Steve Rush: Today’s guest is recognized as one of the top business consultants and leaders in the world. He was named by American Management Association, one of America’s top 50 leaders to watch in that list alongside Larry Page of Google and Jeff Bezos of Amazon to name but a few. He has gone on to write five books and has also featured in TEDx Speaker. I am delighted to welcome to the show, John Spence.
John Spence: It is a pleasure to be with you, my friend.
Steve Rush: John, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Just to give the folks who are listening some backstory, one of things that first intrigued me about you when we met is that you have been in leadership roles and leading teams for a long time. In fact, at age of 26, you were already a CEO of a Rockefeller Foundation. How did that come about?
John Spence: It is a twisted tale, but I will go through it quickly. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and a very wealthy family. My father was an attorney and went to one of the top prep schools in America and when I graduated; I got admitted to several different colleges. And I chose the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, because it was close to my boat and my girlfriend, which is not why you should choose university, which is also why about a year later, I failed out and was kicked out of the university.
I won’t go through the whole thing, but I moved to another town where I live now, Gainesville, Florida, where there’s another University. The University of Florida and I applied there and they refused to accept me, so I went to a tiny little college, restarted over completely and graduated there, got into the University of Florida and graduated number three in the United States in my major.
That is when I was hired by the Rockefellers. I was twenty-three years old, after about six months or so, the current CEO picked me as his right hand man and I would go into all meetings with him, board meetings, follow me around, do things like that. And a few years later, he faltered pretty dramatically and they put me in place to just sort of hold the place down for a little while, and things went so well that they left me in. I was at twenty-six; I was running a Rockefeller Foundation, International Rockefeller Foundation, with projects going on in 20 countries around the world and I had no idea what I was doing, but it seemed to turn out okay
Steve Rush: And I guess it is not just being in the right place at the right time. That got you noticed. If you maybe single out one or two of those things. What do you think it was that gave you the edge at that time?
John Spence: There were there were three things. Number one is I said yes to pretty much anything. If they needed someone to go to Costa Rica to negotiate a deal. Before I was CEO, I put up my hand, and go. If they needed someone to take on a project that no one else wanted, I would take it. So I pretty much said yes to everything to learn as much as I possibly could.
Number two, I was very, very, very lucky to get a mentor. Charlie Owen, who was Mr. Rockefeller’s right hand man, would come into my office every Monday, put a book on my desk, and on Friday he would take me to lunch and I would have to make a book report. And he would not only say, what did you learn? But what will you apply? And I think that was the big differentiator. It is not just what did you read and learn, but what are three specific action steps you are going to take as a result of what you just read? And then he would hold me accountable for doing that in my job.
And then the last one was asking for help. I had a really good team around me. I had some very brilliant board of directors. I had three billionaires on my board. Everybody else was worth one hundred million dollars and I was not afraid to pick up the phone or send them a note and say, I need some help, I need some guidance, because I realized I failed out of the University of Miami because I did not ask for help. I did not go to the other students. I did not have a study group. I did not talk to professors. I tried to do it all by myself and that got me failure. When I got to be CEO. I realized I need all the help I could humanly get from everybody around me.
Steve Rush: Thinking about the discipline of book on your desk, reading that book. In the time that we have known each other, I think I describe your office as a library of leadership. How many books do you reckon you have read over that time?
John Spence: I have read a hundred to one hundred and twenty books every year since nineteen eighty-nine. I’ve got a little over two thousand books in my office, but I also have a private library at home. My office is just business books and then my home is history and classics and things like that. So yeah, I see that is a big part of my job. How do you read so much? Part of the reason is, this is what I do for a living is taken information to help other people.
Steve Rush: Right and I guess information comes from that whole foundation you created from learning and listening to other people. Right?
John Spence: Well, it comes from a lot of places asking for help, mentors, coaches, colleagues. But for example, when I was at the foundation very, very young before they named me CEO, we would be sitting in a board meeting and one of the billionaires would say, well, anybody have an idea on this? And I raised my hand. I would say, well, I read over here in Tom Peter’s book not this but the other but I think this all starts with Jim Collins book on this, and then I got one more idea I read from Chester Elton, and I think those three things apply and I still remember one of the billionaire, I love John’s ideas. He is one smart kid, let’s do that stuff. I am thinking none of those were my idea but yeah, so it’s personal experience and the reading, study and learning. I am not a genius. I just have more access to ideas and information than most people.
Steve Rush: That is a great question. Do you though, do you have more access or do you have more discipline? What do you think it comes from?
John Spence: I have more discipline. Anybody can buy books, which lots of people have lots of books. It takes the discipline to read them and apply them. I mean, again, there is that step. There is always that second step of not just what did I read and learned, but how will I use it.
Steve Rush: So how do you go about creating that discipline, the time to be able to read hundred books a year?
John Spence: I read a minimum of one hour every morning. That is the way I get my day started. Up until the Corona virus. I would take myself to a local restaurant and sit down and for a minimum of an hour or still to this day, I read Fortune Forbes Inc. Harvard Business Review Strategy in Business and part of a book. Also I usually travel again. We are at an interesting time right now. I usually travel about 200 days a year, so I am very disciplined that the minute I get to the airport, to the minute I get home, I read at every spare moment I have. I don’t watch TV, believe it or not, as a professional speaker who has spoken to audiences large as twenty six thousand. I am a very, very introverted, so when I am on the road, I stay in my hotel room and read and study.
And then also when I read a book, there’s a couple of things that are important to me and I read a lot on Kindle now but if I can get 50 or 60 pages into the book and I haven’t underlined anything. I just closed the book and put it away because I figure if the author can’t teach me something in the first twenty/twenty five percent of the book, they’re probably not going to teach me anything spectacular in the last hundred and fifty pages. I might have missed an idea but I don’t want to waste my time.
Steve Rush: It is a good strategy and a disciplined strategy that makes stuff get done, right?
John Spence: Yeah, and then I also I have all kinds of symbols that if its hardcover book, I put a pound sign for numbers; I put an R circle it, which is reread. I underline it. What I will do is I read all the way through the book. Then I go back and reread just my highlighting, and I make notes off that and then I am sort of a freak. I read, I dictate my highlighting into a word, doc, and then I have all those saved so I can take a book of two hundred and fifty pages and get it down to maybe three pages of notes of the key ideas and I have literally thousands of pages of those.
Steve Rush: Wow, that is amazing, and I think for anybody listening to the show today who does not have this as a foundation in their life, what would be your recommendation? How would you get them to start?
John Spence: Twelve minutes a day during the week. That is an hour a week. To give you an example. The average college graduate in most countries. Yes, average university graduate only read half a book a year. For self-improvement or to get better at their job. What I call a skills based book, a half a book a year. If you were to read one book every other month, six books a year, you would be in the top one percent in your country. If you read twelve books a year, you are in the top 1 percent in the world. Nobody needs to read 100 or 120 books I am a freak. It is my job, it’s part of what I do because I see this foundation for my career. But if you just took twelve minutes a day during the week, that’s an hour a week. That probably four or five books a year. If you are a semi-good reader, that just puts you in the top almost in the top 1 percent in your entire country for self-learning. If you’re consistent in doing that in three or four years, you’ve now really piled up some interesting information, ideas, things that when combined with your real life, what I call the adjacent new with your real life experience, what you’ve been doing in business, everything you’ve done up to then. You take this interesting new idea you read out of a book, you put the two together and that becomes a new idea. You know, this is a new innovation, a new idea, a new strategy that didn’t exist before the book ideas and your personal experience, and if you were to read, you know, 20 minutes a day, you can see the numbers. It is not really that challenging. Again, it just takes discipline.
Steve Rush: I guess ideas breed ideas and innovation breeds innovation, doesn’t it?
John Spence: Absolutely.
Steve Rush: Great advice, John.
John Spence: My pleasure.
Steve Rush: One of the things I was really intrigued about when I was to TED talk was around the whole principle of AQ. Our listeners will know the principles of IQ, the intelligent question. They probably be familiar with the emotional quotient. So the EQ and how we can respond and use our behaviours to respond to behaviours. Tell us a little bit about what AQ means and how leaders might apply them.
John Spence: Well, let’s look at the other two quickly. IQ is another word that I use for competence. You’ve got to be good at your job. You don’t have to, you know, be a NASA rocket scientists and have 48 advance degrees. You just got to be really competent at your job.
EQ, emotional quotient, which I see as sort of self-awareness and empathy put together. An area I struggle in traumatically is now actually more important than IQ. If you’ve got a modicum level of competence, your EQ, will be more important. I have done tons of workshops with organizations where it is usually three or five to one EQ over IQ is important to have a leader.
However, AQ, which is your adaptability, or agility quotient I see as the most important one going forward and the amount of turmoil we are facing in the world. Technology, things are moving so fast. Only people who are agile, adaptable, nimble can embrace new ideas. Let go of old ideas that don’t work, try new things. Take a prudent business risks and be fast and not just embrace change, but drive change. That is what I believe is going to be the main driver of leadership success. If you are competent and you can get along with other people, but you are not nimble, you are in trouble. If you add the three together. To me, you’ve got the foundation for being a highly successful leader moving forward.
Steve Rush: And what do you think are the key components of that? AQ, what will be one of the things that I might want to focus on first?
John Spence: Well, AQ almost all comes down to what we have been talking about is exposing yourself to new and different information and not just business information. Go outside of your normal realm. Like I read physics and astronomy to try to expose myself to ideas that are so big and so challenging that it stretches my mind. I look at art; I do other things, music to try to understand the craft behind those. And all these other ideas and other people, you know, going and meeting people that do things that you don’t do and asking about what are their, best ideas, how did they learn what they do. So the more information and ideas you take in. Now, the other thing that is really important and it’s one of the foundations of becoming an expert at anything is I’ll give you the four piece of expertise. This comes from a book called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, a one thousand eight hundred-page book written by experts about how to become an expert, and they say there is four Ps.
The first P, Passion, which just stands to reason you’re not going to become truly world class if something if you’re not passionate about it.
The new the next one is persistence, and we’ve seen from Malcolm Gladwell’s work and others that that’s about 10 years or ten thousand hours of being persistent.
The third P, which is practice but it is a special kind of practice called deliberate practice, and what deliver practice said. If you’ve got a coach, a trainer, a colleague, a friend, someone pushing you to keep practicing and practicing on the hardest stuff. The most challenging stuff, which leads to the fourth and final P.
Which I think is the foundation of AQ, which is pattern recognition. Once you study your subject deeply, you have studied it for years, you have you read, you ask questions, you’ve got a mentor, a coach, all the sudden it becomes clear to you and you see patterns that other people don’t see. Those patterns are what allow you to anticipate things that are coming down the pike. So someone that’s nimble, agile, adaptable, part of the reason they can adapt so quick is because they have identified the pattern before it fully unfolds and that time between when they’ve identified it and other people see it is their competitive advantage.
Steve Rush: I love that John. I think it is a great example of a simple model but actually help us just understand the underlying all of this is the lifelong learning that curiosity, that in order to get that pattern recognition, you’ve got to have the foundations, right?
John Spence: You said the word, curiosity. You’ve got to constantly be interested in things, looking at things, learning things, being curious and wanting to understand things deeply. Nailed it. Nailed it.
Steve Rush: Now you have come renowned for making the very complex, awesomely simple. In fact, that was the title of your last book. How did that come about?
John Spence: That is exactly what we were discussing, pattern recognition. I was looking at businesses. I have had the great fortune of working with companies all over the world, from start-ups to Apple and Microsoft and Fortune 500 Companies, and every time I got in a company, I looked for the patterns, the patterns of what they were doing really well that allowed them to be the leader in their industry. Also the patterns of what I saw in companies that were struggling, dysfunctional and failing and after years and years of looking at that. Also while I was doing that, I found this really cool software program called Wordle.
And what Wordle allows you to do is to put the text of a document in there and it finds the pattern, it takes out the ands the does and oh’s and all that stuff, and it looks for the words that appear over and over again and then it creates a word cloud. And that word cloud shows you the pattern of the book, so I loaded my book Awesomely Simple in there to help me understand the draft of it. And then I went to a bunch of my friends who are authors and asked for drafts of their book or a copy of their books. I won’t drag you through it, but I put about two hundred and seventy thousand pages of the top leadership literature, the top articles, everything I could find in there, and it spit out a pattern and that pattern is what became the foundation of not only my book, but what I teach today to companies I worked with.
Steve Rush: What a great idea in using technology as well to help us find the thematic approach to how we lead. So in your book as well, you call on a certain number of characteristics or strategies that will help business leaders.
John Spence: Yes, and there nothing surprisingly new. There again, fundamental, but there is a big thing called the knowing doing gap. A lot of people know these things, but they don’t actually do them every day. They don’t implement them and take action on them. So part of the book and I’m not plugging the book is I’ve got lots of questions, workshops, things to think about, because, again, it’s not just reading it, it’s reading it, learning it and applying it. And these things I teach people, they go, oh, yeah, and I going now. On a scale of one to ten with ten-world class and one being terrible. Where would you currently rate yourself and or your organization? And when they raided a three or a five, they look at me and go, oh, I know this, but I’m just not doing it effectively every day.
Steve Rush: And in order to create some of the activity that expedites actions, one of the things you talk about in your book is that kind of creating urgency and I think most people would recognize the urgency is an incredibly important part of shifting behaviours and creating some shift in status quo. How do you do that without creating panic?
John Spence: Super, super, good question. I looked at a lot of the research and writings on change management and change theory. And then again with what I’ve seen in companies I’ve been working with for. Now, I am in my twenty-eighth year. There is three steps to this, two steps and the third one is creating urgency.
Step one is you have to create what I call an irresistible case for change and irresistible is isn’t liking chocolate cake. Irresistible is you cannot resist this. It is happening you have no choice. Again, we are recording this during the pandemic. People are being sent home to work for their homes. We are doing social distancing, and by a voluntary isolation, you have no choice. You are not allowed to leave your house. So this is going to break a lot of people’s patterns. This is going to make them adopt new ideas, new ways of working, new things happening, whether they wanted to or not. In any organization, to create a sense of urgency, step one is to let people know that change is mandatory you have no choice.
Now, after you have done that, the next thing to do is to immediately tell them about the amazing future that will be there. We are going to do this for the company. This new software is going to allow us to do these things. Being able to serve this customer quickly is going to allow the company to make more profit, but whatever it is, but you need to take that irresistible case for change and balance it with a vivid, compelling, exciting vision of what the change will lead to, we do the change. Here is the new future. Here is the better future, and then quickly, you want to tell people we need to move to the new future, we got to get there. We can’t go back and that’s what creates a sense of urgency because it takes too long. People sort of say, oh, this too, shall pass and they get resistant and you get a big group of people that just don’t want to change, and that will slow everything down.
And one other thing that adds to that, that allows or motivates that sense of urgency is getting what’s called a guiding coalition in your organization, and that should be your entire senior team. Whether it is two or three or five or twelve being ten thousand percent committed to the change, and being the leading example of embracing the change, and driving the change, which you also want to look for sort of the influencers in your organization. The people who may not have a fancy title, but they have been there for 5 or 10 or 15 years and everybody looks up to them. Know if Steve thinks it is a good idea, I am on board. You know, if John thinks it is a bad idea, I ain’t doing it. You want to get that handful of people also, your change agents, your change cheerleaders to create and let everybody know. We got to go, we got to go right now.
Steve Rush: So I recognize the patterns you just share and very familiar and experienced those in terms of how I help my clients through that change. One of things, I also find John is that when we are creating the urgency with providing that vision for the change in the future. We have the right people around us. We still find that there are natural pockets of resistance. What is the most common thing that you notice as a resistance or a big resistance to change?
John Spence: It is fear. People like stability and safety and when people are faced with what they perceive as negative change, they go through a cycle of fear, denial, anger, begging, trying to negotiate. And they go through all these emotions, and actually they’re the same emotions that people feel when someone close to them passes away. To some person, we are changing the software company. Some people you gave me a new desk. You move me to a new desk. You actually as far as you gave me a new chair. I love this chair. I have had this chair for five years. It is in the shape of my butt. I don’t want anyone to take my chair away, and you have to, as a leader, understand that change drives lots of emotions, fear, depression, sense of overwhelm, sense of optimism. At first you have uninformed pessimism, people don’t know what’s going on with a change and they’re scared and eventually you start to get informed optimism until finally you get adoption. And that’s when people say, okay, the changes, okay, I like it. It is great. Then, of course, right after that, it is time to change again.
Steve Rush: And the one thing that is going to be constant in everybody’s world is change and even by sometimes just labelling it change, we create an intentional fear, don’t we? Because it is a label, it is a thing versus it is just going to happen. We are always going to evolve, but we may not be able to connect the dots forward, but when we look back, we certainly can do that, can’t we?
John Spence: Yeah, hence the reason that AQ now is so critical and we will become more critical going forward because the pace of change is going to continue to speed up and be dramatic. I think that we’re seeing this worldwide right now and it’s going to overwhelm a lot of people, but it’s also going to give other people’s strength and courage to understand that I can do this, that if I stay focused and I stay calm and I’m persistent, that I can handle this level of change. And I believe when we come on the other side of this, other changes up until now would have seemed pretty dramatic, will seem pretty mundane and easy to handle.
Steve Rush: And it will create a new foundation of resilience, I think, for us all, won’t it? As we come through the other side and I think without AQ, we probably won’t be the cope.
John Spence: Agreed and I love the word you just use, resilience. We are going to need courage, vulnerability and resilience to get through this. Extremely well said, Steve.
Steve Rush: Thank you, John. This part of the show, we are going to ask all our guests to share their golden nuggets, the secrets. Now, when you have read thousands of books and as you have, I should imagine to narrow that down to three is going to be a massive challenge but I am going to set you the task, so if you could identify. What will be the top three Leadership Hacks? What will they be?
John Spence: Number one, which is the most important thing I have ever learned. I have done two TEDx talks…. is dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. You have seen a theme through all that but if you study successful leaders through time, they were avid learners, not just readers, but they were curious. You use that word earlier, curious. So stay curious, be I like say, addicted to learning. That would be my first nugget.
Number two is ask for help. You can’t do this alone, which leads to the third one, which is a combination of the two and the single most important thing I’ve ever learned in my life. Which is you become what you focus on and like the people you spend time with, whatever your studying, whatever your reading, whatever you’re learning, whatever you fill your mind with and whoever you choose to spend your time with will directly determine which your life will look like a decade from now.
Steve Rush: I love those top three hacks. Thank you. I remember when I was in San Francisco, was talking to a seed fund investor, and his little nugget was your net-worth equals your network.
John Spence: Exactly. There is a good friend of mine, Tim Sanders, wrote a book called Love is The Killer App and he broke it down to these three things, K, N and L. To be successful in your career. You must be bright, sharp, smart and talented is something that is highly valuable in the marketplace that is the K, Knowledge.
Network is the N. A lot of the right people need to know that about you and by right people, that’s what I call hubs. People that if they are really impressed with how much you know and how valuable it is, they don’t tell two or three people. They will tell 20, or 30 or 200 or 300 or 2000 through their giant networks. As long as you have the last one, the L, which is love. If you are a kind, loving person of integrity, a lot of the right people know that about you. And they also know that you’re really good at something that’s highly valuable. You have the foundation for a World-Class career.
Steve Rush: We’ve got a double bubble on our Hacks, thank you so much. The next thing I would really love to explore is that having the extensive career and indeed learning from all of the things you have experienced there bound to a time where things have not worked out so well. Maybe we screwed up. We call this Hack to Attack in The Leadership Hacker Podcast, what would be your Hack to Attack that you could share with our listeners?
John Spence: This is one that took me twenty, twenty-five years to learn. I am a very, very logical, data driven person. I like information, ideas, research numbers, blah, blah, blah. And I was really against the idea of leading with your gut but what I’ve learned over the years, and it’s because I have entered into partnerships or business arrangements are hire people that there were red flags and I felt a little uncomfortable. I felt a little easy but I would be like, I don’t feel decisions. I make decisions on facts. I realize now that when I see a couple red flags and I start to feel like something is wrong, that I will listen to that and more often than not, that should be a major determinant in my decision making, which is very hard for me to say. I have made many failures because I did not listen to my emotions, and my feelings and my concerns and my worries.
Steve Rush: It is really fascinating. Thank you, John. I have done lots of research on this, too. And this is comes from a neurological response to the pattern recognition that we unconsciously aware of, so we’re scanning thousands and thousands and thousands of situations we may only be present all. Identify with one or two things in front of us but the unconscious mind is scanning millions and millions and millions of experiences for our life and our work, and it’s giving that both meaning our brains a little nudge to say, pay attention to this. And of course, while we can’t use our gut as the defining, it’s definitely true. We should absolutely pay attention to it.
John Spence: That was a very hard lesson for me to learn.
Steve Rush: But you have learned that and as a result of learning from it, it’s now paying dividends for you in your life and your work, so well then thank you. And then the last thing we want to explore with you would be that if you’re able to turn the clock back and give it a time travel and you bump into John at 21, what would be the one bit of advice that you would give him?
John Spence: Wow, that is really hard. I think it would be to stay really curious and ask for help. And we’ve covered those because they’ve been so fundamental to me building a great career and early in my career, I was very confident I was right. I would argue with people, no, I am right. I got this. I understand it better than you do. I would argue with people 30 years older than me and then one day I woke up and realized, I’m not right. I have an opinion; I have a way that I see things from my perspective. And it’s a well-thought out, a well-reasoned opinion, but it’s just an opinion, so I would have said to myself, you know, you’re not right, stay curious ask for help. Lots of other people have other ways to look at things and they’re just as right as you are. So calm down, just calm down, John.
Steve Rush: Thank you John that is super. So as folks listening to us talk today. I am fairly sure that they’d be thinking John mentioned TEDx and also books and information. How can people get to learn a little bit more about what you are doing now and find some of the content that you have been able to create over your career?
John Spence: My Web site is JohnSpence.com but I am going to really encourage folks I’ve got to sign up for my blog slash newsletter. I’ve got a newsletter that comes out every two weeks and it is based on all of the stuff I’m reading. When I read a really good article, something fantastic that I am impressed with. I tweet it and my newsletter grabs all those tweets, but here is the cool thing. It is driven by AI, It’s got an algorithm there when you open, my newsletter and you start to read stuff that watches what you open, how long you read it and it figures out what you’re interested in. And it continues to customize your newsletter more and more and more on the things that are of the most interest to you. So as you as it continues to go, it gets smarter and smarter, and I learned probably 300 articles in a month and it will only pick the top dozen or so that it knows that you’re going to be most interested in.
And then I only write a blog when it’s something, again, I feel strongly about. I don’t put one out every week. I just put one out when there is something that I feel is valuable for folks to read, so if you get to my Website, sign up for the newsletter, just sign up for the blog you get both and that will give you direct access to everything I’m reading and studying right now.
Steve Rush: And machine learning doing all the hard work for us. What could be better? John, that’s kind of bought us to a natural conclusion for us spending some time together today. I just want to say it has been super, super useful. There is some great models, some great thinking in there that are going to help our listeners go away and reflect on their approach to reading and commitment to lifelong learning. And I’m hopeful this podcast will also help create the energy and excitement around the foundations for AQ. John Spence, thank you for joining us on The Leadership Hacker Podcast.
John Spence: Absolutely my honour and my pleasure. Thank you.