Category: Personal Development

Q&A with Kevin Kruse, founder of LEADx

Kevin Kruse believes that wholehearted leadership for employee engagement is the key to unlocking dramatic business results and better relationships for individuals.
And if you think that’s something that I’d agree with, you’re absolutely right. I do.
Kevin interviewed me last year on his LEADx podcast where we had a great conversation about effective meetings, and I’m delighted that he has agreed to do a Q&A. He currently serves as the Founder and CEO of LEADx, an online learning platform that provides free leadership development for millions of people around the world. He has built and sold several multimillion-dollar tech companies, authored numerous books (including the New York Times bestseller We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement) and currently serves as a Forbes leadership columnist.
Let’s dive in!
Paul: Have you always been interested in leadership? What led you to create LEADx?
Kevin: Well I wouldn’t say always. In fact, I was a horrible boss when I was in my twenties, and my first couple of companies failed miserably. Eventually, I was mentored by some ex-Gallup executives who gave me a master class in leadership and employee engagement, and I had a total transformation. My company started growing like crazy, and we even won a Best Place to Work in PA award.
When I sold my last company, almost ten years ago, I took a lot of time off. I’m a single Dad with three kids and wanted to put them first and also to spend some time working for nonprofits. And that’s also when I started writing books. But my kids are grown now, two are off to college, so I figured it was time to put my entrepreneur hat back on. When I thought about the single biggest factor in my own success, it came down to leadership. Self-leadership, leadership in my family, and of course leadership at work. So I launched a “next generation” leadership company: LEADx.
Paul: LEADx is a completely free learning platform, which is surprising. Why did you decide to make it free?
Kevin: As I was thinking about what my next company would be, it would have been so easy to start another custom e-learning company. That’s what my previous companies were, and I could have just called up my old employees, called up my old clients, and boom—I’d have a multimillion dollar company again in no time. But I did the rocking-chair test. Would I be happy just having another small lifestyle business when I’m 80 rocking away on my porch? Nice life? Sure. But would I be satisfied? No.
So I really want to do something so big that the odds are that it will fail. It’s so big that I don’t know how we’ll get there. So I thought, why don’t we create 100 million leaders in 10 years? After all, if you want free K-12 education you can use Khan Academy. If you want free college education there’s edX. But what about free leadership development? What about free management training? What about free access to professional development? It hasn’t been done yet. So I figure, let’s give it a try.
Paul: You talk about the idea of “Massive Emotional Commitment.” Can you tell us more about what that is?
Kevin: That’s just a common term for employee engagement. I don’t know why people make engagement so hard and confusing. It’s really simple to me. If we actually care about the organization we work for and care about the mission—if we’re emotionally committed to the company—we’re going to give extra effort. An engaged salesperson will sell just as hard on a Friday afternoon as she does on a Monday. A customer service rep will be just as patient at the end of the shift as he is at the beginning of the shift. When we care, we give extra effort, we have fewer accidents, and we stay in our jobs longer.
Paul: On your podcast, you often ask your guests to share a time when they failed and what they learned from that experience. Why do you ask this question?
Kevin: It’s the entrepreneur in me. So many people never do what they really want to do because they’re afraid they’ll fail. Or in life we get scolded by our boss, or we lose a big account, or a publisher rejects our book and we get all bummed out about it. Entrepreneurs are like, “Of course I’m going to fail. I’m going to fail a lot!” It’s just part of the process. So by asking that question—and asking it first—I’m really trying to help all the listeners out there to realize that everyone fails, and everyone fails a lot. It’s required to become successful.
Paul: You also ask your guests to finish up the interview by sharing one idea your audience can put into practice immediately. What are some of your favorite ideas that have been shared?
Kevin: A simple life-changing idea was offered by Dan Pink who said every morning, the first thing he does is write his most important task—MIT—on his whiteboard. This single act of identifying and writing down our most important task for the day dramatically increases our productivity and even our quality of life. Jason Fried, of Basecamp, said we should just cancel our next meeting. Amy Morin told us to immediately praise efforts, not results, whether at work or at home with our kids. After all, you don’t want people to fear failure, or they’ll never try.
Paul: What ideas have you implemented at home?
Kevin: One idea I’ve adopted is to ask myself each morning, “What am I willing to do today, to become the person I want to be?” It’s intended to be a journaling exercise, and I really should write it out, but usually I just take a few minutes to think about it in my head. I have three areas in life I always try to focus on: health, wealth, and relationships. So for each of those I’ll ask that question. Like, “What am I willing to do today to get the health I want to have?” And I remind myself of a bunch of stuff like eat vegan, keep the carbs to a minimum, it’s leg day don’t skip it! Stuff like that.
Paul: Can you share one really obvious idea or piece of advice that is often missed by leaders? Or people in general?
Kevin: Well it’s obvious and radical at the same time. If you boil down the definition of leadership into a single word, it’s influence. John Maxwell says leadership is influence. Ken Blanchard told me leadership is influence. And if you accept that, then you have to realize that you are leading all the time, because you are influencing all the time. We influence people when we speak up in a meeting, but we also influence the meeting by staying silent. Silence is usually viewed as consent. When we stand up to a bully at school, that person is less likely to bully in the future; if we stay silent—if we are part of bystander syndrome—that bully is more likely to bully again in the future. Psychologists have shown that “social contagion” exists even among strangers. If we’re in a cafeteria line and I grab the fries instead of the fruit—and I would definitely do that—you are more likely to grab the fries as well. Whether I wanted to or not, I influenced you. I led you. This obvious idea is radical because it means leadership is not a choice. We are leading all of the time, whether we want to or not.

Q&A with Paul Downs, Author of Boss Life (Part II)

Paul Downs started making custom furniture in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. Downs has only one line on his résumé, but he has a wide variety of skills gained in twenty-five years of running his business. His clients range from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the military, and foreign governments. A regular contributor to both Forbes and the New York Times, Downs lives with his wife and three sons outside of Philadelphia. His latest book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, was a Forbes Best Book of the Year and Winner of 8CR Award.
Part I of this interview appeared January 5, 2018. Click here.
Axtell: Being a first time supervisor or boss is really tough. What advice do you have for those who just realized there are no instructions.

Be optimistic. It will help you find a way to get through the inevitable difficulties, and it’s essential to project confidence to those around you. If you are not an optimistic person, either develop a new persona or reconsider being a boss.
Starting a business and running a business are two different things. The work involved in opening the doors is more creative. You will be experimenting constantly, and many of the things you try will fail. The work involved in ongoing operations is more about care taking and management. Ideally, you will work out a set of procedures that are effective and sustainable and produce profit. If you can arrive at that happy situation, then the longer you are in business, the easier it gets. However, it can take a long time—I didn’t really start to get good at my business until I had been at it for more than 25 years.
Always stay calm in front of your workers and customers. Even in the worst situations, keep ahold of yourself.
If you are the boss: Your actions every day create the culture in your company. Do you want honest, loyal, hardworking people? Be that yourself. Don’t tolerate anything else from yourself or any of your people. If you are a supervisor: there will be many things out of your control. Work with what you’ve got to encourage your crew.
Most people are good, and will perform well in the right environment. Some people are not. Get rid of them as soon as you can. Bad workers can poison a workplace.
Praise people when they are doing a good job. Spread the praise around, or you will be perceived as having favorites. Criticize people in private, unless it is a formal disciplinary meeting (see above.) Then you need a witness.
If you are the boss: Find someone outside of your organization to confide in about work issues. Don’t talk about employee issues with your other workers if you can possibly avoid it. If you are a supervisor: you should have someone within the organization to provide training and guidance. If you don’t, look for it.

Axtell: What agreements or rules to live by would you put in place if you were just starting out as a first-time boss?
Downs: If your work is destroying your personal life, change course. If your work is bankrupting you, change course. If your work is making you sick, change course. If you aren’t cut out to be a boss, it’s OK to stop. The boss life is difficult and not for everyone. There’s no shame in admitting that it’s not working out.
Axtell: Would I be happier if my life had more security?
Downs: The short answer: security is an illusion, nobody really has any. Bad luck comes in a million guises and can sting you and me as easily as anyone else.
The long answer: In my mind, security has two aspects: agency and resource. Agency is whether I have the freedom to act as a I wish, as opposed to having the will of others imposed on me. As a boss, I’ve always had plenty of agency. I’m in control of myself and make decisions as I wish. It’s been very satisfying, and it makes me very happy. If the deal was that I would be more subject to the control of others, with more money guaranteed, I’d probably be less satisfied. I’ve been a boss my whole life because, at root, I don’t like to be told what to do.
As for resource: I believe that most of us are wired to want more than whatever amount we have, and also designed so that the satisfaction of gaining more quickly wears off. I know I feel this way myself. I’ve become richer over the years, and have now far outpaced the average American. By any objective metric, I’ve achieved a level of wealth that should make me feel secure. But I don’t. Extrapolating, it’s unlikely I will feel much different if my wealth continues to increase. So I probably wouldn’t be much happier if I got richer.
The real answer: I’m happy already. I’ve been blessed with more than I or anyone deserves. Even thinking about improving my situation further is hubris.

Part 1

Q&A with Paul Downs, Author of Boss Life (Part I)

Paul Downs started making custom furniture in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. Downs has only one line on his résumé, but he has a wide variety of skills gained in twenty-five years of running his business. His clients range from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the military, and foreign governments. A regular contributor to both Forbes and the New York Times, Downs lives with his wife and three sons outside of Philadelphia. His latest book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, was a Forbes Best Book of the Year and Winner of 8CR Award.
I sincerely appreciate that Paul Downs pulled time away from his business and family to answer some questions for us. First-line supervisors have tough jobs and often little training. I expect that Paul’s comments will resonate with many and hopefully provide insight and new approaches. Paul also demonstrates a level of sharing and vulnerability that we can all strive to duplicate in our lives.
Axtell: Paul, you wrote: “You can’t understand a boss without knowing what he goes home to.” Please share more of your thinking about this.
Downs: You can evaluate a boss with objective metrics: growth, profit, whatever you can measure. And that may be enough. If you want to get a better sense of how someone operates and why they are the way they are, you need to look deeper. Who is that person? Why do they do what they do? Were they born that way or are they reacting to circumstances? And what are the circumstances? Are they only work events or is there more?
Ideally, the time spent away from work gives the boss an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next challenge. However, that’s not guaranteed. Personally, I found that having a special needs child led me to decide not to work long hours and to make sure I didn’t arrive home with my batteries completely discharged. That undoubtedly had an effect on the growth and success of my company.
Axtell: Paul, these three sentences struck me in one part of your book.

The day you have children, you enter a different world.
Every couple has a fight that just keeps coming back.
Keeping a barrier between work and home was a mistake.

How do you see these statements being related, and what did you learn from this?
Downs: There’s nothing unusual about these statements other than that they appeared in a business book. The first two are simply self-evident truth. If you are in a relationship and have had kids, you don’t need any further explanation. And if you aren’t and don’t, now you know what to look out for.
The last statement, that keeping the things that happened to me at work hidden from my wife and children, was a mistake for me. I’m not sure that this is the best approach for all people. If I had been capable of forgetting the stresses of work when I crossed my threshold each day, things might have worked out differently. As it happened, my family lived for years with a man who, on occasion, was upset, distant, and prone to sudden explosion for no apparent reason. Later they got a man who still exhibited those faults and was willing to share the reasons why, and assured his loved ones that they were not at fault. I found that providing a summary of my day, good or bad, allowed me to be a better father.
Axtell: Where does your best thinking occur…on your bike…elsewhere?
Downs: It can happen anywhere, really. My bike ride to work is especially nice because it’s a very low-traffic, flat, easy route. That’s a good time to let my mind wander. But I’m thinking of business problems all the time, and good ideas pop up in a variety of situations.
Axtell: What does a good boss do when an employee underperforms?
Downs: A good boss sets clear expectations from the beginning. When those aren’t met, I first ask myself what I did to contribute the problem. Have I provided the proper tools to do the job? The proper materials to work with? And does the employee have all of the information they need to succeed? Those things are my responsibility, and if an honest analysis reveals that I failed, I correct the situation.
When I’ve done what I should have, then I start with a discussion with the employee. They usually know that they have been underperforming, but sometimes they have no idea. I review the expectations with them and give them a chance to provide an explanation. I make it clear that excuses are interesting, but don’t absolve them of the need to do their job.
If a verbal warning doesn’t work, I have developed a procedure that serves as a formal warning to the employee. I write down what the problem is, examples of when and how it occurred, how this violates our company policies, what would constitute a correction of the behavior, and what the consequences are for failure to correct the problem. I get a witness and bring the employee into my office for a formal review of this document. This tends to be a very scary experience for the employee, which is what I want. Good workers straighten up. Bad workers either quit or have been given notice of the consequences of their actions. If they continue to underperform, I fire them. I make sure that the firing is done the same way: with a written description of the problem, with a chance to respond, but with the final consequence already determined.
Our employee manual has a list of behaviors that will lead to instant firing. When I’ve had to do that, I still go through the procedure: written description and meeting with witness. Sometimes I film the meeting.
None of this is fun, and describing it is a lot easier than doing it. Disciplinary meetings are the worst things I have to do as a boss. However, I believe that the procedure is fair to everyone: to the employee involved, to the company, and especially to the other workers. Bad colleagues make good employees feel bad. The boss owes it to those who are doing a good job to have the guts to discipline underperformers and get rid of people who aren’t working out.

Part 2

Q&A with Anese Cavanaugh, author of Contagious Culture

As a fantastic follow-up to Mindy Hall’s Q&A early this month, Anese Cavanaugh is here to continue the conversation of living with intention – both in work and life – and even takes it a step further with “how you show up matters.”
Anese is the award-winning creator of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®) as well as an advisor and thinking partner to leaders and organizations committed to creating significant positive impact, authentic leadership, and healthy cultures. Cavanaugh built the IEP Method to help people unlock even greater leadership potential, collaborate more inspiringly, create more openly, intuit more bravely, and lead more joyfully and effectively.
As a leading voice on intention, energy, and presence in leadership, collaboration, and cultural optimization, she’s devoted to helping people show up and bring their best selves to the table in order to create impact in the world while feeling amazing doing so.
PAUL: Let’s start with the first word in the title of your book: Contagious Culture. How can leaders be contagious?
ANESE: First, it’s important to remember that we are having impact in every moment – either positive and contributory, negative and depleting, or beige (nothing, just blah). And that impact is contagious. It ripples. It affects others. People take our lead and will “match” our energetic state. (Even unconsciously.)
The leader sets the tone by the mood and energy he or she brings into the room or into any conversation. Simplest way to look at this is that we’ve (likely) all had the experience of being in a conversation with someone else where we’re in a good “space,” the person we’re talking with isn’t, and all the sudden (or slowly) we start to feel our mood, our space, and energy shift/drop/deplete. We’ve just matched that person’s energy. Their energy is contagious. People do it with us, we do it with them. We’re all contagious. This super power can be used for good or evil.
You’ll also see contagious leadership in terms of the way someone talks about another person or a situation – the strongest energy will often “win,” so often times something that starts out as a somewhat neutral conversation will turn either highly positive or negative based upon the leader’s opinion and energy on the topic/person.
Assumptions, gossip, beliefs, talking smack, talking beautifully, focusing on the negative, focusing on the positive, complaining or leading, taking an “author” stance or a “victim” stance – these are all contagious and can catch on like wildfire.
PAUL: Can you describe what intention means to you and how to best practice it?
ANESE: To me an intention is putting my mind to what I want to have happen. It is claiming emotionally/mentally/energetically what I want to happen in this next moment, this next meeting, this next conversation, this project, this relationship, etc. It doesn’t mean it will always, but when I set the intention and show up in a way that supports it, I’m much more likely to create that outcome.
You can set intentions at the beginning of the day or before any meeting or conversation for what you want to have happen, how you want to feel, the impact you want to have –anything. It can be as simple as the thought and internal proclamation, or you can go through the process of writing it down. You can set intentions with your partner (personal or professional), with your team, or with your clients. I even set them with my kids. One of the three components of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®) is the “ability to create intentional impact.” There is a “5-Steps to Creating Intentional Impact” framework that I teach in our courses and also in the book Contagious Culture.
PAUL: Please share three of your most powerful teaching ideas.
ANESE: 1. How you Show Up matters. Your presence is your impact. No matter how brilliant you are or high level your position, if your presence is such that it leaves people feeling anything less than safe, connected, and inspired – your brilliance will only take you so far. And it works the other way; you can always optimize impact and results by being even more aware and intentional of how you Show Up and how you impact others. Small shifts go far. Who you want to be and how you Show Up communicates far more than skills. To quote the lovely Maya Angelou, “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” This speaks to the intention, energy, and presence of the leader.

The Leadership Trifecta: Impact + Self-Care + People. In my work I’ve found there are generally three types of leaders:

the one who is great at their craft and creating impact and results; however, they’re burnt out, exhausted, and compromising their own well-being and self-care and personal relationships. (Has “impact” but not “self-care.” Not sustainable.)
the leader who is great with self-care and “balance” but is not great at creating impact and results and not that effective. People like them, but they just don’t get it done. (Has “self-care” but not “impact.” Not sustainable.)
the leader who has the impact AND self-care piece down; however, they leave “dead bodies” wherever they go (worst case scenario), or they’re just not great at influencing others and getting people to follow them. This is the kind of leader who does great things but at the cost of people, morale, and cultural health. This is also the kind of leader that people follow because they HAVE to (job, paycheck, etc.) vs. they WANT to (inspired, on purpose, safe, etc.) (Not sustainable.)

You need all three elements. They don’t have to be perfect. But being in awareness and in process helps a lot.

The IEP Method® itself is another powerful component of what I teach. Too much to go into here (see book or another program), but the idea is that we have huge influence over how we Show Up and our Intentional Energetic Presence, and there are ways to set us up to do this well. Those ways are in the IEP Methodology.

PAUL: If you had an audience full of new professionals, just joining an organization, what advice would you give them?
ANESE: How you Show Up matters. Period. For yourself AND for others.
This includes for other people in leadership and collaboration, but even more so for yourself so you can Show Up well and sustainably and cleanly for others.
For you (and ultimately for them): Take care of yourself. Do whatever you need to do to make sure that your body, your mind, your heart, and your spirit are in good shape so that you can lead well, feel good, and be the best instrument of change possible.
For them (and ultimately for you): Be intentional about your impact. Be in service of the other person or the team or the work you’re doing. Get out of your own way in terms of fear or ego and “am I doing it right” and focus on what will serve this human most.
When you have the foundational IEP and are Showing Up well for yourself, it makes it easier to be in service of and clean and clear for others.
PAUL: And on the same coin, if your audience were a room full of CEOs, what advice would you give them about interacting with the younger generation joining up?
ANESE: Don’t get caught up in the “Millennial Story.” See them as humans. Show Up with and for them. Ask them to Show Up with you, with each other, for themselves, and for the mission at hand. Connect them to purpose and WHY they matter and WHY their work matters in your organization; co-design roles and how you’ll work together; be flexible about designing what schedules look like so they can bring their whole selves to work – healthy and well and inspired; and do not get sucked into any story that says they are somehow harder to work with or don’t care. The younger generation needs to be seen, heard, called forth to create impact, and know that what they’re doing matters. Very much like any aged human being in your organization. 😉

Q&A with Mindy Hall, PhD, author of Leading with Intention

There is much insight to gain from Mindy Hall and her answers below, but perhaps my favorite is her personal motto: “I want it to matter that we met.” It is obvious to see through her work as CEO of Peak Development Consulting and author of Leading with Intention: Every Moment Is a Choice that she truly believes every interaction is an opportunity, that every action has an impact, and that one person alone can make a difference.
Read on below, and you can also find Mindy at Peak Development Radio, the Growing Your Organization blog, and through her contributions to Entrepreneur.
Paul: I love the concept of intention and I often express it in my work as “this shall be.” Would you please explain the power of intention as you see it?
Mindy: Leading with intention is built on a foundation of awareness—of ourselves, our mindsets, our impact on others, and of the context in which we operate. It is about being mindful of how we “show up” in the world, what tone we set, and having both an understanding and ownership of the contribution we make to any dynamic.
Paul: You have over 25 years of experience in developing leaders and working with some of the country’s top companies – what are the signs of someone not working with intention?   
Mindy: Most leaders come to their leadership more from an intuitive place than an intentional place. Don’t get me wrong, there are many leaders who do quite well from an intuitive place, but time and time again I have seen the impact of leaders who don’t just rely on intuition and old patterns of how they lead but rather make a conscious choice of how they are going to lead. It can be small things like how present a leader is when someone is talking with them; or as large as shaping the whole culture of an organization. What leaders model is what companies become, and the tone they set has a direct correlation to the business outcomes that are achieved. When someone is not leading with intention, they are leaving tremendous potential on the table for their organization to be more.
Paul: What’s the first step to becoming more intentional?  
Mindy: The first step in becoming more intentional is in ratcheting up your self-awareness of how you “land”/how you “show up” in an interaction, how you are experienced. When I coach executive leaders, I focus my efforts around three layers of growth – you can think about it visually as three concentric circles: The innermost circle is Awareness, which is simply the cognitive aspects of understanding one’s behavior…having the awareness to see how you are impacting others. Integration is the next concentric circle, and it represents the behavioral element of turning that cognitive data into action – intentionally choosing how you want to impact others and then doing what you say you want to do. Embodiment is the outer-most circle, and it represents consistency over time. It’s like any new thing we are trying to do; it takes understanding how to do it, then doing it, then repeating it over and over again until it becomes a new way of operating. It’s like deciding you want to get physically fit; you have a cognitive understanding of what that will take (perhaps a couple more days at the gym per week or a few more runs in the park), and then you start to incorporate that behavior into you routine. As you do that consistently over time, it becomes a new way of operating.
Paul: Like most people, I worry a lot about technology and multi-tasking – and how they seem to be eroding our ability to be present. How can we get back to treating each moment with the attention it deserves?
Mindy: To me it’s simply about making the choice to do so. I think we have forgotten the simple truth that we are 100 percent responsible for how we behave in this world. Circumstances may dictate curves in the road sometimes, but how we show up in the face of those is entirely within our hands. How we choose to be present or not is entirely within our control.
Paul: Your philosophy is that “I want it to matter that we met.” This is a fantastic perspective for anyone, but I think it may be particularly helpful for young people starting off their careers and developing their networks. Can you share a bit more on this?
Mindy: Every interaction is an opportunity; every action has an impact; every moment is a choice.  I am a big believer that one person truly can make a difference in this world and that, although our challenges may seem large and overwhelming, if we focus on affecting the universe of people that we are in contact with on a daily basis, it is much like a pebble in a pond with ripples that emanate, impacting not only those we are in contact with but those they are in contact with as well.
Paul: Your blog post – Meet Your Heroes – reminds me of the notion of not settling for less than what might be possible. Please tell us about this concept.
Mindy: When I started my doctoral program, our university president stood up and said, “You are not getting a PhD; you are becoming one.” He encouraged us to put ourselves in the circle of people we admired – the authors, the theorists, the practitioners – to reach out and be in conversation with those individuals. The story I had about these people was that they would not make time for someone who did not have the same status; my story could not have been more wrong. It pushed me to move beyond my self-generated perception and opened up wonderful doors and opportunities for learning that otherwise would not have been possible. It boiled down to simply pushing beyond my comfort zone.
Paul: A big part of your expertise is learning. What are some of your best practices when it comes to learning?
Mindy: For my own learning, I am a big reader. Right now, I’m reading Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School by Idris Mootee. He describes design thinking as the “search for a magical balance between business and art; structure and chaos; intuition and logic; concept and execution; playfulness and formality; and control and empowerment.” It’s stretching my thinking in lots of good ways.