Peter J. Boni: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris


Boni 1

Peter J. Boni has advanced by taking on the tough assignments of repositioning organizations that had run aground. During his career, he added nearly $5 billion of value as a science and technology CEO (public, private, IPO), consultant, director, and private equity/venture capital investor. His firms were recognized on the Inc. 500, Software 100, Fast 50 and Fortune 1000 several times.

He was twice cited in Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year competition, most recently in 2011 as Master Entrepreneur in Philadelphia. Boni has commentated on CNBC, Fox Business, and The Street.com and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and Investor Business Daily. His book, All Hands On Deck: Navigating Your Team Through Crises, Getting Your Organization Unstuck, and Emerging Victorious, was published by Career Press (June 2015)/

In addition to a BA from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boni earned a Rice Paddy MBA in leadership through adversity on a “full scholarship,” courtesy of Uncle Sam. A decorated military veteran, he spent 15 months in combat as a special operations infantry officer.

Today, as Managing Principal for his consulting firm, Kedgeway, Boni serves as Vice Chairman of The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which has brought entrepreneurship training to 600,000 poor, inner city youth in 21 U.S. states and nine countries. He is founding co-chairman of its Philadelphia branch.

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Morris: Before discussing All Hands on Deck, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Boni: Due to the illness and periodic hospitalizations of my father, my childhood was volatile and disrupted. Between the first grade and high school, I attended 11 different schools in several states. My mother was a great source of example. She taught me that bad things can happen to good people. You may not control what happens, but you CAN control what you DO to improve your situation and max out. Making “ray” out of “disarray” became a talent that I have used both personally and professionally.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Boni: It’s not the “who” but “what.” Definitely the special operations combat experience.

Having the responsibility to lead a diverse group of highly competent people through the fear, chaos, confusion and stress of hostile enemy fire has made any stressful situation in business seem quite paltry by comparison. In school, your academic achievement in your field of study is largely an individual effort. In the military, and in real life, achievement is bigger than you.

I learned that I can’t do the seemingly impossible alone. Collaboration and teamwork are essential. In combat, I kept, embraced and collaborated with a diverse set of skills around me. We shared a natural sense of dependence and trust as well as a common sense of mission, goals, and purpose. We accomplished our missions with merit and stayed alive in the process. I learned to never underestimate the importance of attracting, retaining, and rewarding well-trained, capable people who could think out of the box, navigate complexity, and work as a team. Keeping good people in my foxhole became an essential ingredient of my managerial approach. Those good people softened the blow of temporary defeats and enabled many victories…shared victories. That’s part of the fun of leadership; celebrating when the team captures the enemy flag.

I learned that high performance decision making could happen at all levels within an organization if the mission and goals were well articulated. Within a combat unit, every person understands the meaning of a mission and his or her role to execute a game plan to achieve it. In a combat environment, reality needed to be faced straight up—no hearts and flowers– with a mind-set to think outside the box. I was trained to communicate in a crystal clear, can-do fashion. I saw firsthand how well defined roles and responsibilities facilitated well-coordinated timing and precision. And I learned that good leaders enable members of their team to lead as well.

Combat is the most stressful, dynamic, and difficult environment imaginable. You’re forced to make choices—life or death decisions, really—without having all the information. Sometimes when the shells are flying, not making a decision is the worst decision you can make. You know that, if you stand still, you’ll certainly get shot.

I took the concept of decisiveness under fire into civilian life. I also transferred the moral courage to do the right things, the focus on accomplishing the most important mission-critical things, and an enormous sense of responsibility for the welfare of the team. Those skills—and the perspective I gained in combat better prepared me for righting organizations that had run aground, or, better yet, keeping them out of a jam.

So many sectors of the worldwide economy are missing an enormous opportunity if they don’t seek out those who have recent combat experience in the Middle East. The lessons I learned in Southeast Asia and the accompanying skills are also found in more recent veterans across several countries. Intangible values like duty and honor translate exceptionally well to civilian life. Who else would you want in your foxhole to contribute to your organization?

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Boni: In spite of the constant disruption in my schooling, I excelled in school. That was important to my father, so it became extremely important to me. He often related a story of how he had run out of money and never finished his depression-era mechanical engineering education. I became keenly aware that a tool and die maker, even as a highly skilled machinist, falls subject to all the economic whims resulting from a recession’s impact on production. As part of the production crew, he was subject to the layoffs that come with lower-tier production schedules. What a major effect that had on his life—and on mine, I thought at the time. “This won’t happen to me,” I resolved.

Thanks to that influence, coupled with being in the same high school from start to finish, a peer group of fellow athletes and scholars, plus mentoring, scholarships, loans, and my own work ethic, I graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Armed with a psychology major, a management minor, and a growing interest in high-performance team dynamics, I felt ready to conquer the world. That college diploma—the first among those in my working-class family to receive one—has opened more doors for me than I ever could have imagined. A college degree was the qualifying price of entry.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Boni: As a management trainee, and then a sales rep in what was then named Standard Oil, my first job out of college and the military, I was enormously impatient. Just after starting my career, I was hit with a three-year interruption and a wartime combat assignment, courtesy of Uncle Sam and the U. S. Army. I was fortunate to achieve some rank and wind my way into an elite force. It saved my life, and, to a degree, shaped how I approached it. It defined my sense of teamwork, with highly competent people. We were kids really, in tough situations, scared as hell, covering each other’s backs to accomplish the mission at hand.

With real life’s lessons picked up in combat and happy to be alive, I returned to my first job to pick up where I left off, with a huge goal in mind…to advance to be a VP of a Fortune 500 company within 10 years. My original management training classmates had a three-year head start and I needed to catch up fast. Here’s what threw me off. I was a working class kid and the first in my family to get a college education. I had no notion of an old boys’ network, but saw first-hand that some plum promotional assignments, better known as ”the first big break,” were more likely handed out first to those with the old boys’ network stemming from their educational pedigree, or those who had more style, or a family members or close family friends in the top echelon.

After training, I was assigned a sales territory which was among the top performers in the District. I kept it in the top spot. There was no first big break in the near term offing. Bummer! What could I use as an edge to speed up the process of gaining my first big break? Adjacent to my top performing territory was one of the worst performers. After a bit of study, finding that its performance suffered due to neglect, I asked to transfer to that poorly performing sales territory. I convinced myself that I could make a difference and be better able to spring-board from that platform.

I crafted a deal with my boss. Blow the doors off in the new territory and he’d sponsor me for that first move up. I worked my tail off, clued some of my customers and prospects in on my ambitions and asked for their help. As long as I put out for them, they seemed willing to put out for me. I achieved some stellar gains, got recognized, and earned my first big break, actually ahead of some of those with the right “connections.”

Hmm, that worked out pretty well! A formula to leapfrog my career emerged. I could “kedge off”, a sailing term for how a boat, left to its own devices, can get off the mud, sand or rocks if it ran aground. It’s the way forward…the way to advance.

That VP goal was achieved within eight years. It took me another couple of years to want more. That led to my first CEO assignment at age 36 to fix a telecommunications company in difficulty. Over the ensuing 30+ years, I’ve been CEO of several medium-sized firms in various stages of growth, maturity, trouble or renewal. Add to that consulting, a Private Equity Operating Partner and the CEO of a NYSE listed venture capital-type of holding company.

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To read all of Part 1, please click here.

Peter cordially invites you to check out the resources at his Kedgeway website by clicking here.

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