In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Jim Kerr, Founder of Indispensable Consulting and Author of the book INDISPENSABLE: Build and Lead A Company Customers Can’t Live Without, and shares his thoughts and insights on how being indispensable is a very important aspect of leading and creating a great culture.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Marshall Goldsmith, author and executive coach
Author James M. Kerr
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More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Jim Kerr. He is the founder of Indispensable Consulting and author of what will be his sixth book Indispensable: Build and Lead a Company Customers can't live without.
Jim is a consultant, a coach, and a guide that helps organizations and leaders achieve their vision for the future. We have a great conversation on his book and his thoughts on how leaders can help their organizations become more indispensable.
Keep all of your feedback coming. I love hearing from you, firstname.lastname@example.org. And on the partneringleadership.com website, there is a microphone icon. You can leave me a voice message there. Love hearing your voice too. For those of you listening to this episode on Apple, don't forget to rate and review when you get a chance, that way more people can find these episodes. Now here is my conversation with Jim Kerr.
Jim Kerr my friend, welcome to the Partnering Leadership Podcast.
Mahan, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.
I am really excited to both find out a little bit more about you and share that with our listeners but also to talk about your excellent new book that is coming out this month on Amazon.
So first off though, I wanted to find out Jim, whereabouts did you grow up and how has that influenced the kind of person and leader you've become?
Yes, I grew up in a small factory town in the middle of Massachusetts. Working-class background. Education was always a priority and as a consequence, I worked really hard at getting educated and continuing to pursue sort of academics in the form of these books that I've been writing and we're going to talk about Indispensable. That's my sixth book. I guess I'm committed to that idea that education is a good thing.
It is. Now my question is why indispensable at this time? We are as leaders and organizations going through lots of disruption, why right now?
Well, for that exact reason, I think, Mahan, because we've been disrupted in ways we never imagined, I think a book like this becomes of critical importance because it kind of provides an agenda that can be followed to create a business that customers can't live without.
And it's by the way, kind of 30 years in the making. A lot of what's in this book are things that I've practiced over the last 30 years. Of course, included the things that worked but I also talked about some of the things that didn't work so well and the lessons learned from that.
So I think it can be a really important guide to any leader who's trying to re-center their business if you will and I use a lot of other industry examples as well not just from my clients but also things going on in industry per se, so there's lots of good industry examples in there and you can see what terrific indispensable leaders like Bezos and Musk and so on are doing to keep their companies vital. And I hope that the end result is something that readers can really appreciate
It is and I really appreciated getting a chance to read the book. Now it is a guidebook to help leaders become indispensable and lead their organizations to become indispensable. So what is definition of indispensability in your view as we then talk about the elements of the book?
I kind of start the book off with a definition right out of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and that's being absolutely necessary and not subject to being set aside or neglected. What that means from a company point of view is that you're so important to your customers that they really and truly can't think of doing business without you. And isn't that what every great business wants to become? That indispensable entity that customers prefer over any others that might be available in the marketplace.
And to that end, you say the golden rule of indispensability is, do unto your customers and your team as you would want them to do unto you.
Now my question Jim is, doesn't every leader say that? So what is the difference in the organizations that truly embody it than all the other leaders that say that anyway.
Well, there's certainly a lot of talk about that kind of operating value system if you will. And to your point, I guess almost every leadership team will say that they put their customers and their people first and so on. But the ones that really do are the ones that actually enjoy a tremendous benefit. They're the ones that lead sort of empathetically. They're able to see their business from the customer's eyes. They're able to see working within their business from their staffer's perspective and by doing that, by being able to see it from someone else's perspective, you're able to make the kinds of adjustments necessary to actually create a culture that is indispensable. And in the book, culture is one of the key elements of sort of the indispensable formula.
It is and that's one of the elements that I would love to talk more about. You lay out a framework of the right leadership, right vision, right culture, right people, right empowerment and trust, and the right change management practices. What brought up those six critical areas in your view?
If you get those six things right, you've got a great business. If you're able to deliver leadership in the ways that resonate with the people that you're leading, you're going to be a good leader. If you've got a terrific vision that your staff can respond to, that they can see themselves being successful within, they're going to buy in and they're going to help you achieve that vision. If you've got a culture where people can be successful, where you enable them to bring their best work every day and create an environment where their contributions can be felt not by you so much, but even by them, even more importantly that they see that they've made a contribution,then you've got a kind of winning culture. And of course, people empowerment, trust, those are all things really related to the way we as human beings interact with the work that we do.
Nothing beats an employee that loves their job. Having the right people means you've got a lot of people in place that really love being there and empower them and they love it even more and you create a trust environment where trust is as soon as expected. Then they're going to operate freely and be more creative and more productive than they could otherwise.
And then the last element, that change management thing. I'm a strong believer that we're in a constant state of change. I think organizations are living entities and as a consequence like any living entity they have to change all the time or they die. As important as that notion comes the thought. And that's really what the focus of that chapter is in the book, you've got to embrace a change management framework that can accommodate all this change so that you're not reinventing the wheel every time you introduce a new idea, rather you've got some processes in place that can readily support change initiatives and you run those kinds of change initiatives in a very consistent and repeatable way so you create an environment that's easy to work in. People need to be comfortable with change. We as leaders can create an environment that makes that easier for them to handle.
And one of the things you do in the book is that you have a lot of frameworks around each one of these areas Jim. I would like to go a little deeper on the right leadership and right culture with respect to leadership, you highlight the need to lead by example.
Yes, I mean that's just it. I don't want to suggest that leadership is by any means a cult of personality. It's not what I'm suggesting at all. But what I think is critical is that leaders actually, they drink their own kool-aid, right? And the reason that they have to, it's one thing to say something it’s something else to do it. So if you're leading and you're trying to suggest to your people that they need to do work in a certain way and you're not demonstrating that behavior through your activities, they don't believe it. But on the other hand, if you're an inspirational leader, not only are you setting direction but you're actually becoming the living example of what that looks like and now your staffers can embrace it because they have a great example to follow. That's kind of one of the key elements of having quote-unquote the right leadership.
And please note, Mahan, in each of these sections, those elements of what I'm calling indispensable, I always say the right leadership, the right vision, the right culture. And the reason why I use the word right is because it's not perfect, it's right for the situation you're in, for the size of your organization, for what you're trying to achieve, for the place that you do work, and so on. What's right for you may not be right for me but in order to become indispensable, we've got to find what's right for that business and that's what the book's highlighting I hope.
And with the clients that you work with Jim and the organizations you study to write this book, are there any examples that come to mind of leaders that truly lead by example in helping their organizations become indispensable?
Sure. In the book, I try to show a lot of examples and bring those to the fore around great leaders. So in the book, you'll see Musk being quoted, Elon Musk from Tesla. And what did he do? He brought great vision, he imagined a world where there could be the privatization of space travel and he was able to bring that vision to his company, to SpaceX and describe what that would look like and engage his people to try to help build that for or with him, for the company and with him.
Jeff Bezos from Amazon. Tenacity, what a great example of sticking with it because if you remember back when Amazon first started, it didn't turn a profit for many many years and it took quite a while for it to become the behemoth that it is today.
So just a couple of examples of leaders that are actually walking the talk. They're willing to do what's necessary to make it come true, to make their idea for their businesses come true.
And another one of the points that you make that really resonated with me. Because it's important but it's really hard to embrace as a leader is encouraging dissent.
Yes. Dissent is an interesting thing in some companies that I work with. It's very dangerous for a staffer to offer a different opinion than their leader. It's not welcome. They don't want to hear bad news and as a consequence, those businesses suffer tremendously because guess what? There's always things that aren't going quite the way they should and if you've cultivated a culture that doesn't want to hear bad news then guess what? You're not going to hear about the bad news until it's too late to fix it.
So it's critical that we adopt the idea that we can seek dissenting opinions. That we can look for bad news in essence and that we can do something with that and we can use that dissent if you will as a means of shaping or reshaping our own ideas for what we have to do next as leaders.
So I welcome dissent. I don't want a different point of view because it's just going to make one of two things. It's either going to make my idea better because I will now consider this other idea, this opposing point of view or if I can prove that what I'm thinking is right, then I've just defended an idea and makes me feel more confident that where I'm going is actually the right place to be. So to sense a good thing and we should welcome and encourage it within our people.
We should and one of the things that is a challenge for a lot of leaders is that the higher up they move into organization, the less feedback they end up getting. Part based on their behaviors, part based on the way many of us are used to not wanting to give feedback to people that are above us in rank in the organization.
So any thoughts and experiences with respect to how leaders can actually encourage that environment of feedback and show their openness?
Sure, I mean that's kind of where executive coaching comes in from my point of view, and you being a coach as well, I know you travel the same road that I'm about to talk about.
But yes, one of the key things for any good leader is to be able to create an environment where they can get additional insight, additional ideas, opposing point of view, thoughts on how to do something better, and so on and not be reluctant to seek that out because we all have blind spots. And what coaches can really do for us if they're effective coaches, of course, is they can point out those blind spots and give us some ideas about what we can do to overcome them.
Again, I think that's a critical aspect and often forgotten aspect of what makes good leaders, great. Great leaders tend to have executive coaches that are helping them along and to your point, the further up the chain you go the lonelier it gets and why is that? It's because it's hard to find people inside to be that sounding board because people inside just might have parochial points of view, if they can convince their leader to adopt, can actually be beneficial for them. So to guard against that, I think it's critical that top leaders particularly get ideas and insights from people outside of the organization and I think it's more effective advice and I think it's one that comes without any hidden agenda to it.
It is absolutely critical and one of the reasons for the need for a growth mindset for the leader regardless of what stage they're in, thinking about how they can continually improve themselves with getting that feedback.
Now, I also know Jim, you are a big advocate for decency and leadership. You mention it in the book. You always talk about it. What is decency in leadership? And wouldn't all leaders view themselves as being decent people, decent human beings? What is decency in leadership?
Yes, I think you're right. You can probably, comfortably presume that everybody thinks they're great. You know as you often say in the work that we've done in the past together, that we're all our own hero of our own story kind of thing. So yes, that's likely to be true, however, when I'm talking about decency and sort of reintroducing it to the c-suite, what I'm really suggesting is I think we've lost our way a bit. I think corporate greed has become a real influence in the way people behave. I think the promise of becoming a rock star leader is something that a lot of people strive for and I think when they do that with sort of insincere intent then, they may have lost a little bit of their common decency in the pursuit of this dream for themselves.
So what I'm suggesting when I talk about decency in leadership is I'm suggesting that we've got to remember to still be good people as we send the ranks. And there are certainly things like empathy like we talked about earlier on this broadcast that are things that we've got to keep front and center and try to help keep ourselves centered by seeing how we're operating through someone else's eyes. That's kind of the first step towards becoming a decent person and a decent leader.
And I think you are passionate about this as am I Jim. The more we celebrate and also recognize decent leaders, the more other leaders can aspire to be like them because sometimes I find the people we end up glamorizing and celebrating are not the kind of models of leadership that we want to see more in our organizations and in our communities.
Yes, I think you're spot on. I mean in the book, I talked about Mark Benioff from Salesforce. And I talked about how he made a commitment to try to take action for something that he believed to be right and he had his company commit to sort of social impact and responsibility to the point where they were not interested in doing work in Indiana, boycotting the state because of its religious freedom laws as an example.
So whether you agree with it or not, it's an example of a leader who took a position and maybe one that's not so popular but he took that position because it was something that he believed to be right and to me that's kind of an example of what leaders need to be doing. Try to do the right thing in all instances. You'll get it wrong sometimes but keep that front and center and you'll be respected as someone who's actually a decent human being even though you're at the top of a major organization.
Employees are expecting that, clients and customers are expecting that, so we are all expecting our leaders to live up to different standards as you mentioned with Mark Benioff.
Now, you also spend a lot of time on the right culture and I agree with you that culture is absolutely critical. You say if you want to be indispensable you need the right culture. Period. End of sentence. So I can sense the conviction even in your writing Jim, which I love and then you shock me with a statement afterwards. You say a juice bar is not the answer. Really, Jim?
Yes indeed Mahan. I think we both know juice bar is not the answer. Yes, it's been remarkable for me to watch clients struggle in trying to make their companies more staffer friendly. But I don't think you create a culture by putting a jungle gym in your foyer. I don't think we need nap pods to make our companies better. I think what we need to do is again adopt sort of that empathetic point of view, see the business from our customer's eyes and try to create a way of doing business that makes us easy to do business with. Think of it that way.
You know, we've got to just deliver what we promised. We've got to be able to offer the kinds of products and services that meet customers' needs. To the point we made earlier and I was quoting you when I made it but we need to be the providers of the ingredients necessary to make our customers the heroes of their own story and if we can do that kind of thing I think we're going to have the kind of culture that is indispensable. It's not by getting juice bars in every corner of your office.
Like everything else, culture requires deep commitment and deep change. Those are surface elements that a lot of people copied from each other and they don't do the trick. So one of the things I love is that you go through culture repeatedly, not just in the culture segment of the book emphasizing the importance of it.
Now, one other element that you mentioned with respect to culture which is unique, you mentioned that your company has personality too and then you talk about the five personality types. Broad personality traits, extroversion, agreeableness, openness conscientiousness and, neuroticism, and how you can find out your company's personality.
Yes, you know that actually comes from an exercise that I did for a client. We took their vision story. And as you know I'm a big proponent of developing a vision story not just a vision statement. You need to make sure that when you're setting direction for an organization that you can craft a really compelling story that shows everybody being successful within that future vision for the business. And it's got to be compelling, engaging, it's going to have the vivid details necessary where people can really thirst for being in a business that operates that way.
And I just completed that work for a major client and IBM Watson had a tool that they were promoting that had to do with the personality assessment. And I thought, what an interesting sort of innovative thing to try. Let's take the vision story and put it into this Watson application and let's see what comes out. And what we got was a personality profile based on the vision story. And it talked about an innovative business with open-mindedness, with empathy, with the ability to manage change, to be disruptive, etc., etc. Which were all the kinds of things that we were talking about in that company's vision story.
So the personality that matched the words to the story was one that was truly aligned and I thought it was a great sort of, again, innovative way to test the notion of whether or not we were able to define a personality for that future business. That was what we were aiming to try to do and I think it worked.
You say it too Jim and I couldn't agree more. That all organizations have a culture. The question is how intentional is that culture so part of this reflection can enable leaders to become more intentional in the culture of the organization
Yes, I think so, for sure. There's a de facto culture everywhere. So every business whether they think about culture or not has one. And that's what I was writing about in that part of the book. Don't short shrift the importance of culture. I think there's a tremendous opportunity for leaders to reshape their business to make them indispensable by focusing on culture and doing a sort of a culture reset in a very deliberate way. And I think that's important.
And in fact, in that chapter as you might recall, I actually lay out a methodology for how to reset the culture. And to me it's critical. It's one of the six parts, six legs to the stool however you want to think about the agenda that's laid out in this book Indispensable. If we don't get the culture right, we can't be a company that customers can't live without.
Absolutely. It is important so leadership and culture are two of the critical factors. Again there are six that you talk about. One that you touched on but you then wrap up the book with saying lead authentically and keep it real. How can leaders lead authentically and keep it real Jim?
Again, I'm not suggesting anywhere in the book that you do anything that's not you. You have to do you. And that's kind of the message at the end. I've provided the agenda, it's those six things. And you as a leader have to do those six things to quote-unquote get it right because remember, each one of the other sections the right leadership, the right vision, and so on.
To do it right, you have to do it authentically. You have to make sure that who you are is in everything that you do and not try to be something you're not. And that's kind of the closing message there. Do these things, do it your way, you're going to create a business that people prefer over any other.
If I want to try to be Elon Musk, I'm not so I can't think that I'm going to just adopt what he does and it's going to work for me. I have to do me, my way and you have to do you, your way. And I think if we follow these six principles that are laid out in the book what I really think of is an agenda, if we follow that agenda and do it our way then we will build successful businesses.
And you do lay this out beautifully Jim. I'm just wondering, there is a lot written on leadership and leaders constantly consume information, read books on leadership. In your view and your experience, what separates those that read a book like yours and end up being able to implement it and succeeding from those that don't?
I'm sure lots of people will read your book, some will implement some won't. What separates those successful leaders from the not so successful leaders that have consumed the same information?
Yes, it's funny you know, in my high school yearbook and this is going back I guess closing the loop right back to your first question about how I grew up and so on, and I'd mentioned that education was a value and so was hard work coming from a blue-collar family. Hard work was something that I saw every day. My father and my grandfather before him would come home from the factory sweaty and dirty and tired but they worked every day and they did overtime shifts and so on to provide for their families.
So hard work is the thing that makes the difference I believe.
So to kind of answer the question more directly, the quote I used in my high school yearbook. Happy are those that are willing to do what other people aren't willing to do. So someone that reads this book and gets inspired and puts in the effort to follow the agenda that's in the book, they're going to make a difference for their company regardless of what level of leadership they are.
And I wrote this book for not just the top leaders but every leader. From the next-gen, first-time person hoping to be a CEO someday, all the way up to the folks that inhabit the C-suite. If they put the effort in, this can make a difference.
Someone that reads it kind of passively, and says, hey this is nice good ideas, good reminder and chooses not to do anything with the advice, well, this book's probably not going to make a difference for their business. If you take it seriously you work the agenda, I think you're going to see results.
So in addition to this great framework that you layout that can be implemented by leaders to make their organizations indispensable, are there any other leadership resources you find yourself typically recommending Jim?
I read constantly. A thousand of pages a week. And there are all kinds of great business authors out there that have inspired me that I've been even taking a different point of view from and so on.
There's a few people that really continue to influence me with everything they produce. Marshall Goldsmith is a great example of someone that does that for me. Whether it's a video or an article or one of his books. So I can point people there and I can suggest that a lot of what Marshall talks about is about decency. It is about empathy. It's about being able to see things from a different point of view and I think that's critical trait to develop in oneself.
And then there are many many probably too many for me to even think about listing. Do a search on a topic that you're interested in whether it's decency and leadership or competitive intelligence on the manufacturing, operation, whatever your thing might be. And see what's out there and parse through it and you'll collect ideas and thoughts and maybe derive strategies from that kind of commitment to learn.
And you yourself are continuously putting out a lot of great content in addition to this being your sixth book. So how can listeners find the book, connect with you, read more of the content that you're producing Jim?
First things first, the company's website is indispensable dash consulting dot com (indispensable-consulting.com) The book Indispensable: build and lead a company customers can't live without, is available on Amazon. And I write quite a bit in CEO world these days so you can probably find some great articles there. I also write quite a bit for management issues dot com, so that's management dash issues dot com (management-issues.com) and those have been places that really welcome the kind of content messaging that I have and that's where you'll find a lot of other pieces that I've developed that sort of support this whole indispensable concept that I've laid out in this book.
Fantastic, I really appreciate both this conversation Jim, and more importantly the great content you're putting out in the world including this book, helping leaders become more indispensable and lead their organizations to become indispensable. Thank you for joining me, Jim Kerr
Thank you, Mahan, it's been a great pleasure. Much appreciated.
Author of the book INDISPENSABLE: Build and Lead A Company Customers Can’t Live Without
I specialize in supporting inspired leaders achieve their vision for the future. I do this by co-creating solutions with them and their team of experts that enable their business to become the company customers can't live without.
My expertise includes vision storytelling, strategic planning, culture redesign and the development and implementation of multi-faceted change initiatives. I enjoy forging new ideas and devising practical solutions to my client's broadly relevant business problems , while shape-shifting those solutions into opportunities for their company's success.
Currently, I’m seeking opportunities that will enable me to help leaders set direction and manage change. Specific fields of interest include vision, culture and organizational effectiveness.
Culture Transformation, OD, Organizational Engagement, Vision Storytelling, Leadership Coaching, Scenario Planning, Strategy Socialization, Futurist and Strategic Thinking, Branding, Scenario Planning, Marketing Planning, Merger Integration Oversight, Business Process Redesign, Corporate Reorganization, IT Architecture / Planning, PMO Design / Implementation, Vendor Selection / Management, Interim COO. CMO and CIO Services