What does it take to make a good leader? Today, Ben Baker sits down with renowned speaker, award-winning author, and the Founder and CEO of Pontefract Group, Dan Pontefract. Together, they dive into the important role and functions of a leader, the things to consider when managing a team or organization, and how as simple as listening can affect culture, morale, and, ultimately, productivity and profitability.
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Lead, Care, And Win: Becoming A Leader Who Matters With Dan Pontefract
[00:01:15] I’ve got someone I have known for more years than I care to imagine. Dan Pontefract and I met a number of years ago when he was with TELUS. I was sitting in the audience with my lip open going, “This man is brilliant and I’ve watched him.” He’s got four bestselling books, including his latest book, LEAD. CARE. WIN. He’s got four TEDxs behind him. He’s an international keynote speaker. We are going to talk about the state of leadership and organizational culture. This man has one of the most classic hat collections you have ever known in your life. Dan, welcome to the show.
[00:01:52] Those are kind words but I’m only in your vortex when it comes to hats. We will chapeau later.
[00:02:00] I’ve got more baseball hats that I know what to do with and they are from all over the world. I’m a baseball hat guy. If you’ve got cool baseball hats, send them my way. You’ve got the real classic chapeaus. I’ve got a couple of them but you’ve got the really neat ones.
[00:02:15] The problem is I’ve got a really good baseball hat probably $50 or $60. Dennis gets worried about the hat collection because they are not quite $50 or $60 hats, they are a little bit more and that’s a problem.
[00:02:27] I understand this. I’ve got a friend of mine who’s got a shoe fetish. If he likes these battalion shoes and I haven’t spent that much on a suit let alone the one of his pair of shoes. He’s got a closet full of them. I look at them and go, “You better have insurance right on those shoes, just in case something happens.
[00:02:59] When you look like this, which is a very bald man and 50 years old, you need advice.
[00:03:05] I keep telling people I have a great face for radio. I embrace it. I was 6’2”. I’m now one of the pretty people. I fully admit it. I do what I can to make myself feel good. If baseball hats and shoes or things will make it work, I’m there. Let’s talk about leadership and organizational culture. First of all, let’s backtrack. Give people a little bit of a hint of where you came from. You’ve had an interesting journey that’s gotten you to where you are. Let’s get people a little history about where you came from, and where you are, and then we can talk about leadership and org development.
[00:03:52] First of all, thanks for having me here. It’s always great to chum around with you. You have a great mind, Ben. I’m thankful for this opportunity on your platform. I myself am a weirdo, to be honest. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. That turned into being a physiotherapist. I got into that and then completely right almost day one, switched over 180 to a career in Education. This is during my undergrad, where the guidance counselor said, “You are too smart for Education.” I said, “I will show you.” I taught K-12 educators, at least high school educators.
I did that for about a year and a half and realized the audience was great but maybe not my people. I got into higher education. I started running things from a higher education perspective for adults and loved it but then said, “Maybe there’s more. Maybe there’s a real-world out there.” After a few years in higher ed, I switched over to the big, bad corporate world of startups. It was a startup that eventually became a huge company called SAP. I spent six years there in the development of people and customer space.
From there, I switched over to a little company in Canada called TELUS. That is a rather huge telecommunications firm. I’m back into the development of people but then inched my way into developing other organizations still under the banner of TELUS. Along with the ways, I was an observer of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leadership and culture, employee experience, performance recognition, L&D, and so forth. I have been fortunate to have a front-row seat in the cockpit of an airplane, flying over organizations, people, teams, and things that are working and not. I got to a point where I had to put out my big boy pants and went out on my own. I have been doing that for the past few years.
If you want to care, you've got to shut up. Click To Tweet
[00:05:47] I have been watching what you do. You are a shameless self-promoter. You come from my neck of the woods. I see you everywhere. You’ve done a great job, being able to take yourself from being that corporate guy to be able to go out on your own. It’s not an easy journey. I applaud you for doing that but I want to go back. I think about the time in your teaching elementary school or high school.
I would be there with a whip, chair, and a gun. I truly believe that I am not set up to teach teenagers and I have one. You and I have talked. I love teaching, getting the best out of adults, and doing that. What took you from the high school type world to the higher education? What brought you into the culture? That’s an interesting move because there’s a delta there. There aren’t a lot of cultures that are codified within the education system. How did you make that move and bridge that delta?
[00:06:47] I looked at the classroom but also the gymnasium because I was a Math, English, and Phys Ed teacher. I looked at those settings like a microcosm of an organization quite frankly. In the gymnasium, whether I’m a coach or the Phys Ed teacher, you’ve got basketball. It’s twelve females or males. You are in charge of the health of that team if you are the coach. Similarly in a Phys Ed setting, it’s a 90-minute class and a dodge ball. You got 50 kids who are trying to kill each other on 2 sides, Marketing versus IT, let’s say. Ultimately, you are there to try and make peace, although you still are pushing them to win.
[00:07:30] Also to kill each other with a rubber ball.
[00:07:32] That’s also fun. They’re teenagers. Come on. You look in the classroom specifically and I suppose like that English teacher, I looked around and said, “This school doesn’t have a school newspaper. “Principal, can I start a new class called Journalism? Can I start another class that’s called Desktop Publishing? Can I run the two classes at the same time, so I’m teaching half of them Journalism and half of them Desktop Publishing skills to produce a monthly newspaper?”
The principal was like, “Why would you want to do that?” It’s like, “It’s because I’m here to teach. I’m also curious. There’s a void.” By the way, I’m 24 years old at the time. I’m thinking to myself, “Why not motivate these kids to do something special?” Here we are. We worked tirelessly and put out ten newspaper editions. The kids called it the Alphabet Soup. That was a bit of an insight into me.
You can do whatever the situation is, whether it’s around the boardroom, the executive table, frontline team members or in an unionized environment. It’s always about people. How is it that you can instill a sense of hope, meaning, purpose, and motivation but also find and listen to their ways to inculcate a culture that is copacetically open and transparent? They can go “home” feeling good about a good day’s work.
[00:09:01] The keyword that I picked up is listen. Looking at wherever you are within the leadership spectrum, wherever you are within an organization, whether it’s a large organization, a small organization or an organization of two, is the ability to listen effectively. Most people think that communicating ideas is all about speaking. There are a few people that have gained the skills necessary to actively listen, understand and devalue people.
Let’s deal with large organizations because that’s where you deal with mostly. How do you help organizations bridge those cultural deltas, and teach them how to listen more effectively to be able to care? That’s what the book is about lead, care, and win. Caring leads to listening or caring leads to listening. I would to hear your thoughts on that.
[00:09:55] I have a couple of anecdotes. First, I’m an ‘80s kid. I went through the ‘90s with that grunge/harder rock from Pearl Jam to The Peppers to Tragically Hip to Nirvana. In 1994/1995 Alanis Morissette put out Jagged Little Pill, an album that’s gone on to sell 33 million copies. There’s a line in the first song on the album that is as follows. “Why are you so petrified of silence? Hey, can you handle this?” After a little, it goes dead mic. When I think about that line and what the word listen is, it’s an anagram for silent. When you jumble the letters of listen around or why are you so petrified of being silence and silent equals listen. If you want to care, you’ve got to shut up.
You want to care about your people about what it is that you are trying to achieve. Goals are set top-down. The board says, “Do this.” The organization says, “We will do this.” The C-Suite sets them. It gets cascaded down. It’s the whole waterfall cascade effect in large organizations, medium sizes, and mostly small organizations. Let’s look at medium and large. To me, if you are not silent and ergo listening first before you set the goals, how do you know the goals are going to hit? How do you set a goal without listening and being silent first? “Hey, can you handle this?” I love that line from Morissette. She’s almost a pugilist in her voice saying it. She’s referring to a man in this case but I’m talking about the man.
Honestly, for me, it always comes down to that word. That can be learning, recognition, and marketing strategy. That can be your fun days. That can be hopefully, a new endemic and post-pandemic world, what’s your workforce workplace model? Are you listening to your people so that they have a say in what’s working, and what’s not for them? Mandating people into the office five days a week when they’ve done perfectly well for the past two and a half years, I get the idea of FaceTime. Don’t get me wrong. When you are mandating it, have you listened? Were you silent? Those are a few reflection points for starters.
[00:12:23] You and I listen to the same music growing up. I’m sure we went to the same concerts. When you look at it, you sit there and say, “Are people listening?” People mandate from the top down. They will say, “Here’s a directive. Follow it.” Before they create the mandate, are they looking at a set of metrics that have been dashboarded to them, filtered, whitewashed, and scrubbed?
Are they going out there and getting the facts right from the shop floor, from the people that are doing the job, people that are involved in having to implement this before moving forward? A lot of times the answer is no. That is what has led to frustration, disengagement, and Great Resignation. The question is, “How do we solve this at an executive level to change the mindset, to get them to listen, and care so they can lead effectively?”
[00:13:30] There are a few inhibitors and impediments that get in the way. One is time. You take a look at any leader’s schedule. I mean any leader, not just senior leaders or executives. It is awash with back-to-back meetings. It is awash with busyness, a pressure cooker calendar without the real ability, fortitude, and discipline to create the white space of thinking, processing, and thus listening. That would be the number one impediment.
Number two, we have this sexy fixation on EBITDA and in some cases, shareholder return if you are a publicly-traded organization. Everyone has EBITDA, and there’s a fixation on bettering the EBITDA year-over-year, quarter after quarter. It becomes an organizational fixation. I’m not saying we are here to lose money by the way. When everything is fixated on what your profitability margin number is, then what do you think is going to happen to the culture? Everyone fixates on it. That’s going to be carried out by your COO, CFO, and head of sales. I’m not against revenue or profitability, by the way.
If you have no time and you are only fixated on EBITDA and/or shareholder return, or primacy theory maximization of shareholder return, how will you have time to listen and be silent to the team members who are arguably in the trenches, on the front lines, in the weeds, in the quicksand, in the turbulent waters, in the choppy shores? What is it that you are going to glean or learn if you are not there for them, listening and paying attention?
Ultimately, you sit in a vacuum, some closed room, typically your office. To your point in credit, I had this conversation with a client. She said to me, “Dan, I cannot lead by dashboards. I don’t know if you know what’s going on around here but everyone is unmotivated. The only thing I can do is lead by the dashboard because I’m told to lead by the dashboard.” She’s dashboarding her leadership.
[00:16:22] My first thought with this, “What are we busy doing? It’s leadership. Are we busy doing effective, deep-thought work? Are we busy going from meeting to meeting?” I have this recollection and this is going back several years ago but I’m sure it would happen exactly the same now. I walk into a multibillion-dollar health authority at 7:00 in the morning. I get led up to the boardroom. Before I turn around, it’s 1:00 and we are having lunch. Before I turn around, it’s 7:00 and we are out of there. What I noticed is the majority of the people that I was talking to were there from meeting to meeting. Their minions were going in and out taking instructions and doing something.
All these people were doing was sitting in that vacuum meeting all day long, making decisions based on dashboards. I said, “When do you guys get out there, tour the facilities, see what’s going on, and talk to the people?” They say, “Never. We are busy doing this.” If all your job is doing is going from meeting to meeting, are those meetings productive? Are they moving the needle? Are they driving the culture and the right opportunities within the organization? How do we determine whether we are busy being busy or if we are busy doing work that matters?
Winning is understanding the right inputs in order to achieve the right outputs. Click To Tweet
[00:17:47] It’s a fundamentally sound question. It’s at the root of all evil inside an organization when a leader is unable to, A) Ask that question of themselves and, B) Doesn’t have the time to answer it.
[00:18:00] I’m too busy to think about it.
[00:18:01] It is some serious trouble. Let’s be clear. I’m not against meetings and EBITDA or revenues personally. You have to also think through what’s input and outcome. When I try to title a book, I try to do a Fibonacci sequence. How do you figure out what Dan’s book title is about? You could read the title in order, LEAD. CARE. WIN or as I subliminally try to get people to think about it, if you want to win, you need to care about your leadership. It’s this reverse sequence Fibonacci code. What ultimately is winning about? Winning is understanding the right inputs to achieve the right outcomes or outputs.
What are outputs? EBITDA is an output. Shareholder return is an output. Customer satisfaction is an output. An employee engagement score is output. These are all dashboards or outputs of what you put in. If you don’t put in care, for example, listening, being silent, engaging before you execute, connecting with people before you create the results, finding ways in which to go around, and having round tables, evaluations, and celebrations.
If you are not recognizing another input, not developing, not inculcating a culture of meaning and purpose, not purpose-washing but actual decision-making based on a purpose of where we stand as an organization. We can get into all kinds of examples of organizations that aren’t. These all then become outputs to the culture, for example, what the resulting behavior is, whether that’s the employee, the team member or the leader. If you’ve messed up or mucked up what those inputs are, don’t pay attention to it, don’t have the time, don’t think about it, or aren’t cognizant of those inputs, you will have myopic output leadership. You will have myopic dashboard management, not caring leadership.
[00:20:08] Inputs lead outputs. What is measured is what is focused on and rewarded. If you sit there and say, “You are going to reward on EBITDA,” at the end of every quarter or every year, every single person within the company gets a bonus based on EBITDA no matter what. If that’s the only thing that’s being focused on, that’s what everybody cares about. They are not going to care about the culture. They are not going to care about purpose. They are not going to talk about small little goals.
If they’re not being measured, rewarded, and focused on, nobody cares about them. Therefore, the culture tends to be diminished. We start looking at companies that are only solely focused on the quarter in the year. They are not focused on long-term thinking. They are not looking at overall goals. It’s a matter of sitting there going, “How do we help companies understand that financial goals are important?”
If we don’t have the money within the bank, they can’t pay you. They can’t give to charity. They can’t do great things within the community. They can’t invest in technology and new people. We need to have profits. Profits are not a horrible thing. I’m a for-profit company, you are a for-profit company. We are all for it. The question is, how do we get people to move beyond strictly financial goals, take a look and say, “How do we create a set of goals within a company that is going to breed the type of culture that we want and allow our people to believe in purpose and value?”
[00:21:40] What’s the difference between a tent and a house?
[00:21:47] A tent typically speaking does not have that permanence. It doesn’t have a foundation. It doesn’t have the columns. It doesn’t have the steel, the rebar, and so forth to build and withstand temperature change, atmospheric rivers, heat domes, and tidal tornadoes. Where am I going with the metaphor and the analogy? If you run your business like a tent, it blows over. What’s at the root? What’s your foundation? What are your columns and pillars?
Shouldn’t they be not words on a wall that says, “This is our purpose. These are our values,” but the actual behavior, the enactment of that purpose, that sense of meaning, those values, those behaviors? When I say, “Do you play for meaning?” that’s not a tongue-in-cheek play of words. It’s a, “What are you doing as a leader to ask of yourself how you are going to make decisions based on your own declaration of personal purpose? Where’s the organization’s sense of purpose and meaning? What are you doing within the team when decisions have to be made that hopefully are ethical, that are engagement-focused, that is stakeholder-driven, not shareholder or profit-driven?”
That’s one of a few. We could get into many. We think about the development of people. If you say you are going to develop them but you don’t, or you say, “We believe that people are the most important asset,” but you make an ass of yourself because you are the ass in asset, I get troubled frankly. There’s a lot of ATNA. It is an acronym I made up in my first book and it’s called All Talk No Action. There’s so much ATNA going on in leadership these days. They’ve forgotten about what those inputs ought to be. They forgot or don’t care that it’s about human beings at the end of the day.
[00:23:48] It’s amazing how people forget that companies are made up of human beings. It’s with their own wants, needs, desires, dreams, fears, and aspirations but we forget that as leadership or don’t pay attention to it.
[00:24:03] I’m not even sure if we forget it as much as we’ve ignored it. Some people may have forgotten it but there’s some almost Machiavellian ignorance going on. Kroger is a huge grocery store chain in the US. It has huge billions in revenue. Mr. McMullen is the CEO. At the end of 2020, he took home $20.3 million in pay.
Carl Icahn is arguably one of the least liked people in my hemisphere. He’s one of those activist hedge fund shareholders, trying to usually cause havoc in organizations by driving board manipulation seating so that he can get a higher EBITDA and shareholder return. Icahn had an epiphany in 2022 and realized through research what was done in four different states. The research they did was they asked about 10,000 Kroger employees, frontline team members, how life is in their job. They’ve ranged in tenure at Kroger from 6 months to about 7 years. The data is shocking. The data suggests that 70% of the team members are in some financial duress. That can range from they are on food stamps, homeless, and/or malnourished.
Icahn gloms onto this research study. He phones up McMullen and says, “How dare you to take home $20.3 million in 2020?” The proxy has been filed for 2021. We don’t know what he made in 2021 and that happens at the end of May 2022. Let’s assume he makes another $20 million. He took back the $2 an hour Hero Pay wage that he had committed to frontline team members and said, “We are done that phase now.”
If you take a look then at the other proxy filings and see what other executives have made, they are all in the gazillions. You are a Kroger employee. You have been working for whatever number of months or years at the organization. You see that your ultimate boss makes 906 times the average frontline team member’s pay. I’m not suggesting CEOs shouldn’t make more than a frontline team member but on average, it should be about 200 to 250. That’s what the going rate is. McMullen makes 906.
This little case study example of mine is played out over again, where executives are not thinking about what’s going on in the culture. The output, in this case of Kroger, is shareholder return to maximize the pay of the senior-most executives. Icahn writes and says, “This is an atrocity. This is an abomination of human nature. This is against the American dream.” McMullen listens and didn’t do anything about it. Icahn writes this letter, publishes it to the public and says, “I am going to take you down. I am going to instill some board members by hook or by crook for us to reshape how you conduct your business.”
Carl Icahn has done a 180 in his own DNA. I’m so thankful. I never thought I would say that in a million years. That’s where I’m going in this little case study. We need to look at ourselves as leaders and say, “What matters most are the people at the input stage because the outputs are still going to be there.” We still need the EBITDAs, profitability, revenue, customer sat, and the brand. That’s never going to change.
People remember how you treat them and how you make them feel. Click To Tweet
[00:27:46] I look in, sit there, and say, “Mission, vision, value statements, are they hypocritical? Are they just 50 words on the wall? Are they lived within an organization?” Within most organizations, if you took senior executives and put your hands over their eyes, face them against the wall where those words have been written on a wall in a 200-point font for years, and you ask them, “What is your mission, vision, value statement?” They could not repeat it. If you ask them what it meant, they couldn’t summarize it.
That’s a great place to start. If people do not believe what the mission, vision, and value statements are, it’s time to throw them in the garbage and start again. It’s time to sit there and say, “What do we truly and absolutely believe as an organization? Where are we going to put our money where our mouth is? How are we going to treat our people? What are the things we are going to stand for? What are the things we are going to stand against?” Just because you are the CEO, you don’t get a pass. Using your leadership you don’t get a pass either everybody believes in this stuff or nobody does. Nobody will believe in this if the CEO isn’t.
[00:28:58] It reminded me of a couple of things. First of all, the great poet Maya Angelou’s statement, which is, “People won’t remember what you said but will remember how you made them feel.” Your word used right there is, “How I was treated.” That’s what I’m getting at. People remember how you treat them, how you make them feel.
If those words on the wall in 200-point font don’t mean anything and you don’t use them as ways in which to treat people with that respect, care, humility, collaboration, understanding proactiveness, and listening, what happens? You have that abomination of leadership continue over and over again. You have essentially the domino effect of up-and-coming team leads looking to become managers or directors and saying, “Is that how you got there? You treated people awfully. I better do that, too.” It becomes a xerox photocopier. This copy gets copied for the next copy and that copy gets copied for the next copy.
[00:30:07] Each copy has a little bit of degradation in it along the way. If you look at copy number one versus 110,000, all of a sudden, the font is not as crisp and clear. Let’s sum this up. What’s the one thing you would beg leaders to focus on to be able to sit there and say, “I want to make my culture better. I want to make my team better. I want to make my organization better?” What’s the one thing you would ask people to focus on to be able to make the most difference right away?
[00:30:55] I would say, “How do you want to be known when you leave a room?” That asks an existential question about both of current state, behavior, and legacy. Every interaction that a leader has is devoid of that culture, values, and whatever. Let’s focus on this one statement. It is quite a metaphor because the room can be substituted for email, text, DM, walking down the hallway, phone call, whatever. Let’s use the room as the bucket. That speaks a lot.
It speaks to how are you conducting yourself today so that when people remember today, tomorrow, they think back and say, “Wasn’t he affable? Wasn’t he charming? He knew his stuff. He cared about my son. He asked questions of a personal nature in the green room. Your Brand Marketing. I’m going to remember that Ben the next time I need some marketing help somewhere.” That’s in the moment.
If Ben follows it up with a, “Thank you so much for the show, Dan. I had a great conversation. Anything I can do to help, you just let me know,” that’s a legacy thing. That reinforces the day of us engaging in this wonderful show. I know that you are going to follow that up because that’s who you are. I have seen you in action for a decade-plus. That’s your character. What others couldn’t look for in leadership is how do you want to be known when you leave a room? That is about your state and your legacy.
[00:32:37] I got two last questions. One, what’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?
[00:32:42] I would love you to knock on the door and say, “I’m in town. Do you want to go for a scotch or an IPA?”
[00:32:48] I’m all for that. I can jump on a ferry.
[00:32:52] For people that don’t know, I live on Vancouver Island in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia I probably would say, my website, DanPontefract.com. Thanks a lot, Ben.
[00:33:04] You teed me up perfectly for the last question. This is the question I ask every single guest. When you get in your car and you drive away once you leave a meeting, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you are not in the room?
[00:33:28] My declaration of purpose is pretty simple and that is we are not here to see through each other. We are here to see each other through. If I want to be known for anything, it’s to make sure I’m helping people see them through whatever it is that I can help them see them through with.
[00:33:45] Dan, thank you for a great conversation. Thank you for your insights. My audience is going to love this and reread this a few times to get all the nuggets. Thank you for being such an amazing person.
[00:33:56] It’s amazing to be asked here. I value our friendships. Keep doing what you are doing and best of luck as we wait through these plus 50 years.
[00:34:05] Onto the next 50.
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About Dan Pontefract
Dan is the founder and CEO of Pontefract Group, a firm that improves the state of leadership and organizational culture.
He is the best-selling author of four books: LEAD. CARE. WIN. How to Become a Leader Who Matters, OPEN TO THINK, THE PURPOSE EFFECT and FLAT ARMY. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at four different TED events and also writes for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. Dan is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, Gustavson School of Business and has garnered more than 20 industry awards over his career.
Dan is honoured to be on the Thinkers50 Radar list. HR Weekly listed him as one of its 100 Most Influential People in HR. PeopleHum listed Dan on the Top 200 Thought Leaders to Follow and Inc. Magazine listed him as one of the top 100 leadership speakers.
His third book, OPEN TO THINK won the 2019 getAbstract International Book of the Year. LEAD. CARE. WIN. was a finalist for the same award in 2021.
Previously as Chief Envisioner and Chief Learning Officer at TELUS—a Canadian telecommunications company with revenues of over $14 billion and 50,000 global employees— he launched the Transformation Office, the TELUS MBA, and the TELUS Leadership Philosophy, all award-winning initiatives that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90%. Prior to TELUS he held senior roles developing leaders, team members, and customers at SAP, Business Objects and BCIT.
Dan and his wife, Denise, have three children (aka goats) and live in Victoria, Canada.