Episode 411: Mastering the Art of Success with Steven L. Blue

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, the internationally recognized business transformation expert Steven L. Blue joins us to talk about leadership, growth, and innovation for CEOs, Executives, and team leaders. Steven is the President, CEO, and Director at Miller Ingenuity, a global supplier of high-technology systems that protect assets, preserve the environment, and save lives. Steven also authored five books, including “Mastering the Art of Success,” a book he co-authored with Jack Canfield, and became a best-seller on its second day of publication.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership. We have a terrific guest with us today. He is the CEO of Miller Ingenuity, which creates high-technology products that save lives and preserve the environment. He is a keynote speaker and has addressed audiences at Harvard Business School, the United Nations, Carnegie Hall, the Safe America Foundation, Industry Week, the World Safe Summit, and so on. So, welcome, Steve Blue! 

Steven L Blue: Well, thank you, Steve. I appreciate you having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, same here. And before we really jump into our interview, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Steve. He is the CEO in Residence at Winona State University and the author of five books, including “Mastering the Art of Success,” “The $10 Million Employee,” and “Metamorphosis.” He works with executives, leaders, entrepreneurs, and anyone seeking to learn how to maximize their company’s growth through fostering company culture and innovation. So, more importantly, we are going to have the chance to talk with a fellow who has a lot of experience. So, I’ve been looking forward to this interview. To get us going, Steve, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. 

Steven L Blue: Sure. I grew up in a blue-collar family; my father was a truck driver, and my mother was a waitress. In a sense, that sort of set the stage for me to be a little more on the humble side as I rose in the ranks, became a CEO, and became a little more aware of where people at the lower level of society can be. That can be a large part of your workforce if you run a manufacturing company; a large part of your workforce are blue-collar people, so I kind of understand them better than most. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school, so I joined the Navy. I know I don’t look this old, but I was in the United States Navy from 1969 to 1974. After I got out of the Navy, I eventually found a job where they gave me a tuition refund. I went to a night school, and I didn’t get my bachelor’s degree until I was 43, and didn’t get my MBA until I was 52. There are advantages, Steve, in getting a formal education later in life, particularly after you’ve been in business. So, when you get some MBA professors saying, “Well, this is how it is in business,” you can say, “Well, you know, kind of not.” So, that was, I think, a large part of my seasoning, if you will. And I’ve worked for a lot of pretty terrific bosses during the last 30 or 40 years, and I’ve worked for some pretty crummy ones too. And I learned just as much from the really good bosses as I have from the really crummy ones. The thing about what I learned from the crummy ones is I would never subject anybody to what they subjected me to ever. That kind of formed the basis over the years of my belief in culture. The most important thing in anybody’s company, the most important thing, bar none, is culture. And I kind of grew up learning those lessons over time.  

Steven L Blue: As my career progressed, Steve, I was in every single department in the company, and I became known as a troubleshooter. So, they would say, “Hey, we need Blue to come here to fix this.” As a result of that, I got to understand everything in a business, everything from top to bottom, left to right. So now, when I am confronted with a particular problem in engineering, or in marketing, or wherever, I’ve been there, done that. There ain’t no fooling me. So that’s given me a lot of insight that most people wouldn’t have in a CEO job. CEOs tend to grow up in the marketing world generally, or sales, and maybe occasionally in engineering. So they understand that silo really well, but they don’t really understand the other silos as well. I think that’s been a large part of my upbringing if you will. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, we’re gonna take advantage of this time today. You have so much experience; you’ve seen it from so many different perspectives. The Navy is an amazing training ground; you gain so many leadership lessons there, and then you go on to apply it. But one of the most important things that you said, as you talked about turning points, is that you are a troubleshooter. In other words, people can turn to you to get things done. How do you do that, Steve?  

Steven L Blue: Well, at the end of the day, you get paid to solve problems. Okay, yeah, you’ve got to create opportunities, and I get all that. But at the end of the day, you’re paid to solve problems. A problem solver is worth his weight in gold. You’ll find this a little bit on the amusing side; the first problem I solved in a manufacturing environment, way back when I first started, was vending machines. The vending machines weren’t working; people were complaining about it. Nobody wanted to touch the vending machines, because they were like nuclear waste. I’m talking about lots of vending machines, not like three. And my boss at the time had that awful responsibility. I said, “Tell you what. I’ll take that problem and I’ll fix it.” And I did. So after that, he said, “Wow, maybe this guy can fix other stuff.” So, then I started fixing bigger issues, more complicated issues. And then other departments noticed that and then they say, “I want Blue to come in my department to do this.” So, that’s how I got into almost every department in an organization and learning all about it and learning where the problems or the issues are. But at the end of the day, you get paid to solve problems. Yeah, you get paid to find opportunities, and all that kind of stuff. But the world is full of problems. You know this, Steve, anybody who thinks that “I hope I don’t get any problems today,” they’re crazy. They’re deluding themselves. Every day is another problem. And the more you get at solving problems, the better you get at anticipating them, and kind of finding ways to get around them. So, that’s how I got in every department in a company. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, two quick thoughts. One is I love the fact that Steve Blue here got his bachelor’s a little bit later in life, and got his master’s later in life. That is the spirit of Becoming Your Best. In other words, you never get too old for it; you can do it; your best is yet to be. And then, secondly, I love this attitude of one of the greatest things that you can do is be a problem solver. So everyone listening today, whether you’re in a home where you’re someone that is a full-time mom or dad. I’ll share a story with you, I just heard yesterday. We held a family Zoom, and one of our family members—good-looking, tall, an athlete, and has two sons that have been athletes. He was driving about four hours, late at night, to get to one of the tournaments. Anyhow, he said, “I decided to listen to the Becoming Your Best podcast series. I’ll listen to one and then he’ll take a nap.” But he said, “I just kept listening and listening and listening.” I love that. So, Dean, if you’re listening today, we are sending our regards. But what a message: if we talked about nothing else, except what we just did. Individuals that can solve problems, that can contribute, that take it on themselves and say, “Listen, I’m going for this. I can make this better. I can solve this problem.” Our interview would have been worth it. But we’ve got a lot more to cover. Steve, tell us, what are some early warning signs that the health of a business, or an entity, an organization, or even a family is at risk? 

Steven L Blue: I look back at this when I first published what I think I called it “The Seven Silent Business Killers” was back in 2010. They haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, I guess now, but I’ve refined the thinking, if you will. They say blood pressure is a silent killer because it has no symptoms. But it does have symptoms, but they’re subtle, and you don’t necessarily see them or think about them. The same thing is true in a business. Anytime, Steve, that I’ve sat back and looked around and thought, “Man, everything’s going just fine. I got the SEO thing down now. I don’t have to look at anything else. I’m gonna go out on the links and have a good time.” Anytime I thought that, a crisis was right around the corner. So, when you think things are smooth, I guarantee you, Steve, things are not smooth. You just have deluded yourself into thinking or believing they are. So now, anytime I feel like that, I start — this is what I advise the CEO. When you start feeling like them, you’re missing something; you don’t know what it is. So start digging into the business, find out what it is. And don’t expect if you dig into what one department say, marketing, or sales, or whatever, don’t expect them to go, “Oh, yeah, I got all kinds of problems.” They’re going to do it. So you have to listen for the subtle signs of the issues and problems that are there just beneath the surface. 

Steve Shallenberger: Have you found, Steve, that there are some tools that can help you stay ahead of the curve and not get lulled into complacency so that you can discover things before they come up? What’s been your experience there that’s been helpful? 

Steven L Blue: I know you’re an advocate of this: constant communication is a really big issue. Not one-way communication, but two-way communication. In a CEO’s job, you have to have a balance of micromanaging your subordinates, which you shouldn’t ever do. They make a lot of money, they’re executives, not managing them at all. What I do is meet with my senior leadership team once a month, on an ad-hoc basis. So, once a month, we do a very deep dive into the business. We go vertically, horizontally, by customer, by product line, by product development. If you do that completely, thoroughly, and listen, you have to listen. People won’t jump up and say, “Yeah, I have this problem, and I hope you don’t fire me because you find it out.” You have to be very careful to listen to what the issues are. That’s probably the only way I know of to avoid potential problems before they come out. If you meet that frequently and you’re listening, you’re not going to miss things. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s an excellent observation and practice as well. Now, you’ve talked about the silent business killers. Listening today are people from all walks of life. And I know that what we’re talking about applies to all walks of life, including the schoolroom, sports coach, and family. But what are the silent business killers and how can they be avoided? 

Steven L Blue: I’ll go over the most important ones. This is one of the other questions you had, and this transcends every organization. That’s called conflict. Every organization has conflict; schools do, the church does, businesses do, and your local grocery store does. But, in most cases, conflict is either ignored or they pretend like it doesn’t exist. So, what will happen is you’ll be in a meeting and anyone says—these are the dreaded words of conflict—they say, “Let’s take this offline,” that’s code for “We don’t want the boss to know that there are problems here, and we don’t want to deal with those problems. Let’s pretend we’ll deal with them later on.” And they never do. Most business leaders think conflict is something to be avoided. I say it’s exactly the opposite. Conflict is something to be embraced—uncovered, embraced, and used productively. As long as you recognize conflict and use it in a productive way, it can be a powerful weapon for your business. If you don’t, it can be a disaster. A perfect example is the Challenger disaster. I did a deep dive on that as part of a keynote I did for Medtronic. There was all kinds of conflict surrounding that seal, the $56 seal that failed. All kinds of conflict with all parts of the organization, but it kept getting buried and never addressed, otherwise, that disaster wouldn’t have occured. So, my message to CEOs is to find the conflict. You’ve got it in your organization — it’s there; just don’t let it become buried. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. That’s a silent killer. So, if you try to squash the conflict, or you don’t listen to it, or encourage it, then your organization may not be as strong. You may not see the issues. Is that what you’re saying? 

Steven L Blue: Yeah, and the root of the problem is most people, most CEOs, do not want conflict, and they don’t want to hear about problems. They like to pretend there are no problems in their business, and there’s no conflict in their business. Therefore, subordinates bury the conflict because they don’t want to make the CEO mad. The first thing you have to do as a CEO is say, not only give your employees permission to talk about and raise conflict but actually demand that they must. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s good. What are some of the other silent killers you’ve found that we need to avoid? 

Steven L Blue: This is one of my favorites. I love to talk about this. It was actually the basis of my second book, what I call the “$10 Million Employee”, where your most toxic employee meets your most important customer. And I’ll tell you how that book came about. I won’t say the name of the hotel chain because then they get mad at you — I was walking into a hotel chain with my family many years ago. My kids were little, four and six, or whatever. We were late. We walked into the place, and it was spectacular—marble on the floors, mahogany, stained glass. It was the warm chocolate chip cookies at the front desk; it was spectacular. We got checked in, went upstairs, and tried to order room service. And they said, “Well, it’ll be like an hour and a half.” Are you kidding me? Now, it’s even worse. So, anyway, being the big tough CEO that I am, I told my wife, “I’ll solve this problem.” So, I got on the elevator, started going down, and said, “I’ll just go down and get it.” As luck would have it, I was in the elevator with the room service woman. And I said, “Ah, this is my lucky day. You’re room service.” She goes, “Yeah, well, I’m not very happy about it. And if you think you’re going to get anything out of me tonight, you might as well just forget it.” And I thought, there’s a great attitude. So, by the time I got up to the room, this one employee, one toxic employee, had convinced me not to ever walk into that hotel or another one like it ever. Okay, so that’s a perfect example of how one of your toxic employees—and how many encounters might I have had with this hotel chain over a lifetime? A lot.  

Steven L Blue: I go up to the room. And then we call the front, we pull the hydra bag out, there are no sheets or pillows or blankets. Man, now it’s almost midnight. What are the chances of getting anything? Called the front desk. They said, “Oh, yeah, we’ll take care of it.” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, sure you will.” 10 minutes later, Steve, the front desk guy was up at my door with a big smile on his face, with pillows, blankets, and sheets, apologizing all over the hill for the fact that they weren’t there to begin with. So that $10 million employee actually saved that encounter. So, my advice to CEOs, or any leader, is you have toxic employees, I guarantee it. And you’ve got to go find them. And you can’t fix the toxic employee. I can give you all kinds of stories of how I tried; it never works. The only thing you can do about a toxic employee, because by the time you realize they’re toxic, they’ve been toxic for years and years. They hate you. They hate the customers; they hate their co-workers. They hate everybody; you can’t fix them. The only thing you can do about a toxic employee is ask them to go work for a competitor. 

Steve Shallenberger: All right, good recommendations. Well, those are good. Thanks for touching on that. Every organization has a toxic employee, and you need to just buck up and get after it, and make a change. You can be kind, but you’ve got to make the change. 

Steven L Blue: But once you’ve got it, Steve, once you’ve eliminated toxic employees, for God’s sake, don’t ever let another one come in the front door. You’ve got to be very deliberate and very engaging about your interviewing process to make sure you don’t get another one when you just got rid of one. That’d be crazy. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yes. One of the things you did was talk about how important culture is, and how a healthy culture creates a healthy environment, which then contributes to the success of the organization. Part of that is innovation. What are some tips that you might recommend so that there can be a healthy environment for innovation?  

Steven L Blue: Well, first of all, you have to make innovation a part of the job for everybody. In most organizations, except perhaps for product development—which kind of is their job to do that—most organizations just think, “It’s not my job to innovate. That’s somebody else’s job, like engineering. We’ll get around to innovating when they’re done with the ‘real work.'” The real work being, make the donuts, ship the donuts, and all that. What you have to do is make it a part of every person’s job description. That is the real work. Because, as you know, if companies don’t innovate, at some point in time, they’re going out of business, they just are. When I came to the company I’m with right now, there wasn’t a whole lot of innovation going on. You’ll think this is crazy but this is what I did. My manufacturing company — I hired the ex-Chief Creativity Officer of the QVC network to come and teach innovation to all my employees. When I tell people that, they go, “What? That’s a home shopping network. What’s that got to do with manufacturing?” Well, nothing. But he came in, and I had them teach every single employee—manufacturing, engineering, marketing, sales, administration, everybody—from the ground up, from brainstorming, how do you do that properly, to how you advance an idea along the chain. He came in, did all that, and he would come back about every three weeks and give people a homework assignment. They would pick something to innovate, it could be a process or a new product, and he would work them through that process. He’d come back every two or three weeks for about a year. After that, people sort of picked it up on their own and started running with it.  

Steven L Blue: I’ll just tell you a quick story. One time, one of the employees, a factory employee, came up to me and said, “We really like this innovation stuff, but we could do more of it and better of it if we had like a dedicated space to do it.” So, I looked at him and said, “Hmm, let me make sure I get this right. You want me to take a space in my manufacturing space that actually makes money and turn it into a think tank?” About now, he’s wishing he’d never opened his mouth. And I said, “I love it.” So, I spent about a half a million dollars creating a space in the factory—not in the office, because this is an all-hands exercise—and it’s just a perfectly designed place with the right ambiance and environment to innovate. And my employees can go back into that space anytime they want, and do whatever they need to do. They don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to do it. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, it’s a creativity center?  

Steven L Blue: Yep.  

Steve Shallenberger: What kinds of things would they work on? 

Steven L Blue: Well, everything from new product development, they get an idea from the sales and marketing organization about the environment would like this, or could use this. They might work on that. They might work on how do you cut the cycle time down on a molding machine by half. How do you cut the material uses down by half? How do you cut the waste in the administrative areas by half? How do we reduce the amount of paper we touch? You name it. I pick a few of the big ones, obviously. Other than that, they’re allowed to pick almost anything they want. And I get a lot of questions, particularly from my board, about what you get for that half a million dollars. And my answer is always the same: a couple of really big innovations and a million little ones. Now, if you want me to waste time trying to account for all of them, I’m probably not going to do it. The big ones, I can account for; the little ones, who knows? Once it’s embedded in the organization and people really like it, they have to be recognized and rewarded for it. They can’t be, “Okay, I’m glad you’re working your ass off. And I got this great new product. Thank you, go back to the machine.” You’ve got to do the recognition and reward, too. 

Steve Shallenberger: Absolutely, that’s great. I’m curious, with your background, you have so much experience. If you were working with a group of individuals that were just starting with an organization, what would be some things you would recommend to them that would be important for them to do to be successful in their career? 

Steven L Blue: Well, the first thing is to go up and ask whoever you’re working for, “How can I help?” Don’t stay within the confines of your job description. One of the worst problems in business today, Steve, is job descriptions. That doesn’t give people the freedom to do what might be best. It confines them in what they do. It’s like a hotel maid; she’s got a checklist. Not only does she have to check off the checklist and do what’s on the checklist, she’s probably not even allowed to do anything that’s not. So, you should come up to your boss within the first week and say, “I got the job. So, I’m going to do that. I’m wondering if there’s something else that I can do to help you.” They will find that very refreshing. They’ll go, “What? People don’t ask me that.” And then go ahead and do whatever they suggest. Or come up to them and say, “I noticed there’s a little thing over here that could be improved upon. I know it’s not my job description. I’d like your permission to go ahead and do something about it.” And if you make that your operating practice, if you make that your modus operandi, and go wherever they want you to go, I guarantee you’ll be successful. I used to go into some of the worst outposts in the company. My wife hated it because I’d drag her all around one city, one little burg, all that, and most people wouldn’t touch them because they were crappy assignments. Those are the ones that you want to take on. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s good advice. It gets back to being a problem solver, the go-getter, saying, “Let me after it. I’m ready to do this. I’ll take it on, and I’m going to make it better.” Well, it’s been a fun interview today, and I can’t believe we’re getting towards the end of our interview. Any final tips you’d like to leave for our listeners today, Steve?  

Steven L Blue: Yeah, I mentioned culture is everything in a company. Here’s the thought I’d like to leave your listeners with: You want a Cirque du Soleil culture in your company. Now, most of your listeners have been to a Cirque du Soleil performance. They’re all jazzed up to do better today than they did yesterday. What you don’t see with them is, like the one guy swinging now through the rope. The guy that’s supposed to catch him, you don’t see him go, “I don’t feel like catching you today. I had a bad night. You’re on your own.” I’m being a little facetious, but not much. So, when I say that to CEOs, they go, “This is a manufacturing company, kid, not a circus performer.” But wouldn’t you want that kind of attitude out of all of your employees? So, what you want to work toward is try modeling what they do. You can learn a lot about what they do; there are lots of books written about it. Align your organization to a Cirque du Soleil kind of culture, and you’d be amazed at what good things will happen if you do. 

Steve Shallenberger: How can people find out about what you’re doing, Steve?  

Steven L Blue: Well, probably the best way is my website, which is I know I got a link. My team does a LinkedIn thing and the Facebook thing, but that’s probably the easiest way. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, why don’t you repeat it one more time so we’re sure they got it?  

Steven L Blue:  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thanks, Steven L. Blue, for being part of our show today. 

Steven L Blue: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure hanging out with you. 

Steve Shallenberger: Same here. And really, some powerful, significant things that we’ve discussed today are game-changers. They make a difference in a professional life or in any person’s life, at home, at school—to be that kind of a go-getter. So we wish you the best in all that you’re doing, Steve. 

Steven L Blue: Oh, thank you. Same to you and all your listeners.  

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks, congratulations. To our listeners, we’re so grateful to be able to be together with you today. We’re honored. Thank you for joining in; it says so much about you and your desire to improve. We’re wishing you a great day and the best in all that you do. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Steven L. Blue

President, CEO, and Director at Miller Ingenuity

President, CEO, and Director at Miller Ingenuity, Best-selling Author

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