CEO Interview – Fred Pryor

Fred Pryor Seminars/Career Track
Interview with Fred Pryor, Founder at Fred Pryor Seminars/Career Track

This is part of our continuing CEO Interview Series to learn more about how strategic leaders are responsible for creating high performance companies. Fred, thanks for visiting with us today.

What was the catalyst for you to found Fred Seminars in 1970? How did it get started?
I was doing some seminars on a very local basis to a number of different businesses, and universities. One night, when I was just totally fatigued, I kicked back and it just popped into my mind that somebody should be doing this on a national basis. So I tried it and it was the right time, and right place; that’s how we began.

Most people fear public speaking and yet you started your business by giving seminars and public speaking. What is it that made you comfortable with that from the beginning?
My original profession might have something to do with it. I was a pastor before I began my business career. I have always felt comfortable speaking to people and received good feedback from other people when I did. I also found out that you can be effective as a public speaker if you get your mind off yourself and think about the people you are speaking to and get absorbed in the intent of bringing them something effective to utilize. Doing that allowed me to sustain the attention of audiences that were very diverse and often very large. The common denominator is that if a person has a need and you know how to get in the vicinity of it, and activate their thought process, then you can suggest things that will be helpful and they can go back and apply it.

What were some of the first topics that you focused on in your seminars and presentations?
The very first national seminar was Managing Time. It seems strange now because people are used to multi tasking and using many time management tools. If you think back to the 1970s, most of the companies were run by people who had been in the second world war. Many of them were boot strap type people and self starters. They expected people to figure it out and get it done. If employees asked about time management, they would say “hey if you can’t get your act together there will be dozens of people that would love to have your job, do you think you can handle that?”. So they weren’t accustomed to the thought that they should provide ways to manage resources, including time, for the people that worked for them. Frankly, many things in life are luck but luck is where preparation meets opportunity. I came along at a time when business owners were seeking help from people outside of their business that had solutions to their challenges.

The other thing is that they were spending a lot of money on their top executives. They would send them for a week or two in a remote location, for $30,000 of training. However, there was nothing for the first line. My plan was to travel to their city, negating the need for travel and overnights. I then offered them a one day course for $99, so for under a $100 these people had a chance to learn and grow.

When you launched it in 1970 did you envision it to grow and take the shape that is has today? What did you think it was going to become back in 1970 when you got started?
I think like most things you had less time to think about what it might be and more time to think about how do you sustain it presently. Periodically, I allowed myself to dream but it was very fleeting. The day-to-day demands were so great. I used to speak 225 times a year (that is 225 cities), and had a lot of responsibility at the office, even though I had someone running the day-to-day operations. The truth is there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about it. I’ve often thought of it a lot like driving a car, you usually keep your car on low beams but once in a while you kick them up to high beams just to see what’s out there. Every once in awhile we did kick things up to high beams, get a little dreamy, some of the dreams came true, some were better, some were worse.

What was the biggest hiccup that your company had along the way and how did you deal with it?
I think it was the same thing we’re having today, which is the economics of circumstances make a great deal of difference. If you have more demand than there is available supply, life is pretty easy. But when the economy goes down, it’s not something you have to do to send someone to a seminar, so demand dissipates. Part of the secret to dealing with it was to forecast sufficiently in advance, to anticipate and adjust, and to go into a lower mode of production. Then, be ready at the right time to come back strong when people have that need again.

How different would you say the topics taught today are from what was taught in the 1970’s? How has it evolved?
One way to look at life is that it is very, very complex. There is a lot of paradox; take differentiation and integration or ambiguity and clarity. The world requires a bit of both. This polarization is paradoxical in itself

Preparing people to deal with life’s complexity is what it is all about. Education that is focused on making sure people are effective problem solvers is critical in today’s world. Being able to anticipate the challenge, then to grow with it, to bring to bear solutions and then to prepare for the next crisis that might come along is a necessary skill, not a luxury. So similar to the strategic leadership you speak of in your work. So it’s an ever present, constant, vigilant kind of thing. To the extent that a person is alert and aware, they usually pick up enough data along the way, that their intuitive judgment allows them to make better decisions as they project into the future.

How would your advice differ to those who are starting their careers and senior executives?
We usually undervalue people and certainly age is often something that we let interfere with our own judgment. We think that someone, simply because they are young and inexperienced doesn’t have much to offer. Yet, the “Bill Gates type” shows us that that is certainly not true. Those who study the mind and brain will tell you maturity and judgment certainly varies by age. Yet, each individual varies. Their biggest problem is do they recognize their ability to contribute, and the second biggest problem is does management recognize it? Our purpose as a leader is to bring out the best that people have to offer. That is both an art and a science. The contribution of a younger mindset is a critical resource and should be included in every strategic plan.

How would someone include that in their planning? How would they go about it?
A conscientiousness. Include some younger people in the planning sessions to remind you of their perspective; one that you used to have and that you don’t have now. It will awaken you. If you begin to believe in them, they often begin to believe in themselves and then you get an uninterrupted thought process. As we get older we let experience set us in our ways, it is often helpful to have the younger blood to provide diversity. Part of a leader’s responsibility is to realize it’s not a happenstance to have the right person or the right set of inputs. Cultivating the best in people and understanding their capabilities is a critical skill of every leader. Start by investing your time in them, just by talking and listening.

What counsel would you provide to CEOs of midsized companies, with regard to what it takes to run a high performance company?
To understand the dynamics of leadership, and realize that you are not a leader if you don’t have followers. Leadership requires the capacity to listen. It’s a wonderful thing to have a charismatic personality but the problem with that is you often lean on that charisma. Charisma comes from the Greek word that says “gift from god” – we all have that. If you allow it to dominate in a manner that squelches other people and they get focused on the fact that you’re more dynamic and you overwhelm them, then they feel less likely to make a contribution. So listening is one of the arts and skills that good wise people do and then after they listen well they can kick in their charisma. Charisma only goes a certain distance then wisdom continues after that. Wisdom is constantly reflected in good judgment. Keep others around to keep you honest to yourself. You need to be willing and able to accept feedback but part of that is dependent on creating an environment where employees feel their opinion is welcome.

What other leaders, historical or current, have most shaped your thoughts and philosophies with regard to leadership?
I remember when my grandson, Zack, was born. He’s now 24 years old.. I remember how enamored I was of the absolute beauty of what a child brings to the world and I began talking about the wisdom of Zack. I mention that in this context because I think some of those simplistic things that happen at a very early age are some of the most dynamic and important things as the years unfold. In other words, if you watch a very small child, if they are nurtured properly, they have a spontaneity, and that kind of spontaneity has to be something they feel free to express. Eric Burns said one time that a person is autonomous; a person governing in their own lives has to be aware, spontaneous and intimate. Intimacy is what gives you enough emotional groceries to where you feel secure in yourself to be spontaneous and have the freedom to be aware rather than trying to predict how you should act in the situation. I like that particular phraseology because we are looking for autonomous people, self governing people who can express themselves. But we have got to have a sense of awareness, spontaneity and intimacy to allow for that.

What’s next for Fred Pryor? What projects are you taking on?
It’s unfolding. One of the things that is hard to predict is identifying what it is you really want to do. I think that’s interesting because if you are not careful and you are too locked in with your determination in what I’m going to do next, you may not be open to hear what might be much, much better. I think what I’d like to do is continue the process I’m involved in, philanthropic type of activity. I would like to say the best philanthropy is people who provide job opportunities for other people. I may have had my best philanthropy in my life in employing 100s of 1000s of people over the years. I think that’s extremely important, however, as things begin to change, the influence that you have comes with the accumulation of people you’ve gotten to know and whatever reputation you’ve gotten.

The other thing I like to encourage people early on to consider the possibility of going to a community foundation and starting a foundation. I say community foundation because I first started out with a private foundation and there are a lot of rules that make it difficult and also you have to pay extra money to get things done. I find that at a community foundation you have a whole staff that can give you information and you have ways to invest that give you a great deal of leverage to accomplish things. You can feel a sense of achievement. Some of the joys I have now is from some of the investments I’ve made.

Take today, I went to Kansas Medical Center for a test and a lady came over and I asked for directions. She said I’ll take you to your car. It was a lady I had befriended and she told me that I had mentored her in business. It’s hard to find things more gratifying than things you’ve done in the past that have made differences in peoples lives so that kind of investment is part of the emotional groceries.

We each must use each day to it’s fullest. Master Admiral Stockdale, was in prison for 7/12 years, 4 /12 of them in solitary confinement. Because he didn’t know if he would live another day or not, one of the things he concluded was a good life is a accumulation of significant events. He looked back on his life and realized there were many important events but they weren’t necessarily significant events. So I keep thinking if I want to do something today I want it to be something of significance about it.

I hope each of us will stack up meaningful and significant events in our long lives ahead.

Fred Pryor was the Founder of Fred Pryor Seminars back in 1970 and is now the Founding Chairman of the Board of Fred Pryor Seminars Career Track & Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics which is a Division of Park University, Inc. Mr. Pryor is also a current Director at The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

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