Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Four-Time Super Bowl Champion And NFL Hall Of Famer Franco Harris

I spoke to Franco Harris, the legendary former Pittsburgh Steelers running back immortalized through by Immaculate Reception, about his best lessons on and off the field

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?

Franco: Following my career with the Steelers, I knew I wanted to start a business, but I didn’t know what kind. I told myself, “Franco, you have to get busy! You can’t just sit around.” I had little history with and limited academic knowledge of business, but I knew I wanted to get started. I began reading business magazines and talking with other business professionals to learn their strategies. Without a formal business plan, I began selling an all-natural fruit bar. When building something from the ground up, you have to do what you have to do and wear a lot of hats. That gritty trial-and-error mentality has remained with me as I have evolved through the many ventures that got me to where I am today.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Franco: In business, you will suffer many setbacks— that’s inevitable. When faced with challenges, like when to let go of a product, person, or idea, how we respond makes all the difference. When the fruit bar venture did not pan out as planned, I was disappointed, but I kept my love for business and remained open to new opportunities and people that allowed me to shift.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Franco: The ability to listen, foster consensus, and bring out the best in people are the signs of an effective leader. As your company grows, it’s not just you out there. You have to hire the best people you can for each role and allow your staff to take ownership and make the most of their responsibilities. You also have to lead by example.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Franco: In football, for example, as you move from high school to college to the pros the demands on you will steadily increase. Embrace the difficulty and acknowledge the lessons learned. Doing so allows you to aspire to achieve.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Franco: Knowing the talent you need and recognizing the people who have those talents are key. There’s truly no magic bullet. Trust in your hires and allow them to grow into the leaders that you need. If some hires turn out to be the wrong fit, be decisive in their removal or reassignment and move on to finding those who are the right fit.

Adam: Who are or were your mentors, and how did they shape your personal and professional success? How do you pay it forward?

Franco: Throughout my life I have been fortunate to be surrounded by good people. I had many individuals—including teachers, coaches, and my parents—who played a role in my personal and professional success. There were six people who really stand out in my mind. My sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Margata, would frequently leave me in charge of the class if he was called away. That was the first time anyone had ever given me such a responsibility and it forced me to rise to the occasion. My seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Thurston, taught by example the importance of being involved in the community. My high school football coaches, Mr. Petrillo and Mr. Gordon, taught me about perseverance and endurance. My college football coach, Joe Paterno, stressed the importance of achieving success with honor and integrity. Finally, restaurateur Walter Conti showed me the importance of hospitality and interpersonal relations.

I pay it forward by being involved in the community in any way I can. Business is the engine of this country, so I try to turn new ideas into businesses, supporting the younger generation with educational, athletic, or career opportunities whenever possible.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?

Franco: Observing and learning are my hobbies. I grasp and carry with me information from every person I meet and everything I read or hear. I love to read what made other people successful. The challenges that they faced and how they overcame those obstacles are very interesting to me. Hearing other people’s stories, I am constantly reminded that we need to have a positive mindset and believe we are going to be successful everywhere we go.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Franco: I am Chairman of the Board of the Pittsburgh Promise, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships for all eligible urban youth to attend college or trade school. During my tenure, we’ve had more than 7,000 kids participate and the results have been incredible.

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