The lens through which we view life is the hand that guides the development of our relationships with others. This lens is forged moment by moment, experience by experience, and most dramatically when we connect with an idea or skill that redefines the optics of our worldview. Les Smolin happened to find his lens when he was a young child and first picked up an accordion—the defining moment that led him to experience life as music. “Music is about a story being told, and about communication,” he explains today. “Life is full of experiences that are both harmonious and discordant, and I see the arc of those experiences joined by the melody that arises from them.”
Today, Les’s life motif is one of intentioned crescendos and rests that have led him to launch the Executive Leadership Forum consulting practice, which specializes in providing executive development, leadership, and strategic services to primarily middle market companies. He also leads two CEO groups and one Key group as part of Vistage International, an executive coaching and peer advisory network. As a Group Chairman in the Washington, D.C. metro area, his business acumen brings new meaning to the work of his clients, thanks to his ability to identify the thematic elements of their stories and the subtle innuendos that can make or break success. “By connecting events over time into a story that makes sense, I’m able to pick up on the trends and underlying currents of my clients’ situations,” he says. “This imparts a nuanced understanding that I can really work with to make a difference in those situations and in their lives.”
Making a difference, after all, is the why behind all he’s ever done. It’s the time signature in which each movement of his life has been written, though he didn’t always know it. “I’ve always been most motivated by opportunities to engage with business executives and make a difference in their lives for the better,” he remarks. The building blocks for this proclivity were first evident back in grade school, when Les would turn around in his seat in study hall to chat quietly with the girl who sat behind him.
“I remember distinctly the time a friend told me I was a really good listener,” he says. “My listening skills were one manifestation of my desire to understand and help others—something that pronounced itself again when I decided to major in Psychology in college. Now I have the opportunity to help and coach business and other leaders and executives—people with the ability to shape the direction of a business or organization and have a huge impact on the lives of their employees. Helping people make the most of their impact is my calling in life, and always has been, even as a kid growing up in Long Island.”
A baby boomer born in 1953 in New York City, Les and his family were part of the burgeoning middle class that moved to the newly forming Long Island suburbs in post World War II America. It was a time of growing prosperity, and a building boom was underway. The emerging middle class in New York, seeking a better environment to raise their children and escape from the challenges of urban life, pushed out into the suburbs to become the first generation of suburbanites. Towns like North Bellmore, where Les grew up, with split-level homes, a garage, a green lawn, excellent public schools, and a promise of a better life beckoned them. “It was a special place and a special time in America,” Les recalls. “I look back on life in that community fondly and am still friends with the people I grew up with.”
The middle child of three, Les’s character was forged in a home where the phone never stopped ringing. His mother, a homemaker, was the glue that kept the family connected, while his father worked as an accountant. He also dabbled in entrepreneurship, but real financial success eluded him. “I had a sense that I wanted a different kind of future,” Les says. “I knew that somehow I needed to strike out on my own. Independence and hard work became very important to me in that regard.”
Cultivating that go-getter attitude in himself, however, entailed several roadblocks that he’d have to clear first. “I was an awkward, short kid who really internalized the mantra that children should be seen and not heard,” he recalls. “I avoided conflict and was often too intimidated to speak my mind, but I think this helped hone my skills as a thoughtful listener that would become so important later on.”
Learning how to make independent decisions was a big step in his development, but his grade school years were spent mastering the strength of mind needed to make choices and accept responsibility for their outcomes, whatever they might be. His decision-making skills and his independence were put to the ultimate test in high school, when he decided to quit wrestling. Though he was small and lacked the talent in the sport to truly excel, Les had played for six years. “There wasn’t a time when I didn’t have to work harder than everyone else to even get a spot on the team,” he remembers. “Coach Hunt was this mythological figure at my school, and I really feared him. I was petrified of disappointing him. He would stand against the wall by the doorway to the school entrance where we’d enter from the parking lot and stare us down. I died a thousand deaths before telling him I was quitting, but the whole experience served to toughen me up and give me the kind of self confidence it takes to assess your life and make the changes you, yourself, feel you need to make.”
Les’s paternal grandmother always seemed to symbolize this kind of independent thinking and strength of character. She and his grandfather lived in the Rockaways in Queens and owned several properties, along with a grocery store his grandfather ran. “My grandmother was an independent person who did things her own way and accepted the consequences,” he reflects. “She had this spirit about her. She’d sit in the chair in her apartment by the beach, smoking a Parliament cigarette with a drink by her side and a glint in her eyes. I felt very comfortable with her.” To Les, she was someone who lived a life true to herself, and to this day, one of his most valued possessions is a nondescript jar that belonged to her and now sits in his kitchen cabinet. “Every time I see that jar, I remember her independent spirit and how I continue to nurture that quality in myself,” he says.
Les grew up in an atmosphere where young people were expected to pursue careers as doctors, lawyers, or accountants. “Those were the choices, and there was really nothing outside of those professions presented as a viable option,” he explains. “It was assumed you would do something safe, so I spent my childhood ruling things out, like baseball, that weren’t safe.” When it came time to go to college, he packed his bags for the University of Maryland. Life in the Long Island suburbs had grown small and stifling, and he wanted a place where he could get lost and find himself.
The day Les’s parents dropped him off at college for the first time, he stood on campus and realized he was going to have to make his success happen on his own. His parents had done all they could for him, and like the melody that connects isolated notes into a coherent song, it was his responsibility to fill in the gaps. With that, he found jobs to make the extra money he needed and spent Saturday nights in the library studying because he felt an obligation to work harder than everyone else.
Moment by moment, experience by experience, this sense of responsibility and determination was incorporated into the tonal quality of his motif, and Les became an extremely self-disciplined person. To this day, once he sets a goal, he immediately begins planning its execution and then sets his course to its methodical accomplishment. For Les, college was about learning how to master things both academic and personal. In addition to his psychology major, he minored in accounting as a foundation for success in business. “My liberal arts degree and business background provided a very concrete foundation for me to acknowledge both the humanistic and business orientation I needed to enter the workforce,” he says. “I invested a lot in school, and I got a lot out of it.”
Les was one of the few young men who wasn’t drafted in the Vietnam War as it was winding down. After graduating, he went to work for the U.S. General Accounting Office as a GS-7 Civil Servant on Capitol Hill. “I was looking for meaningful work and a way to make a difference in people’s lives, and the agency was looking for people with liberal arts degrees,” he recounts. “I had an unconscious competency for the work and stayed for four years.”
The federal government offered tuition reimbursement for graduate school at that time, so Les went to school at night to earn his MBA. He was always taking classes to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, setting him up to pioneer work in a number of today’s leading industries. “I never fit into a mold,” he says. “I was always kind of doing my own thing.”
Les went on to work for Booz Allen Hamilton for eight years, gaining valuable experience on projects for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency at the forefront of some of the most pressing societal issues. From behind the scenes, he played a defining role and had some of his most formative work experiences, but eventually interested in pressing beyond the firm’s typical mold for a consultant, Les decided to strike out on his own.
Several years later, Les was invited to run a division of an IT company based in the Baltimore, Maryland suburbs. He was leading work efforts at the forefront of what became windows-based software applications for major corporations and industrial clients. After several years running companies in the IT world, Les got a call from Booz Allen, asking him to help with a startup they were launching to enable health care systems become more patient focused. The company and its strategic partner were building a prototype device to better manage patient care at the bedside. “My background was in management, IT, and healthcare, and in building things and finding ways to monetize them, so I said yes,” he says. “We had brilliant minds and great ideas, but the dynamics among all team partners were not enough to make the business work.”
Around the same time the business came undone, Les’s marriage fell apart. His wife had come from a troubled background and taught Les that the resilience of the human spirit knows no bounds. “I learned from her that you can endure hard circumstances but still find the strength and courage to carry on,” he affirms. “She taught me that it’s in the ordinary moments that extraordinary things happen. It’s the small, simple things we take for granted every day that are so special.”
In the throes of the career crisis and the divorce, the power of this idea really hit home when Les found himself standing outside his house one day as a young girl rode up on her tricycle. She was carrying some drawings she had created, and she wanted to give one to Les. “My heart just opened up right there,” he remembers. “Here was this little girl teaching me a very powerful lesson about giving something without expecting anything in return. I wished I had something to give her. This five year old was teaching me a lesson to keep your heart open and give, because in the act of giving there is so much fulfillment.”
That’s when Les remembered the glass prism. He and his ex-wife had acquired it in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and used to enjoy watching the light beams refract through the glass into rainbows on the wall. “I didn’t have much left after the divorce that reminded me of her,” Les remembers. “The prism was a symbol of our relationship. I kept it in a drawer, but that’s not where it belonged. What five-year-old doesn’t like rainbows? And what was I going to do with it? No one else would appreciate it the way a child would. I wanted to give that little girl something that meant as much to me as those drawings meant to her.”
Les knew life through the act of giving, and his independent spirit, intellectual curiosity, and deep need to challenge himself personally continued to forge a trail that led off the beaten path and into a number of emerging industries. He found his next big opportunity at the National Academy of Public Administration, working on managing the transition of the Global Positioning System into the commercial and international markets. Once again, he was on the cutting edge of technology and leading the way from behind. “We were basically defining an industry that didn’t yet exist,” he affirms. “Being a part of something bigger than myself was really important to me, and working in pioneering fields gave me the opportunity to do that.”
Eventually Les wanted to do something different, and that’s when he crossed paths with Vistage. Now, as an executive coach and consultant, he approaches each client’s unique situation by asking himself, “What can I contribute to this executive and organization?” “I could never work at something that wasn’t purposeful or meaningful to me,” he affirms. “To me, working with and being a leader means being connected to your passion.”
Motivated by intellectual curiosity and making connections with people drives Les in both his personal and professional life. “People wear a lot of different masks and can lose themselves and their passion in the day-to-day grind,” he explains. “When my life hit a crisis, I realized I needed to reconnect with myself in order to be able to help other people do the same thing, and I am the coach I am today because I went through that process myself. A person must be truly in tune with who they are and what’s happening in their lives, or at least working toward that self-awareness, if they want to be really effective as leaders. I help them achieve that.”
The importance of self-awareness struck Les again and most profoundly about 15 years ago when he was sitting in a diner in Tyson’s Corner with a Vistage colleague, discussing the challenges he was facing in his work. Les had proposed a solution involving a merger of two groups, but was experiencing considerable resistance to the possibility. Sitting in the booth, his colleague asked him who would benefit from the idea. Les paused and then he heard himself say, “I think that merging is in the best interest of both groups, the parent company, and me, too.”
At that moment, he found a voice in himself that he didn’t know was there. It wasn’t a quick transition, taking nine months of planning and positioning, but he realized the power in the act of declaration. “When you declare what you want, you garner the strength and self respect to set the direction needed to impart real momentum,” he remarks. “You’re able to forge ahead and accomplish things you didn’t know were possible.”
For the last 20 years, these accomplishments form a collective impact that has touched hundreds of businesses, helping to garner several billion dollars in revenue and transforming the lives of almost 20,000 employees. A natural bridge builder, he uses his ability to connect the dots to jump into any industry and spin success out of sink-or-swim situations. Yet this legacy of professional success is built, more than anything, on the strong fiber of his character and the ideals affirmed through both hard times and good. “Every experience is a gift,” he affirms.
In advising young people entering the working world today, Les reminds us that when we give of ourselves, we get so much more in return, and we never know how our actions will affect another. “Everyone is living a story that is at once deeply personal and deeply universal,” he says. “The true successes, the true turning points in life, the true masterpieces, come when those stories intersect in brilliant bursts of giving and learning, and that’s what I strive to achieve in my work each day.”