Over the years I’ve been invited to speak at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and The Royal Albert Hall in London, but never before to a tent in Tennessee. After a week of non-stop meetings in New York and the Midwest, Blackberry Farm near Knoxville, Tennessee was a welcome haven. I had been invited by the Southern 7 Chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization to speak about leadership, winning, and being creative in business, to a weekend retreat of company founders, owners and CEOs and their wives. (Don’t worry, I’ve spoken to Women Presidents, they’re riotous as well). YPO is an impressive international organization – founded for the purpose of fostering leadership among US business leaders especially at a regional level. They’re people involved in transport, logistics, capital, distribution, food service, energy efficiency, engineering and a bunch of other complex businesses. Some have built their companies to over 1,000 employees. For me it was an opportunity to get to know a part of the US I had never been to.
This was a case of first time lucky. Blackberry Farm is a 4200 acre farm and lodge set in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in the southern Appalachians, and in Fall about as beautiful as you can get. (If you think Knoxville, population 184,000, is in the sticks, thing again, it is the access point to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the world’s most significant science centers). Fellow speakers were political strategist and pollster Frank Luntz, former Tennessee Governor and current four-time Senior Senator (R) for Tennessee Lamar Alexander (check him out, as well being as a top legislator and new energy advocate, he’s a classical and country pianist), and Chief Creative Executive for Walt Disney Imagineering Bruce Vaughn. The event was chaired by Clay Sifford and his wife Dorothy. Clay is founder and CEO of Ovation, designers and producers of live events based in Nashville. A top man, and a good friend.
I had ridden with the Imagineer in the car on the way in from Knoxville Airport and I was keen to hear the inner secrets of the “illusion of life” that is Walt Disney theme parks, resorts, cruises, retail and restaurants. Bruce is in a business that has been called “fear minus death equals fun” (that’s the rollercoasters). The five lessons of the Imagineers he shared were:
• Create what people didn’t know what they wanted – and cannot live without
• Cast the best talent
• Know who you are, be who you are
• Know your competitors from your disruptors
• Keep moving forward
And the Blackberry Farm team delivered all five. We’ll be back.