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Perdue president shares FIT-ness strategies for life

Perdue Food Products President Jim Leighton said the book he wrote and published late last year, “Getting FIT,” is largely an homage to his father and the early business and life lessons he imparted to his son and those around him.

“My father taught me this: No matter what you do in life, you will end up doing it with people. You have to understand that and become good at it. Surround yourself with like-minded people who are interested in you and you them. Have a high level of humility, and high level of passion for the organization and for the goal. Working together, you’re creating something much larger than any one individual could create alone.”

Leighton started life in Battle Creek, Mich., where his father worked for Kellogg & Co. before co-founding Archway Cookies and moving his family around the country to build that business.

Leighton did not immediately follow his father into the food business, choosing instead to start the first health club in Evanston, Ill., after graduating from the University of Iowa, and building that into a company, National Health Management, with clubs in Chicago, California and other markets.

The California clubs brought home that early lesson from his dad. “I was out in the California clubs, and I had surrounded myself with a team that didn’t have the right acumen and the right skills and passion.”

He made money, lost money and began yearning to return to the Midwest, so he sold up, headed home and started a career in the food business. And he began formulating the Getting FIT theory that would launch his book, blog and speaking business. FIT stands for “Fully Integrated Teams.” Leighton likens the organization to the body, made up of billions of cells and only operating at peak performance when each cell knows its role and does it well and with a passion for the work.

Leighton, who has held senior roles at Perdue for about seven years, said he wrote the book now because he wanted to share his stories and experiences with others who would benefit from it, from managers and executives looking to assemble the best teams to employees searching for the best fit for their passions and talents.

When he started in his current position, Leighton assigned all his direct reports to write their mission and vision statements, their key stakeholders and aspirations. The point was to create strategic plans for their lives and then see how their plans measure up to the company’s mission and goals. Some eventually found that they were better suited to other roles, either within the company or elsewhere. “One of those people retired last year, and he came up to me at the retirement party and said ‘I still carry it around in my pocket. I always pull that out when I’m unsure what to do, to make sure I’m doing the right things for the right reasons.’ ”

One story he tells is of his brother, a well-respected surgeon who spent more than a decade and countless hours of practice honing his skills and spent many gratifying years helping burn survivors. His practice grew more lucrative but less satisfying as more and more of his patients came for elective cosmetic surgery, and eventually he gave it up and retired. Later, coaching from Leighton and some of the burn survivors helped reignite his passion and today his life includes a lot of pro bono work. “He found his passion and purpose again.”

Leighton especially hopes his theories and advice will prove useful to college students who graduate after years of being told what to do next, only to suddenly realize they’ve got to figure things out for themselves.

“Embrace the unknown rather than fear,” he advises. “If you fear it, the creative part of the brain shuts down, the lizard brain takes over, and you probably won’t like the outcome. At the end of the day, everyone is faced with very similar circumstances, and it’s just a matter of how you react to them.”