MBA, Management, 1969; Chairman and CEO, JI Ventures, Inc.
Frank Blount attributes much of his success as a business leader to a particular “soft skill” that he developed over the course of many years.
Learning to lead others is hard. It takes discipline, determination and a healthy dose of compassion. By the time Frank Blount graduated with his bachelor’s degree, he was well on his way to mastering all three of these qualities. He’d already gained two years of practical work experience with Georgia Power Company through Georgia Tech’s co-op program, which allowed students to alternate working and studying while pursuing a degree, and he learned a lot about life – not just engineering – during those years.
Frank always knew he would go to college. His dad, a U.S. Army Air Force B-17 Bomber navigator veteran of WWII, insisted that Frank would be the first person in their family to get a college degree. “He didn’t have the money to send me to school, but if he had to put a second mortgage on the house, he would do it,” Frank said.
Though Frank was reluctant to spend his undergraduate days as a co-op student – it meant he would graduate a year later than his Columbus High School friends – it ended up being a life-defining decision. Instead of relying on his father’s hard-earned salary to pay for his tuition, Frank took on the financial responsibility himself, an accomplishment of which he is still proud.
During the quarters in which Frank worked, he performed a variety of assignments at Georgia Power. His most impactful position came early in the co-op program when he was assigned to work manual labor with a crew of 10 other men, all older and all married. They traveled over a third of Georgia digging ditches, laying ground lines, maintaining electrical equipment, climbing structures and painting. They bunked in boarding houses during the week and went home on the weekends. “I learned a heck of a lot about life by living with those men,” said Frank. “Living with those guys probably taught me as much as any classroom while I was going through school.”
After graduating from Georgia Tech, Frank went to work for the Bell System starting with one of the Bell System companies, Southern Bell, where he quickly realized that he wanted to be a manager instead of a practicing engineer. He was selected to participate in a rigorous management training program that exposed him to marketing, human resources, operations, and many other functions within the company.
The program allowed Frank to learn a lot about management and motivated him to begin night classes at Georgia State College with several of his colleagues. He attended school two to three nights a week, while juggling a growing family and a full-time job. “I wanted to manage other engineers or maybe a group of engineers,” Frank said, “rather than just being a practicing engineer my whole life.”
His time at Georgia State was briefly disrupted when Southern Bell relocated Frank and his family to New York for an extensive 18-month training program at Bell Laboratories, but he was determined to finish. He eventually returned to Atlanta and completed his MBA. At the time, he was managing a group of about 30 individuals, and he regularly applied the techniques he learned in class to this management role. “It was a great opportunity to go to school at night and learn some management technique from the classroom and then try to put it into practice the very next day,” Frank said.
One of the biggest lessons Frank learned during his time at Georgia State was the difference between an effective manager and an effective leader. “There is a difference between being an outstanding manager and an effective leader,” Frank said, “A manager must work within a vertical hierarchy to achieve goals with the help of his or her team. A leader, however, must work horizontally among his or her peer group to solve interdisciplinary problems and affect change. No group within an organization is entirely separate from the other groups, and it takes a leader – not a manager – to bridge across those groups.”
During his 30-year career with the Bell System, Frank had some tough assignments. He was generally tasked with turning around low-functioning departments within a short time span, so he knew he had to hit the ground running with each new assignment in order to reach his goals for the company. One of his first matters to address in each assignment was unsatisfactory performers within the department.
“To affect improvement in a relatively short period of time, you have to confront the unsatisfactory performers,” said Frank. He admits that this is the worst part of any manager’s responsibilities, but it does not need to be. “The point is not to fire anybody,” he said, “but to get them to understand their work is not satisfactory and to help them improve.”
Through the years, Frank developed what he calls “Caring Confrontation,” his tried and true method for addressing personnel problems. There are three components of Caring Confrontation, according to Frank.
First, always confront with the care of the person in mind: “How do I help you lift your game so that you can become successful?” he said.
Second, always confront in private. Calling out an individual with others present only serves to alienate the individual, and that keeps the necessary improvements from happening.
Finally, according to Frank, it is important to confront “before the sun goes down.” While this is not literal – same-day confrontation is sometimes impossible – Frank uses this phrase to express the urgency of addressing issues in a timely manner.
It is this “soft skill” of caring confrontation that Frank attributes most to his success in life and the characteristic he believes most people would remember about him. “My job is to help them get better and I’m going to do everything I can to help. I think that’s a good attribute for most effective leaders to have – to confront, and also applaud, people in a caring way.”