69: Leaders With Heart Invest In The Potential Of Their People

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In this episode, Heather speaks with Phil Cohen about his leadership style, his compelling and jaw-dropping background and his rags-to-riches story that lead him to hire people from all walks of life. He aims to create a family atmosphere that is psychologically safe. 

Key takeaways:

  • Leaders can lead more from a quiet strength.
  • Leaders need to be aligned with what they say they are or they will be viewed as a fraud.
  • If you know the leader’s heart and their why, that’s all you need to know.
  • Be transparent about what you stand for.
  • Surround yourself with people who are better than you.
  • Create a morning ritual that allows you to release stress so you don’t need to bring it to work.
  • Leaders cannot have a secret agenda.

This may be a surprising episode for many, but themes of forgiveness, teamwork and faith might resonate.

Phillip Cohen is a dynamic leader with a strong message of perseverance, resilience, and overcoming the odds to achieve business success.

Phil’s determination, and strong will, enabled him to survive some of the harshest of circumstances as a youth and built Cohen Architectural Woodworking into a thriving, award winning enterprise. This includes escaping from a troubled family and abusive father in Chicago, to dealing with bi-polar disorder, to overcoming drug and alcohol abuse and building a family owned business into a multi-million dollar company with 80 employees and clients nationwide.

Recognized for both business success and contributions to his community, Phillip was awarded the 2017 Small Business Person of the Year for Missouri by Small Business Administration (SBA). The firm has also received many accolades such as a Top Family Owned Business by St. Louis Small Business Monthly; Architectural Woodwork Institute’s (AWI) Award of Excellence for six different projects; and 2016 Small Business of the Year award by Rolla Chamber of Commerce. 


We actually started the company when I had come off of being homeless for years. I used drugs and I grew up in a really abusive home in Chicago. I turned to woodworking because it was therapeutic. I’ve really never thought that it would turn into a business like this. I made porch swings out of Walnut Cherry. I had used some tools I had from my former business making marijuana pipes.

It just evolved in a way that was therapeutic for me. We’ve had all different doors of opportunities open before us where we went from making porch swings in a neighbor’s pig pen to doing residential work and building creative pieces such as wooden trucks. 

In 1984, we’ve got our break in business, where we worked for a local hospital, and that led us to working for a big construction company in Chattanooga. Then, we ended up building about 850 stores for Walmart.

I love culture and I love seeing people’s lives change. I wouldn’t be here if not for that. – Phil Cohen #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

People Like Me

You can do a lot by intimidating people. But in the long term, you end up wounding them and their families because you’re sending your people home feeling miserable. – Phil Cohen #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

When I started hiring, I hired people who were like me because I didn’t think anybody would want to work for me. So, I was like the guy who nobody would want to work for, who hired people that nobody wanted to hire. It was really that simple. We just figured it out and because we didn’t kill each other, we made it. We just found our way together and held on to each other as we went.

From the beginning, we’ve always hired people with a bad past. People who were like me—people who had a past felony, people who had a past with drugs, people who have been through trauma, people who are uneducated, and only in the recent years, we have been able to hire war veterans because they are traumatized, too. 

I started woodworking because it was therapeutic and I found a lot of my healing in woodworking itself. It’s a sanctuary and a safe place for me. So, I couldn’t figure out why somebody who is as broken, ugly and obnoxious as me could make something with my hands and people would actually smile at my work, want more of it, and pay me for it. 

We have strongly enforced a drama-free workplace. We actually have 4D’s: drama, drugs, defects and dishonesty, that will get you fired and so, we hold on to that. 

We tell them, “We don’t care where you came from. As long as you draw a hard line on that, you have strong work ethic and you develop your character, we’ll help you get there.”

The next thing that happened was people would come here, with some of them who just got out of prison yesterday, or just got out of drug rehab. This was their first job out and they’ll be all uptight, paranoid and just traumatized. But in a matter of weeks, we would watch them soften. Soon, they start to develop relationships with each other and trust one another. Their minds start clearing up.

Not Fragile But Tough

We have a half-day orientation for our people where I tell them my story and they tell theirs. 

I say to people, “When you work in a place, find out why the owner is in business. Wherever you go, find out why the leader is there. Find out why he’s in business, because the why inside that leader’s heart will tell you everything about what it’s like to work there.”

For me, I don’t need the income. I’m beyond retirement age. My whole purpose of being here is to help change people’s lives and change their families.

Your people aren’t that fragile. They’re pretty tough. If you have hidden agenda, if you’re manipulating them and if you’re coming in from the side or all over the place, they are going to get wounded because they can feel it. They can smell it. 

But, if you’re transparent, if you show them what you really stand for, for better or worse, if you tell them upfront who you are and if you assure them that you’re not going to shove it down their throat, they can take anything.

What’s in the heart of a leader sets the tone of the entire culture. – Phil Cohen #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

It’s all about learning to be humble and to be a servant leader. – Phil Cohen #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

What I do best is casting vision and managing cultures, because culture to me is everything. – Phil Cohen #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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