A dozen managers sat around a rectangular table at the Wit hotel in the Loop, their attention fixed on a man in an Armani suit standing in the front of the room.
They waited quietly, the
Red Line train periodically rumbling by, until the tall, blue-eyed man spoke.
When Rich Horwath did, he began with a story.
"A recent Saturday morning, I'm sitting in my home office, and I'm listening to a CD I recorded on strategy," he tells the sales managers and marketing leaders from Ferring Pharmaceuticals who had gathered in a fourth-floor conference room.
"I'm just checking the CD to see if I need to make any changes. And a little while later, my (then-5-year-old) son, Luke, comes in the room. And he plops down on the brown leather chair and he listens a minute. And finally, being the dad, I had to ask, 'So, Luke, what do you think about Dad's new CD on strategy?' Right? I'm excited, and he pauses for a minute and says, 'It sounds like church.'
"And so, not making that connection, I said, 'So how is it like church?' And he said, 'Well, there's a lot of talking. I don't understand most of it. And I think I'm getting sleepy.'"
Laughter erupts around the table, and with that, Horwath establishes a convivial atmosphere for the 3 1/2-hour workshop he would lead on strategic thinking.
Horwath, 45, the best-selling author of "Deep Dive: The Proven Method for Building Strategy, Focusing Your Resources and Taking Smart Action," knows that the topic of strategy can appear theoretical and wonky, or as he puts it, "textbook-ish" and "not real-world."
But he views it more simply, as a way to combat a haphazard approach to life. Most people, he said, operate like bumper cars, bouncing from one activity to another without thinking.
"In business, I think insanity is when we do the same things, the same initiatives, year after year after year and we expect miraculous new growth," said Horwath, who runs the one-man Strategic Thinking Institute.
"I call it the organizational lobotomy: working without really thinking about our work."
Horwath's clients have included
invited Horwath to its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to speak to its employees about how they can create personal strategies for their careers.
Companies, he said, are telling employees, "'Look, you've got to have a plan.' We can give you the gym and the financial lessons and all that, but look, you've got to kind of put it all together.'"
Horwath's rates run $20,000 for a keynote address or $35,000 to $50,000 for a full-day workshop, which includes a three-phase training program that can last a year. Before the workshop, he reviews business plans, interviews participants and administers assessments and surveys. Follow-up can include counseling by phone and email, and evaluations of progress based on criteria set by him and the client.
David Hammond, president of Wonderlic Inc., a maker of surveys and tests applied to potential employees and students, brought Horwath into the company's Vernon Hills headquarters last year for two daylong training sessions.
"The actual case study is your own business," said Hammond, 39. "You're really turning on that whole lens of introspection on the work that you do."
Seeing the whole field
In Horwath's second-floor home office in Barrington Hills, where he prepares and studies strategy when he's not flying around the country to train managers, three plaques line a shelf, given to "Coach Rich Horwath" from the Barrington Area Soccer Association.
Horwath, who spent most of his childhood growing up with a sister in Hoffman Estates, played the sport through college. After graduating from Hoffman Estates High School, he went to the
, playing there for two years, with his team making it to the Sweet 16 of the
tournament. When Horwath transferred to
out of a desire to be back in the Chicago area, he spent two more years playing soccer as a Blue Demon.
He played goalie, perhaps the most pressure-packed position on the field.
"As a goalkeeper, I think a lot of that time -- the preparation, the independence, the thinking -- really shaped what I'm doing today," Horwath said. "As a goalie, you have the opportunity to see the whole field and help direct and lead the players to the right positions. As a strategist, the real intent is to be able to see the big picture of the business and to be able to put those pieces together in a way so that you can be providing that value."
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in operations management, Horwath took a job in medical sales. Out of curiosity, he asked to spend the night in the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital, now the
of Cook County. He remembers, in particular, watching a neurosurgeon operate.
"At that point," he said, "the thing that I realized is that the way to provide the most value is to be an expert. And when you watch a trauma surgeon, you realize what expertise really is. And I think that sparked within me a desire to truly try and find, you know, 'What is my expertise? Where is the area where I can provide value and help other people get better?' "
While studying for his Master of Business Administration degree at DePaul, Horwath became taken with marketing management. What followed was a full-on immersion in the study of strategy -- military, business and political -- as attested to by 3-inch binders on his office bookshelf, filled with notes and diagrams he has drawn while delving into books and research articles.
His first year operating his Strategic Thinking Institute, he earned $70,250. In the 10 years since, he has written "Deep Dive" and "Strategy for You: Building a Bridge to the Life You Want," both published by Greenleaf Book Group. He also put out two comic books, "Strategylock and Dr. Tactics in the Case of the Dead Strategy" and "The Secret Powers of Strategyman."
The books and conferences have thrown more attention Horwath's way, and he averages four workshops a month, earning revenues of $1 million to $3 million annually.
Company leaders, Horwath said, tend to approach him not in times of crisis, but out of a desire to strengthen their management skills. In some cases, they want to ensure that their midlevel managers are also thinking strategically.
At Abbott Laboratories, Horwath provided two strategic-thinking and skills-development sessions to 160 people in the company's integrated managed care and policy division. At
Pharmaceuticals Corp., he conducted eight-week virtual training sessions via phone with key account managers.
Bradley Hartmann, 34, of Wood Dale, said Horwath's guidance and success as an entrepreneur inspired him to start his own company, Red Angle, which specializes in teaching Spanish to construction companies. He was a student in Horwath's strategic thinking class at the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.
"He's just got a great way of delivering the material, especially something very ambiguous like strategy. He just has a real gift of bringing it to life and making it relevant and something you could grasp a little more," Hartmann said. "I immediately wanted to do as good with Spanish as this guy is with strategy."
Horwath understands skepticism toward his business but says his face-to-face training and partnership with management teams goes beyond what can be gleaned by reading a couple of books -- even if they are his.
"If you wanted to be a surgeon, you could read some of the best textbooks on being a surgeon," he said.
"That doesn't mean that you're going to be able to go into the operating room by yourself, having just read two textbooks, and perform a successful surgery. In the same token, you can read a couple of books on strategy, but unless you're actively thinking strategically and using questions, frameworks, and tools to generate new insights, then the strategy is not just going to automatically appear."
'Gotta dig down'
Horwath said most of his business comes from firms where someone has read his books or subscribed to his free monthly newsletter, "Strategic Thinker." When he shows up, he makes sure to project an aura of confidence.
On a Friday morning, he grasped the wheel of his carbon gray Porsche Panamera as he navigated through traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, Canali shirt peeking beneath the sleeve of his steel-blue Armani suit.
"I'm not going to own 100 suits, but the ones you own, you want them to be good quality," said Horwath, adding that he frequents
on Michigan Avenue for business attire. "Sometimes, I'm working one-on-one with an executive, and sometimes with 400 people. You want to look good and feel good so that you can convey that you're serious about helping folks."
At the Wit, Horwath's customized workbook for the Ferring Pharmaceuticals managers, plus personalized interactions -- he made sure to learn each manager's name -- kept his audience interested. Aside from whiteboard markers, diagrams and discussion time, he referenced a clip from the movie "Walk the Line," in which
, played by
, auditions for music executive
, played by
Cash starts by singing a popular tune, but Phillips stops him, telling Cash the song wouldn't sell and he can tell Cash doesn't believe in what he's singing. After some prodding, Cash sings his own, deeply felt "Folsom Prison Blues," mesmerizing Phillips.
Horwath pointed out how, despite the tension of the moment, Phillips' honest assessment propelled the situation forward.
"The reality is, sometimes it seems like we're on a sales call or we're in a meeting with a C-suite person from a physician group, and we think the goal is to walk out arm in arm singing 'Kumbaya,' " Horwath said. "Sometimes, as leaders, you've got to have those challenging conversations. You've gotta dig down."
Nicholas Canes, 29, Ferring's southwest district sales manager for reproductive health, said Horwath's conversational, adaptive style proved "really, really helpful for what we do. You think you know what strategy is, you think you know what goals are, but you put it in this context, and it's a huge reframing. He really knows our business and is trying to put it in the right context for us."
Strategy, for Horwath, exists beyond the business realm. It's partly responsible, he says, for his temperament, which comes across as calm and rational. As in business, he finds little benefit in being reactionary. It's also the catalyst for prioritizing time with his children, Horwath said, sometimes to the detriment of spending time with his friends.
"I wanted to create a life where I was always being true to who I am as a person," he said. "Strategy is about where you invest your resources, your time, your talent. And so my wife and I, one of the goals that we've had is that while our kids are young, we're going to invest our time and our talents, whatever those may be, as much as possible with them. We definitely made a conscious effort to where we want to invest time with our kids, help them grow, help them develop."
When he arrived home about 4:30 p.m. that recent Friday, he greeted his wife, Anne, whom he met at graduate school and who describes her husband as "so well-researched and well-read," with a kiss. He hugged his two children, Luke, 9, and Jessica, 7.
Their puppy dashed across their front lawn and onto the street, and Anne ran after it, barefoot.
After an hour of downtime, Horwath, still wearing Armani slacks, slid behind the wheel of a Nissan Quest minivan, interior smudges and all, and drove off with his family to get pizza.
- - -
Rich Horwath, CEO, Strategic Thinking Institute
Lives in: Barrington Hills with wife Anne, 43; children Luke, 9, and Jessica, 7; a yellow Labrador named Breeze; and a bearded dragon named Beardy.
Hobby: Shooting sporting clays with his Browning shotgun at the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in Dundee.
While working, listens to: Orchestral/electronic
movie soundtrack; pianist George Winston; and indie rock band The National.
Standard breakfast: Caramel Nut Blast Balance Bar Gold
Workout regimen: Exercises six days a week, sometimes waking at 4:30 a.m. to do 60-yard interval sprints in his backyard, and to use free weights and punching bags in his basement gym.