Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

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…


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.

The Importance of Having a Mentor

mentorshipI’d like to share with you the most important thing I have learned so far in my life:

You become what you focus on and like the people you spend time with.

In other words, whatever you fill your mind with and whomever you choose to surround yourself with will in large part determine what your life will look like a decade from now. Given this, one of the best choices you can make is to find a mentor or mentors to help you move in the right direction. Here are a few suggestions to get the most from such a relationship.

1. A successful mentoring relationship is all about the transfer of knowledge. Just because someone is super nice or well-connected does not make them a good mentor. To make the most of this relationship, you need to decide what you really want to learn then find a mentor who has successfully achieved what you are trying to accomplish.

2. Create clear expectations for the mentoring engagement. What, specifically, do you want mentoring in? How often will you meet? How long will each meeting be? What will your role be as the mentee? It is important to establish agreed-upon ground rules to ensure that the relationship is productive and focused.

3. This is not a casual relationship or friendship – it is work. The key to a successful mentoring relationship is commitment from both the mentor and mentee. For example, I get asked to mentor dozens of people each year. Once I determine what they want mentoring in, I assign them three books and tell them that when they have completed the books I’ll take them to lunch to discuss the books in detail and begin the mentoring relationship. This reading expectation typically deters 95 percent of the people who approach me. They simply are not willing to commit the time to read the books, which tells me I should not commit the time to mentor them.

4. It’s good to have multiple mentors. Mentoring isn’t like dating; you won’t make a mentor jealous if you have several others. It is completely acceptable, even wise, to identify three or four areas of your life where you’d like some guidance and find a mentor for each. The only restriction on the number of mentors is your ability to commit the time and energy necessary to fully engage with each.

5. Mentoring is not a one-way street. Although the bulk of the knowledge transfer is from mentor to mentee, it is also incumbent upon the mentee to add as much value as possible to the mentor. The first and most important way to do this is to be a highly committed mentee, but it is also a great idea to bring your mentors books, articles, ideas and connections that will assist them in areas where they want to learn and grow.

6. Establish an end-date. A mentoring relationship is not supposed to last forever. Once you have learned just about everything your mentor can share, you can still be friends, but the official relationship needs to come to a close. That way, you can move on to a new mentor who can share new information with you and your former mentor can accept a new mentee. The best way I know to accomplish a graceful exit is to set up the relationship for a maximum of only two, six-month intervals. If, after the first six months you both feel there are still things to work on, you can go another six months, but at the one-year mark it is time to call it a day.

As I look back over my career, I can say with total confidence that I would not have accomplished even half of what I have without the guidance and support of several key mentors. I can also say that some of my greatest satisfaction has been in returning the favor by mentoring others.

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