EKA Insights Interview: Jim Best

By Arune SIngh

The conventional thinking is that technology can either be your friend or your enemy.

Then again, conventional thinking has never been of much interest to Jim Best, Chief Growth Officer at EKA Solutions.

Working his way up through C.H. Robinson upon joining in 1978,  Jim Best’s career has spanned every role from Branch Manager to Senior Vice President and been defined by seeing technological advancement as an endless source of opportunity. That solution-oriented focus has made Jim one of the most respected leaders in the transportation, logistics and supply chain field as he imparts the most important lesson of all:

You control your own destiny.

The monthly EKA Insights Interview series continues with special guest Jim Best, who’s also a successful author of children’s books beginning with The Irate Pirate, in both an unedited video interview and in a written transcript below (which includes some edits for clarity and flow).

Questions:

EKA: I want to start with the idea of destiny. You talk a lot about it in your public speaking and your work – what do you feel are the elements we control and what are the ones we need to accept we don’t control? It’s on the minds of a lot of people.

Jim Best: No doubt and it’s a good place to start. If I look back at my career – and you were very gracious in the way you described it and I appreciate that very much – leadership and communication are central not only to myself, my career, my being a father, my being a leader but also central to most people in the pursuits they have, especially the career.

Because what we do in our profession is a way to demonstrate what we know about how to deal with our abilities and resources in a competitive situation.

Years ago, I got passed over for a promotion – I was 29 or 30 years old and a very good salesperson. As we talk about leadership, most people find they are limited in some way in what reward they get as an individual performer-  it becomes a situation where you have to help other people be more effective, more successful and support their success with what becomes “leadership.” I went on a journey and I was able to see that if you get a bad situation then you can learn from it and make sure it never happens again. 

So, to me, being passed over was something I never wanted to happen again and I think a lot of people can relate to the pain of that, so I really started looking at what I could learn from it. 

When it comes to controlling your destiny and how you can do that, that’s the path where people learn to really become successful through self-development and self-improvement. 

Several of the things I learned are:

  • You can control your thoughts. Just because a thought comes to you it doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to it.
  • You can control your attention, meaning if there’s a bad path in what you’re thinking or feeling, you don’t have to go down or honor that path.
  • And through your attention, that’s what you decide to focus on. If you do it right – and that’s tough, because we’re human and have other challenges or people to consider- you can control your focus. That means you can control, as some might say, the reality that you create because we describe our own reality – it’s not too much of a stretch to say that you can in large measure create your reality. This show we’re doing, for example, is a reality you’ve created for yourself. 

Life can be made up of all those things that seem like coincidence or serendipity, but if we choose those things that’s how we can get where we want to be in terms of controlling our destiny.

I think we agree – you’re saying that reality and destiny are both a result of perception. Our mindset really shapes how we view things. You, at the time, looked at being passed over as painful along with being what inspired a journey of self discovery. So things can be both good and bad, but perception is what defines reality.

That’s right. Exactly.

Something else that shapes reality is what we’re using right now to have this conversation – technology. It’s an integral part of our lives and has helped eliminate the idea of work hours. These phones open up the world but can shackle us in different ways, creating unexpected pressures. How do you feel technology is intertwined with leadership and destiny.

That’s a great question. 

If you’ll let me reflect back, I talked about our attention and our focus – and what technology can do is bring in a lot more information to us, meaning it expands our vision of what’s possible, of what’s available and of what we can put our attention towards. 

But it also allows us to focus much more clearly on those things that we deem to be important and to really matter, For instance, I will tell a customer, “Okay, take your top five or ten customers and focus on the three things that are most important to them.” It might be, for example, on-time pickup, on-time delivery, price or those three in different orders for different customers. Then technology allows someone to focus on those elements and drive their performance to be successful.

And then one of the other things that we’ll talk about more is that technology is going to lead to and enable change as a byproduct of this past year and COVID-19. The working from home that so many people have had to do, and the leap in technology usage, is going to enable a greater degree of what I call “performance based relationships,” which I i’ve always trusted more than, “oh, this person likes me, or they really like doing business with us.” It’s good if you feel comfortable in your personal relationship with your business or your customer – however, focus on performance because you want them relying upon you because of the way you perform.

So, if you’re a supply chain participant, you report back to that customer – you don’t have to wait to be asked or for a performance review. I would tell people this, even as an individual employee, don’t wait for a performance review because your manager or leader might not get around to it when you want to get feedback. I would say to focus on those things that are most important to priorities for each customer. Take the aggregate view, drive your performance to excel in those and then report to your customers – you’re guaranteed to increase your business with anybody if you know what their priorities are and if you’re showing them how you’re performing on those priorities. 

I really think that technology will allow us to do those things – focus on what’s important, draw our attention to it, drive performance, then self-report and increase our business with those people that we want to do more business with.

In times past, especially when we were traveling to conferences and meetings, there was a sense of “If I’m the person, they want to have a beer or any kind of beverage with that they’re going to trust me with their money.” But I think we instinctively know we have friends in our lives who make us think “Hey, I love hanging out with you but I never want to work with you” (laughs). I think 2020 has stripped away that artifice and forced us to focus on the work. What you’re saying is really simple – “If I’m good at my job, I will build a reputation for being good and increase my relationships.” But why do you think an idea that’s so simple is so difficult in application? Do you find these some kind of mental or emotional schism when you explain ti to people?

There is definitely a disconnect right now, because people do agree with it and that this is the way it should be. 

But the reality is – and I’m just reflecting upon this now – is that in the universe of performers, there’s 50% that are above the line and 50% of that are below the line, right? So, that means only 50% of the people have anything to gain whatsoever by doing that. And, so, what I would say is that there’s the fact that it’s not always going to be in people’s favor to self-report. 

The other thing – the glaring reality that we’re addressing through the EKA platform – is the data isn’t always available. The data has been expensive, the data has been the province of the multi-billion resource rich organizations and supply chain initiators like Amazon or Target or other big retailers. They have all the incentive to build this supply chain universe, inform people what they need to do in order to be in there, and then gather that data. And Google’s another one where they get the data – the big data –  and they do the machine learning, they do the artificial intelligence, they drive efficiencies, they have all those advantages, because they have many participants, upon whom it benefits them to enforce those standards, right? 

The individual supply chain performer doesn’t have that. 

And in the end, it’s been too expensive to invest in a lot of the TMS, or they’ve been premise-based. Now’s the time really the technology is there and the know-how is there.

But if we’re talking about what companies should do now, and I mean it very sincerely, the answer is to apply technology, upgrade your technology, or update your technology, because if you’ve got technology that’s five years old, you know what, I don’t know if it’s good or bad or indifferent. But, I’m telling you, if you’ve had it for five years you’re not going to get any better performance from it. 

You’ve got to update what you’re doing or upgrade what you’re doing. 

You’re really getting to the core theme of leadership and destiny – namely you don’t want to abdicate your destiny to old software because you won’t be in control. And something that you’ve talked about quite frequently is about owning technology and data, along with democratizing that information with platforms like EKA Omni-TMS that make it available to shippers, carriers and brokers. But what do you think are the other challenges for companies or for any or any entrepreneur who’s watching us and saying, “Jim, that sounds great, but I don’t have unlimited funds to spend and I don’t have my supposed to know where to spend? Do I need the best version of Photoshop or is the version from two years ago okay?” How would you advise them?

I want to circle back on one point that I think is really important to share with people as well. My belief has always been that if you’re an effective leader – and there’s a technology link here – you will have, within your first two years in your role and responsibility, initiated and taken action and successfully implemented 99% of the good ideas that you have at that time. Otherwise, you’re not an effective leader. 

So, if you’re an effective leader, and you’ve been in that role for a while, that’s why it’s critical to invest in more technology so that you get better information and so that you can communicate more clearly – because technology’s not just about getting information. It’s about communicating

One of the things that we emphasize at EKA is making sure you have clarity and consistency in your communication. Otherwise, people won’t know what your expectations are and you won’t be able to get the type of performance from your supply chain partners that you really expect to get. 

When we talk about what we’re doing with technology and what we’re doing with leadership capabilities, all those things have to be wrapped together because otherwise you won’t get the good talent to come work for you if you don’t have technology. 

Now, to your question, let’s take it from the perspective that someone doesn’t  have much technology – just the bare basic stuff. And that’s the way a lot of transactional players are within the supply chain marketplace. 

You don’t need the absolute best information system and you won’t be able to afford it right away, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Start where you can get basic technology that’s going to enable some of your employees to be more effective, give it to the people that are the early adaptors and see what you can do. We have people surprised all the time that as they got started they quickly began to see what could be done with it and then it just blossomed into something much more than they anticipated.  

Technology is enablement. It’s empowerment. It’s a facilitator. it’s a path to a much better competitive performance that they didn’t even anticipate. And you shouldn’t adopt these technologies because somebody expects you to do it, – you should do it because it’s the best way to be successful in the future. 

And to anybody that doesn’t have the technology right now, would you believe that you are not going to have technology three years from now? Nobody would say, “yeah, we’re gonna hold out, we’re never going to get it” because everybody understands they’ve got to do it. 

So, do it now

Get it started, get the ball rolling, get some forward momentum, do some analysis when you bring in a partner. And that’s one thing that EKA has talked about – we’re not a transactional player. We’re not a software provider. We want to be your technology partner. We want to be able to take the years that we have on supply chain experience, transportation experience, customer service experience, employee performance experience, and help you unleash all the good, all the competitive prowess, all the ability that you have within your organization. 

And that’s what we’re signing up for.

It sounds like there’s one common factor threading through our discussion about the relationship between technology and leadership, controlling destinies all you know charting your own path – and that’s the decisiveness that comes from a confidence in your own belief system. Beyond that, what would you say are the top three most important elements you think in leadership to or to be an effective leader?

I think that the only premise by which you have the opportunity to lead anybody is by making their lives better in some way, otherwise, they have no reason to follow you. And, consequently. you have no right. or reason to lead them. 

You’ve got to have an idea on where you’re going to go with the group. Some people will say, you got to have a “vision,” but I’m not. You don’t get paid a whole lot for being a visionary. You get paid a whole lot for having a vision, being practical, implementing it right, empowering people and seeing their abilities. 

You’ve got to understand that you’ve got a responsibility towards anybody that is going to follow you and you are going to, in some way, improve their life without impinging upon their freewill. That’s a really important caveat.

The other thing is that you’ve got to be a very good communicator – and that’s not just talking, although that’s a very big part of it. Some will say, “lead by example” but we’re all so busy that if you don’t call attention to what you’re doing and saying, “This is what I’m trying to accomplish,”  people may not understand the virtue of your leadership. You’ve got to be a good communicator, but you’ve also got to listen. That means understanding what people are saying, understanding what’s not being said, and not responding. 

I’ve had some people that would say, “Well, I want to be a leader within this office, business organization.” And I would say, “Okay, so tell me why you think that”,  not because I doubted them but because I wanted to understand their perspective. They would say, “Well, everybody comes to me when they need something.” Well, okay, what if they don’t come to you? What if they don’t feel comfortable?

You’ve got to make it so that you communicate well, but also that people feel comfortable communicating to you. And then you’ve got to trust what they’re doing – you’ve got to be willing to work with them to develop their skills, because a lot of times, you don’t know what those people’s skills are. And a lot of times, they don’t even know it, so you’ve got to be able to bring that out in people. 

Now, if you are in a big organization, you’re not going to be able to do it with everyone, but you still set the tone. That’s where you lead by example if you have a direct report and you bring out the abilities that they have by encouragement, by empowerment, by delegation, by however, means you can so that they see that and then that they understand that they’re supposed to do it with their direct reports. 

And that’s how leadership spreads out within an organization and brings things to fruition.

It’s interesting that in everything we’ve discussed, I’ve noticed you’ve talked a lot about emotional investment. You have to care. Even when life knocks you down, you have to invest emotion to reflect on how to get back up. I also agree with something else you’ve been saying – you can’t fake it with the people around you. You’re teaching them to self reflect, you’re teaching them to care about themselves and the people reporting to them. This all goes back to the relationship building you’re talking about and it seems like that’s the core of what you’re talking about – you have to care to be a leader. Is that right?

Yeah, I believe that 100%. 

Nobody wants to be told what to do. 

That’s why – and you touched upon this earlier – it’s important that you explain to people what it is you’re trying to do and why it is you’re doing it.  They need to understand how we look at things, how we handle problems – beginning with if we look at them as problems, pains or challenges.

One of the things that I’ve always tried to do is set the tone within any organization is encourage them to solve challenges for their customers because unless that customer has asked you specifically not to do it with somebody else, you can take that solution and go to the next person. And that’s how you build your business – those skills matter within the business context. 

The other reality is, being a problem solver is just one thing you need to be. I’ve encountered this a lot when people would say, “I want to be a leader because I’m a good problem solver.” Or “I want to do business with you because I’m a good problem solver.” Problem solving is a basic skill. We’re all really good problem solvers. The much higher art is problem prevention and the question I always ask is, “Do you want to live in a neighborhood that has the fastest fire engines? Or do you want to live in a neighborhood that has the least amount of fire?” 

It’s all about problem prevention.

And so what I believe is that, in a supply chain community, you set up technology to prevent problems. And it becomes like a virtual neighborhood watch – wherever there’s a problem, you’ve identified a problem, or you’ve prevented the problem from ever happening just because of the information that you have.

You know, sometimes people are talking about the same thing and using completely different words. And I find that the language barrier we have is not often about borders or culture. It’s just about us, like you said, slowing down, taking a beat and doing the work upfront to understand each other. It sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s important to take an analytical approach and an investigative approach up front, so you can spare yourself the pain of the emotional, reactive response down the road.

Yep. I think it was Bear Bryant, an Alabama coach who became famous for saying something and I’ll butcher it a little bit, to the effect that “everybody wants to win, but not everybody wants to prepare to win.”

I remember talking to customers on the phone – I wanted to be a very good salesperson. That’s what I was supposed to do and had signed up for -literally, you’d be on the phone with them. And if you use the right word, you’d go forward, if you use the wrong word, you wouldn’t go forward. I just became really good at understanding that there are certain words that you do want to use and you want to be honest, because otherwise people won’t do business with you. But there’s ways of saying things that you can learn and it makes life much easier. 

And it doesn’t just help with customers, though I first learned it that way. I also learned it with employees. I learned it with other managers, I learned it throughout my career – it’s really important to use the right phraseology to, again, be completely honest and with integrity while making sure that there is a reasonable way to share what you’re saying without causing any confusion. 

This is also important within a supply chain – and I don’t mean to keep getting back to that, but I do think it’s a really important time to make sure that everybody’s on the same terminology and avoiding the communication breakdown that causes the problems that cause so much delay, that cause so many people to move onto other opportunities. 

Just to give you an example, I used to be a bit of a consultant and I would go talk to a leadership team where they would say, “oh, we’re all on the same page” and, you know, “things are great here.” I would ask this group of people to write down what they think are the three top priorities for this group. I must have done that over 50 times and ever was there much more than 50% agreement.

I think that the opportunity is that if we focus on our message, that means we focus on what we’re agreeing to do. We talk about our expectations and then we drive our performance towards it. I think that’s what makes for a successful organization.

A lot of what we’ve just been talking about has really centered around expectations and about what we expect in behavior, in language and in self reflection from others. It’s something you’ve written about, for a wide variety of audiences in your young readers book The Irate Pirate, which I need to remind everyone is available everywhere books are sold. How do you recommend that people reconcile those diverse expectations? \

One of the reasons why I wrote The Irate Pirate is that it was a little story I was telling my grandkids at the time, but I saw what a useful vehicle it was for talking and helping people deal with a situation that happens all the time.

As people were reading it, somebody would say, “yeah, you know what, my father wanted me to be an attorney”, “my mother wanted me to do this” or “I had a brother who always expected me to be their little sister,” you know, these things like that. 

For those that won’t take your sage advice and buy the book and read it before they listen to this, The Irate Pirate is about Petie, a pirate who was growing up in a pirate village. He haa a pirate mother and father but  decided that he didn’t want that lifestyle. And it’s pretty heavy facing up to somebody who has those expectations of you and I wanted to talk about how to deal with that. 

One of the things that I wanted to communicate in the book was that we all have role models and Petie realizes that the role model before him – someone with a path, a peg leg and a hook – had things that he didn’t want. Petie was able to identify those and then he had to go through the process of dealing with them. 

We all have expectations of other people and people have expectations of us. I think that a lot of expectations that my family had for me were good and positive expectations. Not all of them were expectations that I wanted to live up to. It’s important to learn that if you have expectations of someone then you should express those to them clearly because you can’t expect people to read your mind.

I agree. But now we’re going to wrap this up and I want to ask you one final question – what is the number one resolution that you feel like every company should make in 2021 to better control and improve their destinies?

Apply, upgrade or update your technology.

However, I would just say, plan to make technology a major part of your success strategy going forward. Not just a small part – don’t make it a number four priority. 

Make it one of the top two priorities, because you know what, if you don’t do it, you’re gonna get beat every day by one of your competitors that has technology working in their favor.

All right, well, listen, Jim, thank you so much for the time. Thanks, everybody for tuning in to another episode of EQ insights. We’ll be back next month with more.

Thank you. Thanks, everyone.

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