By Laura Childers
Photography By Stephanie Garcia
What is the 10 Project?
If you haven’t read about the 10 Project before, that’s not by mistake. Its leadership has intentionally kept a low profile – partly out of a natural bent toward humility, and partly out of wanting to refine the program before it goes public.
The name “10” comes from the structure of the program. Each year, it invites leading Chattanooga businesses (usually companies with 250+ employees) to nominate one rising business leader for 10 months of intensive training. The nominee must be poised for senior leadership, and the company must agree to pay the $10,000 tuition. From these submissions, 10 executives are selected to participate in a series of 10 sessions taught by 10 seasoned executives.
At first blush, the 10 Project looks exactly like your typical executive development program. It invites fast-track corporate employees
to learn from experienced corporate executives. It follows a curriculum based on a series of leadership modules. But where other executive development programs have a sense of formality and prestige, the 10 Project is intimate, almost familial. Where others are impersonal and imposing, it’s quiet, modest, and focused on long-term relationships.
In other words, it embodies exactly the kind of leadership it seeks to foster within our community.
An Unusual Program
for an Unusual City
Like a great company, the 10 Project focuses on relationships first.
Its team of seasoned corporate leaders serve as both program facilitators and personal mentors for program participants. This year’s cohort represents well-known entities like BlueCross BlueShield, FSG Bank, Independent Healthcare Properties, Lamp Post Group, Launch Tennessee, and the Maclellan Foundation. The lineup will make your jaw drop with its breadth and depth of experience.
In another city, it might be odd to find so many C-level executives willing to donate their time and expertise to a leadership development effort. But according to 10 Project founders Rodger Piersant and Frank Brock, it’s actually not surprising in Chattanooga. A strong sense of corporate citizenship is in our city’s DNA.
So strong, in fact, that when they began recruiting facilitators, no one turned them away.
“When Frank and I went to these leaders and said, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on in this city. Do you want to help us continue that?’ We didn’t have anybody say, ‘No. I don’t want to, I’m too busy.’ They immediately saw the value,” says Piersant.
Piersant and Brock see themselves as the latest torchbearers in Chattanooga’s long tradition of civic-minded leadership. Both have been executives in the Chattanooga area for 40 years, and both adopted service-minded values early in their careers.
“Time and time again, we’ve watched Chattanooga businesses set themselves apart by their behavior,” says Piersant. “If you look back at the 20th century, the number of local companies who built reputations for civic involvement is remarkable.”
He’s talking about companies like Brock Candy Company, Provident Life Insurance (now Unum), American National Bank (now SunTrust), Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Chattanooga Medicine Company (now Chattem), Cherokee Warehouse (now Kenco), Siskin Steel, Southern Champion Tray, Card-Monroe Corp., The Chattanooga Times, the News Free Press, Huffaker Insurance, Memorial Hospital (now CHI Memorial), Dixie Yarns (now the Dixie Group, Inc.), and the list goes on and on.
These companies used their wealth to grow philanthropy, education, religion, and civic life. Their leaders started foundations, funded development, and sat on nonprofit boards. They shared a deep sense of continuity about what it means to be a healthy business and a contributor to society.
Brock represents generations of Brock family members known for servant leadership at Brock Candy Company and in education, government, and entrepreneurship. His family legacy accounts for why 10 Project graduates are called “Brock Fellows.”
“The title essentially designates them as ‘keepers of the flame,’” says Piersant.
A Program Blossoms
Piersant says that, prior to founding the 10 Project, he and Brock had spent decades dreaming about how to pass on this value system. One question plagued them. “How could we reinforce that citizenship is part of a corporate leader’s duty?”
“We felt we could not take for granted that it would continue without some intentionality,” says Brock.
But when, where, and how? The seed lay dormant for years.
Then in 2013, former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist delivered a series of keynote addresses in Chattanooga.
“Don was able to articulate these concepts to us so clearly,” says Piersant. “When we heard him say they built Wal-Mart into the largest retail company in the world, we reached our tipping point.”
“It was literally right after he spoke that Rodger and I just said, ‘We’ve got to do this. It’s time,’” says Brock.
They enlisted the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics’s help in spearheading an executive education program in Chattanooga. They also recruited business professor Dr. Scott Quatro from Covenant College to develop the course curriculum and act as professor in residence.
“He was the first person we turned to for guidance,” says Piersant.
The outcome was a program based on the Soderquist Center’s tools and materials, but with a Chattanooga spin.
“We knew Chattanooga had plenty of business leaders who already thought like this and were anxious to see it continue as a No. 1 livable city. So we said, let’s use them as our facilitators. Let’s make them the most critical piece of the program,” says Piersant.
The 10 Project launched its first class in September of 2014.
The Secret Ingredient
Don Soderquist himself is now one of the 10 facilitators charged with contextualizing the course curriculum. In each four-hour session, a leader illustrates how concepts might play out in real life. The more anecdotes, the better.
“We believe stories are the most powerful form of communication, so we encourage honesty and open sharing,” says Brock. “Research shows qualities like self-awareness, good judgment, and balance are ‘caught’ more than ‘taught.’”
Participants have the advantage of learning from actual practitioners. They also enjoy a safe environment where difficult questions are treated with confidence.
“It has been an amazing opportunity to have experienced CEOs talk with us openly about their personal journeys – both their successes and failures in leadership,” says
current participant Lisa Moore, senior vice president of corporate strategic services at PlayCore. “You get to know them and build a level of understanding and trust so that you can have honest, open learning.”
“Sessions are marked by a great deal of transparency and honesty and vulnerability,” says Launch Tennessee CEO and current 10 Project facilitator Charlie Brock. “Those are not always words you put together when you think about business leaders being together, but we think these qualities are key to building trust.”
Each facilitator is also matched with a mentee, with whom they regularly meet one-on-one. Participants are encouraged to build relationships with more senior business executives outside of class.
“Having the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who has ‘been there, done that’ the right way is the biggest piece for me,” says current participant Greg Pawson, vice president of Signal Energy. “I know I can ask anything and my mentor will totally get the picture and provide a level of insight rarely found.”
People First, Profits Second
The 10 Project also sets itself apart with its counterintuitive value system, which puts people and relationship at the center of its efforts. Its three overarching mantras – “be selfless,” “be a catalyst,” and “be prosperous,” – are directly others-centric.
“When we talk about leadership at the 10 Project, it’s not just the academic view of leadership,” says Moore. “For us, it is reflecting on how our organizational values and business practices fuel the way we treat ourselves, our employees, and our community. This focus allows us, in turn, to deliver quality results for our various stakeholders.”
Participants are encouraged to see the value of looking beyond themselves and focus their energies on team building.
“We believe great leaders get behind and underneath the people they serve and make them look better before they look better,” says Piersant.
At the program’s outset, participants are taken through a battery of tests designed to increase self-awareness. Then they are asked to take a close look at their strengths and weaknesses, how they think, make decisions, and receive information. How might they use those gifts to benefit others within their own companies and the Chattanooga community at large?
“We want to teach them not only leadership skills, but about themselves,” says Piersant. “Who are they as individuals? How can they use their gifts in meaningful ways in their company and in their community? How can they make their gifts really sing?”
“We really believe the most important overarching message for these 10 bourgeoning executives is that it’s not about them,” says Quatro. “When you are a senior executive leader in a company, it should be about everyone but you, and more broadly about the Chattanooga community as a whole.”
The value of thinking this way, says Frank Brock, extends far beyond the ethic of “do good unto others.” These principles are actually key to a successful business.
“Leaders must empower their people to serve their customers, for without customers, no business exists and there is no financial gain,” says Frank Brock. “We believe companies that focus on the goal itself, rather than how to get to the goal, are typically not as successful in the long term.”
“If you see your people as your greatest asset, then all of the other things fall into place,” says Piersant.
The Prosperity of the City
Piersant says another motivation for starting the 10 Project was the belief that healthy businesses are the backbone of a secure civil society. While Chattanooga has gained momentum – particularly in the past 30 years – in improving its livability, that livability is at risk of being lost without directed efforts to sustain it.
Of course, the threat isn’t exclusive to Chattanooga. Nationwide, mergers and acquisitions have reduced the number of executive leaders with deep roots in their communities. Growing cities, by their nature, have fewer and fewer venues for leaders to know one another and collaborate on civic efforts. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure for businesses to direct their efforts on goals for quarterly earnings.
“Today’s business leaders are under immense pressure to maximize profit and meet the bottom line. The burden is daily and extreme, so if you attempt to put your employees and your community first, you are essentially leaning against an avalanche,” says Frank Brock. “And yet, if our leaders ignore these principles, they ignore them at their peril.”
“If you do not take care of your people and they are not considered the most important asset in your company, then your profitability does not have a life of its own,” says Piersant. “Companies who stress their people out are not sustainable companies.”
For leaders who find themselves constantly up against these pressures, the 10 Project offers tools and support for navigating organizational challenges and breaking down a ‘silo mentality’ – both at the organizational level and the community level. Those who grapple with difficult questions and
decisions are invited to solicit input from a growing community of likeminded leaders.
“The 10 Project is a great way to equip future leaders with some of the tools needed to counteract those forces,” says Charlie Brock. “For the sake of our city, it is very important that we do not lose the familiar nature of businesses in our community.”
As the program continues to graduate a new class of leaders each year, the hope is that its impact will reach far beyond the participants, facilitators, and companies involved.
“Businesses that focus on 40-year results add continuity and stability to a city, from an employer standpoint, from a tax revenue generation standpoint, and even from a products and services for the marketplace standpoint,” says Quatro.
“We are talking about a blue ribbon method of leadership, that, if it goes away, leaves us doomed,” says Piersant. “If it is only profit that businesses seek, we will eventually wear out our people in this community. We will also lose a critical engine for our city’s economy, culture, our schools, our infrastructure, and more.”
“We think the impact these executives can have on their employees, and their employees’ families, and the ultimate prosperity of a city is exponential,” says Frank Brock. “We hope they will use their influence to begin a ripple of civic leadership reaching far beyond what they ever imagined when they began this program. That suddenly, they will realize they are not just working at a bank or a manufacturing plant. They are doing something with far more consequence than they had ever dreamed. Their work is a higher calling than they ever thought.”