Sean Ryan is a sought-after leadership consultant whose vast experience has helped such companies as Disney, Nucor Steel, FedEx and Nestle Waters of North America/Perrier Group of America succeed at undertaking challenging culture changes. His new book is Get in Gear: The Seven Gears that Drive Strategy to Results.
Tell us your name and a little about yourself.
I’m Sean Ryan. I’m the Founder and CEO of WhiteWater International Consulting. I’m also married to a great spouse, Heather, and the father of three kids, two of them a little older with careers of their own and a 13 year old who’s become a very accomplished gymnast.
I started my professional career at Pacific Gas and Electric where I spent 7 years. For the last 33 years, I’ve been in the consulting world, except for two significant “sabbaticals” back into larger organizations. In the first, I was Vice President of Learning and Organizational Development at Perrier Group of America as the company went through a dramatic growth spurt in the late ‘90s. In the second, I led the turnaround of a failing resort in Georgia. I had the privilege of leading 1,200 team members as we revitalized the resort, re-engaged with our guests, and turned from perpetual money-losing situation to being cashflow positive in about 9 months.
What exactly does your company do?
Our mission is to create great organizations in which people can contribute their best every day. It’s the same mission – perhaps a little Don Quixotic – that I’ve been on since I jumped into the consulting world. We essentially do three things:
- We help our clients Create a Strategy that enables them to win by creating a competitive advantage in a world of perpetual change.
- We help our clients drive strategy to results. Recognizing that 75-90 percent of organizations fall short of achieving the objectives they expect from their strategies, we help them through the process of creating focus and alignment throughout their organizations to achieve success. Our thinking about this is captured in my new book, Get in Gear: The Seven Gears that Drive Strategy to Results.
- Both of those take great leadership. So, we work with our clients to develop leadership capacity at all levels of their organization. That includes a wide variety of virtual and classroom development along with one-on-one and team coaching.
What were the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?
There have been dozens. One of my great friends, who has also been a colleague and is now a client, describes it as a huge puzzle. Sometimes you don’t even have all the pieces to sort out. There are a few general principles that have applied across many, if not all, of those puzzles:
- Almost invariably, the people I’ve worked with know more than I do about the puzzle. You have to have a respect for and a belief in the capability of people around you. The challenge is to get them to see the puzzle, bring everything they know to solve it while simultaneously getting them to challenge their own “thinking” – their fundamental assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions.
- Most of the transformational change I’ve been a part of takes time. Persistence and perseverance are key…without being a stubborn ass. It’s an interesting paradox!
- You literally never know what the puzzle is or what it will take to solve it. A major change in organizations is a 10,000-step journey. The smartest people on earth can get together and figure out maybe the first five steps. Then after the first step or two, the other 9,998 all change. So, you have to be adaptable and nimble. Steadfast focus; nimble methods.
- Always be learning…all of us are unfinished products. We have to keep challenging ourselves and pushing the bar higher every day.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?
I’ve gotten a lot of great advice throughout my career, so I’m not sure I wish anyone had given me different advice early other than maybe: you really should buy Chrysler stock at $3/share in 1983; and buy as much Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon stock as you can as soon as you can!
One of my favorite pieces of advice early in my career was from a customer that I sold to at the time. He was a total pro in his industry and his advice was, “Keep smiling.” It makes a difference!
Who are your biggest influences and people you admire and why?
My grandmother: We lived in her house until I was 5. My parents both worked, so she had a huge impact on imprinting values like integrity, respect, and responsibility.
My parents: Both worked hard to provide for our family.
Miller Templeton: He was an Associate Dean of Students at Georgia Tech when I went to school there. He was also head of the Outdoor Recreation program and the head resident of a dorm in which I was the senior counselor. Miller spent a lot of time with his staff building the skills to connect with people. That was very helpful to me…a nerdy, introverted engineer. But, more importantly, it taught me that that stuff can be taught and learned.
I had the opportunity to work as a senior consultant with Ken Blanchard, the world-famous author, and speaker. One of Ken’s sayings, “Life is about getting A’s” has always stuck with me. We just have to find ways to help people get A’s in work and in life.
Art Smuck, who I recruited to my team at Perrier, was this incredible hidden gem of talent who had been buried in the organization. He was instrumental in all the work we did at Perrier. He’s an incredibly talented leader who is constantly learning and refining his craft as a leader. He eventually left us and went to a small company outside Fort Worth, TX. He grew that company from a little $4 million revenue business through organic growth and getting acquired by other companies to a pretty significant sized unit within FedEx (FedEx Supply Chain).
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Leon Topalian, the CEO, and MaryEmily Slate, one of the EVPs at Nucor (the largest steelmaker in the US). They are both great human beings and they personify resilience and relentlessness in their efforts to be the best leaders they can and to continue to steward a great organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I’d take a different approach to that. I’m extremely grateful to all the people who I’ve had a chance to work with ¬– who’ve let me experiment with and learn from them and have trusted me enough to help them learn and grow.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
Hands down, my two fantastic older kids who have become productive members of society; a loving wife who hasn’t yet killed me in spite of all the travel and other stuff she has to put up with; and a younger son who is growing into a great young adult.
I’ve had the chance to do a lot of great work over the years. I wrote a pretty decent book THAT EVERYONE SHOULD BUY AND READ. But, all of that pales in comparison to being able to be a part of the lives of my kids and my spouse.
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