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  • Writer's pictureJoel Onyshuk

Episode #13 - Power Mentorship Ft. Tom Burns - Show Notes

Joel welcomes Tom Burns, VP of Training and Development at Conn's HomePlus, a retail company with over 4000 employees and over 150 locations. Tom discusses Conn’s unique approach to retail, repairing products onsite and offering credit lines to customers, the importance of what Tom calls “Power Mentors”, being intentional about your financial goals, how necessary it is to be a leader who truly cares, and much more. Check it out now in our thirteenth episode!

Share something about yourself and what you do.

Let me talk a little bit about the mission at Conn's because it's something that is very compelling for employees and it really boils down to this, a lot of our customers get their credit through Conn's cause they can't get credit anywhere else, 90+% of our customers, we help them to make their purchase by extending them credit, we also offer next day delivery, some times same day delivery and we also service what we sell. That's really appealing to our customers and a heartfelt mission for us. So a single mom, her refrigerator goes down, she has $75 worth of food she can't afford to lose, she comes to Conn's if she needs credit, we can provide it, she'll get her refrigerator and it's really cool we can do that.

How did you come up with that idea?

It's something we've held onto for quite a while, I will tell you in today's world, it's been more difficult to commit to that promise. A lot of retail organization over the years have discarded those services. Over time for whatever reasons, they discarded those practices and we've stuck to them, it's gets more difficult from an expense, recruiting, and job market standpoint.

Do you have moments where your leadership team gathers and disagrees whether you should keep it or not?

It would be near heresy if someone advocated maybe we should outsource and not do that anymore. It's just really fundamental to who we are because we know it's important to our customers.

Describe who you are without using your career or title.

Although I hate to disappoint you, I really am an average Joe, the neighborhood I grew up was modest. My family has been in the US for over 300 years, Texas for almost 200 years. I'm still first generation college! My entire education from grade school to grad school, happened in Texas public schools. I take my religious faith seriously but have a whole lot of improvements to make and forgiveness to beg for. I wish I could tell you I had expensive hobbies, but I don't, my leisure time is spent reading, yard work, or home repairs. I have the privilege of tending a small farm an hour south from my house.

As VP of Training and Development, you have job after job of sales and operations leadership, and it's a bit of a pivot, how did you get into this?

It's dramatically different. I've been blessed with terrific mentors, and we should talk about that in a moment, it is THE thing that helped me to have a wonderful first career and be able to park it and step into a second career. What those power mentors did for me, there's a difference between mentor and power mentor, they gave me the ability to reach my number, my personal wealth target. If you don't have a number you ought to think seriously about having one. Have a target of what personal wealth you'll need to accomplish the things you want to do. Numbers will vary. The reason is so you make only the sacrifices necessary to reach your target. Sacrifices like, time away from family, trips and friends, putting hobbies on hold and asking your spouse to quit a job for relocation. Figure out the big ticket costs you want to pay for. Do you want a big house? Do you want to pay for kids' college? Boat? etc. Make sure the list of things you and your family want are worth making the sacrifices for. By balancing what you want and what you need to earn, you will set a target for reaching financial freedom. If your expenses are always rising and enough is never enough, you're not going to reach financial freedom. If you don't make the sacrifices, financial freedom will elude that person as well.

It seems like that target will move sometimes, without even intentionality around it, people will get sucked into, it's never enough. How do you determine when enough is enough and when it's ok to keep pushing?

That's a really great question. I think there's at least two reasons those targets move, 1) circumstances beyond your control, 2) because people don't know or they're not honest about what they really truly want.

Once you have a spouse and children, priorities change, it's really important to sit down and be frank with all of those stake holders. If we want something, it's going to almost always require sacrifices.

What do you feel is expected of you now?

I made my career change in 2017 and I will tell you there's still a voice in the back of my head, that says you're being irresponsible, you could be making more money... There is some guilt that comes along with it. Every couple of months when my wife is paying the bills she'll say, gee I liked it better when you made more money. It's an important decision and it's not a decision that doesn't come with regrets. I'm having the time of my life, I get to do only the things I love to do, which is helping people.

Yeah it seems you made that pivot out of a personal mission and passion.

I truly have discovered, the things we do, we do them because they make us feel good. It's important to learn to feel good about the right things. I really enjoy watching the lightbulbs go off and take something I was able to share and have tangible success. I feel an obligation that I have had so much benefit from mentors who taught me. If you knew how backwards I grew up and how rough I was, you wouldn't have me on this podcast. I am very fortunate I had just the right mentors who polished me and helped me to succeed.

How would you describe a power mentor?

It's literal. There's two types of mentors, the ones who can teach you things, and the mentors who not only teach you things, but they can also do things for you. They have power. I found out about this late, my mid thirties. If someone is working at a big corporation, they must have a power mentor if they want to reach the executive leadership level. Hard work and getting results is the bedrock, but it's not enough. I got lucky, I had two power mentors fall in my lap. Frankly I've followed them the rest of my careers. I had to pull my load and earn their trust and support along the way.

That's remarkable! Many people have said similar things, it's all about saying yes to the opportunities. How have you seen power mentorship flow out of yourself?

The mentor/mentee is elusive for a couple reasons. Many folds are raised that asking for something is unpleasant or sucking up, and that's not true. 99% of the time the executive will be flattered and say yes, but you have to be sincere and make sure the hours is a good use of the time. This conversation is extremely valuable we are having now. This is the heart of mentoring, where good questions are being asked and good responses are coming back.

Why do you think people struggle to ask good questions?

When you're talking you're giving information. When you're asking and listening, you're receiving information. More information makes you more powerful. It's somewhat of a self serving thing to do. But we're not wired to ask questions well. There's two types of communication: push and pull. When you think of the authority figures you grew up with, you'll probably find that most of them are tell oriented not ask oriented. We grow up with this notion that a leader is supposed to have all the answers and therefore the leader is supposed to be telling and not asking and for some people asking can be a relatively scary thing because when I ask I'm not sure what the answer will be. Here's what I can assure you, if people will take the time to ask really good questions and have the discipline to truly listen, it is actually the way to maintain control of the conversation and gather more information.

We tend to over think questions, if you care it means you're generally curious and you know what to ask, has that been your experience too?

Absolutely. Caring is so essential to effective leadership. In order to go to college I was able to get an ROTC scholarship. There was no means to sending us to school. When I was in the service you could line up two platoons side by side. In each of these platoons, they had the same equipment, training, structure, personal, pay, etc, except- Leadership. The platoon that outperformed was led by the better leader, always. It's the same in the business world. In the civilian world, we can overcome mediocre leadership with incentives, but soon people will tire of the perks and uninspired leadership and go somewhere else. What are the common attributes that these leaders have in common, they really really care. They care about their mission, their company, their customer, integrity, reputation, and their teams welfare. When we were in the army you wouldn't use retention as a metric, but the key measurement was when they submitted their sick call, there was no one who had their feet attended to because they were changing their socks. In the business world, attrition is typically looked at as a company wide thing, it's not your company, it's your leaders. They don't hold leaders accountable to their attrition rates.

Can you train inspirational leadership?

I can't teach people how to care, but I can teach people who care to lead. It's easy for people to seem like they care in the interview process.

How do you keep the frontline leaders accountable?

I don't and I don't know anyone who does, or a company who has cracked the code.... but if someone has, they can solve a lot of the ills that we live with.

What's one thing you believe that if everyone else believed too would make the world a better place?

If everyone believed they are no better than anyone else and no one is better than them, then a lot of the things we aspire to be and do would fall into place. I was taught that point of view. You can really tell how people care and have a meal with them and watch how they treat the wait staff.

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