Joe Contrera oozes confidence as he shares his insights on leadership to corporate executives and organizations throughout the United States.
And the Ahwatukee author of three books emphatically states anyone and everyone is a leader – which he defines as “a person who influences others to do or to be their best.”
“Every day we have an opportunity to influence others, and we can choose to do that in either a positive or negative way. I choose to go positive, and that’s what I teach leaders to do,” said Contrera, with his signature shaved head glistening under office lights and a smile that lights up his face.
Contrera, a 14-year Ahwatukee resident, is president and founder of ALIVE@WORK, a leadership development company that helps organizations educate their leaders to achieve “extraordinary results.”
His latest book, “Extraordinary Results: Mastering the Art of Leading, Coaching and Influencing Others,” was released on April 1, the same date he founded his company 18 years ago.
The title joins his prior leadership books, “Light ‘Em Up!,” a 21-day program for corporate sales leaders, and “I Could Love No One...Until I Loved Me, A Grownup Book for the Kid in You,” about discovering self-worth and value.
His newest book garnered high praise from executives across the country, including Maya Liebman, CIO and executive vice president of American Airlines Group and Daniel Henry, global CIO of McDonald’s.
Even the world-famous Ken Blanchard, co-author of “The One-Minute Manager,” lauded Contrera’s latest work.
Contrera divides his time between serving as a leadership consultant – a growing task that led to his founding of The Art of Leading, Coaching and Influencing Others, a seven-month leadership development program to help companies develop leaders from within, and traveling as a leadership speaker at corporate conferences and seminars. He also works as an executive coach.
This summer, he will travel to South Africa to work with business leaders in Johannesburg.
“Leadership is a privilege, and yet one out of every two leaders choose leadership because of the compensation. We treat leadership as if it were a reward for performance; it’s not,” he said emphatically. “Leadership is a calling.
“The difficulty for most leaders is that they never transition from being an individual contributor to a leader. Most leaders don’t make the jump, and so instead of acting like leaders, they simply act like a glorified individual contributor.”
He said the foundation of his various leadership programs is the seven-month leadership development program that integrates multiple learning methods – including interactive workshops, one-on-one coaching, group coaching, accountability partners and group feedback to really transform the way leaders think and what they believe about being a leader.
“Most leadership training lasts a day or two, and 75 percent of the learning is lost within hours of leaving the program, and 95 percent of the learning is lost within a few days,” he explained. “Our leadership development program offers participants an education they will retain for years after the program ends.”
He explained that one simple, but often overlooked, method for leaders is asking questions and then listening to the answers.
“One thing I teach is the art of asking questions. As a leader, I can assume what the other person is thinking or saying, but really all I can do is project my thoughts and beliefs onto them, and until I ask, I don’t have a clue,” said Contrera.
“You learn the art of asking questions and then listen to their answers. It is all about helping them create their own solutions for their problems and challenges. That’s an art.”
And the size of the audience has nothing to do with how it’s done.
“The formula for influencing people is the same whether you’re selling, leading, coaching, facilitating a small group or giving a presentation to 500 people. As a leader, influencing others doesn’t mean you tell them what to do,” he said. “It’s about giving them a reason to follow you or to change the way they think about a particular situation or challenge.”
An influence in his own life is his 88-year-old mother, who still lives in the family home in Ohio. Contrera often refers to her, and one incident in particular is paramount in his public speeches.
It happened after his first year at Ohio State University produced less-than-stellar results, and his Italian mother took him to task for it.
He calls it “The Wake-Up Call” and it occurred in the family kitchen as his 5-foot, 10-inch mother rolled out pizza dough:
“She puts down the rolling pin and looks at me and says, ‘You know, Joey, I’m angry and I’m sad. I’m angry because you have a brother who is developmentally challenged and wishes he could do half the things that you can do, and he can’t. And I’m sad because you have all the God-given talents in the world and you are wasting your life. When are you going to wake up?’”
His older brother, Billy, who lives in Ohio, remains both a driving force and inspiration for Contrera. The two are close and speak by phone, sometimes several times a day.
“Growing up, kids would pick on him. I’d be walking home from school and see a bunch of guys around him, and I’d just jump in. But when you have someone in your home with special needs who gets all the attention, you can sometimes resent it. ‘Why me?’ I’d ask.
“Then one day I lifted my head and heard, ‘So you can have compassion for others.’ That’s why the money from my second book goes to Best Buddies,” he said, referring to Best Buddies International, a nonprofit that serves those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“One of their big campaigns – and Desert Vista High School has a chapter – is to get rid of the ‘R’ word. It shouldn’t ever be used in any context.”
Leadership and inspiration are recurring themes of Contera’s books and speeches.
“Leaders are defined as people who influence others to do or be their best. Which means, anyone can effectively lead others, regardless of whether or not anyone reports to them,” he said.
“Yet, every year, corporations spend approximately $160 billion on training, and every year, billions of dollars continue to drop off the bottom line. The No. 1 cause is ineffective leadership delivered by ineffective leaders who don’t understand what it truly means to lead, don’t have the skills to lead, or worse, don’t really have the desire.
“We can help someone develop their skills, but if they don’t have the desire or don’t want to change, they’re wasting everyone’s time and money.”
Contrera’s client list is impressive and includes corporations such as American Airlines, PetSmart, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Cox, Abbott Laboratories, Pella Windows and Farmers Insurance, among others.
“What I really want the people reading this article to take away from it is to stop looking outward for someone to follow and start looking inward at yourself and what you need to do to be your very best self. Only then have you earned the privilege to lead others” he stated quietly but passionately.
“Every day we have the opportunity to influence people. Whether it’s the counter person at McDonald’s who’s maybe not doing a good job, or someone who cuts in front of us on Pecos. We don’t have to react negatively. We can be positive within ourselves. Everybody can be a leader. Everybody can influence others to be their best.”