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"Trials Teach You Endurance"
By Kavita Chhibber
John Foley has made it a habit to fly high- Lead Solo of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron, Stanford Business School Fellow, Entrepreneur and CEO of CenterPoint Companies-all impressive feathers in his cap and yet when you point out his super achieving triumphs, he says with disarming honesty that what he lacked in natural gifts he made up with sheer grit, blood sweat and tears-and that life has never been easy.
In an exclusive with Kavita Chhibber, John Foley retraces his path, talks about the things that really matter and why today he looks at life very differently.
So how were the early influences growing up? What comes to mind when you think of mom and dad and family?
I was born in Germany and my family moved back when I was two. My father was an engineer in the Military, and I remember moving almost 7-8 times until I reached High School. My older sister and I have always been very close and my earliest memories of her begin with a moment where she is standing with her hands on her hips, as I hid behind her, saying-you can’t touch my baby brother,” and me egging her on to protect me!
Of course there was discipline and rules, and an unwritten understanding to live life with honesty and integrity even though we didn’t talk about it on a daily basis, but I also knew that no matter what I chose to be in life, I would have my family’s unconditional love and support.
My dad taught me that not only could you have two careers; you could make the switch and succeed. He went from being a high ranking military officer to Chairman of the Board of Metropolitan Water District, the biggest water agency in Los Angeles. He had two Masters degrees from MIT and RPI, and became the role model for my going for graduate studies.
My mom-she is no more- was a foundation of unconditional love. I do meditation nowadays and they tell us at times to bring to mind someone who amplifies love and all I have do is picture her face and I feel an instantaneous calmness course throughout my body.
When I look back I realize how fortunate I was because I grew up in a very safe and nurturing environment.
So did you know early on what you wanted to be when you grew up?
The defining moment in my life came when at the age of 12 my father took me to an air show and I saw those jets flying overhead. Until that moment, I wanted to grow up and be just like my father-and so engineering was the plan, and eventually I did go on to become an engineer. But that day, something ignited in my heart. I said to myself, some day I want to fly those jets. Of course what I didn’t know was that those were the Blue Angels. The seed was planted and I decided I was going to do my best to nurture it and make it grow.
So I came up with step goals-to get good grades and then apply to the Air force Academy. I came from a family with modest means and could not have been able to afford private flying lessons. My grades and recommendations were great but I was rejected, because according to them I failed their physical.
It was a shocker, since I was an All State wrestler and a football player. Later I found out that they discovered a miniscule amount of excess protein in my urine, probably due to the high protein diet I was on, as a wrestler.
I didn’t let that deter me and decided to go to the University of Colorado in Boulder for maybe not the best of reasons-to ski and play football-but I felt I deserved a break. There too I went on a highly accomplished football team. I was not an All Star, nor was I big guy, but I told them give me a chance. I not only made it to the team, it was a great experience. A year later I applied to the Naval Academy and was accepted. I played football there too and got a degree in chemical engineering. I know this for a fact that whatever I lacked in skill I made up with my heart and a burning desire.
Again, when it came to flying planes, I wanted to go beyond what was easy. I asked myself-what kind of a plane did I want to fly? I opted for the toughest option, to land a fighter off an aircraft carrier.
So were you always this motivated? The younger child is usually more mollycoddled.
I think even as a child I always loved to dream. I had confidence, but I also had a great nurturing environment that allowed me to develop the way I did. But it didn’t mean that I didn’t struggle. In fact I have never seen my self as a super achiever. I worked incredibly hard and I didn’t give up. I tell people when I give talks that in order to grow and be successful you must embrace your trials. It’s like putting a metal in fire. It comes out more refined. I think trials do that for a human being. I joined the Naval Academy and worked very hard. I went to Stanford and found it very hard and struggled, but that built my endurance. Endurance builds character and character building is always a continual growth pattern.
What is it that they didn’t teach you at Stanford Business school?
I think Stanford is a fabulous place to learn the technical aspects of corporate strategy-it also introduced you to top leadership, and yet some of the key things that I learnt were not even from my Professors, some of who were Nobel laureates but from my class mates.
I went through the Executive Sloane Fellowship where the average age of my colleagues was between 38 to 50 years. These men were older than the usual MBA students you’d see in a regular MBA program. Many of them were on their way to becoming CEOs of their companies, and it was a very intense one year program. Yet it taught me how to deal with people, because everything in life or business has to do with relationships.
Today you help corporations and people connect the dots in their business and their lives, using the Blue Angels methodology. How did you connect the dots for yourself before you developed the tools you share today to help others?
I think what I learnt through life’s experiences was refined during the three years I spent with the Blue Angels. For me the greatest turning point came in my life on a day that changed the lives of many-September 11 2001. I was in Manhattan that day. I was running a different company then and was about to close on 5 million dollars in funding that would have launched the company and changed some of the ways aviation was done. But the planes crashed into the twin towers and with that crashed the future of this company. I remember sitting there watching the events unfold, the smell of concrete and smoke in the air, as the business deal evaporated before my eyes. Aviation changed forever that day-but not the way I had planned.
And yet my military upbringing of focusing on getting the job done, blinded me to the goings on-all I thought was-how do I salvage this deal, and oblivious to the world around me, I was trying to set up another appointment. Then a personal relationship that I thought would turn into something life long ended the same week, and shook me up. I could come up with ten bright new business ideas and succeed but how was I to handle the aftermath of a lost personal relationship?
Ironically, or may be it was meant to be, I ended up at a seminar on personal growth and suddenly it was as if a light bulb went on instantaneously. I realized how interlinked it all is and that I could translate the key lessons for personal growth into creating a high performance business and personal progress for others.
I also realized that integrity, faith, belief and trust, are very important to be successful. It is also very important to debrief-to look within and to introspect. To constantly trying to improve is a key factor many successful people apply to reach where they have.
At Stanford, I took some courses that were considered “soft” subjects-creativity in business, interpersonal dynamics of high performance leadership, and interestingly these are the subjects I talk about before large organizational chains, entrepreneurs today. I have learnt from the Blue Angels how important the debriefing process is for continuous improvement. You have to continue looking within yourself and measure your performance on both the internal and external factors. When you combine that with a sound business plan you will have accelerated growth.
You said in a recent presentation that you went to India to seek wisdom. You also spoke at TIE Delhi.
I think exploring the teachings of Buddha when I went to Dharamsala was very insightful. I felt that it would be interesting to look at the sacred wisdom of India through my western filters and see how I could incorporate it into business and personal growth for others. I want to be a peacemaker. If you do things not just from a personal perspective but from a purpose larger than yourself, you hopefully create goodness around you, whether it’s the business world or your personal life.
The lesson of humility is something I meditate on every day. For someone like me who speaks before thousands of people, it’s very important to put it all in perspective. Even when I was signing those autographs as a Blue Angel pilot, I always reminded myself, that it was not about John Foley at all. It was because I was representing something much larger than myself. I think to be successful it’s very important to be a good person.
TiE Delhi was interesting in that after my presentation while 70 percent of the people were very positive in their understanding; one CEO said to me –“You don’t know our culture. Your methodology will never work here. My initial reaction was how I deal with this kind of limited thinking, but the TIE President, expanded on why what I had said would work anywhere because the fundamental message was a universal one and could be implemented in any culture.
So what are the key things you would tell people to focus on no matter where they came from?
The very first thing is to start believing in your dreams. Then put a plan together, and be resilient.
You have to act. Always debrief - it is a great process which will lead you to continuous growth and improvement. Finally have a purpose larger than yourself. Have a center point that is aligned with a large vision of goodness.
Above all always be thankful. Everything I do today - and it was not always this way-starts with being thankful-thankful that I’m able to grow and that I’m able to help others and give back.
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