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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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The MNB Interview - FMI's Leslie Sarasin, Singing A Song Of Relevance, Trust & Empathy

Content Guy's Note: "The MNB Interview" is designed to engage with business thought leaders who I like and respect, and who have something to say. It will run each workday from August 23 - 30 while I am traveling cross-country on a road trip with my son, and has a simple format. I posed to each of the interviewees the same 13 questions and requested that they answer at least 10 of them; I told them that their answers could be as short or long as they wished, and as serious or irreverent as they liked. What I was looking for was a window into how they think and feel.

Today's MNB Interview features Leslie Sarasin, president/CEO, Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

Here's the simple truth. Since Leslie Sarasin became president/CEO of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), I have never heard a member of the organization's board of directors say a negative word about her. Never. In fact, there seems to be genuine appreciation and admiration that she has taken an organization that had more than its share of troubles and made it profitable and relevant. Not easy to do, but she's done it ... and she seems to appreciate the fact that this is a job that will never be completed. Just as the industry has to evolve to meet changing challenges, FMI has to do the same thing.

But more to the point, I have to tell you this. Since taking over at FMI, Leslie has been really nice to me. She seems interested in MNB's perspective, and the views expressed by the MNB community, rather than seeing them as a threat. In my admittedly biased point of view, that matters. (And I'll tell you something else - she has a great husband, Ron Sarasin, president/CEO of the non-profit, non-partisan United States Capitol Historical Society; one of the more interesting evenings of my life was spent in his company, and Leslie's, learning about the inner workings of the Congress.) And so I was very happy when Leslie agreed to be part of the MNB interview series...


The MNB Interview...

What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?

Leslie Sarasin:
Perhaps the most important professional advice I've ever received was shared with me by my husband Ron Sarasin.  Ron counseled me early on in my career that I would be wise to always strive to hire folks who are smarter than I am and bring skills that I don't possess, and who are willing to work as hard as or harder than I do; to let them know what the goals of the organization are; and, most important of all, to get out of their way while they achieve them.  I've tried to make these words to live by and they have always served me well.

What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?

Leslie Sarasin:
The mistakes in my career tend to relate back to the same issue -- misplaced trust.  One mistake in particular was placing trust and confidence in an individual who I believed was loyal to me and shared my passion and commitment to the organization we were part of.  Sadly, I was wrong.  While devastating at the time, it may have been among my best business lessons.  From that experience, I learned a mantra that has served me well both professionally and personally, especially as the parent of a teenager, "Trust, but verify."

What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?

Leslie Sarasin:
While not significant in the grand scheme of the world order, the thing I do each week that helps keep me sane in the insanely busy world I operate in is to have what I call "scheduling summits" with my husband.  As parents of a busy teenager and with my sometimes out of control travel schedule, the opportunity to reconnect on who has to be where and when, what the transportation arrangements will be, and which of us will be at home to provide stability for our son, etc., somehow makes it all appear manageable, even when it's not.

What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?

Leslie Sarasin:
I guess the technology I rely on most is my iPhone, even though most of the time I resent having to keep up with it.  I confess to being one of those dinosaurs who still longs for the days when it was possible to disconnect for a bit to read a book, have a focused conversation or just think.  Those opportunities are hard to come by now and I'm learning new ways all the time to make better use of technology to enhance the way I live.  That being said, the dinosaur in me still forces me to also rely on my trusty Franklin planner.  There's something about being able to maintain schedules for myself, my husband and my son, keep notes for future reference, and see it all on paper that brings me confidence.  Not sure if I'll ever be able to give it up, although I do notice less and less reliance on it all the time.

What is your favorite movie (and is there a business lesson in it)?

Leslie Sarasin:
There are so many movies I've loved through the years but perhaps the one I always seem to come back to is one that might surprise you.  It's Gone with the Wind.  I think there are lots of lessons in it, both business and otherwise, but from that movie I learned another of my favorites among words to live by, spoken by one of my favorite heroines Scarlett O'Hara, "I'll think about that tomorrow because tomorrow is another day."

Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?

Leslie Sarasin:
The greatest influence on my business life actually comes from two people, my parents.  I am the product of a couple who have been together essentially since they were in the third grade; married when they were 19; had me nearly 10 months later; worked their way through college and graduate school (my father is an attorney and my mother earned a Masters and then many years later, a Ph.D., the same week I received my law degree); went back to their home town in Kentucky to practice law/teach; and now in their mid-70's, still work 50+ hours a week and love every minute of it.  What I've learned from them is the importance of doing what you love and loving what you do.

Keenest insight (so far) from your life and/or career?

Leslie Sarasin:
"To whom much is given, much is required." I've been incredibly blessed in my life with a great family, true friends, satisfying work, good health and amazing opportunities for fulfilling my hopes and dreams.  I believe strenuously that we all have a responsibility to pay forward our blessings and good fortune.  From this comes the greatest rewards.  Perhaps that's one of the reasons I so enjoy my work at FMI.  The folks in food retail that I've come to know and love appear to share that value, which is what led us at FMI to adopt the tagline, "Feeding families, enriching lives."

Most memorable meal?  Where & what & why?

Leslie Sarasin:
A picnic on the grounds of Chateau Chambord in the Loire Valley, France; a fabulous bottle of wine with bread, cheese and pate; so peaceful, calm and romantic.  And that's all I have to say about that!

What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?

Leslie Sarasin:
Have a successful career as a singer, specifically in the country/western genre.  Perhaps even become BFF's with Reba and Dolly.

If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?

Leslie Sarasin:
I think great leaders embody a number of important traits, but perhaps the one I find most appealing and important is empathy.  None of us is without fault and we all bring our entire body of life experience to our current roles.  As a result, bringing out the best in an individual requires unique approaches depending on what those life experiences are.  A leader who recognizes these truths, can relate to them and take advantage of them through empathy for that individual experience can create success with a group of individuals who together form a formidable team.


Tomorrow: Mark Batenic, chairman/president/CEO, IGA Inc.

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