David Fuller | Crain's Orlando

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Fuller

Background:  

The SunTrust Foundation has provided grants of more than $100 million to not-for-profit organizations focused on education, health and human services, and civic and cultural activities since 2008. Aligning with SunTrust Bank's larger goal of creating a movement to overcome financial stress in the U.S., the SunTrust Foundation is committed to helping people along their path to financial confidence.

The Mistake:

Early in my career, I was really hesitant to think bold or big.

I started out in banking, in the 1980s in Texas, in the midst of a great recession. So perhaps part of it was it wasn’t a time to think bold and big. It was a bit of a retrenchment kind of mindset. But several years into my career, I was asked to lead a cross-functional, re-engineering team for the bank to analyze a process and a specific function that was not performing up to the bank’s standards.

It was a fairly big assignment for me in my career, and it was a pretty impressive team. I was relatively junior leading the team, and that was a little bit intimidating. We came up with some very sound, thoughtful, incremental ideas about ways to improve the process. And it wasn’t that they were bad or wrong or anything else. They were very mundane and conservative.

And we had an important midway review meeting as part of this program, again with very senior executives in the company, and all the teams were lined up. We were about midway through the agenda, and it quickly became clear to me as I listened to the other teams and the other ideas that we had really thought too small.

Everybody else was coming in with very bold, strategic, thought-provoking and thought-changing ideas. And again, ours were fine. And in the midst of that – you’ve probably been in those meetings where you can feel your face getting hot – I didn’t want to take the group’s recommendations and ... start changing them.

So I made the best of it, made it through our part, did a little tap dancing as we all kind of do. I guess the fortunate thing was that it was not the end. We had time to make pretty significant course corrections and come up with some bolder ideas, many of which were not acted upon.

It is easier to take bold, strategic ideas and shrink and mold them than it is to take small, incremental ones and try to make those big.

The Lesson:

I think my lesson for that was to think big. Don’t be hesitant to think big. Clearly, there’s a time and a place [for] appropriateness. But it is much easier to take bold, big, strategic ideas and shrink and mold them than it is to take small, incremental ones and try to make those big.

It may be part of [today’s] economic environment, but I do think today people are just bolder thinkers. And maybe it is just that things were so different [then]. My early banking experience was before any of the tech bubbles or stuff like that. And part of it is just experience and confidence level, and the ability to put things in perspective.

I knew [even] then that this was kind of an epiphany moment for me. So I’ve tried to think bolder, both personally and professionally, since then. And part of that was knowing your own strengths and areas of [needed] improvement. And it’s not just necessarily taking risks, though that’s clearly a part of it. It’s challenging yourself to think big. Think limitless. And then when there are guardrails you need to apply, apply those.

I do think if you’re on a team when people see that freedom, you can come up with much better ideas than if you start out with all these cons and caveats.

Personally, the ability to think outside the box [also] allowed me to move from an area of passion around philanthropy to a profession – in terms of leading the [SunTrust] Foundation.

Follow SunTrust on Twitter at @SunTrust.

Photo courtesy of SunTrust

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