In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Tony Crescenzo, a Marine Veteran, former Chief Executive Officer of IntelliDyne, and now President of Intelligent Waves LLC. Tony Crescenzo shares lessons from his service as a Marine, being willing to take on the costs of standing up for what’s right, and the many leadership lessons learned in leading teams and organizations through change.
-Tony Crescenzo on the value of standing up for what’s right.
-Why leaders need to focus on building a “tribe”
-Tony Crescenzo on the importance of leadership authenticity and vulnerability in creating an anti-fragile organizational culture
-How to lead in a way that inspires loyalty
-Tony Crescenzo on the value of shared organizational purpose
Also mentioned in this episode:
Ross Perot, American Business Magnate
Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character
Book by Admiral James Stavridis, US Navy Ret.
Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead
Book by General Jim Mattis, US Marine Corps Ret.
Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
Book by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright
Connect with Tony Crescenzo:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to your Partnering Leadership. I am really excited this week to be welcoming Tony Crescenzo. He's the president of intelligent waves.
Tony, before that, served as the CEO of IntelliDyne and he has great experience as president and CEO of different organizations. He is a proud Marine veteran and serves on the advisory board of the Semper fi fund. He is also active in the community, serving on the board of directors of Northern Virginia technology council and as a member of the Virginia board of trustees at the Nature Conservancy.
Now I really enjoyed this conversation and as I mentioned to Tony, while we were having the conversation. It served almost as a master class on leadership, both based on Tony's own ethical leadership and the many great insights he shared all throughout. So I am sure you will enjoy the conversation too.
Now I love hearing from you firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep those emails coming and feel free to leave a voice message for me on partneringleadership.com. There's a microphone icon. You can use that to leave a voicemail. Don't forget to follow the podcast, that way you will be first to be notified of new releases. On Tuesdays, conversations with change-makers in the greater Washington, DC DMV region like Tony and on Thursdays, with authors of leadership books, whose insights I believe can be helpful as we look to become more impactful purpose-driven leaders ourselves.
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Now, here is my conversation with Tony Crescenzo.
Tony Crescenzo. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you on with me.
Thanks. It's good to be with you.
I'm really excited knowing some about your background, and want to find out about your leadership journey. But before we get to it, we'd love to find out about your upbringing and how that impacted the kind of person and leader you've become.
That's an excellent question. I had an interesting background, maybe not so much different than some of the other folks you've had on the podcast, in terms of grit being the center or central thesis of my journey.
I grew up in a 13-foot wide row home in South Philadelphia in the sixties and seventies. My grandfather was a farmer and a mechanic. My father was a mechanic. My uncles were mechanics. My cousins are all mechanics and when I was 13, my father took me aside and he said, "Anthony, that's a good thing. You're smart because if you had to make a living with your hands, you would've starved."
My parents divorced at a relatively young age. My mother remarried a Naval officer and so I spent from the age of 10 until I graduated from high school, living all over the world. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Guam, Scotland, Okinawa, Japan, and New Jersey. So I had a kind of an interesting bifurcated childhood, one where I was part of a real, you can imagine every Sunday is like a Sopranos episode at your grandfather's house for 10 years and then another eight years of always being the new guy.
I went to five high schools. So every time we moved, I was always the new kid, which is always a challenge. You have to learn how to get along, affiliate, become part of a new crowd or sit home alone a lot. So for me, that was a great experience. I don't know if it felt so great when I went through it, but that's trial by fire and really having to learn how to adapt to new environments is certainly well through the rest of my career.
Yes, it's interesting you mentioned having had to change high schools so often, and your peer groups, in addition to a certain level of resilience that seems to have given you, how else did that shape your worldview, Tony?
When you think about it, especially in middle school and high school, these are challenging years for young men and young ladies. So those are when the social cliques get formed and for me, it was a bit of a challenge. I had skipped a grade, so I was always a year younger than everyone at grade, which meant I was also shorter and not as fully developed as some of my peers. Which can present a number of different challenges, not the least of which is everybody wants to pick on the new guy until they find out whether it's pickable or not. So you've got the challenge of both asserting yourself as someone who shouldn't be someone you pick on, but also someone- there's sort of a negative connotation to that, which is don't mess with me.
But as you grow, you learn that's not really the primary way to get inculcated into a new social group culture, social fabric. The best way to do that is to become part of the group, to bring something different. And typically we think of people as being suspicious of the other, someone who's not from where I live, doesn't look like me, doesn't have the same background, but there's also a certain allure to that. So if you can learn to sort of affiliate. Find ways where you have things in common enough that people want to get to know you more. Then the things that are uncommon tend to be interesting instead of threatening. And I learned at an early age that the best way to be able to do that was to be able to tell interesting stories about your background, where you used to live, places you've been, and it also prevents you from coming home, bruised up most of them. Most of the time, not all the time.
That's great to hear but in addition, I know you spent a lot of time traveling and working internationally, whether in Asia and Europe, and I imagine the skillset that you got in changing schools and adjusting to different environments in middle school and high school must have also come in handy as you had to travel the globe.
I think that really did help in a lot of ways. I think the basic thesis is people are people, the world over, but every culture is different. Every work environment is different. If you look at the United States, I think it's 42 of the 50 states are what we call work at, or right to work, which really means right to get fired without a whole bunch of notice. But if you do business in France or Germany or England, it's almost impossible to fire people. They have their labor unions and in Asia, it's an entirely different approach to how those kinds of employment situations work.
And so what you have to really learn is how to adjust to the situational circumstances of not just the country that you're in, but the company that you're in, I've worked for international companies that have affiliates across 28 or 29 different countries and every country has a different approach to what they do, business is business and software is software, but the sole asset of most organizations on those planet walked on two feet. It's the people. and so if you, going to seek to get the best out of people, you really have to learn not just how to affiliate with them, but how to inspire them and as someone who's had some time to reflect, now that I'm older, really, what is the central role of a leader in any organization?
The funny thing is there's no school for CEOs, right? Unless you're in the fortune fifty and you get to ride the tales of the person that you're going to succeed. You really can't go anywhere and get syllabus or a course of study on all of the things necessary to be a CEO, but as a student of leadership, what I've surmised is that the role of a leader in any situation, nonprofit business, military, civic, political, it is to envision a future that does not yet exist and get everybody else so excited about that future, that they make that future real and not just real, but they make it their own because nobody wants to implement my plan. They want to implement their plan or our plan.
And so if you can take that approach, it doesn't really matter whether you're in France, Germany, Spain, China, Hong Kong, Italy. Inspiring people is a function of humanity and being able to connect with people at a personal level and get them to see the world through your eyes. That is the essence of leadership, it's empathy. Everything else is just manipulation, not that manipulation is a bad thing because if you're using your powers of manipulation for good, that's a good thing.
But everything starts with being able, not only to see the world through the eyes of others but to let them see the world through your eyes as well.
Wow, What a beautiful encapsulation of what leadership is about. Everything from the vision and helping people visualize something that they hadn't seen before to inspiring them and engaging them to make that a reality.
I love the way you put it, Tony. Now, back earlier, after college, you also decided to join the Marines and I imagine that had an impact on your view of leadership.
The first rule is don't join the Marine Corps to spite your parents. That's probably a really bad idea. My stepfather was in the Navy and I thought I'll do the really hard thing.
I had a very interesting and notorious Marine Corps career, which has followed me even to this day. In fact, I gave up on the Marines for probably 10 or 15 years after I got out and by happenstance happened to run into a couple of former Marines who needed help and that whole notion of Semper Fidelis- always faithful and loyal.
While I may not have had the best thoughts for the institution, that doesn't mean that I always felt that way or I still do now, but I certainly always had an affinity for other Marines.
Yes, and you've obviously reached out and supported Marines, wounded veterans but while you were at the Marines, you also ended up working undercover for what eventually became known as MCIs and I know that had a significant impact on both your career and also your thinking.
Tony Crescenzo: Yes I had a very interesting experience. If you believe that experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. This was a perfect example of a great experience.
I was a young marine, 23 years old, and was sent to an independent duty station in WestJet and West Trenton, New Jersey with 10 Marines and a sailor who was a Navy Corpsman.
And a sensible job of that organization was to support reservists when they come to do their drills twice a month and two weeks in the field and then you go pick up deserters and go to funerals and you'd do those kinds of things.
As it turned out, the Gunnery Sergeant who was the administrative chief, was creating people in the reserve manpower management system who didn't exist and because he knew that the audits were occurring every 90 days, he would drop the fictitious people and he'd make up these ID cards because he had access to the safe to do it and take them to the one bank, the local bank and cash, all of these checks. And so the Marine Corps was trying to figure out where's all this money bleeding from? We don't have an audit trail that sort of says this.
About halfway through, eventually building a case to have that person be court-martialed. I came to discover that almost the entire rest of that staff with the exception of the captain who clearly wasn't aware of what was happening and one or two other Marines, entire rest of the staff was importing cocaine, selling it, and changing the monthly drug test, changing their urine for the children's urine.
And so I wound up spending two and a half years on drug buys and helping them falsify your analysis tests and I was the sole witness in the court-martial of the 10 Marines that went to trial because all of the other witnesses had been murdered.
I survived only to find out that the Marine Corps is a small organization where everybody knows everybody. These folks had some friends and while they were about to go to trial, some of their friends decided to get some payback and I wound up actually being indicted and going to my own court-martial in the Marine Corps.
I lost my security clearance. I was fined $20. I eventually was found guilty only of being 20 minutes late to work and I was sent to work in an office with no windows for eight months as a clerk, which was really interesting, cause it was the end of my enlistment and eight months to the day after that happened, unbeknownst to me, there was a background investigation going on and the commandant of the Marine Corps walked into that reserve center that I was stuck in that office with a check for $20- a Merritt first promotion and a four-page letter of apology he had written for my mother.
And what I took away from that, believe it or not after all those years, that doing the right thing is almost never the easy thing, and choosing the right over the expedient almost always hurts in the short term and almost always is great in the long-term.
That challenge of having to overcome every Marine that I testified against was senior to me. The other folks that have been murdered were all senior to me. I was a very junior Marine at the time. I had lawyers that were, had to go down and get that deposed by lawyers, and then I was really just hammered at trial like going through all of that. You know, it was interesting when I joined the Marine Corps, they told me what you get out of it is going to be equal to what you put into it, and while everybody between me and the commandant of the Marine Corps, seems to have lost the thread on what honor, duty, and commitment was.
At the end of the day it actually all worked out. It became a cautionary tale inside the Marine Corps. And to this day - that's why I'm on several of these charitable boards. One of my board members is the former leadership chair at the naval academy, retired Lieutenant general and they all heard that story because this happened at a time when the Marine Corps was much smaller back in the eighties, and it actually became something that was a positive attribute to other Marines.
What an incredible story, Tony, as you say doing the right thing is not always the easy thing.
What I wonder is what was it in the young Tony that helped you stand up and do the right thing? When there were all these forces that wanted you not to succeed and were pressuring you in the wrong direction.
I think some of that is family. I'd come from a very patriarchal, big Italian family. My grandfather was always about doing the right thing. The other thing was really though my experience in the Marine Corps up to that time was very positive. I had worked for some outstanding leaders and if you think about what is the motto of the Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis- always faithful, right? We never leave our dead or wounded on the battlefield. Always do the right thing, no matter what and to this day, I can still see the sign outside the third battalion chow hall in power of silence, which every day you walk to chow, you would say it and it said: "a Marine on duty has no friends and either you're going to be committed or you're not going to be committed." You're either going to act with honor, or you're not going to act with honor. You either adhere to the standards or you're not going to adhere to the standards. And if you're going to ask others to hold a standard, you have to be willing to hold it yourself, which is where I come back to doing the right thing is just in itself, the right thing.
If you don't worry about who gets blamed or who gets credit for it, and you don't worry about what's going to happen in the immediate future- my experiences in the long term, it benefits you more than you can imagine. It's only for the fact that if I did shave, when you look in the mirror, It's easy to shave.
And it takes a lot of courage to do that, Tony and as we've seen, whether it's with the Volkswagens of the world, Wells Fargo's of the world, Boeing's of the world, there are times where leaders at all levels of the organization need the kind of courage that you had to do what is right. And as you said, doing what's right is not always what's easy.
So Tony, in addition to the fact that you want people to see what you value based on your behaviors. How do you make sure that whether it's with respect to ethics or more importantly, I know you're a big advocate for authentic leadership and the leaders connecting with their team members, getting to know them, and being open and vulnerable. How do you communicate those? How do you make sure that the rest of your team, the rest of the organization also learns from those experience?
I teach a class at the last two companies that I've run a leadership class. It's in four parts. And in the second part of the class, I always ask people do you know your people and invariably, there's someone who's very proud. Mary went to school here, billy has three kids, joey just bought a new car and then I asked him what do they know about you? Do they know what you stand for? Do they know what you don't stand for? Do they know what made you, who you are? And that's when you get the blank look.
And so what I'll, typically do, I think every good leaders, tenants’s leader Set the example. Don't ask others to do things you wouldn't do first. So I'll stand up and I'll say most of you know I'm a veteran, many of you know I served in the Marine Corps, no one in the room knows I got court-martialed and then I tell a very involved, much more emotional story about the incident that happened in Trenton.
And at the end of it, I asked the question, how did that make you feel? And they'll say "Feel?", And just let me digress for a second and say, when they ask that question, I always ask what's the difference between management and leadership because people use them interchangeably. But to me, management is simply nothing more than minimization of deviation.
That's it! It's quantitative, not qualitative. Whether you made a profit or you didn't, whether you achieved a goal or didn’t. Leadership is about getting everyone else so interested in your plan that they execute it as if it's their own. And leadership is an emotional connection. There's only one real measure of leadership, many measures of management, one measure of leadership and that's influence.
So how do you influence people if they don't really know who you are, they can't connect with you. And so I tell that story and I asked the question, how does it make you feel? And people say at times, angry, scared, felt vindicated at the end of it. Then I asked them well, what if I didn't end the story with a period, but I ended it with a comma? And that's why after seeing how important it is to always do the right thing. I'm going to ask you to spend another three weeks on this project to get it over the top because I don't think it's very needed today. And people invariably stand up and say, wow, that'd be great. But try asking that to a group of employees, because what I learned is we had an employee whose grandmother was a slave. She was a slave in Honduras and ran away several times was captured, beaten, eventually got away, made her way to New Orleans, and was working, cleaning people's houses for years. She had a daughter who had a son who worked for us and he got up and talked about how his grandmother cleaned houses for her entire life, just to help him help his mother get through college. He paid for his college education. He stood up and told a room full of people. "My father was the prototype for the deadbeat Dad. A group of his peers. And that's why to honor my grandmother. I want to be the best father, husband, leader I can be. "
And so when he finished, I stood up and I asked a room full of folks. What if he put a comma at the end of his story and said," and that's why I need you to support me in this program for the next three months" and a woman who, as it turned out was raising her grandchildren because their parents were in prison, stood up and said," I call my husband and tell him I'm not coming home for a month."
If you want to build real culture, if you want to build an anti-fragile group of people who really respect each other and just would never let each other down, we're back to the sort of that ethos of loyalty and mutual respect and people focused on a common goal. You do that by being vulnerable.
I see it in technology, I see it in finance, I see it in law, and in hard science. Everybody who gets promoted into a leadership position looked for the template. I'm going to be a manager now so I guess I'll be- oh bill gates, Steve jobs, and what they don't realize is you have to be yourself, right? Authenticity is what defines us as leaders.
If you try to be something you're not, you'll attract certain people for your organization, whatever it is, but they won't be attracted to you. They'll be attracted to this notion of you and eventually, they're going to find out that behind the mask is someone completely different. So being who you are and being authentic, no matter what it is, will bring the people who are going to be best in terms of your style and your culture. Actually, go get things done.
So when you think about how do you impact the lives of people? I would tell you, I wonder if I'd have it here. I carry around with me from company to company. I have this- it’s my eighth company that I've run in my career- I've got a big 8x11 envelope stuff with thank you notes. They're not from employees. They're only from employees’ spouses. Because I learned from other managers and leaders that I worked with that really knowing what drives your people and giving them something that doesn't just include them, but includes their family is what inspires people. It's what brings people in.
So we never have to ask people to work late because A.) We're willing to work late and B.) Because we're willing to show them that we care, not just by handing them a lot of cash but by doing. Something that's meaningful to them. I had a young woman who worked for us, who we gave a shotgun- a company that gave an employee a gun, oh my God, that's crazy. But it made sense in context. Getting really to know people, what happens is you're not creating a company anymore. You're creating a tribe. And what is the root of culture? It's people who would do anything for each other. When you have that, you've got something really powerful.
That's the first lesson I learned in the Marine Corps when I realized that no matter whatever happened to me, I would never be left out or wounded on the battlefield. Never. And I saw it in an action in my career and I think having that level of intensity as a leader to do that for people who work for you. I’m not a huge Ross Perot fan, but we certainly went and got his people who got kidnapped and who doesn't want to work for a company who would do that.
What an absolutely beautiful masterclass in leadership, Tony, I would encourage all the podcast listeners to rewind and relisten and to these past few minutes over and over again, because you mentioned some of the most important attributes and characteristics of effective leaders, however, it's really hard to have that kind of authenticity that you seem to have any courage in your organization.
So through all of this advice, Tony, it's obvious that you have both a rich experience and leading organizations yourself, and you've done a ton of reading and studying of leadership. Are there any leadership resources that you typically find yourself recommending to leaders as they want to become more authentic and self-aware and lead the way you lead?
I think everybody should develop their own natural style, but I do have a few books I think would be of great value. Now, actually one, I came to extremely late in life. We had a benefits broker I'll call him Allen, who was very generous. He was one of these guys you know, had a yacht, take your employees on a cruise every year and get your kid into NYU and a terrific guy.
If you wanted to change brokers, maybe a little bit different stories. So Alan comes along and we put our benefits out for bid and Alan loses and he spends the next two weeks having the president of our bank, call me and twist my arm, trying to get me to give the business back to Alan. Of course, my answer is always, I'm doing this for my employees. Don't call me anymore. And I have to call out on him and say, stop doing that because you lost that's it. I got a better deal for my team. The guy who won call him, Joe, he had that business for three years and then he lost. And when he lost Joe called me and said, Hey, I'd really like to take you to lunch.
And I thought, here we go. This is the part where he takes me to lunch and tells me what an asshole this other guy is and why I shouldn't do business with him, but he didn't. Joe took me to lunch and he gave me a copy of a book called The Go-Giver. And then he asked me, what did I need outside of brokerage services? Was there any other areas where I was having any issues? And I thought, wow, that was really great. And then I went home and I opened the book and the Go-Giver is an interesting book. You've heard the term "go get her", you go get her, get out there and you know, The Go-Giver is, really the opposite. It's about finding a need and filling it and not worrying about whether or not you're going to get anything in return. And you had a former guest on Bob Morgan, CEO of Morgan, Franklin, a great friend of mine, and another inspiring leader. And Bob came, asked him to come and give a leadership talk at my last company and he got up and he said: “Hey, I just want you to know karma is only a bitch if you are.”
Do all the favors you can do and never expect anything in return cause it probably won't come from the person who did the favor from, but it will come back. in my experience is that's true. So the Go-Giver is a great book for anyone who wants to understand how to really get influenced in the world. I always tell people, always take the blame, but always give the credit. And what they don't realize is every time you give somebody else credit, you're going to get it anyway. They're going to give it back to you. So taking the blame is what leaders should do anyway. So the Go-Giver is a great first book on not so much leadership but on influence.
The second one would be Tonya Reiman's body language, believe it or not, because non-verbal means so much more than verbal. Turn off the sound on a bugs bunny cartoon, and you can pretty much know exactly what's going to happen without the dialogue. And you can do the same thing in a room full of people. And when you learn how to read a room- again, it's leadership is influence and leadership is empathy, understanding body language, and your own body, how you stand what you're telling people with your body language matters a lot.
A third one is thank you for arguing how Aristotle Lincoln. And Homer Simpson can teach us to be better influencers. That's a bad persuasion. And if you have kids, the opening chapter of the book is an argument between a father and son about who's going to take out the trash and what an instructive book about how to influence others. It's really a book about rhetoric, which is nothing more than the art and science of persuasion.
The last book I would say that I would recommend these days is 10 voyages by Admiral Stavridis. It's not really a book on leadership. It's a book about character because, at the end of the day, leadership is not about expertise. We're not positioned players as leaders. we're the conductor. We're not playing an instrument and what matters most to the people who are being led is character. Character matters more than almost anything and when I think of every leader that I've ever been inspired by, and Dave Eves was one of the few people I would say wasn't smarter than it, wasn't dumber than that. But he certainly wasn't the smartest guy I ever met, but absolutely the best leader that I ever worked for because he had character. You always knew where he stood. You always knew that he would do the right thing. And so 10 voyages, I think is one of my favorite books.
And of course, the last one is called signed chaos by general Mattis. I'll tell you just an interesting story about general Mattis. Military leaders tend to know and run at a different level in terms of how you really influence people, but it all starts with that Esprits de corps, that tribalism, which leads me to the last book which is tribal leadership. I wish I could remember the author, but an amazing book on how leaders don't build groups or companies, they build tribes. And it's inspiring in the way that it shows how leaders interact. I think of WL Gore, the Gore-Tex folks. Every time they'd get a facility that goes over 165 people, they build a new one and it's because as humans. We can't remember the names of more than 165 people at once the names or faces of people. And that's what matters is being able to connect individually with all of the people you lead. So imagine you're running a thousand-person organization. I can't know all thousand, but I can know the 164 just below me and they will help me when I have to go see the rest of the folks.
But knowing those names, knowing their stories, and actually caring about them, making that emotional connection is what makes great leaders, at least in my area.
It is such brilliant advice, both based on your own journey of courage and standing up for what's right, Tony, and then experiences all throughout, including some incredible books on leadership. As people get a chance to reflect on the kind of leader they want to become learning both from your experiences and the great books that you shared.
I really appreciate it you sharing your time, your insights, leadership wisdom, and these books with the partnering leadership community. Tony.
Thanks for Mahan. It was a pleasure to be with you.