Cover Story: Rise and Shine!1 May, 2012 By: Thomas Haire Response
If you spend two minutes speaking with John Foley, it’s immediately apparent why he’s had such incredible success as a keynote speaker. His energy, enthusiasm and thoughtfulness are on display with every sentence he utters.
But, at the same time, the consistency of the concepts he wants to discuss is also striking. Make no mistake: Foley is no one-note wonder. As you’d expect from a person with his background — U.S. Naval Academy, lead solo pilot of the famous Blue Angels flying team, three master’s degrees (two from Stanford University), venture capitalist, entrepreneur — that consistency speaks more to his ability to focus down to a clear, concise message from widely varying inputs and interests.
“I never expected to be doing this,” says Foley, who will keynote Response Expo on Tuesday, May 15 at 5:30 p.m., at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. “I did a full Navy career, was lucky enough to be selected for a life-changing experience as part of the Blue Angels, went back into the Navy in a leadership role, and then was able to earn a Sloan Fellowship to attend Stanford. But to be sharing the things I’ve learned across all of this experience almost 100 times a year with corporate leaders — it’s a thrill.”
Foley, who is also the founder and president of CenterPoint Companies, which provides business performance training to Fortune 500 companies, professional associations and educational organizations around the world, has spoken to companies like Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals, Subway, Mass Mutual, Jamba Juice and hundreds of others.
“John’s presentation was more relevant than any other speaker we’ve had because he took the time to understand what we were trying to communicate,” says former Jamba Juice CEO Paul Clayton. “He made it real. He really connected.”
That ability to connect makes it easier for Foley to inspire with his thoughts on the “How of High Performance.” However, Foley makes no bones that it’s his firsthand experience in a culture that pushes high performance to the extremes — the Blue Angels — that provides the base for his efforts.
“I try to paint a picture of what my experiences as a part of the Blue Angels really looked like in the moment,” Foley says of flying 36 inches from the closest plane at speeds of more than 400 knots — upside down. “The hard work is sharing it in a way that connects with everyone, adapting to every audience. That’s where the ‘How of High Performance’ comes from.”
Foley’s high-performance history starts prior to joining the Blue Angels, of course. To become part of such an elite flying team, it’s no shock that Foley was one of the Navy’s elite fliers to begin with, rising to become an instructor of F-18 fighter pilots. “Before you apply to join the Blue Angels, you have to have completed 1,500 hours in a tactical jet, be a capable aircraft carrier pilot, and more,” he says. “But, in the end, it kind of comes down to two things. One, you’re alive! And two, you know how to train.”
While most members of the Blue Angels serve a two-year tour in the group, Foley served for three years, rising to lead solo pilot of the group in his final year. “I was fortunate that my first assignment was as the narrator or operations officer — almost like an assistant chief operations officer (COO),” he says. “So after serving opposite the lead solo my second year, it made sense to become the lead solo in that third year, because that position is really the COO for the group.”
But while there are six pilots that make the Blue Angels the world’s top flight demonstration team, the fact is that there are more than 120 total members of the Blue Angels team. The oneness of a performance you might see from the group is developed by one thing: a commitment to hard work and high performance. And that commitment supersedes the team turnover that is a natural part of a group that sees its members serve only two to three years at a time.
“Much like in the Blue Angels, there is constant growth for companies, which leads to turnover at the highest levels,” Foley says. “In the Blue Angels, it’s about finding a way of not only selecting high-performance individuals to make up a high-performance team, but also about consistently training and sustaining to maintain that level. It’s a process based on the belief that it’s imperative that you train your own replacement.”
But when asked what he gained most from his time with these elite pilots, Foley’s answer is decisively personal. “It’s the look in that little kid’s eyes,” he says. “I’ll never forget the first time I was in a crowded greeting line, and I saw a little girl jumping up and down, so excited to meet us. Part of our assignment is to serve as ambassadors of good will, and you take it seriously, but that first time you see the looks in a child’s eyes, their hopes and dreams, you realize that this is not about you. It has everything to do with what you stand for and upholding that obligation.”
Professionally, however, his time in the Blue Angels created the concepts that make up the “How of High Performance.” He adds, “It’s been a unique opportunity for me to find out the best ways to transfer that knowledge.”
The Valley of Creativity
The first step came when Foley found himself holding three master’s degrees — one from Naval War College and two from Stanford — and standing in the heart of Silicon Valley at the apex of the first Internet age.
“I was right in the middle of it in 1999, 2000, 2001 — working for a venture capital (VC) firm on the inside of the ‘Internet bubble’,” Foley recalls. “Talk about watching high-performance teams! It really prompted me to dig into the essence of raising the level of performance. That got me into reverse engineering — looking back at those Blue Angel experiences. Now, looking at changing market conditions, personnel changes, I began to think of ways to turn people and teams into high-performance successes.”
Foley thanks his time in the Navy for helping him understand processes, systems and support teams. “Systems are absolutely critical, because if they aren’t working at your speed, they will bog you down,” Foley says. “However, when I was doing work in the VC space and looking at early-stage firms taking an idea and turning it into something, I learned the importance of creativity and innovation. I knew that the ‘How of High Performance’ had to address both of these sides — it had to be a model that you could apply to both sides.”
What he came up with he calls the Diamond Performance Framework, which features seven core areas:
- High-Performance Zone: The gap between your current state and your goals for the future.
- Belief Levels: The process of developing a vision for your true potential and deepening the commitment and buy-in to that vision.
- Brief: The practice of creating disciplined standards for preparation and planning through focus, processes and checklists.
- Center Point: The alignment of individuals and teams on priorities and a focal point.
- Contracts: The system of using agreements to build trust in order to achieve greater levels of execution. Building trust is broken into three parts: competent, commitment and character.
- Debrief: The system for continuous improvement that creates an environment of open and honest communication and reinforces accountability, trust and teamwork.
- Glad to Be Here: The attitude of gratefulness and thankfulness for: being alive, opportunities and people.
“Creating belief levels helps turn your dreams into reality,” Foley says. “Then you build trust agreements with those around you, creating systems and processes. I love being involved in the early stages of a business. How do you create inspiration and then provide the motivation to a group of people to buy in? Being in that Silicon Valley epicenter, it really was the Blue Angels of the tech world. And it was a great classroom. I learned more from the busts than the boom. You’d better have the foundation around you to succeed, and you’d better have the right definition of success. Many learned that it wasn’t really about getting clicks on their sites but actually driving revenue.”
Now, when he looks at an organization — be it from an entrepreneurial perspective or one he will be giving his keynote presentation to — Foley takes the information he has and goes right to his Diamond Framework to assess where they fit. “I focus on the strengths first, and what I find that is very unique is that the top 1 percent of businesses are all committed to getting their leadership teams together to share ideas and best practices. They are open to training and mentoring — for themselves and their staffs,” he says.
But to make the breakthrough to where Foley says pilots fit as a part of the Blue Angels — “the top 1/10th of the top 1/10th of 1 percent” — he contends, “There hast to be a commitment to not only be the best in our business, but the best organization anywhere. It’s a different mindset.”
Giving, Getting and Giving Some More
It’s very memorable for Foley whenever he encounters that mindset during his speaking engagements. “I recently spoke at the Global Sports Summit — owners of major league sports franchises from all over the world — and it was clearly there,” he says. “I wanted to understand the essence driving each of them.”
In fact, Foley says, he finds that drive more often than one would expect with his schedule. With more than 100 presentations expected again in 2012, Foley’s docket is full. “In recent weeks, I was in Portugal, speaking to a group of executives for AON, and after that, I was in Munich, speaking to key business and management leaders from across Germany,” he says. “I do love those international events — there’s a real thirst from those attendees. Excellence is contagious; it’s almost in their DNA.”
Another facet to Foley’s traveling road show is his desire to give back — or as he calls it, “Giving forward.” Foley’s Glad To Be Here Foundation revels in a message of “having a purpose larger than self” by supporting the causes closest to the hearts of those he works with.
Every time Foley delivers a presentation, 10 percent of his fee goes to charity — half of it to a nonprofit of the client’s choice, and half distributed through the Glad To Be Here Foundation. At Response Expo, Foley’s presentation will support this year’s Direct Response Marketing Alliance’s “DRMA Cares” project: the Amber Golden Educational Fund.
It’s another personal touch from a man who is all about them. “I love being in the back of a room after a presentation, talking to the attendees,” Foley says. “When someone comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you — not only can I use this for my professional life but in my personal life, too,’ I’m the one who is thankful. That’s the most rewarding part of this — the chance to affect someone one-to-one.”
“One is crystal clear,” he says immediately. “When I was 12, I really loved my dad, and I still do. He was an Army officer; he inspired me and was my hero — not by words, but by deeds. He took me to an air show, and I remember looking into the sky and seeing six magnificent blue jets that day. It clicked in my heart, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to do that.’ He’s told me on many occasions, ‘You used those exact words: I’m going to do that.’ It truly was defining. I was so awed by the Blue Angels, and I decided to be one. If you truly decide like that, you will find a way to get there.”
A second moment came during Foley’s Navy career — a moment that almost ended his career and his life. “I was coming in for a landing on an aircraft carrier. I was landing at night so I was pretty focused, but I was still pretty young. I was a top-10 pilot, and on this flight, I was kind of thinking about how well I’d been doing,” Foley says.
But not for long. “The next thing I hear is a scream over the radio,” he recalls. “It wasn’t even the guy holding the radio, it was his backup guy, because the controlling guy was frozen scared. So I look out through my lens again, which has now gone from center ball — right on target — to a red flashing ball. I was tracking to land in what we called the spud locker, a kitchen below the back of the landing deck. And I was at full power. I’ll never forget it — it seemed like time slowed down. What I realized later, though, is that your mind actually speeds up and goes almost crystal clear. At that point, I really felt something leave my body and I was at total peace. I was almost just along for the ride. I thought to myself, ‘I guess this is it. I guess this is how it happens.’ So I come in, and somehow, I hit the flight deck. I don’t blow up. I hit the ‘one wire,’ it catches and everything comes back into my body. When that happened, it hit me: fear, shaking legs, dry heaving. After I got out of the plane, I remember that I went down and got a cheeseburger and ice cream. And no ice cream ever tasted as good as that ice cream. It really hit me just how much I like ice cream, how good it is. Ever since, I remember to enjoy every moment.”