8 Questions with Joe Plumeri

Everyone imagines top CEOs as larger–than–life figures who do things no one else could. But deep down, a good business leader is an everyman who combines vision and high energy with the ability to connect with and learn from all types of people. I had the chance to sit down with renowned business leader Joe Plumeri, author of the newly released The Power of Being Yourself, to discuss how to stay positive, motivate yourself and others, and achieve success in your life and work.

Joe Plumeri is one of the more brilliant minds in any business. While he is currently the Vice Chairman of the First Data Board of Directors (and co-owner of the New York Yankees Double-A minor league team affiliate, the Trenton Thunder), he has also worked for Lehman Brothers, Smith Barney, Primerica Financial, Citigroup and Willis. He delivered one of the best commencement address of all-time (as rated by PBS) and is a true class act. 

Enjoy the insights below and please COMMENT with your thoughts at the bottom of the page. 


Joe Plumeri

Brandon Steiner: In your book you share eight principles that have guided you to heights of business and that you believe will help others succeed in both their personal and professional lives. What is the key point that we all must recognize about ourselves?

Joe Plumeri: We are all made from the same cloth, or as I like to say, Everyone Has The Same Plumbing. People everywhere want to be inspired. We all want the same things. It takes some time and effort sometimes to break through the distractions of differences from country to country. People might look different and dress differently; they might eat different food and wear different clothes, but does any of that really matter? Our hearts are the same everywhere.

BS: You have a well-deserved reputation as a strong leader who can articulate a clear vision and then see it through to completion. Where did you acquire this valuable skillset?

JP: My father instilled in me at a young age that you should always be full of hope and optimism but that hope wasn’t enough. You also needed to articulate a vision that could then carry you forward to fulfilling those hopes and dreams. To make that plan work you needed to be able to bring your vision alive in an exciting, understandable way that could fire other people up and energize them to help you turn your hopes and dreams into a reality. I call this principle Showing the Way to Grandma’s House. Like if you took a drive to grandma’s house with the kids and wanted them to settle down, you got their attention by telling them all about the delicious chocolate chip cookies Grandma had baked for them. They’d be picturing those cookies and you’d have them on board and invested for the long haul of that drive. The same basic dynamic, equipping them to endure the trip, applies in countless other personal and professional contexts.

BS: You grew up in Trenton, a working class neighborhood in New Jersey. What advice do you have for young people who want to follow your footsteps to great success?

JP: You’ve got to Cut Your Own Path and make your own way. My father devoted the last years of his life to bringing baseball back to Trenton and reviving the whole city, and he did it because he cared. He did it because he had passion and heart. Back when I was a boy sitting next to him in the ballpark I learned how heart and passion had everything to do with baseball. Jackie Robinson and my grandfather showed me that what happened on a baseball field could be as important as anything in life. They showed me that it could be a place to show a deep and inspiring courage, a place to inspire us to be ourselves and follow our own paths.

BS: In the book you tell the story surrounding the tragic death of your son, Chris. You blame yourself for some of the suffering that Chris went through. What was the most valuable lesson you learned during this tough time that you think can help others move forward after tragic losses?

JP: Let Sadness Teach You: I can’t write a book about the importance of being yourself, about being passionate and having heart, if I don’t delve into the story of losing my son Chris. If you take nothing else away from this book, please take this message away: wake up and look at all the important relationships in your life. These people are part of you. By doing right by your relationships with them, you do right by yourself; you learn about what’s important and become more yourself. A lot of people get too focused on one area of their lives and that leads to blindness in some other area. Stop fooling yourself, and leave no room for regrets later on. You don’t want to end up like me, always looking back and wishing you’d done things differently.

BS: Tell me the story about securing the naming rights to the Willis Tower in Chicago. How did you do it?

JP: It was simple, I asked. You have to view the sky as the limit when seeking new opportunity. If I didn’t anything was possible, I wouldn’t have asked for the naming rights. That’s a dramatic story to illustrate a simple point: positive thinking can shift the landscape. Anything is possible if you Look up, Not down. Always keep that in mind. It was reflected in the culture we were able to build at Willis, so that everyone felt it, and that was the key: if it feels like work to stay positive and believe always in the potential for amazing things to happen, you’re doing something wrong. It should not feel like work; it should be as natural as breathing.

BS: Of all the principles you offer in the book, which is your personal favorite, which do you think resonates most?

JP: Go out and Play in Traffic! The single biggest risk of life in the Internet age is to convince yourself that letting your fingers dance over a keyboard or thumbing your smartphone amounts to engaging in life. It does not. All the themes I’ve pursued in this book funnel down to this essential truth: if you don’t get off your butt and get out into the world and mix with people, you’re always going to miss out. If you don’t show yourself, make new friends, revive old relationships, expose yourself to new ideas or new ways of thinking, or just be there to take advantage of the sweet gift of serendipity, then reading this book and getting fired up about finding your passion and living by your heart won’t help you at all. For that you need to get out there and live.

BS: You are certainly not someone who minces words. Your speeches are legendary. Every time you leave a room the crowd is on their feet. Your commencement speeches have been rated some of the best ever. How do you do it?

JP: We’ve become a Teleprompter society. A great speaker today is defined as someone who reads well. To me that’s not a great speaker. A great speaker is somebody who can speak from their heart and transfer that passion to somebody else and make them feel good. I prefer to think of it this way: My Heart is my Teleprompter. One reason why it’s always going to work better to have your heart be your Teleprompter is that you’ll remind yourself of what you really think and feel. You’ll put your true self out there, and you’ll get a reaction from real people, one that is human and heartfelt, and you’ll know they have an authentic sense of who you are.

BS: If you had to wrap it all up into one final message for our readers, what would it be?

JP: You Gotta Have Purpose!: Throughout my career—including my most recent chapter at First Data—I have always tried to stir things up. But it has always been with a purpose. People need to ask themselves when they wake up and start their days: What’s my purpose? What’s the point of getting up in the morning? What’s the point of what I do? It’s not about you. It’s not about making money. It’s not about building a company. It needs to be about more than that to have meaning and to inspire a sense of purpose. For that it has to be about transferring what you feel on to another group of people. When you couple emotion together with purpose, then you have passion, and that’s what makes the world go around. That’s why things move. That’s how things happen.

Click here to pickup a copy of Joe's new book.

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