John Michel has a refreshing view on leadership and innovation. John is the Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer and President at MV Global, America’s largest private transportation company. Before that John was a General in the US Air Force where he lead numerous large-scale national and international organizations and deployments. The leadership and innovation lessons he learned while in the Air Force can help all of us on a daily basis.
He’s also written at least four articles for the Harvard Business Review on leadership. He’s author of The Art of Positive Leadership, and also a co-author of The 12 Talents: The Must Have Habits and Attitudes of Effective 21st Century Leaders.
It was a pleasure talking with John.
Here are some other things we talked about:
-You mention that a leader is a generalist. What talents are especially important for a leader in today’s world?
-Can you train most people to be a leader? What’s a difference between an amazing and a good leader?
-Can you give an example in the Air Force how you turned around a difficult situation?
-How is the transportation market changing for MV Transportation?
David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we are lucky enough to have John Michel with us. And John is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer and President of MV Global, which is America’s largest private transportation company. And they have about $1 billion in annual revenue and they operate nearly 10,000 vehicles, including buses and shuttles across the United States and Canada. So most of you probably have not heard of John, but he has a fascinating background. He has written at least four articles for the Harvard Business Review on leadership and he is also the co-author of the book, The 12 Talents: The Must-Have Habits and Attitudes of Effective 21st Century Leaders, and with all this John has a deep military background. So I’m not even sure where to start with John with all this, but I think we’ll talk about his background and then his views on leadership and then go into his thoughts on innovation and change. So John, thanks for joining us today.
John Michel: Well, it’s my pleasure Dave. I’m grateful for the opportunity to just share some perspective and some experience with the list of things on hands. So again, thanks for having me.
David Kruse: Awesome. Well, we can’t wait. So John, can you first tell us a little bit about your background before we dive into some other areas?
John Michel: Sure. So following college immediately I went into the U.S. Air Force, where I was an aviator for over 26 years. Had the great privilege of leading at four different times, at levels starting form Squadron Command, personal aviators up to Group Wing and then ultimately when I finished my career I was the NATO Air Training Commanding General for the 14 nationals responsible building the Afghan air force, which is the $6.7 billion project which have never been previously attempted in history. So it was very, very rewarding, but then I made a decision that I was really getting into the business world which was a passion of mine. It was time to transition or otherwise I’d be on for another five years. So made that choice and left on the 1st of January 2015 and within short order I found my way into the business world here at MV as you described where I have a number of functions of which are the ones I’m proudest and most fond of, and relate to leading people but most importantly around the area of creating innovative new ways to serve people and to integrate technologies in a way that’s going to help transform, for which we’ll experience transportation. So it’s been a pretty fascinating ride and I’m looking forward to the next adventures that are unfolding.
David Kruse: And can you tell us more about some of the roles you played in the military and especially in Afghanistan, that last largest deployment that you lead?
John Michel: Sure. You know outside of flying I had almost 4,000 hours of flying jets and are getting quickly on and was given the opportunity to lead a number of leadership positions as I shared. But one of the real areas that became kind of the hallmark and a passion was being called into help turn around other performing organizations. So for all host of reasons, whether it’s in the military, business world, non-profit rights, we find organizations that are falling well below the line of what they could be and do and so I was called in a number of times ultimately that led me to become the Chief Change and Learning Officer for US Transportation Command. So it’s the single largest global command responsible for projecting power, all things, all modalities, all things transportation, all things power projection for The United States of America across the globe. So I wrote the strategy for that and help to innovative some news ways and then shortly thereafter they asked me to go to Afghanistan to take on these responsibilities as NATO Commanding General for the Air Force. There we had an origination that had on two occasions, you know it’s very challenging. Actually you’re building an Air Force, training an Air Force and fighting an Air Force concurrently. You can appreciate the challenges there given and then you are doing it with seven different weapon platforms that you are building literally every single dimension. So you are not just the luxury of training, you are building logistics systems, you are building planning systems, you are building what does it take to create a self-sustaining organic capability for the nation of Afghanistan. And as I said, it was 14 nations, so it was cross culturally. That organization itself had in the four years it has been in existence it was “have broken twice” and so I came in at a very interesting time. Shortly after my arrival the President announced an accelerated departure of the United States from Afghanistan. What made it particularly challenging at the Air Force because it’s the most complicated dimension, started much later than the efforts that started in 2001; we didn’t really start till 2009, so we had a long way to go. So all of a sudden we found ourselves with dramatic cut and available time; a need to reduce resources; and a need to dramatically reduce people. So we’re talking about amateur enterprise having to get there. That said, I was able to work with the group to create a plan that fundamentally altered the Nations approached to how we are going to get out the Air Force, made a series of significant strategic recommendations that were subsequently implemented and as a team we were able to achieve some fairly startling results using the same type of principals that I have seen work over and over again, because they tend of highly human centric. And in that timeframe we saved over $2 billion for the tax payer, accelerated the growth of the Air Force by three years, increased combat capability by 300% and we were able to do it by rather reducing main power on the ground by 70%. So a pretty good change project.
David Kruse: Wow! Well, that could be the whole podcast right there. Just talking about that, I did not know that. Interesting. Well I have so many questions now, where do you even start. I think well, I was going to make it into this a little later, but you mentioned some of those principles that are human centric. Can you talk about some of those? I’m really interested in how you made that change happen.
John Michel: Absolutely. Well, I would tell you that you know I’m a big – throughout my career I also the great opportunity spending a good amount of time in academia and have access to some pretty great educational opportunities, you know extensive Stanford and Harvard, as well as a fellow and during those time frames I was always drawn to do we you know derive or create conditions so that people will volunteer the best of themselves right. And early on in my career I came across a process, it’s called appreciative inquiry, which starts from the premise that in believing the best of what is. And so I’ve always followed a very simple process that we engage people in and I’m a big believer in going highly communicative, highly inclusive, and that means at all different levels and this is some of the things that we did that you know people have never seen before in Afghanistan and remember, we are training the Afghans, it’s not just our people. So we are building, so you know we have a cultural barrier, but we, we utilize these same principals of how do you get people involved in co-creating a vision. Leaders so often want to cap their vision and tell them to when to move out, but that’s part of the response, of the leadership. But I’m a big believer that vision should be written in pencil not in a market. And what I mean by that is, you have to invite others. You set a direction, but the most effective results will come when people feel that they are involved in a process, so hence now the process of co-creation. You involve people in the process of co-creation by giving, you know asking questions, being able to be very deliberate in the methodology that you work though. And I use kind of a four step. I mean I have four words that really have driven me in every single – I’d say it when I use it on days as well as I’d use now for the four different originations that helped to try to take it to the next level. How do you get it and build on the best of what is, I call it you inquire, right. Now the process of asking, what is that we do really well that we don’t want to lose? Often times with change right, people kind of like this sense of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and that creates just a tremendous amount of instability for people. You know human beings crave certainty, and so understanding that, if you build on something that is already there, one you are honoring the past contribution that everybody has made, but two, you are actually creating what I politically call like a linus blanket equivalent, because people can hold on to something they know into the future and they won’t number two, move out now and take new grounds. Then I go into, once you’ve done that you move into what I call the imagine phase and go, what might be? So you start to imagine what could be. Now that you see and that’s the process of assessing honestly what your as-is state and being very real about it. You know we were real about all the things that were working and all the things that weren’t and where the gaps were based on these new variables. And so when you start to question what might be, it invites people to imagine here or to start thinking about wow, okay so these are the opportunities before us. Then we go into the innovation phase about well, what should be. With all these options we can only do so many. What should we be doing, and then how will we go about doing those? And last but not the least then, you get very intentionally about implementing what will be and then throughout that process then we used, I’m a big believer in fewer metrics than great metrics. One of the biggest traps I’ve seen originations fall into is they want to measure everything and you and I know that you can’t measure everything. So I have a rule that we are only going to measure, we are only going to do three or six things. We are going to measure those things because its – and those elements then will be the primary compass by which we derive our results and we’ll make adjustments accordingly. So what I’m sharing here is there, the art that I have found in all this is about celebrating simplicity. How do you create a path that has just a handful of steps that are again highly inclusive, highly inquisitive, highly communicative and that gives everyone assess now that they have really a role in the two narrative phase and then be very, very disciplined in execution by looking at fewer things, not more things, which you will find that even the hardest project like building an Air Force in a war zone. At that scale, when you break it out that way, it doesn’t seem so scare and it’s the same thing I find you know in the other traps I see people in the business world fall into, the same ones. They want to do too much, too fast, people get distracted, there is insufficient process, there is a complete lack of buy-in and this is why 90% of innovation and change efforts fail to either deliver on time and on budget, 90%.
David Kruse: And do you have an example where you can kind of walk us through that where you changed around an organization or a project or something like that?
John Michel: Sure happy to. We’ll just stick with that other thing, because I mean that’s probably one most of your listeners aren’t going to get access to. And so take for instance in this process of inquiring and being real about where are we today in our journey, right, because now that they’ve changed all the variables we have to go faster, cheaper, with fewer humans. So you start to look at what are the key things that – what are key outputs. And when you have an Air Force, we really get – in fact I’m an aviator, so it’s easy to get locked up in the plains and the helicopters and the training pilots and all that. But we all really know that it’s about the maintainers and the logistics types to make an Air Force go. And so I started asking questions about where are we in developing an organic capability for the Afghan maintainers that could ultimately be responsible for maintaining its fleet. Because anyone who has traveled around the world or been around military bases around the world, especially other than first world countries and I’ve been fortunate to be in most countries around the world as an aviator, you know you see these rusting hawks of Aircraft, right, kind of shoved off to the side of somebody’s field. And what happens is the Air Force or whatever they were doing wasn’t sustainable. So I ask this question to the team and I get a response that was fairly astounding; they said we had zero. So, you know you kind of scratch your head you’re saying we are building an air force in this place and ultimately it’s going to be turned over to the Afghan and we have zero. Well, in the tyranny of the urgent, there is a lot of other things that needed to be done. So the decision – and that’s when the belief is we have a long time, so we looked at it was primarily contractor. So the point there as I said, okay, this is an area now that clearly became our priority and what I wanted to do was change the way we go about devising a new path for it. So we brought in – and I call it value stream mapping, but it’s a very Flintstone version of value stream mapping. I insist you to discuss series of what I call two days facilitated conversations. So I brought in outside experts to facilitate between ourselves and the Afghans and day one would be the collision, talking about the process of what we are doing and how we are getting at maintenance. So this is our process for maintenance that so far has netted no body and what are the variables affecting it. And interestingly the biggest variables we found were a desire to throw 100% English speaking. Now you have to understand in the world of aviation, English is the primary language, but often times we kind of lose context inadvertently. This is Afghanistan and the kind of asset they had probably would never the border, and if they did, they wouldn’t make it very far anyhow, because there’s plenty of people to make sure that doesn’t happen, right. So as we examined these, we went through the first day and said here is our process. The next day we invited the Afghans to now say, here is how we would do it if we wanted to actually develop some co-maintainers. It was interesting, because the first lieutenant colonel of the morning, Afghan lieutenant person who spoke said, in the four years previously, no one had ever asked them how they would develop an approach to maintenance.
David Kruse: Really? Interesting.
John Michel: So what happens is, simply creating a process now for co-creation, to be really honest about where we are and where the opportunities are, but more importantly it shows how often we inadvertently. Now in our good intentions we want to get busy doing things, we don’t either ask the right questions or invite the right people on. In this case the Afghans developed a process that said you know if we went this way, it was very contextualized. It took out a number of steps. You know we were kind of building an Air Force in our own image and the United States Air Force is the most lethal and effective force in the world. This is Afghanistan, so it allowed us to adjust our side picture. Here is kind of the punch line. As a result of that collaborative process it now became the process that would be looked at everything we did that way and what it told the Afghans there is that they had a really equal voice. It also in the case of maintenance allowed us to make some immediate recommendation for changes and requirements for how who needed English language on what level? How we would actually be able to do something differently? And then we reinvented the maintenance pipeline and by the time I left, you know the goal, our ultimate goal by the time the Air Force will be “done” over multiple years was to have 1,400 trained maintenance personnel’s of three different levels of classification. When I left we had 558 maintainers.
David Kruse: And that’s all you need.
John Michel: And that was in one year. Well, what we had done is we’ve gone from zero to 558 on the path to 1,400, whereas four years have produced zero. So it’s not an indictment against the previous years; it’s simply a reflection of what you could do with a different kind of approach that invites people to the conversation and then lets them co-create an outcome, because then they own it and then you wrap around the same process I shared to be able to say, okay, how do we now enact this and measure it very meticulously. So there is an example for you.
David Kruse: Well, that’s a good example. I mean, that’s a great example of you talked about being inclusive and that makes a lot of having them buy in, that makes a lot of sense and then you are getting valuable feedback and ideas and that’s good.
John Michel: Exactly.
David Kruse: So I have a couple of more questions on leadership before we dive into MV. But before I do, I’m quite curious about your aviator experience and this is completely a side note, but I’m always fascinated by people who fly gets and so I’ve never been in one, but what type of planes do you fly.
John Michel: So I started off in leaders and I ultimate my way to the larger family of aircrafts firm. C5s at the time was the largest plane in the world, which was really fascinating to – I went on the tanker community and then I came back to the C-17 community, which is a great plane. Really the workhorse of the fleet now, and then I untimely in Afghanistan ended up coming back and then doing – we had two, a small like air lift airplane and then I also got my first exposure to helicopters in Afghanistan, flying Russian Mi-17 and smaller training helicopters. So it was really six different kinds of planes over the course of the career and across the global landscape. So it was truly a blessing.
David Kruse: Did you have a favorite that you enjoyed flying out of all of those?
John Michel: Yeah, I think it was later on in – from an aviator standpoint in terms of just versatility the C-17 is an amazing plan. I mean we would do – you know even when we did air shows, just to give you a sense. So this is big airplane, four engine, ability to land on everything from dirt to regular services and we would show, just to show how impressive that airplane is, we would do a maneuver. We would land in the first 1000 feet of the runway okay. This is a big airplane and we are landing in the first 1000 feet of the runway. We would immediately put it in reverse thrust, back up 1,000 feet and then put the throttles up to full and take off within the same 1000 feet and then look into the vertical. So when you see a big airplane do that at show center, it’s called the rubber band. It make sure it blows peoples’ minds. But it reflects the kind of technologies that are being brought to bear and the cool thing about that airplane is it actually fits this conversation, it was one where Boeing was very smart and actually invited – it was built around the load factor. So instead of just being built around the pilot, sure the pilot had input, but it was those who were actually – you know they built it so that they could be very agile environments to get stuff on very quickly, to get stuff off very quickly and that would also be able to be employed for special operations and a whole host. So it invited a lot of different people to the concept of the design, so the net effect is probably the most significant and successful airlift that this nation’s ever had.
David Kruse: Interesting, that’s a good story. Well, all right, I could – that’s another whole podcast too, so we should probably get back to the leadership part. But so one of the articles you wrote or someplace I read that you mentioned that a leader is often a generalist, and I was curious if you could expand on that and in today’s world, what type of skills are essential for a leader. I mean we probably have talked about some, but yeah that would great.
John Michel: Yeah, I think so. I mean I think we have – yeah, I agree, I mean having been a – ironically a general also, having retired as a general right, the concept of general and what it means is there is a time in life where we are all starting out and leadership is exactly the same thing in my view. See, there is a time where you have to have a specific set of skill, right. So there are certain skills that we just have to have to be effective and then there are certain skills that we really now start to prove our own worth then, right that’s really become our mark. But the reality is over time, especially I think of leadership often as a tree and as a tree grows right, you are casting a shadow. So what happens in that is it okay early on to have a kind of more finite perspective. So you are only being asked to maybe contribute around a very defined set of experience or defined set of technical knowledge right. But over time as you start to grow and you start to expand your leadership influence, just like the shadow of a tree expands further and further, you now have to move away from very specific things and you have to be able to take in information and it really becomes about how do you combine things in ways that have value. So generalist, you become a generalist by virtue of you are now being asked to make decisions or to be able to look at the world in a much broader context. And so for leaders I would tell you, the things that make in my experience really effective leaders is they have to be master communicators. You know I do a lot of things with organizations as far as advising them on how to increase performance. I said, look if you’re only going to do one thing, just talk to one and other better, with more intentionality. So communication is one of the biggest challenges every organization has in all forms I think. So leaders are intentional communications, they are very authentic, people write back and you know they can see through. The minute they sniff out something that’s not authentic or that you are just there to push your own agenda, you lost out a good portion of people you like that you can never get back. So I believe that leaders also people look to be inspired. What that means is a leader has a responsibility to intrinsically motivate people and you do that by your example, you do that by inviting them as we talked about earlier. Because when you do that, you are also saying I value you, your voice matters, no matter where you are at in the enterprise. Quick back to Afghanistan for a second. So one of the things that was interesting along with the concept that pairs out this whole idea that my job was a generalist, right. It was to – I was responsible for the plan and then communicating it up the chain and then delivering it at an international level. When every time you reached a certain point where you had to make a lock in of what we thought the next iteration would be, we would bring all the, I would say what I call playfully the grown-ups, so all those with the highest rank or the right position, we would come, we would craft this, we could get it all keyed up and we were absolutely sure we had this thing check on. Well, we always then I would go do – I would institute like an all random sample call. I would say okay, that’s fine, take a 30 minute timeout and then we would walk the hallway unannounced and we would find the staff sergeants, the captains from Canada, folks just who normally would not be invited to a conversation about strategy or something and we would put them around the table. And my whole point in that is there is not a single encounter with our own people, because at the end of the day its really more of the captains and the equivalence of the middle, it’s the middle manager who is going to be responsible for implementing whatever the heck we are doing, that the generalist and all those in charge are doing. Not a single one of our, we though perfect plan survived contact with our own people and so we were able to make some adjustments, because they brought – very perspective right – they brought different experience. My point there is, that’s what really good leaders do. They make everybody really feel that they have an important voice that can be shared in some form or fashion and then by constantly communicating, by constantly inviting and by constantly being what I would say curious, that’s the last key. Good generalists are always curious. You are learning, you are taking in information from places that you normally not would show up. You know reading medical journals seems weird, but you find something and you pull that string, because you never know what one little piece of concept you will get from one place. You constantly got to be out there, expanding your own horizons, so you can add value to those around you.
David Kruse: And you were operating some of the highest levels of leadership and you mentioned a number of good traits for a leader. What’s the difference between an amazing leader and just a good one? Is it just being that much more curious or is there, do you have an example of somebody you have run into as a good leader or an amazing leader and is there a way that you’ve known to prove yourselves?
John Michel: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I mean again your right, we’ll also. Good leaders are – it’s almost you look at it just for a minute and I spent a lot of time studying leadership there, right. My whole doctoral was in this area, understanding the real differences of what creates between transactional and transformational. So I would say good leader is someone who is effective, but being able to get transactions done, i.e., right, let’s go take that hill; let’s go close that account; let’s do that and there is a transaction. So you can engage people in a way, right, that is going to get them to do their job and you can do it effectively. It’s almost akin to a manager, right. A manager where they are consistently out there for process. They are doing things that are really important and value added, but it’s a transaction on that. To me a leader is – a leader is you don’t forget how the transformation went right. They are the ones who imprint on you, literally and because of the methodology and the way that they engage it, quite candidly, you know human beings were social animals and we are emotionally driven. So what really happens is the leaders who imprint on us are those who made us feel a certain way and it goes back to made us feel value, made us feel that again, that things that we had to say were not just heard, but often times had the opportunity to really make the final product, no matter where we stayed in the hierarchy. So the most exceptional leaders are highly emotion intelligent in my view. They are very, very intentional in how they engage people; they are very thoughtful, plus they are also action oriented. You know you can do a lot of these things and then find yourself in some level of – you know you’re in a cold effect for a long time because you are trying to get a perfect sign. So I found that the perfect mix is someone who is really great with humans, great communicator that can basically tap that intrinsic motivation. Once you tapped into the intrinsic motivation or as a transactional leader is more a good leader can get it out easier and more explicitly you know carrot stick whatever; do this I’ll give you this reward, right. A transformational leader is now tapped in a well inside people and guess what lives in that well, what’s kind of where I want to carry our conversation next, that’s the well of creativity, that’s the well of innovation. Because to be able to get that from people they’ll have to volunteer it, you know why it’s scary, it’s risky, right, because you don’t know, it’s just an idea. And so I find that really great leaders are able to get people to raise their hands and say, have you thought about this. It brings out the best and by helping knock down barriers that otherwise are going to be there until they are actually compelled, literally compelled to offer what they have to give. I hope that’s helpful.
David Kruse: No, no, that’s great. And how does a – for a leader, how does confidence play into the role and I mean did you ever lead any huge teams and did you ever feel nervous, inadequate and even if you do, you know how do you still display confidence?
John Michel: You know, I think that’s a great question. So I think yes, confidence and arrogance are a really interesting place on the continuum. Kind of you want to balance both those things without crossing the line I feel. You know it’s dangerous, we are honest about it, you know because it’s easy to get one of the other, but there are absolute times where you are not – there is now way to be 100% confident in whatever the outcome or whatever the action or whatever you’ve been choose to do. But I have to say in all honesty, by using a process that’s inclusive of it, the more you involve others, the more that you do you homework, the more that you can give yourself a means to think through and approach and garner other ideas, I would you tell you it’s a confident source, not just in yourself but those around you. Because you know at the end of the day it may not exactly work out, but remember to me anyhow confidence is knowing that I have done the best I could to make a decision with what I had and often times it’s the latter part people forget. They often times are happy to say, well I’m the leader and I’ll make this decision. Okay, well that’s the leaders’ project; however, have they really now made the best decision with all available information? How do you know if you haven’t asked anybody if that’s the best available information? So this is why you get no conclusiveness. So quite honestly and I mean we do some bold things you know. For a different day I can talk to you about creating the first mixed used unmanned aerial system wing in America and that was a really scared place for people. But consistently I had – it was a world I had just moved into. I knew nothing hardly about. But we quickly came up with a vision and did bold things and changed the entire state of North Dakota at a national level, because we used a similar process and the confident came from the process and the people, right. If you give people a clear – invite them to create a clear and compelling purpose and establish a moderate level of process, so that people can now understand how do you go from the address to the 2B, it is astounding, the kind of performance that can come out of it.
David Kruse: Interesting. Well, now I want to talk about that, but – so just to make sure, so you were talking, you helped develop the unmanned fixed wing drone, one of the first ones, kind of the program?
John Michel: So what happened – well what happened is up in North Dakota, for Grand Forks North Dakota which was 50 years had been this really tremendous power projection platform with tons of all kinds of planes and missiles and it was going to bring the right session dating from the cold war and then a decision was made in the 90’s to, I’m sorry in the mid-2000’s to BAC the wing. So BAC means Basically Align Correct. So basically they close the wing and change commission. So for all these years and all this pride, both the community and that they had in doing a particular mission of fixed wing power projection around the world, now I was told that you are now going to become the Air Force’s first mixed family of unmanned vehicles. Now remember, when you are in the mid-2000 unmanned vehicle are really – so there are people who are like I’m not even sure what that is. And if you are civilian and you are more worried about things are going to fall out of the sky and land on your car at the Wall-Mart parking lot you know. So there was a great deal of links that that wing had gone through and at the time when I asked to go up there it was leading the Air Force in every single negative category, number one in suicides, number one in domestic abuse, number one, so you can keep going right. And that’s just reflective of an organization that’s just lost its way for a season. And so we went up there and the way we turned that one around and as a matter of fact even go online and there is a case study from the Hayward Business review on this. We used the same principal to talk to you, a very positively oriented, positive language, positive highly engaged. We did some things and we created and we brought it to the governor in the state and it became to the state Senators and it became a state wide effort to now say this is what our new missions in going to do, we’re going to do it better for the next better America and I’m proud to say that years later – I left there in 2009. About five, six years later Grand Forks North Dakota wasn’t the designated one of only six states in America now where unmanned aerial system testing can happen and actually the base now is taking on a whole new life as a mixed used military park and commercial business park for all things associated with helping unmanned vehicles for the freight in the next generation.
David Kruse: Interesting, interesting, okay that was a good side note. Like you said, that’s another story too. Well, we should probably talk a little bit abut and I’d like to talk about MV Global before you – we have to end the interview. Could you maybe just give a brief overview? I tried to give one at the beginning, but I’m sure I did not do a wonderful job. So may be if you could just give a brief overview of MV Global and kind of your role there as head of innovation.
John Michel: Sure. So overall MV Transportation as you indicated is the single largest retail private transportation company in America. It was founded by a couple forty years ago, who still currently owns it and its involved in all things really serving public transit. So the lines of businesses, if you look at the large bus that runs for fixed rout, it is number in the world for serving well, a paratransit, so those with some form of disability. We are in school busses and we got a black car service called Carmel out of New York. We have shuttles for Universities and one of the – and so my role there was to come in right and so develop a strategy for the next three years to dramatically grow the business. We are about $1.25 billion today, 20,000 employees, 170 locations across America, Canada and a couple across the globe. And so how do we scale the business right, with great intentionality? So for folks who don’t know anything, we really pay attention to transportation worldwide large. There are a full up renaissance going on. With the Ubers and the lists and the others, it has drawn amazing talent. I mean Google is this space, Apple is in this space and that’s a cool sign. So it’s cool on the one hand when you got all the smartest people and all the biggest businesses wanting to come, because they realize public transportation in America needs to be transformed. Its less that inspiring, and that’s being kind. When you compare ourselves to other nations, we got a long way to go to a better job, but hence the opportunity. So I was asked to come in and also lead the innovation force and so how do we come up with a strategy, the same thing as I did with the military. But more importantly, how do we innovate within the organization now that we got all the other cool possibilities out there. So to kind of spring board this forward and at the same time I watch the, and I’m responsible for the events we are or the business we have in the Middle East. We also have a business in Brazil where we are doing over $4 million, one of the largest transportation providers for the Olympics that are about to kick off here pretty soon, so that’s in our portfolio as well. But an example of okay, so what does it look like? I looked at quickly how Uber and others have now created the sense to commoditize capacity in transportation. So how can we use that serve a client who we are not really serving right now? How do we create a market within MV? Being very passionate about veterans, you know I looked at the veteran space, the VA and I don’t – I think pretty much anybody would know that consistently the news about how veterans are serviced through the VA despite their best efforts is not good. So it’s right for reinvention. It’s about over $1 billion a year of spend goes into taking veterans to and from a point. So I said let’s tackle that one first. So in a period of 23 days we had an opportunity. I lead the creation. I originally had the concept and I essentially created an Uber for the VA and we rolled out Patriot Express in Chicago on Veterans Day of last year and now its expanded to San Francisco and its expanding to other Cities and we have made, we have completely changed the way that Veterans experience transportation through more agile capacity. We’ve done a lot of the same things at, we’ve added kiosk, we’ve added uniforms, but more importantly we’ve added, we’ve made it a priority to hire veterans serving veteran. So we did the thing you really need to do and good design and that is how you create a sense of empathy and a sense of connection. What’s cool is our complaints were fairly high when we are trying to plan that market generically. When we created this very coherent brand, people couldn’t just go to Patriot Express.com and you can see what we’ve created. Our complaints have gone essentially to zero. As a matter of fact for many veterans they refused to get any other vehicle, but a Patriot Express vehicle. They are wrapped by a flag, our drivers have uniforms, we have integrated advanced telematics so that we can proactively manage our drivers. Because on the one hand we want to make sure that we have a consistent experience and part of that is how we help our drivers make sure they are constantly delivering great customer service and they are being safe. And now with advanced telematics and other technologies I get any deviation within 15 seconds into my iPhone; that’s the kind of world we live in, which is terribly exciting, right. But our customers are now feeling a whole new sense of dignity, honor and respect. So that’s just a reflection of an innovation that is being created in the 15, 16 months that I have been with MV as a team, but now how you have to be able to move that fast. Again we created from concept idea to getting it packaged into and our fee over the market place in 23 days.
David Kruse: Wow! That’s impressive and such a great story, because like you said, it sounds like the veterans are always super fond of the VA and so – but that whole experience starts when they leave their home, right. So when they get into their VA now, they are probably in better spirits than hopefully better interactions with everyone and yeah, that’s interesting.
John Michel: You’re exactly right. Well, I mean you hit it spot on. You know it’s interesting, because the vast majority, the VA spends over, about $170 billion a year budget and the vast majority of all of it except for being and some other things are stacked inside the doors. So the VA spent a lot of money in improving the experience within the hospitals; making it brighter, making it better, getting people back. However, just as you indicated, if you lose sight of what I call the privilege of first and last touch, if someone has a miserable experience to get out of that hospital, I don’t care if the hospital looks like a hoot [ph] okay, they are already off to a bad start or if they have an inexperience at the hospital and then you pick them at the end of the day and they get lost or it takes them three hours to get home or its miserable, doesn’t matter it’s the [inaudible] you give a point right. I look at – I mean for me that’s the really important part of the value change. If you want to create a consistent experience and if you are the VA, its insufficient to be able to just work on the hospital. You have to control those first and last and that’s why I think why we’re so excited to be the premier provider now of veteran services in terms of transportation.
David Kruse: So I’m curious, when you first started at MV, what – obviously you got this going very, very quickly, which is not an easy thing to do, but from a kind of a broader perspective, what was going through your mind of like okay, who do I have to meet when and who do I have to get on board and how do I figure out how to innovate here? What was kind of your 30 or 60 day plan or how do you get going when you got such a large organization and you are a new person coming in?
John Michel: I think it’s a great question. So you know I always approach it two ways. You quickly need to understand and I use the same process. I assessed MV for what’s the beast of what is, right. So you want to be keen and get a clear understanding quickly about what are the truly unique strengths and value propositions this company has, and then so you spend time talking to, you start talking to other decision – you get temporaries, other decision makers within the company and the nice thing is in the seats because only seven of you know. So you go there first and you are all kind of already in the vibe and you start to extend it to other influenced leaders throughout the organization, for the purpose is same. What do you think is the best that we do and asking what you think the greatest opportunity is? At the same time however you got to split that with being, I believe you have to really do your homework in understanding the environment in your end. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a, I didn’t know anything about building air force and war zones, so you learn about that. I didn’t know much about the public transportation market, so you learn about it and this is where you quickly start to see what could be. This is when you look at the Ubers and the lists and you look at the kind of demand signal that or the kinds of possibilities they create and then you start to think through, how could that be applied in a new and novel way? At the end of the day it’s all about innovation right, but citing imagination and being disciplined about what you’ve learned and then now going how would take this learning of what is and what could be and combine it and then compel people to say, hey, let’s try some things out. And so it’s really a process of constant investigation or constant questioning and then I don’t go into there to say, I want to innovate about the VA, we didn’t do that and that’s not really what I found through innovation happened. Innovation is every day you are preparing yourself, you are reading something else, you are talking to somebody else, you are guiding a lot. So you are preparing yourself by just understating as much as you can about your business and about the opportunities in the outside world and then all of a sudden, well in this case the VA came out with an RSP to be able to do something in Chicago, and that’s when we said wait a second here. We looked at the experience and said, well, look what can we learn from Uber and what can we do better than them that they can’t do, because we were operating through contract and so innovation is combining existing things in new and novel ways of any regards, right. And if you have a gap and create something to fill the gap, so there is a whole bunch of pieces that go into it. But it usually shows up and it only shows up to the prepared mind, right and that’s the key here. Is it too late to be able to go, Oh! I’m going to create something new for the VA. I want to create a whole new way to serve those with disability. Well, it ain’t going to happen that way. It’s the combination that you have, you got the right network, you ask the right question and you challenge yourself to be, to immerse yourself into a lot of diverse perspectives and it emerges. True innovation emerges to the prepared.
David Kruse: Yeah, that’s a prepared mind. That should be almost a book title, that’s good. I think you are exactly right. Like often you hear about the company that’s all of a sudden just launched and is doing really well, but if you look at the persons who found that company, they probably have been in multiple industries and somehow they saw a pattern between those industries and put the pieces together before anybody else did and because they were prepared. It may have taken them 20 years, but to everyone else it looks like they took them a year to get to where they are, but that’s a…
John Michel: Exactly, well that’s the general. You just described the generalist concept, right. So over time they pull – you’re right, they combine different experience from different places and it took them a while to get there already, did their homework. And well then they knew when the opportunity unfolded. It unfolded because they could actually see things in a certain way or they can combine things in a certain way and they were able to leverage their own experience, their own research and their own network; that’s the other part why you want to have a deep network. My last book was you know The Art of Positive Leadership. I wrote it while I was in Afghanistan and I did it, because if you got 14 cultures you got to create a common language where people can clearly understand on how do you expect them to be right. If you don’t achieve consistency, here we are; we are in six different locations, in an active war zone with 14 different nations, so a little bit of a daunting challenge. Well, the simple way to get there is focus on the high human element and how you expect people to show up, and if you can do that, you can create something that everyone can identify what you now created, an anchor. And once you have something you can anchor in as a group, now you can actually move out and ask them to really cool in both tags and that’s what I think really good innovators do. They are building their networks. I am constantly out there, I just finished a conversation yesterday with the CEO of Bridge. Him and I have been going back and forth and he’s created, him and his team have created a concept of micro transit, which is copper bus stops; fascinating to me. So its machine learning and how do you apply machine learning now to fill gas in the market place. To me that’s not a co-competency we have, but innovation is saying, Wow! We took that and we could actually go to a client now in underperforming routs. We all of a sudden have found a way to save our clients money to be able to bring a whole new set of innovation that better serves the constituency right and we fill the gap in our own portfolio. So you’ve created kind of a value chain of win-win-win.
David Kruse: Interesting.
John Michel: So it’s an example of real time. If you are out there in the world, talking to people, being gracious to them, being out there and tell them and constantly immersing yourself in new ideas. That goes back to our other point, confidence comes from knowing you are doing what you can with what you have, right, to respond when that moment comes.
David Kruse: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. All right well, unfortunately we should probably wrap this up pretty soon, but I am curious around with the MV, I mean what do you see over the next five years? Whether it’s a self driving busses or you know you talked about the Uber model. What are some things that you want to try to get done in the next five years that’s at least not confidential?
John Michel: Yeah, I would tell you, in a little while I’m going to comment about, capacity that has been commoditized. So when you start converting people’s personal cars the way we can covert our personal houses because we have every right to, everything else that is real is essentially an opportunity I’ve been put into service. So now that’s it’s been commoditized it’s going to be about how you organize things in a different way and deliver capacity as a service, that’s what I’m working on now. And to me that’s what people in the future, instead of having to buy whole big busses and the way we’ve constructed transportation systems today, we are going to be able to be very, very deliberate and to be able to drive down price points, to be able to meet just the right kind of experience for the customer and this could lead to a much more efficiently business model. This is why I’m working with SAP and some of the most advance partners in the world to say technology allows you to do it. As I try to bring in artificial intelligent it’s going to allow us to constantly self correct. So the systems today in America will hopefully be efficient with large – I’m talking public transportation. Its largely unaffordable and we have to find a better way. I think all the pieces, I’d like to say everything we need to do things in a world class fashion are already here in visible and plain site. And so the next several years are about how do you find the right partners, how to get the right technology and bundle it all in a whole new way, a whole new paradigm of transportation and then convince people it’s the way to do. To me that’s the fun of it and the art of it.
David Kruse: Nice, that’s right, and it sounds like you are having fun and I think that was a great way to end the interview. So I definitely appreciate it. This is a brilliant interview and I’ve learned a lot and I didn’t even know about the book, you wrote The Art of Positive Leadership, but I looked you up a lot but for some reason I didn’t run into that one. Is that what it’s called “The Art of Positive Leadership”.
John Michel: Yes, I think it’s in there. That was the one that came out last year. So you can take a gander at that. So you’ll just find 52 stories written over 52 weeks and again, they are about being just becoming a person involved.
David Kruse: Interesting, all right. Well John, I definitely appreciate you taking the time to chat with us and sharing your experience and your thoughts and I know I learned a lot and I think our audience will learn a lot too.
John Michel: Absolutely. Well again, I’m grateful for the opportunity. It’s great to be connected with you. My very best to the audience and I’m hopeful that in the future we’ll have an opportunity to have another conversation.
David Kruse: Hey, that sounds good and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. I appreciate it. Bye.
John Michel: Bye. Have a great day.