In our work in knowledge management and knowledge services, we speak a great deal about knowledge sharing. And not only in our professional lives. For those of us working with knowledge management (KM), knowledge sharing, and knowledge strategy, we are constantly aware of how much of what we do “for a living” carries over into our personal lives.
The foundation of our work – telling stories and sharing what we know – is what we do all the time, and from where I sit, one of the best story tellers in my crowd is Mitzi Perdue. What Mitzi has done with her story about Frank Perdue and the development of Perdue Farms is, in my opinion, in itself a super story. When we knowledge services professionals hear this story, we realize that we’re in the company of one of the best knowledge-sharers (if that’s a word) we’ve come across. And the story relates to what we do.
[And full disclosure: yes, I’m referring to Mrs. Perdue as Mitzi. This is one of those occasions where the professional and the personal come together – Mitzi and I have known each other a long time, and even though I’m writing about her professionally, she’s still Mitzi to Guy.]
Mitzi – whom I’ve already asserted is an expert story-teller – has now taken her story-telling to a new level. She written Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Business & Life Lessons from Frank Perdue. My first reaction is, yes – a good story indeed, and in reading the book, it becomes evident very quickly that Frank was an amazing entrepreneur and manager-leader.
But he was more than that. In fact, as I read the book, I am impressed with how much of what Frank did falls into that area we knowledge services professionals think about in our work, the attention we give to management and leadership principles as they apply to what we call “the knowledge domain.” Mitzi’s describing of those “business & life” lessons demonstrates clearly that the management and leadership drivers in Frank’s work came from his own private desire to share with others.
Mitzi puts it this way: “When you ask people to share with you what – for them – are life’s greatest pleasures, you get lots of different answers. With Frank, it was sharing. Sharing was in his genes, it was built in. It was the way he thought about his life and his work. He was, in fact, a teacher, and it was his great strength that he could teach and inspire. For Frank – although he wouldn’t have characterized it this way – Frank was a practitioner of the Socratic method. He asked questions. And he listened.”
Did he like conversation?
“Of course,” Mitzi says. “He was known for his egalitarian ways, possibly from his background of growing up as a boy on a farm. For Frank it wasn’t a case of ‘I’m the boss and you’ll do what I tell you to.’ Even when he knew how to get from here to there, he wanted to hear what other people had to say, what they thought about whatever was being talked about. And listening was his way for conveying that. Everyone was important to him, and no matter how big the company became, he engaged in conversation. With other executives of course, but also with people on the line, truck drivers, distributors…. With whoever needed to speak with him. And he was teaching then too. One of his big ideas was what came to be known as the ‘Perdue model’ for education: teaching people while they are working.”
It was all part of sharing, and one of Frank’s techniques for sharing was paying attention when other people were speaking with him. Frank’s role in a typical conversation, she says, was 10% speaking and 90% listening; the person he was in conversation with was the focus of his attention. That, from my perspective – as we think about our work as knowledge strategists – seems to be the primary management and leadership principle that applies to our work. If, as knowledge services professionals and as knowledge strategists, we’re going to manage and lead the knowledge-development and knowledge-sharing framework in our organizations, we’re going to do it by listening. Then, when we’ve heard what our colleagues have to say, like Frank Perdue we’ll consider their advice, combine it with our own knowledge-services expertise, and go forward with a framework that contributes to the success of that organizational mission we speak about so much.
Mitzi agrees. As she talks with me about Frank’s listening skills, I can’t help but wonder how he put it all together: the personal life, his own interests, the business. I want to know about Frank’s vision, about how he came to be the person he was. She explains it very well:
“Frank wasn’t doing what he did for himself,” she says. “Naturally he was a businessman and that was his career. That was how he earned his living. But he was an extremely modest person and – hard to understand in the business world as we’ve come to know it – he wasn’t particularly interested in what’s called the ‘trappings’ of success. We lived in a fairly modest home (but one big enough to entertain Perdue staff on those occasions when he wanted people to come over – Frank loved that!). We lived in a middle-class neighborhood with neighbors who included a retired teacher, a personal trainer, and a guy who sold vending machines. Even when he traveled he didn’t make a big deal about his company and his success, and he always traveled economy. And when we went to London we got about on the tube. That’s just the kind of person he was. He was not interested in showing off how successful he was.”
Did that contribute to his sharing, sharing both his knowledge and his success.
“Oh, yes,” Mitzi says. “He had a tough job and he knew it, and even though he was working hard to make Perdue Farms the success it became, he was very proud that he and the company were providing jobs for people. He truly cared about the people who worked for him. Here’s an example, coming from of his personal life, the many times he spent week-ends calling on Perdue staff when one of them, or one of their family, was in the hospital. Or visiting them in their homes after they had retired from the company. Sharing who he was and talking with people about what was important to them was critical to Frank. While I don’t think he thought of it this way, one of his greatest successes was that when he communicated with people, they understood – they knew – that they were important to him.”
Following from that was what he did for others, not just for people but for institutions and communities as well. For many management leaders, part of the management/leadership scenario is this idea that not only do we manage and lead the business – or the knowledge services effort – or whatever it is that we’ve been given responsibility for. Of course it’s our job to make that activity successful, and certainly Frank Perdue exceeded most people’s expectations in that respect. An equal challenge – handed down throughout management history and given particular attention by Peter Drucker and others a few years ago – is that managers and leaders also have a responsibility to give back, to ensure that their organizations or businesses contribute to the greater good. The current buzzword (one we’ve been using for the last decade or so) is corporate social responsibility, sometimes just abbreviated as “CSR.”
Was Frank Perdue – the man who made Perdue Farms the success it became – into that? With so much focus on sharing in both his personal life and in his interactions in his business career, how did he feel about “giving back”?
As we speak, I can hear the smile of pleasure and recognition in Mitzi Perdue’s voice.
“It was a great joy to him,” she says. “Indeed, Frank’s life was truly given over to doing for others. But there was a contradiction.”
“Frank was modest,” Mitzi says. “He didn’t want attention, and even though in some situations he found himself in deep conversation – often about books they had both read – with people like one of our local judges, or even with Dr. Billington, the Librarian of Congress – Frank never allowed himself to – as people used to say – ‘get above himself.’ So the sharing at the personal level, interacting with his friends and his employees, was easy for him and he was comfortable with it. Not so much the publicity that comes with making big contributions.”
And, story-teller that she is, Mitzi has a couple of good examples.
“There was the one time, when we were first married, when he did something terrific for the Girl Scouts, giving a substantial contribution or something like that. I found myself caught up in the idea of all the lovely publicity that could come from that effort and I approached a friend who worked with the company’s public relations effort. Well, I found out quickly that it wouldn’t happen. Nope, ‘we don’t do that.’ My idea for the lovely publicity didn’t go anywhere. Frank’s way of doing what we now call CSR was not discussed because, as I was politely told, ‘Frank gives quietly.'”
But isn’t the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University in Salisbury MD named for Frank?
“Yes,” Mitzi says, “but that wasn’t the way it was going to be.”
It’s a story well told in the book:
“Anonymous giving was usually his pattern. ….the part about founding the school was a fairly easy sell; Frank valued education and he particularly liked the idea that students could learn things that had taken him years or decades to understand. The harder part was getting Frank to agree to having the business school named after him. Frank didn’t want this and resisted it strongly. He and I talked about this, and I know that he didn’t like anything to do with ‘self-aggrandizement.’ However [Salisbury University President] Bellavance persuaded Frank that if he allowed the school to be named Perdue, the brand itself would help attract students and faculty and, perhaps even more important, a public gift of this sort would signal to other potential donors that investing in education in our region was a good thing to do.”
So there you are. Mitzi’s book is subtitled “Business & Life Lessons” for a reason. And I will recommend the book for those very lessons. I will particularly recommend it to people thinking about careers in any of the fields related to our work with information, knowledge, and strategic learning. Careers in these fields are the future of information and knowledge sharing, and I’m going to tell people in knowledge work about it, especially young people thinking about entering our profession. Whether we’re speaking about knowledge services as a stand-alone management methodology, about general management and organization development principles, or about any of the many sub-topics that make up the knowledge domain, fields like research management, records and archives management, technology management, specialized librarianship, or any of the other related fields, these are lessons we want to teach. And learn.
– January 26, 2015