Nia Thomas [00:00:02]:
Hi, listeners. Welcome to year two of the Knowing Self, Knowing Others podcast, where we discuss self aware leadership with thinkers from around the globe. Join me on my learning journey as we talk to today’s guest listeners. I’m joined today by Robert Jordan. Over the last 25 years, Robert has launched companies and helped other owners and investors build their companies. After founding the first Internet coverage magazine in the world called Online Access and landing on the Inc 500 list of fastest growing companies, robert sold the magazine and began taking on interim CEO roles. He then started an online network in 2007 for interim executives and co founded Interim Execs with Olivia Wagner. It’s a recruitment company helping owners and investors with powerful leadership on demand.
Nia Thomas [00:00:55]:
He’s the author of How They Did It billion Dollar Insights into the Heart of America and publishing partner for Start with no, Jim Camp bestselling book on negotiation. He’s also written Right Leader, Right Time with Olivia to share findings from years serving as a professional matchmaker and helping create better teams and better companies. Robert, it’s brilliant to have you here.
Thank you, NIA. It’s a pleasure to be with you. Virtually at least.
Nia Thomas [00:01:22]:
Virtually, at least. Robert, tell us a little bit about your journey from that time when you were pulling your online magazine together to becoming a CEO and then founding Interim Execs.
Well, journey is definitely the word. I’m eclectic. Entrepreneurial, for sure. I had spotted a need early on, actually too early for Online Access magazine. But around the world, there were these commercial online services and mostly incomprehensible to the great massive population. And so we put out a consumer magazine. In the beginning, it was too early. It was very painful, money losing.
Eventually, you know, the World Wide Web came around, thanks to a brilliant engineer close by your hometown. NIA. Tim Bernersley was the inventor of the World Wide Web. And when the World Wide Web came around, then it was like I could do no wrong. And so online Access, it doubled in size every year. And there’s a ranking in the US called the Yank 500 fastest Growing Businesses. So it put us on that list. So I was in publishing for a while, as you said, and then picked up on what in the US was a very weird job title of being an interim CEO.
England was many years ahead of the US in terms of interim leadership roles, along with France and Germany and Netherlands. Now, as you and I are recording this, NIA, it has caught up full speed in the US. And so the concept of leadership on a project or fractional basis is now everywhere and pervasive. So we’ve had so many executives show up on our proverbial doorstep, about 8000 in the past decade, and saw these patterns in what we started calling leadership style, and we really felt like we had to write about it. We saw one pattern which was not very good. The majority of leaders were having leadership journeys and careers that you would describe as okay, but not great. And then if you looked at the top two, three, 4%, these are leaders having exceptional experiences and impact, and they exhibited leadership, what we would call leadership style in one of four categories. And our feeling was that for successful people, it would become as distinct as your own fingerprint.
And so we felt we had to write about that.
Nia Thomas [00:03:54]:
Tell us more about those styles that you’ve talked about. I’m aware that they are fixer artist, builder and strategist. And I’m aware of that because I’ve already been to your website and I’ve done your assessment and I’m for listeners, I’m a strategist and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s totally me. But tell us more about those different styles. How did you develop those patterns? How did you identify those four particular styles?
Well, first, NIA, it’s a relief to hear that we got it right. I will say that. So the assessment is called Fab’s Leadership Assessment. Fabs, which is the shorthand for fixer, artist, builder, strategist. So fab’s leadership assessment. And I invite listeners. It’s a free should probably have taken you about three, four minutes to do.
Nia Thomas [00:04:44]:
Yeah, it didn’t take very long at yeah.
Okay, good. So it is an assessment at the website for the book, which is rightleader.com, and everybody can take it. And the final question that it asks you is, did we get it right or wrong? Yes. No. But back to the model. The model is that we spotted four distinct kinds of genius of energy, if you will, and we gave them those labels fixer, Artist, Builder, Strategist. Fixer is the energy that if you see a burning building and you have to run into it to save everyone, you’ve got fixer energy. What distinguishes leadership, where someone is strongly wired or dominantly wired that way, is they need to keep on doing that over and over again in their career.
And steady state businesses, maintenance kind of roles will not only bore the fixer, but they’ll start breaking things just so they can fix something. That’s fixer energy, artist, energy. Artist is the innovator, the creative that cannot turn it off. Artist is the energy that sees the world as a blank canvas or a piece of clay to be, you know, there’s a standout example in the world right now who is Elon Musk, and I’m not talking about what was formerly known as Twitter. You look at what Elon has done in Tesla SpaceX and The Boring Company, and it’s truly remarkable. It would be easy to take for granted that 20 plus years ago, the idea that an electric vehicle that EV would take over the world, that was just kind of silly because internal combustion engines, gasoline, power is really efficient. It’s very efficient form of power. So it looked kind of crazy.
And yet we are now in a world pretty much single handedly reengineered thinking the same for private space travel. So these are examples of innovator kind of energy writ large. But if you have someone on your team, or if you are the person who is the renegade, you’re not necessarily always inside. You can kind of be the outside person, but you keep coming up with ideas, and it is, how are we going to disrupt our industry? How do we leap forward, not just step or crawl? That’s artist, energy, builder. Now, I know everybody in any organization, we are all builders. I get that we mean something a little more specific, which is the energy that takes the small, the nascent set of client relationships, product, team, division, and is driven for market domination. It is driven around people product process to dominate in a market. Could be global, could be national, could just be in your hometown.
In Boston, in the US. There’s a bakery chain that whenever I’m in Boston, I’ve got to go. And it’s not only delicious, it’s great product, but they have a presence in the Boston area that is dominant. And at the heart of that business, there’s a builder, there’s a baker, there’s a builder, there the Strategist style NIA that relates to you. This is the energy that can deal with business at scale, where you are within vast or complex organization that is beyond, as Stephen Covey put it, personal span of control in a lot of cases, fixer, artist and builder energies. You will see those folks, and the team is five, it’s ten, it’s 15, it’s 50 people. Maybe it’s 100. But there tends to be more of an ability to get work done based on personal relationship.
And you know me and I know you, and so this is what we have to get done. Strategist does not always have that at their beck and call. They’re within an organization that’s really large. They do have trusting relationships, but it tends to be that they need a toolkit which is different from the other styles. The language is very different. Of these four Strategist, you will always hear about having been mentored, about mentoring others as being really important. Loyalty is critical within large organizations where you have Strategists, cross training, longevity. These are concepts that, while they’re not foreign to Fixer Artist and Builder.
And Fixer Artist and Builder can be in large organizations, but that’s not the language they use for how they express how they get work.
Nia Thomas [00:09:23]:
Oh, that’s fascinating. Listeners, you can probably already hear some of what Robert’s saying is you. So I would definitely recommend you go online and have a look at that assessment and see how you pan out. We’re interested in self awareness and self aware leadership. How does that play out across Fixer, artist, Builder and Strategist? Is there an element of self awareness across them all? Is somebody more self aware than another?
I’m so glad we’re talking about this and I know this is part of your expertise and specialty. I do have to start and it’s not politically correct anymore, but there was a series of movies made by Clint Eastwood around a police detective. The nickname of the detective was Dirty Harry. I’m sure a lot of people Inspector Harry Callahan. Anyway, one of the most famous lines Clint Eastwood had from one of the movies was a man’s got to know his limitations. And I think there is some of this that goes on with great leadership as a form of self awareness. We specifically identified three commonalities among exceptional leaders and those common themes. So there are differences in terms of what we call leadership style.
Style was our shorthand way of talking about the fact that great leaders develop a process and an approach and something almost amounting to a system that causes or helps them to be successful. We see that there are three commonalities among great leaders. The first is they tend to double down within their expertise. That is something that automatically requires more of an authentic kind of awareness of who you are to know what that is. The second is they tend to be better at collaboration. Now we know everyone in the workplace, we oh my gosh, we’re all so great at collaborating. Well, okay, maybe I believe that if you are not all that secure in your own style of leadership, if that confidence, that authentic confidence is not really there, it’s much harder to collaborate because true collaboration is that when it’s within my sphere of genius, everyone knows, just give me the ball. But there are going to be a lot of things in which that does not apply for a team to be firing in all cylinders and it’s going to, for example, be you NIA on the team where we know you have to run with this here.
And for everyone else in the team to truly do that and to trust you requires that we are all more secure in what our capabilities are. And so that requires a kind of self knowledge and self awareness that is not necessarily commonplace. The third trait that I would say causes or is inspired by awareness. The way we put it in the book is great leaders don’t hide. And it’s best illustrated by negative examples. You see this all around you in terms of leaders that absolutely will not take responsibility, be held to account or own up to what they have mean. One of the greatest examples I think is so know this is mostly in the you know, there’s a big bank, Silicon Valley Bank, that just failed. And it was a big deal because a lot of venture backed businesses in the world, they banked at SVB Silicon Valley Bank and it imploded seemingly within a couple of days.
But when you look at the reasons there were things they were doing that didn’t make sense for a conservative bank to do. The CEO was hauled in front of Congress and they said, is there anything you think you could have changed or done differently in the months or years leading up to this? And he said, no, there really wasn’t.
Nia Thomas [00:13:16]:
Maybe he should come on the show and have a conversation. That would be interesting.
Good luck. I can give you a rogues gallery of people, some we wrote about in the book, because to your point of self awareness, I believe that any successful leadership style carried to too much of an extreme leads to disaster for the person and usually for the organization around them. And that is brought on by a lack of self awareness.
Nia Thomas [00:13:43]:
Yeah, everything in moderation. And I think even if you’re drawn towards being a strategist, you still have to be able to be a builder and an artist and creative and whatever else those things are at that given point in time, even if you have a propensity to.
I’ll give you an example, NIA from your dear country. We did the book and then it’s Abraham Maslow, the saying to the man with the hammer, the world appears as a nail. Well, we get sensitized to this model of fixer, artist, builder, strategist, and then we start looking at great examples of leadership and terrible examples and does it fit into this model? And in the UK you had this example about a year ago, the CEO of PNO Ferries who fired 800 people on a zoom call, and it turns out that’s illegal under UK law. And he was brought up in front of some very sharp members of Parliament. And I don’t have the exact quote here, but it was basically asking him, are you just incompetent, or was this really an attempt at something illegal? It was a great example of the abuse of power, of what is lacking an authenticity in a leader. I think for all of us, we just don’t put up with that anymore. Nor should we.
Nia Thomas [00:15:03]:
No, absolutely. If we explore some of the different leader types that you’ve talked about. So if we think about the fixer, what are some of the challenges that they might face in, say, a crisis management situation, and how does self awareness help them navigate a crisis?
It’s great we’re talking about this. The first time I got aware of fixer as a label was a prior book. We did a book called How They Did It. And it was a series of interviews with champion company founders in the US. Who had grown from nothing up to huge size. And one of the founders we talked to, apropos of nothing, in the middle of the conversation, he said, you know, if I put a fixer into one of my companies and it’s not broken, he’ll break it just so he can fix it. And I thought, that’s fascinating. Okay, fast forward to this book.
Right, leader, and we interview a bunch of people for the book. And we knew we had a very good idea for a lot of the leaders interviewed. We think this person is a fixer. We think this person is artist energy fixer in particular. I was trying to tweak just kind of have a little fun with a lot of these leaders in these recorded interviews. I said that quote what I just said to you, they’ll break it to all these leaders because I wanted to see what their reaction was. I thought, well, they’re all going to be offended, but I have to ask anyway. None of them were offended.
They all took it. And the reaction was basically, so what? What of it? And I thought that was very interesting in terms of what is it to be self aware of your own style and how far can you take it?
Nia Thomas [00:16:47]:
How interesting? Were they particularly fixers themselves? Is that where they were coming from?
Yes, they viewed that toolkit as having a very broad application. There’s a different form of awareness, for example, among artists. Artists, and I have to tell you, I am so strongly wired as artist leader, I get this a lot of artist leaders, when talking about their particular strength there in a lot of cases can be an element of I can’t help it. And it’s not necessarily great. It’s not a printing kind of, oh, I’m the most creative person on the team. That’s not what it is. It’s much more of a compulsion that both is a superpower, but also can be limiting because you’re coming up with bad ideas along with good ones. You may be overwhelming your own team.
Absolutely necessary stagnant. If you’re in a market, a business or whatever, that’s stagnant. You have to have artist energy or you can’t get out of it. By the way, we don’t try to pigeonhole anyone. There is no leader where we would say, oh, you’re just this one thing and you’re nothing else. That’s not true. We are all bringing all of our capabilities to bear in any leadership role we have. What we are saying is that we notice a pattern among exceptional leaders, that exceptional leaders tend to have a dominant style or a dominant in the secondary style.
And that’s the research we want to advance.
Nia Thomas [00:18:17]:
We’ve spoken about fixer and test. If we talk about a builder, if they are focusing on, say, market domination and scaling, how does their health awareness help them identify gaps and opportunities in that organization or in that market?
I’m going to say a phrase to you, NIA, that you’re going to decide whether or not it’s going to make it into the show. We not only interviewed a lot of leaders for the book, and we had a base of we’d been approached by 8000 executives over a decade at Interim Execs. This matchmaker we run around the world. So based on all those thousands of executives showing up, we could see these patterns. We interviewed a number of organizational psychologists for the book because we had to know early on, are we crazy? Does this framework, does this thesis make sense to you that this could be valid? Fixer artist, builder Strategist, one of the psychologists, when we interviewed him and we described the four, when I got to builder, he said, oh, builders, now these are going to be your assholes. Why? And he said, because a builder believes they can build anything. And he was so right on. One of the most remarkable builders we ever interviewed was someone who I had known and eight companies that he had grown from small.
He wasn’t really entrepreneurial. He didn’t start the companies, he just took them when they were smaller and grew them to either a billion dollars in revenue or in multiple cases, IPOs. I’m just a phenomenal business builder, right? And talking to him at one point asking him how he had ever screwed up. And he said that in one of his companies it had a product that wasn’t that great. You have to keep in mind, part of mantra for builder is around people product process. They have to get all of that right for a small team to be able to grow to the point of dominating. Okay, he had a bad product and he thought because he’d been so successful growing in other markets, other products in other markets, that it didn’t matter, that everything else would take care of it. And he was dead wrong.
And he wasted years realizing that he could not power his way through on his own will, just his will or personality when he didn’t have the best product that he could. And in the end he said it was him.
Nia Thomas [00:20:57]:
Oh, that’s interesting that he did have the self awareness to identify the role that he played.
Absolutely, yes. It took him a while though. It was not instantaneous. And he had this feeling that if he just powered on through, didn’t matter. So it’s really interesting how these energies are different in terms of awareness the more we study it. I find this fascinating in terms of, for example, how does the market regard failure? If you’re a fixer and you fail, you’re not going to stay fixing long because you either are great at impossible saves or you’re in the wrong profession. As you and I are recording this FTX, the huge crypto exchange platform, it went bust about seven, eight months ago. The leader called in by the courts, the interim CEO called in.
If you look at his track record, his name is John Ray. He’s been a fixer his whole life. Prior to FTX, where was he enron cleaning it up to be a fixer? In small ways, of course, we all fail every day, but in major parts fixer there is no failing. Artist, on the other hand, fails all the time. We accept and we forgive because it’s absolutely part of the wiring that you’re going to know Thomas Edison. We all know the story. How many times did he try to make a light bulb? Well, however many thousands it was. The quote always described to him is, I just learned what didn’t work.
Now, there are a lot of things in life where that just isn’t going to fly. So these styles play out very differently in the way that these leaders think of themselves and the way we around them think of what their role is and should be.
Nia Thomas [00:22:38]:
That’s what I was thinking about is of these types that is more self aware than another, does it not necessarily relate?
I don’t think it relates. I think the full panoply of personality and what we all bring to our lives and all of its richness plays out across whatever leadership style there is. I also do believe, though, that any role, it’s absolute power, corruption. This applies in any one of these one of the most visible styles in terms of what can corrupt or fail a strategist, because a lot of strategist leaders tend to be in larger or more visible roles. And so too much power there. You can absolutely see how it fails.
Nia Thomas [00:23:24]:
Noted. Thank you for the advice. Tell us how you link the interim execs recruitment function with what you know about these four traits. How do you link them into organizations? Do you assess what they need in that particular role to identify it in the individual? Is that how you join those dots up for those people?
It’s a great question. And just to be clear, we didn’t write the book simply related to project paced leadership roles. That was our original Petri dish. But more broadly, we’re writing about leadership style within organizations and business. And I would say very specifically, we did not mean this to apply to things like politics. I don’t think that people who are elected to office necessarily behave the same way as within public companies, private companies, nonprofits. I think there are different drivers of accountability.
Nia Thomas [00:24:25]:
I agree. And I found something in my research that said exactly that. There is definitely something about politics that people do not conform.
I think that leadership style is an overlay, if you will, that can be a tool for all of us, both for our own self awareness as well as helping everyone else on our team to better understand us and our unique genius. So we have started using this interim execs. We have a lot of metrics for how we rank and score and screen executives. It’s incredibly hard to work with us because the bar is very high, but we do use this as a screen for clients in terms of figuring out right fit.
Nia Thomas [00:25:12]:
If you think about some of the interim execs that you have placed in organizations, are there some stories where you can say absolute success or that it’s gone completely awry or that the fit hasn’t been what you would have wanted. What are the examples that you’re seeing in practice?
Well, luckily, fortunately in the vast majority of our matchmaking work, it works brilliantly. I think part of it is because we’re dealing with executives at a caliber so high and I’m not just talking about skills in terms of that. They come in with a great set of track record and all of that attitude is critical. You not only have to be highly accomplished to do this work, but you have to have some sense of humility or it’s not going to work. So it’s very hard. It is overwhelmingly successful. I think part of it is the way that we are wired because within our organization we have a mantra and the mantra is perfect or not at all. And so because we are a private company, I am not answering to public shareholders, I’m not driven by oh, I have to get earnings up this quarter this year, I don’t have to do that.
We think that that match is outstanding and that that team is going to be happy and that the organization is going to hugely benefit and they’ll be happy. We’re not going to do it. In the few cases where it has failed, it is interesting that those failures were always around the integrity of the leader or rather the lack thereof, that was always the cause of failure. Now all of this is different NIA from what were the results. I think when you bring great people into great organizations, generally you get really good to great, you know, we live in the world and I don’t know what the future is and there’s uncertainty and so people can use their best efforts and it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going to turn out. The nature of this work and of the modern world is there are so many people in the gig economy when engagements go well between people, they tend to continue and if they don’t, they stop. Most businesses are past the concept of lifetime employment.
Nia Thomas [00:27:38]:
You mentioned something earlier that it was a global website. Are you essentially focused in the US or are you identifying leaders for organizations in other countries and across the globe?
The 8000 executives who have shown up on our doorstep, two thirds are from the US and one third are from the UK and Europe. We’ve done engagements for clients in Europe in general, a little bit in Asia because we are headquartered in the US and the majority of the executives in the US. The majority of work has been in the US. But Interimxecs.com is a global website and so we get contacted from all ah, interesting.
Nia Thomas [00:28:20]:
So listeners, if this is something that you are interested in and you want to work closer with Robert, then you should head over to the website and we will make sure that there is a link in the show notes last.
Summer we were contacted by a nonprofit. We do work on behalf of private equity funds and public companies, private owners, nonprofits. We were contacted by a nonprofit in Cornwall, and it was a very small organization, small budget, and ultimately we were not able to be of any help. But one of the things in talking with executives in the UK that I was saying is, I said, this is going to be like a summer holiday. It’s going to be gorgeous. And I was thinking, gosh, I wish I still did interim CEO assignments. I should take this myself. But I don’t do that anymore.
But I was tempted. I was very tempted.
Nia Thomas [00:29:10]:
Tempted back to the UK, that is.
Oh, my gosh, yes.
Nia Thomas [00:29:14]:
If you think about self awareness, how would you encourage leaders of any of those different types to develop their self awareness? Whether they are thinking about it within their role as an interim CEO, how are they going to develop their self awareness, particularly when they don’t have stability in those roles, and they’re particularly designed to be short term?
There has to be a pause. There has to be for all of us. And I don’t care whether you think the greatest leader that’s ever been and you have 10,000 people under you, or you just started an organization yourself, and you’re a team of one, there must be this pause for yourself. In my case, I had been meditating for 30 years. I would be a basket case. Or maybe my family would tell you more of a basket case if I did not have a pause. Meditation doesn’t need to be some grand thing. I was trained in transcendental meditation, TM, which came out of India, part of the Ayurvedic tradition.
So I’m a fan of meditation. But something as simple as giving yourself a pause where you are sitting in a quiet place and can give yourself 90 seconds to just notice your breathing. Can you just put your phone down, close the computer, and give yourself 90 seconds to just notice your breathing? Now the monkey mind is racing. It doesn’t stop for anyone. The Dalai Lama has said he can’t stop his mind from racing. But you do notice that if you just notice your breathing, to become aware of your breathing after 60 or 90 seconds, something happens.
Nia Thomas [00:31:00]:
And you become more aware. And if you can stack up 180 seconds, oh my God, you’re going to be in a different place than you were. And you come to realize that because you can notice, you can have control over your breathing. If you can have control over your breathing, you can have control over your attitude. If you have control over your attitude, you can now affect your actions.
Nia Thomas [00:31:23]:
Feedback is certainly one of the ways that we talk about developing self awareness. But if you are in the role for around six months, and maybe you haven’t been there long enough to develop that relationship with particular individuals. Who would give you that feedback? I guess it’s very important that you develop mechanisms where you can tap into your own self awareness and you don’t have to rely as much on others. Is that how you’re noticing? Or maybe that’s how you experienced it when you were an interim CEO?
I think both are valid, but internally is far more important in terms of being able to listen to the still, small voice for each of us. If we’re going to be successful in anything, in love and in life, you have to get to the point where you are listening to the still, small voice in you. We at one point interviewed a CEO who had grown an It services business from three people to 2000. And I asked him, how did you do this? Right. We had done a book called How They Did It. How does somebody grow from three to 2000? I can’t do it. Have never done it. And he said, you have to stay at the center.
I thought, oh, this is profound. I was already meditating at that point and I thought, yeah, this is what we’re getting at. The battles can be raging all around you, but you cannot be engaging in them.
Nia Thomas [00:32:50]:
Interesting. Robert, if you were to leave listeners with one piece of advice that you have learned over your 25 years in the world of work who are aspiring to be leaders and want to develop their self awareness, what is that one piece of advice that you would want to leave us with?
What I’m going to say is it’s based on all of this research we’ve done for right leader, right time. This is really easy to say, but I’m not trying to discount how hard it is, especially for someone earlier and younger in their career. Exceptional leaders tend to reject more of what is not for their highest and best use. Very hard when you’re young. You and I were talking about my daughter is at LSE and going out for that first job, and I’m the father saying please. And so early on, very hard to be completely discerning, to reject. But what happens for all of us, hopefully the longer we go in career, is we become far more intentional and confident in reinforcing our best traits and abilities and better at rejecting all of what would not be for our highest and best use.
Nia Thomas [00:34:05]:
Very good piece of advice. Thank you so much for that, Robert. It’s been really interesting having our conversation. Really interesting hearing more about your leadership models and your book and how you put all of that together to create an interim CEO recruitment and expertise firm. It’s really fascinating. Robert, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been really good.
Thank you, NIA. I’m honored. I appreciate it.
Nia Thomas [00:34:33]:
Thank you for listening to today’s episode. Remember to rate and review the podcast on your favourite podcast player. Remember to sign up to my newsletter on Knowingselfknowingothers Co UK and remember to join me on my learning journey in next week’s episode so that we can develop more self aware leaders around the globe and generate kinder, more respectful and creative working relationships through reflection, recognition and regulation. Looking forward to having you on my learning journey. The Knowing self Knowing others podcast is available on Goodpods Spotify Google Podcasts Goodpods Podchaser Amazon Music Podcast Index Podcast Addict Pocketcast Visa Listen Notes Player FM Overcast.
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