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Retired video game guru urges budding execs to embrace fears

Reggie Fils-Aime also tells college graduates — and business executives — that keeping options open for alternative, previously unforeseen solutions is a big key to success.

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Reggie Fils-Aime has had an executive business career that would make a college fraternity brother blush: pizza, beer and video games.

In corporate terms, that’s Pizza Hut, Guinness and Nintendo. Fils-Aime has also held leadership roles at VH1 and Procter & Gamble over a 30-year career that culminated in his recent retirement from video game and entertainment giant Nintendo. He was president and COO for more than a decade at the gaming company, a stint that included a viral video hit in 2016, when Fils-Aime played video games with Nintendo super-fan Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.

In retirement, Fils-Aime has spent time on college campuses, including giving commencement speeches. He did that at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota May 9, where the 298 graduates included his daughter, Claire.

“The caliber of student is just phenomenal here,” says Fils-Aime, in an interview before his speech. “The intelligence, the focus on not only doing good work, but doing good work for the community. And what they do in terms of creativity and content generation is unique. It’s something that will serve them well through their entire career. As some people graduate and worry they will be replaced by a robot, that’s not going to happen at Ringling. No robot will be able to create content. No robot will ever imagine the way (they) do.”

Courtesy photo. From left to right: Peter McAllister, Tammy Walsh, Larry Thompson , Reggie Fils-Aime, Stacey Corley and Tracy Wagner.
Courtesy photo. From left to right: Peter McAllister, Tammy Walsh, Larry Thompson , Reggie Fils-Aime, Stacey Corley and Tracy Wagner.

Fils-Aime is a first generation American, born in New York City. His parents and other relatives, he recounted in his Ringling speech, were from Haiti, where they were active in politics and the military. While they were successful in Haiti, in America the family started over — and at the bottom. Fils-Aime says his family moved out of his Bronx apartment when he was a young boy, for example, soon after someone was stabbed there. His childhood, he says, later shaped one of his core life principles, that no matter what the circumstances are, you get to own your future.    

In the interview prior to his commencement speech, Fils-Aime shared other insights into leadership, his career and business decisions. Edited excerpts:

One of your principles for students is to look for alternative outcomes. How can a business executive find and capitalize on alternative outcomes?

You have to have a sense of curiosity. And you have to be thoughtful in weighing alternatives. Not only when you’re running a business, when you’re presented a business challenge, but also professionally when you’re looking at managing your career. For me this thought of always thinking about the what-if scenario is tremendously important. I’m constantly reinforcing to young people ‘life isn’t linear’ and you have to be thinking about alternatives to progress forward.

Another principle you talk about is embrace your fear. How have you done that?

I used to be deathly afraid of public speaking. When I started my career at Proctor & Gamble I was right out of undergrad and was working  alongside people five to 10 years older doing the exact same work. So I tended to be quiet, I tended to hunker down and take notes and collect my thoughts.

Then I was challenged. I was told I had to be more out in front, speak more. I challenged myself to where I could be that person out in front and do more and more public speaking. I took outside courses to boost my confidence. It was through the learning, that process, that I turned public speaking into an asset. Now the ability to give press conferences, to play video games with Jimmy Fallon, is something I really enjoy. I learned you have to be conscious about your own fears and areas of opportunity – and challenge yourself to make progress on them.

How were you successful in finding new opportunities for Nintendo in a competitive and rapidly changing industry? 

Nintendo is more than 130 years old. It started making Japanese playing cards, and it often times refers to itself as a toy company. Its orientation from the beginning was about fun and entertainment. And it really excelled by never believing visual specs or computing power could differentiate itself in the marketplace. And if you look at some of the greatest successes Nintendo has had, with the DS, the Wii and now the Switch, the proposition has never changed . We weren’t focused on high-resolution graphics, but completely focused on fun.

How can executives emulate that kind of thinking at their company?

There needs to be thoughtful introspection with an industry or company in thinking about how you view the landscape and how you view your own strengths and weakness and how you can position yourself  to be effective in the marketplace. As you know yourself and you know what (your company) does well, it drives a thought process on how to build on your strengths.

What’s one of the biggest mistakes you made where you learned a career-long lesson from?

One of the products I launched at Pizza Hut (in the early 1990s) was called Bigfoot Pizza. This was during a recession, when customers were gravitating toward Little Caesars and their vale propositions they offered.

Courtesy photo. Reggie Fils-Aime spoke at Ringling College of Art & Design's graduation May 9.
Courtesy photo. Reggie Fils-Aime spoke at Ringling College of Art & Design's graduation May 9.

While Pizza Hut was unquestionably the quality leader at the time, they were losing market share to Little Caesars because a of a value perception. So we launched Bigfoot Pizza — two feet of pizza for one low price was its proposition. And from a competitive standpoint it put tremendous pressure on Little Caesars as a business. It really hurt them over the course of almost 10 years,

We all have fears – some are rational some are irrational. But if you let your fear control you, you will be miserable.’ Reggie Fils-Aime

But the reason I frame this as a  mistake is as a young executive, I didn’t think through the full consequences of launching a product that didn’t deliver on the core premise of what the Pizza Hut brand stood for, which was quality. It wasn’t a good quality product, and consumers fed that back to us. So while this product did quite well for to or three years, we saw it as a negative impact on the brand’s perception.

What I learned from that experience is you really need to be thoughtful on whatever business decision you make on the unintended consequences. 

How does an executive become a leader, not a boss?

Leaders create a culture where the organization wants to follow what the leader identifies. When a leader says ‘we are going here,’ the organization says ‘we’re with you.’ To me, a boss simply states ‘here’s what we need to do’ and at times the organization doesn’t necessarily rally around that direction. A leader inspires others to do things they never thought they could do.

As a leader you need to have a compelling vision. You need to be relentless in sharing that vision. You need to create a capacity in the organization to deliver that vision. You need to have the highest integrity so the organization believes you in what you what you’re trying to do.





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