S2E17 The Gift of Struggle Edition with Bobby Herrera
James chats with Bobby Herrera, the author of The Gift of Struggle, a book about leadership and the life changing lessons we learn through our struggles. He’s also the Co-Founder and President of Populus Group, with a passion for building strong culture and communities through trust and storytelling.
His leadership style is about empowerment, connections, and ensuring everybody has the opportunity to succeed. He grew up in a big family with parents who emigrated to America without very much, which isn’t an uncommon story, but the leadership style and culture, company culture that it’s inspired certainly is. The belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed is at the core of his philosophy, in business, and in life.
They chat about authenticity and openness in leadership, positive re-framing, telling your story, the kindness of strangers, pivotal life moments, giving back and guarding your food from 12 siblings!
James Nathan 0:00 Hello and welcome to The Only One Business Show with me your host James Nathan and I have a stunning guest today for you, and I think you’re going to really enjoy meeting him. He’s the author of the book, The Gift of Struggle, a book about leadership and the life changing lessons we learn through our struggles. He’s also the Co-Founder and President of Populus Group, with a passion for building strong culture and communities through trust and storytelling. His leadership style is about empowerment, connections, and ensuring everybody has the opportunity to succeed. He grew up in a big family with parents who emigrated to America without very much, which isn’t an uncommon story, but the leadership style and culture, company culture that it’s inspired certainly is. The belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed is at the core of his philosophy, in business, and in life. A proud Army veteran currently living in the very beautiful Portland, Oregon with his wife and three children. Please welcome Bobby Herrera. Bobby, hi, how are you?
Bobby Hererra 1:13 I’m excellent. I’m blessed. Absolutely looking forward to connecting with you, James.
James Nathan 2:01 Well, I’m delighted you’ve been able to take the time, Bobby, thanks so much. And you’re in Portland, you you mentioned to me you haven’t been there long how’s the transformation to Oregon life been?
Bobby Hererra 2:11 Well, I think I mentioned it, you know, offline while ago we should have we should have come out here a long time ago. It’s beautiful. It’s everything you hear about Portland is true.
James Nathan 2:19 And your parents came to the to America. When was that? When did they When did they immigrate?
Bobby Hererra 2:24 Yeah, my dad’s story brought him to the US in 1964. And I joined the tribe of 13 children a few years later. So I was the first one born in the United States. I didn’t speak a lick of English until I was seven. And it was a….. it was an interesting time to, you know, have the family journey start at the US.
James Nathan 2:51 So where were they from?
Bobby Hererra 2:52 Yeah, from northern Mexico. Yeah.
James Nathan 2:58 13 kids my word. That’s a really expensive Christmas isn’t it.
Bobby Hererra 3:03 And you know, my wife is still trying to break me from eating with my elbows on the table. And I think it’s just hard wired. I’ve been protecting my food since I was a little fella.
James Nathan 3:12 I can imagine if your brothers and sisters eat anything like my brother did, you would want to protect that as well. So you grew up in this big, big family with with your folks. And so what what did your dad do? What was his story?
Bobby Hererra 3:29 Well, so my dad was a Brasero for Mexico. James. For those of your listeners that aren’t familiar, that was an agreement between the US and Mexico that started during the World War era, and basically was temporary workers from Mexico that would come to the US and offset the labor shortage while the US men were all fighting in the war. And my dad was selected as a Brasero in 1954 in the year that he was selected there were 300,000 men from Mexico, amongst millions that stood in these lines for the opportunity to come to the US and work. And, you know, my dad stood in line for nine years, trying to get an opportunity to become a Brasero and he finally was selected. And, you know, can you imagine the resilience and the courage that it took to never give up. And, you know, I’m so grateful for the fact that he never gave up. And he did that for 10 years, James from 1954 to 1964. And, you know, that part of his story came at a significant sacrifice. You know, you and I were talking about our kids a little before the recording and you know, he would leave the family for 10/11 months at a time and send money back home and, you know, as a family story goes, he would, you know, he’d leave, he’d come back, he’d meet the kid that he made before he left, stick around long enough to make another one, do another, you know, season as a Brasero, and they come back and, you know, I can barely stay away from my coconuts for two, three days. And I can only imagine the pain that he felt as a father because, you know, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
James Nathan 5:20 Well, but what uh, well, you know, if I think about that, and I think but goodness me, you know, people talk about having a hard time these days, but they don’t know what they’re talking about when a man can do such a wonderful thing for his family and such a difficult thing for himself. Well, you know, it’s really quite impressive.
Bobby Hererra 5:36 Yeah. And I think, I think most, most men out there, at least the ones that whose frontal lobe is fully developed would readily admit that my mom probably had the harder job she was at back at home raising all those children. And yeah, so yeah, they both made significant sacrifices for that and in 1964 when the program ended my Dad had met a sheep rancher from eastern New Mexico here in the US and that rancher told my dad that hey, if this program ends just come knocking on my door and I’ll give you an opportunity and a few months after it ended in 1964 my Dad did just that. And you know that kind rancher named Henry kept his word and that was the beginning of our family story in the US and I’m grateful for my dad meeting that kind man that you know held true to his promise and I they you know, it forever changed my family story.
James Nathan 6:36 Well, what a fabulous man, is he still with us?
Bobby Hererra 6:39 No, he’s, you know, I him and my dad, I think are both having pints at the at the beer in heaven where they at the bar and have a free beer. At least that’s what I’m gonna tell myself.
James Nathan 6:51 Well, that sounds like a good place to be. I’ll do that when the time’s right. I don’t want to do that too soon, but that journey, you know, growing up with the distant dad and and then then moving from one country to another hardly speaking the language must have been a hell of a thing for all of you.
Bobby Hererra 7:09 You know when you’re going through it your narratives different than when you reflect back on it and after, after I joined the family and a couple of other younger siblings joined, we were a migrant farm working family, which in English means that we were part of what is often called the invisible workforce in the United States. And where I met my family, my dad would pull all the kids out of school in April. And we would begin our journey as a migrant farm working family and so we would go to the state of Colorado and we would work in the onion fields and then we would go into Wyoming work in the sugar beets. We would go to Idaho and we would pick potatoes and pears and a few months later we would make our way back down all the way to our home state of New Mexico and that’s how I grew up six months out of the year, you know following my family around in the fields, eventually becoming part of that. And, you know, I just I grew up working in the fields, you know, often 10 hours a day, six days a week. And, you know, at times growing up, I thought everybody did that, James. But, you know, I end up you know, I had some very fortunate opportunities. I had a act of kindness. It changed my life when I was 17. And, you know, I just started looking at my life differently in those later teen years.
James Nathan 8:38 Tell us about that act of kindness and what happened?
Bobby Hererra 8:41 Well, it’s actually the first chapter of the book in The Gift of Struggle, but it’s actually my one of my marker stories. So my brother and I…. I was 17 and we were on a return trip home for a basketball game. And along the way, the team stopped for dinner. Everyone unloaded off the bus. Except for me and my brother Ed, you know, being part of this big tribe. We were, you know, very modest upbringing. We were in a point in time where we couldn’t play sports and afford dinner. So a few moments after the team of loads, one of the dads to the other player steps on board the bus. And he teased me a little bit James because he had outscored me that night, he was a better basketball player than I was. And then he said something to me that I will always remember.
Bobby, it would make me very happy. If you would allow me to buy you boys dinner. Nobody else has to know. All you have to do to thank me is do the same thing for another great kid just like you on this bus. And James, I had this wave of gratitude come over me that it’s still hard for me to explain that feeling to this day. And I remember stepping off that bus and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. You know, struggle had been the only consistent theme in my family story. I wanted off that bus more than you know. And even though I didn’t know what I was going to do, after that kind act, I knew why. I would somehow some way figure out a way to create something that would allow me to pay forward that kind act to other kids like me who were born on the wrong side of the opportunity divide.
James Nathan 10:29 What a fabulous thing.
Bobby Hererra 10:31 And, you know, I felt nine foot tall that evening, James, I felt like nothing could stop me. You know, that moment you gave me identity, it gave me purpose. It showed me that I too could somehow some way make a difference in someone else’s life and it became the invisible force that drove me and it fuelled me you know later on in life when I started my entrepreneurial journey and started my company Polulus Group.
James Nathan 10:58 So tell me about Populus Group because it’s quite a special business isn’t it?
Bobby Hererra 11:02 Well, I’m very fortunate, I’m blessed, you know, Populus Group, it’s Latin for people. We’re a community of passionate, egoless climbers building something bigger than ourselves. And that is bringing that bus story to life to help kids and, you know, military veterans. That’s, that’s what drives us. And we’re very passionate about the culture that we fiercely protect that I’ve been fortunate to build with them. But the problem we solve for the world’s pretty simple, you know, there’s a raging forward for talent out there. And we help organizations better manage their non permanent workforce. So there’s an interesting irony there. So you know, my Dad, he was a temporary worker from Mexico. And it’s interesting now that the industry that I serve, is helping organizations better manage their temporary workers. So I have a very deep personal connection to making sure that we serve these people who, in my eyes, they’re just like my Dad and Mom, we’re trying to do something better for their families. And that’s embedded into the way that we serve, into the way that we give. And I tell those stories everyone in Populus Group understands those stories and it gives us meaning when we serve those that are you know, that trust us.
James Nathan 12:25 Isn’t it a really interesting sort of circle of faith that you end up doing what you’re doing? I don’t I don’t believe in many forces in life but i i do think that there is something very special when when that sort of thing happens. So that bus story, the story of that very kind man on the bus and, Populus. How is that transformed your your journey with that company?
Bobby Hererra 12:51 Well, I appreciate that question for two reasons. One, that bus story was raging like an inferno inside of me. And the first reason I appreciate your question is that bus story is also part of one of the biggest leadership mistakes that I made. And let me tell you what that is. It took almost 10 years after I started my company for me to develop the courage to tell that story, isn’t that crazy. It’s raging like an inferno inside of me. It was the moment that gave me purpose, identity. And, you know, I write about that in the book on the narrative that I was telling myself that nobody needed to hear it. That I mean, it was a big point of vulnerability for me. And when I finally developed the courage to tell that story, it changed everything for us. And you know, another reason that I appreciate your question is it’s been a big part of how it’s shaped my leadership philosophy because you know, there’s a backstory that I think’s important. You know, that gentleman that stepped on board the bus James. He was a very successful businessman in the community. And the narrative that I told myself as a 17 year old kid, is that, you know, people like him, they don’t they don’t see kids like me.
But with one simple act of kindness, not only did he show me that I was wrong. But he taught me that one of the single most important parts of leadership is seeing and encouraging potential. That was the first time in my life that I felt seen. And it changed everything for me. And that experience has shaped my leadership philosophy around how I reframe my struggles and what I went through and how that applies to, you know, leadership and serving others. And, you know, I know service is a big passion of yours and, you know, it has to stem from someplace meaningful. And that that bus door has been been the marker For me,
James Nathan 14:28 It’s interesting when you mentioned that he was a very successful person. I tell a lot of stories as you too and, and one of them is a kind of how I ended up in business in the first place or how I ended up in a sales environment and part of that was was trying to work out what made successful people…. one person more successful than another and how they how they went at it, but not just what they did, but how they thought about it. And one of the things that I did as a guy was just start to ask, to ask to buy beers for people or buy him a coffee or asked if I could take them out for lunch and, and just just find out what it was that made them so special. And one of the things I discovered was not only were they extremely generous with their time, but they were always extremely generous with their knowledge. They were very happy to help and to give. And I think that’s something that stuck with me. You know, our mutual friend Bob Burg talks a lot about that giving but not giving to receive, giving to give and that you know that what goes around comes around. I think it’s it’s quite interesting when I hear stories like that bus story and I think you know what, it doesn’t surprise me in any way. It delights me but it doesn’t surprise me that that person was a successful business person.
Bobby Hererra 16:18 Yeah, he was a very kind, is a very kind humble man…. you know, a few years back, you know, I realized had never picked up the phone and called him. And I’m not sure why I hadn’t. And it was about 15 years into my company’s journey. We just turned 17. So, ironically, now my company Populus Group is the same age and I was when he stepped on board that bus and you know, a few years back, I picked up the phone and I called him and I told him the bus story. I told him the impact it had on me and how I have been fortunate and very greatful to, you know, pay for that kind act to other kids who, you know, feel like me on that bus. And it was a real special moment for us, James. And yeah, a few days later, I got a note from him. And in that note, he says, you know, he says, you know, Bobby, thank you so much for calling me and telling me the bus story. I don’t mind admitting the many tears that I shed during and after that call. You made me feel like my life had mattered.
James Nathan 17:30 Did he remember, he did he remember meeting you on the bus?
Bobby Hererra 17:32 He did remember, he did remember. But he had no idea how that moment had become the invisible force that drove me to build something that is very fortunately, a pretty unique community and a given community of great people that I’m just, you know, God’s given me more than I deserve. And I like to think that I would have figured it out on my own James. But that’s not a real comfortable thought for me. I’m real open about that. Because, you know, again, seeing people encouraging people, making people feel seen and heard. That’s really what service are all about wouldn’t you agree?
James Nathan 18:12 Oh, absolutely. I think, you know, people talk about the thought…. it’s the thought that counts. Of course, it’s not as the effort that counts and the effort we make for others and the way we think about them, to give them…. to delight them to make them feel great, to make them…. to warm them to what we’re doing, and to hope that they want to do more of it. Where does struggle fit in because you talk about the gift of struggle, and is struggling a gift?
Bobby Hererra 18:40 Well, great question. So I’m going to take you forward one year from that moment that I experienced on the bus. So about a year after that experience, I probably raised my hand and I took the oath and I joined your what I probably call the best branch of the military in the US, the Army. And about three weeks in the boot camp, that’s right in that heart of that haze of that mental and physical breakdown that any soldier that joins the military will experience. And it was late one evening about 11:30pm at night, and I’m polishing my boots by flashlight. And all around me, I can hear the soldiers complaining about the night that had no end in sight. And the morning that was going to start way too soon. And James, I remember vividly thinking as they were complaining, I’m like, wow, I’ve been waking up in the wee hours to work in the fields ever since I was, you know, yea high. I know what it’s like not to have any material comfort. I know what it’s like to not have any free time. I’d even been asked to leave the table because of the color of my skin and language I spoke at the time and I remember specifically thinking, like, maybe that was part of the plan. Because for the first time, I thought, you know what, there’s nothing that they can say or do to me that I haven’t somehow someway experienced before. And I started reframing some of those hardships and those struggles and those experiences. And that’s where, you know, as I reflect on my journey, and I look at some of those experiences, anytime I faced an obstacle, I could always draw from something that I experienced before that made me feel like I had self doubt or question myself, it was always a previous experience of struggle that gave me the energy to get through whatever obstacle I was facing. And I connect a lot of those dots through the stories that I share in the book. Yet, you know, that ultimately shape my leadership philosophy and, you know, to answer your question, what it really comes down to in my mind is that you we all struggle. Inside every struggle is a gift that teaches us something. And leaders share those gifts with others. And it’s a simple philosophy, yet it’s a very true philosophy. I often say that, hey, we all have a PhD in struggle. Are we tapping into those lessons and those gifts that those struggle have given us?
James Nathan 21:24 You said your biggest leadership mistake was not talking about your story. What stopped you?
Bobby Hererra 21:32 Well, you know, my wife says my frontal lobe wasn’t fully developed yet. And, you know, I think every entrepreneur when they first start their journey, you’re dodging arrows, you’re facing so many unknowns. And, you know, I have to call the first five years of Populus Group the most fun I never want to have again, like I just wanted to keep the lights on and although I intuitively… culture and, you know, purpose was burning inside of me. I was just trying to survive. And then, as we experienced some fortunate growth in that second era, you know, I was telling myself the wrong narrative. And the narrative that I was saying is that, you know what, this is important to me. It’s not important to them, they don’t need to hear it. What if I fall flat on my face? You know, and, I mean, this moment was the experience that exposed my biggest point of self doubt. And again, I didn’t realize at that point, just how powerful and critical the competency of your being authentic and vulnerable with your people really is. And, you know, I finally mustered up the courage. I talked about how I did it. It wasn’t, you know, I didn’t just one day wake up and say, yeah, I’m going to tell that story. It actually happened accidentally while I was working on a project. And I just share the story with, you know, with a gentleman that was helping me work on a project where we were going to codify our culture and our culture code. But when I told him that story, I felt like this giant weight had been just removed from my shoulders. But a few weeks later, my company heard the story. And it changed everything. It humanized me. And they were finally able to understand that intensity that they knew was there and they knew I had this real intense driven passionate succeed, but they didn’t know why. And I believe as a leader, one of the most important things that we need to do is we need to give our people meaning. In other words, it’s our responsibility to give those that we lead, contribution, give them something to contribute to. And I hadn’t done that.
James Nathan 24:03 Right. It’s interesting, you know, I speak to so many people on this podcast, you know, across the last couple of seasons and so many talk about their, you know, everyone has a story and they talk about their stories. And the common theme is that when they started to discuss that with the people they worked with, with the people that worked with them, a whole world of change happened, and that authenticity that vulnerability, I guess, made them very human and it not only did it change the relationship in the business and with the people in their business, but it inspired and one of the greatest talents of a leader is surely to inspire those around you to follow the journey into come along to toward the vision. So it’s really fantastic that when you when you mentioned that you think, ah great, how can we get people to do that? How can we get leaders to think inside themselves and to bring that vulnerability out, what could what could people listening today, think about and do to change that narrative?
Bobby Hererra 25:10 Well, you know, that’s actually part of my mission is, you know, I want to reframe how the world view struggle, you know, I want them to see it as a source of empowerment. As a gift that it really is. And as I was fortunate to do, and that’s the primary reason why the first lesson is tell your story. And I believe that it has to be a choice, you know, people, we’re wired in a way that, you know, we don’t like to be told what to do. And, you know, I’m going to keep telling my story, to be an example and, you know, share the good, bad and the ugly of, you know, how it helped me and the more I think people out there who have made a similar mistake or experienced a similar struggle, the more safety we create for others to do the same. I think they’ll make the choice. You know, in business, I believe that’s one of the biggest trends in business now is leaders wanting to build a more purpose driven organization? And the reality is that’s what the younger workforce generations are teaching us. So, you know, a lot of people complain about the millennials and all these other generations and I’m like, you know what they’re actually teaching us to lead with more purpose, more intentionality, to communicate differently, communicate better. I tend to focus more on what they’re challenging and encouraging. Those of us that get the opportunity to lead to do better.
James Nathan 26:42 But that new generation….because you your your background is, as you say, it’s not an uncommon story, you know, migrant background hard working family. But we certainly would hope that you know, the next generation and the generation on have easier and easier lifes. So does that give to struggle disappear? I guess your kids won’t feel or know the same hardship that you felt as a child.
Bobby Hererra 27:09 You know, I hope they don’t yet I want to teach them the same lessons. You know, we were talking offline. You know, I moved to a farm so they could learn how to work in the dirt, play in the dirt. Yeah, I’m going to manufacturing it. But you know, the reality is, is, you know, as a good friend of mine, who had a very fortunate upbringing says, you know, they’re going to be born on third base, and they didn’t hit a triple. So I want to make sure that they, that they understand these lessons, and I’m doing that by the storytelling, but here’s a….. here’s what I really want to, you know, comment about that, James, is that, you know, there’s a technical definition of struggle, and that is, you know, to strive or achieve something in the face of difficulty or resistance. And, sure that’s true. We’re going to face obstacles, exterior obstacles, and you know, struggle. The way I view it, it’s actually the pain that we feel inside. We often have self doubt, we feel like we’re the only one. We feel like that there’s only one person, ourself, that is experiencing this frustration or source of pain right now. And that’s just not true. And through storytelling and sharing some of these stories, I’ve received some heartwarming, life changing letters from great people across the world that, you know, they’re thanking me for simply just sharing the stories that I shared in the book, and I wrote it to give. And one of the part of that giving is to create that safety for other people to talk openly about it. And I think there’s a big gap out there right now for leaders to, you know, finally step up and admit that they don’t all have their stuff to together.
James Nathan 29:02 Well, you as you talk about the reframing part, I just want to come back to that in a moment, but you know, that ability….. there’s a resilience or is it just a bloody mindedness that kept you going? And then how did you when you said you reframed it, was there something that clicked was there a pivoting moment that made you think I have to look at this differently?
Bobby Hererra 29:24 Well, that that moment that highlighted at that basic training at boot camp, when I was polishing my boots, and that was the first vivid experience yet, as I continued into my professional journey, and then my entrepreneurial journey. Every time that I faced an obstacle, and there were many and there’s countless and you know, the book is laced with mistakes and frustrations that I had and then mistakes that I made and I often tell people that although I have been very fortunate, intentional about reframing my struggle. I don’t openly go out and invite it in my life, like you have to be crazy to want to struggle. But you have to be crazier to think that it’s not going to happen. So just shifted our mindset a little bit. And, you know, often when I guide leaders or coach others, I have them go back to the beginning, like, write down a list of those marker moments in your life, where you faced a significant struggle. And it’s usually pretty, pretty easy for someone to do that. And then I’ll have them draw a line, and I’ll ask them, okay, on the other side, when you reflect on that, what did it teach you? How did it make you better? And you’ll see people write things like, well, hey, it taught me compassion. It taught me to be kind. It taught me to never give up. It taught me to go off the beaten path, it taught me to, you know, ask for help. And those are the things that get us through those moments when we, you know, feel like we’re alone and we feel like the weight of the world on our shoulders. But you have to work at it.
James Nathan 31:16 Fantastic. Bobby, I read a lovely quote from you, which said leadership amounts to wanting more for people, than what we want from them.
Bobby Hererra 31:24 That’s right.
James Nathan 31:25 And I think if anything could sum up what you’ve been telling me I think that that’s, that’s absolutely wonderful. I’ve loved chatting with you, and I’m pretty sure I could go on for the rest of the evening. But could you leave our listeners with your one big thing, one, one idea, one Golden Nugget, something that they can do for themselves and for their businesses to be benefited day and better for the years to come? What would that be?
Bobby Hererra 31:54 Well, I’d asked him to consider the…. just the unvarnished truth of this next statement, and that we must all go through struggle, pain and suffering, to get to wisdom. And I often say that, you know, the long way is a shortcut. And if we really take a step back and do that deep excavation that we just briefly talked about, and going back to the beginning and writing down some of those significant, often painful moments, I believe they would recognize that, wow, I do have a PhD in struggle. Maybe this is part of the plan.
James Nathan 32:38 Bobby, thank you so so much. It’s been lovely chatting with you.
Bobby Hererra 32:42 God bless you James and that pints on me next time you’re in Portland. Hail the underdogs!
James Nathan 32:47 I’ll hold you to that. Great, thanks Bobby.