Team spirit Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2005
Pat Croce has been described as the Dale Carnegie of the 21st century by Inc magazine, but that title doesn't go far enough

This celebrity entrepreneur could also be called the Guru of Get-Up-and-Go, Doctor Dynamism or Mr. Management. Think of him as Coach Croce, the man who can help you and your business get to the winner's circle. To put him in your corner, all you have to do is listen.

He wants to tell you everything he knows. And he knows a lot.

"I'm a very successful entrepreneur," says Croce, "who does business in a uniquely customer- and employee-friendly way. Some of it is 'Sesame Street' simple, stuff your parents taught you, like saying please and thank you. It's part of building relationships. Everything depends on relationships.

"My approach combines common sense, street smarts and book sense. My son-in-law has an MBA, and I value what he has to say. But application is something else. What you learn in school has to be put to use before it's useful.

"I tell people, 'Think of life as a three ring binder.' You decide if you want to add some of what I have to offer to the pages in your notebook."

Croce's got tips to take you from "What if ... " to a business plan, a 10-step rule book for outstanding customer service and fool-proof team-building techniques. He's formulated a crash course in effective communication and knows exactly what it takes to be the kind of leader who motivates others.

A tone of optimism and positive reinforcement runs through everything he says. But his leadership and management techniques are more than a set of upbeat maxims. He's distilled a career's worth of learning into a simple, straightforward, can-do approach that, he says, anyone can implement.

"If you have a passion," he insists in a style that mixes preaching with teaching, "you can lead. Each of us can be a leader in business, in the community, in whatever group we're a part of. But most people don't know how. It's true that some have an innate talent for leadership. But the skills required can be learned. And with practice, they'll carry you forward."

The 50-year-old from Philadelphia has worked hard to earn this expertise, and his credentials have been conferred on him by the school of real life.

In the Cliff's Notes version of the Croce rags to riches saga, he goes from being a physical therapist and athletic trainer to owner of Sports Physical Therapists, an 11-state chain of 40 fitness and sports medicine centers. In the process, he invents the concept of pairing athletic training with preventive and rehabilitative health care and creates a market for it.

In 1993, 10 years after opening the first center, he sells the business for about $40 million. Three years later, after going on what he's dubbed "The Vision Quest" to figure out what new adventure he wants to embark upon, Croce buys the Philadelphia 76ers, an especially amazing feat because the basketball franchise wasn't even for sale.

When he became president, the team had the worst record in the NBA. Under his guidance, it made it to the playoffs, energizing fans and filling seats along the way. Although he still serves as a consultant and owns a minority share, Croce resigned as president in 2001. During his five year tenure, attendance increased by 60 percent, and franchise records had been broken for merchandise sales and overall revenue.

His latest project is The Pirate Soul Museum in Key West, Fla., which opened in January. Built from the ground up, the $10 million, 4,000-square-foot facility containing almost 500 artifacts is a tangible expression of his long-standing interest in buccaneer history and culture and of his equally enduring enthusiasm for taking on new challenges. His daughter, Kelly Croce Sorg, is CEO, and his son-in law, Jeffrey, is COO. Pat's title is "visionary."

Along the way, he's become a radio and TV personality, a best-selling author, a columnist for Fortune Small Business and a highly sought-after -- and highly paid -- motivational speaker. His stories and strategies about how to succeed in business and in life have become a brand that is the core product of Pat Croce & Co., a multimedia enterprise based in Haverford, Pa.

"An effective leader needs to know how to delegate. I had a hard time with that about two lifetimes ago when I went from having one to two sports medicine centers. But not anymore. Following my own advice about putting trust in others and giving them responsibility, I recently hired Marc Cerceo as Croce & Co.'s first COO."

Delivering the message
This uber-achieving yet astonishingly accessible guy doesn't just have a message -- he IS the message. There's no difference among what he believes, who he is and what he's accomplished. His mission is to tell you how he did it and convince you that, like him, you can realize your potential. And he wants you to start today.

If you're not going to be in the audience any time soon when he bounds onto the stage to deliver his trademark dream and make-it-happen talk, you can read his books. The newest is "Lead or Get Off the Pot: Seven Secrets of a Self-Made Leader." It's chock full of practical advice, actionable ideas and tools to use to make yourself into a person of initiative and influence -- the kind of person capable of achieving your best and inspiring others to achieve theirs.

Croce, just back from Los Angeles, where he was filming multiple segments of his nationally syndicated self-help reality show "Pat Croce: Moving In," slowed down long enough to talk about why he wrote the book and what it has to offer.

"I want to change that tape of self-doubt that plays in people's heads into a positive voice by using myself as an example. If I can do it, so can you."

Leadership, according to Croce, isn't a role that somebody else confers on you. You become a leader by thinking and acting like one.

"A great leader is not measured by a profit and loss statement. All CEOs are not leaders. They may have the title but if they're not helping others reach their goals, they are not real leaders."

That's what he said when he spoke at Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur Of The Year awards ceremony in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2002, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

"Everyone in the room was already a winner. But I told them not to rest on their laurels, and urged them to use their influence to make those around them better. Doing well has everything to do with doing good."

The return on that investment, he says, comes in many forms, both personal and professional.

"The rewards are emotional and financial. You will grow and so will your business," he says.

"Everyone has the power to add to or subtract from the situations around them. Be aware of that power. Look for it. See the times and the places you exert influence. Build on that. This requires presence. You have to be there, moment to moment. It's the hardest thing, but it's important."

Presence, in Croce-speak, includes paying attention, asking questions and focusing on the person in front of you. It's part of "listening with a leader's eye," an essential ability for a successful manager and the title of chapter five in his most recent book.

Croce on Croce
Croce tends to quote himself and his writing often in conversation. And why shouldn't he? The man has a knack for simplifying complex concepts and turning big theories into memorable catch phrases. Number 12, for example, on his dirty dozen checklist for fostering a dedicated, cohesive and enthusiastic team, is C.A.R.E.: Compromise, Apologize, Recognize, Empathize.

Here are some others.

"The leader must be fully aware of the goals, roles and tolls that affect each member of the staff. Knowing these things will lead to proper action and effective interaction."

He ticks off another.

"Integrity has no on/off switch."

And another.

"There are Six C's in Communication: Clear, Concise, Consistent, Credible, Courteous, Current."

And when it comes to articulating an organization's goals, Croce, whose skill in crafting easy-to-understand precepts has served him well both as an executive and as a public figure, has even more advice.

"Don't speak over people's heads, use simple language and give them something to take home," he says. "I'm a big believer in breaking complicated ideas down to points on a to-do list. Everybody wants a cookbook."

Croce's recipe for getting things done is broken down into four simple steps -- paint your vision, develop tasks, prioritize action steps and do it now.

This real-life swashbuckler has a soft spot for pirate metaphors. He describes a high-performing team as a band of rogues, people who think for themselves and take initiative. But they need a captain they can trust to keep them from running amuck with an every-man-for-himself attitude.

"On a pirate ship, the crew voted the captain into power," he says. "He had to earn his authority, then let them know who was boss, make the rules and keep them working together and focused on their common objective -- the attack. It's not so different in a business. The leader of a group has to communicate the mission, get everyone to buy into it and make sure they follow through and do what they've agreed to do."

Croce describes himself as an MBWA, someone who ascribes to the Management By Walking Around philosophy. The term refers to his conviction that good leaders are observant and receptive because they know that valuable ideas and useful information can come from unlikely sources at unexpected moments.

"I'm a daily caller, e-mailer, note-writer," says Croce. "I share what's on my mind. And I want my people to do the same. You must be in touch with your staff often and all the time. That's why doing the 'Five-Fifteens' is like a religion with me."

The Five-Fifteens are progress and activity reports written by every employee and submitted to supervisors every Friday. They should take just 15 minutes to write and five to read. These keep Croce in the loop, and he's instituted this bottom-up line of communication in every organization he's run.

"The Five-Fifteens," he writes, "serve two main purposes: they keep practical information flowing and they get the celebrations going."

Croce is determined to enjoy every step on the road to success, and all his endeavors must meet the QPF standard. The acronym stands for his aim of delivering the highest Quality product or service, while making a Profit and having Fun.

Each element is equally important.

When I confess that interviewing him has been way too much fun to be called work, he is delighted.

"That's the perfect ending to your story about me," he says with a laugh. "You should always have a great time while pursuing your goals. Life's just too short for anything less."

HOW TO REACH: Pat Croce & Co., www.patcroce.com