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Brigadier General John E. Michel
United States Air Force Brigadier General

Kerry McCoyUnited States Air Force Brigadier General John E. Michel (RET) is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy and individual & organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, John has successfully orchestrated several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. He has dedicated over 26 years of service to America as a former United States Air Force Brigadier General and former Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer and President of MV Global for MV Transportation, the largest privately help transportation company in the United States. John’s work has been featured in a wide variety of articles & journals, including Harvard Business Review, Washington Post, National Geographic, Joint Forces Quarterly, Huffington Post, Switch and Shift and Innovation Excellence. Most recently, Michel partnered with Perry Jobe Smith to form the Avalon Institute. The Institute’s mission is to provide organizations, teams and individuals with a renewed sense of purpose along with a proprietary mix of proven strategies and assessments that address critical leadership development issues—especially disengagement among Millennials, shown to be at an all-time high in the workplace. “Our Avalon family has excellent experience in positive and purposeful leadership as well as in developing corporate strengths. We understand the necessity of connecting the right people with the right information and strategies and empowering those individuals to go forth and lead,” says Founding Member General John E. Michel. “Our team and methodologies reflect our unique value. We bring experience, vision, and success to the table, and stand ready to help translate these values to companies that need to engage their workforce and grow their business.” The Institute’s proprietary methodology has proven remarkably successful in numerous pre-launch engagements, including cognitive assessment analysis for US Special Forces Command and Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, FL. In addition, the team has delivered innovation, strategy and leadership development training to the US Army, US Air Force, professional and Division 1 athletes, public transportation and numerous clients in the private and federal government sectors.

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Listen to Learn:

  • How the military cultivated his appreciation for others
  • The human cost of war and its impact on soldiers
  • The definition of leadership
  • How to build community
  • What is psychological safety?

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Podcast Links

General John E. Michel - GeneralLeadership.com

10 Leadership Lessons From U.S. Commanding General John E. Michel - HuffPost.com

Up In Your Business is a Radio Show by FlagandBanner.com




[00:00:10] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider's view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk taking. Connect with Kerry through her candid, funny, informative and always encouraging weekly blog. And now it's time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.


[00:00:35] KM: Thank you, son, Gray. Before I introduce today's guest, I want to let you know, if you miss any part of today's show, want to hear it again or share it, there's a way, and son, Gray, will tell you how.


[00:00:45] GM: All UIYB past and present interviews are available at Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy's YouTube channel, Facebook page, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette's digital version, flagandbanner.coms website or wherever you listen to podcasts. Just ask your smart speaker to play Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. And by subscribing to our YouTube channel or flagandbanner.com's email list, you will receive prior notification of that day's guest. Back to you, Kerry.


[00:01:11] KM: This is not the first time retired Brigadier General John Michel has sat at the up in your business with Kerry McCoy table and been interviewed. I first met the general in an earlier interview with his business partner, Mr. Perry Smith, who again came back to the interview. The two of them came to talk about the work they were doing to resurrect the once hugely successful Minuteman Hamburger franchise in Central Arkansas. Along with learning about the interesting innovative story of Minuteman and its founder Wes Hall, I learned about John and Perry's other businesses, The Avalon Institute, an online leadership community and program whose mission statement says it all. The Avalon Institute was founded on the principle of roundtable leadership where individuals learn to effectively collaborate in order to tackle complex challenges together. We tap into the full potential of an organization's collective intelligence. Find sustainable solutions and affect positive change. Good stuff.


So who is Mr. John Michel? He is a retired United States Air Force brigadier general who, during his stint in Kabul, Afghanistan, founded the highly successful Gratitude Café, a makeshift coffee shop with the goal of lifting GI's spirits. He found this experience to be so rewarding and enlightening that once retired from service he decided to pay forward his learned leadership knowledge by founding The Avalon Institute. John's unconventional approach to leadership has been recognized by Harvard Business Review, Washington Post, National Geographic, Huffington Post and more. Today we will hear this interesting man's military story and get insight and a free lesson into how The Avalon Institute is building leaders. It is my great pleasure to welcome to the table the retired brigadier general and expert in culture strategy and change for individuals or organizations, Mr. John Michel. And hey, Perry, nice to see you too.


[00:03:22] PS: Thanks, Kerry. Thanks for having us back.


[00:03:24] KM: I love it. So let's start at the beginning. You had a 26-year career in the Air Force. Did you come from a military family?


[00:03:33] JM: I did actually. I come from a long line of military servers. My dad immigrated to the United States in the early 60s with one goal, join the United States Air Force.


[00:03:44] KM: Where is he from?


[00:03:45] JM: They're from France. And he grew up at a place there was a US Air Force base and every day he'd watched the airplanes go by. He was so inspired by the GI's and just the culture that he saw. And at 18 he bought a one-way ticket. Grabbed a single suitcase and came into New York Harbor. And within several months he enlisted in the Air Force and he spent 30 years in the air force.


[00:04:06] KM: Was he a citizen?


[00:04:07] JM: He's a US citizen. He went back to France. Married my mom, brought her back to the US.


[00:04:13] KM: So back then, did you have to be a US citizen to enlist in that service?


[00:04:17] JM: You could actually uh get on the path to citizenship that way. So that's exactly how that's how you become a citizen.


[00:04:21] KM: That’s how you get on the path to citizenship. Can you still do it that way?


[00:04:24] JM: I don't exactly know. There's probably of several different ways. It's gotten a little more stringent as we know. But, literally, America was his dream from a very little boy.


[00:04:33] KM: So are you bilingual?


[00:04:34] JM: My first language was French. I actually – And then English is my second. We speak it at home when I get to see my parents. And on my summer jobs, I would actually be working in France at my grandparents’ restaurant. So I’ve had a love of hospitality for a long time all because I love humans and food and ways to be able to connect people has always been my passion.


[00:04:54] KM: You cook French?


[00:04:55] JM: I do, absolutely. I love to cook.


[00:04:58] KM: What an interesting guy.


[00:05:01] GM: He’s enamored.


[00:05:02] KM: He can kick your ass and cook you dinner afterwards.


[00:05:06] JM: Again, we want a diverse set of skills in the complex world, don't we? So we can hurt you, but then we can heal you.


[00:05:12] KM: With food. All right. What happened to you first? Was there a turning point in your life that made you decide military life was for you or you just always knew because your parents did and you're like – He just always talked about it all your life, you're just going to grow up and join the Air Force.


[00:05:25] JM: So that's a great question. I like to say you can refer to me as the accidental general, and here's why I say that.


[00:05:31] KM: The accidental what?


[00:05:33] JM: General. And here's why. I joined ROTC just because I had grown up around the military, but I was going to school in Texas and I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But, realistically, I saw, “Well, I can try this ROTC thing. Meet a couple people. Make a couple extra bucks.” And I just found that I had a natural affinity for leadership. So I ended up throughout that experience going to training, graduating at the top of my class. Getting a scholarship to do anything I wanted. So I said, “Okay, I’ll go fly jets.” And then all of a sudden I was on this Air Force adventure and I thought, “Okay, I’ll do it for four years,” then it was 10 years, and then it was 15 years. And then eventually I was a general. I was like, “Okay, I’m at this magnificent opportunity to lead these 14 nations in Afghanistan.” Leading people doing something extraordinarily hard is an extraordinary great gift. And then after that I realized, “Okay, now I really need to go do some of the other things on my to-do list.” And that's when I decided to transition into the business world.


[00:06:25] KM: So where'd you do boot camp, Texas?


[00:06:26] JM: I did boot camp in Texas.


[00:06:28] KM: Were you an Air Force brat? Did you live all over the place?


[00:06:31] JM: We did. We lived overseas largely. Again, my dad was an Air Force. So he served there. We grew up primarily in Europe at the time. This is when – Think about the 80s, right? 70s and 80s, the Cold War is raging. And so I grew up right in that. I'd spend days in East Berlin, the days of the wall. I did all that. I mean things that you see in history books, now I had the great privilege of getting behind the wall when you still had the secret police. Traveling all over Europe at a time when you still had border checkpoints. And so I watched this experience and then I’ve watched the world now become borderless, right? So it's been fascinating.


[00:07:02] KM: It is borderless.


[00:07:03] JM: And I think that's wonderful actually. I’m glad that we live in a borderless world in many regards. It creates challenges, but it was a really blessed upbringing, because I came to appreciate different cultures, different people, and I got to watch the struggle in a different way. I mean when folks behind the wall looked at the promise of freedom on the other side, you started to notice these things about people in a sense, and it's the same thing that made this country great. So this insistent, this built-in desire we have as human beings to become all we're capable of has been an endless quest. So I got to watch it with different eyes as a young person. And I think it helped at some level inspire me to go, “There's no greater way to serve than whether it's for four years or 40 years. Put the uniform on. Serve something bigger than yourself and you only can become a better person.”


[00:07:48] KM: So your first assignment was where?


[00:07:51] JM: After pilot training, I went to Langley right where my dad was stationed. So my dad and I served together on his last tour and my first tour.


[00:07:57] KM: That is the charmingest thing I’ve ever heard.


[00:08:00] JM: Yep. They lived a mile away. It was fabulous. After being gone, you go to college, do your thing. You come back with a new appreciation from your parents. We just happened to be co-located. We got to fly together. It was amazing. It was really a blessing to do that.


[00:08:13] KM: So you're a jet pilot?


[00:08:15] JM: Yep. I’ve got about just under 4,000 hours flying a bunch of different airplanes. And in Afghanistan, I got my first exposure to helicopters, which was a different adventure.


[00:08:23] KM: You like them?


[00:08:24] JM: I’ve came to appreciate helicopters for employment in really diverse environments. What I mean is that they work really well for a lot of the militaries of the world. They create a lot of flexibility. They can help people as much as they can, well, harm people if that's what you need to do.


[00:08:39] KM: Are they more dangerous than a jet? Which one's more dangerous?


[00:08:42] JM: No, they're just different. So, really, a jet, your controls are somewhat limited in terms of it's largely driven by – This way to push forward to go faster, and push back to go slower. And then you're controlling the airplane. You're actually adding a dimension in this, in a lateral dimension. So you're using your feet and your hands and it's really more, when you're flying a helicopter, using all the various things because you're moving in so many different axes. So it's more complex in many regards I find.


[00:09:09] KM: Like a videogame.


[00:09:10] JM: It is actually. Yeah. Today’s kids – Oh! They're fabulous at this, because they're so used to now tasking. And I watch young people moving seven controllers on each hand and they're hitting all the right buttons. And that's kind of what's happened now. But I grew up and I was fortunate, I got to do a little more what we call stick and rudder flying where you have less stuff and more airplane and you learn to be really good at your craft. And that was the key. It's learning to be really good at your craft. And it doesn't matter if you're flying airplanes.


[00:09:38] KM: Do you go on an airplane?


[00:09:39] JM: No, I don't.


[00:09:40] KM: You fly at all anymore?


[00:09:41] JM: I really don't. And to be honest with you, what I miss is how quiet it is at 50,000 feet by yourself. And you look at the curvature of the earth when the sun's going down. So you get a chance to see – I go back to my experience growing up. I got to see people behind the wall yearning for something others took for granted. When you're flying above the horizon, you get to see the beauty of the earth in a much more expansive way, and I just think it opens up your horizons.


[00:10:05] KM: Literally.


[00:10:05] JM: Literally.


[00:10:08] KM: Okay. So then your job was an airline pilot, or airline pilot, a jet pilot.


[00:10:15] JM: Yep. Did that. Then moved on to Delaware, then did some stuff, got pulled onto the staff. And then very quickly –


[00:10:21] KM: How many countries have you lived in?


[00:10:24] JM: I’ve actually – So I’ve lived in just a couple of countries. I would had 14 assignments by the time I went to Afghanistan.


[00:10:32] KM: Was it what you expected? More or less?


[00:10:35] JM: It was more than I expected.


[00:10:36] KM: Were you prepared?


[00:10:38] JM: I was absolutely prepared.


[00:10:39] KM: How old were you when you went on your first assignment?


[00:10:43] JM: 23 years old.


[00:10:43] KM: Was it dangerous?


[00:10:46] JM: No, I don't say that was dangerous. I mean I would tell you this, danger is to some degree a matter of perspective. And the reason I say that is we have the best training programs in the world. We have the best educate – We get people ready to do their job. This is why the military is consistently the most respected because we consistently can do our job. It's because the taxpayer invests in us. I mean, by the time you're flying airplanes, they have on average five million dollars invested in you. That's how much the training the – And it takes two years. So you're really good at what you do. So what happens is it's a matter of you get the mission done and you want to get a catalyst and really feel a pump. You get moving on the mission and you are completely focused.


[00:11:28] KM: So if it is not comfortable or uncomfortable, you don't have to talk about this, but talk about the pain of war and what you saw.


[00:11:37] JM: The pain of war really comes from the fact that it's the human cost of war. And what I mean by that is we're well prepared, we're extremely capable technologically, but the part you can never fully get ready for is when you see that the real impact. We can we can prep for it. You can watch it on TV. But to watch now another human being suffering or the loss of a person, it hits you at a different way, because ultimately the true cost of these, politicians may fight over borders or whatever we're fighting over, whatever the war is over, ultimately. At the end of the day it's bore out by human beings in all cases. And when you see it, you come to appreciate the fact that people are precious.


[00:12:20] KM: Does it bother you? had a Jim Guy Tucker on here who went to war and was in Japan after it had been bombed, the nuclear bomb, and he and he went all over Asia after Vietnam. And does it bother you? And it really bothers him. But when people, civilians cry war, who don't really know about war and haven't seen war, or its destruction and how it ruins a whole generation of people. When you see people like saying that on TV, like let's go to war.


[00:12:56] JM: Absolutely. And I take it back to – Do you really understand the cost of war? So I get we go to war for different reasons and we have national interests and other things. At the end of the day, unless you can really understand the implications of what you're asking people to do, and it comes down to the potential cost in human lives. Really understanding is it worth it? And have you really exhausted all the alternatives before you put American sons and daughters in harm's way? So when you hear folks who are almost flipping like, “Oh! Well, we're going to go to war over this.”


War, many people will tell, you should always be the last option. And that means I’ve exhausted and done my – I’ve fulfilled my responsibility to find a different way to achieve that ends before I start to risk people's lives. And it's just, to me, basic human respect. A leader, if you – Leadership is about people. Period. It's about creating the conditions for people to flourish and thought, thrive and be their best selves, right? Which means you always have to take that into consideration. And going to war, no one should ever take lightly. And I think what you're referring to is sometimes people make it look like it's an easy decision. And when they do, they don't know what they're talking about.


[00:14:05] KM: So I had General Wesley Clark on, and he went to WestPoint and he loved being in the service, because it leveled the playing ground between kids with high school educations and himself who was a West Point graduate. And he got shot. And he said, “These guys risked their lives to get me out of there,” and he told his story when he got shot. Have you ever had anything like that happen where you're like my brethren got me out of there?


[00:14:33] JM: Oh! I mean absolutely. So this goes to why you become once you've been in it. And so let's take Afghanistan. I’ll remember one morning, I had a – Because of my very visible role there and some things, I had a security detail attached to me, right? And we lived with the Afghans, because the nature of my job uh was to lead NATO’s efforts to teach them how to build an Air Force. Now, building an Air Force in a non-war zone is hard enough. Imagine doing it in Afghanistan in an active place and you're doing it with an average eighth grade education as your population group.


So one morning I get a knock on the door about 4:05 a.m., and it's my security detail, my personal bodyguard. And he says, “Look, we got to get out right now because we came under attack.” And so we had some guys who had gotten in the towers. They'd attacked the camp. We had RPGs, which are rocket-propelled grenades going all around us. I mean literally, we're hunkered down. You hear the bullets.


But the thing about it is not that you're fearful. You're just really in tune with what's happening. But here's to answer your question. I just knew how an amazing organization I was a part of when in the midst of all this I looked, and across from us we had our security detail, 26 young Americans, average age, 23 years old. I’ll never forget the fire and all the things are raining in on the camp and these kids come out and they have their helmets on, their boots. They still have the stuff they slept in. They ran to the fire because they knew their job was to defend and take care of every single person in that camp. And I just looked at this and I was in awe. I was like, “That is why America is great.” They will go and do what they're trained to do at great risk to personal self. They'll do it smartly. They'll do it as safely as they can. But at the end of the day, what their focused on is getting the mission done. The mission is protect every single person that was depending on them. And they didn't blink an eye or hesitate. And about three hours later, it was all dead bad guys and no one injured on our side.


[00:16:30] KM: Yay!


[00:16:31] JM: So there you go. There's your superhero movie for the night.


[00:16:33] KM: I was holding my breath for that one.


[00:16:35] PS: It’s just like the Alamo reversed.


[00:16:38] KM: Yeah. I was about to say, “No, it's not.”


[00:16:39] JM: That's inspiring to me. That's what it's about. So when you experience that, all you want to do is create the conditions for them to continue to grow and be better, because that's – And I think that's what General Clark was talking about. The military gives you a sense of dependence and trust on other people to where you don't think about it. It's very hard to replicate that in other places. And part of it is because we train that way. We have to do it. But you consistently watch it exemplified. And on that day to me it crystallized. Like what an incredible gift we have in these courageous people who raise their hand voluntarily from all walks of life to put that uniform on. No one was forced.


[00:17:19] KM: For those interested in enlisting, talk about how you would go about getting started today.


[00:17:23] JM: Absolutely.


[00:17:24] KM: How would you do?


[00:17:25] JM: So go online. But the real thing is go talk to a recruiter. Talk to a human. Understand. And don't just talk to one. You may watch a movie and you're inspired by a particular service. I would tell folks today, talk to a recruiter from all the services. You might be surprised at what you learn. And it's an exciting time in America. We finally got our act back together and are going back to space. So the launch of space force gets us back now to think about new horizons. You've got amazing things going on in the Air Forces, the Marine, the Navy. If people understood the kind of mission diversity, anything you want to do, anything, is available to you in the military.


[00:18:00] KM: I think people think that if they join the military they're just going to end on the front line. They're going to end up on the front line.


[00:18:06] JM: Maybe 50 years ago or 30 years ago. But now, think about the way war has changed. We don't really fight standoff wars anymore, right? The way we do it, a lot of it's technology, a lot of it is intelligence, a lot of it is data so it's a completely different world. It's about being smart. It's about being in tune. It's about learning to collaborate. It's all about being part of a team.


The reason I would encourage folks. If you're confused about what to do in your young person, talk to all the service recruiters. Then go do it for four years. Why? The education benefits, but more importantly you will grow as a person. You will grow as a leader. You will develop emotional intelligence on how to be part of a team. And your value to the workplace, you could leave there and be 22 years old with four years of world experience behind you and you'll become a franchise player, because you are learning skills that where else are you going to get them?


[00:18:55] KM: I talked to a business person one time and asked him. He helps fund businesses, and I said, “What is the best business if somebody wanted to start a new business?” And it's funny you used that word franchise. And he said buying a franchise that is all structured and ready to go. So if you come from a structured environment, you come out. You're like, “I get it. I know how to follow rules. I know how to fill out reports. I know how to –” You would probably be a successful franchise owner.


[00:19:22] JM: Yeah. And that's the discipline that comes from it, right? So we know we live in a checklist world. The one thing about flying airplanes or really doing anything, fixing airplanes, or doing any mission, is you have a list. You're accountable. So the first thing is you're accountable. You're trained. You're exceptionally trained. So you're used to know there's a time for structure and process. And then there's a time to be a good wingman or a good teammate. And you've got to learn both the hard and the soft elements of leadership. Just in fitting in, even if it's just leading yourself, just succeed in leading yourself. Not so much –


[00:19:53] KM: And parents can't teach that. Parents cannot. I don't care how great a parent you are. It's hard to teach everything you just mentioned. I’m speaking today with retired Air Force Brigadier General John Michel; and his partner, Perry Smith from Minuteman, with the franchise that they're bringing back. But we're really here to talk with the general about what he and Perry have co-founded of The Avalon Institute, an unconventional online leadership program. I call it unconventional. But before we do, I want to talk about what we just talked about. We talked about – I can't help but call you John Michel. I know it's two words, but I feel like your mother.


[00:20:31] GM: Is it Michael or Michel?


[00:20:34] JM: Michel is the – I get both of them. Michel is –


[00:20:36] KM: It’s because he’s French.


[00:20:38] GM: Exactly. But now it makes perfect sense. Yeah.


[00:20:40] JM: So you needed the first part about, “Oh, yeah. French was my first language.”


[00:20:44] KM: So it's John Michel.


[00:20:46] JM: Doesn't that sound – Even the way you said that. Real fancy.


[00:20:51] KM: Does your wife speak French?


[00:20:52] JM: No. Well, she's always had a desire to learn. So she's learned elements along the way.


[00:20:59] KM: Do you love Paris?


[00:21:00] JM: I love all of Europe. I love France. Paris is a great city. But I’ll tell you, I can pick a whole bunch of scenes. I love the south of France. I love the west side of France.


[00:21:10] KM: We went to Avignon. Oh, it's just unbelievable.


[00:21:13] JM: Yeah. I mean lots of goodness there.


[00:21:15] KM: It's crazy. You know what I noticed? And then we're going to get back on topic. But I noticed that over there they have noise reduced tires. So there's not the noise pollution for all the automobiles. And I don't know why America doesn't do that, but it sure would make the freeways quieter. I was like, “Why is everybody driving so quietly?”


[00:21:33] PS: It's so funny you say that because I was in Paris and I noticed in the subways have rubber wheels. It's not the steel wheels in the subways and it's just like the subway is just quiet.


[00:21:42] KM: They understand noise pollution.


[00:21:43] PS: Yeah, that's right.


[00:21:44] KM: I think that they don't need nearly as much Ativan and Valium as we did probably over here because they understand noise pollution.


[00:21:49] PS: It's called red wine. They don't need Valium.


[00:21:53] KM: That wine is so weak over there. My granddaughter was drinking it. All right, let's get back. We talked about your life. It's in military life. If you're considering that as your career, I highly recommend you go back and listen to John Michel’s description of it. You're stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan. What is your main job being there?


[00:22:17] JM: So I served as the commanding general for NATO in leading the 14 nation effort to build the $7 billion Afghan Air Force.


[00:22:25] KM: Is that because you spoke – You’re were bilingual that they gave you that job?


[00:22:30] JM: No. What it really is, is when we talk about change and systems and how do you bring, it's a really complex endeavor. So one of the arts of leadership is how can you make the complex seem – How do you break it out? How do you now help people understand and wrap their head around it? And then more importantly motivate them about their part in it. So you almost have to deconstruct the puzzle. Find people's pieces help them put it back together, right? Call collaboration. So it was a massive system project.


[00:22:58] KM: So, is that how the Gratitude Cafe came about? Tell our listeners what the Gratitude Cafe is and how it played a role over there and how you came up with the idea.


[00:23:10] JM: I think that – Thank you for asking that question, because I’m quite fond of Gratitude Café. Because at the heart of all these things, these complex changes and building air – Whatever you're doing, are people again. And so what made this particular assignment particularly challenging, other than I’m in a war zone, we're lagging on how fast we had to build the Air Force. We had a lot of pressures to succeed. So we were coming in to build a different way forward. But we had 14 nations, right? So this is a NATO effort that I’m leading. 14 different cultures, not all people created equal. And so you have to find a commonality.


One of the things about if you're going to do something hard, no matter who you have, you quickly got to find a sense of commonality that one can connect to and when you're dealing with that many cultures. So I go back to hospitality. The one thing I realize is the human condition is first and foremost social. If you find a way to connect, I don't care what your background is. Once we've done that, we have common ground.


So I'd been walking by a trailer. So I lived literally in a camp in the middle of the Afghan base, because we had to live with the people we served. That's the nature of the mission. It's dangerous, but it's the right thing to do there. I'd walk by this trailer for the first two months I was there and then it struck me one day, “What if we took that trailer?” which was literally not being used for anything. Repurposed it moved it to the middle of the camp where we assembled with our flagpole and things and we took something simple and common like coffee and we created an experience that every day all the experience – It was we start social. Use it as a way to talk. Use as a way to connect.


So we redid the trailer. We turned it. We brought some tables. We bought all the materials we needed to turn into a coffee shop and then we started to invite people. And I changed the rules. I said, “The first hour of every day will occur if you will the quad.” We all show up there and we're just going to drink coffee together. We're going to learn about each other. We're going to talk about our mission. But now it's very informal. So I flattened the whole organization. I have everyone –


[00:25:09] KM: What was it like before that?


[00:25:10] JM: Well, you have a hierarchy, right? You got generals and you have colonels and you have – So what I mean by flat in the organization is it put everyone regardless of rank, culture or background in a place where you can have a common conversation about whatever you wanted to talk about.


[00:25:23] KM: And you were kind of meeting in a meeting room with the guys standing up front talking at you. You’re talking.


[00:25:26] JM: Right. Now we're meeting in a quad at a coffee shop. Starting it now – And then the thing about it is we also changed the rules that the only people who could serve in the coffee shop were the highest ranking people in the camp. So it was always the highest ranking serving everybody else. So we wanted to set an example.


[00:25:41] KM: That is ingenious.


[00:25:42] JM: So we wanted to do a servant leadership model. So we served. Then we tied it to a social media campaign because I wanted America and other countries to be proud of the work that was going on. So we just made it available to them via social media. And we created a social media phenom, which is how Perry and I got connected because he found us on social media.


So now goods are pouring from the states. People are consuming them and creating a common connection point. And in short order, I had Italians saying, “Well, I want to do some coffee.” And so everyone found a way to connect. We actually got more accomplished in that first hour informally. We call this in the workplace kind of like the – They used to call them the water cooler conversations. Do you remember that? That's the place where. You go you get more done because there're no guards up. I don't have a person sitting up giving me a formal briefing in a room with a big wooden table separated by things. We’re people there for a common cause.


Then we started invite the Afghans. So this just became a catalyst. So Gratitude Cafe was a way to say thank you for all those who support us, us serving those that were there – That we were there just to serve. Gave us a way to thank them every single day and by simply the act of let me serve your coffee. For some cultures they were like, “The general is giving me coffee.” I had some countries couldn't wrap their head around it.


[00:26:56] KM: How did you get them to buy into that, the generals?


[00:26:59] JM: Well, the fact is they actually enjoyed the opportunity because it really, by upending, if you will, the organizational chart, it made people much more human. Very quickly, they dropped all the inherent barriers. When you're in the military, you got a hierarchy and you need it. You got a rank and order. When you move and create, if you will, a neutral space around a common experience, which is food, I just considered coffee and that kind of an extension of food. You can very quickly just bring people back to be more authentic and it grows authenticity.


[00:27:30] KM: What social media did you use?


[00:27:31] JM: Oh, we used to Twitter. We were very prolific on Twitter, on Facebook.


[00:27:35] PS: That's how we discovered Gratitude, on Twitter.


[00:27:38] JM: We had a huge following, because people got a glimpse into the war.


[00:27:40] KM: Who knew how to do that?


[00:27:42] JM: Myself and Matt – We had some really good teammates there and we were quite prolific. And matter of fact, at the time when I left the military, I was the number one social media guy in the United States Air Force. As far as I had seven hundred thousand followers, I was like pretty – I had a live radio show. I mean we had a whole stuff going on.


[00:28:01] KM: You need a job?


[00:28:05] PS: Matt Fritz, the guy who set him up is also a partner at Minuteman.


[00:28:09] JM: And he's a master at all this.


[00:28:09] PS: Yeah, he’s a master at it.


[00:28:11] JM: So we just use social media to magnify the story about humans serving humans.


[00:28:15] KM: Is what I see – This does not sound like what I see on TV at all.


[00:28:20] JM: Oh, you don't see these stories on TV. But I think I told you last time, Gratitude Cafe is still thriving today. Why? It's simple. It creates authenticity. It creates a way to create conversations that are real.


[00:28:30] KM: But they don't speak the same language.


[00:28:32] JM: You don't have to. Well, all of them have some level of broken English just to be able to serve. But what you can – You know what we all respond to?


[00:28:39] KM: What?


[00:28:39] JM: Sitting down having a drink with somebody, a cup of coffee in a place where normally it's dangerous. And before you get to your – We all have a common mission. And now I can look at you and I can connect to you in a different way as a person. I don't have to understand everything you're saying, but you're real to me. Isn't that what it's about? It's just making ourselves available to other people and realizing that – And by upending it and having myself, the command chief, the colonels serve everyone else. We really sent the message that we are here. What did I tell you leadership is? Create the conditions for other people to be and do their best. That's all leadership is.


[00:29:14] KM: That's exactly right. Create conditions for other people to shine.


[00:29:18] JM: That's exactly –


[00:29:19] KM: As soon as you feel good about yourself, you're going to do better.


[00:29:22] JM: And so if you know leader has your best interest at heart – This is a very big concept now in the world of leadership for the last several years called psychological safety, right? And psychological safety is this idea that it's safe to take risks. I can trust the people around me and my leader. And if you have that, you can do amazing things. If you don't have it, what happens? Organizations are dysfunctional. People are in their camps. They all have agendas. So it's really that simple. So you have to model it. You can't use words. You got to show people, “I have your best interest at heart.”


[00:29:51] KM: So there was a time we all wore safety pins on our shirts. Remember that? Does that speak about that? I mean is that something that you would do in an organization to make people feel safe? You would say everybody would put on a safety pin. It's a safe place. I love that. I still have shirts with safety pins on them.


[00:30:07] JM: I mean however folks want to communicate it. I think the key thing as a leader is make yourself available to them in a very authentic way.


[00:30:15] KM: How long was it after the Gratitude Cafe that you retired from the Air Force?


[00:30:20] JM: I retired right out of –  I left Kabul and petitioned to retire as soon as I got back to the States.


[00:30:25] KM: How come?


[00:30:26] JM: I wanted to get into the business world and do something different. And 14 moves, it was probably time to give my family some stability.


[00:30:32] KM: Have you been married to the same lady the whole time?


[00:30:34] JM: I have. 27 plus years.


[00:30:37] KM: Glorious years.


[00:30:38] JM: Glorious, with a capital G.


[00:30:40] KM: You have been written about as an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster. I would say why is that?


[00:30:51] JM: But do you really need to ask that question?


[00:30:52] KM: I think I already know. What was your first job after retirement and how old were you now?


[00:30:57] JM: So I retired on my 50th birthday, and I went to the largest privately held transportation company in America, in Dallas, Texas where I served as a chief strategy and innovation officer. So I went right to it. I was fortunate to go right to the C-suite out of the military.


[00:31:13] KM: How did you get that job?


[00:31:14] JM: I was recruited in by some executive recruiters.


[00:31:18] KM: Who’s been following you on Twitter? You said, “Hey, I’m retiring.”


[00:31:19] JM: Folks that we had connected. Actually, they found because I wrote for Harvard Business review, I had a radio show. I mean we would have been pretty –


[00:31:25] KM: You had a radio show?


[00:31:27] JM: With David Webb out of New York City out of Sirius Radio.


[00:31:28] KM: What y’all talk about?


[00:31:30] JM: Leadership. You can go to generalleadership.com. We've had a prolific blog for – A matter of fact, we're in the top 25 leadership blogs in the world with General Leadership.


[00:31:39] KM: So I went on Avalon. I went on The Avalon Institute and you had a blog on there. But you haven't posted on the blog since 18th.


[00:31:46] JM: Yes.


[00:31:47] KM: Is that the same blog that you're talking about?


[00:31:49] JM: So generalleadership.com. So here's the concept when I was in the military, and it gets to the unconventional part because it was a little – There's some people who get a little – They raise an eyebrow when you do things unconventionally, right? So I felt that if America trusts military officers and the military in general more than anybody, why were so few senior military officers wearing the uniform talking to America? That seems simple, right? Why don't we find a way to create a dialogue so that now we can make advice available to people who are interested in learning from those they trust the most?


So we created General Leadership, myself and Matt Fritz, and it became quite popular. So I had active general officers still serving, retired. So only the highest ranking folks would write these blogs. We have 500 different stories written by senior military people on that blog. It's still this day.


[00:32:39] KM: Now, where do they go read those blogs?


[00:32:41] JM: Generalleadership.com.


[00:32:43] KM: Generalleadership.com. I’m going to put that link on our website.


[00:32:45] JM: And it ties to Avalon. You probably should because I mean that's – So you get a whole range of opinions from qualified people. But with that, David Webb, who's a fox news host and has a radio show in New York. For four years – He hosted me one night then we started saying, “Huh, this is a really interesting idea of making senior military leaders available to the public to have a dialogue.” And so we started a show. And once a month we would be doing this live out of New York.


And matter of fact, David, flew to Kabul, Afghanistan and we did a show live from a war zone one day for three hours. And it was just fascinating, because all we talked about was leadership and people doing things to make things in America better, whatever it was, people driving change.


[00:33:27] KM: Sometimes people – I have noticed this. Sometimes even in my small organization, I’ll see people that want to become a leader, and they do it by putting other people down to make themselves look better. They do it by never accepting responsibility for something that went wrong. And it's the exact opposite of that.


[00:33:47] JM: Amen. That's not leadership.


[00:33:49] KM: No. But for some reason they think, “Oh, I don't want to get in trouble because then I won't be a leader. So I’m going to throw my co-worker under the bus and I’m going to say it wasn't my fault.”


[00:33:59] JM: You know what that tells me? They either haven't had a good mentor or they haven’t had a good example, because anybody that – They would have seen real leadership, they knew it was exactly the opposite of what you described, right?


[00:34:09] KM: And you know how you talked about running towards the problem.


[00:34:12] JM: Run to the fire.


[00:34:13] KM: They run to the fire. A leader runs to the fire, takes responsibility for it. And if it doesn't work –


[00:34:19] JM: You take responsibility for it.


[00:34:21] KM: Because that's what a leader does.


[00:34:24] PS: You have to own it. Yeah, absolutely.


[00:34:25] KM: You own it. You own it whether it's good or bad. And if you do do a good job, you’d give it away.


[00:34:30] JM: It's exactly right.


[00:34:31] PS: So, Kerry, at my former restaurants, and we talked about those before, called Matchbox. I think John and I had connected a little bit later down the line after he got out of Afghanistan. But we had a little forum that we would do every Friday where the staff right before they were getting prepared for their shift they normally would just come in and we'd do a shift leadership talk. Here are the specials. Here we go. But every Friday we did a thing called speaker's corner like they do over in Hyde Park or in in London where you basically say to somebody – You can get them talk about whatever you want to talk about.


So you have 20 minutes. So every staff member that wanted to talk about things in their life could get up and have a conversation about it. The only rules were you couldn't be negative and you couldn't talk about work.


[00:35:15] KM: And you have a time limit, because there's some that'll get up and you're just like, “Okay.”


[00:35:19] PS: Oh no. We cut them off.


[00:35:19] JM: 20 minutes. Yup.


[00:35:20] PS: We give them 20 minutes, because that was the length of the meeting. But basically what I would do –


[00:35:24] KM: But each person needed a time limit.


[00:35:26] PS: Oh, no. Each person had a time limit. Yeah. But I would give them their time and I said – Because I would ask them about their lives, their personal, “What you do outside of work?” And a lot of them are, “Why are you asking me that?” I’ll say, “Because I want you to tell your co-workers about this in a different forum. You can talk about whatever you want.” And we had kids were like, “Oh my gosh!” And it was so empowering for them mainly to be able to connect with their other teammates. It didn't matter what they talked about as long as it wasn't negative. But we learned so much about each other and we would sit there in the ownership and listen to what they had to say. And I’m going, “Oh my gosh! I understand why this person does what they do.” And then of course you think about, “Okay. Well, how can I harness that? Now I know that about them. How can I empower them to do more of what they need to do?” Because if they do that, they'll be better at work.


[00:36:11] KM: I’m not sure, Perry, I really want to know all that stuff about them at home.


[00:36:16] GM: Oh gosh! Whatever. She's the one coming in to work every day going, “We're a family,” and we know about everything about each other.


[00:36:23] KM: I know, and I hate that about myself.


[00:36:25] GM: Oh please. Until she does it again.


[00:36:28] KM: I totally don’t like that. My husband's always going, “Kerry, stop prying.”


[00:36:32] GM: Getting involved.


[00:36:34] KM: Like, “Well, I just wondered.” Okay. All right. It's a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with retired Air Force Brigadier General John Michel and his partner, Perry Smith. Still to come, we're going to talk about The Avalon Institute. Free tips on change for the new year and who and how can join The Avalon Institute and what you can expect to learn. We'll be back right after the break.




[00:37:03] AM: Kerry McCoy, founder and president of Arkansas Flag and Banner believes in paying knowledge and experience forward and developed this radio show as a means of doing so. The biographies, life experiences and wisdom of her guests would likely go unheard if not for this venue. Rarely do people open up for an hour to an audience about their life, mistakes, triumphs and pitfalls. This unique radio show allows the listener intimate access into the stories of prominent leaders in our state.


I am Adrian McNally, manager of the Arkansas Flag and Banner showroom and gift shop located on the first floor of the historic Taborian Hall on the corner of 9th and State Streets in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. In business for 43 years we offer an old school shopping experience with front door parking, clerks to help you and department store variety. Open to the public Monday through Friday 8:00 to 5:30; and Saturday, 10 to 4.




[00:38:02] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I’m speaking today with retired Air Force Brigadier General John Michael and co-founder of Avalon Institute and his partner, Perry Smith. They are unconventional online leadership program entrepreneurs. Before the break, the very first of the show we talked about John Michel –


[00:38:23] JM: Michel.


[00:38:25] KM: John Michel’s – That's how you say his name because he's French. John Michel’s military career. If you're thinking about that kind of a career, you need to go and listen to it. Secondly, we talked about leadership. Great tips on leadership. It's not rocket science, people. Just listen up. And now we're going to talk about The Avalon Institute and he's going to share some more of those Avalon skills. What were the events leading up to founding The Avalon Institute? I think I kind of noticed that except for you came right out of the service you said in the last break and went to work for, not a trucking company, but – What do you call it?


[00:39:00] JM: Yeah. It's a transportation company.


[00:39:02] KM: A transportation company. So have are you still there? Have you left?


[00:39:04] JM: Nope. I left there after about a – No. Not quite two years. So bottom line there, we had the opportunity to learn a lot about. They're the biggest providers of paratransit services. So people with disabilities who have special needs. They provide most of transportation in America. And I became really inspired with that mission. So after almost two years, I left. We bought a small technology company because I felt that we could do a better job of serving them with a more technological orientation and some other things. And then Perry was in that adventure with me.


So in the process when I was at MV, that company, we started realizing that we can systematize and expand our conversation if we just encapsulate this thing that we called Avalon. And Avalon was really just a way to begin to provide skills and access to our ideas of some formula, some systems, and we were hired at the time. We did some work with special operations. So we were teaching these principles around the concept of – There're three things, right? We show up and it's thinking being and doing what you see.


So this idea of thinking is how do I understand the way that I’m naturally wired? And so we have an assessment that came out of a teammate that we have out of Harvard created it, and it emerges your preferred ways of thinking. And if you understand the preferred ways you think and make sense of the world, now you're armed with a key piece of knowledge. Being is about now I also understand how can I – What are the preferences I have and how I like to show up in work? So I think a certain way. I have certain preferences and things that I respond to. And last but not least, you have doing, which is how can I be more emotionally intelligent?


Emotional intelligence is the glue that binds it all together. Matter of fact, every single study of successful leaders finds that at a certain point, really, especially when you break out of mid-level management, all effective leaders exercise a level, a high level of emotional intelligence. It's your ability to connect.


[00:40:55] KM: EQ.


[00:40:55] JM: Exactly, right? This is the ability now to connect to people. So it's about being aware of yourself, being aware of other people, being aware of your environment and then proactively shaping conditions to try to find positive outcomes. That's what it's about. So we brought in assessment. So we have assessments that we can do with people. We started doing coaching. And so all Avalon was is give people access to – All we have is different experiences. So we had a group of people that you see here. They all have different experiences. We have some tools. And the goal is whether it's individuals or groups. Let us help you think through, walk through and construct new ways of being. If you want to be better at something, all we want to do is help you do that.


[00:41:39] KM: There's a lot of people under meet the team. When you click on meet the team, there's a lot of people. And so I wondered if it was also – So you answered my question. Is it for individuals or is it for organizations? And you're like it's for both. But is it also for people that want to be a life coach? Do you teach other people how to be a life coach? Who are those leaders under the meet the team?


[00:42:04] JM: So some of them, that's what they do full time. So we have folks with different levels of expertise. So if someone has a particular thing they want to learn about, we might direct them to a particular teammate to say, “Okay, you'll want to talk. We're going to connect you with X.” Part of it is if you want to know more about yourself, we're going to give you this assessment. So we want to find out where people are in their journey. The people there on the team represent diverse sets of skills. We have some who are experts in certain fields. Some who are actually world-class coaches for executives. Others who are experts at leading change or creating high performing organizations.


[00:42:37] KM: So I want to get started. What's the first thing I do?


[00:42:40] JM: Just go to avalonleadership.com.


[00:42:43] KM: Log in. Give them your information. It's private.


[00:42:46] JM: Absolutely.


[00:42:47] KM: And then what do I get back? An email that says –


[00:42:48] JM: You'll get an email connection and then we can connect with you. I mean you send an email – And so we try to make it personal as much as we can. And then we have a conversation to say tell us about yourself. What interested you about it? And, very quickly, are you as an individual? Are you a part of an organization? People approach us for different things, right? Some people say I have a team that's not functioning very well. Can you help us? Okay. So we have a group we can do that with. So we've assembled tools, expertise. Put them into this virtual kind of space. And then depending on the needs of who's asking, we can respond.


[00:43:22] KM: So individuals would take a personality test, I assume. I love doing that. So is that right? We take a personality kind of test?


[00:43:29] PS: Yes. They could. And also group you could take a personality –


[00:43:32] KM: You’re on design personality test.


[00:43:33] PS: One of our tests, they could take the cognitive peak profile assessment. And then what they could do is do it either individually and we can do a one-on-one coaching or we can actually do an entire group assessment to find out where people align their strengths and how they think. How they be? How they do?


[00:43:48] KM: A business has a personality.


[00:43:51] PS: Overall it does. Absolutely.


[00:43:52] KM: And people don't realize that a business has a personality.


[00:43:55] JM: It does.


[00:43:56] KM: So how do you qualify that? How do you figure that out? So this is your business personality.


[00:44:05] JM: So when we talk about business personality. So we have a persona in the marketplace, but the composition of the organization when I think of business personality, we call it culture. So organizations have a culture. And that culture is a reflection of leadership and people. Dysfunctional leadership, I can probably guess what your culture is going to be. So the goal is through awareness. Awareness of individual, bringing the group together by giving people awareness of here's our strengths. I have some. You have some. Where we might have gaps. The sheer act of a conversation, information allows us now – And where you're not aligned, it starts to tell us the kind of thing we can now say, “Here are some things you can think about doing different that now can move you to the culture you want to have.” Because at the end of the day, culture is what it's all about, right?


[00:44:50] KM: How do y'all make any money?


[00:44:52] JM: There, we really don't. We can actually see this as much as a public – I mean it's the cost of the survey people pay. We never really did this from a pure business standpoint. We get it because it was demanding.


[00:45:03] KM: If I wanted to do it, what would my cost be as an individual?


[00:45:05] PS: You could take it individually for, say, 59.99.


[00:45:08] KM: Oh my God! How do y'all live? That’s so cheap.


[00:45:10] JM: Luckily we don't live up. This is more –


[00:45:13] KM: Well, it's more about the engagement. And the one thing I think from our client list and how diverse it's been, we've worked with division one athletes. We have worked with this, John mentioned, Special Forces. We've done a two day seminar and an entire squadron breakdown for a group of folks out of Barksdale Air Force Base who fly B-52s. So it's very, very diverse.


[00:45:33] KM: You have very many clients?


[00:45:35] PS: Pardon me?


[00:45:33] KM: Do you have very many clients?


[00:45:37] PS: We've had a lot of clients over the years. Absolutely.


[00:45:38] KM: How long have you been around?


[00:45:39] JM: [inaudible 00:45:38] because we have one big client called Minuteman right now. Minuteman. So come join us at that client.


[00:45:45] PS: So our leadership team is taking the assessments.


[00:45:46] KM: That’s where you’re making your money.


[00:45:48] JM: This is actually where we're bearing out leadership. I mean the conversations we have to have with our team, pivoting. We're rolling out now a new food trailer concept that's coming out next week. We've signing on. We're launching a virtual kitchen here. So my point is we're living the principles of Avalon because we're innovating, we're iterating, we're engaging our team, we're holding them accountable. We we're living Avalon in a real life leadership laboratory called Minuteman, because we want this state to take this pride of Arkansas that was Minuteman and we want to introduce it to the country at a time when I think patriotism no nonsense is exactly what we need. We need to get back to the ideas of service, people, community. That's Minuteman.


So this whole conversation we had about leadership, we're living it real time in building this brand, holding our team accountable, trying to lead and inspire them and do something and create an experience that the people right now in Arkansas can be proud of.


[00:46:43] KM: And you can go back and take these experiences at Minuteman and improve Avalon with what you've learned.


[00:46:47] JM: Yeah, and we can apply it to other businesses, right?


[00:46:49] KM: Yeah.


[00:46:51] JM: So it's one thing to be theoretical. It's another whole level of credibility, right? You could talk about building a successful business or you can build a successful business like you do. People listen to people who build the business, not just talking about it.


[00:47:03] KM: So you're doing both. You're talking about it on Avalon.


[00:47:05] JM: And we’re building.


[00:47:06] KM: What’s the Avalon address?


[00:47:08] JM: Avalonleadership.com.


[00:47:09] KM: Avalonleadership.com. Everybody go there. It's an easy website to navigate. Spend $59. Get some help from these expert pros who have conquered the world, literally.


[00:47:20] PS: Kerry, can I give a gratuitous plug here?


[00:47:23] KM: Sure.


[00:47:24] PS: Our trailer is rolling out this coming Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We are setting up the Minuteman trailer to serve burgers, fries and radar pies at as close as we can get to the original Minuteman at Fourth and Broadway.


[00:47:38] KM: Fourth and Broadway?


[00:47:39] PS: Fourth and Broadway.


[00:47:40] KM: In Little Rock?


[00:47:40] PS: So we will be there starting at about 11 o'clock this coming week.


[00:47:44] KM: I’m going to get that chili – what's that thing called?


[00:47:45] GM: I was going to say, I am there.


[00:47:47] PS: Cheese dip.


[00:47:48] KM: No. No.


[00:47:48] PS: Or cheese dip and chips and cheese.


[00:47:51] KM: No. No. The chili hamburger. The chili burger.


[00:47:53] PS: You can get that. We got chili burger.


[00:47:55] KM: What's that chili burger that y'all were famous for that had all the chili and cheese smashed on it?


[00:47:58] JM: Oh, actually you're talking number two, right? Are you talking about the hickory cheese. You're talking about the hickory smoked sauce one with the cheese?


[00:48:03] KM: There you go.


[00:48:04] JM: Oh, no. That's the takeoff right there. Number two.


[00:48:07] KM: Number two. I’m going to get a number two.


[00:48:09] JM: Down the street in Flag and Banner.


[00:48:11] PS: That’s right.


[00:48:11] KM: I know it. Thank you. There’s your Illinois flag. It's a desk set. Perry already got one last time.


[00:48:15] JM: Oh, I love it. Thank you.


[00:48:17] KM: That's the Air Force, the state you live in Illinois.


[00:48:19] JM: Very thoughtful. Thank you.


[00:48:20] KM: You're welcome. And the US. I hope you don't already have one, although you probably have flags everywhere.


[00:48:23] JM: Nope. This is actually my – This is wonderful. Thank you.


[00:48:26] KM: You're welcome. Thanks for coming on. Y'all come back again sometime. We're going to visit and talk some more. I want to say to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening, and that whatever it is will help you up your business, your independence or your life. I’m Kerry McCoy and I’ll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.




[00:48:53] GM: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today's show, go to flagandbanner.com, select radio and choose today's guest. If you'd like to sponsor this show or any show, contact me, Gray, at flagandbanner.com. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Stay informed of exciting upcoming guests by subscribing to our YouTube channel or podcast wherever you like to listen. Kerry's goal is simple, to help you live the American Dream.




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