In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with David DeWolf. David DeWolf is the Founder, President, and CEO of 3Pillar Global, a digital product development services organization building breakthrough software products that power digital businesses. He is also an Amazon best-selling author of The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the Way Your Organization Thinks. David DeWolf’s leadership at 3Pillar has been honored by numerous awards, including The Software Report’s Top 50 Tech Services CEOs, SmartCEO Magazine’s Future 50, Washington DC’s 40 Under 40, and Virginia’s Fantastic 50. In this conversation, David DeWolf shares why he decided to start 3Pillar Global and how he has continued to grow as a CEO as the organization has grown. He also shares the principled leadership practices which have helped the organization stay aligned over the years. Finally, David DeWolf talks about the challenges and opportunities as organizations navigate the changing landscape of work and collaboration.
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[00:00:00] Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this to be welcoming David DeWolf. David is the founder and CEO of Three Pillar Global and digital product development organization, which has been recognized numerous times on many listing, including fastest growing private companies in the US.
They have more than 2000 employees in nine countries. I really enjoy the conversation because David has a growth mindset as a leader, which is why he has been able to reinvent himself as he has led a fast growing organization. I am sure you will both enjoy the conversation and learn a lot from the leadership practices that David has implemented at Three Pillar Global.
I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, firstname.lastname@example.org there is also a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com you can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. Tuesday, Conversations with magnificent change makers from the Greater Washington DC DMV region, many of them with global impact, like David and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought Leaders. Now, here is my conversation with David DeWolf.
David DeWolf, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
[00:01:21] David DeWolf: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:23] Mahan Tavakoli: David, you have done incredible things as CEO of Three Pillar Global being able to grow the organization not all CEOs can stay around and grow themselves and the organization as well as you have. But would love to first start out with your upbringing.
Whereabouts did you grow up, and how did your upbringing impact who you've become as a person?
[00:01:47] David DeWolf: The impact is actually pretty darn direct. I grew up in a military home and so my father was in the military, and because of that, I moved almost every year and a half to two years as a kid. So really learned at a very early age to adapt to the situation I was put in and to really have to respond to adversity.
Moving to new places time after time, every year and a half, two years, being in a brand new school as a kid is not the easiest thing in the world. I'm a horrible introvert. So I really had it come outta my shell and learn how to engage with people, make friends and learn to make my own.
And one of the core things that I learned through that journey. Is that context really matters. I found from time to time, there were schools that I was in where I was the biggest nerd, there were other schools the very next year, I may, somewhere else, and I was the star basketball player.
To look back on that and to think about that reality, I didn't change as a person. What changed was my environment, the context I was operating in, the people that were around me. I think that gave me a real sense of the potential of humanity, of the potential of individuals and how people can thrive if you give them a stellar environment to operate in.
So those two foundations that really concentration on the human person as well as the dynamism of having to adjust and adapt day in and day out to my surroundings are probably the two things that help me more than anything.
[00:03:18] Mahan Tavakoli: That's incredible. All of those moves, by themselves, must have been hard. In what ways were you. Able to learn how to adjust.
[00:03:27] David DeWolf: I think experience is the best teacher. I look back on it and from the time I can remember, I was always moving. I remember my second grade year and having to go to a brand new school. I still have a couple of memories from that period of time.
And we moved from the Washington DC area to Cheyenne, Wyoming and those two worlds, Not only are they different, they're wildly different. It's not just two different geographies, It is two different types of geography, large city versus small, rural town. Those types of things growing up and it's just reps, it's experience. It's doing it over and candidly doing it pretty poorly. I learned early on how to fail and failed at relationships cuz I didn't have any. Was there for two years. Then we moved back to DC and then we moved to Nebraska and I think it was just the school of hard knocks, to be honest with you.
And then I had great parents who really challenged me. They loved me. They gave me that psychological safety of knowing I belonged at home, but they urged me to go out to challenge myself, to grow, to do things I wasn't comfortable with because they knew it was the only way that I'd be able to survive in that environment. So they, gave me the experiences, they gave me the opportunities to go ahead and thrive and to do things that I wasn't necessarily gonna do on my own.
[00:04:46] Mahan Tavakoli: It's interesting, David I don't know if you're familiar with Jonathan Height's work or not. He has written a bunch of books at New York University professor, including the Cuddling of the American Mind, and he talks about how lot of kids have been having issues, even pre pandemic, partly because parents have cuddled them and kept them from developing resilience and anti fragility. So it sounds like you were forced to become more resilient now you are also a father of eight kids, which is hard in and of itself. How are you able to guide your kids to develop some of that anti fragility that you by default had to develop because you guys were moving around so much.
[00:05:36] David DeWolf: That resiliency is so important. And I think especially when you think about having eight kids , in a life that candidly as a CEO, they don't have a hard challenging life necessarily. So we try to be really intentional about allowing our kids to have independence, to pursue what they're passionate about, but really challenging 'em to have to work hard for it.
And so every single kid is different and unique. I have one daughter that's a piano player and she has loved piano. And really to work hard to perfect that musical talent she has is something that she had to do and embrace. We don't babysit her, it's not about watching over her and forcing her to practice every day and giving her a trophy for it.
It's about challenging her to become the best that she is. It's the exact same technique with my son who loves baseball. If you wanna be a great baseball player, if you wanna play on the team greatly, you're gonna have to put the work in. So with the support and the love that comes from my wife and myself, Comes the challenge to make it your own.
I don't micromanage my kids' school careers, what they get is what they get. What I expect from them is to put in their best effort and to work hard and to try, and the only time I step in or even mention anything about their grades is when I can tell they're not trying, when they're not putting in the work.
And I really challenge 'em to make it themselves and in that way they've made it their own. And I think they've developed some resiliency. Obviously we have not been perfect parents. I'm sure we've failed in multiple ways. But one thing I can say for all of my kids is they've all learned in their own unique ways, according to their own unique talents, how to go make it on their own, how to find a way, how to be resilient, how to be resourceful. I love the word anti-fragile, it's not about coddling them. It's about making them stand on their own and to take on those challenges.
[00:07:27] Mahan Tavakoli: That is really important both in parenting and in leadership. But before we get to more of the leadership, I'm curious, why did you decide to go to the Franciscan University of Steubenville? So you've traveled all around every two years, moving around. Why that school?
[00:07:45] David DeWolf: That itself probably furloughs from my upbringing. When I was a senior in high school for years and years, I had heard about the Franciscan University and I had actually told my mom and dad there's no way I'm going there because my mom wanted me to go there and my sister was two years older than I am and she ended up going there and we moved my senior year and you know where we moved?
We moved back to Cheyenne, Wyoming after being in Colorado for a year and a half. I'll tell you, it was probably the hardest move ever. Moving your senior year going to a place in Cheyenne, Wyoming, great people. But you know what? Those kids had grown up together since they were in kindergarten.
And to break in and to develop a community and a group of folks was just really hard for me. And it was difficult to leave Colorado. So in the October, November timeframe, my parents said to me hey, why don't you go visit your sister and just enjoy a week, get out of this stressful school situation that you're in, and that sounded like a great idea.
I went to the Franciscan University. And I'll tell you the number one thing that I noticed was that there was a joy on that campus and there was a community on that campus that made me feel welcomed and like I belonged. That sense of belonging drew me to that campus. It was a stark contrast to be on a college campus as a high school kid, feeling like you belonged amongst all these older kids, compared to being in high school and feeling like you were an outcast and it was experiencing that sense of belonging and feeling like I mattered, like I was a human being, that really said, You know what, David, this is where you need to be. I loved it so much in fact, that I went, ho, oh man. I told my parents, Hey, not only am I gonna go there, I'm gonna go there in January. And I remember them laughing at me and they said, If you can find a way to get it accepted without a high school diploma, we'll let you go. And I was accepted three days before that January semester started without a high school diploma. Don't ask me how. I have no idea, but admissions let me in. So that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
[00:09:51] Mahan Tavakoli: That's outstanding. And I don't know if the joy attracted you or the school gave you some joy because I was on their website seeing that actually joy is a big part of what they talk about at the university. It's prominently on the website. So joy has been a part of your approach, whether that attracted you or you got some of that from the school.
[00:10:16] David DeWolf: No doubt about it. Joy is attractive. As leaders, people want to be part of something that is positive and uplifting, and I think so often especially for high performers. We focus on the negative and improvements and those types of things. There's nothing wrong with that.
We should be improving things, but we should really love what we're doing. And when you are living your purpose, when you're living what you feel called to live, there is a natural output of that, , I call it the exhaust of the system is just the joy. It's the fulfillment that you're living, and it should be electric and energizing for those around you.
That's what I experienced on campus at the Franciscan University was individuals who were living their calling, living their purpose, and were really focused on how do they share that with the world and the people around them versus caught up in their own self image and other things that sometimes it's human beings we get caught up in.
[00:11:13] Mahan Tavakoli: That's another part of what I love about how you have led David, in that you you are a big believer in humanity and elevating the people you interact with, bringing more joy into their lives. Why has that been a core part of how you have led.
[00:11:32] David DeWolf: I've been very fortunate to work with some incredibly high performing teams. And the art of coming together as a team, working with others, building on each other's idea is just naturally pleasurable to me. Like I really love working with people and I think it probably goes back to this sense of belonging.
When we are working towards a goal together, we're pursuing an objective, we're doing something together. We have a reason for collaborating, for me, it helps my sense of belonging and it helps me feel like I'm doing good in the world. And what I have found is that in the highest performing teams in the world, yes, we are able together to do something that none of us could on our own.
And so many people stress that part of team, we talk about championship teams, we talk about, great businesses that are accomplishing things or have great discoveries. What we often overlook is that great teams also elevate each and every member of that team and help them become the best version of themselves.
To me, that's what gets me outta bed in the morning is, yes, I love to accomplish things with you, but more importantly, I like to see every single human being rise, and I love to create that environment where others feel respected and like they have a sense of belonging and that they can contribute in a way that really matters.
That fulfillment is really what life is about to me is helping to create that dynamic and that environment where others can thrive so that together we can all thrive.
[00:13:10] Mahan Tavakoli: As you've done that in 2006, you became an independent consultant, and a lot of times people become independent consultants and stay there, but you were able to become more deliberate in growing the organization and becoming a CEO. How were you able to transition from what is a passionate, joyful person that can produce product, then code and sell it to someone that can guide and lead other people and set systems for an organization as a CEO.
[00:13:47] David DeWolf: So the first thing is I've gotta correct your word deliberate, because I wish I was smart enough to think about it and be intentional. Here's the brutal reality. The brutal reality is I started as an independent consultant, and two and a half years later, I was driving down the road. I still remember where I was.
I was on I 66 about to exit in Fairfax to go visit a client, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Six people are working for you and their families are depending on paychecks from you. And that was just this daunting aha moment. And I'll tell you, I spent the next month really thinking about, do I wanna be a business owner? Do I wanna be an entrepreneur? Do I want to do this? Or at the time, I was still writing code 70, 80 hours a week, and I loved it. I loved creating something outta nothing and working with others to turn software into value. As I thought about that and I deliberated on it, I really prayed about it.
What I came to realize was that my gifts and talents are really centered around bringing teams together to be able to uplift those around me and accomplish more. And I realized that I could do that better as a CEO than I ever could as a software engineer. I also realized that I was never the greatest computer scientist in the world.
What I was somebody that loved people and loved to solve their problems and to bring people together, and I was using that skill set and code was just the language that was interpreting it. I was really solving business problems and helping people create and to do it through the power of humanity of multiple minds coming together.
It was an aha moment to realize that about myself and say, You know what? I can do that even more profoundly, have a greater impact on people's lives. So I made a deliberate decision to shift and my goal was to create this environment where we could not only thrive in the work that we were doing, but thrive as human beings.
And that's not just in our professional lives. What I realized at that point in time was that as I looked back over my career, rarely could I find somebody that I looked up to, both professionally and personally as a father of a young family at that time, I was craving that I wanted somebody who was doing an awesome job at being a husband and a father, but also an awesome job in their profession.
I wanted somebody that was joyful and was living their best self. When I didn't see it, I said, You know what? I can create that environment. And I went about to build a culture that could really thrive and succeed, but do it in a way that respected the human beings that were part of the organization and allowed them to be the best mother, the best friend, the best father, son, whatever hiker, whatever you wanna be, you should be able to be that and your work shouldn't fight against it. It should support it and allow it to come to fruition
[00:16:45] Mahan Tavakoli: David, how were you able to actually systemically approach that? A lot of leaders talk about the fact that there is this need for purpose. There is the need that they want everyone to be able lead, balanced, or well integrated lives. So the words are on one side. However you have been able to systemically approach it so people can do that at Three Pillar. How have you been able to actually follow through those intentions?
[00:17:14] David DeWolf: I think this is where coming from an engineering background actually helped me is that you used the word deliberate, and this time I'll agree with you, it was a systemic approach and it became about not just writing it down. Not just putting it on the wall, but living it first and foremost, day in and day out myself, making sure other people saw it, that I was vocal about it, that I challenged them to do it.
But then as we began to scale that I also taught others how to lead it. And began to embed it within systems, within how we hired, within, how we held people accountable within performance management and all of those things. I'll give you a really tangible example, so several years in, this was probably, I don't know, maybe 10 years in, five, six years ago.
Actually, I know exactly how long ago it was because it was my 15th wedding anniversary. So it was seven years ago. I decided to take a vacation with my wife to celebrate our 15th anniversary, and we went to St. Lucia and for our anniversary, I promised my wife, I'm going to log off of work. I'm truly gonna check out.
Now, as an entrepreneur, that was rare for me, and you could call me a workaholic, but the reality is my hobby is my work. I love what I do, so that's not hard for me to stay connected. I love what I do. But for my wife, I said, I'm gonna check out for you. And so I decided to leave my laptop at home, and when I got on the plane, In Miami to fly to St. Lucia. I turned off my phone and I told her I'm not turning it back on until I land back on US soil. And when I got back. My team was astounded that I actually did it, which was fair in and of itself. But what really hit me was that very next week I started watching other people who were on vacation and where I felt refreshed.
Other people were calling in to certain calls on their vacation and they were sending emails, and I thought, Why is this happening? And the contrast of everybody being shocked that I did it hit me in the face that I'll tell you why they're doing it. They're doing it because despite what I have said, for the past 10 years, I have lived something different.
And so since that time, I started to be very purposeful, even though I don't need it to recharge myself because I love my work, I'm purposeful about taking at least one vacation a year where I not only check out, I put on my auto email responder that if you send me an email during this time, it will be automatically deleted because I wanna make the point.
I'm not connecting, I'm not keeping up on what's going on. And I trust the team and I'm gonna truly recharge my batteries. That's just a real example. You have to be that intentional because as a leader, people are looking up to you. They're doing what you do, they're not doing what you say. And this is an area where I was not integrated in my life.
I was saying one thing, encouraging others to take time off to take care of themselves. I wasn't doing it myself. So I've been deliberate about finding those and rooting them out and trying to embed within the culture. A culture that truly lives it.
[00:20:41] Mahan Tavakoli: What an outstanding example, David. First of all, I could sense both my heart rate and the heart rate of everyone listening spiking, as you said. I turned off my cell phone on the plane and I told my wife, I'm not turning it on until the plane lands I can visualize and sense the anxiety a lot of people would feel doing that, whether it is disconnecting from their work email at all the other social media and other things that they're connected to.
But the most important point is what Ken Blanchard was also mentioning in conversation, and I repeat as often as I get a chance. Leadership is example.
Before you can expect anyone else to do it. You have to show them through your example. What an outstanding example of leadership. The other thing I love about your leadership is there is a great sense of humility in that you have approached setting up the organization, always seeking to learn. One of the things I found that you did early on at about a million dollar, you set up a board of directors. I'm familiar with a lot of different organizations and unless they have to, they don't set up. That's not usual practice.
Why did you go about setting up a real board of directors at such a small size?
[00:22:09] David DeWolf: It's funny, when I did that, I got two reactions from people. The first reaction was they just laughed at me. They thought I was silly. I still owned a hundred percent of the company and I was setting up a board you take yourself way too seriously. The other half of people. Told me I was an idiot because I was giving up control to other people.
Either I was an embarrassment or an idiot. I don't know what I call it was I was unconsciously competent. I had no idea what I was doing. But here's what I did know. I know that before I started Three Pillar, I had never managed a person in my life, nevermind run a business. And as the business started growing and as I had this realization that six people were depending on me for a paycheck, and their families were dependent on that, I made the decision that if I couldn't convince four people that I had brought to the table and had my best interest in mind that my idea was the right idea, then I probably, for my own benefit, nevermind, everybody else around me should listen to that. So I went out and I recruited the best board of directors I could attract, and I had professional board members that were serving on public company and private company venture backboards.
And that was my very first board and it was one of the best decisions, if not the best decision I ever made as a young entrepreneur because it gave me mentors, it taught me how to run a board. It really helped to still a discipline in the business that I never expected.
[00:23:47] Mahan Tavakoli: It also shows the humility with which you approach that. A lot of times, whether it's entrepreneurs or CEOs at different size organizations, there's a tendency for us to glamorize the role and the CEO to believe that they have the answers and not want to be challenged or second guessed.
The board of directors can bring a lot of value, and I've read quite a bit that you have written specifically on boards. I serve on boards for profit and non-profit boards, and in many instances, I see less than ideal practices. So would love to know couple of your thoughts with respect to how were you able to make the board most functional for you as a CEO and as a person that serves on boards of directors, how do you bring the greatest value at the board level?
[00:24:41] David DeWolf: So I'm gonna start with the word that you used, which is humility. You're right. Humility is the foundation of a lot of leadership and is really critical. But I'm gonna also point out that it goes two ways. I do think that it's important for a CEO not to think of themselves as knowing all the answers and to listen to those around you, and to have collaborators that can challenge both outside the business like a board, but also internally your own team should be able to challenge you. I think that's really important. But I'll tell you another lesson that I learned later on in my board journey was that it's also important to understand the gifts and the talents that you have and you bring to a board.
I remember a board meeting that I had after that initial board, it was probably, I don't know, eight to 10 years in, and I forgot that I was a board member as the CEO and I started to lose that dynamic of, Hey, I'm a peer, and realizing that I have a unique voice that really can contribute to that team really mattered.
And I had to learn that the hard way because the board for a couple of meetings got a little bit dysfunctional and I sought the advice of an outside mentor of mine. I said, What's going on? I've gotten from having a high performing board to not feeling like this is going well. And he reminded me, he said, You are not thinking of yourself as a peer to those board members, but you are.
All of you are board members. So that true humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less. And so that has been a staple and is the foundation of a healthy board relationship. I also think surrounding yourself with , board members that you want to call, not that you have to call, these should be people that you can get advice from.
People that you really respect their careers, that have insights and are willing to challenge you, but also willing to respect you. Will roll up their sleeves with you and wrestle with issues will be that sounding board. That's so important. And then the other value of the board. Is the rhythm of having to back up and look at your business from the outside.
So really leveraging and making sure that you're preparing for board meetings. Now, when I say that, I don't mean what a lot of businesses do, which is they go off and they spend a week putting together unique materials for board. No. You should be managing your board the same way you manage your business.
It's just providing exposure to, this is how I'm managing my business. So it shouldn't create an extra tax to run a board, but what it should do is give you an opportunity once a quarter to call a timeout. To step back and to present and to think about and digest your business. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to empower your team to present to your board. Remember, you're a peer and sit back and participate as a board member in your board meetings. I find that to be a really powerful tool for being able to get that outside perspective.
[00:27:28] Mahan Tavakoli: It is really important, and whether it is from small non-profits that I've seen up to reading a lot about what ended up going wrong at General Electric and the collapse. To a certain extent, it's been the lack of active engagement and involvement of the board of directors with people who felt almost honored. Hey, I've made it. I'm on the board of GE, so it is something that is essential to be handled well for the ongoing success and growth of the organization. So you've done that well over the years. There've also been bumps. You've bought a lot of organizations and you ended up acquiring a business in India that initially had some hiccups associated with it.
What happened with that, David?
[00:28:16] David DeWolf: Gosh, that was back in 2011, we acquired a business and we actually had a partnership with this business before we acquired 'em. Great business in many ways was structured similarly to us, and we thought the integration was gonna be easy. And it turns out it was really hard. It was hard for very human reasons.
It was a cultural mismatch, and we did not see that in our diligence and frankly, we probably didn't understand it for a good year and a half to two years after we closed it and we couldn't figure out what was going wrong. But as we pushed in, we began to realize that at the core of it was a wildly different culture.
It was a culture that was focused on hierarchy versus a culture that was focused on the individual person and helping to bring them together to succeed as a team. I'll tell you, there were a couple of moments that allowed us to break through and to really get to the bottom of it and be able to shift the cultures to bring them together.
The first one was a meeting that I had and it was actually a workshop that I was hosting over a day and a half period of time with the management team in India, as things were at their worst. I went in to help them with some of the strategic and operational items they were struggling with, and I very quickly realized that the problem had nothing to do with strategy or operations. The problem had to do with the team dynamic and a lack of cohesive leadership amongst the members of that leadership team. So we shifted from a very strategic meeting to a very team focused performance conversation. And in that, I realized that the basis of all high performance within a team is trust.
If you read Pat Lencioni's book, The Five Dysfunctions of the Team, he describes it really well. In order to perform and out execute our competition, we have to trust each other so that you can say to me, and I can say to you, Hey, this is what's on my mind. This is where I'm struggling. Will you help me? Hey, I see this in what you're doing, can I help you? Here's where I've failed, here's where I'm struggling. You can hold me accountable. All those types of things come from ultimately, trust. Do we trust each other? And trust comes from, are we able to vocalize what we're thinking, be ourselves. Without fear of ramification and repercussions, and this team didn't have any of it.
So going back to setting the example and going first I sat in that room, I called a timeout. I told we're gonna start working on just building trust and being able to have healthy relationships with one another. And we're gonna start by, we're gonna go around the room and every single one of you, Is gonna share with me one thing that I do well as a leader and one thing that undermines your performances as a team, and I made everybody give me a performance review in the moment, and I went first and did it. And I'll tell you that it's so countercultural in the hierarchical culture that we had acquired into. People were nervous and they were scared and there was one brave young lady that spoke up first and I applauded her.
I thanked her for the feedback and I encouraged everybody to continue to go on. Eventually, we went around that whole room. Not only did they give me feedback, they gave each other feedback. And the way you respond to that feedback, do you embrace it? Do you commit to getting better, or do you deny it? Do you fight it? Do you make the person uncomfortable? That began to set the tone of a different culture where it's okay to share opinions and different perspectives and to talk about things. That was situation number one.
Situation number two, that very same trip was our annual party. And in India, the annual party is an incredible celebration. All of the family members were invited and I'll never forget, first they had a talent show. Then they had a fashion show and then there were awards given out and then there was a dance party. After all of these different things that have taken place, I stepped back and I was watching when the dance party started and everybody, including the family members were in the middle of the dance floor, just having a great time.
And there were about eight managers sitting around with their arms folded, just watching everybody else, and it hit me like a ton of bricks, that is where this us versus them culture is coming from. And this sense of hierarchy, I had to break it down I'm the world's worst dancer. I'm not comfortable dancing, I don't like dancing. So I went and I found a glass of wine and I quickly drank that glass of wine. And then I got out on the dance floor and I started dancing with all the team members. And I will tell you, it wasn't even five minutes and I had people throughout the organization coming up, taking selfies with me, dancing with me, bringing their mom to introduce me to them.
That was the breakthrough where I said, Hey, I'm just the normal person. I'm one of you. We're in this together. I'm gonna have fun like you have fun. That's the moment that our NoDa Delivery Center, our India Center, became one of the highest performing centers that we have. It's just a phenomenal story of what it takes to really diagnose and understand cultural challenge that you may have.
[00:33:30] Mahan Tavakoli: David, as you talk about the cultural challenges, in most of the organizations I've been involved with, including here in the States for a dozen years, I traveled the world, including to India, 70 plus countries. Most of the organizations in the states, most teams would have a very hard time going through the process that you talked about with respect to openly and candidly the CEO or the top person being willing to take corrective feedback. So it's cultural with respect to the team and the organization, and the leader sets the pace. When the leader says, I am willing to accept feedback and I'm open, it makes it much more likely for other people to embrace it.
[00:34:19] David DeWolf: That's right. That is so right, and it's the story of the emperor that has no clothes, you have to be able to create an environment where people can challenge you. Everybody knows you're not perfect, they know your flaws if you're not acknowledge them in talking to them, and actively working on it. You just look like a fool, so I think it's important that we embrace it and that we listen to learn new things about ourselves. I learn things from not only our teammates, but my kids all the time, just because I'm a father doesn't make me perfect in them, not.
So in all aspects of our lives, we can have our ears open. Have the humility to admit that you're not perfect. Nobody loves a perfect leader cuz they know you're not what really matters, people will follow those who are authentic and they're grounded in who they really are.
[00:35:05] Mahan Tavakoli: That authenticity also carries through to organizational values David, one of the frustrations that I have audience members writing in about is the value statements, and there's been a lot of talk about purpose driven organizations, purpose driven teams, value statements that have been put out, where people feel that the values that are stated are different from the values that are lived in the organization.
How do you make sure that the values. A Three Pillar are lived, not just the poster that goes up on the wall.
[00:35:42] David DeWolf: So the key is to make sure they're authentic, too often these initiatives are driven by the marketing organization, if the leaders of the organization aren't taking on for themselves, really figuring out who they are as an organization. It's a marketing initiative, and everybody can see through it.
It's not authentic, at Three Pillar, Our purpose and our values are authentic, I told you the originating story. I love to harness the power of team. I love to bring people together so that we can change the world and uplift the team members. You know what? That's our purpose. That's why we exist at Three Pillar.
Do you know how many consultants I've had or new employees that I've had come in and say, That's not a good purpose, I'm sorry. That's who we are. That's where it comes from and I get it that an AD agency over here, or when we've gone through some of our funding rounds, there are outside consultants that'll come in and say that's not a perfect purpose.
To harness the power of team. It has to be more about making an impact in the world and like time out that is the problem with this corporate ideology around purpose, is that it's not authentic. And I can tell you that ours is real because it's lived. And yes, we have focused on operationalizing it and betting it in the systems.
But more than anything, it's not a poster on the wall. Because it's not a poster on the wall. It doesn't follow the textbook. It's legit. It's why the organization exists. And by the way, that attracts like-minded people that actually get passionate about that, and it repulses those that don't. The private equity firm that comes in with the person, the help with diligence that says that's not a real purpose and nitpicks it guess.
They're not the firm that got chosen because they're not part of the same tribe that we're part of. Those that bought into it and said, Ooh, that's unique that's different. I want to be part of that, they're the ones that are legit and can carry that authenticity forward.
[00:37:41] Mahan Tavakoli: That's what matters most. As you said, you attract some and you repel some, whether it's investors, employees, people in the market, but if it's authentic, it is who you are, what you believe. Then you don't have to try to whitewash it. You don't have to laminate cards to distribute to employees, so they have it in their wallets to refer to. It's lived.
[00:38:08] David DeWolf: Yeah, totally. So our purposes we've talked about is to harness the power of team and to do it for outsized impact to the world, and then for the individuals that participate in that as well. That second piece can get lost in this world. That's all focused on results but it matters to us. What flows from that is Four values. Four values that are all about team that support this idea of team.
First and foremost amongst them is intrinsic dignity. That is that every single human being matters. They have a place and they have something to contribute and that we act with respect towards other human beings, regardless of their position, regardless of their role, regardless of anything, they matter.
I think that value was lived in a very real way back in about 2012, we had a team member who literally in the office, came down with multiple sclerosis and over a period of 24 hours, became paralyzed and was in a wheelchair. It was devastating. She was a great team member.
She was somebody, everybody really respected, was part of the team, and all of a sudden, very quickly needed to take some disability leave and begin to live a different life. And several months later, I had a group of employees come to me and say, David, this young lady has left.
Everybody's in touch with her, but we think it would be really powerful and we would love to go just check on her, see how she's doing. She had moved to Pittsburgh at the time, said we'd like to do a road trip. Do you mind if I think there were five of 'em that had gotten together.
Would you mind if we took a road trip and went and visited her? And I was like, Oh my gosh, I can't believe it. So we ended up, I said, Not only do it, but we're gonna extend the time and I'm actually gonna drive the car. So we all got in, at the time I had a big Ford Expedition. We all piled in, we took a road trip together, but it was all initiated by the team.
That was the point that I realized that this culture, these values, were not just mine, they were the organizations and that the individual team members that she worked with on a day in and day out basis had raised their hand and said, Hey, we're gonna live, this matters to us. And they were willing to champion it.
And that was just one of the first moments where very early on I saw that culture start to be lived really honoring each and every individual, regardless. In this situation, this person couldn't even contribute anymore. She was going through such an incredible time. And they still wanted to make her feel like she belonged and honor her and be there for her. That's true teamwork.
[00:40:39] Mahan Tavakoli: It is, and it's truly living those values. It's not just talking the talk. It's not just having the right statements on the wall it's living the values and as you said, the right people get attracted to it, retained by it, motivated by it.
Now David, you must have reinvented yourself through time because leading a team of six people that rely on you is very different than leading a team across the globe , how have you been able to reinvent yourself?
[00:41:13] David DeWolf: We're approaching about 2,500 right now. I love the word reinvent. There is no doubt that as the CEO of a growth company, especially when you are the entrepreneur, you have to reinvent yourself.
And I would venture to say reinvent yourself about every year and a half. And if you simply think about it as an entrepreneur, you start out in, you are everything. You are the producer of the goods and services you're providing, then you may grow a little bit and you have to become the manager of those that are producing. Then you may grow a little bit and you have to learn how to sell a little bit more. Then you have to learn how to lead the managers and the sellers. And as you go along, you continue to go through these phases and evolution where you truly become an executive leader, and it's important that you're able to let go and to embrace that next phase.
Fortunately for me I just love the learning and the growth. I love stretching. The reality is that for the last 16 years, every single day of my life I have run the biggest business I've ever run in my life, that's just a truth I live with now, but I enjoy that growth.
I enjoy leaning into that and reinventing myself, but I've also enjoyed really surrounding myself with others that I can look up to. I'm very intentional about finding mentors that can challenge me, take me to the next level that I can learn from. But I think one of the biggest secrets that I learned very early on from one of my mentors Michael Deering , the very first chairman of my board and Michael had run three different public companies and three at the time now four private companies that were private equity back and had incredibly successful career.
And he always challenged me to be an orchestrator instead of a one man band. And the orchestrator has to put down the trumpet, doesn't play it anymore, has to put down, the cymbals doesn't play it anymore, is just orchestrating and keeping everybody else in lockstep and that vivid image in my head was important.
What I found was the secret for me being able to be an orchestrator as opposed to the trumpet player, was to find a trumpet player that was better than I was at playing the trumpet. So I think one of the key things that you can do as a leader to help reinvent yourself is to continue to hire people that are smarter, better more experienced than you are, because then the delegation and the empowerment of them becomes a lot easier.
It's when you hire somebody, when you have somebody else running, something that you don't trust as much as you trust yourself, that erodes that ability to get yourself to the next level.
[00:43:44] Mahan Tavakoli: One of the challenges that happen at all levels of organizations where people enjoy playing the trumpet or believe they are the best trumpet player and aren't willing to let go of that trumpet to become the orchestrator. So how have you continually learned to become a better orchestrator?
What are the types of things in addition to mentors, which are very valuable, you have a great podcast of your own, so you'll obviously love podcasts and listen to them. You write on LinkedIn a lot. What are the resources you use David to help your self continually become a better orchestrator.
[00:44:23] David DeWolf: So first and foremost, I think you have to be rooted in who you are and what your skills are so that you can navigate it yourself. So I would say there's nothing wrong with being a trumpet player if you're gonna be the trumpet player, but don't call yourself an orchestrator and claim to take that role if you're not.
So that self-awareness is first and foremost. So if you're gonna be the CEO, lean in to that role. But if you're gonna be the trumpet player, awesome. Do it to the best of your ability. Secondly, I would say that what you just said, yes. Mentors, podcasts, a lot of reading I love to read. Challenging myself with new ways of thinking. I go through different phases where I love business books. I love books on leadership. I love books on productivity. I went through a phase about a year and a half ago where reading a bunch of books on psychology. I had another mentor of mine tell me, Hey David, as you get bigger, 85% of the CEO's job is to be a psychologist and a counselor.
I was like, Wow, I better learn how to do that well. So I started reading about motivations and psychology. But just different interests. Reading the news is really important, are you staying abreast of what's going on in the world? Are you in touch with it? And by the way, in that having very different perspectives.
We can all see it no matter what side of the aisle you sit on. Doesn't matter. Everybody can see the bias that exists in the media in one source or another. Don't just go back to the same sources. Challenge yourself. Look at different perspectives. Really consume information and learn to distill. One of the things I love is in everything I hear as a CEO, there is an element of truth.
My job is to discern is what has been said to me. 99% true or 1% true. It's somewhere in that spectrum, and I gotta figure out where we'll practice that. Lean into that. Do that with your news sources. Do that with all of the different ways you consume knowledge and to learn. Another thing I've done is I've been very purposeful about building peer groups.
Whether that is with just like-minded CEOs, I've gotten to know I've been part of mastermind groups. I've joined YPO. There's all sorts of different forums where you can find peers and having peers that you can pick up a phone and call and say, Hey, I'm going through this. Have you gone through this before? Let me bounce this off of you, can be really important as well.
[00:46:37] Mahan Tavakoli: Peers can be very helpful in that. And you have that growth mindset, which is why you're continuing to learn. You have a best selling book of your own that you wrote a couple of years back, the product mindset. So it's continually learning and growing. So I would love to know your thoughts, David.
One of the challenges that a lot of leaders I interact with are facing, is the transition to a future of work where there is a lot of discomfort with where things will settle. What are your thoughts with the near term future of work?
[00:47:15] David DeWolf: Yeah, it's a hard one. I wish I had the answer. Let me tell you what we're going through and then maybe we can brainstorm together what it looks like. I'd say first and foremost, everybody, because of the pandemic, is now working in a more virtual world than they ever were before. Great example of that is for our business, we've always been a global business.
We've always worked virtually, but we also always had these community hubs in different regions of the world where people could come together and they're not used as often as they were before, even though we were always doing video meetings. So we're dealing with this new level of disconnectedness.
And we're doing a lot more of these Zoom calls and video conferences, and that's just a reality. It takes away some of the community and connection that helps to build culture, helps to keep people connected. Here's the question of the day. The question of the day is how do you reestablish that? And there are a lot of organizations that are making mandates and you see the quote mandated hybrid working model.
I don't know that's right or wrong. I understand why organizations are doing it. I will say it's not right for Three Pillar. For us, because we believe deeply in the intrinsic dignity of every human being, we believe that every single human being should be enabled to choose the best work environment for them.
So long as they're delivering results, we actually think it'll be the best benefit to the business if they are at their best. So we wanna empower them with that decision. That said, we also hear from employees that they're craving this community. So the question that we're grappling with is how do you have both?
How do you give that freedom but also create that sense of community? And it's proving to be a lot harder than anybody would imagine. What we're finding is, finding reasons to pull people together and to have reasons to come together in those communities, and you've gotta plan them and be intentional about 'em, even if you don't mandate 'em.
The worst thing that can happen is somebody says, Hey, I'm craving community. They go into the office, and there's only three people in the office. They're never gonna go back into the office again. It's gonna be another four months until they try. What we've gotta do is to be able to figure out how, when we have people congregate, do we make it known?
And how do we motivate people to do that at the same time? So those collisions can happen. We're still figuring out how. The one thing I know is that the old way isn't gonna work. It's not gonna be remote work and office work, it's gonna be a brand new model that somehow figures out how to create these patterns of congregation that allow community to thrive.
[00:50:02] Mahan Tavakoli: I love the way you described it and it requires a lot of experimentation as we work it out. There are a lot of people with an older mindset, whether with vested interest in commercial real estate or people that have been used to for years, going up the chain of the organization, being used to being together all the time, having the bigger corner offices the comfort of having their assistant next to them where they want to go back to the way things were.
A big part of your point is, There is no going back. It requires a certain reinvention with intentionality,
[00:50:39] David DeWolf: that's exactly right. Absolutely. So it's a work in progress. If you crack the nut, if you figure it out, let me know because we're looking for it. And to your point, what we're doing is experiment.
[00:50:48] Mahan Tavakoli: That is the not David, experimentation to that future rather than anyone with certainty being able to say what works and culturally for different organizations, different things will work. There will not be a set framework. So before we wrap up, I know you love your work, you're passionate about it, it is your hobby, but what do you do besides focus on work?
[00:51:12] David DeWolf: So most of my time outside of work is actually spent with my kids and my family. We're big sports fans. My boys especially love baseball. I've got a couple girls that play soccer. We love to go watch them play. And then lake life. We got a Covid lake house and have definitely been enjoying being on the water.
I'd never been on water for my life, first time ever on a boat except for on my honeymoon was when we bought a lake house on Lake Anna, right down here in Virginia, and decided to try our hand at it. And we've just fallen in love with it. The peace of the water gives us some good dedicated family time and some relief from the busyness of Northern Virginia. So it's been good for us.
[00:51:51] Mahan Tavakoli: It is wonderful because it gives you a chance to, as you say, reconnect with what's most important, and that's the beautiful family that you have. I really appreciate your leadership insights, David DeWolf. You've done incredible things in growing, not only the organization, but yourself and I know you will continue to do so and be a jewel in the DMV region as Three Pillar global continues to grow.
Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation, David.
[00:52:23] David DeWolf: I've really enjoyed it. Thanks for inviting me.