Category: Career

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 David Burkus, author of Under New Management

David Burkus is a best-selling author, an award-winning podcaster, and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University. His latest book, Under New Management, challenges the traditional and widely accepted principles of business management and proves that they are outdated, outmoded, or simply don’t work — and reveals what does.
Read on for David’s insights on creativity, technology and how to be a popular boss.
Paul: Thank you, David, for you time and for your insights. In your book, The Myths of Creativity, you outline a practical approach for everyone to find new ideas. Would you share the essence of this approach with us?
David: Myths are stories we develop as a society or culture to explain mysterious things about the world or to reinforce shared beliefs. We’ve done the same thing with creativity. There are a lot of misconceptions about where it comes from or how it’s supposed to work that stand in the way of reaching our true creative potential. When we rewrite the myths about how creativity works, everybody benefits. For example, the Eureka Myth suggests that creative moments just appear suddenly rather than being the product of hard work.
Paul: Distraction and technology seem to be eroding our time alone – what do you think the consequences of this will be and what we can do that might impact this trend.
David: I’m both excited and terrified by connective technology. On the one hand, connectivity is going to enhance the amount of information we have access to and hence the raw material we can use to generate new ideas. On the other, as a temptation for distraction, that same technology can be a huge productivity killer. Everything in moderation – technology too.
Paul: You feature many influential authors and thinkers – like Daniel Pink and Nancy Duarte – on your podcast. Can you name four or five ideas that have come out of your of interviews that have somehow changed who you are or how you live your life?
David: I’m not sure I could narrow it down to four or five ideas, but I can mention a theme I’ve noticed with lots of people: time. Spectacular achievement, more than luck or talent, seems to be the result of putting in the time and continuing to work and improve. I realize that sounds like a cliché or something you’d see in a photo on Facebook, but at the same time, the reverse implication is fascinating. If you’re working hard on making a dent in the universe, you need to give yourself time and not get so frustrated that you haven’t “arrived” yet. It takes time.
Paul: You interviewed Anders Ericsson. How can we apply the idea of deliberate practice in everyday life even when we don’t have ten thousand hours or the desire to be the world’s best?
David: It takes a coach. When I interviewed him, he emphasized the role of feedback and spending time practicing what is hard over and over again until it’s not so hard. It’s not about the number of hours you rack up…it’s about how well spent those hours are. And without a coach or a guide, those hours likely won’t be used to their full potential.
Paul: What advice do you have for first-time supervisors who aspire to be a popular boss that everyone respects?
David: When people read my book Under New Management, they usually have one of two questions. Either they ask how to get started, or they ask what they can do if they’re not the CEO. Ironically, both are the same. Whether you’re sitting in the top seat, or you’re a brand-new manager, figure out what is blocking your people from doing their best work and find a way to eliminate it or shield them from it. Most people want to make a positive contribution, and many times the bureaucracy gets in the way. Your goal is to innovate the organization so that you can set talent free.

Q&A with Dr. Liane Davey

Dr. Liane Davey is a psychologist, business strategist, author and speaker. The co-founder of 3COze, she works daily to take healthy teams to the next level of performance and to rehabilitate teams that have become unproductive and toxic.
She does this by combining her expertise in strategy with her deep insight into group dynamics – and because of this, she is sought out by some of North America’s leading financial services, high-tech and healthcare organizations.
If you like what she has to say below about meetings, networking and workplace relationships, please be sure to check out her two books: Leadership Solutions and You First.
Paul: As you know, a lot of my work centers around conversations in the workplace and meetings in particular. I love your take on the best way to decline a meeting invitation – can you share it with my readers?
Liane: When you receive a meeting invitation, it’s important to think about whether or not it’s a good use of your time to attend the meeting. Don’t just “accept” as a reflex.

First, consider whether the meeting is set up for success. Is the topic timely? Are the right people invited to ensure you can make the required decisions? If the meeting isn’t set up for success, suggest ways to make it more effective or recommend that it be canceled or postponed.
If the meeting seems like a good one, next you should ask yourself whether you’re the right person to attend. Are you the right person from your team? Does the issue need someone more senior? Is it an opportunity to delegate to someone more junior? Is there unique value you can add above and beyond the others who will be in attendance? If you’re not the right person to attend, it’s appropriate to decline and possibly suggest someone else in your stead.
Finally, even if it’s an important meeting and you can add value to the discussion, it might not be the most important thing for you to be doing at this particular time. Think hard about the opportunity cost of attending the meeting and make a call based on what’s most important for you to pay attention to. If you have something to contribute but can’t afford to attend, ask to contribute in advance or to attend for only parts of the meeting.

If you’ve decided at any one of these three points that you should decline the meeting, be polite and helpful. Regardless of which option is best for you, be deliberate and thoughtful about which meetings you attend and be forthcoming about your rationale for declining an invite.
Paul: Also in the workplace, you make a distinction between venting and gossip. In your opinion, what’s the difference between the two and how should both be handled?
Liane: Venting is when someone uses another person as an outlet for a buildup of negative emotions. They bluster away with a litany of issues and you have no room to get a word in edgewise. For the most part, venting is not aimed at anyone in particular and after a few minutes, the person feels better and carries on. Gossip is a more personal attack on an individual who isn’t there to defend himself. Gossip is insidious and quickly destroys trust in a workplace. If you’re on the receiving end of office gossip, there are a few things you can do. If you believe there is some truth to what the person is saying, you can channel the frustration into a forum where it can be addressed. For example, if your coworker is complaining that Sally was rude to him during the meeting and his ideas got short shrift, you can suggest that he ask to have the issue put back on the agenda. If you don’t believe there is merit to your coworker’s complaints, it’s important to say so. Where possible, take the third party out of the conversation and insert yourself instead. “Frank, I thought Sally was very polite, and she only asked to move along once we had spent 30 minutes on the topic. I don’t think you had enough data to support changing our approach. I’m happy to give you my thoughts on what it would take to reverse the decision.” Regardless of whether you think the gossiper has a legitimate point or not, the idea is to make it very uncomfortable for him to whisper about the issues rather than raise them in an appropriate forum. If every time your coworker gossips to you, you force her to have a grown up conversation, you’ll probably hear a lot less gossip!
Paul: What’s the most impactful way to help out a coworker who is stressed out?
Liane: First, although stress isn’t contagious in the traditional sense, it is common to pick up on the emotional states of others. Be careful when you’re helping a teammate who is stressed out not to take on their stress yourself. With that said, there are a few things you can do to be helpful. First, help reduce the stress that comes from isolation by listening and being empathetic. If you notice that their verbal or non-verbal behavior is concerning, just point it out. “I’ve heard a few big sighs coming from your direction. What’s up?” As you get the person talking, help them figure out the root cause of the problem and suggest some ways they might make things better. If the workload is too high, help them prioritize or solicit some help. If they aren’t sure how to accomplish a task, help break it down into more manageable steps. Even if you can’t help to reduce the stressors, you can probably help reduce the toll that stress is taking on your coworker. If you notice your coworker skipping lunch, grab her a bite to eat at her desk or encourage other healthy habits, like going for a quick walk or watching a funny video on the web. Don’t just ignore a coworker who’s stressed out. Take a moment to help them become more self-aware and to problem solve about how to get out from under the wave.
Paul: In Harvard Business Review, you’ve written about the two sides of networking – instrumental and psychological – with most people not understanding the importance of the latter. Can you expand on why this part of networking seems to be missing for most people?
Liane: Networks (just like mentors) can provide both instrumental (job- or goal-related) and psychosocial (emotional) support. Many people rely on their network for one, but not the other. If you’re the type of person who is great at getting job leads, competitive intelligence, or new business opportunities from your network, great! But are you also finding folks to talk to about the more personal aspects of succeeding at work? Networks can provide great support in helping you manage stress, think about work-life balance, and deal with difficult bosses or coworkers. These are very valuable contributions from a network and shouldn’t be neglected. On the other hand, many people do the opposite with their network: they over-index on the psychosocial support and forget to reach out when then need on-the-job help. Don’t feel sheepish about asking for assistance on a job hunt or in finding new clients. Your support network can be a great career-booster, too!
Paul: Can you tell us a bit more about speaking with impact and writing powerfully?
Liane: I’m really passionate about good communication. Unfortunately, it’s very rare these days. Too much communication is unidirectional and just blasted into the world with little thought about its intent or impact. If you’re sending a message, start by thinking about the impact you want to have. Obviously, think about the information you have to transmit, but don’t stop there. Once you’re clear what people need to know after reading your message, clarify what you want them to think, how you want them to feel, and what you want them to do after reading. Then write your message with those outcomes in mind. If you want people to do a certain thing, have you infused your message with the right facts and emotions to spur action? If not, go back and revise the message until it creates the desired effect. Once you’ve got the content right, make sure your writing is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the message you’re trying to convey. Take out the fancy words and simplify your language. Clean up your grammar and make sure verb tenses all match (especially if you’re using bullet points). You’ll know that you’ve written a strong communication if the words don’t get in the way of what you want people to think, feel, and do!
Paul: Would you share what you are currently working on or other ideas that you have been exploring?
Liane: I’m spending considerable time and energy devoted to improving the use of conflict in the workplace. I’m really concerned that we’ve become conflict avoidant and we’re paying the price in reduced innovation, poor risk mitigation, and eroding trust. I’m trying to change people’s mindsets to understand the value of conflict and then to build the skills to have productive conflict. It’s such an important topic, but one many people are reluctant to talk about.