Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

Four Great Questions About Leadership

A few weeks ago, a student named Joey Brodsky, who is studying business at the University of Florida and is taking a class from a close friend of mine, Dr. Alex Sevilla, sent me some questions about some of the things he was learning about management and leadership.  I thought the questions were excellent and that you might find my answers of some value.  Here is the conversation between myself and Joey.

 

Mr. Spence,

Currently I am taking a senior leadership course taught by Dr. Alex Sevilla here at the Heavener School of Business. We are working on both theoretical and application based leadership strategies, learning how to combine them with our skills to become better managers.

Some questions I have for you below are about how you implement specific leadership theories in your work (or don’t), experiences you have had being an influential leader from such a young age, and certain challenges you have faced overseeing and motivating individuals. My goal is to relate some of the topics I’ve learned in my course to real world experiences. I’ll keep them brief as I know your time is valuable, but any information you feel would be influential I would love to learn from!

Questions:

  1. One of the first topics we discussed in class was the differences between trait leadership and process leadership ideologies. Trait leadership having to do with personality traits that influence one’s skill of leadership and process leadership being more interaction based. Do you find leadership to be a more inherent quality to individuals, or would you say it has more to do with the way someone interacts with their ‘followers’?

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems that you are asking the age-old question, “Are leaders born or made?”  I believe that if someone has good values – they are honest, they act with integrity, they show respect, they have empathy and concern for others – I can send them to a class to learn most of the process skills they need to be a good leader. However, if someone lies, cheats, steals, manipulates and doesn’t care about others – there is no way they will ever become a truly effective leader.  

Also, there are many people that talk about extroverts versus introverts as leaders.  I have seen many leaders that are highly motivational and inspiring, that can get up in front of a group and move them to action – I’ve also seen many leaders that are quiet, humble and introspective. But they have a burning passion for what they are doing and that passion creates highly loyal followers.  

In my opinion, a leader must be superb at two skill sets: they must be absolutely excellent at what they do, their actual job description, and they have to have strong leadership skills.  

Lastly, remember that leadership is not only the purview of the people at the top of the organization, every person in an organization leads at some level.

  1. Another interesting concept we have learned is the difference between an assigned leader (a leader because of a formal position) and an emergent leader (a leader because of the way others respond to them). Being such a young CEO at 26 when working with the Rockefeller Foundation I would expect you were very influential among your peers and showcased your leadership earlier on. Can you tell me a little about how you leveraged your leadership skills as an emergent leader into a more formal leadership role so early in your career? What are some of the characteristics you displayed that you think helped you to stand out?

Almost immediately after joining the foundation I became the “right-hand man” to the CEO (not Mister Rockefeller, a professional manager who was running the company on his behalf).   I spent a lot of time watching him, learning what to do, and learning what NOT to do.  At this point in my career I was reading every single business book I could get my hands on and listening to 4-5 business books a week.   In a meeting with our Board of Directors, one of the key directors asked a question that the CEO could not answer – and then the director (a multibillionaire) turned to me and asked me if I knew the answer – which I did.   Then, the board started asking me for my opinion more often, and when the current CEO began to stumble, they put me in as an interim CEO – which eventually led to me becoming the permanent CEO.  

Very frankly, I was in no way ready to lead an organization at that age, I was woefully unprepared.  I realized that I could not be successful if my team was not successful.  For my part, I studied, read, worked and did everything I could to learn as much as I could about leadership and business success.  I tried to model the behavior of lifelong learning and always striving to do your best.  I also went to my team and asked for help and focused a great deal on empowerment.  In the early days, I was very immature as a leader, but as I faced more situations I slowly learned how to run the business and be a better leader to my team.

  1. One quote from Professor Sevilla that really resonated with me was “It’s not about you [the leader] . . . it’s about them [the followers].” He said if there were to be only one thing we take away from this class, let it be this statement. In your professional experience, how important has it been to focus more directly on the group and achieving common goals, rather than just using subordinates to achieve more personal objectives?

Dr. Sevilla is 1,000% right.  This is a concept known as servant leadership, where the leader understands that they are actually there to serve their employees.  As to your question about common goals or personal objectives – it’s not an Either/Or – it is a Both/And.  Everyone in the organization must be focused on the vision, strategy, and a set of common goals they are all aligned to as the do their work.  It is the job of the leader to ensure that they execute the strategy with discipline and continuously deliver superb business results.  ALSO, the leader needs to help each person grow as an individual and show them how their work directly ties into the success of the overall organization.  

  1. Over the last few decades you have become one of and got to work with many of the greatest business leaders in the world. I don’t expect there to be a catchall answer on how to become a powerful and respected leader in the business world, but what are some of the strongest traits or strategies you see these leaders (and yourself) using to motivate others? Are there some particular things you think are more important for a young leader, like myself, to help showcase my skills to companies?

Rather than give you just my opinion, here is a list of traits that have emerged from the thousands of leadership classes I’ve taught and the great leaders I have had the honor to spend time with.

Honesty – tell the truth all the time – period.  Another word here would be integrity.

Excellent communicator – asks great questions and is an intense listener.

The courage to be vulnerable, to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Another word here would be authentic.

Competence – you must be exceedingly good at what you do.  My favorite phrase in this area is, “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Great team player – treats their employees as partners and peers.  Shows them respect and gives them trust.

Compassionate – shows a genuine concern for their people and their personal and professional growth.

Visionary – has a vivid, compelling vision and strategy for growth that is well communicated across the entire organization.

Passionate – another word would be inspiring.

Innovative – a lifelong learner who is a good creative and strategic thinker.

 

Joey, I hope you found these answers helpful, let me know if you need any more information.

I wish you every possible happiness and success – John

The Single Most Important Leadership Characteristic

For more than 20 years I have taught leadership at startup companies to the Fortune 50 and the single most important trait for highly effective leaders has always been the exact same thing. I can show you dozens of major research studies from around the world, representing millions of respondents, and they all say the exact same thing. When I teach classes on leadership and ask the attendees what they look for in a leader they would willingly follow, it’s always the exact same thing…

HONESTY

However, it is getting harder and harder for people to believe this.  In nearly every arena; business, politics, religion, science, education…there are “leaders” who have no problem lying. I’m not talking about small mistruths, or perhaps twisting the facts a little bit, I’m talking about boldface, in-your-face, complete and utter lies. So-called “leaders” who can look you straight in the eye and tell you something that they know is absolutely false.

I am NOT taking any sides here. Every side of everything now has people who seem to have no regard for the truth and are willing to say anything, no matter how outlandish, to advance their position. When I open the floor for questions at my events, inevitably someone will ask, “If telling the truth is so important, then why do we have so many leaders who don’t?” My response: “I don’t know. It does not make any sense to me. I would not consider those people leaders; however, they are in leadership positions. I don’t understand how people like that rise to the top positions in organizations. It drives me crazy.”

The Death of Honesty?

I refuse to believe that we have come to a place in society where lying is an acceptable, even expected, behavior. I’m at the point where I question the validity everything I hear and read and that is painful and frustrating. It makes me physically tired to listen to the news and hear the constant stream of stories about “leaders” who have been lying, cheating, stealing, killing… and mostly getting away with it. I cannot fathom the damage this has done to our society and the example it is setting for our youth. It terrifies me to think about a generation of young people who have been raised watching authority figures lie, and then lie about their lies.

But I believe there is a solution and it starts with you and me.

Now more than ever I feel that it is essential to be a living example of honesty and integrity. It is only through modeling these behaviors, in even the most challenging situations, that we can demonstrate that character, authenticity and truth telling are truly the most essential characteristics of leadership. We need to make more of an effort to highlight and showcase successful leaders who build great companies on a foundation of honesty, fairness respect and generosity. We also need to call out “leaders” when they are dishonest, when they mislead us, and hold them accountable for their destructive actions and behaviors.

This will not be easy. There is a tsunami of misinformation, lies, fake news and manipulation coming from all directions. Again, I am not taking any sides here, I am simply saying that it is up to you and me to hold ourselves to the highest standard of honesty and integrity in our personal and business lives. I will end with one of my favorite value statements, from one of the greatest leadership institutions in the world, West Point.

“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

Sounds like a good plan to me.

 

For more of John’s ideas on leadership here is a link to his book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do I Really Need To Say Anything?

I have started a new practice that has made a huge positive impact on my life. As a consultant, I’ve always known that my job was to ask good questions and listen intensely. However, in my personal life I will often give my feedback, opinions, ideas, suggestions and direction without even being asked for it! Because I realized this wasn’t exactly a positive trait, during the last few months I have focused on asking myself a few questions before I open my mouth.

  • Do I really need to say anything right now?
  • Is what I’m going to say adding any significant value to the conversation?
  • Is what I want to say helpful or am I just trying to talk about me?
  • Do they want my advice or simply for me to listen to them?

Just taking a moment to pause and ask myself these questions has totally changed the way I approach conversations with my family, friends and colleagues. I have found that in the past I would often say things that were not relevant, did not help the conversation move forward in a positive direction or were simply an effort for me to impose my thoughts and values on someone else. Carefully thinking about what I am planning to say, before I say it, has cut my comments by 80%. I talk a lot less, listen more, and end up having much better and more satisfying conversations for myself and others.

So to finish, rather than telling you what to do let me ask you a question; Do you think it would be helpful to ask yourself these questions before you start talking?

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The Qualities of a Good Manager: How to Make Your Managers Easier to Lead

African-American businesswoman standing with arms crossed while others walk by.

A while back, I had the chance to talk with one of my clients in California, the COO of a Fortune 500 firm who has engaged me in the past to coach several of his senior leaders. I was working with a handful of divisional CEOs who were each running a $200-600 million enterprise. During our talk, the COO said something that really struck home for me, and it gave me a super clear idea of what he wanted me to do for him. He said, “John, these are absolutely fantastic guys, but they can be tough to manage. Please help me make them easier to manage.”

That statement right there gets right down to the heart of why I am typically called in to coach someone. The executives I coach are always bright, talented, bold, creative, entrepreneurial, and driven: all of which are truly valuable traits. However, when taken to the extreme, these same traits can make these sorts of folks very hard to manage and direct. What’s more, if they cannot learn how to control their behavior and fit more comfortably into a senior role, then the very things that made them successful up to this point in their career can actually lead to their demise.

Therefore, in order to educate and encourage your managers to actually be more manageable themselves, share with them this advice that I have heard numerous leaders tell their key managers throughout my years of real life experience. Listening to these leaders has led me to make this list of the qualities of a good manager, and if your managers can apply these qualities to their own business ventures, then you will have a much easier time leading them and working with them to achieve outstanding business results.

The Qualities of a Good Manager

  1. Good managers know and run their businesses incredibly well. It is the responsibility of a good manager to make their numbers and keep their customers happy. If you cannot successfully run the business you are in charge of, then in the end, nothing else matters. Therefore, the number one priority for good managers is always to run a smooth, flawless operation that has a solid strategy and strongly contributes to the corporation.
  2. Good managers don’t do surprises. Good managers never surprise their leaders because they know that their leaders expect them to report major concerns right away rather than try to handle them until the problems exceed their abilities. Leaders want their managers to be capable of handling most of their business issues on their own, but they also want their managers to be straightforward with them and keep them informed. Chief officers cannot help their managers if they do not know what is going on, and when managers try to hide bad news, their deception will only hurt the company more in the end. Therefore, good managers demonstrate courageous communication and 100% honesty. Their leaders have to be able to trust them completely, so good managers tell their leaders everything that is important: the good and the bad.
  3. Good managers are able give and take frank feedback. Chief officers and their managers can be friends and should feel a great deal of respect for each other, but in order to do business well, they must also be able to exchange direct feedback. Leaders may even have to give uncomfortable feedback or make hard decisions that negatively affect the business efforts of their managers, but a good manager will not take this type of development personally. Instead, they will understand that it is what is best for the entire company and work hard to deal with it effectively. Conversely, good managers are also prepared to respectfully correct their leaders when their leaders may have made a mistake or overlooked something. Good managers can deliver tough news to their leaders without fear of retribution because frank feedback is a two-way street.
  4. Good managers surround themselves with the best people they can possibly find. Not only is this a solid strategy for business success, but it is also a critical part of business survival. Good managers know that they endanger the entire company if they believe that they are the smartest people in their divisions and the only ones who can do something in order for it to be done right. Therefore, good managers establish a deep bench of extremely talented people in order to help them succeed and ensure a smooth succession should it be necessary for someone else to step into their role. Always having to be the hero is not an effective, lasting tactic and will eventually lead to burnout, stress, and failure. Therefore, good managers humble themselves by working with others and considering them the best as well.
  5. Good managers know that a high IQ is not enough: a high EQ is also essential. When managers build a team of superstars, they have to be absolutely superb at motivating and supporting their team. Therefore, they never attempt leadership through intimidation, bullying, threats, or pressure because they know that this type of leadership will never win in the long run. Through bad leadership, managers might be able to make their numbers and grind out profit for a while, but in time, they will lose the support and trust of their employees. It is clear that people never give their best when they feel like they are getting beat up. Therefore, good managers build a world-class team and then coach, direct, and motive them in order to secure world-class performances. They take care of their team, and then they reap the many benefits this more considerate approach to leadership yields.
  6. Good managers are able to make tough decisions in a timely manner. As a business grows, so do the size of the decisions that need to be made. So, in order to adjust, good managers get a good team behind them that will be brutally honest. Good managers then ask their team for lots of help and use their team’s suggestions to make the best decision possible with the information at hand. Good managers know not to slow down the process with indecision. Instead, they work with others to reach their goals by being fast, flat, and flexible.
  7. Good managers think and act strategically. Firefighting your problems, even if you are great at it, is not the way to run a business. In contrast, good managers put out the fires and keep them out so that they have the time to think long-term. Good managers have a good handle on where they and their business should be in three to five years: they are not simply struggling to make budget this quarter.

The Qualities of a Good List

As you can see, good managers possess a lot of great qualities, and these qualities make them the types of managers that their leaders find very easy to lead. I have compiled this list from the statements that I have heard repeatedly from the top executives that I work with, but as I am sure that I have missed a few, please feel free to add to my list in the comments below, and use whatever ideas you found helpful from this blog to make your managers easier to lead!

How to Build a Personal Advisory Board

mentor advisor, mastermind business successI received an email this morning from a colleague who was asking about how to expand their network and specifically how to create an “Advisory Board,” of key individuals with specific expertise that could help him be more successful in his career. I get a lot of inquiries about this subject so I thought I would give you some brief advice about how to at least get this process started.

Step One: Determine exactly what you are interested in learning about. It does you no good to simply connect with people hoping that they might be able to add value to you, so it is important that you take the time to sit down and think through the skills, capabilities, information and expertise you hope to gain through your advisory board.

Step Two: Once you have a very clear idea of exactly the kind of person you want to meet, send a clear and focused note to everyone in your current network asking them if they know anyone who possesses the skills and experience you are looking to learn about and might be willing to assist you as a mentor or on your Board of Advisors (Basically a group of mentors).

Step Three: When one of your current contacts identifies a potential advisor, do as much homework as you possibly can on that person before you get introduced to them. Google them, check their LinkedIn profile, see if they have a Facebook profile, ask your contact for any and all information that they will share with you – before they make the introduction. And then create a very clear and specific outline of what you hope to learn from this person so that your contact can make a solid and compelling introduction on your behalf.

Step Four: Once the introduction is made be extremely respectful, do not waste one minute of their time, explain exactly what you’re hoping to achieve, and then ask them what they are interested in learning more about so that you can work as hard as you possibly can to help them gain new information and ideas that would be of value to their personal and/or professional growth. Remember, for a networking or advisory relationship to be successful you must give as much or more value back to the person who is advising you as they are offering to you. You have to make a significant effort to constantly be on the lookout for ways that you can help them, bring them new ideas/information and introduce them to other people that they might find value.

Step Five: Once you create a solid advisory/mentoring relationship with this new contact, and you feel comfortable that you have gotten to know each other fairly well, ask them if they would introduce you to three people they feel would also add a lot of value to your growth and who would enjoy spending time with you and find value in the kind of information you would bring to them.

Step Six: With each of these new contacts go back to step three and repeat the process over and over again. If you do this diligently, and always strive to add as much value as you possibly can back to your mentor/advisor, you will look up in a few years and your network will have grown exponentially and you will have a handful of very key advisors who could literally change the trajectory of your career and life!

I hope you found this helpful, and if you did please share it with everyone in your network.

Thanks so much – John

How To Be A Great Mentor / Mentee


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Advice On How To Ace a Job Interview

shutterstock_727943I just received this email from a good friend asking for my best advice on how one of his friends should prepare so that she could nail her interview for her dream job. Here is what I sent back to him…

 

I wanted to reach out to you to see if you could provide any insight and/or advice for me in regards to a very good friend of mine and her current professional situation. My friend was referred by a well-respected colleague for a coveted role at the local office of a Fortune 500 company. The role is a Sr. VP and she is awaiting her 3rd interview; the 1st was a phone interview w/ Corp HR, 2nd was in person w/ hiring manager and the 3rd will be a panel interview w/ hiring manager/Local Market Manager and 1 other. We are currently doing research in hopes of giving her the best possible chance of landing her dream job. Do you have any recommendations, insights and/or resources you can pass along that might help us with this process?

It sounds like you are doing a lot of things right. Here are just a few ideas for your friend…

1. Create a very thoughtful list of key questions to ask the interviewers. These should focus on job duties, culture, career path, opportunity for learning and professional growth, opportunity to contribute to the company in a meaningful way. Ask questions that demonstrate drive, proactivity, an “ownership mentality,” professional focus, desire to make a positive contribution, desire to collaborate and work with others.

2. You are already doing this… but be extremely well-prepared and researched for the meeting – know everything you possibly can about the company – think of it as a final exam where your entire grade is at stake and study appropriately. You should strive to know as much or more about the company as the people interviewing you!

3. Write a proposal.  After you do all of your research, write a proposal or outline of places where your you feel like you could add value. What ideas can you offer already, what key questions would you ask once you got the job – give them an example of your expertise, experience and thought process. Add in data, charts, examples, benchmarking ideas – anything to show that you have given the position and the company a lot of thought.

4. Be 100% yourself – do not hold back or act differently than you would if you worked there. Act exactly the way that makes you comfortable – because, if you act differently than you really are in the interview and they hire you for how you are in the interview – you may not fit in once you act completely yourself at work.

5. When I used to interview people for senior positions I would ask them only ONE major question: “Please take the next 30 minutes and tell me everything you know about our company, our top three competitors and where you see our industry in five years.” If they could not talk intelligently for at least 20 minutes, the interview was over. So, how would you answer this question about the company you are about to interview with?

That is all I can think of for now, hope you found this helpful.

*** I welcome and encourage my blog readers to add your best advice and share this blog widely so others can offer even more ideas!  Thanks — John

The Secret to Success

I was extremely honored to be one of 12 speakers asked to present at the recent Fresh SparkreThink: Success” event. It was an entire day dedicated to the topic of how to achieve success in business and life. My good friend Kristen Hadeed and her entire team were awesome, and were kind enough to ask me to do the opening speech of the day to kick things off. I hope you will take the time to watch this video, it’s about 22 minutes long, but I honestly believe there’s some really good information here that I hope you will want to pass along to many of your friends, family and colleagues.