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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Frank Tirelli, Former CEO of Herbalife & Former CEO of Deloitte Italy

I spoke to Frank Tirelli, former Chairman and CEO of Deloitte & Touche Italy, former President and CEO of Herbalife International, and vice chairman of professional services at alliantgroup, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Frank: Thanks for inviting me, it is most appreciated. Interesting question, full disclosure I am a relatively boring individual. I have been a physical fitness, nutrition and supplement fanatic since I was 13, and that avocation when combined with my business career have really consumed most of my time and defined who I am as a person.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Frank: I truly believe everyone has a personal and business philosophy. It has always been my goal to have the people I work with view me as fair, someone they trust, and someone who has their best interest at heart when making a decision about their future. This sounds relatively simple, which it is. It just happens to be difficult to implement properly, the classic simple but not easy.

I have also adapted a philosophy that every day when I come to work I should focus on these two items: what am I going to do today to make the people I work with more successful, and what am I going to do today to bring more value to my clients\customers than anyone else in the universe. The latter has always been easy for me to do. The former took me a bit longer to embrace.

Adam: What are the best lessons you learned from your experience as President and CEO of Herbalife? What are some experiences and memories that stand out from your time at Herbalife?

Frank: Herbalife was just an incredible experience for me. You have to envision that I had been at Deloitte & Touche for 22 years. Most recently managing a professional services firm with 6,000 professionals all of whom were CPAs, Attorneys, or Consultants. Now I am the CEO of Herbalife a MLM (multi-level marketing) nutrition company with over 1 million distributors in 52 countries. 

My first 3 keynote speeches at Herbalife were at 3 “extravaganzas”, each extravaganza had an attendance of about 20,000 Herbalife distributors. They were in New Orleans, Cologne Germany and Bangkok Thailand. We gave then two days of training then we concluded the three day meetings with a “disco party” featuring live performances at all three venues by: The Pointer Sisters, Thelma Houston, Donna Summer, Kool & the Gang, and KC & the Sunshine Band. Quite a difference from a Deloitte & Touche meeting.

Adam: What should leaders in the U.S. understand about doing business internationally in today’s landscape?

Frank: This is a very interesting question. There are many cultural challenges when US leaders and companies do business internationally. Especially when such international location is not an Anglo-English speaking country. 

There is a perception on the part of folks from the US that ethics, integrity, etc. are defined by US customs and laws. And that if an international location sees it differently THEY are obviously wrong.

Let me give you an example. I was at Linate Airport in Milan with Deloitte Italy’s outside Italian counsel. We were on our way to Rome for a hearing on a significant legal issue for the Firm. The weather was bad so our flight was delayed. As we were sitting in the lounge we were watching a CNN news report about a CEO who had been pulled off a flight at JFK Airport and arrested. This CEO was the founder and owner of an online gaming site.

Our lawyer asked me why this CEO was being treated like this and being arrested. I told our lawyer that gambling in the US was illegal and I assumed that this CEO and his company violated US gambling laws. Our lawyer gave this some thought and said, yes I understand. He went on to comment “Of course if one gambles in Las Vegas that is not illegal, correct? And if one gambles on an Indian Reservation that is not illegal, correct? And of course if one gambles on a riverboat docked at least three meters from shore that is not illegal, correct?

His point was not that gambling was intrinsically wrong but that the US had imposed it’s definition of ethics on others.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Frank: I believe there are three traits people are looking for in people they will allow to lead them:

  1. Do they trust you;
  2. Are you fair; and
  3. When you are making a decision that involves them, do you have THEIR best interests at heart? 

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

Frank: Leadership deals with direction and getting people to follow such direction, management deals with speed, coordination and logistics in going in that direction. Many people confuse “managers” with leaders. That is a big mistake. Clearly we need great managers and great leaders, most “so called leaders” tend to be managers not leaders.

Effective leaders must instill in people the desire to follow that leader. In my experience in order to accomplish this people are looking for three traits in the people they will follow: Do I trust you, are you fair, and when you make a decision involving me do you have MY best interests at heart.

Every day a leader comes into the office, she should be focused on 2 areas: What am I going to do today to help make all the people I work with be successful and how am I going to bring to my clients / customers more value than anyone else in the universe.

Every building block for a team and the members of those teams have to be trained to focus on these 2 above areas. Everything else falls into place if you organization\team is focused on these 2 goals.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Frank: Every single day that you come into work, regardless from where you work, you should be focused on two items: 1. How am I going to make every single person I work with more successful today, and 2. What am I going to do today to bring more value to my clients / customers than anyone else in the universe.

Be relentlessly devoted to creating a culture of innovation, creativity, and risk taking.

All of the above is for naught without 100% focus on an implementation plan, that is structured, systemic and accountable.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Frank: Do not count on the gratitude of deeds you have done for people in the past. You must make them grateful for things you will do for them in the future.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Frank: I believe we should all be focused on ensuring that every single person in this country has the opportunity to get the best education possible. Education done properly, will solve over 90% of all our social problems. 

Now, full disclosure “education done properly” could be another 2 day discussion. I just do not believe even where we are providing education to all, if we are truly giving people skills to succeed in life.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Frank: Since the age of 13 I have been fanatical on physical fitness, nutrition and supplementation. I believe this avocation has always brought balance to my work life and has always provided me an escape route from any situation career related. It really put me in a position to walk away from anything I so chose and still knew I had these activities.

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

Frank: If there is any recurring question I am asked on a consistent basis it is “what do I have to do to achieve success?”. 

My response is as follows:

  1. The definition of success is determined by you, the individual. Success is not defined by society, although society will try. Success is not determined by your parents, significant other, priest, rabbi, friends, co-workers, etc., YOU are the only person responsible for the definition.
  2. I believe everybody may attain success if they adhere to 5 attributes.
  3. Before I address the 5 attributes needed for success the 2 attributes that are not needed for success are intellect and talent (thank goodness……).
  4.  The 5 attributes needed for success are:
  • Passion;
  • Plan, preferably written;
  • Focus;
  • Discipline; and
  • The ability to overcome adversity.
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