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How to Change a Struggling Culture

Mitch Luciano had worked for Trailer Bridge for three years, and things weren’t going well for the Florida-based logistics company. They had churned through three CEOs in as many years, and the business was generating about a one percent annual return on investment.

They needed to turn things around, and they needed to do it fast.

In 2014 the company’s board moved Luciano into the president role (he didn’t want the CEO title, and who could blame him?) with a mandate to fix things from the inside out.

Trailer Bridge, which primarily ships freight between Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, has already improved its return on investment to 15-20 percent a year under Luciano’s guidance. It’s gone from a company with high employee turnover to one that last year was ranked as the seventh best place to work in Jacksonville.

Luciano, who recently sent four of his team to my Certification program, says the shift to a people-focused culture was essential to the lightning-fast financial turnaround.

Here are four simple yet profound steps he took that could change the course of any struggling culture:

1. Ditch the name tags

Trailer Bridge has only 110 employees, so Step One for Luciano was to get know each one of them. He asked questions, listened, and learned their personal stories. Then he asked the other top leaders to get out of their offices and do the same.

“We had name tags everywhere,” he said. “I tore them all up.”

“In a company this small,” said Luciano. “We should at least know each others’ names.”

2. Release the resisters

Trailer Bridge was a no-nonsense environment where people came in, put their noses to the grindstone, and focused on getting their work done. To some, saying, “Hello” to a coworker was seen as a waste of time, and they didn’t take too kindly to this new, human-centric approach.

Luciano tried to enlist the resisters, and many of them came around. Others left on their own. And some were dismissed.

“We had some negative people,” Luciano said, “who just did not want to participate in the people-focused energy we were trying to create. Unfortunately, I had to let them go.”

3. Make time to lead

When some managers complained that they were too busy for this relationship stuff, Luciano encouraged them to create more time for people by ditching unnecessary, antiquated reports.

“Connecting with people doesn’t take four hours a day,” he pointed out.

Luciano writes a personalized card to every employee on their birthday, collects drawings of Trailer Bridge trucks made by employees’ kids, holds regular town hall meetings, and has an open-door policy that allows anyone to talk to him about whatever’s on their mind.

All of this adds up to only 30-60 minutes of his time each day, but it makes a difference in every employee’s life.

4. Follow through

Because of the high turnover rate in the C-Suite, it was natural for employees to think that Luciano would be just another flavor of the year. He knew that he and other top leaders would have to model consistency.

“It takes years to build a culture and you can tear it down in a day,” he said.

Since the day he took the helm, Luciano has followed up on every employee suggestion–either by implementing the idea or by explaining why it couldn’t be done.

He knows if he ever stops that practice, people will notice and a piece of the culture will die.

Trailer Bridge, like all organizations, is still a work in progress, but Luciano loves the results he’s seeing.

And the board does, too.

People who had been hanging around for the paycheck now tell him they love their job and their coworkers.

And that’s translating to the consumer experience.

For example, one of their customers purchased a dump truck in Puerto Rico and had Trailer Bridge ship it to Jacksonville.

When he arrived at the dock to retrieve his truck, he couldn’t get it started.

The Trailer Bridge team–whose work was technically done when the truck was offloaded from the boat–jump-started it and sent the happy customer on his way.

He made it to the highway and the truck broke down.

In a panic, the driver called Trailer Bridge who sent their mechanics to his roadside rescue.

“I was going to be stuck sleeping in a dump truck on the side of the highway,” the customer wrote in a letter to Luciano. “Your angels saved my day. I just want you to know what amazing people you have working at Trailer Bridge.”

The letter brought tears of joy to Luciano’s eyes.

The company had turned around.


[This post was originally published on my weekly column at]

Fascination, Gratitude, and Thou 1.0

Chapter 20

I tried to peer over Cam’s shoulder, but he created a barrier with his arms as if blocking a cheating neighbor during a high school exam. I kept my mouth shut and let him scribble, which he was doing furiously. Suddenly I had the sense that someone was watching us and turned my head to see Agnes standing behind our booth, looking at Cam with a satisfied smile.

“Is that a Wake-Up Pad, baby?”

Cam jumped and turned his head as well. “Yeah, well, something to do while we were waiting for you.” He slapped shut the notebook and started to stuff it back in his pocket.

“Keep it out, please, Cam,” she said as she slid back into the booth. “You may want to take some notes.” She turned her gaze to me and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

“Ummm… well… I haven’t gotten around to picking one up yet,” I told her. “I’ve got a tablet at home that’ll do the trick, but I haven’t been there since this morning.”

She picked up Mary Ellen’s order pad, which had been sitting at the end of the table. “Here, use this.”

“But that’s…”

“Just take it.” She pushed it to me across the linoleum tabletop.

It was fresh and unmarked and as I flipped through the glue-bound pages, it was clear that this was not your typical server tool. The first half of the pad had the words Scan & Eavesdrop printed along the top of each page, followed by several pages with the heading Ponder. Farther back, another series said Talking Points, and the leaves in the final section each carried the heading of Try This.

“That’s Mary Ellen’s own design,” said Agnes. “And it has to do with one of the many reasons that young woman is so extraordinary. Mary Ellen makes it her solemn mission to get to know—I mean really know—everyone who sits in her section. To the point where,” she tapped on Cam’s hand, “she’ll know what side to serve the coffee on. She doesn’t always succeed, mind you, and it does take her longer to turn over a table, but you know what happens? Her customers love her so much that they come back again and again, and will keep coming back as long as Mary Ellen is alive and well and working at The Wake-Up Call.”

“So where does the pad come in?” I asked, flipping, once again, through the pages.

“Simple, really,” Agnes beamed as though bragging about a favorite daughter. “She doesn’t have to write orders, carries it all in her head. So, instead, she treats every customer encounter as an exercise in fascination. They think she’s writing down their orders, but she’s really capturing little  gems  of  conversation  and  behavior—little  nuggets of humanity. She may look like she’s just waitressing or hostessing, but she’s not.”

Cam was clearly trying to get his mind around this. “Then what is she doing?”

“She’s pursuing the Radical Edge, sweetheart. Her WUP is just the tool to get her there and keep her there.”

“And there is where, exactly?” I asked, trying to recall what Edg had said in his letter.

“The Radical Edge is that zone of total value, total significance to one’s self and to others. It’s about achieving the simultaneous fulfillment of three of life’s seemingly incompatible spheres.”

Something had shifted in Agnes’s tone. I was getting a glimpse behind Oz’s curtain and seeing Her Wizardness for what she really was. Sure, she was a successful entrepreneur; sure, she was a kind though stern motherly figure but above all, I now saw, she was a philosopher who thought very deeply about things and took those thoughts very seriously. “Your business, your personal life, and your effect on the world,” she said. “When you’re hitting on those three cylinders simultaneously, you’ve achieved the Radical Edge and life takes on an entirely new level of meaning.”

“Smitty gave us a tutorial on WUPing this morning, but I think you’ve just put it in context for me,” I said, stroking my chin in a scholarly manner. It’s the only scholarly manner I have, come to think of it.

“Oh, yes, well, Smitty… Smitty is a WUP master,” she chuckled at her description. “But that’s not exactly a coincidence, my friends,” said Agnes. She leaned in with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eyes. “I’m the one that started Billy Maritime down this road many, many years ago, and Billy taught it to Smitty when he was just a young pup like you, Cam.”

Excuse me? “You taught this to Pops?” I don’t know why I was stunned, but I was. “How did that happen? I mean, how were you two connected? You know what I mean.” I was all but stammering.

“It was nothing formal, Steve. At first, he was my customer. He’d come in here with little Theodore—sorry, Edg—and our friendship just developed over  the  years. We did a lot of talking, that’s all. Do enough talking, for enough years, and you’re bound to not only learn from each other, but also help each other out along the way. He was the real genius; I just kind of goosed him along.” She paused for a moment, obviously lost in reverie, and then let out a deep, trembling sigh. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that customers are just customers. If that’d been my attitude, I’d have missed out on one of my life’s greatest treasures: Billy ‘Pops’ Maritime and his little boy, Edg.”

I don’t know if she’d meant to, but Agnes had baited the hook, tossed it into the pond, and jerked the line with perfect finesse. Cam was snagged. For him, merely mentioning the Maritime name made Agnes ripple with credibility; the fact that she knew Pops so well made her virtually irresistible. That’s pretty much how I felt, too.

Agnes snapped back to the present. “But you’re not here to talk about the Family Maritime, are you?”

“Works for me!” I exclaimed.

“Some other time, Steve.” She responded looking at Cam, who met her eyes with full attention, pen at the ready in his left hand. That was a first, and it was clear that Agnes was going to take full advantage.

“Stoke your business, amp your life, and change the world—a modest promise, to be sure,” she said with obvious understatement. “We’ll take them one at a time, starting with business, okay?”

“That’s what it’s all about for me,” Cam responded. “Chuck the other two, far as I’m concerned.”

“Well, now that’s just the problem, isn’t it, Mr. Summerfield? You’re not concerned far enough.”


[Note: I’m excited to share my second book, The Radical Edge, in serial fashion here on! We’ll post one installment a week until the very end of the book. You can go back and read from the beginning here. If you ever get impatient and want to scarf the whole thing down at once, you can always just pop over to Amazon and satiate yourself.]

5 Success Lessons From the Founder of Twisted Sister

The rise and fall and rise again of the metal band Twisted Sister is a legend-worthy story in the rock music industry. But when the lights go down and the amplifiers go silent, there’s also an unexpected business tale from which any entrepreneur can learn a few lessons.

Twisted Sister is perhaps best known for the persona of frontman Dee Snider and classic hits like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock.”

But guitarist/manager Jay Jay French, who founded the band, killed it, and helped bring it back to life, deserves much of the credit for the world-famous brand behind the band that toured this year for the final time.

But success hasn’t come easily.

French and I have been friends since meeting at a conference several years ago, and we’ve since shared the stage as speakers to business audiences–and as guitar players at a couple of jam sessions, too. I’ve learned countless life and business lessons from this rock-star leader. Here are five (of many) things French would tell you to do to become a platinum-record entrepreneur in your own right:

1. Play to your strengths

Innovation is great, but it’s also important to stay true to your core business. Twisted Sister is a “classic” metal band, so audiences flock to see them play their original songs. “We are frozen in freaking time,” French says.

That’s why it’s important to play those songs with energy, even after more than 9,000 shows.

“Not only do I play ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,'” he says, “I play it with passion.”

2. Share the stage

Be sure to acknowledge the contribution others make to your success. When French tells the story of the band, he’s quick to credit former lead singer Michael Valentine with coming up with the name–even though Valentine doesn’t remember suggesting it.

“Success is easy if you don’t mind who takes the credit,” French says. “I don’t have the need to tell you that I’m the genius who created it all.”

3. Act in the face of rejection

Be prepared to hear “no” over and over again–and do what you need to do anyway.

Twisted Sister is a story of perseverance. It took them more than 10 years to secure a record contract. And then the head of their label disliked them so much that he refused to help promote them in America.

So Twisted went on tour with virtually no support from the label and personally sold more than 100,000 albums in a year.

That same executive who had hated them admitted he was wrong and then featured the band as one of the first acts on a little upstart channel called MTV.

Their video of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” help launch the band–and the channel–into the stratosphere.

By 1985 they were the 3rd biggest band in the world.

4. Be willing to blow things up

If you start to have a personal conflict or moral dilemma with your own business, you should consider scrapping the whole thing.

When it became clear the band no longer was on the right track–the flaring of individual egos, band members fighting, that kind of thing–French chose what he calls the “nuclear option” and blew the enterprise to smithereens.

Ending the band meant certain bankruptcy for him. Needing money to survive, he took a job installing stereo systems rather than making the music to play on them. That was OK with French, who lost everything but his rights to the band’s name.

He says he had to do it in order to live a life of integrity. He had to create “chaos” to recreate “order.”

5. Play for the love

For French, it comes back to loving what you do.

He never intended to put the band back together, but things changed after 9/11. By then, he and frontman Snider had worked out their differences and forgiven each other for things in their past.

So when the band was asked to play at a post-9/11 fundraiser, they agreed. Before long, they began appearing at select heavy metal festivals and drawing crowds of 70,000 or more.

It worked only because they healed their wounds and rediscovered the passion and commitment that allowed them to live up to the band’s reputation.

Now, after 40 years, at the zenith of their career, with a new DVD hitting #1 on the Billboard charts and a wildly popular documentary about the band streaming profusely from the entertainment services, Twisted Sister is calling it quits.


This time, however, French and the boys are leaving a legacy of lessons for all of us to apply to our own businesses and beyond.

Makes you wanna rock, doesn’t it?


[This post was originally published on my weekly column at]

Agnes 1.8

Chapter 18 It’s funny how things work. As I look back on the trajectory of my own life, it seems to me that all the things I’ve done and all the people I’ve met have yielded lessons that have built on each other in increasingly meaningful ways. … Read the full article→

Agnes 1.7

Chapter 17   I’d heard this theme before from Pops, of course. I’d been struggling with his mantra, “Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do,” and trying to put it into practice in my own life and business. So it was a … Read the full article→

Secular Sermon

[Today’s guest post is from my friend and colleague Richard Corder  Richard is a passionate advocate for patient safety and a high-level coach and consultant in the healthcare industry. He also happens to be a Certified Facilitator of The Extreme … Read the full article→

Leadership Lessons From the CEO of Scripps

More than 30 years ago, a young police officer named Chris Van Gorder was nearly killed while responding to a domestic dispute. The city retired him from law enforcement and he spent the n ext year in and out of hospitals. While he describes the … Read the full article→

Agnes 1.6

Chapter 16   “It’s all about the money for you, isn’t it, Cam?” I said with rising vexation. “Isn’t there anything else that turns you on? Anything?” “Look,” Cam said with an appetizing mouthful of coleslaw. “You’re supposed to be helping … Read the full article→

How a Culture of Love Translates into the Customer Experience

Imagine landing a new job in a new place  – a place that’s more than a thousand miles over water from where you’ve spent your entire life. You’re excited about the adventure. So you pack up everything youown, including your car, and have it shipped … Read the full article→

Agnes 1.5

Chapter 14 (continued) “I’ll explain it to you later, southpaw,” I said, patting his hand, and immediately regretting my patronizing tone. Cam put the cup down and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Mary Ellen walked away, chuckling under … Read the full article→