May 11, 2021

Pivotal Moments of leading with impact with Robert Morgan | Changemaker

Pivotal Moments of leading with impact with Robert Morgan | Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli talks with Robert Morgan, founder and CEO of Talaria Media, Pivotal Moments, Managing Partner at Caneel, co-founder of GoodSeeker, and former CEO of MorganFranklin Consulting. Robert Morgan discussed how his personal life experiences aided him in establishing multiple successful and how he effectively worked with co-founders to nurture a great organizational culture.

Some highlights:

  • The lessons Robert Morgan learned from battling cancer
  • Robert Morgan on the key elements of the organizational culture at MorganFranklin
  • How to deal with difficult people and still maintain a great culture
  • Why self-awareness and empathy are critical in maintaining great partnerships


Also mentioned in this episode: 

Ron Morgan, co-Founder of MorganFranklin

Rob Franklin, co-Founder of MorganFranklin

Who Moved My Cheese? Book by Spencer Johnson


Connect with Robert Morgan:

Robert Morgan on LinkedIn

Robert Morgan on Twitter: @Remorgan2

Robert Morgan on Facebook

Pivotal Moments on Facebook

Pivotal Moments on Instagram

Pivotal Moments on Twitter


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

MahanTavakoli.com


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 

PartneringLeadership.com



Transcript

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am really excited this week to be welcoming Bob Morgan, he's founder and CEO of Talaria Media, which is a creative film and video production company. And non-profit Pivotal Moments focusing on mental health. Managing Partner of Caneel and they invest in early stage companies. They're co-founder of Good Seeker, which is a technology platform, helping teams tell their success stories and grow organically.

Additionally, Bob, along with his brother, Ron and their good friend, Rob Franklin were founders of MorganFranklin, which they grew to over $200 million in value. 

Now I loved the conversation with Bob. It's full of leadership lessons and wonderful stories. And I'm sure you will enjoy it too.

 I also love hearing from you, mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's also a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Feel free to leave me voice messages there. Don't forget to follow and or subscribe to the podcast. That way you will be first to be notified when new episodes are released. And finally, about the third of you that listened to these on Apple, would really appreciate a rating and review there. That will help more people find these conversations and benefit from leadership lessons from Bob and other magnificent leaders.

Now, here is my conversation with Bob Morgan.

Bob Morgan, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am so excited to have you in this conversation.

Robert Morgan: 

Oh, Mahan. Thank you for having me.  It's always a great opportunity to share some stories in life and hopefully inspire some people and have people learn from my lessons learned. So I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to come on and talk with you.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Well, you're an incredibly successful business person, have had a great impact with everything you've done and the many things you're doing right now, and we're going to get to some of those. But first up you grew up milking cows in PA. Tell me a little bit about that childhood and how that impacted the kind of leader and person you became.

Robert Morgan: 

People always ask me, well, where did you grow up? Cause  I launched MorganFranklin and built that and now in the film business. And then I tell them, I'm like, "Well I grew up on a dairy farm milking cows." They're like, "What?" 

But no,  I'll be honest with you, having the opportunity to live in Washington DC in the region and travel around the world and do their science seems all fantastic. But having the ability to grow up in a rural farming community I couldn't have asked for more. I grew up in my grandfather had a 330 acre dairy farm in South Central Pennsylvania. And as a kid, one of your early jobs is to get up at four thirty in the morning and go milk cows, and then , eat a good hearty breakfast and then go bale the hay and work all day and milk the cows at night.

 I grew up doing that. My grandfather was my first exposure to an entrepreneur. My dad also had his own business, so I grew up in an environment where people just, you ran your own business. And I learned lessons from both my dad and my grandfather in different aspects.

It's funny, my grandfather probably worked too much and spent too much time on the farm. My dad probably spent too much time taking care of his family and probably could have focused a little bit more time on his business. So, throughout my career, I've tried to like be somewhere in the middle, on average. But I learned a lot of valuable lessons just about life. About how to treat people, how to manage, how to deal with problems. Both of them were great teachers and it kind of paved the way for me that when the opportunity came to start a business. I'm like, what's the worst thing that could happen? I've already seen it. I've already went through it. So yeah, it was great. 

 I just recently purchased the farm for my mom to keep the 330 acre farm in the family, but no desire to go back to milking cows.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's interesting because a lot of farmers want their kids to grow up or their grandchildren to grow up and also farm and keep that alive. But it sounds like your grandfather wanted you to move on to beyond farming.

Robert Morgan: 

He would have loved if I'd have taken over the farm. He only had one daughter. She was not going to take over the farm. I was the one grandson who gravitated to working on the farm and there was some pressure there. But I was actually at a point in my life when I was at Penn state, I was diagnosed with cancer and I was dealing with a lot of things and I just wasn't quite sure I wanted to go back to school when I thought, “Well, I'll just take over the farm.” And it was one of those pivotal moments in my life where he just put his arm around me and said, " I want you to chase your dream. This farm has been my dream come true. It's a fantastic place to live, work, but you should chase your dream." 

And just not having that pressure from him gave me the freedom of flexibility to really sit back and think, I was like, “Okay, I'll go back to school and get my engineering degree.” But for that short, very short conversation, I'd probably still be back there, milking cows as to now  building a company and working in national security and making films. So it's amazing what a 30 second conversation can do for your life.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

A powerful 30 second conversation. But you also alluded to it  while you were this young man at Penn state pursuing electrical engineering. You were diagnosed with cancer.

Robert Morgan: 

Yeah. Summer between, my going into my sophomore year, I was diagnosed with cancer.  One of those experiences that I laugh about now, but I noticed there was a problem for about two months. Didn't have any clue what to do. Fortunately, my mom was a nurse and I went to my mom and I said, “I think something's wrong.”

She took me to a very good local doctor. His bedside manner wasn't all that to be cracked up about. And checks me and he says to me, "Well, you either have a hydro seal or you have cancer.” It's like that. I'm like cancer? And lo and behold, the next day, have been checked by an oncologist. 24 hours later, I'm in surgery, they're removing a tumor. Two weeks later, they do another massive invasive surgery to check all my lymph nodes. And that really kicked off this journey throughout my entire college career. While most kids are off going to college and studying and having a good time, I'm going to monthly cat scans and chest x-rays and blood work. And at two years they told me I would be okay. And then I don't know, 24-month checkup, it came back.  

All these kinds of lessons in my personal life ended up being great lessons in my business life. And I ended up at the University of Maryland. And had some of the best treatment in the world and the number three doctor in the country on my case they gave me chemotherapy that just absolutely wrecked me mentally and physically.

Everything was okay. And they said, “You're good to go.” Sure enough, four months later it came back again and it stupefied the doctors because at that point in time, only the 10th case ever to have a comeback for a third time. It turns out they did an MRI. They found another tumor. They removed the tumor and they embarked on more chemotherapy. But the lesson that I learned from that is no matter how qualified my doctor was, he had the self-awareness to reach out to two of the other top experts in the field in testicular cancer. He reached out to Sloan Kettering, and he reached out to the doctor and created the chemotherapy regimens.

 That just taught me a very valuable lesson is like, no matter how good you think you are, how smart you are, it never hurts to go out and talk to somebody else to get their perspective. And lo and behold, the doctors are actually arguing on how to treat me. And it ultimately, I ended up having to choose the treatment course based on feedback from these three different doctors. And fortunately I chose correctly and I survived and have now been cured for over 30 years. 

So life was good. It was one of those defining moments that taught me a lot about life. Gave me perspective on a lot of different things as I embarked on my college career, my professional career and starting a business. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And talk about the worst of unexpected things being thrown at you repeatedly at such a young age, where you have to have the wisdom and the courage to keep battling it over and over and over again.

Robert Morgan: 

It teaches you about resiliency.  Ultimately, in the space I'm in now working on mental wellness and mental fitness for our charity Pivotal Moments. I'll be honest with you.  I look back and realize that I had some severe issues mentally going forward. While I know I handled it well, and I had the right perspective. There were still some lingering things throughout my entire adult life that I was still dealing with it. I really hadn't known about up until recently. So those kinds of moments in your life I think are defining.

I think we were talking earlier about this ability to fight through adversity, no different than weightlifting or exercising or breaking a bone. When it heals, it gets stronger. Right? My mom now, she refers to me as the rock because I handled it. I was always laughing about it. I never showed anything. But that may not have been so healthy either. But at the time,  it does set a tone for your life. It's like, if I can handle that, I could pretty much handle anything.

Mahan Tavakoli:  

You are the rock and you also had the rock of your life, your childhood, sweetheart, Tammy, standing by you all through that time and eventually all through your professional life, as you helped build MorganFranklin.

Robert Morgan: 

Yeah, she needs to be put up for sainthood for everything I've put her through. 

Look, success never comes by yourself. It always takes a team. And I'll be honest with you. There aren't too many young women who would leave their university, drive two hours to sit by my bedside to watch me go through chemotherapy. Usually, in a drug induced coma, not even speaking to her, which she did for way too many trips. And then we were told that we weren't going to be able to have children. So here she is at the age of 20 looking at a future with no kids. So it takes a special person to be able to kind of fight through that.

Now, miracles do happen.  A few years later, unbeknownst to us, we had a miracle baby. Our oldest son, Andrew came to us and then I ended up with two more boys. So the cancer didn't prevent me from having kids. It just prevented me from having girls, I think .

So, we're actually rolling out a content channel on our Pivotal Moments program called Her Journey. Stories for women who have their mission, their journey through life and fighting through adversity and those kinds of things. And one of the things I learned when supporting the military is like, I went out every day, my wife gave up her career so I could build a company and there are times when she feels like she hasn't done enough.

I'm like, and she just said that to me yesterday, like "You did all this." I said, "No, no, no. We did all this." I said, but for you staying home and not just taking care of the kids, like she's the house commander. She takes care of everything so I can go off build businesses, create, do the things that I do. I couldn't have done any of those things without her. So it really is a team effort. She probably had more responsibility managing than I did. So special, very special person.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it is having that supportive partner that helped you get through all of that. Now you start initially working on communication systems and you are dealing with Navy seals and Navy seal commanders.

Robert Morgan: 

Yeah, I grew up in rural Pennsylvania on a dairy farm. Right? So now I'm working in Maryland. They assigned me to this new project for the Navy seals. And, you know, you hear about them. So we drive to this remote location. We walk into a warehouse and these group of seven or eight guys come walking out of the back and they're in khaki pants and polo shirts and some have beards and some have hats on, and I'm like, when are the Navy guys going to show up? And this gentlemen steps forward and never shakes my hand. He looks at the gentlemen that I'm working for. He said, "Who's he? What does he know?" And finally he looks back at me and he still never shakes my hand. He just says," I just want you to know that if your work fails, we die." And that's it.

And I'm sitting there at 22 going, "Wow. What role did I just walk into?"  But ultimately, it taught me that there is no space for mediocrity.  They always had this thing. Failure's not an option, which yes, failure is not an option, but doesn't mean that mistakes can't happen. It's really about resiliency and how you respond to mistakes. But it taught me very early on at 22 that I was doing something very, very important. It wasn't the farm anymore. And my work had consequences. And we ended up carrying that mantra as we built MorganFranklin that says if we can do work for the president of the United States, we can do work for Navy seals.

At that level, we need to treat every client like that. So failure's not an option for any of our clients. Mediocrity is not an option for any of our clients. And that's how we built the company that was kind of embedded in our culture. And it all came from that very first conversation that I had.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So that became a pillar. And you also had an experience in the white house communications office with the communications officer where you had made a mistake and how that mistake was handled.

Robert Morgan: 

That's a very valuable lesson. Like we all want to prove ourselves. And there are times when you probably try to BS your way out of a situation. And there's a problem that occurred. Unfortunately, this problem wasn't that serious. It didn't impact the president's ability to communicate. But I did try to BS a problem that we were having and tried to convince this particular officer that everything was fine.  He had the same background. He had a master's in electrical engineering. So fortunately for me, he pulled me aside. He put his arm around me. He says, " Don't ever try to BS me again." And he goes, "I have a master's EE I know exactly what you're talking about." And it was a learning moment. And that's why I love that guy because he took it as a teaching moment for me, because at the time I was still only 24 years old and I'm modernizing communication systems for the president of the United States. I still had a lot to learn and he said, "Just remember  it doesn't hurt to admit that there's a problem. But when you do, come with answers and possible solutions and a path forward." He goes, "We all make mistakes." 

And that was a very valuable lesson because you're working at the highest levels of the government with the special forces in the white house. You don't want to make a mistake. And I had just been told that if we make a mistake, people die. So, you're trying to walk your way out of this. And fortunately, he was very gracious about it, but it was a good teaching moment for me. 

And again, one of those things where we embedded that into the culture at MorganFranklin. It's like we told everybody early on, on our new hire orientation. The three owners would get up and speak for about two hours. I always impressed it. Nobody's ever going to get fired from MorganFranklin for making a mistake, because the reality is we're pushing the envelope. We're building this plane as we fly it. People are going to make mistakes. We're going to ask you to do things that you've never done before. You're going to make mistakes, but if you come to us and you start blaming everybody else, that's probably what will get you fired.

 Mahan Tavakoli:  

One of the elements that made you an effective leader, Bob, is the fact that you're a great storyteller because organizational culture is built on telling and retelling stories that communicate values of that organization.

And through telling these stories of lessons you have, I learned and the importance of certain elements, including being accountable, owning up to mistakes. You communicated what should be the culture at MorganFranklin.

Robert Morgan: 

Oh yeah. We love telling stories. We told stories every chance we get. And again, some of them were culture related. Like you want to impress upon that everybody in the organization is like, this is who we are. And the best way to visualize that is through actions and deeds of the past, right? That history teaches us those things, but it's also  an opportunity to educate. We were never shy. We just, in our new hire orientation, we said, "Look, we've never started a company before. This is our first one. So we're going to make mistakes. We're going to be the first ones out. I'm telling you right now, I made five mistakes before I got up here and spoke. So, if you're coming in here  and thinking everything is baked out, like we've got every policy, every procedure, everything locked down, it's not going to happen. And if you're really not comfortable in that environment, you may want to go work somewhere else because we're flying a little loose. We haven't done this before, but if you enjoy a roller coaster ride, which is really what it was, this wild, crazy roller coaster ride that you sometimes had no idea where you were going to go. Then this is the place to be."

And it became a culture of push the envelope. If we would have said we had never done that before, so we're not going to do it, we would have never grown from 10 employees to over 500. We would have sat at 10. But the only way to get people over that hurdle is to tell them the stories about how you signed up to do a project for NRL that you had no clue how you were going to execute and get it done, but did.  And those stories actually prove to people when you hire them and new clients and all those other things that when you say you can do something, you do it because you've got stories to back it up.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So Bob with those experiences and lessons learned eventually you had a decision to make with your career and whether to go ahead and start what eventually became MorganFranklin.

Robert Morgan: 

It was a little bit of timing.  There was a situation with my client at the white house communications agency. I worked for the government, so they hired us and our contractors to do work for them somewhere along,  things got crossed up and somebody came out with a directive and said you can no longer send money to that government organization. You have to use these contractors over here. They came to me and said, “Look if you want to continue, we want you to continue working on our programs and doing what you're doing. You just have to go work for a company like Booz Allen, Hamilton, or SIC, or one of the other government contracts in and around the beltway.” And having grown up with my grandfather and my dad, I'm like, well, okay. I've been basically running my own business within the government. I went back to him. I said, “Would you consider hiring if I created a company?” And they ironically said yes.  

You know, again, that's where you learn it. When if you do great work and people trust you and you deliver, they're going to hire you no matter what capacity. So I got a couple of guys and we said let's go build this company. And that's what got us started. The seeds were planted for me way back as a kid with working for my grandfather and seeing his innovation. And then like dad brought the balance to the business side. He was a huge family guy. He would get a client to call him and he'd go, "You know what? Can you fix it yourself? I'll teach you how to do it over the phone. Cause I've got, I've got plans to take my kids to the Lake." Which is again, a great perspective. Right? Keeping what's important, but that all led to that moment in time. Luck is  the combination of being prepared and having the opportunity to present itself. I was just mentally prepared to make that jump. 

At the time I had the folks at the white house willing to take a chance. Now they gave us a three month contract to prove ourselves. So I basically quit my job, entered into a three month contract to prove ourselves and fortunately we did, but they gave us a shot.

And now ironically, and I tell this to entrepreneurs all the time. I said, "Look”, I said, “Your business plan, it's great that you do a business plan, but I can guarantee you the moment you print it, it's going to be off." 

We launched the company and I convinced my brother to leave his fast track career at Pricewaterhouse Coopers to come in as CFO. Our first client was joint venture between British telecom and AT&T. It had nothing to do with national security. So our business plan was off from day one, but it gave us the opportunity to grow this very balanced company with long-term national security contracts and in very lucrative, short term, high-risk commercial consulting opportunities. And we found a way to make that work and grow and both of them grew almost equally over time. I'll be honest with you. I attribute a lot of that to overcoming cancer.

I think people go “Well, how did you leave that job and take a risk on a three-month contract?” I'm like, “What's the worst thing that could happen? I had cancer. I almost, I thought I was going to die.” So to me in my head, I'm like this isn't that risky. Fortunately, I convinced some other people, so I'm good at convincing people to jump into crazy stuff.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You are willing to take chances and take a risk, but you also prioritize the right things pretty early on in starting MorganFranklin. There was one of the initial employees, one of the first hires that committed a serious violation. And you had a choice on how you would handle that.

Robert Morgan: 

Yeah, I'll be honest with you. One of the hardest things I think as a leader is terminating somebody. It's a gut wrenching experience, particularly if it's somebody that  you've worked with a long time and you trust them. And then they do something seriously that jeopardizes the entire company.

And I thought maybe not the entire company, but at that moment in time we had two contracts. It would have jeopardized the one contract with the white house and I was in Florida with Rob Franklin and we get this phone call of the situation and they're like, “What do we do?”

I'm like, both Rob and I didn't hesitate. It was instantaneous. We looked at each other and says, “He's got to go.” We love him and we'll miss him, but we can't sacrifice a hundred employees, 50 employees for one person, you just cannot do that. You have to look out for the overall best interest of the organization.

And he was a great performer. His work was incredible. So it wasn't like he was a poor performer. Getting rid of poor performers are easy. Right? That's the easy job. The hard part is when it's a really good employee, top performer, and they do something that is cancerous to your organization. 

And, I always tell entrepreneurs, like if you have cancer in your organization, treat it like it's cancer in your body. Get rid of it as soon as you possibly can. You cannot drag that on. It will only grow. It will only fester. It will only infect. Just get rid of it as soon as you can. Even if it's a top performer. We're all replaceable. And to include top performers. We can replace top performers. You hope to find somebody who's equal if not better.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that absolutely is critical, Bob. 

Now the challenge I see with a lot of leaders and organizations is that if the person is a mediocre performer, the decision is easy and they act. A lot of organizations have those cancerous individuals or individuals that have a negative impact, but are extremely productive. And the organizations at the end of the day, end up choosing that productivity over getting rid of the individual.

Robert Morgan: 

Oh, it really is. That's the hardest decision to make particularly for small business, because you're thinking like in a big business, you have redundancy. In a small business and at that time, even as we grew our commercial consulting practice, we ran into those situations, like you knew you needed to make the decision, but you look behind you and goes, who's the next man or woman up. And there isn't anybody there. So it's easy for me to sit there and say cancer, get rid of it. 

The reality is you try to take the appropriate measures and move as quickly as possible, but  it's really hard to do. And I get why people struggle with it. Because so much of success is driven by the performance of the organization or your business unit, and you're sitting there and go, I'm going to take out my top performer because they're cancer. I don't think so. Right? Let me put them off in a place where they won't cause too much damage, but they'll still perform. You do that and look, that's one strategy to handle that.  You try to isolate the infection. But I'll be honest with you, but from my experience, when you finally do make that decision and that top performer transitions out, the transition to fill that void, usually doesn't take that long. And the organization looks at you and go, “What took so long?”

My brother Ron believes in that philosophy, that the community comes to a decision much quicker than leaders. And as leaders, the information you get gets filtered, right? Depending on you, it could be a filter coming down or going up, but it gets filtered. And you're not making decisions based on all the appropriate data. Right? But if you had the data that the masses have, you'd go, “I should've made that a little bit quicker because they know, they always know that. Yeah. We all saw that. We're not surprised that happened. We saw that like a year ago.”

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it communicates a lot about the values of the leaders and the priorities of the organization and the culture the organization wants to have. 

So along with your two partners, your brother, Ron and Rob Franklin, you grew the organization to over $200 million in value, and you were actually able to maintain good relationships all throughout. Now, lots of business partners that I know have a falling out at one point or another and ended up never speaking with each other again. How were you, your brother and Rob able to maintain such a great partnership for so many years?

 

Robert Morgan: It was the three of us. And for my brother and I, particularly, when you go into business, we always had this rule that if it ever got to a point where it was going to damage our relationship with brothers, we needed to make a change.

I'll be honest with you. I honestly think it worked because the three of us were extremely self-aware. We all knew our strengths and weaknesses. And again, that's another lesson entrepreneurs asked me, like, “What are the characteristics? What are two things that are very important?” There's always the finance, the strategy and the actual product or technology you're developing and building. That's all needed. But beyond that, it's like self-awareness and empathy. Like if you have self-awareness and empathy, you can build a strong team. 

Rob, Ron, and I all had self-awareness of we knew what we were strong at and we knew what we're weak at, and we all filled in those gaps together. And  also to the way we managed and talked and communicated. If Ron came with a proposal and he was very passionate and it was well thought out and Rob and I didn't have too many concerns, we didn't argue. We didn't fight. We trusted him. That happened between all three of us.

It was this notion that we trust each other. And if you're that passionate about it, we're not going to question it. I think too many times in partnerships, people always have to win. They always have that one person that always has to win. Right? Well, that's not healthy.

So the three of us just really we in sync. We probably, over the course of 20 years maybe had three really wicked arguments with each other, which is amazing. Kudos to Rob. We were at a point where like, “Where's this business going?” And I sat around in my pool one weekend, probably had too many beers. And I just start thinking about our national security business and how we were going to fund the growth of that. And basically came to the conclusion that we needed to sell that business.

I walk into Rob's office on Monday and I tell him, and I explain it and he's stunned. Cause it's his business unit. He comes back two days later, he goes, “You're right.” He thought it through. And so that's, we just worked that way. 

And then, shortly thereafter, I was completely burnt out. And people always asked "Bob, when are you going to step down?" And the answer was always the same cause in this region you always hear is like, I'm going to build this company for 10 years. Boom. I'm out. Right? And Todd Stottlemyre gave us some great advice. If you build a company to sell, you'll never build it.

So we never set out to get 10 years, 15 years, X dollars of revenue. But when employees would ask me, “When are you going to?” I said, “When I no longer had the energy and passion to show up.” And this organization gets stale and stagnant and there's not a lot of chaos and not a lot of change. I'll probably step down. And shortly after we sold the national security business and it did an offsite for our consulting business with now, Ron is running. I left that. I said I'm done. I'm fried. I'm toast. I got no energy out of that offsite. 

Now the hard decision came in as who's going to take over the company. And my brother has a lot of great talents and traits. He never expressed a lot of desire to do the role that I was doing. But he wanted an opportunity to run the company. And we had to have a hard conversation and said, "Ron, it's not that we don't think you can do it. This that we know you won't like doing it, right? You've already said you don't want to do those things." 

I said, “So when you don't like something, you don't focus on the right things, you focus on the things you like.” And he had to take that in. And again, coming from his older brother and the CEO, he had to take that in and finally came back, he said, "You know, you're right. I really don't enjoy doing those things." And we made a decision to go hire CE Andrews to come in and run the company. 

So it's that kind of conversation that we were able to have, which saved us from really hating each other. And I hear so many of those horrific stories of long-time business partners who are no longer friends. That's heartbreaking. You spend that much time investing in each other and then you walk away. That's just bitter and angry. That's just, that's not the way you want to close out  your business career for something like that.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

There's a lot of brilliant advice in there for all kinds of leaders, whether in partnerships or not that self-awareness is absolutely critical. And sometimes individuals can help each other increase their self-awareness. So with the conversations with your brother, when there's a trusting relationship, you did that and then the empathy it takes. So obviously you had all of those helping grow MorganFranklin to the size that you did, but it sounds like you have not retired. You just moved on from MorganFranklin, now, CEO of Talaria Media, founder of Pivotal Moments, Managing Partner of Caneel, co-founder of Good Seekers.

So what do you do with your free time there, Bob?

 Robert Morgan: You know, fortunately the Talaria Media and a lot of the things are more creative in nature. So that to me is actually relaxing.  Not the urgency of running a national security business or making sure we got a team of people that supports Coca-Cola or somebody like that. The stress level is definitely off. But Caneel is probably the coolest thing because I wanted to set up a business where I could give my three sons an opportunity to help grow. So Caneel actually, we invest in startups. We invest in venture capital and private equity. We actually through Caneel purchase the 330 acre farm back in Pennsylvania. My sons are now creating ideas to use that property  for different business ventures. So it gives them an opportunity to think creatively and entrepreneurially at the same time being stewards of the family in what we've created and built. So that's a really cool thing. And again, that's a little bit of work that I do.  

Talaria media, I'm now working on my fourth or fifth film so I've helped cut several documentaries, a psychological thriller that's coming out. I'm partnering with folks in LA. So that taps into my creativity. And I do believe entrepreneurs are creative in their own rights. So I just channeled my entrepreneurship creativity into film and media. 

And then Pivotal Moments is really one of the things we were proud of at MorganFranklin was we created a CSR program. Very early on when we were barely making any money.  Ron and I had our grandparents sitting on our shoulder going, make sure you do it the right way you give back to your community. You give back to people who need, and Rob Franklin grew up in a blue collar home from New Jersey. So we all had this feeling like we're here because of people and people helped us. It's gotta be baked in our DNA that we're going to help people. We're gonna help organizations. And we did that, but then I stepped down. I didn't have it. So I'm like, okay, I'll create my own. Well, I'll be honest with you, creating a 501c3 is probably harder than creating any business. But we're at a point now where we're really focused on telling uplifting, inspiring stories, but also creating education around mental fitness.  

There's so much going on in the world. 25 to 30% of young people are dealing with mental health issues. This was pre-pandemic. It's way worse now. I think the report came out in Virginia that 95% of students are dealing with anxiety. It's some ridiculous number but all these alarming statistics, right? And we really need to start focusing on mental fitness earlier and more often. 

I joke with people. I said as soon as we go off to Kindergarten or elementary school, they're talking about physical fitness, physical education. I said, now that I'm 53, my doctors are even more adamant about physical fitness. I said, where in that journey do we talk about our mental fitness? Right? We need to train ourselves to overcome adversity. We need all those things to get stronger as we grow. And we just don't talk about it enough. And now we're riddled with stigma and all these other things. 

And so that's a personal passion. Again, I dealt with it when I had cancer. Unbeknownst to me, it manifested itself years later. Cause there was a time where I ripped the IV out of my arm and I checked myself out in the hospital at midnight. And I'm like, I'm done with this. I don't care if I die. I'm done. I obviously overcame that and just moved on. And then having kids who were in their twenties, you just see that if 30% of young people are dealing with it, that's at least one of my children and a third of all their friends.

So it's just so prevalent. We got to do something and through storytelling, right? Sharing, uplifting stories of people fighting through adversity, acknowledging that we all have issues with anxiety and depression. Professional athletes have it. Musicians have it. CEOs have it. Entrepreneurs have it. I have it. There are times where you probably have it. If we just start talking about it more and sharing then we'll get through the stigma or eradicate the stigma. 

So that's Pivotal Moments. We're super psyched about that. I'm building out a fantastic team of people who love to create content, tell stories and focused on a problem that we're probably a hundred percent of us are dealing with at some point.

So yeah, I am busy. My wife tells me I got business ADD cause I cannot stop. But  it's all very passionate and enjoyable work at this time.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You still have a lot of energy and you're channeling it into great causes and great efforts. Now I'm wondering, you shared a lot of leadership advice through your own journey. When people ask you Bob, if there are any leadership resources that you typically refer to or recommend what comes to mind?

Robert Morgan: 

Yeah, unfortunately I don't read a lot of books just becauseI don't have a lot of time. I love the parable books Who Moved My Cheese and the present, very simple books, that, again, they tell a story, but if you're a storyteller, you get it, you get those things.

One of the things I would recommend is I always took a week and went to the world business forum in New York city. And it was a week where I could get away, in meetings, not on phone calls. And you just get to listen to some of the countries and world's best speakers talk about business, but also talk about bigger issues. And I always found myself taking that time to really think creatively because you're sitting there listening to inspiring people. So if you can't get inspired and come up with ideas, the company, MorganFranklin always hated when I went there cause I knew when I came back, it was going to be this avalanche of new ideas.

I think Bill Gates, his advice about getting out of the office taking a two week vacation or three week vacation. Most of us can't take that much time, but if you can at least take a week and go read and I'm not talking about you can read business books, you can read leadership books, sprinkle that in with some fun and getting back to nature and doing those kinds of things.

I've gotten really into hiking, just walking in the woods and just being in nature and just clearing your head. I mean, business books get a little dry and mundane because they have about 15 pages of really good lessons that they span out over 220 pages. So that's my advice. It's just, find time for you to be alone and introspective. 

We have, Tammy bought an infrared sauna blanket. 

Mahan Tavakoli: What is that?

Robert Morgan: It's a sleeping bag that it's like sitting in a sauna in a spa only you're in like a sleeping bag and it gets up to 160 degrees. You're sweating, but you're laying there confined. And I always find myself while I'm in there coming up with new ideas. I've actually created two TV shows sitting in this blanket because it's 45, 50 minutes isolation. You're locked in and you got nothing but time to just think. You're not reading emails, you're not looking at your phone. You're not distracted. If you're strong about self-awareness and empathy, that's where you can actually sit back and go, “Okay, what's my feedback? What am I doing?” 

The other thing too is I had a life coach after I stepped down for MorganFranklin. I wasn't quite sure who I was at that moment in time. And I think that happens with a lot of successful people. Anytime people transition, you kind of feel lost for a little bit. And I definitely was lost. And I was thinking about doing more work at Los Angeles and all these other things. And I ended up with a life coach. 

One thing I recommend to any business leader is do the exercise called the wheel of life. It's a shocking discovery of how unbalanced your life is. My life did not look like a nice smooth round wheel. It looked more like an egg. It just tells you the areas that you need to work on. Doesn't mean that you don't focus on creating business and wealth and all that other stuff, but maybe, just maybe carve out some time to spend more time with your kids or your wife, or more time for yourself and do those kinds of things.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And goes to the point that you have highlighted all throughout the importance of self-awareness. One of the things I find is as people move up in organizations and have more business success, sometimes because of the limited feedback that they get from the external world and the people around them, their self-awareness goes down.

So what made you so effective and part of what posts -MorganFranklin you had to do is to increase your own self-awareness too.

Robert Morgan: 

Yeah. If you move up in the leadership ranks, you have to acknowledge that you're open to feedback. I think there is this habit that the more responsibility you get the higher on the ladder you go, the more closed off you need to become. That's actually the opposite.

You actually need to be more open. You also tend to start work, living off reports and data coming out of your information system. I think there was a study that came out a number of years ago from the British about their CEOs. And 70% of them made most of their decisions based on informal communication that they received just through walking through the office. Not through their information systems. 

And this pandemic, I've actually had a lot of conversations about the future of office space. And I hear this idea that we're never going to go back to the office and it's going to be remote working. And I'm like, that's the death of a company culture. It's also the death of innovation because there's a number of folks, a good friend of mine that we talk about collisions and the office space. That collision theory that when you actually just randomly bump into somebody and have that conversation, you actually get information, feedback about yourself, number one. So that helps you become more self-aware but you also have that opportunity to have that bolt of lightning that creates innovation and spurs new things. So I fundamentally believe that. When the pandemic is over and it's safe and all the precautious people need to get back to work. We're not meant to sit in our homes all by ourself. We're meant to interact with people and that means physically interact and emotionally. So all those kinds of things, I just think, if we're going to get healthy again, we need to get people back in the office, colliding with each other. 

My niece works for a consulting company and she just told me the other day, she goes, , "I miss that 10 minute conversation. Everything is Zoom's over. Click off, join the next, like where's that 10 minute buffer of just conversation about life." I just find it really unhealthy if companies choose to go, we're just going to let everybody work remote. I'm like beyond that bond, the social and emotional impacts, I think what's going to happen is, and this is just Bob's philosophy. But if you let people work remotely, your turnover rate is going to go through the roof and whatever you save to an office space, you're going to pay in recruiting costs because it's coming.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I couldn't agree with you more Bob There is a futurist Trond Undheim. I actually talked to him a few months back on this podcast. And part of what he also says is that there has to be going back to the office space and some environment where people get a chance to interact both for innovation. And he jokingly says that years, when he worked for Oracle, he shared more in common with some of the competitors than he did with other people that he worked with at Oracle, because some of those relationships are built based on what you say, those colliding with each other. And innovation comes from that colliding with each other, rather than pre-programmed conversations through technology.

Robert Morgan: 

Technology is great. And I think we've proven that we can give people the opportunity for flexible work schedules which I think that's the advancement we made. It's like, there is no excuse to not offer flexibility. 

I was out at the Facebook campus for a tour before the pandemic and the young lady that's taken us around a tour, most of the tour was in the common ground where they have the restaurants and the bars and the ice cream shops and the picnic tables. And she's like, basically we convert food into code. But this is lively, energetic environment.  You strip away that, now you just got people banging on a keyboard, not thinking they're part of anything. If you're just going to let people work from home and create code, you might as well just have a bunch of independent contractors. And the tail end of that is you're not going to have that creativity. There's just no way. We've been talking about storytelling. How are they going to share stories? Nobody's sharing any stories on these zoom calls. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's why when you look at whether it's Amazon's HQ two in Arlington Alexandria, or other tech companies, they are still building big campuses to try to get people together. So that's going to be critical. 

Now I know, as I mentioned, this is the first of many conversations with you Bob, because you are continuing to do great things. Really appreciate you sharing some of your leadership journey, some of your success with the partnering leadership community.

Thank you so much for joining us in this conversation, Bob Morgan.

Robert Morgan: 

Oh, absolutely. Well, thank you for having me. It's been enjoyable and I'm dying to actually get back in and see my friends from LGW and start doing those events again. I miss everybody and, and again, these virtual things are okay, but it's just doesn't cut it.

So it was great to catch up. Hopefully we'll see you in person here soon and  we can continue having more conversations, so thank you very much.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Looking forward to it, Bob. Thank you.

Robert Morgan: 

All right.

 

Robert Morgan

Founder and CEO of Talaria Media, Pivotal Moments, Managing Partner at Caneel, co-founder of GoodSeeker

Robert Morgan is the Founder and CEO of Talaria Media. Talaria Media is a creative film and video production company based in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles that develops and produces a variety of motion picture, television, and digital media content for streaming, broadcast and theatrical release. Talaria Media shares stories that inspires and educates. Talaria Media brings viewers the Pivotal Plays® media platform designed for TV, digital, mobile, radio and live events which shares the most pivotal moments in peoples’ lives across the globe.

Morgan is Founder and President of Pivotal Moments, a 501 (c)(3) public charity on a mission to strengthen mental fitness worldwide by creating, distributing and promoting educational and entertainment programs that inspire and motivate people to become mentally fit, overcome adversity and lead a fulfilling life.

Morgan is the Managing Partner of Caneel, LLC where he provides investments in early-stage companies and provides business advisory services to small and mid size growth companies. Morgan assists startups and consulting and technology companies with corporate development specifically in the areas of corporate strategy, strategic relationships, mergers and acquisitions, innovation, and leadership.

Morgan is a co-founder and Principal investor of GoodSeeker, a technology platform to collect team success stories and use them to grow organizations. These stories attract and engage talent and customers faster with employee generated examples of their brand and values in action.

Robert Morgan was a co-founder of MorganFranklin and served as its CEO from its creation in 1998 until 2013, then served as Board Director and Executive Advisor until August 2019. During this time, MorganFranklin grew to approximately 500 employees and $100M in revenue. MorganFranklin’s National Security Solutions Division was acquired by SRA Corporation in December 2013. MorganFranklin Consulting was acquired by Vaco in August 2019.

Prior to forming MorganFranklin Corporation, Morgan served as a Program Manager at the Naval Air Warfare Center responsible for modernization of Presidential communication systems and other tactical communication and information systems for National Security missions of specialized military and government organizations.

Morgan is actively involved in the greater Washington DC community having served on the Board of Directors for the Greater Washington Board of Trade and on their cyber security task force to improve the DC regions reputation for entrepreneurialism and innovation. Morgan served on the Board of Directors for the Greater Washington Area American Heart Association and co-chaired the leadership team for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk.

Morgan also serves as an advisor to the Penn State Center for Entrepreneurship at the Pennsylvania State University where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering in 1989.