Satisfaction and success have always been relative terms — the white picket fence, the 2.5 children and the 9 to 5 job have become relics of a not-so-long ago economy.
Execs like Freddy Vaca are defining a new paradigm of leadership. Combining technology, a little creative massaging of the typical workweek and a little reliance on upbringing, Vaca signals the arrival of the new breed of normal.
he alarm sounds at 7. You get up and go for a 5-mile run. You come back, get ready for work and hit the road.
Arrival time at your corporate high-rise office: 9 a.m. Health-conscious lunch with coworkers at 12; Computer shut-down: 5 p.m. Another normal day.
With all due respect to the 7 a.m. starter, normal is boring; Freddy Vaca was up at 5 a.m. And he’s not just waking up at 5 a.m. to run. Freddy runs, swims and bikes. It’s all part of a daily regimen for a triathlete, something Freddy has been for the last few years. He’s also Senior Vice President at Pinnacle Technical Resources, consistently one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States.
That means Freddy isn’t governed by the 9 to 5, and he prefers it that way. Welcome to the New Normal.
“I’ve always been interested in more. I’ve never been able to settle,” Vaca said. “The best way to put is that I just don’t know how to be a normal guy. I think people have their own definition of what normal is. This is normal to me. Chaos is normal. Pushing yourself to the outer limits of what is possible — physically, mentally — that’s normal to me.”
The exec-athlete hybrid is becoming more and more common, especially among younger corporate executives who are arriving at positions of authority and relevance faster than their predecessors.
At 33, Freddy is a seasoned executive for Pinnacle, a firm that grew in revenue by 23 percent, from $172 million in 2009 to $211.5 million in 2011. He’s used to things moving at a faster-than-normal pace. It’s in that space — faster than — that he thrives.
Freddy uses the term “normal mortal” to describe himself and others like him. It’s an apt choice — it conveys humility about his position, while also acknowledging that what he does day-in-and-day-out is slightly abnormal (to everybody but Freddy and those few other ‘normal mortals’). It makes sense, then, that when he was looking for a sport to take up, that one wouldn’t suffice, let alone one not associated with speed. Triathlons offer that consistent challenge Freddy’s seeking without the risk of becoming boring. Mentally demanding? Check. Physically depleting and humbling? Check.
“People often ask me, ‘Why on Earth do you get up at 5 in the morning, why do you have a coach, why do you have a nutritionist, why do you log everything you eat?’ It’s simple — it shows commitment. It shows the things that we were taught growing up, and then committing and doing them and then having the foresight to being committed to do it.”
Convincing people of his sanity is a daily, enjoyable chore. For Freddy, it’s an opportunity for him to offer insights into his healthy lifestyle. His answers usually come in the form of encouragement mixed in with some advice based in science. Freddy says that’s part of his leadership philosophy.
“There is nothing I can say or do that has infinite wisdom,” he said. “All I can do or say is motivate you to do something different with yourself. Because by motivating people and making them feel better, and by allowing them to be good at something other than just their job and helping them in their day-to-day life, you empower them to feel that they could be whoever they want. That is what you do for them. That is what we want. That is the culture we breed here.”
Inspiring a Team
Walking the halls of Pinnacle’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas, that culture Freddy speaks of is immediately apparent. Even more so, it’s obvious that it is also deliberate. It’s work. It’s care. Being curators of talent means commitment to its development, in and out of the office. Freddy says that leaders who are simply expecting loyalty without doing anything to cultivate it aren’t setting themselves up for long-term growth.
Freddy sees it differently: “People say that one of the reasons why these big companies send people off to do these things is because it’s part of their process. For us, it’s not part of our process. If we can do this for these people, and show them how invested and committed we are, then they are going to show us that back. And that, right there, is what big companies lose.”
Freddy understands the do-more culture. He’s an active member. He understands that in today’s market “loyal” means lasting more than four years with a company. Young team members want more than just a paycheck. Many come in with an entrepreneurial spirit, not to mention a lot of expectations concerning modern office practices and culture. Freddy doesn’t see it as his job to curb those expectations; as a young leader, he has the same desires. Working at the same place for 30 years scrapping for a chance to move up “isn’t exciting for anybody,” Freddy said. “Plus, the new generation, you have to give them something more than that.”
Giving them something more, means giving them something genuine. One of the ways Pinnacle does that is through encouraging its employees to live healthy lives. Signs around the office remind team members to be aware of the quality of nutrition they’re using to fuel themselves. They provide healthy snacks and drinks in lieu of sugar-heavy drinks and empty calories. The executive leadership recently agreed to sponsor triathlon training for 40 Pinnacle employees. They completed their first one in early June.
In this endeavor, Freddy is a worthy mentor, but he’s not Pinnacle’s only one. Founder and CEO, Nina Vaca, is also a sponsored triathlete and marathon runner.
“A good leader is never defined by his or her success. A good leader, and the way I want to be measured, is by how many people I motivate. At Pinnacle, we have a lot of leaders who motivate each other. All I am is an enabler of that motivation.”
The Building of a Leader
Freddy has a general’s vision with a calmer demeanor. He believes that he is leading his team into battle, and he wants to make sure they are nimble, that they are physically and mentally fit. Freddy has spent his 30-plus years preparing for this role. As a young, elementary-aged boy in Los Angeles, he remembers passing out bus tickets for his parents’ travel agency.
There were no titles back then, but a hierarchy of leadership — with his parents firmly at the top — was well in place. Since his family emigrated from Ecuador, Freddy never knew anything but the entrepreneurial lifestyle. From the travel agency, to working at gas stations and cleaning rental homes his mother owned in Texas, Freddy learned how to be the dutiful son and family member. He even learned about innovation when his
family opened up the first 99-cent store 20 years ago.
Jokingly, he admits it was ahead of its time, but he still appreciates the foresight of an idea. “Clearly, they’re ready for it now,” he said.
Through working with his family, Freddy learned how to be good and quick. With more than a dozen hands at the dinner table, he knew if he wanted to eat or speak, he just had to jump in. The same was true later when his sister Nina encouraged him to pursue a degree in technology. She had already launched her own company, and having worked with him most of her life — and, thus
At the time, Pinnacle was a four-year-old and was about to do some serious growing up in a very short time, and do it through a very challenging economy. With the foundation of family dependence well-established, Pinnacle turned inward and has grown into the top Latina-owned staffing firm in the world, with more than 100,000 contractors. Freddy credits his sister’s reliance on family and her apt hiring decisions for the takeoff. More than that, he says he’s learned an ‘empire-building’ mentality from her.
For the Vaca family, building an empire means sacrificing those benefits in the immediate. Take a stroll through their office, and that frame of mind is obvious. It’s why there are 80-some empty chairs and desks sitting in a new wing of the main offices. That preparation serves as a signal to current employees. In those extra chairs and desks, the staff sees job security. They see a leadership who is planning for expansion — that translates to greater employee confidence in the management, and for Freddy, a committed workforce.
“(At Pinnacle), people are personally committed to the leadership of this company. They trust the leadership of this company. Every day, we make decisions that affect thousands of families. That in and of itself is a responsibility that we take very seriously.”
Freddy is Freddy All Day Long
Freddy is never really off. He is not triathlon Freddy and then during the day SVP Freddy. He’s not trying to strike some balance between his professional and athletic life. The two are intertwined, and each feeds the other proportionately. Take a look at what Freddy calls, a “day in insanity.”
• 5 a.m. Wake up
• 6 a.m. – 7 a.m. Training: Bike Riding & Weights
• 8 a.m. Breakfast with daughters/get them ready for the day.
• 9:30 a.m. Arrive at Office
• 10:30 a.m. Meeting
• 12 p.m. Eat lunch he packed the night before
• 1-5 p.m. Various (sometimes this includes massages and visits to the chiropractor).
• 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Swimming Laps/Family Time.
• 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Work emails and prep for the next day’s business.
Most people spend the weekend resting up from weeks like Freddy’s. That schedule holds true when he’s in Dallas. But for the times he has to travel to places like New Jersey, move back the alarm an hour and the arrival time home forward one. You almost get the idea that Freddy uses his athletic training to help him keep up with his professional life. He puts it all into action in competitions. If Freddy had a ‘me time,’ it’d be those moments.
“The reason why I do it is because I always want to strive for more. The triathlon has really helped me physically and emotionally. Only two percent of the world’s population will ever complete an Iron Man. That is a ridiculous statistic. A lot of people ask me, ‘Why would you do that? Why would you want to put yourself through 15 hours of agony?.’ I tell them, ‘It’s fun.’”
Freddy isn’t just a generic thrill-seeker. The thrill doesn’t mean as much if he doesn’t have a chance of winning, and winning takes planning and practice, and according to Freddy, it also “takes a village” of supporters. To that end, Freddy has multiple coaches and a nutritionist. He leans on them heavily to help him maximize his potential. As a tech guy, he uses his phone to keep track of his 3,500-calorie-a-day diet — 25 percent fat, 25 percent protein and 50 percent carbs, for those who are counting.
“I had to sit down and educate myself first, and the best thing for me to achieve my goals comfortable and safely was to rely on someone who knew what they talking about. That’s why I have a coach — because being informed certainly helps.”
Taming the ego has never been the issue for Freddy. He owes his ego for his entrance into professional watercross. At a chance outing at the lake, Freddy approached some guys racing.
Initially he was curious, but soon he was racing. He beat them all. That turned into an invitation to race at a sanctioned event. He won that, too.He took his professional career all the way to the World Championships in Thailand.
As a rookie, he qualified sixth.
“I never got beat to the first turn,” he said.
But that was more than five years ago, before Freddy took on the most intense of challenges in his life: Becoming a father. The birth of his first daughter, Sophia, and a couple of years later, his second daughter, McKenzie, cooled the proverbial jets a tad, and made him look into other challenges.
“If I didn’t have (my daughters), I don’t know what I would do. I would probably be doing something else. I would probably be racing or doing something else that jeopardizes my life. The reason I don’t is because those two depend on me.You’ll never understand that until you have your heart walking around as your little kids.”
Freddy hopes his devotion to fitness and to excellence in the professional realm provides a relevant example for his daughters, family and staff. ‘Daddy’ is his favorite title, and the one that has brought the most satisfaction. When Freddy medals or makes the podium at an event, there’s usually five people in the picture: the two other winners, and Freddy with his daughters.
All of it is a quiet signal back to his team at the office. The devotion to family, to fitness, to his employees, it’s all deliberate. Seeing a single dad raise two daughters and still be at the peak of fitness matters to the culture of the office. Freddy believes the relationship is more fundamental than people might think.
“They see that passion when we meet about goals and strategies,” he said. “We can’t be like everybody else. We can’t be stagnant. We always have to push and push. It’s always that last pushup that makes you stronger. It’s that last mile of running with a burning sensation that’s going to get you to be stronger, faster, quicker. All of those attributes of an athlete, all flow throughout our company.”