Guest article by Frank O’Connell

I’ve had a five-decade career leading some of the country’s most respected brands from Reebok to HBO Videos, Gibson Greetings to Indian Motorcycles. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be a great manager who can motivate employees and maintain their trust. Preparation, authenticity, and having fun are among the most important skills that managers should embrace. Caring about employees and answering their questions are also part of the mix.

Be Prepared. Know Your Numbers.

At age 22, when I was the Assistant Product Manager on Carnation Instant Breakfast, my first boss took a big risk in having me make a presentation to Everett Olsen, the stoic CEO who was a stickler for numbers. When we entered his office, he peered at me through his half glasses. I had just started my presentation and, as he studied me, his glasses started to slide down his nose. He suddenly wadded up my presentation and threw it at me and said, “Come back when you get the numbers right.”

I quietly left the room, embarrassed, and confused; but, boy, did I learn a valuable lesson and I never made that mistake again. Be prepared, double check your work, know you audience. I knew my boss took a chance with me by putting me in front of the CEO and letting me learn some lessons. He knew how to manage me, and by taking a risk, created opportunity for learning and growth. Sometimes you must dig a little deeper and prepare a little better to get the desired results. If available, I recommend taking advantage of any first-time supervisor training programs.

Aim For Authenticity

I learned a lot first by managing small groups as head of New Product Development at Carnation and later when leading large organizations with thousands of employees. Throughout it all, I found that the management style that suited be best was being natural and genuine. I was friendly, while still maintaining my stature as the boss.

Whenever I stepped into a new leadership role, I could see that employees were eager to figure me out and understand my management style. Therefore, instead of letting rumors and speculation fill the vacuum, I held meetings and told employees about myself, including personal information about my family, kids, dog, hobbies, career, and where I grew up.

Many employees, especially those on the factory floor, related to my early life growing up on a farm and later to my passion for motorcycling. Sharing personal information made me real to them. For example, when I was CEO of Gibson Greetings (before I abandoned the rule of assigned parking), a visitor commented to our receptionist, “Your CEO is going to be pissed. Someone put their motorcycle in his parking spot.” The receptionist laughed and said, “That’s our CEO’s bike.” The visitor hadn’t connected the motorcycle’s license plate which read, “GIBSON JET” to me.

Encourage Questions From Your Team

When I held meetings, I opened the floor to no-holds-barred questions. Many leaders are uneasy handling ad hoc questions, because they are afraid they will be embarrassed if they don’t know the answers. Or worse, they fear that the questions will contain criticism aimed at them. I like impromptu questions. By asking questions, employees showed me what was important to them. They revealed things that may not have been obvious to me. If I didn’t know the answer, I’d tell them that I would find out and get back to them. In one case, I was talking to a group of warehouse people, telling them about our brilliant, new strategic plan. When I finished, I opened the floor to questions. The employees asked whether they could have a grill to cook their lunches on. I said “yes,” and they were very happy – so much for strategy!

Show Real Interest In Your Employees

I am up front about my expectations of employees and what they should expect from me. Things like honesty, working as a team, mutual respect, communication, and facing problems are important to me. I talk about accountability and setting mutually agreeable, measurable performance objectives which are reviewed often. These objectives come from the company’s strategic plan, but include at least one personal development goal for each employee.

I emphasize that I am interested in everyone’s personal development and that my door is always open. I also tell employees that I like to have fun. I believe it is important to let your personality and human caring side resonate. My mantra is “Have Fun Be Fun.” People are motivated by and want to be around positive, fun people.



FRANK O’CONNELL, author of JUMP FIRST, THINK FAST: An Unconventional Approach To High Performance is known for his unconventional approach for high performance through his strategic thinking, brand building, breakthrough marketing, and new product ideas. His accomplishments include serving as president of Reebok Brands, president of HBO Video, CEO of Indian Motorcycle, and chairman and CEO of Gibson Greetings, Inc. He spent the first fourteen years of his career developing well-known brands at Arnold Bakery, Mattel, Carnation Company, and Hunt Wesson foods, among other brands in the baking and natural foods industry.

O’Connell was a senior partner with The Parthenon Group, a top strategic consulting company for seven years. He also spent sixteen years on the board of Tree House Foods Inc., and he is an investor and board member at Schylling Inc, a toy company and is cofounder of Tuckerman Capital. He has also served on numerous Cornell University boards where he earned his B.S. in Economics and an M.B.A. You can learn more at:

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