Peter Boni Featured

7:50am EDT June 30, 2006
Peter Boni decided when he was an infantry officer during the Vietnam War that he wanted to enter Special Operations, an elite unit that carries out vital but often perilous tactical missions.

Boni’s rationale was that if he was going to be in dangerous combat situations, then fighting in the company of well-trained, high morale soldiers was less risky than doing battle in a conventional infantry regiment.

The lesson has stuck with Boni throughout his business career. Selecting the best talent to carry out corporate missions has been a key tenet of Boni’s leadership credo at the $186 million Safeguard Scientifics, a public company that acquires and invests mostly in technology and life science companies and that currently has about 30 businesses in its portfolio.

Smart Business spoke with Boni about bold visions and actions, inspiring action in your team and the value of a good plan.

Get the best and the brightest. I was in Officers Candidates School, infantry OCS, reading the casualty rates, and they were very alarming for regimental infantry officers. But for some reason, for Special Operations, while the casualty rates were high, they were statistically, meaningfully lower than the typical infantry unit.

It’s no wonder that the casualty rates were lower. I was surrounded by the very best, very brightest and highly motivated rank and file troops, extremely well-trained commanders, better than the average bear. I came out of that telling myself ... if you’re not really good, you can’t stay in my foxhole because I’m going to get hurt, or I’m going to have to write a letter home about someone who was hurt. Neither one of those things were things I wanted to do.

That’s the best advice I could give anyone else: Surround yourself with people who are better, delegate, help them succeed and give them the credit. If a leader can’t do that, I’m not certain how successful that leader is going to be, because the organization will be only as good as he is, and sometimes that’s just not good enough.

Be a catalyst for action. I think a leader’s role is always as a catalyst to form and then execute strategy, empower others, provide help and counsel along the way and lead by example. I’m a strategist, and I have enough operational skill to make the trains run on time.

Part of my people skills are listening hard, collaborating, communicating, finding a sense of team work and a sense of mission and really treat the organization as an elite, empowered force with a shared vision and collective energy. My experience is that collaborative decision-making is far more successful and enables a far improved plan to be executed.

Create visions that inspire you and those around you. Bold visions will boil some blood, and flat visions will leave you flat.

So share in the formulation of making some decisions, execute together, measure accordingly, measure results and have fun while you’re at it. There’s a great rush in charging up the enemy’s hill, capturing the flag and celebrating after the fact.

Tell them what you’re going to tell them, and then tell them again. It’s repetition, orally, in writing. There’s a good deal of repetition, and then there’s the asking and the monitoring, whether it be in frequent meetings with my staff or with the general company.

I’m one who shares goals. I believe in creating collective energy by sharing a vision. Everyone in our organization knows what our goals are, they know what our elevator pitch is, they know what our mission is. They know what they need to do in their particular role in the organization.

It’s literally articulated in our annual report to our shareholders. When I have meetings with our shareholders, I go over the same thing as well, our strategy, and where we are with our execution of the strategy.

Follow the basics. I’ve gone into several organizations that needed some degree of repositioning for one reason or another. There’s an approach that I’ve used along the way, and it’s an approach that has a lot of fundamentals to it.

There are no magic wands. There are three dimensions to repositioning a situation. There’s the planning, the execution and the follow-on.

In the first phase, ask questions and listen hard, and ask questions of not only the people on the top of the organization. Go all the way down through the organization, then go outside the organization.

Ask people that interface with the organization — customers or analysts or ex-employees, competitors. Base the plan on what you see, and maybe by background and experience, base it on what you don’t see.

Challenge the sacred cows. Sometimes, they’re a deterrent to moving forward. When you have a plan in your head, put it down on a piece of paper and share that vision with your team and create a collective energy.

I can’t execute all by myself. I need a buy-in from a variety of people along the way.

Act boldly in the execution of your plan. I find any time I’m tentative about something, I’m likely to get hurt. Build on the strengths that you find. Control, that’s not a financial word, that’s a word for measurement of everything you’re trying to improve.

Make it visible, and when you do that, you generally do find some improvement. What are your goals, what are the absolute critical success factors by functional area in order to achieve goal No. 1, goal No. 2?

Then, your action plans are very streamlined around the goals that you found made sense for you, and you can eliminate any behavior or any activity that is just not specific to your goals.

Go aggressively into the market with a take-no-prisoners philosophy. Borrow from alliances of partners and advisers. Don’t try to do everything yourself.

Communicate, actually overcommunicate with everyone inside and outside the organization — this is where we’re going, this is how we’re going to get there, where are we doing very well, where are we faltering, where do we need to make a mid-course correction.

Spread the rewards of wealth and recognition when things are going your way, as opposed to taking an individual bow.

How to reach: Safeguard Scientifics Inc., www.safeguard.com