Kevin Gillespie is a chef, author and media celebrity.  He owns two of Georgia’s hottest restaurants: Gunshow and Revival.  Gunshow has been on GQ’s list of “12 Most Outstanding Restaurants”.  In 2015 he was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast award.  He was also a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award.  He is the author of two cookbooks: Fire in my Belly and Pure Pork Awesomeness.  He was a finalist on the sixth season of Bravo’s Top Chef cooking show and was voted the Fan Favorite for the season.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • He got accepted to MIT but turned it down to pursue his passion.
  • How his appearance on Top Chef turned his restaurant and his career around.
  • Life opens doors for us all the time but we frequently walk right past them.
  • How fame has been a mixed blessing.
  • Learn how he reinvented the entire dining experience with Gunshow.
  • Hear about his plan B if money weren’t an issue and he could do anything in the world.
  • If you make great food and put smiles on customer’s faces, that’s success.

 

Some kids watch cartoons on TV.  Others watch sports.  But on most days you could find the young Kevin Gillespie glued to the TV watching any number of cooking shows.  There was something mesmerizing watching the chefs work their magic in the kitchen.  His passion for cooking only grew more intense through the years to the point where he recognized that this was more than just a passion – it was a calling.  A calling so strong that he was able to turn down one of the most prestigious universities in the world – M.I.T.  Had he listened to his parents or his friends or his teachers, he’d probably be a nuclear engineer today.  But fortunately he had the good sense to turn inward and listen to his heart.  And that’s how he knew that the only engineering he’d be doing in the future was in the kitchen.

The restaurant Kevin Gillespie was running at the time – Woodfire Grill – was struggling to fill seats and had only a month’s worth of cash left in the bank when he got that auspicious call from one of the producers of Top Chef.  He wasn’t really seeking the spotlight but he decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a shot.  His well-received appearance on the 6th season of Top Chef would turn his restaurant, his career and his life around.

Kevin was voted the fan favorite on the show from that season which soon translated into his being a fan favorite in Atlanta’s restaurant scene.  Woodfire Grill went from having half empty dining rooms to being booked solid months in advance.  Without a doubt, his celebrity status helped fill seats but the show did something for Kevin which was much more impactful.  Without the use of cookbooks or any lifelines, he had to rely entirely on his gut instincts to create recipes on the fly.  He learned how to cook with passion for the very first time in his career which allowed his true personality to surface in his unique culinary inventions.

Gunshow is a restaurant unlike any other.  Describing it as a Brazilian churrascaria-style steakhouse meets Chinese dim sum isn’t quite doing it justice.   In fact, it’s just about impossible to pin down its menu since there is no menu. The food options change on a daily basis and are entirely up to the whims of the chefs.  Whatever they feel inspired by is what you’ll find on the plate that evening.  This novel concept doesn’t just make the dining experience more fun and spontaneous for the guests but for the chefs as well.

Beyond the ever changing menu, Kevin has also completely flipped the service model on its head.  The chefs themselves break down that “invisible wall” to the kitchen and come pitch their inspirations directly to the guests.  After all, who better to explain the vision behind the dish than the very person who invented it.  So the chefs not only make their dishes, they explain their dishes and then they serve their dishes.  It’s a complicated system but they’ve somehow figured out a way to make it work seamlessly.

Kevin’s the most down to earth “celebrity” you’ll ever meet.  He’s finally gotten used to the lack of anonymity that comes with stardom but it’s taken a while.  He was never after fame but is incredibly grateful for the good fortune that has come as a result of it.  He doesn’t take any of his success for granted, recognizing that you’re only as good as your last meal.  And how does he measure success?  It’s not the dollars and cents or the 5 star Yelp reviews one would expect.  It’s much more simple.  If at the end of the day you feel like you gave it your all and had guests leave with huge smiles on their faces, for Kevin Gillespie, that is the definition of success.

 

 

Marquis Grissom is a former professional baseball player.  He led the National League in stolen bases in 1991 and ‘92, was a member of the National League All Star team in 1993 and ’94 and won four consecutive Golden Gloves.  He joined the Atlanta Braves in 1995 where he helped them win their first and only World Series.  In all, he played 17 years in the majors, hitting 227 homers, stealing 429 bases and finishing with a batting average of .272.   Today he runs the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association, a foundation he started which teaches kids how to perform at their highest levels, both on and off the baseball field.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • How hard work at a very young age would help prepare him for a successful baseball career.
  • Learn which sport he always dreamed of playing as a professional. Hint: It’s not baseball.
  • Hear what his Plan B and Plan C were if baseball didn’t work out.
  • Hard work, discipline, focus and determination were the keys to his success.
  • How he was able to turn around a season-long slump just in time to help the Braves win its first World Series.
  • The lessons learned in baseball are life lessons kids will carry throughout life.
  • The way to not live in the past is to be even happier living in the present.

 

You don’t have to look real hard to see where Marquis Grissom’s work ethic comes from. He didn’t have a cozy lifestyle growing up.  If he wasn’t pumping water to boil for his parents and fourteen siblings, he was chopping wood, laying bricks, mixing mortar or doing a number of other odd jobs. His parents laid the foundation early on that you have to work hard to achieve anything in life.

It’s that strong work ethic ingrained in him at an early age that would underpin much of his success as a professional baseball player.  He was willing to do whatever it took to become the best he could be.  Being competitive wasn’t good enough.  He strove to be the fastest, the strongest and the smartest player on the field at every game.  That meant more batting practice, more fielding practice, more running, more conditioning and pretty much more of anything and everything to gain that extra edge. When the odds of a high school baseball player making it to the major leagues are a miniscule 1 in 5,000, it’s no surprise that it would take this kind of herculean effort to realize his dreams.

As talented and as driven as he was, he also had a good head on his shoulders.  He attended college instead of chasing the quick buck. Education was a value he always embraced, even with the lottery ticket to fame and fortune. And knowing that a prolific career in professional sports is never guaranteed, he always had a backup plan.  Had baseball not worked out, he could have been just as happy as a fireman or construction worker.

So when you’ve had a standout professional sports career with all the fame and money and glory that comes along with it, how do you prevent yourself from looking in the rearview mirror for the rest of your life?  It sounds like a worn platitude to say you just need to find something after retirement that fills you with as much passion.  But that’s exactly what Marquis did in founding the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association.

The mission of the foundation is to teach kids how perform at their highest levels both on and off the baseball field.  The staggering odds of making it as a professional baseball player aren’t lost on Marquis.  He knows the vast majority of these kids won’t ever see a dime from the sport. But if he can prepare these kids to go to college, whether or not baseball is part of the package, he’ll feel like it was worth all the effort.  And with 83% of his students going to college, mission accomplished.

You won’t find too many superstar athletes as modest as Marquis.  With all of his incredible talent and disciplined work ethic, it’s somewhat of a surprise that it’s luck to which he attributes most of his success.  It’s hard to argue that serendipity plays a role in just about any success story but in this case, it’s a very minor supporting role.  That said, for Marquis, it’s all beside the point.  For that was then and this is now.  And all that matters now is to show gratitude by dedicating this next chapter of his life to teaching the next generation the fundamentals of baseball and of life.

 

Jay Faison is the Founder and Chairman of SnapAV, a high growth technology company that designs and distributes audio-video products. SnapAV has been on the Inc 500 List for several years and was acquired by General Atlantic in 2013 for around $200 million.  He is also the Founder and CEO of ClearPath Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate conservative clean energy solutions.  Jay has received many accolades including the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Southeast region award and Politico’s Top 50 visionaries transforming American politics.

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • How his ADHD is a contributing factor to his entrepreneurial nature.
  • The biggest challenge in scaling the company was himself.
  • Intellectual humility is a key to growing as a leader.
  • Find a niche that others aren’t in so at least if you’re swinging for the fences, there aren’t any other batters to worry about.
  • Why he decided to give away the vast sum of his wealth while still in his 40’s.
  • How his pattern recognition allows him to see around corners where others can’t.
  • “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there.”

 

When you’re running a small audio/video business and being overcharged and underserved by your suppliers, what do you do?  If you’re like most people, you get angry and frustrated and complain.  But not if you’re Jay Faison.  Because if you’ve got the mind of an entrepreneur like Jay, you see that broken supply chain not as a problem but as an opportunity.  And you seize upon it.  And that is how SnapAV was born.

Why didn’t anyone else see this obvious disintermediation play to create the Amazon of the audio video industry?  Jay has a unique gift of pattern recognition.  Some people who are incredibly bright can see several moves ahead on the chess board. Jay admittedly isn’t one of them.  But Jay is able to see multiple games being played at once and can choose which one has the best odds of success.  When you’re an entrepreneur trying to disrupt an industry, that intuition can help dramatically improve the odds of success.

There’s another gift Jay possesses that few entrepreneurs have. It’s intellectual humility. When you’re intellectually humble, you can recognize your blinds spots.  And when you can see your blind spots, you know how to ask for help.  In Jay’s case, he understood that the biggest hurdle in scaling his company was himself.  Like many entrepreneurs, he was great at doing but not at leading.  He had to learn how to let go and transition from being a tactical entrepreneur to being a strategic leader.  His vision, his leadership and his grit would allow him to build and eventually sell one of the fastest growing companies in the country.

For most entrepreneurs, selling the majority ownership in your business for $200 million is an accomplishment of a lifetime.  It’s a good excuse to kick back, relax and live the good life.  Buy a few vacation homes, a couple limited production sports cars and of course a private jet for good measure. You can simply rest on your laurels and not ever have to take on the monumental challenge and stress of starting something again.  But not if you’re Jay Faison.

Jay knew that the right thing to do is to give away most of his newly acquired wealth while he’s still in the prime of his life.  Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to write checks to a bunch of non-profits.  But never one to take the easy path, he contributed $165 million into a foundation called ClearPath.  It’s mission – simply convince conservatives of the importance of clean energy.  In other words, he chose to essentially launch another startup whose goals were far more daunting that those of his for-profit venture.

It hasn’t been easy.  The environment has become a very polarizing issue and while capital has provided him access to key people in Washington, convincing them to create and adopt environmentally friendly legislation has been a grind.  He’s well aware that success won’t happen overnight.  But he continues to chop away at it with the guiding philosophy that “we don’t inherit the Earth from our parents but rather, we borrow it from our children”.  It’s hard work but it’s well worth it.  Because according to Jay, when you’re trying to change the world, there’s simply a satisfaction you can’t get anywhere else.

Steve has been CEO of the Atlanta Hawks since 2014. After just his first year with the team, the Hawks led the league in annual attendance gains and set single-season franchise records for retail sales, sellouts and season ticket memberships.  Prior to joining the Hawks, Steve was the President of Turner Entertainment Networks where he oversaw the programming, marketing and strategy for TBS, TNT and several other prominent networks. Prior to Turner, he was at Coke where he served in several capacities, most recently as the Vice President of Sports and Entertainment marketing.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • If you’re selling a beverage for more per gallon than gasoline, you better infuse some magic.
  • Hear the pitch that allowed Turner to land Conan O’Brien.
  • He built TBS and TNT into mega brands in a world where brands were far and few between.
  • How he quickly turned around a drying franchise with the Hawks.
  • Two target markets – millennials and multiculturals – which were largely ignored by other sports teams became his most valuable audience.
  • Learn how to evolve a brand from awareness to likeability and “cravability”.
  • Creative ideas are his currency in the corporate world.

 

Some marketers have tons of great ideas but no ability to see the bigger picture. Other marketers are brilliant strategists but just can’t generate any novel ideas.  It is a rare marketing genius that can not only think way outside the box with an entrepreneurial  mindset but also tie those back to corporate strategy in a way that allows a company to achieve monumental leaps in brand recognition and corporate success.  That in a nutshell is the brilliance of Steve Koonin.

At Coca-Cola, he learned pretty quickly that if you’re going to offer a product with nothing more than syrup, sugar and water at a higher price than gasoline, you better infuse some magic in your marketing.  And did he ever.  Remember those dancing polar bears?  That’s Steve’s work.  Remember the Always Coca-Cola campaign?  Steve again.  Those are just two of many award winning campaigns he orchestrated that pushed the boundaries of Coke’s brand both within the U.S. and around the world.

It was that consumer packaged goods experience he gained at one of the world’s greatest marketers that allowed him to also flourish at Turner.  Back when he first joined, the cable networks which had any brand identity were mostly niche players (think Comedy Central, Animal Planet, Travel Channel).  The large networks were a mishmash of programming that had no rhyme or reason other than trying to generate large audiences.  Steve knew that the only chance to not just survive but to thrive in that industry was to take a risk and focus TNT and TBS exclusively on one genre (drama and comedy respectively).  That repositioning along with creating and acquiring exceptional content led to astronomical growth.  By the time he was done, TNT and TBS was generating more profits than all the major networks combined.

The remarkable turnaround he led at Turner might only be surpassed by the even more spectacular one he’s achieved at the Hawks.  The Hawks were a dying franchise when he signed on as the new CEO.  There was no excitement, no energy, no magic.   I wouldn’t merely say the Hawks were a weak brand.  It would be more accurate to describe the team as not having any brand.  But all that changed with Steve’s marketing magic.

So how does one turn around a dying franchise in record speed?  You start with knowing who your audience is.  The Hawks, along with most other professional NBA sports franchises, had mostly catered to upper middle class whites since that’s who held the disposable income.  But Steve and his team saw that there were two important demographics who love sports had been largely ignored in the past– millennials and multi-culturals.  So those became the two primary audiences to which most of the marketing would be directed going forward.

Millennials are more wired than any other generation so social media because the primary channel through which to reach them.  The engagement they’ve created with their social media campaigns has been astounding.  The Hawks are now consistently on Google’s list of the 10 most searched sports teams (the only NBA teams higher were Golden State and Cleveland) and the number 1 NBA team to follow on Twitter.   But it’s not just about reaching them.  You have to create “cravability” as Steve puts it.  That means coming up with fun, innovative, digitally-oriented programming that speaks to them in their own unique voice.  “Swipe Right Night” (an obvious play on Tinder) and “I’m having a secret love affair with the Hawks” (ala Ashley Madison) are just two of many standout examples.

Steve is full on sage advice.  The key to leadership?  Build the right environment and then get out of the way.  The key to hiring?  Focus on chemistry.  Skills can always be taught.  But what was likely the wisest and most heartfelt advice of all?  The advice he’d give to himself if he could go back in time.  Enjoy the moments more. You just never know when it’s all going to end.  My advice for Steve: heed your own advice and enjoy the moments more.  After a brilliant career spread across decades, you’ve more than earned the right.

 

Sid is the co-founder and owner of Sid Mashburn men’s clothing store.  Both Esquire and GQ have named Sid Mashburn one of the best menswear shops in America.  Today they have five stores in five cities and 135 employees and are continuing to add new stores every year.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • How Sid sees himself in the hospitality business, not the retail business.
  • To find the white space, just follow your heart.
  • How a company culture kit is critical to scaling a business.
  • What are economy of time, economy of mind and economy of money.
  • How trying to be all things to all people can be an effective business strategy.
  • You can have enormous success by just taking things one step at a time.
  • Aiming to be the best at something is more important and rewarding than trying to be the biggest.

 

Walking into a Sid Mashburn store is not like walking into any other men’s clothing store.  It’s a full sensory experience, from the classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes cranked up high to the stuffed wildlife protruding from the walls to the seagrass on the floor to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.  Oh, and of course there’s also the ping pong table.  This is all part of a master plan to make the store feel like a warm and inviting place to anyone who walks through the doors.  “The store is meant to feel like a fraternity that everybody gets a bid to”, as Sid conveys the ambiance he’s trying to capture.

This unique in-store aesthetic is just the tip of the iceberg in Sid Mashburn’s retail experience.  It’s all about the high-touch service you’ll find the minute you enter the shop.  You’ll be greeted with a smile and offered a beverage of your choice. They’ll ask if you’d like to have a seat while they hang up your jacket. What you won’t find here are high pressure sales tactics. That’s because the sales people are not on commission.  The goal is simple – to have you feel like you’re walking into someone’s home.

Sid was raised in a small town in Mississippi and it’s not hard to see how the southern hospitality he grew up with has become a core piece of the brand DNA.  It’s not fake.  It’s not for show.  It’s just an authentic expression of who Sid is as a person. He doesn’t see himself as being in the retail or clothing business but rather, the hospitality business.  He craves having that intimate relationship with the customer which is why he likes to benchmark against best-of-breed hospitality brands – think Danny Meyer in the restaurant space and the Ritz in the hotel world.

Marketers are taught that you need to have a well-defined target audience to succeed. Sid never got that memo. He wants everyone to feel welcome in his shop which is why you’ll find a $65 pair of Levis just a few feet away from a $10,000 suit.  Customers range in age from 11 to 87 and between his physical stores and his e-commerce business, he touches pretty much every corner of the country.

We’ve all heard the cliché to follow your passion.  It’s usually easier said than done.  But Sid Mashburn has done just that since day one.  He’s as enamored today about fashion as he was in his youth when clothing defined his childhood as much as music and sports.   And you can see that he truly just enjoys helping people.  He’s as happy to patch and repair an old worn pair of pants if that’s what you need as he is to sell you an elegant handmade suit.  His business goals are much more centered on taking care of people, both employees and customers, than they are on growth and profits.

This isn’t to say Sid isn’t ambitious.  He’s very success-oriented.  It’s just that success in his mind is defined much more by quality than it is by quantity.  The overarching goal is simple – to become the best shop in the world.  And judging by the accolades bestowed upon him by GQ and Esquire, he’ll already well on his way.

Raj Raghunathan is a Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.  He has also become an expert in the field of happiness.  He is the author of the book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy.  He teaches an MBA course on happiness as well as a class on the online learning platform Coursera entitled: A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment.  Over 170,000 students have taken the course and it’s consistently ranked as one of the top ten courses (amongst thousands of others).

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?
  • Why do we devalue happiness even though we know how important it is?
  • How fear of failure often prevents us from trying things we know would make us happier.
  • How having wealth and status and success can make us happy, yet the pursuit of those things can make us miserable.
  • Once you stop comparing yourself to others and just focus on immersing yourself in your work (or activity), you’ll actually increase your likelihood of success.
  • How we can rewire ourselves to increase our level of happiness.

 

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?  This counterintuitive philosophical question is the aptly named title of Raj’s quintessential book on happiness.  Generally speaking, smart and successful people are pretty good at setting goals and achieving them.  So one would think that if they are able to set goals around wealth and success, they could just as easily set goals around happiness.  But more often than not, they don’t.

So why exactly do we devalue happiness?  Why is it that despite knowing intuitively how important happiness is, we rarely prioritize it?  One reason is what Raj refers to as “Medium Maximization”.  That is, we focus on the means to the end (i.e. money, status) and not the end itself (happiness).  Since we think the money and success will naturally lead to happiness, we end up concentrating all our efforts on the money and success while forgetting about the very reason we were wanting it to begin with.  While the money and success may boost happiness levels initially, those feelings quickly subside in which case we need even greater levels of wealth and power to maintain those levels.  It’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over.

We also have a difficult time articulating what happiness means to us.  And if we can’t visualize the goal in concrete terms, we don’t prioritize it.  So we end up prioritizing those things which are easier to measure (and easier to control) such as money and accomplishments.

Raj also points out that as humans, it’s in our DNA to seek superiority.  In fact, studies show that higher status does indeed enhance the quality of our lives and our happiness levels.  Yet, paradoxically, the actual pursuit of that higher status can backfire and cause us misery.  Tethering your happiness on being superior to others is ill advised.  Instead, if you focus solely on immersing yourself in your work (or hobby or activity), you’re much more likely to enjoy yourself and actually end up being more successful as well.  This “immersion” is what’s commonly known in positive psychology circles as “flow”.

So while we may have a better understanding intellectually why happiness is so elusive, how do we reverse course and become happier people?  Raj offers a few action items:

  • Do the things on a day to day basis that are meaningful and enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be work-related (although that’s ideal).  It can be tennis or guitar or gardening.  Anything that brings you joy.
  • Spend more time on personal relationships. Don’t take your friends and family for granted.  Your interactions with the people you care about in your life are as important as anything else.
  • Build habits that give an internal sense of wellness (i.e. exercise, meditation). Being physically and mentally healthy are essential ingredients to happiness.

As Raj reminds us of the cliché we all know too well, days and weeks will become months and years and next thing you know, you’ll be 70 and regretting your life.  So don’t wait another year or even another day.  Start today.  Take baby steps if you need to.  But take action.  Do something.  Anything.  After all, this is your life.  You deserve to be happy.

Strauss Zelnick is the CEO of Take Two Interactive, a publicly held video game publisher which makes Grand Theft Auto amongst many other hit titles.  He is also the Founder and Managing Partner at ZMC, a several hundred million dollar private equity fund focused on media and communications.  He has also served as CEO of BMG Entertainment, one of the world’s largest music publishers at the time, and President of 20th Century Fox, one of the biggest movie studios.

 

Some interesting insights in this episode:

  • How Strauss successfully climbed the corporate ladder to become the President of 20th Century Fox by the time he was just 32.
  • His approach to turning around one of the largest interactive entertainment companies in the world.
  • Knowing what you want out of life and setting goals to achieve them is a big part of success.
  • To achieve great things, it’s sometime necessary to take calculated risks.
  • Being smart and ambitious is nice but being in the right place at the right time also helps.
  • Learn to put your ego aside, surround yourself with super ambitious and talented people and then step out of their way.
  • Motivation should be driven by the joy and fulfillment it brings, not by money or ego or power.
  • Leadership is about being your authentic self. It’s best to present yourself all the time as you truly are, not as you wish to be seen.
  • A consistent and strenuous physical fitness routine can have positive spillover effects in your working life.

 

Strauss Zelnick has had a remarkable career.  His ambition and passion for entertainment can be traced all the way back to his childhood when he declared that he would one day run a movie studio.  He graduated with double MBA/JD degrees from Harvard and less than a decade later at the young age of 32, he achieved his childhood dream by becoming the President of 20th Century Fox.  It was this amazing achievement that rightfully earned him the moniker wunderkind.

When he acquired Take Two Interactive, the company was a mess.  They had just lost over $200 million and the CEO had been fired for fraud. Less than a decade later, he’s still running the company which he completely turned around while creating billions of dollars of value in the process.

It helps when you can figure out where your passion and talents intersect.  He loves the entertainment business and is most effective and happy as a turnaround executive.  He’s also self-aware, knowing where his true strengths and weaknesses lie.  He has learned that being your authentic self and not hiding behind a façade is one of the keys to being an effective leader.

Recently Strauss has become as passionate about fitness as he is about buying and turning around companies.  He founded a daily fitness meetup group called The Program where he does rigorous high-intensity interval training alongside people less than half his age including professional athletes.  He not only appreciates the way it makes him look and feel but also the nice byproduct of enhanced productivity and happiness in the workplace.

Strauss is confident in his abilities but humble in his accomplishments.  He doesn’t downplay the fact that ambition, goal setting and risk taking are among the key ingredients to success but also acknowledges that serendipity has a vital role to play as well.  If you congratulate him on all his success, he’ll quickly point out how there are others a lot more successful.   I guess it’s a testament to how life is relative.

While early on his career moves might have been on autopilot, now in his late 50’s, he has become more reflective as a leader, as an individual.  He’s now at a point in his life where he knows what’s truly important to him.  And ultimately that’s about discovering happiness.  And from my brief hour-long conversation with him, I can see that he’s definitely found it.

 

Many moons ago I spent the summer working in Porto, Portugal.  At the time, the country was far less developed than the rest of Western Europe.  Portugal was lightyears behind the economies and hustle and…