Author Gary Vien began his career at the age of 15 twisting pretzels at Six Flags and moved his way up from there to leadership. In the 40 years that have followed, Gary has learned and collected a ton of observations and lessons about leadership.
In his new book, Lead or Get Out of the Way, he boils these down into eight principles that leaders can put into practice in their own work. In this discussion, Gary chats to me about his career, what he’s learned, and how it all started with a bookmobile, a journal, and a cocktail party.
Nikki Van Noy: Gary, thank you for joining us today on Author Hour.
Gary Vien: It’s a pleasure to be here with you, Nikki.
Nikki Van Noy: So, I really enjoyed reading about your background because over the last 40 years you’ve been in a diverse array of fields, ranging from the entertainment industry to the credit union movement. Tell me a little bit about your background.
Gary Vien: Well, thank you, Nikki. My background–I started when I was 15 at Six Flags over Mid-American St. Louis twisting pretzels.
Nikki Van Noy: Cool!
Gary Vien: Little did I know that I would have a 25-year career there, going from St. Louis to Houston, then Los Angeles, then the corporate office in New Jersey. And then I wanted to work with Anheuser-Busch growing up in St. Louis, and I had the opportunity to go to Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida
Nikki Van Noy: That sounds like such a fun career.
Gary Vien: It is really amazing. It let me really see people all over the country and to visit different parts of the country as well as the world. I actually recruited around the world, in the Philippines, in Taiwan, and Moscow, and Poland, and Bulgaria. So, it taught me a lot about people, and it taught me a lot about what is good in people and how everyone wants to really do the best they can whenever they get into a good situation.
Nikki Van Noy: What an amazing way to look at the world. So, you worked yourself from pretzel twisting all way up to leadership, correct?
Gary Vien: That is correct.
Nikki Van Noy: What did that look like? Were there big leaps in there? Or did you just steadily make your way over time? What was your trajectory?
Gary Vien: The trajectory was starting again at 15 and within my first year, I was an assistant manager. The next year they gave me responsibility for some food restaurants and then following year, supervisory. So, it really felt like it was moving at a good pace. At that time, I was in college getting my degree at the University of Missouri, and they continued to bring me through the organization as a supervisor and I had a chance to then go over to human resources and actually go and recruit people.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow. So, the most important question here, did you get to go on free rides all the time?
Gary Vien: Any time I wanted to, Nikki.
Nikki Van Noy: Oh, that’s the dream.
Gary Vien: It was really fantastic. But not only that, but then I had a chance to transfer again as a personnel manager down into Houston. Go out to California, moved up to be the Director of Administration and then went to the corporate offices as a Corporate Director of Human Resources for Six Flags, then came down to Busch Gardens as the Vice President of Human Resources and Training Development.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow, that’s amazing. So, this entire trajectory started at 15 and just kept on going from there?
Gary Vien: It did. And then I was fortunate enough to be hired at Suncoast Credit Union, Florida’s largest credit union, as the Senior Vice President of Human Resources and I’m currently in the role of the Chief Administrative Officer for Suncoast.
Nikki Van Noy: So, I’m curious, what was that transition like going from one industry to another?
Gary Vien: Well, as I joke with some friends, I really just traded one set of animals for another, going from theme parks to credit unions. You know, people are all the same wherever you go and in human resources, you find personalities and people with certain leadership skills, and you just use them to their advantage, the employees’ advantage to make themselves better and to help them in their career.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay. So, diving into this topic of leadership, which is what you’re writing about here, you talk about how leaders are not born, but developed. I’m curious about, in your own experience, what were some of your primary developmental moments or the moments that really stand out the most to you in retrospect?
Gary Vien: So, three events of my life really sum up how I became who I am today, and I’m going to attempt to tie these three events together and it’s really a bookmobile, a little brown journal, and a cocktail party. Are you ready?
Nikki Van Noy: I’m intrigued. You piqued my interest
Gary Vien: Well, during the summers in St. Louis, when we’re going to school when I was nine years old, we had to read books during the summer, and a bookmobile would always come the last day of school, and I’d have to go in there and start bumbling around trying to find some books. I really stumbled into the biography section and found a book on Benjamin Franklin and I couldn’t put it down. You know, what nine-year-old boy wouldn’t be fascinated by a founding father who flew a kite in a storm to study electricity and became a thought leader in his day? And I was really hooked on that vision. My father told me to read all I could and be a voracious reader when I was little.
The second one involved my dad, it is when I was 12, he gave me a little six by nine-inch blank journal and he looked at me and said, “Here, fill it up.” And I went, “What do you think? I’m 12 years old. What I put in there?” And he said, “Well, put anything that moves you and put all of your thoughts in there.” And what I did was I didn’t know what the write. So, I left it on my counter, looking at all these days. And finally, I started writing some things in my journal. Actually, the first thing that I wrote was something from history that I saw written on a document in a book, and that was Carpe Diem. And I said, “What a great way to start; seize the day, just jump right in there,” and wrote Seize the Day and throughout this time, even today, I’ve got the journal with me and I continue to write different stories and thoughts that I like different quotes, different letters that I’ve written to my parents.
Then the last one again is another one about my dad. But when I was about 15, he took me to a rare cocktail party because my mother couldn’t go there and he told me to get a newspaper, memorize a story from the front page, the sports section, and the local section. And at the party, he introduced me as his oldest son and, “Would you like to say something, Gary?” And I said, “Sure, it’s a pleasure to meet all of you and can you believe the seventh innings that was pitched by Bob Gibson last night? The Cardinals beat the San Diego Padres 14-3,” and the men started talking and my dad kind of looked down and winked at me and shooed me away. And I found that my job was really to start the conversation and to be present and to learn how to speak with adults at that time.
So, you kind of pull all those things together, and you have someone who is learning to be confident in his own skin and someone who loves to read. Charlie Tremendous Jones always said, “You know, there are two things in your life that will make you who you are. One is to read as many books as you can and the people that you meet.” And so, I had a chance to do all those types of things.
Nikki Van Noy: My book wormy heart is exploding over here that you’re citing a bookmobile, a journal, and newspapers as primary influences. That’s beautiful.
Gary Vien: Thank you.
The Importance of Curiosity
Nikki Van Noy: I love this and what’s interesting to me too is that all of these experiences happened when you were pretty young, and they made such a profound impact on you and really stayed with you.
Gary Vien: They were, and it really opened my mind for what else is out there in the world. And it taught me to be very curious about everything–curious about people and curious about events and curious about how things work. I was trying to take apart things as a child and trying to put them all back together, using all of the parts instead of having a few just left over. But you’ll find that when you try to take people apart and try to look at them, they remember how you make them feel, and you try to use that to their advantage again to make them be the best that they can be.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s true, and I love this idea of curiosity. When I think back about, to some of the leaders that I’ve encountered in my professional life, I don’t think I ever would have put it like this until you said it. But one of the distinguishing factors is curiosity, and there can be a lot of rigidity in leadership, and curiosity, it really makes a massive difference in everything from relationships to how things were run.
Gary Vien: It is so true. And curiosity is one of those words that you get to define. You could be curious about all types of things throughout your own life, as about your world as well.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, you know, another thing that you talk about is how there can be this fear to ever step out because you don’t want to fail. I’m curious if there are any points in your past, either in business more generally or as the leader, where you’ve stepped out and failed but really taken something away from that in such a way that it’s almost been a success further down the line?
Gary Vien: Oh, Nikki, I fail all the time. I had a football coach when I was smaller, I was very small and my father wanted me to go into football and all my coach would say is, “Just hold onto the ball and fall forward, Gary. Just fall forward.” So, they probably gained an extra two yards there.
But it’s so true. When you look at some of the failures, those were some of the biggest learnings that you have in life. Whether you didn’t get that job or that girl that you wanted to date or that business opportunity, is that you should learn from each of those and then make you stronger. And it should make you think about how you can use that to your advantage the next time.
Nikki Van Noy: I feel like there is this interesting quirk in human nature when it comes to failure, which is, I agree with you 100%. If I look at my biggest leaps forward in life–usually if I tracked back far enough, what I find at the root of them is a failure or something going off course that I didn’t want to go off course in the first place. But that’s one of those things where every time I find myself in the midst of failure, I have to remind myself of that over again. Like at the moment it’s so difficult to think–at least for me–It’s difficult to think, “Well, this is gonna pay off in the long run.”
Gary Vien: We’ll Nikki, you are so right and one of the things I talk about in my book is–have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome?
Nikki Van Noy: Oh yeah.
Gary Vien: You know, ordinary people, go out and save somebody’s life and people are making a big fuss of him and news people are thrusting microphones and they’re saying, I just did what anyone else would have done. I was just lucky to be there at the right place, at the right time. But people throughout history have had this imposter syndrome where you walk into a room and you look around, you say, “What am I doing here? I feel like a fraud. What happens if they find me out?” But people like Maya Angelou, the American poet, she said at some point that she wrote eleven different books, and each time she thought, “Uh, oh, I’ve run the game on everybody.”
Nikki Van Noy: It’s all over now.
Gary Vien: It’s over now, yeah, Albert Einstein, even Groucho Marx. But the thing is, it’s natural. Hold your head up high, go into the room, act like you own the place, and have fun at the same time.
Nikki Van Noy: I like that idea of having fun. I think that’s the element that is easiest to miss out on.
Gary Vien: Well, throughout my career, in the theme park business and even in the credit union world, we have so many good people out there and I love walking around different offices. And if I hear people laughing, then I know things are okay there to do the job. If they can bring their personality to work, if they can enjoy the people that they work with eight hours plus a day, then we’ve got a good thing going.
Eight Principles of Leadership
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. So, in your book, you concentrate on eight principles of leadership. How did you come to these eight? I’m sure that there were many lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career–why were these the ones?
Gary Vien: Well, because no one would buy a book with 83 tips. So, I had to break it down into eight. And when I looked at these eight, they really jelled together to say that if you can put these in your life, and if you could use them, and if you could really manage and develop in these, you’ll be highly successful. Things such as simplicity, and common sense, and just having the right attitude, and the energy whenever you walk into a room or go into a situation.
I grouped three together because I think three is one of those strong numbers, and in life, the three-legged stool never falls. But it’s honesty and integrity and humility, and you need to bring the humility to work and to your life. Another one is how to adapt and control. You know, I talk about relationships a lot because relationships are really the bedrock of how everything gets done because leadership is really about getting work done through others.
Then you can’t have eight tips without communication and how you communicate. Then you come up with ideas and innovation and planning and then kind of come down to focus and discipline.
Discipline and focus are the last chapter and focus on actions that produce results. Focus is more really important than intelligence because you need to get things done. Business is all about getting things done. It’s not about thinking about them or talking about him, and if you have the focus, you have the discipline. You could move mountains.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s interesting to me that the way these principles are organized, though, these results that discipline and focus actually come last. Like if I look at this list, there’s so much more about demeanor and attitude and relationships and communicating that comes before we get down to the more locked down aspects of business and leadership.
Gary Vien: It’s all about the soft skills and when we talk about humility and that attitude like you were saying, those pieces that really make up who you are and how you relate to people will determine your success.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m curious, are there any of these principles that have been, or is there any one principle that has been, the hardest one for you over your career?
Gary Vien: That’s a great question, Nikki, and I have to say that probably the adapting and controlling piece is that you want to control everything. If you have children, you know what I mean.
Nikki Van Noy: I have a two-year-old. I know exactly what you mean.
Gary Vien: You can’t control other people’s lives. But you have to really be building your frame of reference. One of our vice presidents in zoology that worked at Busch Gardens who used to say, “You know, animals do three things. They either adapt to a situation. They either migrate out of that situation, or they perish.”
When you look at that with people, it’s the same thing in jobs and in businesses all around the country. People will adapt and do very well. People might migrate to other areas or other departments or other responsibilities. They might migrate out of the organization, and some of them just kind of die in their own job, and they just forgot to tell you that they’re retired a while ago.
Nikki Van Noy: I mean, it makes sense that an observation like this would come from someone who works with animals. That makes so much sense to me that such an acute observation would come in that arena.
Gary Vien: It’s amazing when you walk around the park and you have a chance to see, not only the people in the park but also the animals. The great collection that is there, you really had a chance to see how they interact and how they depend on each other to get that energy and to do the things that animals and people do.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, that’s a cool way to spend the day. And of these principles, are there any that you feel like, in your own life and also, you’ve had time to witness others in leadership positions too obviously throughout the course of your career, are there any of these that you feel are sort of more commonly overlooked? People don’t place the weight upon them that you feel that they deserve.
Gary Vien: There is, Nikki, and I would say it’s about relationships. While you are a leader and you get work done through others, they don’t necessarily spend the time to get to know who they’re working with. Because when you look at your group of employees, there’s something going on in every single person’s life out there, and you may never know it. You may never know that their dog passed away this past month, and that’s why they were feeling sad. Or you never know that they’re ill or you may never know that they’ve had relationship problems. But a good manager, a good leader will know those things, and they use that information to help them through those.
Again, I go back to making people feel important and feel loved. We don’t talk about love enough in business. But when you look around, you really have to care about the people that you work with, and you give them some extra energy, as well as you know where to direct them. I’ve been married 39 years with my bride and someone said, “What’s the secret for staying married for 39 years?” And I said, “Well, it’s a 60-40 relationship.” Now, before I get any hate mail out there, 60% is that both parties put in 60% and they only take out 40, leaving another 40 in there. So, when I need something else or when my wife, Mary needs something else, it’s a give and take relationship, we know how to give and take back and forth, which keeps us together.
Nikki Van Noy: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put exactly that way before. I like that. It’s sort of like never letting the tank run empty.
Gary Vien: That’s right. Everybody needs something and even a smile when you walk by someone or a simple “hello” can change the trajectory of someone’s life or someone’s day. And we don’t do enough of that in business.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. You know, one of the best transformations I’ve seen in workplaces over the last 10 years or so, and maybe it’s just the places I’ve worked, but I feel like a decade, 15 years ago, there was more of this war culture where you really kept what was going on in your life to yourself. Unless it had to be out there or you had your core group of work friends, maybe a couple of people who knew more of the full story. I feel like now there is so much more disclosure so that we’re getting to know the people we work with, both our leaders and our co-workers, for who they are in all aspects of their life. As you said, that just makes work so much better. You can’t really separate the two. When you’re spending eight hours or more a day in one place, it’s like shutting down a massive part of yourself for the majority of your waking hours.
Gary Vien: Every two weeks we bring in new hires and our entire senior team comes to speak to them, and we have lunch with them. Just today we were talking about that same thing is that we told them that you all are now putting on the jersey that says Suncoast Credit Union on the front of it. But your name is on the back of it, and you’ve got to be the one to bring your energy and your personality to work because you are your company to others. You are you, the company to the community. You are the person that will represent this out there in the community. Your name on the back stays the same, and we want you to bring that energy and enthusiasm to work every day as best you can.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s powerful. So, Gary, one thing that is very immediately obvious about you and you say this in the book also, is that you are an eternal optimist, which I think we’re coming to recognize more and more is a superpower. I’m curious about how that has played out for you in your career and especially as a leader.
Gary Vien: It has played out extremely well, I believe. It has shown throughout my entire career that I’ve been the one to volunteer whenever I had an opportunity to. I had a friend who used to say that you can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there, which means you really have to show up. You have to be there, put your own self in there.
You never wait for the perfect time to smile or, for example, I open doors for everyone. I worked in theme parks and I picked up trash all the time.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes sense.
Gary Vien: It is all those little things that people see. You do that and make up your own personality. Hopefully, it makes them think that I can trust him. I could go and tell him something. It’s not going to get out. I need some help. It brings people together so we can solve whatever the issue is, so they can get back to work and do a wonderful, wonderful job.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. And my last question for you. Why now? It seems to me you’ve been collecting these lessons for quite a while now. So why did now feel like the right time to put it in a book?
Gary Vien: Well, we live in Tampa and we typically drive or fly back and forth to St. Louis for Christmas. Three years ago, as we do all the time coming back or driving up, we talk about our goals for next year and what we’ve accomplished this year. And what about our children? What’s going to happen?
For the past 10 or 15 years, I’ve been saying, “You know, I’m going to write my book. I’ve got all this great content. I’ve got a journal I have been writing since I was 12. I’m ready to do it.” My wife stopped, turned her head to me and said, “Gary, if you’re going to do it, do it. But if you’re not going to do it, we’re not going to talk about it next year.”
Nikki Van Noy: I like your wife.
Gary Vien: Thank you. I do too. And so, I said, “Well, then I better do it.” It really was a labor of love. It was something that took me several years to write, but looking back on it, I’m very proud of the work. It’s a good little read. It will make you smile throughout. There are some great stories, great tips, and tricks. But even more than that, in the back of the book, I have added about 35 statements from leaders that I look up to in my life and that have made an impact in my life in various companies and various organizations.
I asked them, I said, “If you’re going to talk to the next generation, what would you tell them? Give me a tip that will make their leadership journey better for them.” And, boy, did they come through just phenomenally.
I want to remind everyone that there is no perfect time. It will never come. So, you need to start today working on your goals and your skills and your abilities to make you better in the future. Do your future self a favor
Nikki Van Noy: That is going to make for such a cool drive this year. You also better come up with that next goal.
Gary Vien: I think so. I think you may have one for me.
Nikki Van Noy: All right, Gary, thank you for joining us today. Let’s let listeners know where they confined you.
Gary Vien: Thanks very much, Nikki. Anyone who’d like to get in touch with me can contact me on my website at www.garyvien.com. Or you can look on LinkedIn.
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. Thanks for joining us today, Gary.
Gary Vien: Been a wonderful time. Nikki. Thank you very much.
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