Brent Henley, the founder of The Pyramid Group, joined us to discuss his life mission to build leaders and improve human performance. We post this interview with great sadness, as shortly after our interview, Brent passed away suddenly on August 8, 2021. We devote this show to Brent’s memory and his life’s legacy of encouraging all of us to be the best possible version of ourselves.
Brent worked with clients to increase performance in sales, customer service, supervision, and leadership. People would clamor to attend his executive retreats on strategic planning, product launches, and organizational growth.
Many listeners know Brent Henley for his leadership in running a simulated society, known as SIMSOC, for Leadership Lafayette and many other organizations. Participants are forever changed as they experience real-life societal challenges they’ve never encountered.
Brent Henley grew up in Oklahoma in a family that was highly active: his mom, B. Glorine Henley, served as Oklahoma Secretary of State (and also worked for the DNC when Bill Clinton was President), and his father, Thomas H. Henley, was chief of surgery at a large hospital. All of his family members were educated at Oklahoma institutions of higher learning.
However, with an early calling to be a United Methodist Minister, Brent moved to Louisiana to attend Centenary College where he got a full scholarship. He fell in love with the people of Louisiana. He also eventually met a beautiful woman (his future wife, Tammy) who was a “half Spanish/half redhead from New Iberia” who turned his head and eventually brought him to Lafayette.
We dedicate this show to the memory of our dear friend, Brent Henley. (November 9, 1957 – August 8, 2021)
Henley discovered through an internship at Broadmoor UMC that full-time pulpit ministry really wasn’t his calling. He changed course and got double degrees in sociology and business. He credits his many mentors at the Centenary’s School of Church Careers for encouraging him to follow his God-given path. They didn’t want to force him to be “another miserable minister.”
While this was unfolding, Brent waited tables at a steakhouse in Shreveport, at Mississippi River Company owned by Dobbs House, at a time when Louisiana Downs first got started and Downtown Square was hopping. Brent became headwaiter and hired all the serving staff and trained them while he was a senior in college. They wanted him to become a management trainee and to get into the restaurant world, but Brent didn’t want to work in restaurants for the rest of his life.
Brent had a particular client at the restaurant who always requested him as a waiter on Saturday nights and talked to him about coming to work in the Human Resources Department for his organization which owned a variety of companies and employed 110 employees. Brent was hired!
He joined the local SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) chapter in Shreveport as he jumped into his new job feet first. In his first two months on the job, when he found out that his company was paying three people who were no longer employed, he stopped that abuse. At that point, he made up his annual salary in three days!
After a year, the owner of the company asked Brent to become president of the company, when he was 24 years old! He helped grow the company from $14 million to $40 million per year in eight years.
At the end of that eight years, he quit the company at 32 years of age on Christmas Eve when the partners declined to give him a bonus in lieu of using those funds to buy another business. Brent felt this was unfair, so he handed them the keys as he walked out and went home to tell his wife he had started a consulting business to help other businesses run their concerns.
The day after Christmas, he started “dialing for dollars,” getting many people to buy into his new endeavor, including Larry Wilson (owner of Wilson Learning, the world’s largest sales and leadership training company) who invited him to represent the Southeast/Southwest Region with their franchise. The Pyramid group is still affiliated with Wilson Learning to this day.
Brent learned much from his own early life experiences with his initial employers who he acknowledged were very generous in many ways. Yet, “When you don’t keep promises with employees you are setting your company up for horrible failure. If I had stayed with the company, I may have sabotaged their potential. I may not have put the energy into a new project to make sure it was successful.”
Brent shared that when he sees reports of an employee embezzling from a company, his first thought is not that they are bad people, but something in the workplace triggered them to make that bad decision and sabotage the company because of promises not kept.
Brent worked with clients whose “leaders believe that people are what make their organization…when you invest in people you get better things and you can keep your promises to your clients.”
He helped companies with their employee and management morale. People typically come to his company when they are desperate. Trained as an industrial physiologist, Brent knew how to work with people who were ready to learn appropriate skills to run their business better to achieve optimal results.
Brent Henley opened The Pyramid Group to help businesses determine the best methods possible for improving company/employee performance in areas such as sales, team building, leadership, diversity, communication skills, and much more.
Many managers have approached Brent for help and tell him they have terrible problems with their people: he would turn around and ask them, “Who hired these people?” Of course, it was the manager who hired Brent to “fix the problem. But you can’t force management to change the interoffice dynamics. “I look for people who are looking for change, who are looking to get better, and are sincerely wanting to do it.” The more pain an employer has, the more willing they are to change to make things better.
“When you run a company for 8 years you learn about people and how they do things.” He also learned from Wilson Learning, the franchise the Pyramid Group represents, which puts on about 180 workshops in leadership development. (Brent estimated that he had taken 150 of the courses and he was certified to teach 90 of them). He enjoyed his membership in a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” populated by a group of authors that pick two books a quarter that focus on business and people. He recently learned about “high conflict” which is a polarizing conflict such as what we are experiencing in our country with COVID, and how to deal with it. He recommended that people read works by Bill Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project to learn more. And, his clients taught him a great deal through the trial and error of working with them. “People are people.”
An industrial psychologist, (not one who analyzes you….what impacted you as a child that left you messed you up as an adult….but one who works with behavioral issues in the workplace), Brent would get his clients to consider: “How are sales going? What customers do you want? Do your sales associates have the right training? How many people should be supervising the team? What type of customers do you want to have? How many people is the right number of people to supervise on the team? What strategies are in place to enhance employee engagement and culture?”
A really big topic right now with the pandemic is getting people engaged. “This is the first time we’ve had four generations in the workforce….from Baby Boomers to Gen X’ers and Gen Y’rs. They have different ways of approaching work. Boomers don’t care if they work 70 hours a week, but the younger generations are looking to work about 30 while getting paid for 40.”
The George Floyd incident has raised the importance of diversity. Brent’s company, The Pyramid Group, has seen a tenfold increase in the hiring of diversity inclusion personnel. “Somebody who wakes up every day and thinks nothing of diversity and inclusion.”
Brent gave advice for employers looking to rehire after COVID layoffs and the shutdown, as well as retaining loyal employees who have stuck with them during the tough workplace times of the pandemic: “This is the best time to examine your corporate values, the things that you believe in and act on every day. Make sure those values are solid and hire to those values. Don’t deviate from those values because it will be a miserable and horrible experience. Stop hiring people because they can fog a mirror up. Your life will be a lot easier…you won’t have to liberate yourself from nonperformers.” It is also imperative to examine your treatment of current employees who may feel slighted as they see new hires getting bonuses upon accepting employment; many of them are thinking, “What about me??? I may just start my own business.”
Brent developed an affordable online training course for small to medium-sized businesses (with Bob McEachnie) called Hire & Retain 4 Workplace which can be found here.
Brent fears that the service industry, above all others, will suffer as they rehire and don’t make strategic selections in the hiring process. “Service may really suck!” His youngest daughter is a server at Bonefish Grill and loves it, but Brent shared that there are certain things that you can’t teach, such as being friendly.” He recounted his experience in helping Disney hire workers….they would have to go through a 30 second trial of “showing friendly, which many people could not figure out. “You never see Cinderella smoking a cigarette!” The intangible touches, the soft skills, are crucial in business success. It makes the world go around.
Brent is well known for leading SIMSOC: Simulated Society, a program created by Professor William Gamson, a professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan. Gamson was interested in playing games with his students and created a simulated game where the students played interactively with each other and learned about different classes in society. The class is still taught mainly in sociology departments throughout the U. S.
Brent was originally recruited to run a SIMSOC course as a certified facilitator by a Centenary professor who no longer had time to engage in teaching the course. At the time, the professor was teaching Leadership Shreveport and Leadership Vicksburg. Brent had just opened up his consulting company and seized upon the opportunity: “He called me up and asked if I could do it as he thought I was the only one who could do it. I said sure and immediately got on the phone to solicit other communities’ involvement, including creating Leadership Lafayette.”
The purpose of SIMSOC is to create a successful community where participants are placed in different roles than that of their own comfort zones, in opposite socio-economic groups from their own life. The lesson in SIMSOC is that “we are only as strong as our weakest link.” Many people walk away from it with a different perspective and go on to make a remarkable change in their own communities.
SIMSOC (which is pronounced sim-sock and stands for simulated society) is the most versatile role-playing game in the world. It has been used by hundreds of thousands of people in introductory sociology courses and business seminars, for the firsthand understanding of the forces that determine success or failure in any group or society. Brent Henley was well known for his facilitation of SIMSOC experiences over the past few decades.
Brent believed that “SIMSOC is more relevant today than it’s ever been with all the things as he recently posted on Facebook. Brent and his wife, Tammy, both felt that they didn’t want to live in a community that have not gone through the SIMSOC process. Role reversals played out through SIMSOC change lives…..people sometimes are not elected, but SIMSOC participants make better neighbors, leaders, and create great cities.
The Pyramid Group is starting to use SIMSOC in their work with companies in their diversity training so as to think about how to actively engage different economic groups in their corporate culture. “If you listen to employees, they’ll tell you what the work culture is like, what they need.” Most executive teams don’t realize how their choices in hiring leaders within impact all of the workforce’s morale.” He spoke of a recent gig where the employees shared that they wanted more time off….not time off to go home but more time to do community projects and bring their kids along with them to learn about volunteerism. They were willing to use their vacation days to make a positive impact in the community such as putting bikes together for kids, load food trucks, fill sandbags.” The C-suite never would have thought of this if the employees hadn’t been given the freedom to share their desires.
But what about elected leaders? Brent worked with the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) to provide leadership development programs for newly elected mayors and council members and advanced training programs for municipal officials. Newly elected Georgia officials have eighteen months to finish the required program or be recalled. The two days are spent teaching how to read a budget, stay out of jail…learn how to be an effective elected official. This concept, so far, has not been instituted in Louisiana, yet North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia, have this program in place. The programming includes SIMSOC and It helps officials understand who they represent.
Brent shares his advice for employers on how to lead more effectively especially during these COVID times. It is no different now than the times after 911. People found their energy dissipated, it led to “rust out,” where people felt overwhelmed and burned out. People wanted to change their jobs and didn’t know how to get their energy back. Brent realized that if people can talk out what they are going through, especially at their workplace, they could emerge stronger and better. “Tell me what you’re thinking” are relevant questions management should be asking their employees to earn their trust and create a better workplace.
Brent Henley authored “The neXus Initiative”, which discusses why networking is broken, and why giving is more powerful than taking. “By creating a structured, invested group of people who shift their focus from taking to giving, a profitable chain reaction occurs. New clients call. New opportunities emerge. To others, you seem to effortlessly grow your business, reach your goals and expand your possibilities for success. It’s your neXus.”
This interview is worth a listen, or two….or three. Thank you Brent Henley, for sharing your life with us. We will miss you!
For more information on The Pyramid Group, please visit http://www.thepyramidgroup.com.