Preface – The Chocolate Conversation: Lead Bittersweet Change; Transform Your Business


Over the years, I have been invited to speak to diverse audiences on the subject of leadership and transformation. Following these engagements, I am often asked if I have written a book. For those of you who have resonated with me, your encouragement got me here.

I dedicate this book to my dad, whose leadership, strength, and integrity taught me what it means to go the distance and to stay the course through challenging times. While I was writing this book, my father, a U.S. Marine who served in World War II, a poet, and a business executive, fought his final battle. He died of congestive heart failure on Saturday, August 18, at 3:55 in the afternoon. This book is for you, Dad. Thank you for leading me through life.

I look back on my career now and I see where and how the lessons of my childhood and those of my early career in the corporate world got me to where I am today, talking to you. Some of the most important lessons didn’t look like lessons at the time—they just looked like life.

Later in the book, I’ll reference my time at Xerox, where I started in sales on a management fast track and eighteen years later became the chief transformation officer. Several years after that, I was recruited by Gartner, a well-regarded IT research firm, to create, staff, and lead a center for business transformation. In 2001, I filed for incorporation of fassforward. Up until then, I had always worked for a publicly traded company. This was my first venture into entrepreneurship. I was on my own. It was a scary time for me.

As with many entrepreneurs, I started working from my home. My soon-to-be partner, Gavin McMahon, was in Texas working on getting his United States residency. While he was gone, I secured our first client and found a small office space above the local post office.

The rent was modest and the space was just big enough for two desks and a small conference table. Fortunately, a friend told me about a used office furniture place not far from the post office. The guys there were great, and they sold me furniture at a reasonable price and threw in a wall-mounted whiteboard. My husband brought in a painter who plastered and painted the walls. I put a chair rail around the perimeter of the office to give it some dimension and I had two phones and two desktop computers installed. When Gavin returned from Texas, we were set up and ready to go.

My new client phoned and asked if I could meet with the company’s head of research and development, who was coming in from Canada. My client wanted to meet in our office. This was in the days following 9/11, when midtown office space for everyone was tight—many companies had to squeeze into their midtown offices because they no longer had access to their downtown spaces.

I wasn’t thrilled about having them come to the post office, but what could I do?

That evening, I went to the store and bought cleaning supplies to wash down the walls of the elevator. Once everyone left the building, I changed into my jeans, went down to the lobby, locked the front door, and began cleaning the elevator.

The rug smelled of mildew. I scrubbed and scrubbed, to no avail. Well, mildew smell would not do, so I ripped up the rug, intending to throw it away. That was no easy feat—I broke a few nails in the process.

Hoping no one I knew would be walking by, I dragged the rug to the front door and peeked out onto the street. Good! The coast was clear! I pulled the rug to the end of the block and dumped it into a large trash can.

After I scrubbed the elevator floor, I laid newspaper down to keep it clean while I started on the walls. As fate would have it, there was a picture of Anne Mulcahy, my former boss at Xerox, looking up at me from the Wall Street Journal. Here I was, looking back, rag in one hand, Fantastik cleaner in the other, covered in dirt and with broken nails, cleaning the elevator in the local post office.

The voice in my head went like this: “What is wrong with this picture? What have I done? I used to be a ‘big piece of stuff,’ and now I’m a ‘Gertie Schmertz,’ with an office the size of a bookie joint, across from the train tracks.” That’s when I sat down on the elevator floor and had a meltdown.

With my head in my hands and adrift in all those “woe is me” thoughts, I lost track of the time until I looked up and noticed it was dark outside. And, there, at the front of the building, was my husband, Ron, banging on the door and calling to me through the glass to open up and let him in. I couldn’t move. He fumbled for his key and came rushing in.

There I sat, disheveled and unintelligible. I was sobbing and pointing to the picture in the newspaper. Ron connected the dots, grasped the situation—and demanded that I get up.

To know Ron is to understand what happened next. He did not take me into his arms and soothingly tell me it would all be okay. He pulled me to my feet and said, “You are bigger than this. It’s not where you work or who you work for that makes you good, it’s the work you do and WHO YOU ARE. This place does not define you. YOU do.”

I pulled myself together, finished the rest of the cleaning, and went home.

The next day, Gavin met our prospective client in the lobby. I laughed to myself when I heard that he opted to take the stairs.

Once we were seated around the conference table, listening to the client’s business challenges and brainstorming ideas, I was in the zone—my zone. I didn’t need the props to engage in a productive discussion and propose an approach that would work. We got the verbal agreement to put together a statement of work and began the process of helping our client transform his business.

After our client left, I told Gavin about that night in the elevator. It was a turning point in my own transformation. Leaving the life—and the world—around which I’d built my career was bittersweet, but the rewards have been beyond what I could have ever hoped for.

We’ve grown a business we can both be proud of, and in the process we’ve grown, too. What I came to realize is that my experience and my skills were still with me. I knew I could call on that talent to help other businesses avoid common pitfalls and embark on a successful transformation.

We did it first at Estée Lauder when we successfully resolved the cultural issues between MAC and Estée Lauder’s R&D teams. We followed with the formation of innovation teams at Estée Lauder that crossed businesses and resulted in a record number of new product and packaging patents in the first six months of the project.

Later, we began working with Interpublic Group of Companies, successfully creating a common operational business process across all their agencies. The CEO finally was able to view the financial performance of each agency and the aggregate of the holding company in an accurate and consistent format.

Howard Draft and Laurence Boschetto brought us in on the merger of Draft and FCB, formerly known as Foote, Cone & Belding. Here we were able to work with the leadership of both companies on a soup-to-nuts transformation that took us around the globe over a two-year period. Ad Age later referred to the Draftfcb merger as “uncommonly successful” and the only one of its kind.

A colleague who Gavin and I worked with at Gartner was hired by a global credit card company to head up its research group for a newly formed business unit. She introduced us to the president. We were hired by him and, with the president and his senior team, we successfully over a one-year period, helped them transform their business.

fassforward continues today to assist and guide our clients through the bittersweet change of transformation. We’ve come a long way from the office over the post office and the mildewed rug on the elevator floor.

As for me, I’ve come a long way, too.

As a young girl, I never thought about being a corporate executive. I loved to read and write poetry. I enjoyed all things creative and artistic.

My dad is the one who taught me how to express my ideas. He gave me a love for poetry and philosophy. My father believed in self-reliance, and so I listened to his lessons on Emerson and Thoreau with rapt attention. I hung on his every word, listening for hours as he recited poetry: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were among his favorites. They became mine.

My father went to college in the evenings on the GI Bill and did different jobs during the day. He was articulate, well read, and always dressed in a suit. He would often remind us that our appearance was our introduction to the world. He was ever aware that we were living in an Italian neighborhood. There were all types of families, and many of the parents spoke broken English and their children spoke in slang. Dad insisted we speak properly. He taught us new vocabulary words regularly and encouraged us to use them.

My father taught me many things, but this story is my favorite. It is my signature story:

Walt Disney talent scouts came to Utica, New York. My best friend’s cousin, Annette Funicello, was discovered and invited to audition with Walt Disney for a new series, The Mickey Mouse Club. Annette was several years older than we were, but, boy, were we jealous!

All of my friends were Italian-American girls, brunettes with big brown eyes, just like me—and just like Annette. We were all cute and we could all dance. So the big question was, “Why her?”

Roseanne, Annette’s cousin, tried to explain that Annette had taken dance lessons, was very talented, and had everything they were looking for—but we didn’t want to hear it. We hardly knew Annette because she was in junior high and we were in grade school, but we decided we didn’t like her. We walked home from school every day saying bad things about her.

I was so depressed to know that a girl from Utica was going to be famous and it wasn’t going to be me! I moped for days. I drove my parents crazy.

My mother tried to cheer me up. She told me that we see down the street, but God sees around the corner, and I couldn’t know what was waiting for me around that corner. I asked her if she knew. She said, “Your time will come, Rose, and when it does, you’ll know.” My snippy, little grade-school response was, “When? Next Tuesday?” Mom told me to be patient. I was not at all satisfied with her answer, so I continued to mope.

At the end of the week, I was walking home from school commiserating with my friends. When we got to my street, I waved goodbye. I headed toward the house with my head down, still despondent over what was clearly the wrong choice by those Walt Disney people. I was not at all sure that I would survive not being famous.

It was a rare and beautiful spring day. Under normal circumstances, I would have been delighted. Upstate New York winters always seemed endless in their dreariness. Today was a gorgeous exception. My dad was standing in front of our house picking dandelions from a patch of grass we referred to as our front yard.

Head down, I mumbled, “Hello,” as I attempted to walk by him. It didn’t work. He firmly called to me, “Rose, I want to see you.” Having read a little of my dad’s story earlier in this preface, you can imagine my “mopy-ness” didn’t go over well with my self-reliant, make-your-own-way dad. He loved me dearly but he had no patience for my self-indulgent, celebrity fantasy about being discovered by the Disney scouts—and my devastation that someone else got picked, and “Why not me?”

I knew he wasn’t pleased with me, so I tried to postpone the encounter. He was not to be put off, however. He held up a dandelion. He said, “Rose, what do you see?” I was aware that the answer on the tip of my tongue wasn’t going to fly, so I shrugged and said, “It’s a dandelion, Dad.” He came right back at me: “Rose, look deeper, what do you really see?” Even at nine, I was the Queen of Rhetorical Responses. I replied, “I don’t know, Dad, what do you see?” He knew what I was doing, and, a little amused, he humored me.

And, then . . . he surprised me: “I see the end of a long winter, the dawn of a new season, children frolicking in their front yards, bringing bunches of these dandelions to their mothers to place in juice glasses on the sills of kitchen windows. I see lovers walking hand in hand, stopping to pick bunches of them to exchange in silent I love yous. I see the promise of warm summer days and endless fragrant nights.” I could feel my tears and the lump in my throat. All I could say was, “You see a lot, Dad.”

He smiled and said, “Soon, Rose, the prettier flowers will come along, and this once welcome introduction to spring will become an intruder—a distortion to the lawn. That’s when I, like many homeowners, will go to the local nurseries to buy chemicals to rid our lawns of this weed. But the beauty of the dandelion does not lie in its brief moment of glory. For those of us who have worked at pulling up dandelions, we know they come back each year, double fold. The beauty of the dandelion is, it’s in its root and its resilience.”

He paused for a moment to let that sink in. Then, he said, “Your mother and I named you ‘Rose,’ but roses are fragile. In your heart, you need to be a dandelion.”

I don’t know exactly what happened to me, just that some deep understanding gripped my being. I cried while my dad held me.

In the arms of a poet, a philosopher, and a U.S. Marine, I learned my life’s most important lesson: resilience. I have carried that story with me ever since. Over the years, friends, students, and colleagues have solicited my perspective on what I consider to be the most significant attribute of well-regarded leaders. There are probably a dozen or more good responses to this question. What I would call attention to are those individuals who make a conscious effort to keep the ego in check, those who resist becoming overly inflated in times of triumph or self-flagellating in times of challenge. There is joy during the moments of glory and steadfastness in times of defeat.

The authentic leaders are the ones who keep coming back, the ones who are resilient and focused and who fight to keep their integrity and help others do the same. They are the ones who lead by example, those who go the distance. I refer to them as kindred spirits—they are my fellow dandelions.

Thank you, Dad. In my heart,
I know I am a dandelion—because of you.
Rose Fass, February, 2013