Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

A Storm Is Brewing

Mountainous road with clouds aheadIn December 2007 when the great recession started, I was working with several companies across a myriad of industries, and I spent a lot of time strategizing with CEOs about how to successfully survive that global financial crisis. Although each company was unique in the specific strategy we developed, as I look back, I can see a pattern of five key things that I counseled all of the organizations to focus on.

1. Be so good they can’t ignore you

A) Deliver the best product/service you have in the history of your company. You still need to do some level of advertising, but the most potent opportunity to retain and grow your customer base will be through referrals, so you must be so incredibly good at every level that people enthusiastically recommend you to new potential customers.

B) Get closer to your best customers than you ever have before. Identify your top customers and invest heavily in strengthening your relationships, understanding them at a deeper level, and turning them into wildly loyal evangelists for your business.

C) Retain and grow your best employees. It is impossible to do the two things above without an amazing team. Identify your top performers, invest in them heavily, get closer to them than you’ve ever been before and turn them into wildly loyal evangelists for your customers!

2. Have a very focused strategy

Ensure that you have a clear, compelling, and well-communicated strategy for how to successfully navigate a challenging marketplace. Your current strategic plan might need to be adjusted, even significantly altered, if there would likely be a significant negative impact on your industry. You will also have to shorten your planning timeframe to be nimble and adjust quickly as a wave of changes impacts your organization. Once you have that plan, overcommunicate it consistently so that everyone is fully aligned and understands their role in keeping the business moving forward.

3. Execution is everything

During a rough patch, you must have high levels of accountability and disciplined execution. I just mentioned that you need to have a focused strategy, but that strategy is useless if you don’t execute it effectively. You have to make your numbers, meet your deadlines, increase quality, decrease waste, increase efficiency, increase customer satisfaction, increase employee engagement, and become more innovative all at the same time. The only way to achieve this monumental challenge is to create a culture of accountability that has a fanatical focus on execution.

4. Be honest and transparent

When employees see an organization struggling, they fear the worst, and nobody does excellent work when they’re feeling scared. Share as much information as you can with your team, be open and honest, share the good, the bad and the ugly. The only people that will allow your company to survive, even grow, during a severe recession are your employees, so give them enough information to understand what’s going on and help you keep the business on solid footing.

5. Create a contingency plan

Before it gets too stressful, create a thoughtful plan of action for what to do if things start to get bad. A strategy is simply the allocation of scarce resources, and during a recession, you’re going to have to allocate your dwindling resources even more strategically. Before your judgment is clouded by fear and worry, decide what you will cut and in what stages. Then create a series of red flags that determine when you begin to implement the different elements in your contingency plan.

As I am writing this note, there is a hurricane headed for Florida, where I live. A few weeks ago, it was a tropical depression off the East Coast of Venezuela, and I did not know it even existed. About a week ago it became a tropical storm headed towards Puerto Rico, and we were worried about them, but not about us. Today it is on track to hit Florida as a category four hurricane with winds in excess of 130 mph, and I spent the afternoon filling up my truck with gas, buying supplies and making sure the generator at my house works. I don’t know if it will hit us, but I know that if it does I am fully prepared.

Right now I think it’s the same with the economy. There is a storm brewing, possibly a severe hurricane and it is only a matter of when and where it hits. I am currently working with CEOs around the world, and every one of them is nervous, they feel the winds growing. I have counseled all of them, like I am counseling you, to start getting prepared for the storm now before it is too late.

Be safe, it’s going to get nasty out there – John

** Please let me know if there is any way that I can help you and your team.

How to Hire Right

Two professionals shaking hands at a tableThis is a note I sent to the CEO of a small company with about a dozen employees. He had just lost one of his key players and was looking to hire someone to replace her, and add a new salesperson, so I sent him this note to give him my best advice on how to make sure that he hired the right person. Give it a read for my best advice on navigating the hiring process as well as a few actionable steps you can take immediately.

Scott, making the decision to bring in a new person onto the team in your company is an extremely important decision, especially with such a small team. Done correctly, the new hire could potentially bring in significant additional revenues, new customers, new partnerships and innovative new ideas that can help make your company much more successful. Done poorly, hiring the wrong person can be an extremely expensive mistake that could set you back months and potentially do long-term damage within your team and with your customers. Therefore, I’d like to give you a little bit of advice on what I feel are some essential ideas and tools around hiring right.

The first thing I’d like to share with you is that for your type of business, the quality of the people that you get and keep on your team will be the single most important factor in determining the long-term success of your business. There’s an old cliché that says that people are your most important asset, but that’s wrong. Your best people are your most important asset; your worst people are your biggest liability, so you need to be very careful and effective in how you go about hiring new employees.

Whenever I counsel a business owner about the hiring process, here are a few things that I strongly recommend they do:

Create a very specific list of the attributes, skills, talents and attitude you are looking for in the new hire. Make this list before you interview, attached to, emotionally connected to, or invested in any candidate. Write down the short list of things that the employee you are going to hire MUST possess. These are non-negotiable; it doesn’t matter how much you like the person, how cool you think they are, how great they seem … this is the short list of key skills/attributes that anyone who fills the job absolutely must demonstrate—PERIOD! Next, list several things that would be “nice to have:” items that are above and beyond the core but might be a bonus to your business. Lastly, jot down a few things that would be super nice to have but are totally icing on the cake. Now, when you interview someone, if they do not have everything on the list of key elements—do not hire them. Actually, I think it’s a good idea if you put a point scale next to each of the items, such as 10 points for all of the “must haves,” 5 points for the “nice to haves,” and 3 points for the “really super nifty to have.” Then, create a baseline score and if the person doesn’t score at least, let’s say a 70, on a 100-point scale—they do not come back for a second interview. I see a lot of business owners that meet a potential candidate, sort of click with them, really like them, and then overlook the fact that the person does not have even the most basic skills necessary to be highly successful at the position they are trying to fill. I do not want you to make that mistake, so creating this scorecard is a clear, specific and objective way to help hold yourself accountable for only hiring people that are truly qualified. The goal is to hire really great people that you like a lot, and who also have at least a minimum score of 70.

Read some books or get some training on interviewing techniques (my favorite book on this topic is, Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street). Most of the businesspeople I’ve come across are pathetic at doing a thorough job of asking superb interviewing questions and knowing what to look for in a candidate. The list you have created in step one will help you form an agenda for asking questions, but the key here is for the candidate to spend 90% of the time talking while the interviewer is taking exceedingly good notes, watching body language, and asking additional probing questions. Unfortunately, this is almost the exact opposite of the way most interviews go, with the business owner going on and on about how great their company is, how great their culture is, how great their products are… and not asking any focused questions that would truly let them understand whether the candidate is the right person for the job they’re trying to fill. Again, I don’t want you to make that mistake, so have a long list of excellent questions prepared before the candidate is sitting in front of you, and then use that list to guide the entire interviewing process.

I’m also a big fan of team interviewing, getting a candidate who has made it past the first round to spend some time with the people they will work for, the people that they will work with, and the people that will work for them—so you can get feedback from everyone on how they feel the candidate would fit into the culture. Important: Anyone who interviews them should have some level of training on how to conduct a professional interview. You want to make sure that they ask good questions, the right questions and nothing that would get your company into trouble.

I also think it’s a good idea to get them to take a few tests, possibly a skills test and a personality test like the Myers-Briggs or DISC profile to make sure that they truly do possess the skills they are advertising and that they will likely be a good fit for your culture. In addition, call every single reference and ask them a few questions about the candidate so you can get some additional feedback. Again, this is where some good interviewing training will come in handy, because there is an art to asking the right sort of questions to references, who are often reluctant to be totally honest about any negative issues with a candidate. If it is a senior position, I encourage you to do a great deal of due diligence, call every reference, call their former employers and get as much information as you possibly can about the candidate before you hire them. Hiring the right person for a key executive position can make a major positive impact on your business; hiring the wrong person can land you in bankruptcy court.

A few years ago, I attended a conference of 400+ CEOs on hiring, retaining, and growing top talent. After we came together, dozens of workshops, panel discussions and lots of dialogue, this esteemed group of senior leaders came up with two key ideas on hiring:

  1. Hire for attitude and aptitude—train for skills. As long as the person has the “must-have” skills for the job that you created in your list, and they show the ability to learn, always hire the person with best attitude. If someone has all the skills and a bad attitude, there is no book you can give them, no class you can send them to, no seminar they can attend that will turn a person who has a bad attitude into a positive and productive employee.
  2. Hire slow—fire fast. Even if you are in emergency mode and desperately need someone to fill a gap in your business, I urge you to take the time to find the right person and not just hire the first person that walks in the door (unless they truly are a great fit). Employee turnover is expensive. By the time you bring someone on board, train them up, fill out all the paperwork and get them in your system, you have invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, resources and money—if you have to terminate them, or they quit within a few weeks or months, it’s costly all the way around.

One last thing: a strategy I used when hiring key people for one of my businesses. When they’ve gone through all the steps above, the team loves them, the tests were all great and the references all checked out, I would tell the person that they were the candidate we wanted to hire, and I would give them the job offer with salary, benefits, vacation and everything else included in the position. However, I would tell them that they could not accept on the spot; they needed to go home and think about it, to talk to their husband, wife, or best friend. And then I would tell them this before they left my office: “Do not take this job if it is only about the money, the benefits and vacation—because I will figure that out very quickly and I will fire you as fast as I possibly can. On the other hand, if you love what our company stands for, if you think this is a great culture that you would fit into well, if you like the other people you’ve met and you’re truly excited about our products and services—then please take this job as it might be the last job you ever take and you will retire from here. But I’m deadly serious: If it’s just about having a “job” do not accept this offer because you will NOT last long.” Amazingly, after going through all the interviewing, passing all the tests, getting great reviews from all the references… 70% of the people did not accept the job. They were not really committed and were not truly excited; they were not honestly passionate about our business—they just wanted a job and could not make the commitment I was looking for. When I told one CEO about this practice of mine, he said to me, “It sounds like you’re running a cult.” After thinking about it for a minute or two I replied to him, “Yes, I am … it’s a cult of excellence … do you have a problem with that?” He quickly answered, “Nope, not at all—just checking!”

Scott, you have a great company with a fantastic culture, and anyone would be lucky to work with you and your team. I’m sure you’ll get plenty of people that apply for these jobs, but take your time, use the list, do the tests, do the team interviewing, check all the references—and only hire somebody who meets or exceeds all of the criteria you have laid out. Following all of these suggestions is time consuming, I fully admit that, but it is worth every single minute of it—I guarantee.

I hope you found this helpful, my friend. I wish you every possible success in bringing some superstars onto your team. Take good care – John

Hiring the right people is never easy, but with these actionable steps I hope that you can navigate the process. I hope you can take the following key steps back to your team to drastically improve the hiring process:

  • Create a skill scorecard with “must-have” skills earning 10 points, 5 points for “nice to have,” and 3 points for “really super nifty to have.” Only candidates that earn a score of at least 70 get a second interview and the rest are tossed.
  • Train a group of team members to be able to properly work through the interview questions with right questions.
  • Utilize all your resources like employer references, personality tests, and even your own employees to evaluate if they would fit into the culture of the company.
  • Ensure that your candidates desire the job for the commitment of the company and its growth, not just the money.

Best of luck in your hiring journey. – John

My Best Advice On Strategic Planning

For almost three decades, I have served as a business coach to executives around the world in companies of every type and size. It’s one of the favorite parts of my job because our work together can have such an immediate and dramatically positive impact on their organization. However, I have a somewhat different approach to coaching and see it as a process of learning together with my clients and rather than telling them what to do—as many coaches/consultants do—I serve as what I call a “Learning Partner,” where we work through issues together. As part of that process, when they are facing a challenge they want my help with, I start by writing a memo with all of my thoughts on that specific area to then use that memo as a foundation for our discussions. Over the next several weeks, I’m going to post actual memos that I have sent to my coaching clients in hopes that you might find the ideas I shared with them helpful to you and your business.

Below is a note I put together for a client I have been working with for many, many years. It’s a $50 million-plus company that is extremely well run and has recently acquired two new businesses. The challenge was to develop an overall strategy that would encompass the core business and these new additions, and I wanted to assist their senior managers in being successful in creating that strategy.

Bill and Brian, we have discussed that you are getting ready to go into another round of strategic planning, which will include two new businesses you’re taking control of, so I thought I’d send along some ideas to help you have the most successful planning retreats you possibly can. As you know, I have been a guest lecturer at the Wharton School of Business for the last 12 years, delivering a class on strategy and strategic thinking at the Securities Industry Institute, and also led well over 100 strategic planning retreats, so this is a subject I’ve given a great deal of thought and study to. Having said that, here are some of my key ideas around strategy, strategic thinking, and strategic planning.

I can boil my entire Wharton class down to one key sentence:

Successful Strategy = Valued Differentiation x Effective Execution

This equation is deceptively simple and extremely powerful. Let me take a moment to explain it more fully.

In order to build a winning strategy, you must bring something to the marketplace that is…

  1. Unique and compelling
  2. That your target customer sees great value in and is willing to pay any reasonable price that you ask
  3. Is difficult or impossible for your competition to copy
  4. You can consistently deliver it superbly

Another key idea around being a great strategic thinker/strategic planner is understanding that unless the ideas and information you put into the strategic planning process are of value, then you can do the “process” extremely well and still come out with a flawed plan.

People often get wrapped up in the SWOT analysis, value chain analysis, branding and positioning strategies, customer analytics and all sorts of very important processes. However, if you don’t put good strategic thinking in at the beginning of the process, you can go through all these wonderful tools and still develop a plan that will run your company into the ground. So it’s critical that the people involved in strategic planning within your organization are investing the necessary time to build a solid foundation of business acumen, great ideas, innovations, new and creative ways of looking at things so that they bring superb information into the process. There’s an old computer term that summarizes this perfectly: GI = GO (garbage in = garbage out).

Several years ago, I was asked to deliver a workshop on leadership and strategy at Cornell, and in an effort to up my game and try to bring some new information to the table, I really went back and did a deep dive around the topic of strategic thinking. During this effort, I had an epiphany of sorts when I realized that one of the most important things a great strategic thinker/leader does is figuring out when to say “no.”

All strategy is the allocation of limited resources into the areas that create the most leverage for the organization.

What strategies will we not pursue, what products will we not develop, where are areas we will stop investing, what parts of the business are no longer working? These are really tough questions, and many business leaders are afraid to ask them. But great strategic thinkers/leaders understand that they are the ones that must have the courage to figure out what the company will no longer do, directions it will not go in, areas will not compete.

One of the biggest challenges with this is getting over the realization that sometimes you’ve got significant sunk costs into a product or project and see that it is no longer viable, but can’t bring yourself to walk away from the money you have already spent. This leads to many companies to throwing good money at bad initiatives, only digging a bigger hole when the answer was clearly to say “no” and have the courage to walk away.

Now let’s take a look at some of the tactical elements of effective strategic planning.
  1. Be exceedingly well prepared and do your homework – I have been in far too many strategic planning retreats where people are just “guessing” at critical information that will have a major impact on the success of the plan. Make sure that the data you use to build your strategic plan is recent, real and reliable.
  2. Have a very clear goal – Know exactly what outcome you want before you go into the strategic planning retreat. These things can get ugly fast, they can get off track quickly, so build a very explicit set of expectations about what outcomes you want and then follow that agenda with discipline.
  3. Don’t waste time – If you bring a bunch of talented people together and spend the day putting sticky notes all over the wall, what are you achieving? It is my strong recommendation that you do the SWOT analysis and a lot of other analysis BEFORE the planning retreat. I typically send out an electronic SWOT analysis survey a few weeks before any planning retreat, and then compile all the information into an “Executive Report.” Instead of spending several hours doing a big group SWOT analysis, I simply hand out the report, break people into small teams and ask each team to list what they feel are the five most important internal strengths, internal weaknesses, external opportunities and external threats from what they read in their reports. This allows us to gain consensus very quickly and get moving on to the more important part of the retreat, which is setting strategy.
  4. Follow your strategic objectives – To me, if you’re going to gather a group of your high-level people for a day or two to create an updated or new strategic plan, the main outcome of that meeting should be a handful of very focused and clear strategic objectives with some recommended metrics/measurements under each that would determine if you had successfully met the objective. I then take that list of key strategic objectives and recommended metrics and give it to the people that will be held accountable for actually implementing it and ask them to create detailed and specific tactical plans that they feel will allow them to reach the objectives and meet the metrics required. This way the people who are closest to the real work are the ones creating the tactical plan of how they will reach the goals that have been sent to them, rather than having some unreasonable plan handed down from on high.
  5. Make sure to execute – It is also my very strong belief that you should spend at least an equal amount of time working on a “strategic execution plan” as you do on creating the actual strategic plan. I cannot count the number of times I have been at a strategic planning retreat where we spend two or three days coming up with some bold, innovative, highly creative strategy that never gets put into action. Every year I get 100 and 120 senior executives in my class at Wharton and I ask “What percentage of companies that have a good plan, that know how to win in the marketplace, that have a truly great strategy … effectively execute that strategy?” The answer for the last 17 years has been: 10% to 15%. Think of the amazing amount of money left on the table, of all the wasted time and energy to put together a really good plan and only execute 10% of it. If you’re going to be great strategist you absolutely have to become superb at strategic execution.
  6. Consolidate your strategy – People ask me, “How do you make the strategy into a living document?” Here’s what I’ve done in all the companies that I have run. I try as hard as I can to get the entire strategy down to 10 pages or less (Many companies I work with now try to get it down to a single page). I then put that it into a handbook (we called it the Red Book at the Rockefeller foundation I ran because we bound it with a red cover) and I would tell everyone to bring the Red Book to any meeting where we were going to make strategic decisions. I would also tell them that if they came up against a decision and they weren’t quite sure what to do, open the Red Book and take a look in there, and if it matched the strategy it was probably a great idea; if it did not, it was probably a good idea to get some feedback and input before they went forward.
  7. Make your team accountable – Another big factor in being able to effectively execute strategy is to create a strong culture of accountability for people consistently deliver the required business results. It’s also important to note that there is no such thing as “group accountability,” there is only individual accountability which then contributes to a high level of accountability across the entire organization.

This is not everything I know about strategic thinking and strategic planning, but I believe if you keep these key things in mind you will alleviate a lot of pain, stress, and wasted time and effort. I hope you found these ideas helpful; as always, if you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to send me a note. I’m here to assist you in any way I’m able. Good luck – John

A Midyear Checkup: 2019 Trends

Neon sign with an arrow upward saying "go up and never stop."At the beginning of the year, a client asked me to put together this video on the main things I learned in 2018.  I had worked on a myriad of projects from delivering dozens of keynotes and workshops to several strategic planning retreats and a lot of executive coaching. As I looked back on all of these, I saw five major trends that I challenged all of you to focus on for 2019.

While hard to believe, here we are halfway through 2019. I thought now would be a great time to check in to see how everyone is tackling my challenges and share some of the things I am seeing right now in the marketplace. I encourage you to take eight minutes and 26 seconds to watch the video, then below it, I have posted some ideas and anecdotes that I believe will help you for the rest of this year.

Five Key Ideas for 2019


The first idea I talk about in the video is that “Culture = Cash,” and that has really come into sharp focus in the last six months. I am coaching two executives, one in the financial industry and the other in the medical industry, and we’ve been working on improving the culture in their organizations. Both of them have identified their organizational culture as one of their only sustainable competitive advantages (along with top talent, customer relationships, strong brand, and proprietary data) and are now focusing on culture as a major strategy for the long-term success of their organizations.


Number two on my list is the idea of servant leadership, which is becoming more and more important as the year progresses. I just did a TEDx talk on The Leader of the Future where I talked about this concept and underscored the importance of having a high emotional quotient (EQ) and creating a genuine connection with the people in your organization. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough leaders who are deeply dedicated to truly serving their employees.


Wow, it’s amazing how much people talk about the importance of great customer service and how few businesses actually deliver it consistently (number three). I see this as a massive opportunity to stand out in a crowded marketplace. In the video, I mentioned the Ritz Carlton as a great example of superior customer service and one of the founders of the company, Horst Schulze, recently wrote a book called Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise that is absolutely fantastic. So many great stories, ideas, and tools for taking customer service to a completely new level, I highly recommend you read the book.


The fourth thing I mention is accountability. This is one of the biggest issues I’ve seen at companies across my entire career (the other big ones are poor communication and dysfunctional senior leadership teams). The only thing I will reiterate here is that it is essential you establish very clear expectations of what you are going to hold someone accountable to, without doing that you have set the person up for failure.


Finally, I touched on disciplined execution, which I view as a subset of accountability – if people are not held accountable, there is no way to execute effectively on your strategy. The point I’d like to make on this one is to make sure you remain focused, you should only have 3 to 5 major strategic objectives and only a handful of leading indicator KPIs that you use to manage your business. Remember, just because you can measure something doesn’t mean you should and just because something is hard to measure doesn’t mean you get to skip it. Pick the major numbers that drive the success of your organization and focus on them intently.

Two Bonus Ideas

In the video, I outlined the five above areas for you to focus on in 2019, and at the halfway mark they are still 100% on point. However, I wanted to add two more that I have seen emerge as areas for the remainder of the year.


Three of the executives I am coaching have asked me to help them become better strategic thinkers and it has been an absolute blast to work with them on this topic. I believe there are two reasons they are struggling.

  1. They do not truly understand what strategy is and how to apply high-level strategic thinking to their businesses.
  2. They are not looking closely enough at the major trends that would impact their industries over the next few years.

Strategic planning and thinking have different approaches, something that not many executives understand. By having these executives make their own “philosophy of strategy,” they create a philosophy that they can see strategy in a completely new light and gives them the unique perspective they needed.


In the TEDx talk I reference above, I talk about how important it is to have a high AQ, which is your adaptability quotient, your ability to be agile and move quickly in a fast-changing business environment. Last week, I delivered a workshop for a large pharmaceutical company when one of the attendees asked me, ” How do you develop your AQ?” Rather than just explaining it, I decided to give her an example and asked everyone in the room to write down the major trends they thought would be impacting their industry over the next five years.

From there, we worked together as a group to agree on the top three. After we had reached consensus, I then turned the audience and said, “Who in here can come to the front of the room and give us at least 15 minutes of data and ideas about specifically what’s going to happen in these three areas and how your company and each of you should be prepared to meet those challenges successfully?” Not a single person could do it. I then told them that someone with a high AQ would be able to get up and speak for an hour.

So my question to you, what are the top three trends that have will impact your business and your career over the next five years and could you easily talk for 30 minutes or more explaining exactly what your plan is to take on those challenges? If not, you have some work to do.

Make 2019 Your Best Year Yet

Here we are heading into the second half of 2019 and again I challenge you to focus on the things I mentioned in the video and these additional ideas to help you make 2019 one of the best years ever for you and your business.

I hope you found this helpful and will share it with your network. Thanks so much – John

How To Turn Ideas Into Action

Photo of man reading book and learningWhen I was named CEO of a Rockefeller foundation at the age of 26, Mr. Rockefeller knew that I needed a lot of help and assigned his right-hand man, Charlie Owen, to be my mentor.

Every Monday, Charlie would walk in my office and put a business book on my desk and say, “I’ll see you on Friday for lunch.”At the end of each week, we would go to Em’s Home Cooking for chili, cornbread, and iced tea, where he would grill me on everything I had learned in the book.

  • What were the major themes? 
  • Why do you think the author said this? 
  • Do you agree with the author’s ideas on…? 
  • How do you think this applies to the company you are running?

He would ask me dozens of these types of questions but in the end, he always asked the most important one:

“What are three specific action steps you are going to take in the business as a result of reading this book?” 

I would tell him what I planned to do, then he would write it down and say, “You will now be held accountable for doing those.”  Every Monday I got a book, every Friday I made a book report, and Charlie held me strictly accountable for implementing the ideas I was learning.

Ideas Into Action

Several years ago, I was doing a strategic planning retreat for a large company in Texas and was describing the three circles of the Hedgehog Concept from the famous book Good To Great by Jim Collins.  Just as I was beginning to explain the concept the CEO interrupted me and said, “John, you don’t need to cover that, we all read the book and went through a training course on it and I even hired Jim Collins to come in and teach it to us.”  I thought for a moment and then asked the CEO, “Then could you or anyone one else on your team explain the Hedgehog Concept to me, or the Stockdale Paradox, or the key characteristics of a Level 5 Leader?”  There was total silence.

It is one thing to read a book, attend a training session, watch a YouTube video or listen to a podcast… and a completely different thing to understand the ideas well enough to implement them.  To me, study without application is useless because it does not improve performance or results.

The Key Questions

Because of Charlie, now when I study anything I constantly ask myself three questions:

  1. What does this mean to me?
  2. How can I apply this idea?
  3. What can I do right away?

By asking myself these questions, I have gained the invaluable ability to convert what I have learned into action. These questions have changed my life and career, I hope they do for you as well.

The Three Keys to Building a Great Company Culture

I’ve said it 10,000 times, but let me say it again: Culture = Cash.  I’ve learned from working with hundreds of companies around the world that the biggest area for dramatic improvement, or failure, is most often a company’s culture.  The number one factor in highly engaged, satisfied and loyal customers… is engaged, satisfied and loyal employees.

“The customer’s experience will never exceed the employee’s experience”

Recently, I read an article that outlined the three main things that millennials, the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, look for in the culture of an organization.  Those things are safety, dignity, and purpose.


What we are focused on here is psychological safety, which refers to an employee’s belief that it is safe to speak their mind without fear of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a culture with high psychological safety, employees feel confident that no one will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new iCuldea.

A study by Google identified psychological safety as the most important aspect of highly effective teams. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, the researchers asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

It has been my experience that it is impossible for people to do great work in an company culture where they do not feel safe.


Dignity is derived from showing trust, granting autonomy, and recognizing the value of individual contributions. In a culture that exhibits these three key traits, employees develop more self-worth and self-respect, and feel they are respected by others. Trust, autonomy, and recognition build a sense of ownership of their work and pride in performing it well.  I believe that the path to helping people feel dignity is to treat them with genuine respect.

Let me give you a personal example.  I travel a lot, 200+ days a year, so that means I eat about  600 meals a year in restaurants.  Most people basically ignore their server, often times not even making eye contact with them.  In contrast, I realize that these people are literally “serving” me, since they are carrying food to me when I am hungry.  I genuinely respect them for that and show it by calling them by name, complementing their professionalism, commenting on the quality of the food, and thanking them often for their assistance.  I don’t do this to get a free dessert, I do it because I am truly appreciative of their efforts to make me feel well cared for.  Do I get better service?  Absolutely.  But I also have a more enjoyable meal because I get to make a genuine human connection and I let someone know that I believe that they are important.  A culture where people treat each other with great respect will encourage people to do great work.


When I started my career in 1989, the sole “purpose” of nearly every company was to make money.  Putting money to the bottom line is of course still critical, but today many companies are embracing the idea of the Triple Bottom Line (TLB). The TBL is an accounting framework that incorporates three dimensions of performance: social, environmental and financial. The TBL dimensions are also commonly called the three Ps: people, planet and profits, but now there is a 4th P, Purpose.

The consulting firm Ernst and Young define purpose as “an aspirational reason for being that is grounded in humanity and inspires a call to action.”

Does purpose really matter?  A global study found that 89% of consumers are more likely to buy from companies that support solutions to a particular social issue.  For more than half of consumers, purpose is the most important factor in their choice to do business with one company over another when the products are similar.  So the numbers show that not only having a strong purpose is important to your customers, but it is also an essential element in attracting top talent. For 77% of millennial employees, an organizational culture based on purpose and strong core values are just as important as base salary and benefits.

If building a great culture in your organization is important to you, keep in mind that psychological safety, dignity through respect, and an inspiring purpose is the foundation for creating a culture that motivates your people to deliver excellence.


What Is Your Definition Of Leadership?

a graphic displaying the word leadershipFor nearly 30 years I’ve had the honor of delivering leadership training and executive coaching to companies around the world. One of the things I get asked a lot is, “What is your definition of leadership?” I think I have a pretty good one, but first, let’s take a little detour.

I also do a lot of training in the area of high-performance teams, and one of the workshops I typically make the group go through is to create a list of the characteristics of an Ideal Team Member. I ask them, “If you were able to bring somebody fantastic onto your team, someone that you would love to work with, what would that person be like? What are the skills, abilities, attitude, and personality of an ideal team member for your company?” Here are the responses I hear the most:

  • Honest
  • Has 100% integrity
  • Positive attitude/fun to work with
  • Proactive/self-starter
  • Competent
  • Innovative/creative
  • Excellent communicator
  • Great listener
  • Highly collaborative/a strong team player
  • Lifelong Learner
  • Loyal
  • Respectful

Wow, what a great list, and after I read the list back to the group, I ask how many of them would love to have someone who has all these characteristics on their team? Every hand in the room shoots up, and then I say to them, “To get someone like this to join your team, you have to be like this first. Because anyone who has all the characteristics on that list will only work for someone else that also exhibits those characteristics.”

So, back to my definition of leadership. In my leadership classes, I run a very similar workshop where I ask small groups of attendees to develop a list of what they would look for in an Ideal Leader. I get all of the same things I listed above, plus a few more…

  • Visionary
  • Courageous
  • Inspiring/motivating
  • Fair
  • Compassionate
  • A great coach
  • Leads by example

It’s that last characteristic that shapes my definition of leadership.

To be an effective leader, you must be a living example of what you hope your followers will one day become.

Remember, if you hold a leadership position at any level in an organization, you live under a microscope. People watch everything you do; they listen to everything you say. Whatever you focus on becomes what they focus on and whatever you ignore they will ignore. Your behavior drives their behavior.

So, in my mind, to have great people in your organization, you must first become the kind of person that they want to work with. By the way, this is really hard. It takes a lot of discipline. This means you can’t just do what you feel like doing, or what you can get away with, or mistreat people because you’re in a foul mood, you must keep asking yourself, “What would an ideal leader do?” and follow that as your guide.

What is your definition of leadership?



5 Marketing Strategies that Still Work in Modern Times

I am happy to share this guest post from my friend Susan Ranford, I hope you find it of value.


Marketing is essential for the growth of any business, but it’s also important for yourself as well. Utilizing effective marketing strategies in your career endeavors is an important aspect of growing professionally. With modern times evolving at almost the speed of light, sometimes the classic ways are just as good.

The following four strategies have been proven to work overtime and are just as reliable today as they always have been. Though there may be a few new, modern ways to make the most of these strategies they will still work just fine the way they always have well into 2019 and beyond.

Personal Responses and One-to-One Interaction

More than anything else, personalization is something people always have and always will continue to seek out. This is especially for managers or those of you in sales. People want to feel special and like they matter to you.

Interacting with customers one-to-one is a great way to make new and potential customers feel that they are valuable. It also gives you the chance to learn their real questions and concerns so they can learn to trust you. There are also many ways to create these situations:

  • Phone Calls – Calling a prospect directly can leave a strong impression and let them know that you’re there to answer any questions they might have.
  • Business Cards – You can always hand out some business cards directly during a conversation or as an introduction. You can also leave them around places where your target customers would be. Community billboards, libraries, and other public spaces can also be great advertising, especially for seasonal and local services type businesses.
  • Social Media – Posting to social media is vital for anyone looking to find success, but the interactions you have after you post something, or the responses you give to anyone that has contacted you through social media, are the most valuable.  You have to respond to comments so people learn to trust that they can rely on you. You paint yourself as an expert by doing this.

Memorable and Evergreen Content

Content is both a way to provide value to customers and a way to get your name out there–if it’s done right. Two types of content are always going to be great for managers and sales professionals as marketing tools, and they can overlap.

The best content is memorable. That means it has to have an active emotional component of some sort to be incredibly useful and comprehensive. If it’s in this latter category, that also makes it “evergreen.” These types of pieces are most likely to be shared on social media or bookmarked for future reference, leading people to regard you as an authority on the subject.

Direct Mail

Direct mail is far from dead, though mass mailings to everyone and anyone may be (or should be) a thing of the past. The way to use direct mail effectively is to make it personal and use it to leave an impression on someone you have decided would be your perfect customer.

Direct mail, on its own, is also beginning to stand out more. Though the overall volume has been decreasing, spending on direct mail has increased over the last 10 years. More importantly, 42% of consumers ages 25 to 34 open and read direct mail immediately after receiving it. Email only has an average open rate of 25%, across all industries.


Another way to generate new, targeted leads is to team up with another professional similar to you and begin promoting each other.  If a customer likes you they will trust your recommendations. Find someone to refer you and reciprocate by referring them.

Just make sure to choose your partners wisely.

Another way to generate buzz is to team up with an important cause or charity that resonates with your values. Make sure that there is a strong emotional and logical connection between you and the cause you choose. The stronger the relationship, the more memorable your role will be.


There’s no doubt that technology has made it easier for managers and sales professionals to reach their target clients.  But, if you do what everyone else is doing, your potential customers might choose your competition. Instead, take some time to look back at the basics.  It might mean the difference between closing the sale and leaving another prospect in the pipe.

6 Keys to Effective Strategic Planning

mini-peepsI am currently preparing to facilitate three strategic planning meetings, for an association, a technology company and a Fortune 100 client. Here are a few things that I see as foundational for creating an effective strategic plan.

  1. The key to a successful strategic plan is: FOCUS. Every company, regardless of size, has limited resources and strategy is all about effectively deploying an organization’s resources where they will have the most positive impact in the marketplace.
  2. To mirror my first point, one of the most important things a great strategic thinker does is figure out what to say “NO” to. What markets will we not compete in? What products or services should we not try to sell? What current projects should we abandon?
  3. If you have 10 strategic objectives, you do not have a strategy. All of the successful companies I’ve worked with were able to focus in on 3 to 5 major strategic initiatives. Anything more than that causes a lack of focus and ultimately a lack of success.
  4. When examining business issues, are you trying to solve a puzzle or a mystery? With enough data and information, you can find the right answer to a puzzle, but no matter how hard you try it is impossible to find the exact right solution for mystery. Because of this, as much as I hate to admit it, a large part of strategy is simply an educated guess about what might happen in the future.
  5. Alignment is critical. If the senior team is not 100% committed to strategic direction of the organization, the plan will fail.
  6. It’s an age-old business cliché, because it is correct: What gets measured gets done. A major reason that many strategies are not effectively executed is because there is no way to determine exactly what the expectations are. Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity.

Those are just a few of the key ideas I try to help my clients keep in mind as we move through a strategic planning retreat. I will also add one more critical point; to make sure you follow through and implement your plan, you should spend just as much time on strategic execution planning as you do on planning the strategy. This is a very important idea that few companies truly embrace.

What are your thoughts?