Driving High Performance Culture with Vern Oakley [podcast]

Neil Ball interviewed Tribe CEO Vern Oakley for The Entrepreneur Way. You can listen to the podcast here.

A few choice quotes:

“Working hard, trying different things, learning from their experience… and 20 years later you become an overnight success.”

“I was in Grand Cayman and I saw my favorite business model. There was a little shack there and a bunch of seashells and a sign that said: ’10 dollars, leave it in the box.’ I’m thinking, hey that’s a pretty interesting business model. I wonder if people ever actually put the $10 in the box. I’m wondering if the box ever get’s stolen, how honest people are, and I thought that’s a low maintenance business. Maybe that’ll be my next one.”

Neil Ball: Hello, it’s Neil ball here. Thank you so much for joining me today on the entrepreneur way. The entrepreneur way is about the entrepreneur’s journey, the vision, the mindset, the commitment, the sacrifice, failures and successes. I am solid sides. It’s a bring your ass special guests today, vern Oakley, but before I introduce you to vern, I have a quote for you by T, s Elliott. Oh my soul. Be prepared for the coming of the stranger. Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions. There is one who remembers the way to your door life. You may have eight death. He shall not. You shall not deny the stranger. They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within. By dreaming of systems, so perfect that no one will need to be good, but the mom that is shadow shadow the Mandan tends to be the entrepreneur way. Ask the questions so we all get the insights, inspiration, and ideas to apply in our businesses. Vern, welcome to the show. Are you ready to Shay? Yo version of the entrepreneur way with us?

Vern Oakley: Absolutely. Neil, I’m really looking forward to it.

Neil Ball: Thank you very much for coming on the show today. As the founder, CEO and creative director of tribe. Pictures Vern Oakley has produced and directed films that drive high performance for the global 1000 for over 30 years. He’s the author of the new book leadership in Focus, bringing out your best on camera, which helps business leaders convey that authenticity on camera version. Can you provide us with some more insights into your business and personal life. So allow us to get to know more about who you are and what you do.

Vern Oakley: As I was thinking about this from preparing for the podcast, I started to reflect back on you know, my life and I realized that I always had this entrepreneurial spirit, whether was charging the next door neighbor kids a nickel to go under the sheets and feel a plate of cold spaghetti and talk to them through the fact that these were monster guts. Or I’m having a farm stand and selling vegetables. Or when I first came left the country and came up for a weekend in New York City. I went to Greenwich Village and purchased a whole lot of protest buttons and banners and then went home and sold them. So you know, that kind of spirit of finding things that people want and telling a story and developing those things eventually grew into my current business, which is try pictures.

Neil Ball: So where did the inspiration for tribe pictures come from?
Vern Oakley: Well, to be honest, you know, I went to a liberal arts school and I studied theater and I studied art. I studied photography and I translated those passions into making films, but I didn’t really understand how you made a business out of making films. Um, you know, there was feature films of course, and then I got involved with a company that actually made films for businesses and I thought this is kind of fun. We made films for a consulting firms. We made films for soft drink companies like Canada dry and others. And I kind of enjoyed the process of coming up with a problem and a communication thing and developing a creative around it and then actually filming it and having people watch it and applaud or cry or give money if it was a fundraising film, that kind of thing.

Neil Ball: So what types of things that these companies use the films for?

Vern Oakley: Well, film today is just so ubiquitous, you know, particularly with youtube coming online in about a decade ago. And so the films that we’re working with firms that were working for some of the largest companies in the world, companies like American Express and Stanley Black and decker and BHP Billiton and Kpm g, um, and colgate palmolive and they use films and a lot of different ways, you know, whether it’s in marketing or internal communications, but what were you really specialize in is making the kinds of films that helped to create a high performance culture. So, you know, I realized everybody might not necessarily have seen those kinds of films, but think about it this way. There’s a film that recruits people to come work at your company. There’s a film that everybody in the company, um, I would see that helps them understand the purpose of the company or the vision of the company, their CEO films that are, you know, played for all the employees when, you know, there’s a new acquisition or there’s a, uh, a difficulty within the business. And so those kinds of communications are frequently done for these large multinational companies in video and we specialize in helping to humanize leaders and the companies they serve,

Neil Ball: I suppose is consistency of communications are, are real difficult thing. So by creating these films they can create a consistent message that everybody gets to see

Vern Oakley: Very smart comment because what you realize is that if a human being goes out there and gives a speech one day and then they go out there and give a speech the second day, they may not be the same speech, they may have an off day, but you create a film and it’s absolutely consistent every time you play it. And it’s available 24 seven.

Neil Ball: So what do you enjoy most about what you do?

Vern Oakley: You know, I like working with really smart people and coming up with creative solutions. So our clients typically come to us with a particular kind of a problem and we’re figuring out what kind of story is going to help them solve that problem and what kind of film can be married with the story. So there’s a strategic way of presenting that to the right audiences, so you know, you find an employee who’s been quite, quite successful, um, at um, reducing cost or creating innovation within a company and you tell their story and what you start to realize when you look at the business literature, the best ceos in the world consistently tell their stories and consistently honor their employees by telling them stories to the entire company. And that creates a high performance culture.

Neil Ball: So what was the importance of store using stories to explain problems or to deal with problems?

Vern Oakley: The importance of story. Should I say Harry Potter? Um, you know, its story is how we come to understand our place in the world. Story is how we make sense of the lives that we live. Story is the way that we intersect with, you know, our own humanity. And it’s that sort of understanding of story and being able to use it in a business sense, which really differentiates the kinds of companies that really succeed. And those are the kinds of companies that ask us to help them tell their story, from what drives you to do what you do.
I thought about this and I think that it was, I got to spend, um, a number of my summers with my grandfather on his farm in Oklahoma and he was perhaps one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. Um, he used to, you know, work on, on the highway patrol in Oklahoma as a police officer and, you know, back in the fifties and early sixties, you know, he was tracking down criminals and, you know, I got to hear these stories, you know, you know, every night. And they were as fascinating as, you know, the, the modern sherlock holmes things are Ncsi and the US or these kinds of mystery things. And I just became excited to learn how to do what he was doing because he always commanded a presence in a room. And, um, you know, I was named after him and really admired what he did.

Neil Ball: How do you relax when you’re not working on your business?

Vern Oakley: Well, I was looking for advice from you on that. Um, no, I, I mean, I, I’ve got a couple of things that I do, I really find it’s very important for me to get out in nature whether that’s, you know, going to the beach or, or mountain climbing or um, or, or walking and that getting back to nature is one of the ways I sent her. I, um, also, um, do yoga. I do journaling, I ride my bike. It’s, it’s. But it is tough to turn off the electronic devices. I feel so connected that, you know, get a little nervous when I turned the phone off.

Neil Ball: Do you have any entrepreneurial role models?

Vern Oakley: When I think about an entrepreneurial role model, I mean one of my favorite film makers and one of my favorite films is the Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola. And here’s the gentlemen who, um, we may not think as an entrepreneur, but you know, he went to Belize, fell in love with the place, bought a, a hotel there, you know, went up to California, fell in love with drinking, good wine, bought a vineyard. I had a friend of mine who was working with him and doing storyboards for feature. He did one day, he, um, they were doing storyboards in Brooklyn for a film and a Francis fell in love with this bakery that he used to get his, you know, um, pastries at every morning. He bought the bakery. So here’s somebody who, who made films and making films in Hollywood, you know, I’ve only done one is very entrepreneurial, but he also runs a variety of businesses and I just find that really fascinating.

Neil Ball: You make your films, what you do when you watch a movie, a Hollywood film. Do you look at it differently to everyone else?

Vern Oakley: Only if it’s not captivating. I am a perfect audience member for a movie that just embraces me and takes me and runs with my emotions and my spirit. You know, that I’m just a movie goer. But if it’s not quite working in that, I’m looking at the technical things, whether it’s the cinematography of the storytelling or the acting, I’m watching the gear sign. It’s like popping a watch open and looking at the gears winding. But most I shouldn’t say, you know, most of the time that’s what it falls into. But what I see a movie that just touches me in that way, it is such a revelation.
Neil Ball: Vern, what’s the lines that are not, is talk about the time before you were an entrepreneur. What difficulties did you have to overcome when you started your business?

Vern Oakley: Well, frankly, in terms of starting my business, I was naive. Maybe even to the point is stupid. So, uh, you know, I just, um, I thought, well, why don’t I just start a business because I can make these films and I can make these films better than the people that are hiring me to, to, you know, to make these films. And I started just by finding a few clients and making the films. And then I realized that being an entrepreneur was really about running a business, not just making the films and you had, you know, payroll and processes and employees and reviews and you know, it’s sort of, it was an evolution to understand that, you know, making a business work was different than making a film work. So you know, I didn’t enter it with a lot of knowledge about what it took to be an entrepreneur.

Neil Ball: Many entrepreneurs through to interest gets an idea in their head and then they go and do it and then they discover all these other things they hadn’t considered.

Vern Oakley: I think you’re right because I just think as a trait, I have consistently found entrepreneurs are pretty stubborn people.

Neil Ball: Did you have any doubts that delayed you starting Your Business?

Vern Oakley: No, I didn’t really. I didn’t feel constricted by, um, some self imposed belief. I just sort of jumped in the water and got wet, so I didn’t really have a lot of doubts. I mean, I had doubts subsequently after I started the business, you know, when you have payroll to make and um, you start to look at the bank account and it’s a getting pretty minimal but not starting. No, I didn’t have any doubts.

Neil Ball: What mistakes did you make your journey?

Vern Oakley: Do we have enough time to do that? Mistakes? I think the biggest mistake that I made, looking back at it now with a little bit of a sense of history because we’ve been in business for 30 years, um, is that I assumed that the business was making films as opposed to that I was an entrepreneur in the film business. And so separating what I liked to do and the films that I like to make versus doing the films that, you know, the buyers wanted to make. Now, um, I don’t know if that’s clear, but I see that that’s still coming up today in my businesses is a certain kind of film that I enjoy making for these businesses which has heart humanity, which expresses the why, the purpose of them and you know, some companies, um, aren’t fully embracing that kind of film currently

Neil Ball:  I think I understand what you’re saying. So what you’re saying is the art of making the film and then there’s the reality of what people might want, which might not be quite what you had envisaged you could make for them.
Vern Oakley: So that was one of the mistakes is that I think I made early in my career and not separating those two because they’re two different requests,

Neil Ball: What are some of the things that you did before you started your business that will be helpful tips to some of the listeners who haven’t yet taken the first step on the entrepreneurial way.

Vern Oakley: I think a couple of things that are helpful is that I learned my craft really well before starting my business. So, um, whether you’re making pizzas or you’re a plumber, if you have your craft well in hand, that’s gonna save you a lot of headaches along the way because you can solve most of the problems. Um, let me see what today I think that I did right is that I believe that when you’re starting your business, you have to be very conscious of cash is king and cash flow and capital allocations. So what that means is, you know, you know, if you could spend all the money you wanted and you could have the right office and you can have the right marketing and you could have the right delivery systems and you could have the right, this wouldn’t life be great, but you can’t. So you have to prioritize where you spend your cash in a way so that you can stay in business long enough to grow the business and then allocate the capital into other areas that need it.

Neil Ball: Vern, what’s invited to do now is just talk about the entrepreneurial journey a little bit with you. Do you think culture is important from the beginning in the business?

Vern Oakley: Culture is so important in that when you’re beginning a business and you know, um, I got some advice early on. Um, I started my business in New York City, in the Chelsea area and a friend of mine, we both come from Washington DC. He was a photographer. He started his business, says Vernon, the most important thing you do is hire an employee. And he said, I can’t afford an employee right now. And he says you have to get an employee because you need somebody to, you know, be there and sort of start and run the business so you can go do some of the arts. So the actual first person I hired, I’m with somebody that we were, you know, we created the culture. So the culture comes out of the owner, the culture comes out of your employees and we like to have a lot of fun.
You know, we would have people coming into our office who were friends. We’d have drinks at the end of the day. We thought that, you know, this should be a joyful experience and if we weren’t going to have fun, we didn’t want to have a business. So, um, that kind of culture has been part of what we do. Um, even today and now we have what we call tribal councils where we go out and we go bowling together or we go out and see a movie and have dinner together or we’ll have a party invite all our people that we work with in all our customers because it’s part of who we are is like we’re trying to connect humanly with these folks in the films that we make are very human. So that culture is so crucial. And I don’t think some entrepreneurs really understand what that really means.

Neil Ball: I find that especially some people who got smaller businesses, they think it’s just for bigger businesses and it doesn’t apply to them.

Vern Oakley: Well, there’s a quote, one of my favorite quotes, um, there’s a thought leader named Peter Drucker who’s considered the father of modern management and he says, culture eats strategy for breakfast. And when you start to think about that and what the hell does that mean, you know, strategy so important and you know, business. Then if you don’t have the right strategy, you know how you’re going to succeed. Well, I don’t care if you have the best strategy in the world. If you haven’t got a culture that’s going to get the strategy done, it’s not gonna happen.

Neil Ball: How do some of the companies you worked for use the films to help create the culture in their business?

Vern Oakley: Well, I think one of the things that CEOs are most challenged with is that they are managing change and change is coming down so quickly in the speed of business today. So when you’re managing change, you have to think about where the business is going and you have to kind of tell the stories and create the kinds of films that engage people and let them know what their purpose is in the business. So one of the things that, you know, in terms of research that we’ve looked at is many workers are disengaged and the kind of work that they actually do in day to day in these large companies and it’s costing somewhere between 450,000,000 and $500,000,000 because of disengaged workers. So the kinds of films that we’re making or trying to inspire people, connect people to what the company’s purpose and mission is. They’re trying to create sort of a brand I’m feeling so that when we make a film and employee actually make, take it home and show it to their family and say, Hey, this is the company I worked for, this is what mom and dad does at that company. And it creates this kind of vibe at the company, which is like, this is a great place to work, you know? And it attracts the right kind of workers. So these films, you know, whether it’s safety films or leadership communication or brand films or recruiting films, really create this kind of culture that is so important to the companies and their success in the marketplace.

Neil Ball: Hire the right people.

Vern Oakley: Hiring is really hard, you know, I mean I went to a class once at Harvard business school and the professor said, you know, how many people think you hire pretty well, and the first guy raised his hand and I raise my hand and somebody else and I thought I was doing pretty well because I was getting one out of three employees right at the company, you know? And so you realize that, you know, and he backed us up that that was a pretty good track record. You know, that was almost like, you know, in over here in the states baseball, you know, you hit 300, you’re doing really, really well. So. But some people think, you know, that’s not very good and I don’t think it is. It’s not bad, but it is hard to understand as an entrepreneur you can’t always find the right people. Couple of things that I’ve discovered in terms of hiring folks is I try to ask them where they’d like to be in three years and if I can understand what their future, their future self is going to be like them, that’s usually a good sign. And if their future self isn’t the right fit for where we are, then even if I like them, it’s not good. Um, and I’ve discovered over time that many of the employees that we have who really worked out well over a long period of time, their parents were entrepreneurs.

Neil Ball: Yeah.

Vern Oakley: And so they’re used to the entrepreneurial lifestyle in their mother or father came home and talked about what it was like a small business and, and they kind of know roll up your sleeves and get things done. It’s a way of life for them. So those people really make good employees.

Neil Ball: Knowing what you know now, is there anything that, if you’d known when you started out that would have helped you to shortcut the learning curve?

Vern Oakley: Sure. There’s some really good business books out there that would have helped to fight if they’d even been written when I started missing the entrepreneur. So it talks about what we’ve been talking about already as you know, you can be a plumber, but running a business in plumbing is different than being a plumber. And I think that’s one of the key things for people to understand on the entrepreneurial journey is that the skill sets involved in plumbing, some of them are applicable to running a business some other or not. I think the, um, you know, right now it’s, it’s not just books, but there’s podcasts like yours that are really helping people to understand how they can grow their business and how they can serve. And I think the biggest thing, I don’t know if this is a in a book so much or is that as entrepreneurs, what makes us different is that we have to create value before we receive money. So as we start to think about what we’re doing and how it creates value, that’s when our business will start to grow.
I believe trust my gut, I, it’s helped me with turning down clients. It’s helping with pursuing clients. It’s helped me with firing people. It’s helped me with hiring people. It’s helped me with the potential partners and turning down potential partners and sometimes uh, and this, you know, super digitally connected world, you can start to lose touch with that gut feeling. Um, and that, that’s something I’m always trying to guard against.

Neil Ball: What makes you uncomfortable as an entrepreneur?

Vern Oakley: There’s a couple of things that I think sort of make me uncomfortable. I never liked to let people go, never liked to fire people, but I do find that what happens is that some people just aren’t a right fit for the company or sometimes you know, um, the company is going through an economic cycle and you have to, you know, choose, you know, how you can keep your cash levels to the right thing so you can actually succeed and be there to hire other people. So that’s one of the things I don’t like as much. And sometimes the difficulty in prioritizing can be difficult because there are certain things I really love to do, um, and that I’m competent at but not brilliant that, um, but I still have to do them because, you know, my company may not be large enough at that moment to have the person be really brilliant at doing it. So that prioritization and focusing my time on the things that just have to be done a little difficult sometimes.

Neil Ball: What are some of the secrets to success?

Vern Oakley: Well, I think being persistent, my wife tells me I’m incredibly persistent. I don’t think it’s not taking no for an answer, it’s just waking up every day, you know, no matter whether you’ve had a good day or bad day and getting back on the saddle as we say and trying it again. Um, I believe the people that are most successful are the ones that have just been working hard and trying different things and learning from their experience. And then, you know, 20 years later you become an overnight success.

Neil Ball: What is your inspiration?

Vern Oakley: I try to get a lot of different kind of information and influences in whether it’s nature or art at a museum or movies or I have about a 600 book personal library. Um, it’s finding writers that are sort of outside of my area of expertise and listening to them. It’s having different interests for me, you know, it’s, the stock market is interesting to me and so I’m looking at new technologies, um, it’s playing with my digital devices and downloading new apps. Um, and, and seeing how they work. I think one of the things that you know, is made me and good entrepreneur over the years is I’m very curious about business models. You know, hey, how does that person make money with that hot dog cart? On the side of the road, you know, and it’s only there for three hours a day or you know, I was in Grand Cayman and my favorite business model was there was a little shack there and there was a bunch of coc. She shells there and it just said $10. Leave it in the box. I’m thinking, well that’s a pretty interesting business model. I’m wondering if people will actually put the $10 there. I’m wondering if you know the box it gets stolen. I’m wondering, you know, how honest people are. I’m just, you know, and I thought that’s a low maintenance business and maybe that’ll be my next one.

Neil Ball: What is your favorite book on entrepreneurial business, personal development, leadership or motivation. And can you tell us why you have chosen it?

Vern Oakley: Well, Ed Catmull, who was one of the founders of Pixar, wrote a book called Creativity, Inc. And when you look at the journey that that company took to make the first fully integrated digital feature toy story, it is shocking beyond belief about how many times it almost didn’t work. And it’s shocking how much money steve jobs invested in it, you know, after losing and losing and losing and how many different times they changed their business model and all the lessons they learned when Disney ultimately bought Pixar and when Disney animation was really not doing very well and the Pixar team came in to fix their culture. It’s just one of the best business books I could possibly recommend. Um, and I actually use it in a class that I teach on storytelling and strategy.

Neil Ball: What one thing would you do with your business if you knew that you could not fail?
Vern Oakley: You know, that’s such a tricky question. I actually was, you know, I got a metal sign with that engraved on it, you know, 10 years ago for a birthday present. And I keep, I look at it, you know, at least once a week. And I think to myself, what would I do? And what I realized is that the option of failure is what keeps me sharp.
I’m not sure I’d be as sharp. It’s as if I knew that, you know, you know, the bicycle would never tip over. And so when I think about it, I feel very lucky to have done most of the things that I’ve wanted to do. I have directed a TV show. I’ve directed a feature that Columbia Tristar released. I’ve run a business for 30 years. I authored a book about leadership. Um, I’m teaching at the university. And so I, I don’t think there’s one thing that I would necessarily do in my business if I couldn’t fail. I mean, I used to say I would direct another feature, but um, um, that’s its own crazy business that I love and hate.

Vern Oakley: I think the skill that would help me most is the ability to sit quietly and think a little bit, add a jump around, hop around, move from subject to subject to subject, but I think the ability to sit quietly in a room and be thoughtful about these kinds of questions that are so important to us as entrepreneurs and business owners in just human beings to sit quietly is the skill that I would like.

Neil Ball: In five years from now, if a well known business publication was published in an article on your business after talking to your customers and suppliers, what would you like it to say?

Vern Oakley: I’d like it to say that this little known field of making films for business was championed, changed, developed, and grown by a gentleman named vern Oakley who helps people to understand there had to be a way to humanize businesses and leaders because businesses are the one of the most important factors in terms of changing our society for the good or bad, depending upon how they’re run and that the stories that we told laid the foundation for what will become a very, very important and powerful film industry.

Neil Ball: What is your favorite quotes and how have you applied?

Vern Oakley: My favorite quote is knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom is by aristotle and the way that I’ve applied it is through journaling, through conversation, through meditation, through spiritual practices, through servant leadership, through serving on boards, through contributing to charities, for trying to break through my barriers around love and intimacy by having a family, by having difficult conversations with friends, um, and holding myself accountable.

Neil Ball: Do you have any favorite online resources you can share with us that be useful for other entrepreneurs?

Vern Oakley: Well, I’m particularly fond of the philosopher notes. It’s a gentleman who’s taken some of the best books in wisdom throughout the centuries and distilled them into short podcasts. It’s a subscription model. Um, and he has sort of pulled together all these leaders around. Our website is optimized.me, and I thought, what a cool job just sitting and reading some of the best books, writing short summaries of them, and taking an interweaving the lessons and finding the commonality between the smartest thought leaders. From Confucius up to the [inaudible],

Neil Ball: What is your best advice to other entrepreneurs?

Vern Oakley: I think that the advice that I got that I valued the most is it isn’t whether you’re winning or losing, whether you’re succeeding or failing, it’s the ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down and try again and then realizing that it’s likely that you get knocked down again and that stand up and try again is really what separates the people who are successful as entrepreneurs over the long haul

Neil Ball: Vern, it really has been an honor having you on the show today. Thank you for talking about tried pictures and tone is Alyssa bits about your business and also talking about creation of different types of films, but also you’ve given us lots of stories, even salts about the importance of stories for businesses. You’ve shad hindsight, insight and foresight. You shared some of your experience and perspective, so thank you very much for coming on the show today.

Vern Oakley: You’re more than welcome. What a pleasure. You will well converted and thank you.

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