Grow Strong Leaders Podcast
011: The Tale of Two Cultures
What can go wrong if the leadership of a company changes and the new executives focus exclusively on the bottom line? My guest Mark Hinderliter, Ph.D., lived through this experience with two different companies. He came to understand the factors that can plummet a once-thriving company into one that struggles or goes out of business. As an external coach and consultant today, he describes the approach he takes to identify whether or not a prospective client is focused on these elements.
- The two superpowers in any business that become their greatest liability if misused
- Clues you can look for in determining if a client will be a good fit for you…or not
- One skill that helps you create credibility in the first conversation and uncover ways you can be of service to a client
- Questions to ask in your initial conversation with a prospective client
- The weekly habit you can adopt on LinkedIn to build connections and followers
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Hi, welcome to another episode of the Strong for Performance podcast. I’m your host Meredith Bell and I am delighted to have with me today Mark Hinderliter. Mark, welcome.
Thank you, Meredith. I’m delighted to have another great conversation with you. You and I have had many.
We have. I have known Mark now for 20 years. We go back a long ways. He is the founder of Third Way Inc. He’s also an executive coach and he is a unique position to talk with us today because he’s one of the few people I know that has been in the corporate world on two different occasions and interspersed with that was an external coach and consultant. So, Mark, as we jump into our conversation today, tell us about your journey. It’s a fascinating one.
Yeah. We all have our own journey. So, mine has really been two stops in the corporate world for significant periods of time and then two stops as an entrepreneur, as a coach, as a consultant. So, along that timeline, Meredith, the first 20 years of my career was in the corporate world as an HR director, vice president, and vice president of training and development. Then I left that corporate world to become an entrepreneur, a coach, a consultant, leadership workshop development pro. Then one of my clients hired me to come back into the corporate world where I was a senior vice president of human resources for a billion dollar global service provider in the oil and gas space. Then 10 years of that and I decided, “Okay, I think I’ve learned my lessons. I’ve done my time. This has been a great finishing school to go do what I really want to do and that is executive coaching, leadership and culture development.” So, that’s what I’m doing now.
There’s more to the story in terms of what happened. You’ve referred to it as the tale of two cultures. It’s fascinating to me that there were parallels in your first corporate experience and the second one. I think it would be very informative for our audience to hear the details of what happened in both of those situations.
Yeah. It was kind of this a movie and then that movie two, right? The sequel.
The sequel. So, here’s what happened both times, Meredith. So, in the first role I was telling you about 20 years, for 18 or so of those years, Meredith, it was a really outstanding company. Profitable, growth year over year and a great culture. Really, we were proud to work there. We were proud to work with each other. It was just … it’s kind of a cliché but it was really a family culture. It really was that where people spent most of their careers in this company. We were successful and proud and it was just the kind of career that you want to build when you’re young and so I did, but here’s what happened. That CEO, really high integrity CEO with a senior leadership team that was aligned with that, retired and new leadership came in and really destroyed the culture. Came in with a singular focus of profitability and running up stock price because this was a private equity group that really … I think their intention was to buy and sell.
I mean, their singular focus was ramp up the profits as much as possible, cut cost, and run that stock price up. So, what they did was ruin the culture and run this very good company out of business. I mean, out of business over a several year period. So, after a couple of years of watching what was happening, I just didn’t want to be a part of that, because I took so much pride in doing my part to build the company that I was really proud to work for. So, great company, growth, profitability, wonderful culture destroyed literally. First the culture and then the profitability and growth. Literally ran out of business. So, I did leave. That was my first entry into consulting and coaching and leadership development and then I did that for four years. Then I developed a great relationship with one of my clients.
They said, “We really want you to come to work for us.” So, I saw it as people I liked working with and I really had a pretty good insight to the culture because I was doing a lot of work with them. So, I did. I joined and was there 10 years. For seven of those years, it was like the first experience that I had … a great CEO and senior leadership team, people of integrity that had business savvy, outstanding leadership. They were great stewards of the business but they really respected culture and they really respected people and their contributions at every level. So, it’s a great experience for 7 of those 10 years and then, Meredith, the same thing happened. New leadership came in and tanked the culture by overly focusing on growing too fast with acquisitions that strategically weren’t sound and not integrated well. Then trying to implement an ERP system and employee resource platform all at the same time and it was just a train wreck.
The first thing that went was the culture and right alongside that was profitability and growth retracted. Today, it’s the same thing. The company is still in business but a company that had profitable quarters for 15 years, many of those before I got there, has a change in leadership and then not profitable quarters for three years. So, the pivot point was the change in leadership. The punchline of those experiences Meredith – and you’re right I call it the tale of two cultures – would have been part of a healthy culture where people were engaged and proud and really contributing. The profitability and the growth just went alongside that, twice, but the other side of the coin was just as true when the culture tanked and became first unhealthy and then toxic, the business performance and growth and profitability just slid down that hill along with the culture. So, that’s why I call it the tale of two cultures. So, my takeaway really from those experiences is there are two superpowers in any business. It is leadership and culture based on my experience. However, those superpowers can be kryptonite if leadership and culture aren’t tended to.
What do you mean by that for non-Superman fans?
Strong leadership with a healthy respect for a great culture is a great prescription for success in business in any industry. Actually, there’s a lot of research to support that. So, for the non-Superman that is kryptonite, it becomes your greatest weakness if it’s not strong leadership and smart leadership and savvy leadership with a healthy respect for culture. What could be your greatest strength can become your greatest liability.
Right. That’s such a powerful story and I think for the listeners here who are coaches and consultants themselves, some of them may have had the same experience of leaving a really untenable situation.
I hear it all the time, Meredith. When I tell people just almost offhandedly like I told you several months ago my tale of two culture story, I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “I’ve been through that. I’ve been through exactly that.”
So, it’s a powerful thing to recognize and it causes me to think of another question I’d like to delve into with you, because now that you’re on the outside again so to speak, I think you have your radar set to look for the characteristics or traits of a potential client that would attract you to work with them, that would be your ideal version versus someone that I won’t say repels you but you see yellow flags or red flags waving in the breeze and go, “Ooh, I’m not so sure about that.” Let’s talk a little bit about first, what are the positive things that would cause you to say yes to working with a particular client? I’m of the opinion that we who are in business need to evaluate our perspective clients from our own, not just financial potential success, but our own emotional wellbeing. Is this a client that’s going to energize me and I’m going to enjoy working with? So, from that perspective, what do you look for?
It’s almost a description of a client that I have now, Meredith. The CEO said to me, and I’ve seen him say to his leadership team, “We’re a really good company and we should be proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve grown. We’ve had a lot of success, but here’s the thing. If we’re going to keep growing and be successful, we have to be willing to be humble. We have to be willing to look with very clear eyes about what we’re not good at. We’re good at a lot of things, but we’re not good at everything. So, we have to look at things with very clear eyes and just accept we’re not great at it and be willing to roll our sleeves up and get better.” It’s that mindset that I really love working with, that successful companies know that success is not permanent and are really willing to roll their sleeves up and get better at the things that really matter and drive the business to include leadership development and culture development. So, that one client that I have, I have other clients too, but that’s the one that describes what really attracted me to work with that client.
That’s great. It sounds like they’re willing to invest in developing their people.
They are and in many ways, Meredith, invest in developing their people through executive coaching, what I’m doing, willing to invest in leadership development for their managers that are frontline managing their business or middle levels managing their business. This client does a unique thing where I am coaching some of their regional leaders to run projects that are outside their day job so that they can scale some things inside the business. I found that kind of project coaching is a great way to invest in your leaders and actually create value inside the company.
So, that you’re tying in additional skills they’re learning by the company investing in other opportunities for them beyond the basic skillset they use on a day to day basis.
That’s exactly right. That happened to me in my corporate career. My first corporate career that was the best development I ever got was to lead a cross functional team in a project that was important to the board. So, I did and six, eight months later after we reported back to the board, I realized I developed some very higher level skills in collaborating, in leading a team of people that I wasn’t their boss and framing strategy and evaluating opportunities and threats. I developed a higher skillset, a different skillset as a result of that project and then the coaching I received to help run the project.
That’s great because I think again the listeners of this program, one of the takeaways is, what are some other opportunities that you can see when you’re working with a client that will help them develop the healthy culture, the healthy leadership that’s needed? Because sometimes we go in with a focus on what we got hired to do and we stick to our knitting on that one thing and yet there are many other ways that we could be of service and benefit to that same client that sometimes get overlooked.
Yeah. That’s really up to me, Meredith. So, another client I’ve just got to tell you about. I started out doing executive coaching for the CEO. Then, the CEO asked me to do executive coaching for the VP of finance. As I was having a lot of conversations with the CEO and just uncovering issues that were challenges for him as the CEO, I just saw more opportunities where I can help. Developing that relationship with my client and really listening to what they’re saying, not just to respond to it but to really listen to their needs that might be beyond the initial engagement and then coming back and offering solutions based on just some good old fashion listening to what they’re challenged with.
I think that’s really critical when we think of growing our businesses. Where are the additional opportunities to make an impact with the same organization? So, let me just flip the switch a little bit and get you to talk about the things that would be a waving yellow flag or red flag for you when you’re talking with a prospective client that would cause you to say, “I’m not the right person or they’re not the right organization for me to work with.”
Yeah. I think it’s an organization that is just only bottom-line oriented. I have a healthy respect for in business we have to be profitable. In businesses we have to grow and we have to grow in healthy profitable productive ways, a healthy growth. Some businesses are just solely short-term oriented to squeeze the last nickel out of the revenues. Not for me because I don’t see building happening there. So, I think I would discover that pretty quickly in a conversation.
The other thing that would be the biggest red flag of all that may take a while is they have core values and it’s on the website and it’s on their coaster and they talk about it, but the reality of it is their core values are a joke from the perspective of their employees. I’ve had employees tell me that where I was doing leadership development inside that organization. So, those would be the two big red flags for me, singularly focused on the bottom line without really wanting to invest in growing the company and growing their talent. Then lacking integrity when it comes to things that matter, core values particularly.
What are some signals that you get recognizing that when you’re first having these initial conversations with a potential client, they’re not going to offer to you that they’re bottom-line oriented only or they don’t live their values? What are some of the clues that you watch or listen for since you wouldn’t have had access at that point to employees to hear their perspective?
It’s really two things. Well, it could be three things. One would be – we’re in this network of leaders in the work that you and I do – is just talking with people who might know this company. As you and I grow our network, we’re more connected. That’s one opportunity without even talking to the company. So, that’s an early hurdle that I always jump over. The second one is just having a conversation, an in depth conversation with that executive or executives and really finding out their priorities and their pain points and those kinds of things in just a pretty informal conversation. I may get to that and I may not in the first conversation. It may take a couple. Then the third is really just have an organizational assessment that would ask senior leaders to fill out. It’s a standard thing about what their priorities are and what their values are and compare those. If it’s a senior leadership of five or six people, there are a lot of clues in that.
Yes, you can see the difference. Those are really helpful tips because one of the things that we all have a limit of is time. So, we want to spend our time in front of the people that are going to be the best match for us, that really are interested in having us help them. So, I’m curious, what is different about your approach when you go to work with clients? How do you set yourself apart?
When I get in front of a client, Meredith, I find it’s relatively easy. I have the advantage of having a six at the beginning of my age. So, that’s one thing. They see my credentials really before I even meet with them. I’ll send them my credentials. I have a PhD in organization and management. I have 30 plus years of experience and I call that the fusion of … the school of hard knocks and some pretty extensive academic work, real world and academic. I usually go into conversations with quite a bit of credibility. They know that I’ve been there and done that corporately and as a coach and a consultant. So, that earns me a lot of credibility. Then my first conversation, I’m not selling anything. I am having a conversation and I am really listening to what results they’re looking for, what challenges they’re experiencing. I never make a proposal until I’m very clear about what their needs are. So, I think it’s my approach helps me a lot in closing deals.
There’s the whole business development side – getting in front of enough of the right people – and then there’s once you’re in front of them. It sounds like you’re saying that, once you’re in front of someone, your combination of experience and credentials gets them listening to you as well.
Yes, ma’am. Yeah.
I’m curious, what have you found to be some of the best questions that you ask that help you get to the root of the problem they’re dealing with? Sometimes I think people are reluctant to ask really penetrating or deep questions too quickly for fear of putting somebody off. I’m curious what your approach is to question-asking.
Yeah. So, question asking usually starts with positive. What is it that you do here that people in the organization are really proud of? What’s your track record look like for the last five years or so? What’s the best thing going on here at your company that you love to tell people about, investors about? We all like to talk about our businesses and our kids and our grandkids and the things that we’re proud of. That’s really where I start. Then I switch gears and I’m pretty upfront about that. Like, “Meredith, I’m switching gears now. Help me understand maybe the key couple of barriers to getting to where you want to be to grow, to be profitable, to sustain success that you really want to have? What are the few things that are getting in the way or slowing you down?” So, that’s my general question after the positive stuff that all companies are proud to talk about. I tell them I’m switching gears and I go right at it, “What’s slowing you down? What’s standing in the way?”
That’s great. Well, let me back up then. What is it that you’ve done in advance of having that initial conversation? How have they learned about you? What are some things that you’ve been doing?
Yeah. So, you talked about business development. Going from corporate to doing what I’m doing, there’s a learning curve. When you leave corporate world that you’ve been in for a long time and go out to be an entrepreneur, the biggest learning curve is business development. It has been for me. It has for people that I talk to. So, when I talk about business development, there’s two pieces of that. There’s the back end making a proposal and closing the deal. I find that pretty easy for me to do just because of my experience. The front end of that is marketing, putting potential clients in the funnel. I’ve taken some courses. I’ve gotten really busy on LinkedIn.
So what are the things I do on LinkedIn? I post a leadership tip of the week and I built a following from nothing a few years ago to over 4,000 people following me. One of the things I’m doing is branding and giving value. Leadership tip of the week is a two minute read every Sunday. People get it that, “I think this guy knows what he’s talking about and now I’m aware of him.” So, that’s absolutely one thing. Then I will reach out directly to folks on LinkedIn after they’ve followed me for a while and have seen some of my leadership tips. I don’t like to just go out there too early without any kind of relationship.
I’m pretty heavily on LinkedIn. Because I’ve been in business for a long time, I do a lot of networking with people that I know and people that I’ve worked with. So working in the network that you already have. I’ve done that with some success. I have a major client as a result of that. So, I’ve gotten business, Meredith, two clients from LinkedIn that reached out to me. One major client from just networking… two clients from people that know what I do. I’ve worked with them and they respect what I do. So, it’s the combination of LinkedIn and just networking and making connections.
I think that both of those are really powerful because you can use a platform like LinkedIn to establish your credibility and get people to trust you because they see that you are a credible? Is that what you’re doing, writing weekly articles?
Yeah. I write a post. Every once in a while, I’ll do a short video, Meredith, but it’s mostly a couple of paragraph tip that is just very practical. It’s not academic. It’s not consultant speak. It’s…here’s a tip I’ve learned from the school of hard knocks. That’s what I do every week. That’s really grown my followership. I get people connecting with me from all over the world. I have no idea who they are, but it’s grown my network.
That’s great to hear, because one of the key things you’re mentioning is you’re saying weekly which equates to consistency and I think that’s one of the things that’s often missing. We hear the latest new idea and say, “Oh, I’m going to try that.” So, we do it for a short period of time and then we’re off to something else because that doesn’t give us immediate results. The fact is, you’ve been writing these tips you said for almost three years now?
Probably about a year.
I’ve been on LinkedIn for about three years but I’ve consciously written tips for about a year now.
Okay. There’s a discipline there.
I think that it’s like anything else that we commit to do, whether it’s getting better shape physically and work out or eat right or with our business development, what are the things that I’m doing on a daily or weekly basis that are going to over time get me known to the audience that I want to be known by? I think a key element there is being clear who your ideal target market is. So, for you, who is that? What does that look like?
Anybody who’s a leader, it’s my hope that I give value to in my tip of the week. My ideal client is a senior executive likely with a medium-sized business. That’s what I’m comfortable with. That’s where I’ve grown up. I found that companies that are too small often don’t have the budget to do what you and I do and companies that are these mega corporations often have the resources in house. So, it’s really a CEO, a COO, a senior executive of a mid-sized company that is really trying to grow a great business that they’re really proud of.
That’s great. As we get to the end of our time together, are there any other thoughts, tips, ideas that you’d like to share with your colleagues out there who are consultants and coaches like you?
You said it, so I’m going to echo what you said. Business development is about consistency, but so is leadership development. I really learned that from you and Denny Coates all those years ago. So, I’m quoting your focus-action-reflection model. So, leadership development is done every week. You focus on something to develop a skill or a strategy. The action is you put it on your calendar and you do it, right? Then at the end of the week, you just take a few minutes and reflect on how did that go? Did that go really well and I feel like I’ve got that skill right and I can go on to another one? Or did that not go quite as well as I wanted it to, and that may mean a coaching session or some leadership practice and reflect on it, so that I can do it just a little better next time. So, that’s how I do coaching and leadership development, where we set some goals, we’re clear about what we want to get better at and then there’s this consistent drum beat application – focus to action to reflection. Over time, we get results. We always get results with that focus, that action, that reflection and then the consistent application of that practice.
That’s what I found gets results.
I forgot to mention this right in the beginning. Mark has worked with us on both products that we have. Our 360 survey software along with our Strong for Performance development tool for leaders. I appreciate you bringing that up because it IS that consistency in a leader doing the work that’s needed to be done not just the consistency of a coach or consultant doing business development. For any behavior we want to make a habit, it does require the commitment to be consistent.
Yeah. Here’s what I’ve learned that doesn’t work, Meredith. We learn that way too, right? I have delivered so many really terrific, not bragging, but really terrific dynamic and formative two day workshops all over the world that didn’t have much effect, because that’s not how we learn. We don’t learn by having a bunch of good stuff dumped in our head and then we leave and go back to our day job. We learn by consistent, disciplined application of the skill that we’re building whether that’s business development or leadership or communications. So, I learned how not to do it before I learned how to do it.
Yes. It’s so helpful to have a coach along the way who is giving you the guidance as you try things and the support because when we’re trying something new, it is not easy and we fall back on our old way of doing it. Having somebody who is there to support and coach us along the way is really critical.
Yes. Leadership is a team sport. Leadership development is a team sport. The more we are surrounded by people that will encourage us, coach us, guide us and then somebody that hold us accountable for staying the course, just practicing until we get it right. That’s a really important part of leadership development..surrounding ourselves with people that will help us along that journey.
That’s great. Mark, you shared so many great insights and tips from your number of years. We won’t say the number. Yell people how they can connect with you and find you, so they can follow up if they’d like to have a conversation with you and learn more.
Yeah, I appreciate that opportunity. I have a website but I think what I’d really like people to do is connect with me on LinkedIn. Just go to Mark Hinderliter, and then you’ll see my smiling face. Just connect with me and I’ll accept the connection. Then once you do that, follow me. Read my weekly leadership tip. Go back and read several weeks max so you get a flavor for what I’m talking about. If my style appeals to you and you feel like we can do some business together, then just direct message me. That’d be great. If you just feel like you just want to read my tip and get value from that, I’m delighted to do that, too.
Great. Thank you so much Mark for being with me today. You’ve provided some I think a lot of good data and information to stimulate the thinking of our listeners. I appreciate you very much.
Thank you, Meredith.