One day Roger Smith was on his hands and knees looking for hours for a sliver of crack cocaine in the carpet. Then, in desperation, he walked into the Pacific Ocean fully intending to take his own life.
But something stopped him, and the next day he searched out a rehabilitation clinic. And then, through sheer guts and determination, he straightened himself out, applied himself at work, and eventually became chief executive officer of three different life insurance companies.
"I ended up going into Northern California, found this rehab, and and when I got out of rehab, I did the opposite of of everything that I had been doing," he recalls. "If I put my left shoe on first before, I put my right shoe on first; if I brushed my teeth with my right hand, I was gonna brush my teeth with my left hand. I had many years of addictive habits that I really felt that I had to completely start from scratch.
"And if that meant doing the opposite of everything I had been doing, because everything I had been doing kept leading me into addiction, then I was gonna do the opposite and I started creating those habits."
Smith is the author of the new book, “The Most Unlikely Leader, an Unbelievable Journey from GED to CEO." Once homeless and on the ropes, he rose to become CEO of American Income Life Insurance, National Income Life Insurance and Liberty National Life Insurance companies.
His life journey is one that truly proves that no matter how low you are you can always turn things around and achieve your goals.
Smith was the recipient of the Yitzhak Rabin Legacy Award, Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award, Healthcare For All Champion Award, Sol Stein Award, as well as numerous other awards and publications.
As CEO, he helped transform the way the life insurance industries operate and do business, and in our interview offers advice to up-and-coming would-be executives to help them succeed.
First, he said, find multiple mentors while will share their wisdom. Second, remember that "nothing's as good as it seems, and nothing's as bad as it seems."
"They should focus on being a visionary," he adds. "They have to see further than the people they're leading, and they have to have influence on the people they're leading." Moreover, says Smith, leaders must earn the trust of those who work with them, which means they must get results.
Here are questions we asked Roger Smith:
Q. I’ve read that by the time you were a teenager, you had dropped out of school, was living on the streets of Santa Monica, and was addicted to drugs. What happened?
Q. You had a friend shot right next to you while running away from a failed robbery attempt?
Q. You tried to commit suicide by walking into the Pacific? Why?
Was that some sort of a turning point for you?
Q. How did you get clean and end up running huge companies? Did you go to school, college, get business degrees? How did that happen?
Q. What was inside you that allowed you to do this? How did you discover it?
Q. What advice would you give young business execs who want to make it into the executive suites? What’s the most important thing they should focus on?
Q. Are mentors important? How should someone select and obtain a mentor?
Q. I saw this quote from your book: “Trust isn’t just about keeping your word. Trust is about your team believing that the vision you presented was going to be better for them and better for the company.” Please explain.
Q. What are the key characteristics of an effective leader?
Q. I saw another quote from you on LinkedIn: “sometimes you have to burn your bridges to not give yourself the option of turning back. Only then can you truly succeed.” Did you have to burn bridges to succeed?
Q. Also on LinkedIn, you wrote: If you tell yourself you can’t, you won’t. You must be willing to leave your comfort zone, and face uncertainty with confidence. It’s the only way you’ll grow.” I love that quote. Do you want to elaborate?
Q. Are you still in the insurance business, or are you retired now?
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