How To Become A Greater The Drives High Performance Teams with John Spence

There are so many ingredients to producing a great leader who can also produce high performing teams. In this episode, John Spence who is recognized as one of the top business thought leaders and leadership development experts in the world shares his insights on how to become a great leader. Recognizing that leadership is all about dealing with others, John teaches us how to deal with people and the importance of understanding organization culture. Presenting a list on the key characteristics to look for in a leader, he also shares the five keys for creating accountability in your company and reveals the six things why people work where they work.

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great Leader


I’m so glad you joined us because we have John Spence here. He’s considered one of the world’s top leadership development experts. He was named by the AMA as one of America’s Top 50 Leaders to Watch. He’s the author of making the very complex, Awesomely Simple. We’re going to talk to John.

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How To Become A Greater The Drives High Performance Teams with John Spence

I am here with John Spence who is recognized as one of the top business thought leaders and leadership development experts in the world. He was named by the AMA as one of America’s Top 50 Leaders to Watch along with Sergey Brin, Larry Page of Google and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. It’s nice to have you here, John.

It’s an honor. It’s a pleasure. Obviously, I’m raising the level of my friends with being on your show.

You have an interesting history. Your latest book is Awesomely Simple: Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas Into Action. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about your TEDx from Gainesville. I want to talk about the foreword you wrote for all of Oleg Konovalov’s books. I want to start with your background. If there’s a chance that someone has not heard of you, can you just tell a little bit about how you got to be at this level of success?

After failing out of college on the first try, I graduated number three in the United States on my major on the second try and was hired by one of the private The Rockefeller Foundation to become their director of public relations. Three years later, at the age of 26, I got named CEO of that foundation. We had projects running in twenty countries around the world and I reported directly to Winthrop Rockefeller III. I stayed there for several more years and then I transferred over to become the CEO of an international consulting and sales training firm. I was supposed to take over. I went and the owner of the company said, “I need you to go on the road because most of the partners were former McKinsey & Company and Deloitte & Touche. I was 33 at that time. “If this kid’s going to run the company, he’s got to prove to us that he can do what we do.” I spent about three months on the road, flying all over the world and in the last month, they let me present and do some consulting. When I flew back, the owner of the company said, “You don’t get to be the CEO.” I said, “Why not?” He goes, “Because you’re our number one instructor now and everybody wants you to be a teacher.” I never wanted to be a professional speaker. It’s not on my radar. I wanted to continue to be a CEO running fairly large companies and 28 years later, here I am as a professional speaker, consultant and trainer.

You’re awfully good at it. I’ll tell you that. I love the failed to become number three. How did that happen?

I grew up in a wealthy family. My father was a very famous malpractice attorney and I went to one of the top prep schools in the country in Miami, Florida where I grew up, called Gulliver Preparatory. I graduated there. I got accepted to a lot of colleges, but I chose the University of Miami because it was close to my girlfriend and my boat, which shouldn’t be your major factor in choosing your university. Three semesters later, I failed out with a 1.6 GPA. I took my transcripts and I came up to where I live now, Gainesville, Florida and applied at the University of Florida where they literally laughed at me. They’re like, “We don’t take people like you.” I had to go to community college here in town and I got my grades up. Through a lot of things I learned in that process, I figured out a lot of things. One is read the books. At least in college, all of the answers are in the books.

Number two, ask for help, which is these are still great advice for any professional or any leader. The third one, my professor said start study groups, which would be the same thing as a mastermind group for us in the corporate world or business world. I’d say, “If anyone wants to be in my study group, at the beginning of every class, I’m going to do Tuesday and Thursday in my house at 7:00 to 10:00.” We’ll go out and get a beer afterward. Anyone’s welcome in my mastermind group. As long as you have a 3.6 GPA or higher. Nobody ever asked me my GPA because I started to group. We got in with a good group. There were six people. We all had the same major in public relations and marketing. We studied together and we went to class together. We did study prep together and all that stuff. We ended up graduating number one through six from the University of Florida. I was named in the top four Public Relations Students in America the year I graduated.

That’s quite a comeback story. You’ve got to give yourself credit for that. A lot of people aren’t ready for college when they first get in. I wasn’t like you. I didn’t see the value of a high-grade point average. When I first got into college, I read the book and then as I went through my years and years later, I wish I had paid more attention to things is my point in all. Because I didn’t appreciate it more until I got my graduate and doctorate degree how much you can get out of all this. I talked to you a little bit before the show and we have a lot of things in common. You’re super competitive and you’re hyper like I am.

[bctt tweet=”The best leaders are the one who have good human connection, and the worst ones are those that don’t have EQ.” username=””]

Everything that we have in common is very interesting. I love that you talked about a lot of things. I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence. I was very fascinated by your TED Talk where you got into IQ, EQ and AQ in which you talked about Adaptability Quotient. I know a lot of people are adding all these different ways of looking at what’s important and success. I want to touch on some of those. There are some people that talk about CQ for Cultural Quotient. I wrote about curiosity. There are all these quotients we need and I want to get your insight on that.

I saw the cultural quotient one for the first time. The adaptability or agility quotient is probably very close to your curiosity quotient. As I said in my TED Talk which you’re referring to, you’ve always got to have a fairly high IQ. You don’t have to be Einstein. You don’t have to be an inventor, but you’ve got to have a high enough IQ to be competent at your job. EQ is now clearly as important or more important than IQ. I explained this in TED Talk, but I think on our conversation it’s worth it. Oftentimes when I’m working in companies, and I’ll have 15, 20, 100 people in a room or whatever it might be. I will have everyone write on one side of the paper, “Who’s your best leader ever?”

On the worst side, “Who’s the worst leader you’ve ever worked for?” Underneath that I say, “I want you to write all the characteristics, attitudes, attributes of each one. What made one so fantastic and what made one so bad? I had everyone write next to it after that. Is it an IQ intelligence competence issue or bonus or is it an EQ issue or positive? Time and time again, it’s typically anywhere from eight to ten to one EQ over IQ. Even when I’m in engineering companies, they still realize that the best leaders is because of human connection, EQ and the worst leader is because they didn’t have EQ. The last one is the AQ, Adaptability Quotient. I was reading the top trends that will impact organizations over the next ten years. If you’re not agile and adaptable and able to embrace new ideas and discard all the ideas and change your frame of reference, there is no way, in my opinion, you will be successful in the next decade.

It’s hard to argue with that because I agree. I’ve had so many experts on the show from Daniel Goleman to talk about emotional intelligence to Francesca Gino from Harvard to talk about some of the work she did with curiosity. All the things that I studied, I’ll keep coming back to this. We can talk about learning agility or you can call it adaptability or input. To me, I think that curiosity tends to be the spark that leads to the factors that we’re trying to overcome. We’re trying to be more creative, we’re trying to be more driven and have better engagement and that all comes back to asking questions. You strike me as a very curious person. You may disagree but I’m just curious, do you consider yourself curious and where did that come from with you?

There are two things. I want to tell you a little story or a little anecdote before this because it’s something that struck me several years ago. I realized that all throughout our lives from kindergarten all the way through graduate school, doctorate and everything, you’re taught to find the one right answer. If you want to pass the test, there’s only one right answer. The minute you graduate, there is no such thing as just one right answer. There are multiple right answers. A lot of people I believe are intellectually lazy at some level because they come along an idea and go, “That’s great. Let’s go with it.” What I’ve learned is, “That it’s great. What’s another great idea?” “That one’s good too. What’s another great idea?” I don’t stop it at what I think might be the right answer. I’m going to go two or three levels deeper and keep asking and asking. The other thing is because I read so much, we were talking before we went on. I read about a 100 to 120 business books and have every year since 1989, I realized now how little I know.

There is a lot to now.

I’m incredibly curious about trying to learn new things and I do something that I don’t know. I also read on topics that are totally out of my area of expertise like cosmology, physics or things like that. Those things spark ideas and curiosity that I can take back to how I apply to business issues and business challenges.

When I wrote Cracking the Curiosity Code, I have examples in there of some of the best solutions they found were going outside of their industry. One hospital went to race a car team to find out how to be efficient, for example. You have to think outside your comfort zone. When you were talking about that there’s a right or wrong answer, that’s why I think we get so many problems with perception coming into play. We all think that, “I have the answer because that’s what I learned in school or whatever.” How do we get to recognize, how to deal with the people and other cultures? Our perception of them is one thing and their perception of us is one thing. Our perception of how they perceive it, gets all in a circle. How do we learn to embrace and use empathy to understand all this?

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great Leader
Becoming A Great Leader: There is no such thing as just one right answer.


There are a couple of things on that, at least a few points and then I’ll ask for your help. I remember earlier in my career when I started as a consultant, I was always trying to prove that I was right. I knew that I knew what I knew and I wanted to prove it to everybody else. I was young and I was fairly aggressive and I butted heads with a lot of people. All of a sudden, I started to realize more and more, I don’t know anything. I have to learn everything. I have some ideas, some things, but I learned that back then or a great quote that I still use, “I’m not a sage on the stage. I’m a guide on the side.”

I have now through my coaching and other things and sales, I did a lot of sales training for years, and the thing that differentiates the very best salespeople and leaders from other people is they ask amazing questions. They’re incredibly curious and then they’re intense listeners. I have over the years embraced those as two skills that I feel are fundamental to my success and to the people that I coach and work with. That curiosity and humility and trying to understand the other person and learn from the other person, puts you in a position to learn more and to connect at a human level.

It is so important to ask questions and I add a lot of what you just said into a lot of the talks I give. I know that Susan Cain made Quiet such an important book for people because she showed that there’s a lot of value and a lot of things introverts have. I noticed a lot more introverts in sales. I was in sales for decades. I grew up in a family that wasn’t unlike yours and maybe that’s where the competitive streak came from it. A lot of us went into sales you learn so much. How much foundational skill did that help you for later to have that background? Should everybody have to take a sales course and be a little bit tortured by what they put you through?

Everybody who is selling something, you’re selling your ideas, you’re selling yourself, you’re selling your company or your business. People think that sales is a dirty word, but it’s a noble profession. If you’re truly helping the other person and you’re always doing what’s in the best interest of your customer, which is the only way to keep them as a customer, then there’s never any pressure or any manipulation. You’re there as a trusted advisor to be of service to them to help them and even to tell them not to buy your product if it isn’t right for them. When you approach it with that frame of mind, you’re both on the same team. The way the word I always like to use because I did lots of sales training is, “Technique is nothing. The intent is everything.” I think that works across relationships across the board.

It’s interesting because when you were talking about the IQ-EQ and how you have one side of the paper where you say what’s IQ and what are good things and bad things about leaders and whether it’s IQ or EQ-related. It made me think about Steve Jobs and where he fell and why he fell that way. As you’re talking about this, it’s making me think about people who may do well in sales in spite of themselves. I remember in pharmaceutical sales, if I can call on this one office and the doctor would write my competitor’s scripts all the time and he talked about that and I couldn’t stand the guy. I’m like, “Why are you writing for his product if you hate him so much?” He goes, “Because he’s in here constantly and he’s on my mind.” He couldn’t come up with any other better answer.” How did we get the Steve Jobs or the people who are successful when they don’t have the traditional, what we think people should behave like skills?

I went to a large conference of CEOs where we talked about, “Was Steve Jobs a great leader?” I got to meet Steve too briefly when we were both teaching at Wharton as guest lectures. I got to know Steve Wozniak fairly well. We did a speech together and what he was telling me is he was aggressive and rude. You would come in and look at something and that you’d been working on for days. He goes, “That’s just crap. You’d want to prove him wrong.” You’re like, “No, it’s not.” I’m going to make it better. You come back through and four days later and go, “I always knew you could do it.” When you look at traditional leadership, in my opinion, he was not what I would call a servant leader or a good leader. He was a visionary leader.

This is going to be an interesting thing and I’m going to step away from that. People ask me all the time, “How do nasty, manipulative political people become CEOs and leaders in big companies?” You and I have both seen this and it makes me scratch my head. Someone said, “Don’t you realize, John, they’re rewarding the most manipulative, political, aggressive people in the company because that’s who climbs the ladder the quickest and who’s willing to play the politics?” I never thought about, “It’s the survival of the meanest.” I’m very introverted. I think a lot of people in our industry are. I give speeches to thousands, tens of thousands of people and then I run in my hotel room and hide.

I think a lot of people are like that in this industry because you’ve got to prepare it in your mind. You’re ready. You’re not having to think it over and you already know everything that you’re going to talk about. As you’re mentioning some of these CEO things, I’ve met Wozniak and he was quite an interesting guy. He was much chattier than I was expecting.

[bctt tweet=”One of the fastest things that will kill even huge companies is negative culture.” username=””]

We were giving a speech together to the Apple Specialist Group, the people that own all the independent Apple stores around the country. He’s up and they’re interviewing him on the couch and they’re all chatting and everything. He’s only supposed to talk for 45 minutes. Two and a half hours later, he’s still going. No one’s moving because it’s Steve Wozniak. Finally, this guy puts his head out from behind the curtain. He goes, “Mr. Wozniak, we have to leave. The plane is waiting.” He turned to him and he goes, “It’s my plane.” The guy goes, “Yes, Sir.”

I saw him speak out. He came in on a Segway and Jeff Hayzlett interviewed him and right off the bat, Wozniak started with an inappropriate joke. It was so funny because he was like, “I already lost control of this whole thing.” He talks about a lot of things, which made Apple successful and different things. Jobs come up a lot. What you were talking about CEOs being rewarded for what they do, I spoke to a bunch of CEOs about this in Alabama. If you’ve looked at some of Travis Bradberry’s work and some other people, they quote this often about how CEOs have some of the lowest levels of EQ. Some of the reason you’re saying, they’re rewarding certain behaviors. They may be able to analyze data or they’re able to do certain things, but their behavioral type of skills that are so important for company culture aren’t getting recognized along the way. That’s why we see a lot of these organizations with cultural issues. That’s where you and I have a lot of the same things that we find fascinating is what is so important about all organizational culture. What if the leaders don’t buy into the need for it, then what do you do?

I’ve got a whole bunch of favorite business phrases and at the top of the list is ambiguity breeds mediocrity, but very close is culture equals cash. I consult with companies as you do all over the world. When I walk in, one of the main errors you can turn-around and improve an organization is improving their culture. One of the fastest things that will kill even huge companies is a negative culture. I believe and I’m going to ask your help on this. I’d like to hear your comments that culture is changing a little bit at least from what I’m hearing in research and seeing with the Millennials and Gen Zs about more around values and purpose than it used to be just fun and perks. Help me understand that.

I see the same thing. Everybody’s worried about engagement right now and we know that it’s a huge problem. We worry about innovation, engagement and productivity. A lot of that ties into these cultural issues. If you want to get people motivated and driven, you have to ask some questions. That’s why I wrote about curiosity because I think curiosity is what we need to develop to find out what the Millennials and Gen Z want and all that. We found out that Millennials are more curious than Boomers are or Gen Z in some respects. Everybody has these different levels and I don’t like to place everybody into certain boxes. I like to say that we get to know people on a one-on-one basis and that ties into the Greenleaf‘s Servant Leadership and all this stuff that you talk about. I love the way you mentioned the upside down pyramid. Can you explain that?

It’s the inverted pyramid of leaders. It used to be in the old days, at least when I started work, I went and entered the workforce in 1989 and it was very command and control. Your boss didn’t ask for a lot of feedback. As I often say it was if your boss said, “Jump,” and it was, “How high, sir and how many times?” For quite a while, it went over to management by numbers. Everything was a spreadsheet, analysis or whatever. Greenleaf was the one who said, “No, it’s not the boss at the top. It’s the boss at the base.” Instead of saying, “This is what I want you to do,” saying, “What can I do to help you?” and truly be of service.

I think that’s a mind shift that a lot of older managers or leaders, it’s hard for them to grasp that, “I work for the people in the company, not they work for me.” My job is to make them engaged, happy, bright, talented and successful. If all of them are doing a great job by default, I look pretty good. I have another phrase, “The customer’s experience will never exceed the employee’s experience.” I don’t understand why some people don’t treat their employees as their most important customers.

I’ve definitely worked for companies where they don’t. I give some examples when I talk about some of the things that leaders have said that have killed curiosity. I think that they don’t even know they’re saying it. Some of them will say, “Don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions,” but that means, “I don’t want to know about the problems if you can’t solve it,” and that’s a problem. I’ve had people say, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” if you say you don’t understand something. Things like that shut people down and they don’t realize that they’re saying it. I think that leaders often have people around them that either they learn from them and they’ve been doing it wrong so they don’t know what they don’t know. What does it take to be a great leader now? As innovation is changing, we’ve got AI and everything else is going to have much more of an impact, what are you looking for in a great leader?

What I’m looking for in a great leader is very similar to you. It’s curiosity, humility, the ability to understand clearly that they don’t have all the answers and that their goal is to surround themselves with people smarter than they are and then get out of the way and let them do great work. I think they’re also going to need to be able to reach out to people who do things that they don’t understand and try to get them to explain it to them at some level. They want to walk through the company and meet people that maybe if it’s a large enough organization, they don’t even know them or they don’t get a chance to see him but every couple of months sit down and say, “Tell me about what you’re doing. What’s going on and what are your challenges? What are you seeing with the customer?” They are constantly trying to learn as much as they can.

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great Leader
Becoming A Great Leader: Culture equals cash.


I do a fair amount of executive coaching and one of the things I learned and I learned it through Conflict Resolution Training. It’s “I” statements, but I’ve embraced this idea of saying, “I’m confused. I need help. I don’t understand. Could you explain that to me?” I was riding with three very high-level CEOs. We were out to dinner together and we were riding home in the car with a driver and one of them said something with some acronyms in it. I had no idea what it meant. I said, “Excuse me, Nathaniel, what does that mean? I’ve never heard of that before.” They all looked at me like, “You’re supposed to be the expert. You’re one of the world’s top business thinkers.” I have no idea what in the world that means. All of them looked at me like, “How do you have enough vulnerability to just admit in front of people that you’re trying to impress to say, ‘I’m completely lost here. Can someone slow down and help me?’”

It takes a lot of courage. One of the things that keep people from being curious is fear. In our environment of things that we’ve heard at will impact that voice in our heads and we’ll talk ourselves out of things. How many times have you been in a meeting and you lean next to Bob, “Bob, why didn’t you ask that question?” Salespeople are infamous for that.

I have failed so many times on such a large stage, business and literal stage, but I’m pretty much fearless. I don’t know if there’s anything that could hurt me anymore. I was doing a speech for the Million Dollar Round Table, which is a fairly prestigious place. They asked me if I would give some talks on leadership, but they wanted to interact. “You got 90 minutes. We want 45 minutes of content and 45 minutes of interactive workshops. We’re going to put you in with about a hundred people.” They’re all strong because the Million Dollar Round Table has people from twenty-one countries at it.

There are all these different languages. “They’ll all be strong English speakers. Don’t worry. It will be great. You’re going to be fine.” The day I got there, they said, “One of our instructors didn’t show up. We’ve got a class of Mandarin speakers, would you be willing to teach the leadership class to them? We have two interpreters. It will be fine.” I said, “I can handle that.” I was like, “100 Mandarin speakers, I got that.” I was wrong. I walked in the room, it was set for 5,000 people and the content part went great. When I said, “Let’s do a workshop,” which I told them I can’t do a workshop at 5,000 people but they wanted me to. I said, “Let’s do a workshop.” Four thousand of them got up and walked out. It looked like somebody hit a fire alarm. I said, “If I can survive 4,000 people walking out on me, I can handle a lot or any rejection you can throw at me.”

It’s just not in their culture to do the interaction, is that what it was?

That’s exactly it. The people said, “We’re sorry. We put you in a bad position.” They were locked up. I’m doing stuff on leadership. They were loving it, taking pictures and taking notes. Literally the minute I said, “Workshop. Turn on the lights and we’re getting out of here.” What’s funny is I saw them out later and they all wanted to take pictures and get all that stuff. At least, I didn’t take it personally, but it is hard to stay during the stand on the stage and watch 90% of the room get out and walk out on you.

That is so funny because this what we talk about when we write about perception and things, what we think and how you interpret that, what happened is so different than how they meant it. If they thought it would be rude, they probably would have stayed in their mind. They probably didn’t see it as rude. You talk about so many things that I think are important to think of the perception. We’re talking about walking through and getting to know people in the business setting. Doug Conant was on my show who turned Campbell soup around with all those lovely letters and things he did to make sure everybody was engaged.

He’s amazing.

[bctt tweet=”Ambiguity breeds mediocrity.” username=””]

I worked in a company where the leaders all sat on the top floor with the door lock and you couldn’t get a key to it. I was thinking, “What message does that send?” Have you had any work culture like that where they said, “We’re above you. We’re sitting on this floor. We’re not talking to your kind of thing?”

I’ve worked in several large companies like that where if you didn’t have the security badge, you couldn’t even get into the building where the executives were.

Why did they do that? What is the thought behind that?

I can tell you what it was with me. They called me once. This was a very huge Fortune 50 financial institution. I was doing their global leadership development program and I got called to the bull and bear room to talk to their CEO and all their senior executives. They had a problem with one of their most successful salespeople who closed millions and millions of dollars of business for them every year. He was in his third sexual harassment lawsuit. They brought me up to tell them what I thought and I said, “Right there on the wall in bronze is your corporate values and respect is number two. I think he’s violating your values and you ought to terminate him.” They started laughing at me and guess who got terminated? Me.

People say they want to have changed, but as long as you say what they want to hear, sometimes that’s a problem. I see a lot of problems with performance in teams because of the culture messed up like that and to be successful, people have to be able to have a high culture. They have to have a lot of things. I had Amy Edmondson on the show. She was great. I don’t know if you’ve seen her TED Talk about how they got the Chilean miners out from under all the rocks. It was a great TED Talk and she was wonderful to have on the show. She was a professor from Harvard. We talked about culture, but how it impacts teams. How do you get a high-performance team?

I based my entire career on looking for patterns. That’s why I read so many books. The book I wrote was on the patterns I saw in great companies. I’ve also studied the patterns of great teams and from what I see, there are six key factors of creating a high-performance team. Number one is they have to have a shared direction. They all have to be aligned and say this is what success looks like and we’re all in agreement that’s where we’re going together. A clear, vivid, compelling and well-communicated vision for where the team is going. Number two is measurable goals. The word I always use here is binary and I’ll explain why this is so important. The goals need to be as much as possible. One, zero, black, white, yes, no and no guessing. That’s where my ambiguity breeds mediocrity phrase comes from.

The next two are straight forward. I want competent people. I want the best talent I can possibly get on my team. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to be a NASA scientist with three PhDs. It just means for the job they’re going to do on the team, they’re good. The next one is I want lots of open, honest and robust communication, which is a problem in every organization, every team is that transparency and candor. I have to have enough trust on my team that I can share pretty much anything with anybody. I can be honest and frank and speak with candor or be vulnerable and allow people to give me feedback or show that I don’t know the answers. We’ve got shared direction, measurable goals, competent people and great communication.

The fifth one is what makes the model. It’s the second M, which is mutual accountability. We go back to why the binary goals are so important. If you have ambiguous goals, then here’s what it sounds like, “Diane, I don’t think you made your sales numbers or you’re doing that great in sales right now. It doesn’t seem to me like you’re making enough calls or trying hard enough.” “John, it doesn’t feel to me like you’re doing a great job with that team or whatever.” You’ve got a binary goal that says, “Diane, you’ve got to sell $2 million by the end of the month.” If we get to the end of the month and you’ve sold $1.7 million, I can say, “I love you. We worked together for years. I have so much respect for you. I enjoy spending time with you, but you’re $300,000 short. How can we fix that together?”

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great Leader
Becoming A Great Leader: A team needs to have a shared direction. They have to have a clear, vivid, compelling, and well-communicated vision for where they are going.


Instead of it being me versus you, it’s me and you together against the agreed upon binary goal that there’s no opinion, there’s no thinking, it’s just data. You did it or you didn’t. That leads to the sixth and final thing is keeping that level of discipline to do all those things on the team all the time. Most teams operate dysfunctionally. Most of the time until there is fire and emergency, then they pull together and they’re great for a couple of days, a week or a month. High-performance teams do those five things consistently with discipline. If every now and then they start to slip, then they jump back in. It’s that mutual accountability created by the binary goals that allow them to be so high performing in my opinion.

How do you keep that discipline? Is there a trip and trick that people do? I was talking about Amy Edmondson’s talk that was a very high-powered situation where people were dying. We can’t figure this problem out. When there’s a problem, you could see why people come together a little bit better. People do get lazy. They get used to doing things and if they worked hard last month, maybe I’ll take it easy this month. How do you get them to be more consistent?

I’m a guy that has everything in numbers. I have five keys for creating accountability in your company and organization that works for a team. Number one is 100% clarity plus appropriate authority and resources. If I’m going to hold somebody on my team accountable, they’ve got to be clear about what is expected of them. There are binary goals and I have to make sure that they have the decision-making authority and the resources they need to be successful. Number two is 100% agreement. The person needs to look at me and the rest of the team and say, “This is what I’m supposed to do by this date. This is the outcomes. Here’s the internal rate or hurdle rate. Here’s the budget I have.”

I ask companies all the time, “On a scale of one to ten, with ten being world-class and one being horrific, how many of you would say you’re a solid eight, nine or a ten on always getting 100% clarity, appropriate authority and resources and 100% agreement on all your most important projects?” No one in the world has raised their hand. One guy did in Australia and I said, “You’re lying.” He put his hand and one young lady in Palm Beach raised her hand. I go, “Are you sure?” She goes, “My manager told me to raise my hand. What was the question again?” Just doing those two things, clarity and agreement are critical. Number three is track and post. This is where we get to the binary goals is everybody on the team needs to see where everybody else stands on their major goals, on their deliverables all the time.

That comes down to cadence. Are we having daily huddles or are we having weekly meetings? Are we having monthly meetings or are we having quarterly meetings so that at no time can I pretend that I didn’t know what everyone else was doing and they didn’t know me? If you’ve studied that book American Icon about Alan Mulally from Ford, he has a great system. He used this to cross all of Ford of green, yellow, red. Here’s the other key thing is when someone is bailing, you’re measuring them and they’ve gone from green to yellow and yellow or yellow to red. Most people are worried you’re going to come and yell at them and get mad at them. You have to change that paradigm to know measurement doesn’t equal punishment, measurement equals help.

Step four is coach, mentor, train and support. That when someone starts to slip, you don’t go in and threaten them. You go, “What can I do to help you? How can I support you? Do you need more resources?” It doesn’t mean you do their job for them, but you use the tracking to support them, not to attack them. Last but not least, you celebrate people on the team that consistently meet their goals and deliver what they promise. You deal decisively with mediocrity and people who consistently miss their goals.

There are so many great points that I’m just rummaging through what you came up with there. I think that it’s interesting to talk about how much people take a look at what people are doing at work and how much they’re tracking things. There was a lot of talk about getting rid of performance appraisals and then I’ve had people say that they got rid of them and then people wanted them back. People want to know where they are. They want to know that’s probably the part of the problem with engagement. They don’t understand how what they do ties into the overall goals of the organization. Can you track too much? Can you make people feel micromanaged or is it good to keep them on track because they need a little of that? Where do you fall in that thinking?

I think a lot depends on the culture of the organization. Some organizations, technology or things like that are tracking because they’re doing agile and doing sprints and it’s already tracked and they expect that. I have a debate with this with my wife all the time. She’s my business partner and she’s like, “You can’t track too much or you’ll micromanage people and scare them.” I agree with her that it doesn’t need to be everything, but it needs to be the major KPIs, Key Performance Indicators, measurements that drive success. When I work with a large company, I’ll tell the CEO, “Just because you can measure, it doesn’t mean you should and just because it’s hard to measure, it doesn’t mean you get to skip it.”

[bctt tweet=”Measurement doesn’t equal punishment. Measurement equals help.” username=””]

Most companies I work with, if you get down to the foundation, there are only three or four or five numbers that drive everything. Everything else is a derivative of those numbers. My opinion is figuring out those major key numbers, the stuff that moves the needle or that moves off the cliff and measure and track only those. If as a manager you want to go talk through it and talk about how they’re doing it, that’s great. For the rest of the team or the rest of the company, I think you need to know how everybody stands on the overall major goals that move the company forward.

I know everybody’s worried about moving forward right now because they’re worried about AI taking over different jobs and people are disengaged. They’ve got all these issues about thinking strategically when they can’t forecast what’s going to happen with all these changes. What are the major issues that you see the companies come to you to help have other than the normal cultural, “We can’t get along,” kind of stuff?

There are a couple of big things. First, it was something that I’d known for my whole career, but it came into sharp focus in the last several years or so. Whether it’s a small firm or a multinational, as goes the leadership team so goes the entire company. I’ve had a great misfortune or been asked to come in and work with companies as a turnaround expert. Sometimes it works great and everything’s fantastic but when I get to a company, I was with one, 480 people lost their jobs because two out of the seven leaders and managers didn’t get along. They fought internally. They will share information. They attack each other and they disrupted the meetings. This was a pretty high-tech firm in a small town where out of that almost 500 employees, probably 400 will not be able to get new jobs.

There aren’t jobs to replace them. You’ve got 400 families that are going to have to get up and move. I looked at it and said, “Two people killed and it’s not just them. It’s their wives, their husbands, their kids, the restaurants and the real estate.” Everybody in that town was massively impacted because two people couldn’t get along. The other side of the coin is I’ve seen organizations turnaround and be spectacular when a management team is high functioning with all the things we’ve talked about. The other major issue, communication is always one, transparency, candor and all those sorts of things. Probably the biggest one I see right now is lack of disciplined execution. I’ve been teaching that class at Wharton for the Securities Industry Institute for many years. You’ve got to be a senior leader in a major financial firm to get into it.

Every year I ask the same question when I teach strategy, “What percentage of companies that have a great plan, they’ve got a good product, they’ve got good people, they’ve got a good marketing plan, they got everything set up to be successful, effectively executes their strategy?” The answer used to be 15% then it dropped 10% and now it’s 5%. It isn’t a lack of smart people or great strategies or great products or any of that stuff. It’s the inability to take ideas and turn them into action. I think that’s both at an individual performer level and is at an organizational level.

What tips would you give them to take the ideas and make them into strategic actions? Do you have a list of them?

The five that I gave you was it. The idea of cadence, which is a big one, is making sure you keep it in front of you all the time, especially around strategy. If you’re not talking about it, monthly minimum, maybe an hour or two a week, it doesn’t go away for the weekend and do this good strategic plan and everything’s going to be fine. That’s the fun, sexy, cool stuff. You’re getting down in the trenches and implementing it is horrendously hard and that’s the hard work that people don’t want to do. Both of you and I are painting. We’re talking about stuff for the broad brush. I work with a lot of clients that are absolutely amazing. I have a crush on them. Their companies are amazing and their cultures are incredible. Unfortunately, it isn’t the majority, but the ones I do work with are inspiring and a joy to be around.

I agree and I know that a lot of those companies are trying to attract top talent. I was thinking about your conversation about surrounding yourself with smart people. We want to hire smart people. A lot of these companies want to attract people like you at the top of the class, the top people. How do you do that when everybody wants the top people? What if you don’t even have the funds to get the top people? It’s a tough time.

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great Leader
Corporate Superpower: Cultivating A Winning Culture For Your Business

I’ve done a lot of research on this. Several years ago, I put together a survey of more than 10,000 high potential employees at top companies around the world. These are folks that I call voluntary employees. They’re so good at what they do that they can work anywhere they want. If they weren’t happy, they could put their hand up and they’d be at the competition tomorrow. They don’t work at a company because they have to. They work there because they want to. I asked them, “Why do you work where you work?” They told me six things. Number one was fair pay. Fair pay was defined as 10% above or below what they would make to do the same job anyplace else. As long as you get parody on pay, it pretty much is off the table is a major motivator, “I’m making the same as anyplace else.”

Number two was challenging and meaningful work. A word that you and I talked about was a purpose. I want to feel like I’m making a difference. I’m growing as an individual. I’m challenged to do great work and my work is important. Number three is cool colleagues. Smart, bright, sharp and talented people only want to work with other bright, sharp, smart and talented people. Putting them in with mediocre people, they get frustrated or their performance drops down to mediocre. The next one is right on target for you and was a great culture, a winning culture. Now, we’ve got the first four. We’ve got fair pay, challenging work, cool colleagues and awesome culture. Number five was personal and professional growth.

Personal growth and we see this a lot too in culture is, I need to know that I’m smarter at the end of the month than I was at the beginning. That my company is investing in me, they’re sending me to training and I’ve got a coach and I’m getting exposed to new projects, but I’m constantly upscaling. Professional growth is, “I need to see a place for myself in this company five years from now.” If you get a bright person who says, “My company is not investing in me. I’m stagnant. I’m not learning anything. I’m not challenged and I don’t see a position for myself here in five years,” they’re going as fast as they can leave. The last one, which was the most important by far was I work for a leader I trust, respect and admire. It’s the single most important reason that top talent is attracted.

That’s huge. It is because we saw that even with the Gallup results of they need somebody who they liked to be around at work because a friend made a big difference. A lot of this stuff makes a big difference. A lot of companies overlook so much of this culture. I remember when I was writing about emotional intelligence initially I’m thinking, “This is a cute little topic. Maybe I’ll write about this.” I had no idea how important it was going to be until I started reading about it. All these years later, this is still something. Everybody’s struggling with all these cultural issues and all this stuff you do is so important. I could see why Oleg Konovalov reached out to you to write the foreword for his book. He’s on the Thinkers50 Radar for 2019. He’s a number one global thought leader too on culture. I could see why he would reach out to you. You had mentioned you thought that his book was unusual and I think it would be nice to say something about that. He was a guest on the show. How did you two connect?

He got to me, believe it or not, through LinkedIn and my reviews on Amazon and had read my book and when he wrote his first book, Corporate Superpower, that’s about winning culture, he asked me if I’d write a blurb for the back of it. “This book is among the most comprehensive, insightful and educational books I’ve ever read on how to build a world-class culture. I consider this a must-read and extremely critical topic.” It’s a great book. The new book he’s writing, which he’s calling Leaderology, I believe in my humble opinion is going to be something that changes the way people look at business and leadership. I found part of it challenging, which is he uses the human body as an analogy about an ecosystem with the spine and stuff. I’m not that bright. I have a hard time keeping up with it. He asked me if I would think about writing a foreword, I said, “I have to read the book first.” If I get 50 pages into a book and haven’t underlined anything, I stop reading.” I was 50 pages into his book and I pretty much underlined the first twenty pages, the whole page.

There were these sentences that would pop off the page that was so meaningful and so insightful and eloquently written. We had a talk before and you call the famous quotes from Peter Drucker, Druckerisms and I’m going to try this, they are going to be Konovalovisms. As soon as the book comes out, I’m going to send it to all my clients because there are things in there to me that just stopped me dead in my tracks. After 30 years of doing this, I said, “That is the best way I’ve ever seen that idea written in my life.” There are some huge takeaways from his book. It’s not because he’s a friend and believe me I’m brutal on supporting other authors unless I think their work is superior which yours is. I’ve read your book. He’s is truly among some of the best I’ve ever read because it is so insightful, thoughtful and eloquently written.

He’s such a nice guy too and I’m fascinated by that Thinkers50 group of everybody who’s tied into that because you meet so many interesting people.

Daniel Goleman was there the last time I was there and so was Daniel Pink and Tom Peters. It’s fun because I got nominated for their special achievement award. Only eight people in the world got nominated for it. It was fascinating because I got to go meet people that I’d studied my whole life like Tom Peters. Years ago, I met Tom Peters. I used to fly around the country to go watch his speeches because I was impressed by him. I got to have lunch with him one day and he goes, “What do you want to do for a living?” I said, “I want to do what you do for a living.” He chuckled at me like, “Good luck.” I told him, “I will catch you one day,” and sitting next to me at this dinner was Tom Peters getting the Lifetime Achievement Award. I told him the story and he was like, “I’ll be damned. You caught me.” That’s one of the greatest moments of my life.

[bctt tweet=”Celebrate people on the team that consistently meet their goals.” username=””]

I feel the same way when I get to talk to these people on the show, like you. I’d get to talk to so many amazing people. I had lunch with Harvey Mackay. He and I are serving on a board of advisors together for Radius AI, a company here in Arizona and I get to meet people. All these people who’ve been on the show who you’ve always known about your whole life and you’re like, “I can’t believe Daniel Goleman is on my show.”

Have you gotten Marshall Goldsmith?

Marshall Goldsmith was on my show.

He is a god. He’s such a nice person. He was there at Thinkers50 too. As a matter of fact, he’s got his Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s been named the number one Executive Coach in the World twice and he deserves every bit of that and more.

He’s amazing. I’m taking one of his classes that he’s associated with this. It’s a coaching training I’m taking in Portland. I’m looking forward to seeing what they teach for that. After a while, I’ve interviewed more than 800, 900 people or something since the show started in. You get to meet all the people. You’re like, “You’re that guy. No wonder you’re so interesting.” I have to say, I have been so fortunate that everybody who I’ve met, I pick and choose. I’m very lucky to do that because I’m doing this for fun more than any other reason. I want to meet people who I think are amazing. I get to pick who’s on the show because I’m not trying to sell them anything or do anything. If they fit the cultural type of thing that I’m interested in talking about or whatever, I get the most amazing people and some people you never did even thought of meeting.

It’s your mastermind, which I think is one of the most powerful ideas for any person around, to create a group of people that you’re impressed with and you admire. I had a study group in college. I’ve still got a study group now. It’s my mastermind group. It’s eighteen CEOs that I meet with about every 45 days at my house. I don’t charge for anything. They’re my friends and we push each other and help each other. We have book assignments and reading and if there’s ever a challenge or an issue, we convene quickly. We’re all headed over to one of the guy’s houses for a barbecue and some cocktails and discussing some innovative things that are happening to one of the guy’s companies who’s thinking about selling it. We’re going to walk him through that and see if we can give him some advice.

That would be the best of the best of what you can do and with the people you know, I’m sure your masterminds are the who’s who. I know I’ve kept you so long and I know so many people are interested in finding out about all the work that you do because you do some amazing things out there. We mentioned a few of them here and if they wanted to reach you, is there some website or something that you’d like to share?

My website is easy. It’s I’ve got a blog, but I’ve got a newsletter free that is powered by AI and I read for an hour every morning all the latest business magazines, blogs and everything. When I find something that’s interesting to me, I post it to my Twitter account, which @AwesomelySimple but my newsletter pulls from that curated content that I’m handpicking. What’s cool is as you read it, it sees what you open and how long you read it and it continues to customize out of all the stuff I put up, the things that are most interesting to you. That means after a couple of months of reading it, the newsletter you read is not the same as anybody else in the world because the AI keeps adapting it closer and closer to your interests. If you go to my website, sign up for the blog and you’ll get the newsletter and it’s the coolest thing.

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great Leader
Becoming A Great Leader: One of the biggest problems of management teams is not a lack of smart people, great strategies, or great products. It’s the inability to take ideas and turn them into action.


I’m definitely going to have to do that and I enjoyed having you on the show. Thank you so much, John. This was so much fun.

It’s my honor. It was my pleasure. I had a blast, too. Thank you.

It was fun. You’re welcome.

I’d like to thank John for being my guest. We get so many great guests and if you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to You can find out more about Cracking the Curiosity Code and the Curiosity Code Index there. You can also find out more about that at I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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About John Spence

TTL 586 | Becoming A Great LeaderJohn Spence is recognized as one of the top business thought leaders and leadership development experts in the world and was named by the American Management Association as one of America’s Top 50 Leaders to Watch along with Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. As a consultant and coach to organizations worldwide, from startups to the Fortune 10, John is dedicated to helping people and businesses be more successful by “Making the Very Complex… Awesomely Simple.”


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