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Blog: Five Management Lessons From Tony Soprano

By Jack Keough

James Gandolfini, the legendary actor who portrayed Tony Soprano, the mob boss on HBO’s television hit series “The Sopranos,” died June 19 of a heart attack. Gandolfini was only 51 years old. His excellent acting led to him capturing Emmy Awards, as well as awards from the Screen Actors Guild. It was a remarkable career for a guy from Jersey who started acting late in life and had a series of minor roles before being cast as Tony Soprano.

Tony Soprano was a complicated boss who was involved in murder, extortion and various other crimes, ruling his organization with an iron hand. But for some reason, Tony Soprano was a popular character.

Despite all his faults, there were several management lessons that can be learned from Tony Soprano. And, no, I am not equating running a distributorship with running a mob crew but some of Tony’s management’s philosophies can be applied to any business.

  1. Leadership. There was no doubt that Tony Soprano was in charge of his crew. He demanded loyalty-and earned it-from his cast of characters. Take this comment from Christopher, Tony’s nephew and a member of the Soprano crime family when talking about Tony: “I’d follow that man back to hell and back,” he told his fiancée. A true leader whether in business or otherwise instills leadership and direction for his crew, company or military unit.
  2. Decision making. Tony Soprano made decisions quickly and stuck to them. He thought things out, looked at the pros and cons of some of his potential decisions. When there was a problem with a crew member, for example, Tony met the problem head on. If you were to ask employees within a company what annoys them the most about their bosses, inevitably the answer is indecision. No one likes to wait in limbo before a decision is reached.
  3. Succession planning. When one of his captains died unexpectedly, Tony had a successor in place. And that successor did even better than he ever anticipated. One of the failures of management today is the inability to mentor and develop a management team. Many companies have had problems when the CEO or president leaves the company.
  4. Thinking one step ahead. In one episode, Tony loaned money to his best friend, Arnie, who owned a restaurant. His friend couldn’t pay it back on time. At one point, Arnie says to Tony: “You knew this was going to happen all along. You’re always thinking one step ahead of anyone else.” Arnie was right. Some managers today don’t think ahead but instead are focusing only on today. When is the last time you really set up a strategic plan for your company’s future? Should you add product lines? Expand geographically? Sell or merge your company? It’s so hard today just focusing on profitability you really don’t think where you want to be a few years from now.
  5. Know your competition. Tony knew who his competitors were and took steps to make sure they didn’t encroach into his territory. It’s no wonder that “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, written as a Chinese military strategy that can also be applied to any business, was Tony’s favorite book.

Now his approach was of course, different, than a distributor would take but the philosophy is the same. Today you no longer have your traditional competitor but new on-line rivals like amazonsupply.com and Google as well as national distributors.  Some of the mega distributors in the industry are venturing into areas they haven’t traditionally sold in.

How do you want to compete?
Should you develop an e-commerce program or just enhance your web site? Should you specialize and develop a specific niche? Know your strengths and weaknesses but also know your competitors. Tony knew who to align with and who to avoid. And he was rarely wrong.  Tony Soprano knew his business and where he wanted it to go in the future. It’s something every manager should focus on and not be content with the status quo.

James Gandolfini and the character he played, Tony Soprano, are unfortunately gone. But the memories of that show will continue to live on.

Jack Keough was the editor of Industrial Distribution magazine for more than 26 years. He often speaks at many industry events and seminars. He can be reached at john.keough@comcast.net or keoughbiz@gmail.com

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