Sometimes, one’s love for music will give you more than entertainment. For Gerald J. Leonard of Principles of Execution, this put him on a path toward success in the realm of consulting. Sitting down with Michael Zipursky, he shares how he integrates the musical talents he honed from childhood into his career in consulting, helping scale businesses through programs that actually work. Gerald explains how this experience taught him the importance of getting proper mentorship to continuously improve his skills, particularly his innate marketing skills. He also shares how his constant desire to learn and grow allowed him to write a book, create his own course, and develop a seven-step process in creating the right workplace culture for you.
I’m with Gerald J. Leonard. Welcome.
Thank you very much, Michael. I’m glad to be here.
Gerald, you’re an author, speaker, CEO of Principles of Execution where you help leaders build high performing teams. Your work has been featured in the likes of the Project Management World 360, Entrepreneur.com, TechRepublic, a whole bunch of others. You’re also a professional bassist. Your understanding of music, you use that to help companies become more productive in the workplace. Where I’d like to get started, Gerald is let’s go way back because I’m sure this is from the early days. Where did your passion for music come from?
I have a TEDx Talk out there. In my TEDx, I share the story of how I got started. It was my sister’s guitar. I was twelve years old. I was taking some piano lessons and another sister is playing piano. Neither one of them went professional or went into music seriously. I was the only one that did. I fell in love with the guitar. I would sneak into her room, play it or get it. It was her prize guitar, but she was never playing it. One day she found me and she realized she wasn’t going to play it. As a brother and sister, she let me have the guitar, but she also let me have it for her taking her guitar.
We laugh about it because we still have that little red guitar. It’s like this little toy thing. It was my stowaway. From that experience, I fell in love with music. From there, I joined a band with some friends. One of them was an amazing guitar player. I realized the guitar is not going to happen for me because he’s way ahead of me. He was playing like Jimi Hendrix at the time. He’s a fourteen-year-old kid playing like Jimi Hendrix. The bass came along. That’s when I picked up the bass. I’ve been with the bass ever since. It’s been a major part of my life since I was twelve years old.
How many hours would you spend practicing a day or a week? Take us through what that routine looks like.People don't want process or technology. They want the result. Click To Tweet
When I was a kid, it was fanatical. That’s all I did. When I went to college, I spent in undergrad and in grad school maybe about 6, 7 hours a day. I lived in the practice room. I played both classical, orchestral music, jazz and RnB. My thinking behind it was, “I wanted to be the musician that could make a living, playing music and not having to be on the road all the time for one particular style but that I could live in a city. I could play the chamber orchestra, a ballet, a show, a jazz club or RnB.” I learned how to read and play by ear.
That happened for me when I lived in Cincinnati doing my Master’s. When I lived in New York, I was working as a musician. That strategy worked for me. I spent a lot of hours studying and working. It shaped my thought process in life, especially even in my business career. I learned the value of practicing. In fact, my TEDx Talk is called What If Practice Is the Performance. Even at the top of the game, most professional musicians will spend 95% of their time practicing. They’re only on stage 5% of the time. You have to fall in love with the art of practicing and working on your craft.
I remember hearing a podcast with Jerry Seinfeld and another one with Kevin Hart talking about how they break down preparing for comedy and all the feedback that they get from the audience. It made me think that most people view them on stage or in some performance like, “These people are amazing. They’re so good at what they do.” People often don’t look at the majority of the time where they’re deep strategizing, practicing and going over things over and over again. What percentage of being a successful musician do you think comes from your DNA, whether you’re good at rhythm and good at understanding that whole vibe around music compared to that you can learn, even if you don’t start off with that understanding of rhythm? Can you still become successful in the music world? What are your thoughts on that?
I do believe that you do have to have a certain amount of talent or rhythm. Once you have a certain amount of rhythm and talent, it stops there and everything else is work. It’s like maybe 2%, 3% the fact that you have some talent. You can dance. You can stay on the beat or something like that. What it boils down to is deliberate practice. What I mean by deliberate practice is once I got started and I fell in love with it, I knew I needed a teacher. I worked part-time as a kid, even in high school and made some extra money, went and found a bass teacher and paid for lessons. My mom would come home and I’d be standing there at the door with my bass, waiting for her to take me to the lesson. The instructor or the person who is teaching me would give me certain things to work on that were above my level of proficiency.
I’d have to go back and struggle. I would work on those things and I get better. I come back and I play them for them. I saw the progression that he was giving me difficult things to work on. It was making me better. I was blending that in with having fun doing it. It wasn’t just all hard work and sweat. It’s enjoying and having fun. There was this concept of deliberate practice. When I went to college and did my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Music, there was a lot of deliberate practice, training, recitals and things where you’re being pushed to the limit of what you’re capable of doing.
How do you go from being a music professional to transitioning into business? That’s a bit of an unlikely transition in most people’s minds. Tell us how did it come about. How did you go from the music world into the world of business and then merging those two?
What happened for me was I left Cincinnati. I spent a year in New York. I was working as a professional musician but I was also studying for a year. I had a couple opportunities that I turned down. I won’t go into details of those. Long story short, with doing that, I was involved with the church that I was a part of. I got involved in the ministry a little bit. I did that for about 6, 7 years. I was playing a lot at the time in doing both. Getting married and having kids, I grew up and my dad was always there. I can see pictures of him getting up at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning going to work. The idea for me leaving my family, leaving my kids and saying, “I’m a working musician and the only way I can make a good living is to go on the road and travel around the world. I’ll see you guys in a month or two or a year from now,” I couldn’t bring myself to do that.
That pushed me to a place where I was like, “I’m going to keep playing locally but to take care of my family, I’m going to have to do some other things.” That’s when I got into IT. In fact, it was around the time where if you could spell IT, you could get in. For me, what was interesting being a musician was I always saw it as a business. I always saw the business side of music. You had to perform and practice, but you got to get the gig, get paid for it, make living and be profitable. This concept of project management, being productive and getting things done, it showed up in my life. I realized that even though I did some of the technology things and learn technology, that the project program portfolio management space was naturally fit for me.
That’s where I gravitated towards. I’d already had my Master’s and so I thought, “Do I want to go back and get a Master’s?” I realized that by going after certifications in IT and in project management that I could make as much money as somebody who went and got an MBA because of my leadership experience and my travel experience. That was the road I took. I’m a learner by heart. I’m a lifelong learner. If I’m going through something and I feel bad about something, I’ll take a class. I’ll read a book and I’ll feel better. I love learning. That’s what I did. I read everything I could. I took courses, found mentors, coaches. Over time, doors opened.
What did that look like? What were some of the early wins when you think back to your first clients outside of working as an employee when you became an owner of the business? Who were the first clients and how do you go about getting those projects?
What’s interesting was that I was in a couple of consulting businesses prior. I was still an employee, but I was doing major consulting. I was working at consulting for the national archives for GEICO, Del Monte, large biotechs, healthcare center in Boston, women’s health center. When I started my own consulting practice, I had been in the field for close to twenty years. I had a lot of connections. I had worked as a sales consultant, was delivering for CMS, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services up in the DC area, selling the services and networking. I had this whole Rolodex of CEO, CIOs and other folks. I was also the President for nine years of the Microsoft Project User Group. Again, I was a learner. I was someone who wanted to network. I realized one of the ways to get good at what you do is find a group. That’s an affinity group for what you are a part of and have other people that you can talk shop.
You had these connections, which for a lot of people would be enviable. A lot of people would love to have it and the Rolodex that you had, but what did you do with it? How did you engage with those people? Take us through as granular and detailed as possible. What were the steps that you took when you decided to launch your consulting business?
I’ll tell you how I launched it. I had gotten into a relationship, our friendship and working environment with a consultant who was a good friend of mine. He was in the government space. He wanted to grow in the commercial space, but he didn’t realize the commercial space starts a little bit slower than the government space. They’re not going to give you millions of dollars and say, “Come on in.” They’re going to give you five figures or something like that and say, “Let’s see how it works.” We parted ways. Right before we parted ways, I saw an assessment that was based on my skillset. I turned around and said, “I know we’re parting ways, but we saw this engagement. It’s based on my skills. Would you give that work to me?” He said, “Sure.” That was one of my first clients.
I then reached out to everyone that I had been networking with through LinkedIn. I sent a message. “I started my own consulting practice.” I had a blog and I turned it into my website. Principles of Execution was a blog. That’s how I got started. I was writing articles on there. I added a service page to it. I sent him a link in the message. I sent it to about 300 people. A number of people got back to me, but two people got back and said, “I have a client. They’re up in Rochester. They need some work. Here’s a check. I’ll send you the contract. Take care of them.” They knew me. Another person reached out and said, “Can you be in Virginia on Monday?” I was like, “What you got?” He said, “One of our clients is a major state agency and they have a major problem. They need some one of your skills. I know you. We’ve worked together and networked for a while. I’ll fax you the paperwork. Sign it. Just be there on Monday and we’ll start.” That client is still my client.
You land these two projects. The business is up and running. You got your shop, the name plates over the door. It’s, “Principles of Execution, now open for business.” What do you do next? How do you work from getting things started to filling the pipeline and generating a lot more revenue?If you want to learn and find yourself the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong place. Click To Tweet
This goes back to the music training. Even as a serious professional musician, you know that there’s only so much that you know. If you want to go to the top of your game, you need to find instructors, mentors, coaches or people who are way ahead of you. One of the guys I had a chance to work with on a project was a guy named Carl Pritchard. He had written about seven books and was known as the guy in project management in that area. We became friends. I called him up and said, “Carl, I started my own consulting practice. I got a couple of clients. Here’s what I’m doing. Can I come have lunch with you and talk it out? I want to get some advice from you. Let’s have a chat.”
We met. We had lunch together. One of the things he said was, “First thing you need to do as a thought leader is you got to write a book. Next thing is you got to have a course.” From that, I wrote a course. In fact, I ended up getting a certification in what they call Portfolio Management. You heard of the PMP Certification and Project Management. There’s also something called a PfMP, which is at the portfolio level. It’s like Project Management Program Portfolio level. I couldn’t find any materials out there, so I wrote a course based on all what I was bringing to the table. That became my certification course that I taught as well as the material that I use to take the certification and pass the certification.
From that, I had been doing some speaking for the Project Management Institute and other organizations and for Microsoft. I realized that I need to keep speaking, but then the music began to keep coming back in. I was still playing music at the same time. I went to a conference. This is the whole new music mentality. I went to a workshop with Willie and Dee Jolley. Willie’s one of the top five speakers in the world in NSA. He’s a Hall of Fame speaker, but he’s also a jazz singer. His wife is an Education major, had Master’s in Music and worked for the government. I spent with them with a small group on a mastermind. When I told them about my business and what I was trying to do, she said to me, “What you do is you help companies change their culture.” I went, “I never thought about it from that angle.”
At that time, the song All About That Bass was out. He was like, “If you take that All About That Bass and put it into the culture, culture is the bass.” Those ideas begin to germinate. I did research. I got involved in the speaking business more. It all morphed to where I ended up writing my first book, Culture Is The Bass. It was about my experience as a classical jazz musician, classically trained and what I learn through growing up in the arts that has helped me as a business consultant. Like at any great song, you always have a great baseline where every great company has a great culture. I did a lot of research. I read a lot of the Harvard review articles. I read a number of case studies. I’ve read things from The Wharton School.
With the schools I went to, you always believed in peer reviewed material. I always went after well-researched, well-branded material where I knew it was a lot of thought leadership put into it. I developed a seven step process around how you develop a culture. I used it and framed it for helping companies develop a culture that works. I use it in my consulting with my companies. It helped them make a difference.
Gerald, you have that book, Culture Is The Bass. How did you leverage it? What did you do with that book to help you to generate more business? What were the steps you used? Do you send copies in the mail to people? Did you bring it to meetings? What were the actual tactical steps that you took?
Any meeting I went to, I had a copy with me. That first book was a self-published book. In fact, that wasn’t the cover of the book. The cover was purple. You go on Amazon and you query that book, you’ll realize there are two versions of it. That’s the second version of it because I realized I needed to change a little bit, getting more advice and getting input. “Let’s make it better.” I would always have a copy of the book with me. I self-published it, it didn’t cost me a lot to print it myself from Amazon. I would sign it and I’d give it to people. People were buying it. I ended up with 30 something reviews on it.
People were like, “I get this concept. You’re taking this complex concept. You’ve made it simple and easy to access.” I would share it with potential clients. With the work I had done in the past and other clients I’d had, I would get a phone call from a major law firm. “We’ve worked together at that time. I know you were doing this at the firm. I was the Director of this. I’m now the CIO of this company. I need your help. What you did for that major law firm, can you come and do it for me?”
When you’re referencing the major law firm, was this before you struggled in your own consulting business?
It was before I started out on my own. I had a good track record of experience to work with. It wasn’t like I was just starting something new. I was reading one of your other shows. The gentleman was talking about how you do have to niche in your market. For me, it was niching down. Even what I’m doing now is niching down in my market. There are tons of project program and portfolio management consulting firms out there, but few of them focus on the cultural aspect of all the change that they are introducing. One of my clients had over 1,000 project managers trying to roll out this complex system.
I won’t give the name but a previous company had been in there. They were good at the technology. They were good at project management but they couldn’t get the state workers and the team to adopt the solution. One of the major reasons they could not do it is that they were leading from, “This is a great technology. This is a great process.” People don’t want process. They don’t want technology. They want the result. “I don’t want to drill. I want a hole. I want a nice smooth hole. The drill just helps me to get that.” What I did with them was instead of starting with the technology, I said, “Let’s hide the technology. Let’s put the technology in like curb and gutter work.” When you start a new construction of a building, you put all the groundwork in first. You can’t see anything because it’s below ground, but you do feel the effects of it when you start building the building.
For everyone reading, even though you may not be working in the same industry or area that Gerald is, think about how you can apply what he’s sharing with us to your specific situation. This is all about differentiation. It’s about understanding how can you bring greater value to the marketplace and differentiate yourself from others who might be doing something a little bit similar. Let’s talk for a moment about when you take what you’ve created to this point that you’ve identified the missing pieces culture as part of transformation and project management and portfolio management. What is your typical engagement look like? Whether it’s now or back, I don’t know how much things have changed. Walk us through when a client is engaging with you, where does that usually begin? Is it from a speaking engagement? Is it you doing an assessment? Is it a larger project? What does a typical engagement with Gerald look like?
It usually starts with an assessment. I have an assessment that I’ve done that’s based on the Carnegie Mellon and the maturity model. Initially, I was doing it face-to-face and asking all the questions. I built it out where I put it all online. It’s much easier to have more people from the same company do it. It consolidates the report. I give them what I call the turn the lights on moment. A lot of times a leadership would say, “This is what I think is going on,” but they haven’t talked to everyone else or some key people within the organization. By getting a 360 review of their organization, they get a better feel. They realized that, “We haven’t communicated greatly in this. We’re missing some things.”
It creates a gap analysis for them. I then give them a one-year roadmap. They can decide to say, “We’re good. We can take this and run with it,” or they go, “This is a lot of work. We need your help.” I’ve had clients who have done that and said, “We need your help.” It’s, “Let’s figure out what can you do,” which I call quick wins where the process is half baked. They have a few things they need to do to tighten it up. They’re often running in that area. There are multiple areas that you need focus on. We then focus on, “What are the things that you need my support on?” Many times, it’s not because they can’t do it themselves.
It’s because, “You’ve been to so many different places and have consulted for so many different companies that you have this unique perspective of what works and what doesn’t work. Your wisdom is going to save us tons of time and energy, instead of us trying to do it ourselves.” By engaging you to help us, guide us through this process, shepherd us and mentor us that you’re going to help us navigate this. It’s from an assessment to then some consulting work. It could be a training based on my book. It could be training based on their content or based on where they are. I customize something based on what the need is.
For those who aren’t maybe as familiar with the concept of an assessment or maybe they’re looking to refine, optimize what they’re doing, your assessment is a smaller initial fee compared to the larger consulting or training piece that would come after it, is that correct?
Exactly.Position yourself in a niche where you can provide tremendous value. Click To Tweet
How do you think about pricing of that assessment? Does it depend on the size of the organization? Are there different inputs or criteria that influence the price? Is it always one set price regardless of who your client is?
For that one, it’s one flat fee for the assessment. It’s enough that a corporation could swipe a credit card.
Is it under $10,000?
It’s a little more than that but less than $20,000.
For any established organization, they spend more on coffee each month. It’s not a big deal. It’s enough to start the relationship off for you to get your foot in the door, demonstrate value. That opens you up to a larger engagement. For a few who can have an understanding of maybe the scope or the differences between the assessment, which in your case have between $10,000 to $20,000. For a larger consulting engagement, where does pricing typically go from there? Are you talking about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands? What kind of range do you work with clients?
It depends on what the client is working on but usually, it falls within the $200,000 to $300,000 based on what their challenges are and what their needs are. If I have to bring in additional team members, it could go up to seven figures. It’s bringing in some additional consultants, part of my team and group. It helps them to move to that next level. It’s basically depends on what they’re trying to accomplish and where they are. I’ve had been able to expand my company with some partnerships that I have, which has given me a big data access, some other technologies and some other skillsets that I couldn’t bring by myself that allows me to bring a team together.
You pulled the words out of my mouth there. My next question for you was how have you approached the growth of your business if you’re still the main input or player from a music perspective? What have you been doing? You took the initial assessment, brought it online instead of having to do it on person and there’s leverage there. You’re creating partnerships. Is there anything else that you’ve done in the last several months that you feel has helped you to create more leverage in the business?
There’s been some investment in the business and a strategic partnership that’s been created. If you look at my LinkedIn profile, it says Principles of Execution legal name, but I’m doing business as Turnberry Premiere. There’s a partnership there. I have another company. It’s given me access to about 750 people to where it’s greatly expanded my capabilities. I’m still the thought leader and CEO of my company, spearheading a lot of what’s happening, but it’s opening the door. It also allows me to take advantage of my minority certification, which I had applied for, gotten and hadn’t used as much. Most companies were hiring me, not because I was minority or because I had the minority certification. They were going, “We need that skillset.”
The partnership that you have in place is the benefit for you of that it helps to generate inquiries and leads for your services? Is it more about you tapping into other consultants or people that you can pull into projects? What’s the main value?
It’s both. It’s a two-way street. It provides me with additional resources, even back office resources and skills consulting resources with some desirable certifications that expand on what I do. When I do an assessment, there are additional things that I can offer and put a team in place to run that as I go and take care of some other things.
For somebody who is looking or considering a similar type of partnership, any advice, any things as you were dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s and thinking about the legal repercussions or protecting your intellectual property? Anything that you think would be important for somebody who is considering a partnership that they should know.
It’s a lesson I learned from music. As you move into a higher level or realm, you can read all the books you want, but you’re going to need a mentor. You’re going to need advisors. You’re going to need coaches. If you look around the room and when you look at your team, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. One of the things that I did is instead of having the mindset of, “I wanted to build a company, have employees and people that service me, I wanted to build a virtual company and work with experts, who I could grow with or I could grow from, and who I could hire their services that would expand my business, but also it would lift me up to a different level.”
I was reading the blogs of yours as I was preparing for this. This is a backstory. When I first got started, I went to two different types of networking groups. One was a CEO round table where there were CEOs of small businesses, brick and mortar or some. They had staff. In those meetings, there are a lot of employee issues, brick and mortar issues. I was going to the National Speakers Association meetings where I’m meeting thought leaders and a number of guys like Shep Hyken, Willie Jolley, Bill Gates, Mike Raber, a number of other folks, who are well-known for what they’re doing.
They were doing very well for themselves, seven figure or more. They had a virtual assistant. They had some books. They had some courses. They were working either half the year or they were working in a way that they enjoyed. I went to both groups. I thought, “At my age, which one do I want? Do I want the brick and mortar employee issues and I got the burden of this and that or do I want the freedom of being a thought leader and positioning myself to leverage my knowledge, content and automation?” I went to the NSA model and doing both a little bit, but it’s still much more of the NSA model of me being a thought leader and working with a team of expert.Who you network with will determine how you get to another level that you couldn't get to yourself. Click To Tweet
When you say NSA model, National Speakers Association, are you referring to using speaking as a way to generate revenue on the front end?
I was using thought leadership because speaking is only one aspect of it, whether you’re speaking, writing, coaching, doing a webinar or doing an online class. It is thought leadership. It’s positioning yourself in a niche where you’re becoming prolific in your speaking, writing, podcasting, whatever you’re doing in a way that others realize there’s tremendous value. For me, what that drove me to and it’s taken to where I’m at, is that I identify four key areas that I could combine that would set me apart from most consultants out there that do what I did. That was taking the concepts of Productivity Project and Program Management, which are the certifications in, music, my background and Master’s in, workplace culture, which as I learned I was making an impact, so I spent a lot of time reading books and studying. I get the idea of culture. I wrote a couple of books on it and then neuroscience.
I read a book by a lady named Judith Glaser, who passed away a couple of years ago. It was about culture. Her take was, “Culture starts with conversations, but conversations are driven by neuroscience.” Once you understand how our brains interact and work together when we’re having conversations that we like or don’t like, then we can understand how neuroscience plays into conversations. I was like, “I’m hooked.” I did a certification with her. I spent two years in that program and got the certification in Conversational Intelligence as a certified coach. I combine productivity, workplace culture, music and neuroscience. They all mingled together in a way of how you do get people to make aggressive changes, but yet reducing stress and enjoying the journey as they go along.
You have these four areas that you’ve identified, which any individual one does not differentiate you but combined it does. How do you then communicate that? What have you done to make sure that people can see that as unique and different? Is it speaking? Is it writing? Is it the books? Is it all those things? Take us through what’s your approach putting those things together and then communicating them to the marketplace.
In my latest book, Workplace Jazz, that’s what that book is. It’s using the concepts of agile project management, using the process of culture neuroscience. I created a framework called I.M.P.R.O.V.I.S.E. Music Jazz. Each letter stands for one of the building blocks of that framework. As I go through each process, I tell stories. I talk about the neuroscience of that area. The first one is Improving your skills. I talk about deliberate practice. I’m talking about what I started off with, not just practicing but deliberate practice. Specifically, figuring out how do I push myself to get better? I encapsulated within those four areas. Each of those frameworks goes into that.
I also have a course that’s being developed that will come out in the middle of February 2021, where it will be much more of an experiential process. I’ve partnered with Jean Blackwell, who was in SUCCESS Magazine. She’s well-known for some incredible course designers. I’m partnering with the best. I also partnered with another company on my book, Steve Harrison and his team on my other book and on a course. I have a podcast. I talk about the different segments of those concepts at the podcast. I released my third single called Workplace Jazz, where I wrote a song that goes along with the whole concept.
Through all the networking, I ended up meeting this gentleman named Donald Robinson. Donald was the first introduced to me as the piano player at my church. This was Steve Harrison, who works with Jack Canfield. He goes, “You got to meet this guy. He’s a piano player at my church.” We meet. I’m like, “Steve, he’s not a piano player at your church. He’s a Grammy nominated producer who work with Washington for ten years, has done all these amazing things and sits on the Grammy board in Philadelphia. He’s not just a church piano player.” He’s become one of my best friends and my coach.
I’ve written three songs. They’re on iTunes or Spotify. If you look up Gerald J. Leonard, you’ll see Vertigo, Gulf Shores and Workplace Jazz. I was able to recruit a gentleman named Phil Perry, who has spent years and has achieved the R&B allophone status. He’s on one of the songs. Donald’s playing on some. I have a guitar player. Who you know and who network with, it takes you to another level that you couldn’t get to by yourself. There’s no way I could have accomplished what I’ve accomplished in the last few years by myself without having that philosophy of, “I’m going to work with experts who are much smarter than me to help me get to where I’m trying to go.”
Gerald, I want to thank you so much for coming on here and make sure that people can learn more about you, your work, your music, everything you have going on. Where is the best place for people to go?
The best place to go is Workplace-Jazz.com.
Gerald, thanks so much.
Thank you very much.
- Principles of Execution
- Culture Is The Bass
- Workplace Jazz
- What If Practice Is the Performance – TEDx Talk
- Jack Canfield
- Vertigo – Apple Music
- Gulf Shores – Apple Music
- Workplace Jazz – Apple Music