How Would You Answer These Questions?

Posted On: November 1

Recently a friend of mine asked if I would fill out a list of questions for a paper he was writing for one of his classes at University. I found the questions challenging and enlightening. Perhaps you will too. Here is how I answered them. What would your answers be?

1. Name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

Charlie Owen. When I was elevated to CEO at the Rockefeller foundation at 26, I had no idea what I was doing. Charlie was supportive and showed great confidence in me. He also changed the way I look at lifelong learning. Every Monday, he would give me a business book, and every Friday, I had to make a book report. Most importantly, in addition to asking me what I had learned in the book, he would always ask me what I would do as a result of what I learned. He taught me to take ideas and turn them into action.

He also invited me to sit in on meetings. One of the first was a negotiation valued at about $1 billion. I was not allowed to say anything. I just took notes. Then afterward, he quizzed me on what I had learned and how I would use it when I had to do negotiations. He took me to many such meetings where I got exposed to some of the most talented businesspeople in the world. It was an amazing education.

2. What are the most important decisions you make as a leader in your organization?

People decisions. Whether to hire someone, invest significantly in their development, or whether to remove them from the organization. People drive everything in business.

3. As an organization gets larger, there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?

By continually connecting people back to the purpose. What do they do that is important? How do they make the world a better place? They need to know that they are not just doing work. They are doing important work that touches other people’s lives. The more directly you can make that connection, the more it will inspire people. This is why health-based organizations often bring in a patient whose life was saved through the organization’s work. It is a little harder for other organizations to make that level of emotional connection, but I believe a thoughtful leader can.

4. How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? Where do the great ideas come from in your organization?

By making it safe to come up with crazy ideas. Also, by pushing for the second and third ideas. Most people stop when they have one creative idea. Important concepts live further out than that. Also, by exposing people to different points of view, other organizations, various industries, and innovative ideas. What I’m trying to achieve is intellectual diversity. When you bring people together with different backgrounds and points of view, you can draw from a rich mix of creative ideas.

5. Which of the following is most important in your organization—mission, core values, or vision?

Great question. Hard to choose one. You absolutely must have all three. I would put vision as number three. The mission relates a little bit to what I was saying about purpose. I think it’s critical to have an ennobling mission/purpose. As I’m answering this question, I am making it clear to myself that, at least from my point of view, core values are the most important. If we have a great visionary leadership and a meaningful mission, but we do not all act with integrity, honesty, kindness, and fairness – it won’t matter. I often quote Walt Disney on this topic, “When values are clear. Decisions are easy.”

6. How do you or others in your organization communicate the “core values”? How do you encourage others in your organization to communicate the “core values”? How do you ensure your organization and its activities are aligned with your “core values”?

We constantly talk about how we are behaving in alignment with the values we hold deeply. Things like courageous communication, vulnerability, 100% honesty, fairness to our team and customers, and a dedication to lifelong learning are often topics of discussion. We also celebrate people who live the values. On the other side of the coin, we have frank discussions with people who are not fully living the values. We also use examples from other businesses with laudable values, and we look at companies with destructive values and learn from both.

7. How do you help a new employee understand the culture of your organization?

We make it clear in the interviewing process. We talk about the things we value, acceptable behaviors, how we treat each other, and how we approach work. We share stories about how we interact with our clients. We explain the expectations around constant learning. We tell stories about how we have lived our values and embodied our culture. Lastly, we strongly encourage every team member to ask questions about the culture or point out when one of us is not in alignment with it.

8. When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?

I subscribe to the idea of hiring for attitude and aptitude and training for skills. But when it’s close, the tiebreaker is I ask them to tell me the last three business books they read and what they learned from each. This is a showstopper for many people.

9. What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Honesty. It is the single most crucial factor in effective leadership. PERIOD.

10. What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

Complexity. Technological complexity. Five generations are working together in some businesses. Global connectedness impacts every business, small and large. Political changes. Social movements. A myriad of other factors creates what is often referred to as a VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

11. What is one mistake you witness young leaders frequently making? What are a few behaviors or traits that you have seen that derailed a leader’s career?

Not being courageous enough to ask for help or admit that they don’t know. The goal of a leader is to hire great people, grow them, and let them do outstanding work. When leaders think they know it all or are unwilling to trust their people, they micromanage the company into the ground.

12. What advice would you give someone going into his/her first leadership position?

Slow down. It does not all have to get done today. Take your time making decisions, especially people decisions. Take time to read and think. And become world-class at giving genuine appreciation and showing gratitude.

13. What do you do to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

Two things. I am an absolute freak about lifelong learning. When I turned 58 this year, I came up with a phrase to explain how I felt about my level of knowledge. “I know very little about almost nothing and almost nothing about everything else.” The second thing is mentors. I am honored to have several people worldwide who give me advice and guidance and teach me wonderful new ideas. Without them, there is no way that I would be able to move forward in my growth.


Please visit my site at https://johnspence.com/contact/ if you want to get in contact with me. I’d love to hear from you.

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