“When I look back at the leadership of those days, when I became Prytanis, and you ask me how that prepared me to be a CEO, I failed miserably my first semester at it. It was a glorious failure.”
Not quite what you’d expect to hear when you are speaking with the CEO of BodyBuilding.com, one of the Internet’s most popular health and fitness websites, with more than 1 million daily visitors. Frater Jas Krdzalic speaks humbly about his journey to leadership—speaks with an understanding that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are great leaders. Being a great leader is a lot like working out—it takes time, effort and desire.
What does it take to become strong? Is it the ability to win competitions? Lift a specified goal weight or perform a specific task? No, I think we can all agree that those are the results of being strong. Failure is what it takes to become strong.
Physical fitness has been on the rise for a while, seeping into the mainstream consciousness as early as the running boom of the 1970s. Because of this, most people alive today will understand the dynamics of physical fitness on at least a basic level. You know that to strengthen a muscle, you must push it to a failure point, tearing the muscle fibers, damaging them. Following this, you allow that muscle time to heal, to improve, to regrow stronger than before. You met your match—now your body grows from the experience.
Kind of like opportunity out of defeat, come to think of it.
Jas Krdzalic is no stranger to this process, though not solely because of his bodybuilding career. He has been learning this lesson for most of his life.
Frater Krdzalic is a first-generation American. He found his life interrupted, and uprooted, in June of 1993, as war tore apart his native Bosnia. After his hometown was captured, he and his family would spend the next year as prisoners of war. Following that life-altering, yearlong experience in what amounted to a labor camp, his parents would set an example for their son through willpower and by taking advantage of a unique set of circumstances. The family made it to Twin Falls, Idaho, with $50 and unable to speak the language. The damage was over, and now they started to rebuild.
He had his pick of schools in Idaho, receiving scholarships to both the University of Idaho and Boise State. Recognizing the leadership opportunities that a fraternity could offer, his deciding factor turned out to be the strong Greek Life found at the University of Idaho. Even then, one of his defining characteristics was to seek out paths that were harder, knowing that the most satisfying results usually aren’t an easy road.
“TKE at that time, the Alpha-Delta chapter, looked like a place that needed an injection of new blood,” recalls Krdzalic. “You could see the struggle in their eyes. I just kind of felt this could be the path of most resistance but the highest reward at the end of the day—when you turn something around.”
With membership numbers low, leadership opportunities presented themselves to Jas quickly, and with them, the first failure of his leadership career. It gave him an opportunity to “have a virtuous cycle of learning.”
“I looked back and asked myself what would I have done differently. From that experience, I learned how to be a servant leader,” says Jas. It taught him that dictators don’t get results. “Even though my heart was in the right place that first semester, I learned that you cannot beat performance out of people. They have to volunteer it.”
Thankfully, he started in the spring and had the benefit of a summer to reflect before serving his second semester.
“You come with all these ideals, and you want the best for the house and then you really full court press the building. You know? You forget that these are 18- and 19-year-old kids. And you are expecting out of them to see the world through the same lens that you see it instead of meeting them where they are and motivating them from that angle.”
He has leaned on this lesson as he progressed through his career. When presented with a leadership position, he suggests taking a moment to understand where the organization is, why it is there and how you can be a positive influence on a change. Don’t rush everyone to glory—walk with them.
“My knowledge as a leader was influenced and shaped by my first semester failure as a leader of the Fraternity,” said Krdzalic.
One lesson is not enough to create a perfect leader. It takes time and focus. By cataloging and examining his choices, Jas has been able to become a better leader over time. Straight out of college, he took a position with what he describes as a great company, something every career focused graduate dreams of. He then discovered the same truth that many young Tekes discover. The job market can be fickle, and 2011 was no exception.
“You know, after all of these accolades of being the president of the Fraternity and magna cum laude and all this stuff ... and six months down the road in the real world, you are unemployed. That was a big kick and a serving of humble pie right out the gate,” admits Frater Krdzalic.
When speaking with Jas, you start to recognize that he has a healthy mix of confidence, humility, realism, and drive—a potent combination no doubt created by these early trials. At one position, he admits that he “was the worst employee they ever had.”
He shared that moment, how one day while sitting in downtown Boise, Idaho, he realized his confidence had gotten the better of him and he was performing poorly because of it. He took stock, “Is this as good as it’s going to get? Did I peak in college?” Shortly after that realization, he was offered a position with another company. He jumped at the chance for a fresh start. Micron Technology would be where he started to put his best foot forward—with the lessons he had just learned the hard way.
“I remember standing in front of Micron the first day of employment and saying to myself, nothing is below you here.
“I remember standing in front of Micron the first day of employment and saying to myself, nothing is below you here. If they ask you to sweep the streets, you are going to be the best street sweeper they ever had,” said Krdzalic.
From then on, he lived that mindset, and it paid off. As he moved through the ranks at Micron, he continued to learn and grow, acknowledging that it was the greatest university he had ever attended.
“This is when luck turned in my favor, and I had consecutive boss after boss whom I learned something from. Every single one of them left me with another tool in my toolbox that shaped me to be a better and better leader,” he said.
Throughout his time at Micron, he would work in corporate development running a market research team, then managed the finance strategy team and finally moved into the business unit where he would eventually run the strategy and operations team. When the opportunity of senior vice president of strategy at BodyBuilding.com arrived, he was ready for it.
“It was an opportunity for me to marry my passion for sport, for bodybuilding and fitness with a career, so I jumped on it.”
About six months later, he was asked to assume the role of CEO as the previous CEO had decided to leave the company. Krdzalic related it wasn’t an easy transition. “I can say this with all degree of confidence—I was not ready to be a CEO but I was willing to take on that challenge, knowing that if you fail at it, you are the first one out the door.”
Pushing himself, either professionally, physically or mentally is seemingly second nature to him.
“First of all, I am not talented enough to be an athlete in any other sport,” he jokes. “That goes without saying; I can’t juggle the ball or throw it well enough, but I am competitive ... bodybuilding came up right away for me. The sport is so much more a battle with yourself than it is with others.”
The battle is to be better than you were last time. Having won his class in his first bodybuilding competition, his friends were confused by his reaction to taking fifth in his second competition. When everyone believed he would be disappointed in this, his response is a telling indication of his current mindset.
“I said actually, I’m not. Because I looked better when I took fifth place than when I won first place. It’s just that the competition got better, so I guess I better improve too.”
That is the same message he relates to the team at BodyBuilding.com. You are on top when you are the only game in town. When the competition is weak, it’s easy to be strong. It is at this point that Jas hits his stride and anyone listening can see why he was chosen to lead BodyBuilding.com.
He knows how to motivate and does it well—even in an industry full of markedly motivated people.
“It’s never done. Fitness for me is a lifestyle. It’s not a destination; there is no end date. Just because I competed on a particular day, that doesn’t mean I stop being a bodybuilder after I win or not win a particular competition. You keep going forward because this is a lifestyle and a commitment to it. Having that passion for sport, for a lifestyle, allows me to have a very customer friendly mentality and customer first mentality.”
In a market that is under constant pressure from retail giants like Amazon, that community culture permeates BodyBuilding.com from the top down. “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” he says. “You can have the best-laid plans; if you don’t have the right culture to carry it, it won’t last.”
This is something he also advises for our TKE collegiate chapters, saying, “Talent trumps everything ... you can’t warm body Rush; it just doesn’t do anything for you. You are better off with 20 solid guys than 50 mediocre guys. It’s similar in a company like Bodybuilding.com or really any company I have ever worked in. Talent trumps everything. There is nothing that can substitute a talented person whose knowledge is influenced and shaped by their experience.”
From his customers to his employees, the culture of BodyBuilding.com shares similarities with the culture of TKE. For him, BodyBuilding.com isn’t just an ecommerce company. It’s about the community. He looks at commercial giants like Amazon and Walmart and doesn’t see competitors; he sees educators. They can teach BodyBuilding.com how to be a better online retailer; they may sell some of the same products, but he is more concerned with nurturing a community of like-minded people.
Jas will openly talk about any perceived rivalries, saying “The reality of it is the success of BodyBuilding.com and companies like us comes from providing experiential value to our customers,” attributing much of that success to being a part of the community themselves. Seventy-five percent of their employee base was first a customer of BodyBuilding.com—Jas himself included. And they are all deeply integrated into the fitness lifestyle.
“It’s not just about the exchange of dollars for products; it’s about keeping these people in the lifestyle because the lifestyle is going to be what’s going to change their life. It’s not going to be an individual serving of something ... we commit to changing lives and becoming our best selves.”
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Founded on January 10, 1899, Tau Kappa Epsilon is one of the largest collegiate men’s social fraternities in North America with over 296,000 initiated members and 220 active chapters. TKE’s mission is to aid men in their mental, moral and social development for life. With nearly 12,000 collegiate members, Tau Kappa Epsilon contributes to the advancement of society through the personal growth of our members, and service to others. TKE builds Better Men for a Better World.
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