilities and desire of your team members to accept their role in the task at hand. Unless you have a firm understanding of what your team can and cannot accomplish, you will never truly be able to allow them to operate in a fully empowered environment. A fully empowered environment is one that is dictated by an individual manager who oversees the team.

When I was in government, I had a manager that inherited our team from our prior boss. He was very caught up in the politics of the office, and never actually met with any of the employees in the office. He spent each and every day hiding his office sending memos out. He directed people to act and do things they were way outside the scope of their knowledge. When people failed, he did nothing but send out scathing memos and report people to personnel.

Along with two other attorneys in the office, I went into his office to try to explain the problem. He told us that we work for him and he didn’t trust any of us.

When we suggested that he wouldn’t recognize the faces of many of the people he supervised, he simply replied, “Then, I will blame the three of you.” Yep, that was the day I got a new job.

If you don’t know your team, they will run and operate in fear and that will not be an empowering environment.

You will always lead your team more effectively when you know who they are.

3. Trust your team.

I have to be willing to take chances. The people that work for you are the ones who actually do the work that you supervise. They are the doers, and they are the ones with a deep knowledge of the operational aspects of what needs to be done. Unless of course, you are a manager that came out of that environment, then I accept that you may actually have knowledge of the operational aspects. Unfortunately, many people who become managers, do not have leadership ability built-in, and many managers who can manage, have never walked in the shoes of those they manage.

I once had a boss who hired me, and suggested the terms of my employment were, “I was to run my unit, make sure that he never got bad press or complaints from the court, and we would get along well.” I knew from my research that he had begun at the lowest level in the office and had moved to the top of the food chain by hard work and commitment. The moment that he hired me, he told me that he trusted me. I understood that he knew the job that I had to do, and I intern trusted him back.

Without understanding there is no trust.

4. Know the power of choice. The old adage says that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. The same is true of human beings. People do not like to be forced, convinced or cajoled into doing anything. Human nature thrives on people being able to make choices. When people feel forced, they will feel disrespected. Accordingly, they will then resist, become non-productive or at best move on to a place where they feel that they belong.

Another lesson that was learned from my career as a juvenile judge was a young man named Kenny. Kenny was a belligerent young man who came before me throughout his teen years only to be thrown back into Juvenile lock up because he was making no progress in his behavior. The last time I saw Kenny in court, it was shortly before his 21st birthday. He and I both knew that at what he want he was going to be left out on the streets. He was belligerent and nasty and had given up all hope on the system. I looked at him sarcastically and I said you’re going back to lock up and the next time I see you, you will be an adult prisoner, or you might be a husband and father. He then left my courtroom.

About seven years later, my second told me that a young man named Kenny was in the lobby. I long forgotten Kenny the Juvenile. I came in the lobby and looked up at a 6-foot seven young man who simply stared at me, and I immediately remembered who he was. Hey, I assumed he was there to kill me. Instead, he shared with me a photograph of a young lady. I asked she he was. He replied, “This is my girlfriend I am marrying her on Saturday, and we are having a baby girl.”

With a bit of shock in my voice I asked him what happened to them over the last seven years, and he replied, and “Mr. Curcillo, you are the only person who ever gave me a choice. Everyone else told me what to do. When to sleep. When to eat. And when I could do everything.” He sighed and continued, “you told me that I could be an adult prisoner or a husband and father. I, made my choice.”

Kenny had chosen to become a member of the human race. When given the opportunity to be something greater, he seized the moment. I realized that day that the power of choice was governed by an individual’s desire to be something greater.

Give people a choice they will always to be on top.

5. Embrace difficult moments and grow. Fear of failure is an inhibitor to innovation and growth. It is a detriment to the manager who leads with an obsession that his people will fail. Face reality, there will always be times when your team will fail you. But you must learn from the mistakes and move on. Learn from the difficulties. Learn from the fear. Inspire your team to work through mistakes and achieve their goals by shedding their fear of failure.

When I was in my younger days, I held many different jobs but probably the most unique was also my most dangerous job. I called the boss from prior summer employment and told him that I wanted to work as a building inspector and engineer with their company for another summer. Don told me that he did not have work for me because he knew that I was scared of heights, and the only available job was walking structural steel to inspect bolts. Realizing at that very instant that I feared poverty more than I feared heights, I said I’ll take the job. He laughed and said it’s yours.

My first day on the job, a man named Charlie took me up onto a beam and taught me to walk a 6-inch beam. We were 12 inches off the ground. I was nervous that I could not keep my balance. And frankly, I fell off that been twice. The fall from 12 inches was not bad, but the imaginary fall from a higher height haunted me. Charlie reminded me to take one step at a time. Eventually, I was walking the 20-foot beam with ease. The next day, that same beam was placed among the columns that had been installed and was now 10 feet off the ground. Charlie reminded me to take one step at a time, and I walked out onto the beam knowing that I could fall. He reminded me that I would be banged up at 10 feet but I would be alive. Again, I was successful. I had learned to master my fear of falling and began to walk one step at a time from one end of the beam to another.

One step at a time. One day at a time. By the end of that summer, I was walking on beams 460 feet above street level. I no longer feared failure. I had learned to respect the fear of failure. I had learned to respect the fear of falling. In that business, there were no do-overs. Had I fallen, I wasn’t getting back up again.

When you lead your teams, learn from the difficulties. Learn from the fear of failure, respect the possibility of failure, but do not allow it to stop you from reaching heights beyond your imagination.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Listen and Learn. People need a sense of belonging to thrive and feel as if they matter. The moment you stop listening to the members of your team, they become cogs in the machine, and you will lose all personal interaction with them. People want to be heard and understood. Your employees may not always be right, but they will never hear you and learn from you unless they know that you are willing to hear and learn from them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Over the last 30 years, I have been involved in many different levels dealing with child abuse. It might be that Child abuse awareness may only bring a small amount of good to a small number of people, but it is an issue that must be dealt with. Sadly, many people do not support the causes surrounding child abuse, nor do they believe that it affects them in any way. Therefore, people see cases in the news and think, not my children. Not my neighborhood.

I believe that everyone should support their local children’s resource centers so that the next generation, and the next generation and all future generations of children have the opportunity to live out their childhood safely. Many causes I have been adopted that affect large groups of people. This is a cause that, in my 30 years, is still one of the most important missions in my life. Protects our most vulnerable.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was once told by my friend and mentor, Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today, except for two things: The people you meet an the books you read.”

Charlie spoke these words to me nearly 30 years ago. The day has not gone past where I do not treasure the ability to learn from and be molded by every book I read and every person I meet. In every book, there is always something that can be used to make your life better. The same is true about people, but with people, there is the ability to reciprocate and give back to the individual. That is rewarding and exciting. So, with every book that I read, I sometimes do things to benefit people that I do not even know to pay the book forward.

Thank you for these great insights!

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