24: Be Sure the Sleeves Match the Cuffs: Ford CEO Mark Fields

Ford CEO Mark Fields had to compete with two older brothers growing up, which forced him to aim high.

Ford CEO Mark Fields had to compete with two older brothers growing up, which forced him to aim high.

For Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields, the love of cars started early; he still remembers the set of Matchbox cars his dad bought him for his 6th birthday.  

Of course, love of cars alone wasn't going to get him to the helm of the second-largest U.S. automaker, and a brand that's been around for more than a century. That would take a mix of competitive spirit, adaptability, and a knack for getting teams to focus quickly. 

Mark Fields leads a company that last year sold more than 6.6 million cars, bringing in more than $141 billion from vehicle sales. In the era of Uber and Tesla that's getting harder by the day. 

I talked to Fields for Fortt Knox about his leadership philosophy, his motivation, and how he made it to the top. Here are a few highlights: 

Run to the Fire 

Fields was CEO of Ford's Mazda subsidiary in his late 30s, a stunningly fast ascent. How had he risen so quickly? He chalks it up to his eagerness to find tough problems and volunteer to solve them.  

"I've always had the philosophy, always run to the fire," he says. "Run to those really challenging situations or businesses that you can learn a lot, but also contribute a lot." 

Pull this off this a few times, and you're likely to get a reputation for making the bosses look good. When you've done that on high-profile projects, that's often a ticket to a promotion.  

Punch Above Your Weight 

I was curious about Fields's motivation. How had he developed his drive to succeed? 

"I'm the youngest of three boys," Fields says. "So listen, if you weren't fast at the kitchen table, or in sports, because you know, you get knocked around – that was part of it." 

Birth order isn't destiny. But for someone looking to fuel his ambition, it's one of many things he could draw on.  

Be Sure the Sleeves Match the Cuffs 

Several times in his career, Fields needed to quickly get a new team working toward a common goal. He has an interesting method for getting people to trust him when they barely know him: He'll take a half day and do a session on who he is and what he values. 

"So from the get-go, people can say, 'Oh, OK, I kind of get the gist of this guy. And so once you get that out of the way, then you can get on with the work. And then importantly, I have to live up to what I talked about in terms of my leadership. Because if the sleeves don't match the cuffs, people just think you're trying to manipulate them." 

It's a tailoring metaphor that works: If the sleeves don't match the cuffs, you've getting ripped off. Effective long-term leadership has to be authentic, too. 

23: He's Not in Kansas Anymore: How FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's Roots Will Influence Internet Policy

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, elevated by President Trump. 

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, elevated by President Trump. 

Ajit Pai doesn't come across as the sort of guy who'd be crossing swords with Silicon Valley. 

Question him about controversial topics and his answers come quickly, but always tempered by a Midwestern sincerity. Among the current crop of communication industry regulators, he was the first on Twitter. 

But yes, Pai is a controversial figure in the tech world. President Trump appointed him chairman of the regulatory body, and one of his first moves was to roll back regulations that would have prevented broadband providers from using your Internet browsing history to sell you advertising. I asked him about that – and more – for Fortt Knox. 

Here's some of what he told me: 

It Goes Back to Kansas 

Pai is the son of two doctors, and recalls growing up in rural Kansas, where his dad sometimes would have to drive more than an hour to see patients. He says that aspect of his background – being disconnected from big-city and suburban conveniences – influences the way he looks at his role shaping policy. 

"It's the fundamental driver of the policies that I'm trying to promote at the FCC, because I've seen for myself in my own childhood and as a commissioner having traveled around the country from Alaska to Mississippi, that there are some big gaps in America in terms of connectivity," he says.  

The first policy priority he lists on his FCC bio is the expansion of broadband, including to rural areas. That might even help doctors to see more patients digitally when they don't specifically need a house call. 

Same Rules for Everyone 

The way many of the headlines about Internet privacy rules are written, Pai's stance on letting Internet service providers market your usage data doesn't make sense. Why would you want to let Comcast (the parent company of CNBC's Fortt Knox) or AT&T, or Verizon, etc. sell that information? Pai argues that's not the point. Companies like Google and Facebook already have access to tons of information on us, Pai argues. Unless we set a level playing field, we let them off the hook. 

"We just want every company that is handling consumers' data to handle it in the same way. I think that's something that would give consumers a much better sense of confidence when they go online," Pai says. 

In other words, if you're outraged about Comcast selling your browsing habits, you should be just as outraged about Silicon Valley doing it. First level the playing field, then make rules that apply to everyone. He has a lot of skeptics to win over, especially in the tech world. 

A Light Touch 

Like many Republican public servants in government, Pai argues for a light touch when it comes to interpreting the law. (You'll see similar language coming out of new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.) That sets up an interesting contradiction when it comes to tech issues. 

Silicon Valley loves to smash regulations when it benefits their innovation argument. Look at Uber and Airbnb trying to smash taxi and hotel regulations, for example. When the shoe is on the other foot, though, Silicon Valley leaders tend to love regulations like Net Neutrality, which they argue keeps broadband providers from stifling innovation. 

That's why some in the tech industry are skeptical of Pai, who argues for a light touch in some places where they want a heavier hand. 

"I view my role as being a rather boring, frankly, and humble one," Pai says, "which is to take a look at the papers that are in front of me, and analyze the facts soberly, and make an informed decision based on the law and the precedents." 

In a time when the rules in technology and content are shifting at an unprecedented pace, we'll have to see what that really means.

22: A Founder-CEO's Secret to Success: First Get Started, Then Get Smarter: Twilio's Jeff Lawson

Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson learned that you get more done by tackling big problems and doggedly improving as you go.  

Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson learned that you get more done by tackling big problems and doggedly improving as you go.


Among the many business lessons Jeff Lawson has learned, there's this: Don't expect to get things done if you wait until you're perfectly prepared. 

Lawson is co-founder and CEO of Twilio, a company that makes it easy for apps to contact you. (Ever wonder how you can send a text to your Uber driver in the app, or get one in OpenTable when your seat is ready? Twilio does that.) 

Twilio went public last summer at the New York Stock Exchange, and is now worth about $2.5 billion. As it pushes to make apps communicate better, the scrappy San Francisco company has developed a culture that favors boldness and taking initiative, and frowns on perfectionism.  

I caught up with Twilio's CEO at a tech conference in Barcelona, Spain to talk about his journey from curious kid in the Detroit suburbs to CEO of a public tech company. Among the things I love about Lawson's story? It's about the setbacks as much as the successes, and learning along the way. 

Here's some of what I gathered: 

Ask for the Keys 

Lawson likes to tell a story about his grandfather, who worked in a factory and needed to earn more money. 

"He went to the owner and he said, 'I need to make more money, how do I do that.' The guy said 'I don’t have any other jobs. The only job I have is driving the truck. Do you know how to drive the truck?' My grandfather's answer was, 'Give me the keys.'" 

What his grandfather didn't mention was that he'd never driven a truck before in his life. But he got the job, figured it out, made more money. 

Chalk it up to genetics or coincidence, but in middle school Lawson started a company shooting video footage of weddings, and he used the proceeds to buy more sophisticated equipment. 

"The best way to learn something new," he says, "is to commit yourself to doing it." 

You've Got to Love It 

There were some false starts. In college during the dotcom boom, Lawson learned software development and started a company that sold for millions of dollars … in stock. He thought he'd made it big, but when the bubble popped, his windfall vanished.  

Later, he got the opportunity to be founding chief technology officer of StubHub, a ticket sales company that would later sell to eBay for $310 million. But Lawson didn't stick around for the payoff.  

"It was a fine business, but I wasn't the customer and I didn't feel passionately that the world needed the product we were building." He wasn't a concert goer, so he didn't feel inspired to keep working on it. "As an entrepreneur, I think you need that." 

Hindsight being what it is, it's easy to fault Lawson for missing his share of a nine-figure payday. But remember, he's got a share of a 10-figure payday in Twilio. 

Knowledge and Reputation 

So how did Lawson do it? How did he rebound from a missed nine-figure payday cleanly enough to do himself one better? First he made another valuable mistake or two, which you’ll learn about listening to the podcast. More important though, he was able to focus on the two most important assets he was building in each of these experiences. 

"The best thing that we have as we go through our careers is our knowledge and our word – our reputation," Lawson says. "If you're constantly building those two things, I think generally speaking, good things end up happening to people."

21: Innovation From Spotting Details and Asking Questions: Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell

Bracken Darrell launched products like deodorant and washing machines before leading one of tech's hidden turnaround stories.

Bracken Darrell launched products like deodorant and washing machines before leading one of tech's hidden turnaround stories.

Not many executives can say they've studied the finer points of everything from deodorant and washing machines, to Bluetooth speakers and gaming keyboards. 

Bracken Darrell can. Darrell is CEO of Logitech, a company that once specialized in mainstream PC mice and keyboards. One of the remarkable things about him is his appetite for learning. His curiosity has led him from a modest upbringing in Western Kentucky, to leading one of the smartphone era's most remarkable turnaround stories. 

I sat down with Darrell for the Fortt Knox podcast to find out how his upbringing shaped him, and how his curiosity helped him find his way to the C-suite. Logitech's stock has quadrupled since he took over four years ago; the company's now worth $5.5 billion. 

Start from the Bottom 

Darrell's parents split up when he was a preteen. He grew up in Owensboro, Ky., one of four siblings raised by a single mother. As a result, he never had to look far for motivation. 

"I had it easy. I didn't have a choice. I had to make it," Darrell says. "We literally would wear the same jeans all the time. Like a lot of people – I'm not a Horatio Alger story, I mean, we had plenty to eat. But we didn't have any money. It didn't make me particularly money-conscious, but I certainly did always envy the opportunities that I thought were available to people who had money that I didn't. It's really ironic, because now that I look back on it, it's the biggest advantage I ever had." 

It's a lesson that applies no matter what your circumstances are in the beginning. If you understand what it means to make do with less, it can help you stay focused and resist a sense of entitlement.  

See the Whole Room 

Darrell turns to literature and the arts to help him think about things in new ways. One book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, shifted the way he looks at solving problems. A conversation with leading brain researcher Henry Markram helped illustrate just how much information we miss every day. 

"He said when you walk into a room when you're a little, tiny child, you soak in the whole room. You see it all. When you walk into the room as an adult, you see this sliver in the corner, and you build the room in your brain. You actually don't even see it," Darrell says. "That made a big mark on me. Think how many mistakes we make in our roles because our brain's building based on pattern recognition, and we're not seeing or thinking anymore, objectively." 

The rub, here: From a primitive perspective, it makes perfect sense. If you're walking through the savanna, you don't need to notice every blade of grass, but you need to see the lion that wasn't there before. 

But business is different, Darrell says. We need to force ourselves to look at ordinary things in extraordinary ways if we want to win.  

Sniff Out Genius 

Problem-solvers also need to get smart about odd topics in short order. One of the best ways Darrell has found to do that? Find the smartest people in your organization and pick their brains. It might sound obvious, but people are often intimidated by the engineers and scientists who might hold the key to figuring out a business problem. They're not always invited to the meetings where decisions get made. 

Darrell saw the benefits to this up close while working for Procter & Gamble. He was working on the Old Spice deodorant product, trying to reinvent the brand and turn it around. He sat down with a chemist and told him he wanted a simple, visible way to show their product was better and lasted longer. 

"He said, 'We have propylene glycol in this.' And propylene glycol evaporates less fast, and that's one of the reasons why this product is better – not the only reason, but it's one of the reasons why it lasts longer," Darrell says. The result was a commercial for high endurance deodorant that showed a time lapse video of the competitor's product evaporating faster than a swipe of Old Spice. 

"Those were the most boring commercials in the world," Darrell says now, "and I'm responsible for them." (I'm not so sure about the boring part. More than 20 years later, this Gen Xer still remembers them.)

20: She Didn't Take No For An Answer: This Exec Cracked Silicon Valley and D.C.; Color CMO Katie Jacobs Stanton

Katie Jacobs Stanton ran Twitter's international business and launched Google Finance; now she's helping to lead a genetics startup.

Katie Jacobs Stanton ran Twitter's international business and launched Google Finance; now she's helping to lead a genetics startup.

Katie Jacobs Stanton knows how to create her own options. 

Stanton, a veteran of Twitter, Google, Yahoo, and a presidential administration, now serves as chief marketing officer of genetic testing startup Color Genomics. Her professional journey from East Coast to West, and back and forth again, has given her rare insight into the workplace cultures that shape us today. 

I sat down with her for the Fortt Knox podcast to talk about the environment for women in tech, and her journey to the executive ranks in Silicon Valley. Here are some key lessons I pulled from our conversation: 

Outsmart the Culture 

Stanton's timing was great, joining Google in 2003 after a stint at Yahoo and a maternity leave. But she encountered some obstacles right out of the gate. 

"When I was at Yahoo, I was hired as a product manager for Yahoo Finance, and helped build the site and build it internationally. And so when I came to Google, naturally I thought, 'I can be a product manager here.' And Google said 'No, I'm sorry, you don't have a computer science background.' And I was like, but I just helped build this great product on the web, and I've been there for three years, and I was promoted." 

The leadership structure at Google was unmoved. No computer science background, no product management. 

But that didn't stop Stanton. She found some engineers who would work with her, and brought Google Finance to market. Along the way, she gained a reputation as a person who could ship new ideas.  

Move Around 

Stanton is from New York, went to college in Tennessee, ditched the East Coast for Silicon Valley in her 20s, and did a stint as director of citizen participation in the Obama administration and as a technology advisor in the State Department before heading back to California. International travel has helped broaden her horizons; she was serving as vice president of Twitter's international business when the company went public. That now influences what Stanton looks for when she's hiring. 

"I look for people with international experience, something I believe strongly in. People who speak foreign languages, I think, have always stood out to me." Stanton says she looks for those qualities even in roles that don't require it. "I think it just brings a different lens and a different empathy, a different perspective to things." 

As someone who hadn't traveled internationally when I started my career, I couldn't help but notice that in some ways, Stanton's preference for well-traveled people could be as limiting as Google's preference for coders as product managers. The key, it seems, is to show you can deliver what the job requires even if your résumé isn't the obvious fit. 

Find Role Models 

Stanton was fortunate enough to work for a string of female bosses during her six-year run at Google, an experience that's pretty rare in Silicon Valley's tech scene. She says having women in leadership positions will also be important to the next generation. 

"You can't be what you can't see. I think for a lot of girls, not seeing other female professors of computer science, other leaders in business" can be a barrier. "We still have a lot of work to do for women in leadership positions." 

She's certainly doing her part.

19: How To Make Your Second Act An Empire: WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell started building his company at age 40, after serving as CFO for Saatchi & Saatchi. He's still going strong at 72.

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell started building his company at age 40, after serving as CFO for Saatchi & Saatchi. He's still going strong at 72.

Sir Martin Sorrell is arguably the most important advertising executive in the world.

As CEO of WPP Group, he oversees a global marketing machine that he's assembled over more than 30 years. His group companies include J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and more than 100 others. Clients include two of every three Fortune Global 500 companies.  

When I sat down with him for the Fortt Knox podcast, I wanted to talk about his childhood, his career, and the pivotal choices he made. He didn't disappoint.  

Here are some of the best lessons: 

It's Never Too Late 

Sorrell was chief financial officer at upstart ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi when he decided to quit and build his own company. He was 40 years old. In an era when Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel and the Google founders are starting companies in their teens and early 20s, that might sound like a late start, but Sorrell doesn't see it that way.  

"I thought it would be good to have a go. I'd made a little bit of money, and borrowed 250 thousand pounds," he says. "Forty in those days used to be a pretty critical age. Because you think of yourself starting work when you're about 20, you come out of college, and finishing when you're 60. Now, of course, here I am at 72 still going." 

Then again, Sorrell doesn't seem to obey the calendar like most people. Today he's the father of an infant daughter, his fourth child.  

Grow a Thick Skin 

Sorrell's tactics building WPP have not always been genteel. As he aggressively built out his holding company, he sometimes employed hostile takeovers. At the beginning of one such campaign, when he targeted Ogilvy & Mather, founder David Ogilvy famously referred to Sorrell as an "odious little s--t." (In the press, the comment was sanitized to "odious little jerk," and Sorrell seized upon it as a point of pride.) 

Sorrell later won Ogilvy over. I asked him where he learned to shrug off the attacks that have come with the job.  

"It gets into fairly tender stuff. When you're from the northwest London ghetto – I use the ghetto loosely, because it wasn't really a ghetto – Golders Green, Edgware, Mill Hill – you probably develop a pretty thick skin. People say things at school," when you're one of the few Jewish kids, he says. "In those days there was a fair bit of invective, and it's water off a duck's back. What I had to go through was nothing near what my parents had to go through, or my grandparents had to go through." 

No one should have to suffer bigoted put-downs, but a young Martin Sorrell was able to build up a degree of immunity to it. It clearly helped him in business later. 

Hunt Buried Treasure 

When Sorrell targeted ad agency J. Walter Thompson for takeover, one of the things he had his eye on was freehold property – land and buildings that the target owned outright. From his days as a chief financial officer, he had learned that this often could amount to buried treasure. Companies weren't required to re-value such real estate holdings as their value rose. To make a long story short – even though WPP paid a pretty penny for JWT, Sorrell quickly discovered hidden real estate holdings that effectively paid him back a huge portion of the sticker price. 

The universal lesson here for your career makeover? Sometimes finding buried treasure is just a matter of knowing where to look. Fortunately, Sorrell's previous job had armed him with that knowledge.

18: Tom Steyer: A Billionaire's Surprising Rules of Winning

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer talked about his career and his activism when we sat down at the New York Stock Exchange.

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer talked about his career and his activism when we sat down at the New York Stock Exchange.

Tom Steyer became a billionaire by solving puzzles.  

That wasn't his technical job description – he actually founded Farallon Capital, a hedge fund in San Francisco, 30 years ago. As an investor, two signature moves stand out: One, he got his alma mater, Yale, to invest a portion of its endowment with him; the success of that arrangement sparked a trend. Two, he often made his own luck by investing deeply in countries and industries.   

As Steyer scouted unusual investments in unexpected places, he followed some basic rules. Now that Steyer has set his sights on politics and policy – he's rumored to be considering a run for California governor – I sat down with him for Fortt Knox. He gave me some of his best insights on how to succeed, and why he's fighting the new administration in Washington, D.C. 

No Lopsided Deals 

Steyer has a different take on dealmaking than fellow billionaire President Trump does. In his experience, building an investment giant from scratch, it's important not to push your advantage too far. 

"I don't want to take advantage of you. I really don't. Because you're smart. And so if we do something together and I get 80% of the value and you get 20%, why would you ever deal with me again? What I want to do, is do 25 things together where we each go 50-50, and we don't have to fight each other. We each spend all of our time trying to make the whole pie as big as possible, and no time fighting about how to slice it up." 

I point out that Mr. Trump seems to have done just fine treating people the way he does; Steyer's response is thought-provoking. 

Execution Beats Planning 

These days, the culture tells us we're supposed to have a long-term plan for everything. Steyer's experience gives another point of view. Rather than always trying to devise the perfect roadmap for life, which is bound to change anyway, we should focus on getting the most out of the opportunity in front of us. 

"I went to Yale College. Why did I go? Not sure. … I went because I thought it was a good school, and what that meant, I'm not sure I knew. Because it was sort of famous. And so I thought, I'll go to a school that has a reputation for being a great school. And I don’t think it was that much more complicated," Steyer says. "I wished I'd gotten recruited to play sports. And I played sports all through college. I was the captain of the Yale soccer team. But I walked on to the Yale soccer team. And you know, I thought – I love sports. I'm playing sports because this is super, super fun, and I love doing this." 

Strategy is still important. But the biggest wins often come in un-plannable moments. 

Curiosity Rules 

At a certain point – after tens of millions of dollars in earnings, one imagines – Steyer's wife pointed out that he didn't have to keep working. Their family goal, he says, was to sock away enough to have a house, pay for healthcare, and fund retirement. Anything you do from here on out, she said, you should do because you love it. Steyer agreed – and he kept investing. Why? 

"I love puzzles. I love figuring things out. I'm someone who really is interested in how companies work, and how industries work, and figuring out – that's the biggest puzzle in the world! How do you think about a Saab dealership in South Africa," he says. 

Curiosity is a prized attribute in an investor, but it applies to other fields, too. It not only helps to keep the work interesting, but also pushes us beyond what's been done before.

17: Michael Phelps: The Toughest Battle Isn't Mastering the Job, But Your Head

Michael Phelps is going from the water to the board room, and bringing some lessons on how to perform under pressure.

Michael Phelps is going from the water to the board room, and bringing some lessons on how to perform under pressure.

We love to have these debates about who's the greatest of all time in any given sport; maybe it's because you don't even have to be an expert to get in on them. All you need to know is the yardstick for success. Serena Williams or Steffi Graf? Tom Brady or Joe Montana? 

That's what makes Michael Phelps special. There's no debate. He's the greatest swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all time. He won 28 medals over four different Olympic Games, 23 of them gold.  

The question is, how? Well, Michael Phelps is not a fish. Doctors have shot down the notion that his abnormal wingspan and flexible joints give him an outsized advantage.  

It turns out, Phelps worked hard on his craft. He also does a few mental exercises that the rest of us would do well to emulate. I sat down with him for the Fortt Knox podcast to get some of his best insights. Here's a sampling:

Watch your language 

Visualization was an important part of Phelps's training; he would literally picture himself doing races the way he wanted. That, combined with a grueling training regimen that saw him spending hours in the pool seven days a week, allowed him to fine-tune his technique even on dry land. A less-discussed aspect of his mental approach: His coach had him use language to shape his ambition.

"One of the craziest things my coach tried to get me, when we first started to train together, not to say the word 'can't.' So that I could broaden my mind and believe that I could do whatever I wanted to. And I think that was a key of us being so successful."

Phelps is applying similar goal-setting techniques into his post-swimming business career, which includes both endorsement deals and his own MP swim brand. Whether it's running through a sales pitch in your head or avoiding negative conversations and language, others can adopt similar tactics.

Convert Trash to Fuel 

Some athletes are masters of trash-talk: getting inside an opponent's head with an insult or boast. (See: Muhammad Ali.) Phelps was not. 

"I'm staying in my lane. I'm doing what I have to do – what I want to do – to be able to try to be the best," he says. "For me, at the end of the day, when I was training, it was like, as long as I figured out what I needed to do in order to accomplish my goals and dreams, that's all that mattered. Nothing else mattered. Everything else would just play out. I can't control what other people do. So for me, I was always worried about myself, and what I needed to do. And it worked." 

He did, however, love it when his opponents talked trash. It riled him up and motivated him to perform at his best. Combined with his visualization and focused language, this seems to have a profound effect: He enhanced the effectiveness of his positive effort by replaying it in his head, and reduced the potential impact of fear by limiting the language that triggered it. On top of all that, he developed the skill of turning nay-sayers into cheerleaders. That made him really hard to throw off his game once he dove into the water.

Bounce Back 

Once the competition was over? That's another story. Phelps had well-documented struggles with discipline outside of the pool, including a couple of DUIs and a photo of him with a bong. He's now able to reflect on the depths of the depression that led him to those moments, and the focus that helped him to climb out. After more than a decade of mastering the mind of Phelps the swimmer, he finally began to consider the mentality of Phelps the man.

"I’ll be the first one to admit a mistake when it’s made. It’s the only way you’re able to move on and learn from that mistake. By no means has my life been absolutely perfect," he says. "I think I’ve seen the darkest of the dark, and there are days when I didn’t want to be here. But being able to come out of the other side, and just to work and learn things about me that I never knew or I didn’t want to know at that point, I think it changed my life." 

16: Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs Recruited Her. Here's Sue Decker's Best Advice

Sue Decker was president at Yahoo, and has served on the boards of Intel, Pixar, and now Berkshire Hathaway and Costco.

Sue Decker was president at Yahoo, and has served on the boards of Intel, Pixar, and now Berkshire Hathaway and Costco.

More than a decade ago, Steve Jobs asked Sue Decker to be the chief financial officer at Pixar. She said no. 

Decker did, however, accept his offer to join Pixar's board of directors.  

At the time, Decker ran finance at Yahoo. The decline of Yahoo has become the stuff of Silicon Valley legend; today the company is in the process of getting absorbed into Verizon, at a fraction of its former value. Decker, on the other hand, has done just fine in the eight years since she left the Internet company. 

Case in point, she's one of the few people that some of the top U.S. companies seek for guidance. Beyond Pixar, she has also served on the boards of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, chip giant Intel, retail powerhouse Costco, and others. On her path to those board rooms, Decker has gained a rare perspective on what works – and what doesn't – when you're trying to work your way to the top. 

That's why I wanted to sit down with Decker for the Fortt Knox podcast. We discuss the lessons she's learned, and why she decided to start her own company, Raftr, instead of taking the CEO seat at an established business. Subscribe or listen to the stream above to get the full picture, but here are some highlights: 

You're Like A Stock. Invest.

This is especially important for young people, but it applies to everyone: It often takes a decade or more to become really good at a handful of things. During that time period, it's especially valuable to focus on understanding your strengths and finding the learning opportunities that will enhance them.  

"It's not unlike an investment. You think about what your outlay is now, but your return on it may happen in five to 10 years. Most companies in the S&P might trade for 16 times earnings, it's how fast those earning grow in the out years that are going to determine really what the value of it is today," Decker says. "Think about ways to create options for yourself, to develop your skills. In your 20s and 30s is when you become really excellent at something. How much it pays for the first job is irrelevant to the long-term value you're going to create." 

Focus on What You Want to Learn

Decker turned down Jobs's offer to be Pixar CFO, but took a seat on the board. Why? Because it was going to teach her things that would help in her day job running Yahoo's finances.  

"Yahoo, in my mind, was the marriage of content and distribution online. And I thought if I went to a pure content company and learned how they did their business the best, and a pure distribution company in the case of Costco, I would learn a lot from both cases that would help me." 

You might not be invited to sit on the board of a multi-billion-dollar corporation anytime soon. But it's a good idea to choose outside activities that give you deeper knowledge into the problems you're trying to solve. 

Start Something

Decker also developed a remarkable insight while spending time with Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett: Companies often work best when they reflect a founder's core strengths. Jobs had the mind of a craftsman, paying attention to artistic detail. Buffett knows how to put money to work and produce growth. 

"Pixar, it took them four years to make one movie. They were absolutely legendary about, if the movie wasn't going the way they thought it should go, they would go back and rewrite. And Ratatouille had a lot of that when I was there. They weren't going to release it until it was perfect," she says. "At Berkshire I would say, the one thing they do exceptionally well that overwhelms everything else is allocate capital." 

That's why she decided to start her own topic-based social media company – Raftr – rather than take a CEO job. With her background in digital content, it'll be fascinating to see what it becomes.

15: Clothes Made in the U.S.A: American Giant's Founder On How He Beats the Odds

Bayard Winthrop shipped American Giant's first hoodie five years ago. The company makes clothes in the U.S., from domestic cotton.

Bayard Winthrop shipped American Giant's first hoodie five years ago. The company makes clothes in the U.S., from domestic cotton.

Bayard Winthrop is the latest guest on the Fortt Knox Podcast: rich ideas, powerful people. iPhone and iTunes, subscribe hereGoogle Play, subscribe here.

Bayard Winthrop got his inspiration from Silicon Valley. If we could put a touch-screen computer in the palm of everyone's hand, why couldn't we actually make the next great American clothing brand … in America? 

So five years ago, Winthrop shipped his first American Giant sweatshirt, made in the U.S.A. from domestic cotton. Now he's producing thousands of shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, and sweatpants for men and women every month. And it's not all lounge gear: he's just introduced the brand's first dress.   

It's Presidents' Day in the U.S., and there's lots of talk about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America these days. American Giant is actually doing it, and doing it the hard way. The company owns its factories in North Carolina where Winthrop says he employs hundreds of workers sewing clothes.

Winthrop has a distance to go to achieve his goal of becoming an iconic American brand, but he seems to have touched a nerve at this unique cultural moment. Here are some lessons from how he's built American Giant into a contender:  

People, Not Robots 

Before he founded American Giant, Winthrop ran other companies that used offshore labor. He knew that to make this brand work, he would have to deliver a different level of quality. To keep product quality on the path where he wants it, over the past year and a half Winthrop has changed the way his workers make clothes. Rather than do things assembly-line style, with one person specializing in a narrow piece of a garment – say, the sleeve – he is moving to a "team sew" model where each worker is more broadly responsible for product quality. 

"Our perspective is, it is all good. It means that an operator can make more money because they have control over their own throughput," he says. "One of the best parts for me, just personally, is being able to walk into a factory in Middlesex, N.C. and talk to men and women that have jobs now, that are working. … To be able to talk to women that have been sewing for 30 years, and walk me through changes to a sweatshirt that are going to make it better because of the knowledge that she has."  

The aha moment for me came when Winthrop explained that he got better-quality clothes more efficiently when people acted more like old-fashioned craftsmen, and less like robots. A robot might be pretty good at laying down the same stich over and over again to sew on a sleeve. But it's not so good at making sure each garment is put together exactly the way it should be in every proportion, and at figuring out ways to do it better. 

A New Kind of Retail

Winthrop knew that if he was going to make clothes in America, he would have to approach the business differently. Worker salaries would cost more, so he would have to save money by doing away with splashy marketing. 

"There's a really fundamental shift going on in the marketplace, driven by consumers – there's this increasing awareness among consumers, and a desire to support brands that have values that they share, that reflect their own values," he says. If you can tap into that, "you're less reliant on massive marketing budgets, huge store rollouts." 

Know How to Leave 

Winthrop learned plenty along the way about management – of the business, and of himself. One key lesson was how to leave one job to start another.  

"The guy who got me the job at the bank – my first summer job – he gave me two pieces of advice that I've kept with me my whole life," Winthrop says.  

The first? Winthrop's first boss was a former Marine, tough guy. The first thing his boss would say to him every day was, "Hey: Go get me a coffee and a bagel." Eventually, the routine bothered Winthrop so much that he complained to his mentor about it. "Make it the best cup of coffee he's ever had," was his mentor's advice.  

The second? "When I decided to leave, he said to me, 'Good endings, good beginnings.'" 

Whether you're quitting to start the next great American brand, or just getting a promotion to another department, it's sound advice.

14: How to Future-Proof Your Brand: Gene Simmons of KISS

Gene Simmons started KISS in 1973 with Paul Stanley. It's arguably the hottest band brand ever: and they're not done.

Gene Simmons started KISS in 1973 with Paul Stanley. It's arguably the hottest band brand ever: and they're not done.

Gene Simmons is the most outrageous member of one of the most outrageous bands of all time: KISS. 

There's a lot more to KISS than shock. It's the number-one gold-record-earning group of all time, at 30, when you include the four solo albums that band members released on the same day in 1978. Fourteen albums went platinum. 

This is a band that's known for its hits: "I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day" seems like it's a phrase as old as rock itself. The band is known just as much for its look. There's the black and white face paint, the pyrotechnics, and a few details that are signature Gene Simmons. There's the blood-spitting, the axe guitar, and of course the tongue so long it's almost a fifth band member. And guess what: They're still touring.  

I sat down with Gene Simmons at the Studio Hotel in New York for the Fortt Knox podcast, to talk business and marketing. Simmons is a guy who not only managed to launch an iconic brand in his early 20s, he and cofounder Paul Stanley remade it several times along the way with different band members, different looks, and a voracious appetite for merchandising.  

Simmons also managed to become a brand on his own.  

He has had more than one turn on reality TV. He was on the Celebrity Apprentice with now-president Donald Trump – we talk about that, of course – and he had his own show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, that features wife Shannon Tweed and kids Nick and Sophie. 

Here's a sampling of some of the wisdom he shares – in typically colorful fashion – in the podcast: 

Stand Out 

It's not exactly a shocker that a guy like Simmons doesn't recommend blending in; but Simmons has very strategic reasons for spectacle. He traces the lesson back to trying to sell fruit on the side of the road in his native Israel. 

"The bigger of a nuisance and the bigger of a spectacle I made of myself, the more we sold. That's the first lesson of mother nature and in show business," he says. "You have to grab life by the scruff of the neck and demand to pay you some attention." 

In your workplace, that probably doesn't mean carrying an ax guitar and spitting blood. It probably does mean zeroing in on which of your skills benefit the organization most, and making sure they get noticed. 

Own Your Persona

Simmons is very specific about this: When he appears on stage as "The Demon" it's not a character, it's a persona. The difference is, he's not pretending to be something else as much as he's giving free rein to one aspect of his personality. 

"If I put on the red lipstick and the star over my eye, I wouldn't be convincing," Simmons says, contrasting his persona with Paul Stanley's. 

Lest we think personas don't have power, remember Steve Jobs, and think of Mark Zuckerberg. Jobs began wearing a black mock turtleneck and jeans later in life as a sort of uniform – or superhero suit. Mark Zuckerberg used to wear jeans and a hoodie or fleece; now he's most often seen in a gray t-shirt. Jobs's persona communicated attention to design and simplicity. Zuckerberg's communicates a connection to the programmers who try to keep the company relevant. 

Sometimes You've Gotta Take It Off

For more than a decade – from 1983 until 1996 — KISS took the makeup off. The band's popularity had been on a downward spiral. Aside from Paul and Gene, the band members weren't getting along.  

"We decided, there's nowhere else to go. Let's take the makeup off," Simmons says. "It's much harder to be yourself. Much more difficult. You're aware people are looking at you." 

But removing the masks that had made people pay attention, it turns out, proved to be a novel way of making people pay attention again. 

13: He was born in poverty. Now Darren Walker leads a charity worth billions.

Darren Walker went from humble roots to Wall Street. Today he leads the multi-billion-dollar Ford Foundation.

Darren Walker went from humble roots to Wall Street. Today he leads the multi-billion-dollar Ford Foundation.

The key to understanding this moment in American history, in black history, is empathy.  

That's what Darren Walker is saying. And one could argue that if anyone is positioned to understand this dizzying landscape, he is. 

Walker grew up poor in rural Texas, became one of the first kids in the Head Start program, and made it big on Wall Street in the 1980s. But his true calling was even bigger: He's now president at the Ford Foundation, an $11-billion philanthropy giant that's aiming to address social justice and inequality around the globe.  

It's the first Fortt Knox episode of February, Black History Month, and I invite you to listen in on a conversation with a unique American leader who happens to be black. Walker recently made Fast Company's list of the Most Creative People in Business, and there's no shortage of reasons why. 

To start, his background as an African American and a businessman gives him a unique perspective on what it will take to mend the rifts in our culture and economy. He speaks with equal passion about his gratitude for the opportunities he's had as an American in this era, and the dangerous threat that income inequality poses to continued progress. He declares that black lives matter, and shines a light on the concerns of Rust Belt whites. 

"People like you and me, who are black, sometimes need to put ourselves in the shoes of white people, to understand what may be happening to them," he says. "I think that's part of the political phenomenon that we're seeing now. Because I think that there are many white Americans – upstanding, outstanding citizens – who are hurting, and they don't feel that the system is working for them." 

Here are some of the incisive thoughts Walker shared about having an impact for good in tense times: 

Stay Grounded

"The experience of my family today keeps me grounded. When I have seven of my male cousins who have served time in state penitentiaries, one of whom killed himself in a county jail, I stay grounded because I'm connected to them." 

That carries over into how he plans his itinerary as president of the Ford Foundation. When he visits a city like Lagos in Nigeria, he visits both the ambassador and the Makoko slum. The poverty provides a reality check, but so does the people's resilience. The takeaway: If you want to help people, you have to have perspective to see beyond their strife and into their strength.

Even Mandela Was A Risky Bet 

Long before Darren Walker dreamed of making a difference, the Ford Foundation was making bold bets on ideas that were controversial. In the mid-1960s, a group of Mexican Americans asked the foundation to help them form an organization to help their community find a voice. Those efforts became National Council of La Raza.  

Even bolder: the foundation poured money into understanding Apartheid in South Africa when it first emerged in the late 1950s, paying for black students there to leave and explain their plight around the world. "Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were enemies of the state," Walker reminds us. 

The Ford Foundation's guiding rule is to put money behind institutions, ideas and individuals. That sounds like if you feel the ideas are valuable, the institutions are promising and the individuals are trustworthy, there's an opportunity to make a difference.  

Technology and Youth Are Game Changers 

As we've seen again and again in recent weeks, it's far easier than it ever has been to organize a massive crowd. 

"You can in one day mobilize 100,000 people. I would have taken months to mobilize 100,000 people. It took Dr. King years to get to the point of being able to have that march," he says.  

Also: Young people aren't so attached to the idea of hierarchical leadership. Perhaps the two phenomena are related. When you can start a movement over a couple of weekends in a Facebook group, does it really matter if there's a president and a corresponding secretary? 

So where does all that leave us during this fractured moment on the global stage? "I think we are absolutely in a rough spot," Walker says. "But I am more hopeful today than I have ever been." 

12: Empowering Women to Invest with Confidence: Talk to Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's first job was a file clerk in her father's firm in its early days. Now she's an executive at the company.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's first job was a file clerk in her father's firm in its early days. Now she's an executive at the company.

When you see Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's name, you might assume the daughter of Charles Schwab grew up quite privileged.  

After all, the Schwab name has become synonymous with wealth management. Didn't she end up working in the industry by default? 

Actually, no.  

Schwab-Pomerantz's parents divorced when she was a child, and her father's firm didn't become a financial force until she was well into her 20s. She was already there working with clients when Bank of America bought the company in 1983, and continued after the company split off again four years later. 

Today, Schwab-Pomerantz is Chairman of the Charles Schwab Foundation, and a senior vice president at the $56-billion company. She's a certified financial planner, and focuses on reaching out to groups like women, minorities and young people, who tend to have less experience managing their personal finances. 

I talked to Schwab-Pomerantz for the Fortt Knox podcast to get a sense of her personal journey – successes and mistakes – and also to dig out a lot of practical money tips for professionals who are trying to save for the future while planning big purchases and even raising a family. It's January, after all. There's still time to make good on those money resolutions.  

Marriage: Don't Get Lopsided  

One of Schwab-Pomerantz's key pieces of advice is, in marriage, make sure both people understand what's happening with the money. 

"I think involvement leads to financial security. For anybody, you want to understand the basics of money management," she says. "Basic in a marriage, or a partnership: Don't totally abdicate. You can delegate, but not abdicate. So that means know where your assets are, what are you invested in, and always be involved in the big decisions." 

Kids: It's About Value (and Values) 

When one of her sons was a teenager, his friends started getting cars as gifts from their parents. One got a BMW. 

"I, coincidentally, had just bought myself a car, and I looked at the BMW and I looked at different cars, and I ended up getting the Acura, which was $15,000 less," she says. When she heard about the friend with the BMW, she made sure to emphasize to her son that it wasn't the sort of thing their family would do. Not that there's anything wrong with buying nice things. "We're more about value." That's part of the reason she insisted that her sons get summer jobs; one bagged groceries at a local market. 

Future: Know the Rules Before You Break Them 

Not that she's always made perfect financial decisions. When she got out of college, she almost went to work for another financial firm instead of Schwab, until one of the company's managers convinced her to come back. Then Bank of America bought the company, and she had the opportunity to buy the mega-bank's shares for no commission. At 23 years old, she was a little too conservative. She bought only two shares at $22 each. "I was a little scared," she says. "I always joke that I was the smallest shareholder at Bank of America and my dad was the biggest." 

Schwab-Pomerantz has since gotten bolder in her love of stocks as part of a savings and retirement portfolio. But she advocates knowing the financial basics first and foremost. "Those people who invest in equities are outperforming those who are not, and that's what separates the haves and the have-nots," she says. 

11: T-Mobile's Maverick CEO: "I Speak the Same Way My Customers Do"​

Legere was a long-haired kid who thought he'd never want to be an executive. Now he's rewriting the rules for being a CEO.

Legere was a long-haired kid who thought he'd never want to be an executive. Now he's rewriting the rules for being a CEO.

How's this for authenticity: T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere has no qualms about dropping an f-bomb right in the middle of a press conference. He was taunting his rivals on Twitter long before that became the new standard in diplomacy.  

More important than all of that, Legere is growing the rolls at the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier at a dizzying clip – T-Mobile added 2.3 million subscribers in the first nine months of last year. AT&T and Verizon might be bigger, but T-Mobile is bold, scrappy, and changing the rules of the game. 

That's why for the latest episode of the Fortt Knox podcast I sat down with Legere to talk about how he decided to be a different kind of CEO, and why. 

"The trick for me is, I really believe that I act, behave, and speak the same way my customers do. I say what they think on behalf of them," Legere tells me. "If you look, most of my colorful nature and antics is to drive change that benefits customers." 

The latest change T-Mobile is driving: Simpler phone bills. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Legere held a press conference to promote T-Mobile's vision and call out competitors who he says are overcharging.  

As always, I tried to tease out a few lessons the rest of us can apply to our careers: 

Prepare to Switch Gears 

Legere grew up in Fitchburg, Mass., one of five brothers and sisters. The family didn't have a lot of money. He threw himself into sports, and had zero dreams of running a phone company. 

"I wanted to be a foot doctor. I have no idea why. I was a runner. I thought that would be a great idea," he says. "I know when I was young, the last thing I wanted to be was an executive." 

After a series of corporate jobs, Legere ended up in charge at T-Mobile, a company that needed attention and a turnaround. "Ultimately in this job, I was able to be who I am, and it worked." 

Game Recognizes Game 

Another guy who achieved success by being himself and ditching convention? The freshly inaugurated President of the United States, Donald Trump. (The president also knows his way around Twitter.) Lessons from Trump's electoral victory don't escape Legere.  

"He's got game. I tell you, some of this for me, he is ignoring norms that I ignored as a CEO. When I first came in, I remember our legal departments were like 'You don't do …' and he just keeps moving past 'don't do.' The reach and the breadth of what he's able to do – I don't know where it goes, but he's got game." 

Engage Your Creativity 

Legere is on social media, a lot. Which might seem strange, until you consider the fact that he's the CEO of a company that's selling mobile Internet service, and social media and video are the main drivers of demand for his product. 

Slow Cooker Sunday is literally a live online show Legere does on Facebook on Sundays, where he makes something in a slow cooker. Don't laugh: the January 15 episode got more than half a million views. 

"It may sound crazy, and this is why I know so much of what I do as a CEO the other guys aren't going to do – I use social media. I have hashtag #ShoppingSaturday. I use Instagram and I use Facebook when I go shopping on Saturday to buy the ingredients for Slow Cooker Sunday. " 

Legere is unconventional. But as our conversation revealed, there's strategy behind all of it. 

10: From Small-Town Indiana to TV Villain: How Gotham's Drew Powell Made It

Drew Powell in the “Wrath of the Villains: Transference” episode of GOTHAM. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Jeff Neumann/FOX

Drew Powell in the “Wrath of the Villains: Transference” episode of GOTHAM. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Jeff Neumann/FOX

Drew Powell is the latest guest on the Fortt Knox Podcast: rich ideas, powerful people. iPhone and iTunes, subscribe hereGoogle Play, subscribe here.

There's something hulking and sinister about him on screen that makes the bad-guy thing just work. As Butch Gilzean in Fox's hit series Gotham, Drew Powell represents the old-time brutal criminal who paved the way for the super villains of Batman's prime to take over.  

Gotham, the Batman backstory, tees up the second half of its third season this week (1/16, FOX, 8 p.m.). In light of the occasion, I asked Powell to sit down with me for Fortt Knox to share his own backstory.  

It's worth paying attention. For kids with visions of stardom, Hollywood dreams rank up there near hoop dreams in the unlikely category. There are only so many hit shows on TV, and so many recurring roles. So how did Powell make it? 

There's not a formula, exactly, but there are a few lessons for anyone pursuing a passion that has long odds.  

Mark Your Progress 

Drew packed up his car two weeks after college graduation and headed out to L.A. He knew as well as anyone the clichés about waiters (and now Uber drivers) with screen ambitions. So he took a pragmatic approach to his journey as an actor. 

"I promised myself that every June I would take stock in where I was. If I had moved forward, I would give myself another year. If I had stayed the same, I would give myself another six months. And that was how I needed my brain to work. Like, this isn't an open-ended thing. Because I saw a lot of people, when I got to L.A., that were like, these older people that had been just trying to fight it out their whole lives and had given up a lot of happiness to try and do this thing." 

Powell was determined not to do that. But as you'll learn from listening to our conversation, he was willing to make some major moves – and take big risks – for the right opportunities. 

As you'll learn in greater detail in the podcast, Drew Powell and I went to college together at DePauw University ('98). We took some of the same classes, including TV production.

As you'll learn in greater detail in the podcast, Drew Powell and I went to college together at DePauw University ('98). We took some of the same classes, including TV production.


Promote Yourself 

It would be great if talent alone were enough to land your dream job. In acting, as in other fields, it often isn't. Powell worked to find the right balance between introducing himself to the right people and talking shop, and giving people the right amount of space.

"Somebody told me early on about the Nashville Handshake," Powell says. "They used to say back then, you'd shake hands and they'd have a cassette tape in their hand – their demo. I was always very wary of being overtly in-your-face. But no one else is going to promote you like you can. I know a lot of my actor friends, that was the hardest part for them. That was the past that either kind of derailed their career, or they just weren't willing to put themselves out there."

Imagine the List 

Stop me if you've heard: Not everyone in Hollywood is nice.

That's not a rule. Powell says many of the actors he has worked with, like his current co-stars on Gotham, have their egos in check and get along amazingly. But the trappings of TV and movies can tempt you to feel entitled. One conversation he had helped put things in perspective.

"I was with a producer one time who pulled out her iPhone and had a list of every actor she had ever worked with, and whether they were good or bad, and specific reasons, things they did. Like, she kept notes. It was a long list, and there were a lot of well-known names on there. … She could say, this person was great. Or this person screamed at me because they didn't have M&Ms at the craft service table."

Even outside of Hollywood, there's a lesson here: We're not all necessarily screaming for M&Ms, but we can all leave an impression that can open the door to the next opportunity, or slam it shut. 

9: The Boss's Favorite Mistake: Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO

After my CNBC interview with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at CES, we had a longer chat about his path to leadership.

After my CNBC interview with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at CES, we had a longer chat about his path to leadership.

Twenty-five years ago, the man who is now CEO of the world's largest maker of computer chips was an engineer at the company. And he made an error that almost got him fired.  

"I wiped out the output of an entire factory for a week," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich tells me in the latest episode of the Fortt Knox podcast. "I'm lucky to be employed at Intel, sometimes I say." 

But instead of dooming him, his handling of the problem influenced the company culture, helping to birth a system called "Copy Exactly" that's become a part of its identity. Krzanich went on to make a name for himself as the executive responsible for all of Intel's factories, a job that prepared him to be CEO. 

It happened in the 1990s; Krzanich was in his early 30s. At the time, Intel was just beginning to hit its stride with a strategy that would make it the world's top supplier of chips for personal computers. His job was to transfer the chip manufacturing process from one facility in New Mexico to the one next door.  

It didn't work. Production ground to a halt. And for an agonizingly long time, he had no idea why. 

"It went all the way up to the CEO. And my boss at one point walked into my office and said, 'You have about two more weeks to figure out this issue, and if you don't, I've got to let you go.' And luckily, and friend of mine and I, we said we're just not going to sleep until we solve this. And then, sure enough, we found the problem about a week into that two week time period."

What sets Krzanich apart as a leader isn't just the way he rallied in a situation like this, though our conversation did unearth some gems that should help anyone navigate a career crisis. What sets him apart is the no-frills approach he brings to his work, and the adaptability that has allowed him to push his career – and now, Intel itself – in unexpected directions. Here are just a few of the concepts we explored in a fascinating episode of Fortt Knox:

Reality Beats Résumé

Krzanich grew up in San Jose, California, just miles from Intel headquarters. He didn't go to an Ivy League school: He got his bachelor's degree in Chemistry from San Jose State University. The prestige of a college's brand on a résumé doesn't impress him.

"I've told my daughters this; my older daughter's about to go into college. It doesn't matter what college you go to. The thing that was great about San Jose State was, I got connected with some very good professors," he says. He did research for their projects on the side. "When I went into interviews, I could talk about real work that I'd done, not just textbook stuff."

That informs how he deals with job candidates today. "I ask real simple questions that just tell me, does this person know how to think?"

This Gets You Fired

Krzanich had some more advice. "The other thing I tell my daughters is, I've had to terminate or fire more people for being difficult to work with than being

Now wait, a minute, I say to him. CEOs of Intel haven't exactly distinguished themselves by being easy to work with – the legendary Andy Grove comes to mind. So what does he mean?

"I think if you don't give people the tools and the expectations for success, and yet hold them to some value, then you're difficult to work with. I think the one thing about Andy was, if you listened to him, if you tried to understand him, then you actually understood what the expectations were. They may be hard, and you may not have been able to do it, but you at least had a chance. The difficult bosses – the ones that have been hard for me to work for – have been the ones where, I never knew what success meant."

In other words, it's okay to challenge your team. But it's also important to recognize the value of their different perspectives, give them the tools, and clearly define success.

Use Your Lifelines

In the show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," contestants can solve difficult problems by asking the audience or phoning a friend. Moments in Krzanich's career reminded me of that. A friend helped him solve the early puzzle that had brought production to a halt. And when Intel began searching for a new CEO about four years ago, he took an unorthodox approach to competing for it. He teamed up with another Intel executive and presented to the board together; the board ended up naming him CEO and his teammate president.

"It was more important to me that it was an insider, because I felt like anybody from the outside would slow the company down. Even if they were better, it would take them two years to learn how Intel works and to figure out how to make Moore's Law happen," he says. "I was willing to do whatever it took to have an insider, even if that wasn't me, or if it was a group of us, I was going to figure out a way .... By partnering up, I figured that was our best chance. Two of us could beat one outsider."

8: The Show Must Go On: Rory O'Malley of Hamilton and The Book of Mormon

Rory O'Malley, veteran of Broadway shows including Hamilton and The Book of Mormon, knows how to make the most of a year.

Rory O'Malley, veteran of Broadway shows including Hamilton and The Book of Mormon, knows how to make the most of a year.

A new year's a time for goals and dreams. A time to make things happen. A time to roll with life's setbacks and turn things around.

Broadway veteran Rory O'Malley (The Book of Mormon) did that in spades in 2016. The year started with him landing a lead role as Bill Gates in a musical, Nerds, that was supposed to make its Broadway debut in the spring. But just as the cast had finished learning the production, an investor pulled the plug.

How's this for a turnaround? With his schedule suddenly cleared, O'Malley ended up landing the role of King George III in the smash hit Hamilton, which had just become a cultural force. In the latest episode of the Fortt Knox Podcast, as O'Malley shares his story, he also offers some tips that will help you get the most out of the year ahead. Stream audio of the conversation below, and follow this link to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

Be ready for lightning to strike

"It was one of those moments when there was no way to put lipstick on this pig. It was horrible." That's how O'Malley describes the moment on March 8 when the lead producer broke the news to the cast of Nerds that Broadway wouldn't be happening after all. "Two days after getting back to L.A., my agent called and said, 'Rory, I know that you just had a really hard experience on Broadway, but would you ever consider coming back to Broadway?'" Someone who saw him run through the Bill Gates role wanted him to join the Hamilton cast. O'Malley got on a plane and flew back to New York.

Don't fixate on just one path

"My number-one advice to young people is to relax and to chill," O'Malley tells me on the Fortt Knox podcast. Relax? Do people still do that? The point, he says, is that often the path to your dream gig isn't direct, and there are other jobs you'll have to do along the way. Sometimes your dream even changes. "You should be striving for excellence and education and learning, and be open to whatever path that journey and education takes you on."

Stay satisfied, stay hungry

"It's not a bad thing to know when your dream comes true," O'Malley says. After his Tony-nominated performance in The Book of Mormon, he told people that it was the best professional experience he would ever have. They recoiled in horror, as if he'd told them his life was over. That wasn't what he meant. He meant that other great things would happen, sure, but he felt no pressure to top this. "You don't get to being an actor without having an out-of-control ambition. ... I did have to make a decision in my mid-20s if it was more important to me to be happy or working as an actor. And I know that those two things don't have to be one or the other, but you do have to decide what's more important."

For more on how O'Malley landed his role in The Book of Mormon, his take on Hamilton's place in Broadway history, what happened when Mark Zuckerberg showed up to the theater with Melinda Gates and more, subscribe to the Fortt Knox podcast.

Ep 7: A Holiday Lesson on Leading with Heart and Head: Diana Aviv of Feeding America

Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv figured out at a very young age that she wasn't comfortable with the status quo.

Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv figured out at a very young age that she wasn't comfortable with the status quo.

A car accident convinced a teenaged Diana Aviv that she had to leave home and fight for the poor and forgotten.

One she caused.

"As I pulled out, I hit him, and he went into the air and did somersaults and crashed to the ground," she remembers. She, a white Jewish teen, had hit a black bicyclist in apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s. "When we went to the police station, I went to the white entrance and he had to wait and go in the black entrance. And the police officer said to me, 'You tell me whatever you like, and that's what will be what happened.' And I decided I couldn't live in a society where I couldn't take the consequences of my actions, which was to get in trouble because of what I'd done. ... This was as contaminating to me as it was for him. Just, the consequences were easier for me – but they weren't, because how could I live with myself? And I decided then that I had to leave."

Today, Aviv is CEO of Feeding America, the third largest charity in America by donation value, at more than $2 billion annually.  As I learned when I sat down with her for the Fortt Knox podcast, her journey to that position is a study in how leading with your emotions as well as your head can bring world-changing results. Click above to stream audio of the conversation.


Passion beats titles

Not long after the car accident, Aviv did leave South Africa to attend college and engage in anti-apartheid activism in New York. A couple of decades later, South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and planned to visit New York. Around that time, as a mid-level staffer at a Jewish organization, Aviv caught wind of a chilling development: A local rabbi among those planning to protest Mandela's visit because he had been photographed with Yasir Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar el-Qaddafi after his release. She feared if the protest materialized, it would sour relations between blacks and Jews for a generation. On her own initiative, without any real authority, she made a phone call that paved the way for a remarkable thaw. (Hear the details in the podcast.) The lesson: You don't have to be in charge of an organization to make a big difference.

Reason can't smother feelings

In another job, Aviv headed an organization that advocated for battered women. Through her experience working with the women, and after consulting a friend with expertise in the field, she realized that 9 out of 10 women returned to their abusers, whether the men changed or not. So Aviv had an epiphany: The men needed counseling. She would get them to submit to it either by court order, or by begging the women to delay their return as leverage. "I said we're going to start a counseling program. And it's not for us to judge. It's for us to work with people and to see what it is that they need, and to help them, and to stop being part of the women's liberation movement that says 'Men who are ...' and all of that." By working against convention, she got abusers into counseling, and helped more women to heal.

Guilt is cheap

I asked Aviv the one thing she'd want people to change this holiday season and in 2017, to help Feeding America and organizations like it. Her answer surprised me. "The one thing I'd say is, don't feel guilty," she said. Why? "Because guilt only works so much, and then at some point there's a reaction to the guilt and a resentment toward guilt." What should you do instead? In our conversation, Aviv gives some concrete suggestions.

Ep 6: Unique Paths to the Top in Tech: Music and Resilience

Jay Simons and Sanjay Poonen are both software executives, but they have completely different paths to success.

Jay Simons and Sanjay Poonen are both software executives, but they have completely different paths to success.

Sanjay Poonen grew up lower-middle class in India and pushed past rejection to become one of the most respected executives in Silicon Valley; he's now chief operating officer at VMware. Jay Simons' detour before law school took him playing piano across Asia – and inspired him to ditch law for tech, where today he's president at Atlassian, one of the industry's hot young companies.  

For most of us, the path to success isn't going to be a straight line. But those who make it learn a lot of lessons you can't capture on a résumé. So what qualities separate the best from the average? 

I sat down with Poonen and Simons for the latest episode of the Fortt Knox podcast, and the two executives shared some wisdom from their journeys that should help others along the way.

Traditional qualifications aren't everything

After undergrad, Simons thought he'd be a lawyer. But a lawyer mentor offered him important advice: Slow down and be sure. A few years of international travel and playing piano taught him a few things, including that his passion wasn't in law. It was tech. After he landed back in the states, he moved to California and snagged a tech job where risk-taking and a global mindset paid off.

Rejection is part of the drill

Poonen applied to three U.S. schools for undergrad. One accepted him. He also applied to a bunch of business schools and got rejected by all of them ... except Harvard. Winning, it turns out, isn't about being offered every opportunity, it's about making the most of the ones we get.

Do what fuels you

Simons runs to work every day, and still practices the piano days he's in town. It's part of his routine. Poonen likes to focus on helping the needy in his community – especially when he's going through a rough spot in life, and he might be tempted to simply mull his own problems.

Subscribe to Fortt Knox on Apple or Google Play. Next week: Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv on leading with emotional intelligence.

Ep 5: Three Hard-Earned Career Lessons from Skid Row*

Sebastian Bach, *ex-frontman for rock band Skid Row, was a youth gone wild. Now he's a solo artist, actor and author.

Sebastian Bach, *ex-frontman for rock band Skid Row, was a youth gone wild. Now he's a solo artist, actor and author.

Sebastian Bach is a big dude. You know how celebrities are always supposed to be smaller than you think? Jon Bon Jovi's about my height, and I'm 5'8". I met him in a restaurant in San Jose, Ca. a decade ago. Sebastian, the ex-Skid Row frontman, is huge. 6'3".  

We're at 30 Rock, the NBC Universal mothership in New York, where he's just popped out of shooting a segment with Access Hollywood. He's kindly agreed to meet me after, in what feels like a giant closet, because it's quiet, and you know, I'm recording a podcast.  

Here's a guy who joined a band in the mid-'80s, debut album went multi platinum, second album debuted at number one. He was the prettiest of the metal pretty boys, and he earned a bad-boy reputation, too.  

But the most remarkable thing? He changed. Skid Row broke up after Sebastian booked them as an opening act for KISS, which the other band members thought was beneath them. And of course, after Sebastian himself attracted a lot of the wrong kind of controversy with his temper and his mouth. That didn't help.  

But that was just the beginning of his story. Bach went on as a solo act, did some reality TV, and did four major turns on Broadway. He scored a recurring role on Gilmore Girls. Along the way, he picked up a few lessons he shared with me on Fortt Knox. Stream the full conversation below, and click here to subscribe to Fortt Knox on Apple's Podcast app & iTunes, Google Play, and more.

Be the Guy Who Signs the Checks

"One thing that I learned that made me enjoy money more is that in my band, I'm the guy who signs the checks," Bach told me. "My manager's over here going, 'You need a business manager!' but the thing is, when I sign the checks, I know where every dollar goes."

Back in the Skid Row days, he didn't sign the checks. And he didn't see much of the money, then or later. In his solo career, he decided to dive into the tedious stuff.

"I have one inspiration for that. His name is Chuck Berry. He goes to the gig in his station wagon with his briefcase. There's a band ready for him. He gets out, he gets paid before he plays. He steps out on the stage, does his show, gets his briefcase, gets back in the car and splits. He signs the checks and he gets paid. That would be my advice to any businessman."

Don't Do What's Expected of You

"One of the things I would have to remind people of over and over is, I really hate the term Hair Metal, or '80s Rock, or Spandex, or Lipstick .... See I don't know what they could be talking about," he says, chuckling and flipping back his still-long blond locks.

He's evoking his sense of humor, but underneath he's kind of serious. When he first auditioned for Skid Row, he says, he had to rewrite the melodies to some of the songs because to him they sounded too much like Bon Jovi. He's always had this aversion to being predicable.

That probably explains why he did Broadway before it was obviously cool.

"It's a long, tricky process for me to put my name on something, whether it's Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Gilmore Girls, or Skid Row, or this book. There's an emotional connection that I have with my fans."

Bide Your Time

Even when people tell you it's over, it's not necessarily over. Bach split with Skid Row 20 years ago, but the impression he made on fans who are now grown up remains strong.

"I went to Elon Musk's house for a party. He's like, 'Sebastian Bach, I can't believe that you're here.' And I go, 'Dude, you're inventing, like, time travel. Like, I play in a band.' They wanted to hang out with the dude that plays rock 'n' roll. I was like, this is crazy. I want to hang out with the guy that invents the Hyperloop."