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!


  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

Why Should I Worry About This?

Here is an idea that I believe can make a dramatic positive impact in your life if you apply it!

I hope you found this video helpful and that you will share it with anyone you feel would find value in the ideas I shared .

Thanks – John

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Field Notes: Singapore


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You Ask – I Answer!


subpageIcon4 copyI recently did a podcast interview with John Lee Dumas of Entrepreneur On Fire (listen to the interview here). It was extremely well received and I got a lot of people that sent me great questions. Here are a few of those questions with my answers, I hope you find this of value…

Q. I currently do a lot of different things. I have a full-time job and run a small business with my spouse, I hold several board volunteer positions, recently directed a non-profit, and am working on other charity projects in my community. These all make sense for me in terms of my “why”, but I worry about being sub-par at a lot of things, versus being excellent in one. Is it possible to be great in a lot of areas, or do you suggest someone narrow their scope? If someone’s attentions are split in a lot of ways, how can they be most successful?

A. To become truly world-class at anything – you must have a great deal of focus. It is an old cliché, because it is true: If you try to be all things to all people you will end up be nothing to anyone. It is possible to do a handful of things well, but if you are too scattered there is no way to do any one thing exceedingly well. The hard part is figuring out what to say “NO” to. To me, the best way to do this is to be very clear about your core values, exactly what you hope your life will look like five years from today, and what you want to accomplish with your life – and then have the courage to remove anything that does not directly add to that goal. You can stay involved in everything you’re doing, but it’s my opinion that you will likely not achieve a high level of success in any one of them.

Q. What do you with your time? With all of the books, presentations, mentees, traveling, etc. you do, it seems like you have more hours in the day than most people. How do you maximize your free time? How do you create balance? How do you work smarter versus harder?

A. First, I don’t have kids. That was a specific career choice because I thought it was unfair to have children and travel as much as I do. Luckily, my wife did not want to have kids either, so it wasn’t a big sacrifice for us. Also, I do not watch TV, movies, go to the mall, cut my lawn, do my own laundry, wash my own car or any other activities that do not directly align with what I’m trying to achieve – or – where I can hire someone else to do them for a few dollars an hour while I either enjoy myself, spend time with my wife, or work on projects that will make me a significant amount of money – which allows me to invest a small amount of it back into getting other people to do my chores. It’s all about the time/value of money. Figure out what an hour of your time is actually worth and then pay other people to do the things that are dramatically below that level. It is hard to do this in the early stages of being an entrepreneur, but once you start reaching a level of financial success this practice allows you to focus only in the areas where you can generate the most value and revenue.

Q3. In some of my ventures, I work a lot with professionals who are in a different generation than me, the “baby boomers”. In your opinion, what actions and attitudes most impress you when working with a “millennial”?

The thing that works the best with all generations is to ask great questions and and be an intense listener – AND – be so incredibly competent at what you do that people can’t ignore you. I took over as CEO of a multinational company when I was 26 years old and most of the people on my board were billionaires and in their late 50s or 60s. I simply worked extra hard to listen to them and be so exceedingly well prepared and well-studied that they had no choice but to trust that I would get my job done superbly. There are definitely generational differences, but being open, flexible and curious will allow you to understand those differences and determine how to work best with people older or younger than you.

Q. Like many entrepreneurs I have tons of ideas about different products and services I’d like to bring to the market. How do you choose which ones to actually pursue?

A. The answer to this is really quite simple, but difficult for some people to implement because they get so attached to their idea and the vision of selling their company for $10 billion to Google next week. For any business to be highly successful it must meet these three criteria:
A. It has to be something you are extremely passionate about and have fun working on, because you will never become truly great at something you don’t enjoy.
B. It has to be in an area where you have an exceedingly high level of competence, or you have surrounded yourself with insanely competent people and you have Uber-strong leadership skills and solid business experience.
C. This is the one that most entrepreneurs miss…

The product or service you want to bring to the market must be unique and compelling – differentiated from your competition in a way that is extremely valuable to your target customer – is difficult if not impossible for your competition to copy – and that you can actually deliver to the market at a reasonable profit.

If it does not meet all of these criteria you might be able to build a good business, but you will never build a sustainably successful enterprise that generates significant revenues and profit.

Those are just a few of the questions I’ve gotten this week, if you have a question you’d like me to answer please send it along and I will give you my very best advice.
I wish you every happiness and success – John

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I hope you’ll take a minute to watch the video and see if this program might be right for you or some of the people on your sales team. Thanks so much – John

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Consultative Sales Excellence 45

The Five Keys to Business Success in 2016

year-red-white-background-d-rendered-image-36767974At the beginning of each year a lot of us look for inspiration on how to take our business to the next level over the coming 12 months. In past years I put together special videos outlining what I believed it would take to make the next year in your business one of the best years ever. This year, I simply want to reiterate what I believe are some of the most powerful business success ideas I have ever learned. Below is my video on the “The Five Fundamentals of Business Success,” this is a class I have taught all over the world to every type of business from mom-and-pop shops and startups to companies in the Fortune 10. I created this particular video in December of 2014 after a speaking tour of the Netherlands with the Entrepreneurs Organization. I truly believe that if you will watch this video and apply the ideas I share with you, it will have a dramatic positive impact on your business success in 2016.

*** If you found value in the video please send it to everyone in your network so we can help them too! Thank very, very much – John




Three Business Fears

12311745_10153134220142466_849282776_o (1)I have just returned from a trip to Kraków, Poland where I was invited by the US Consulate to be the keynote speaker at the Polish American Innovation Bridge event. I also had the opportunity to give a speech at the Polytechnic Institute. I found the Polish entrepreneurs I met to be very energetic, enthusiastic and passionate about building businesses. However, there was one theme that ran through all of the comments and questions which was, “What happens if I fail?” There seemed to be an overwhelming fear of failure across the groups I spoke with. The event organizers asked me to focus on two special areas, how to handle failure and how to successfully network with other entrepreneurs and business people. It also seems that the current Polish entrepreneurial culture does not support the idea of win/win networking. Many of the students and entrepreneurs I talked to were very worried about sharing their ideas with anyone else and did not believe that other entrepreneurs in their community would be willing to help them, so in large part they decided to go it alone.

Earlier this year I spent a good deal of time in Australia and New Zealand working with business people and entrepreneurs there. I find it fascinating that they had almost the opposite fear: the fear of success. There is a saying that they have in Australia and New Zealand, “The tall poppy syndrome.” If you, as a poppy, grow too tall compared to the rest of the poppies, they cut you down to size. In these cultures if you are too successful it agitates the people around you who are not as successful and you are put under a great deal of peer pressure to conform to the societal norms of not sticking out. The question I kept getting in Australia and New Zealand was, “How do you think so big in America?” They just couldn’t understand the idea of wanting to grow a billion-dollar company or the desire to be hugely successful, and said that in their business culture colleagues often tried to keep you in a more “reasonable” frame of mind when talking about business growth.

Let me be very clear, I was extremely impressed in Poland, Australia and New Zealand with the very bright and talented entrepreneurs I met. They were curious and wanted to find out how to improve themselves and their businesses. And not everyone I met fits in the categories I mentioned above, but I did find it interesting to see the stark differences in the different cultures. What’s even more fascinating is that I have run into all of the same issues working with entrepreneurs in America. They are fearful of failure, afraid to be too successful and reluctant to share their ideas and ask for help from the other entrepreneurs and business owners around them.

So my question to you is, do you suffer from any of these three entrepreneurial fears?

I look forward to your thoughts – John

Fire Your Customers

Screaming into telephone.It can be very challenging for a business owner to finally admit that it’s time to…

“Fire the Customer”

Let me be very clear here, the truth of the matter is that not every customer is a good customer and if you allow a bad client/customer to stick around too long, they may just run you out of business. Of course you want to take absolutely spectacular care of your best customers and turn them into customer evangelists, but when you end up with a customer terrorist the best course of action is to politely send them to your biggest competitor! (I’m only half kidding here)

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen businesses almost go bankrupt trying to please difficult customers that drive them crazy, use of tons of resources, always complain, pay late and argue about the price. When I sit down with the business owner and make them take a good hard look at the relationship with a customer like that it usually becomes pretty obvious that they are actually losing money every time they deal with that customer. So how do you avoid getting into that kind of a situation? Here are a few ideas…

Set Clear Expectations

At the beginning of the business relationship take the time to sit down with your new client and be exceedingly clear about how the relationship will work. Explain to them specifically what you promise to deliver, how your pricing is structured, the best ways for you to communicate with each other, what to do if there’s a problem – and exactly what you expect from them as well. Put it all on the table, leave nothing to chance, don’t assume anything. It’s one of my absolute favorite business quotes as it relates to accountability inside of an organization – and creating accountability with your clients:

“Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity”

If you failed to do this at the beginning of the relationship, try to have this conversation the minute you start to feel uncomfortable and think that the relationship might be headed south. If at all possible you want to have this conversation while there is no emotion or dysfunction in the client relationship. If you try to have this conversation after something big has gone wrong, it will just deteriorate into finger-pointing, excuses and blaming.

Develop Red Flags

Go back and look carefully at every time in the past that a client relationship has imploded, what was the pattern? What were the warning signs that things were getting off track? Did they start to become overly demanding? Did they start paying late? Did they start asking for you to do extra work and not want to pay for it? Did they call up one of your employees and scream at them? Did they make a mistake on their end and then turn around and blame you for it? These are the sort of things I’ve seen in the businesses I’ve owned and when one of these red flags popped up I immediately started examining the client relationship to either improve it or terminate it.

Fire Nice

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about hiring people was:

Hire Mean and Fire Nice.”

In other words, be really tough in the interviewing process, push hard to make sure the person really is a good fit and truly wants to work in your company, be aggressive in explaining exactly what the job will entail so that the candidate knows precisely what they are getting into, what will be expected of them and what it will be like to work in your company. If they still want to work with you after this sort of an interview, then you likely have a good candidate. However, if things go wrong and they don’t turn out to be a superstar, be very kind, generous and fair when letting them go so that you can help to avoid ill-feelings, nasty rumors or even a lawsuit. To me, it’s exactly the same when accepting a new client. Be tough in the interviewing process (that’s right, you interview new customers just as much as they interview you as someone they want to do business with) to make sure that this potential new customer meets your “Ideal Customer Profile.” Are they the kind of person that you want to do business with? Will they be a good partner? Are they the kind of client who can bring you new customers and more business? Do they have the financial resources to pay on time and in full? Are they nice people that you would enjoy working with? If the answers to a lot of these questions are no – you are better off to recommend that they go to your top competitor and let them deal with a potentially disruptive customer.

Now I understand that sometimes you need every customer because you need cash flow, but when your business is stabilized and you’re not scrambling to bring in every single dollar you can, then I highly recommend you backup and start to pursue and accept only the best customers. I also highly recommend that as soon as a customer starts to trip a few of the red flags, you either fix it right away, or fire that customer!


I hope you found this helpful – John