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Dustin Seale – Lead Through Anything – Ep.227

Dustin has spent his career working with high-performing CEOs from over 70 countries to help transform teams and find the right successors for CEOs and other C-suite executives.

Episode Description

Ep.227: Alex (@aebridgeman) is joined by Dustin Seal (@dustinseale).

My guest today is Dustin Seale, co-author of Lead Through Anything alongside Ed Manfre and managing partner at executive search and leadership firm, Heidrick & Struggles. Dustin has spent his career working with high-performing CEOs from over 70 countries to help transform teams and find the right successors for CEOs and other C-suite executives.

We talk about what to look for in CEO successors, including the Microsoft search Dustin’s firm led to replace Steve Ballmer, why internal talent is often discounted, key predictors for success in leaders, and the core characteristics of purpose, vitality, and agility that all the best leaders Dustin has studied have, and how other CEOs can develop those traits.

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Clips From This Episode

Replacing Steve Balmer as CEO of Microsoft

Dealing with Burnout and Lack of Fulfillment

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(00:00:00) – Intro

(00:04:48) – The process of replacing Steve Balmer as CEO of Microsoft

(00:09:31) – Pros and cons of internal vs. external candidates in a CEO search

(00:10:59) – What qualities are you looking for in a CEO for a company as large as Microsoft?

(00:16:46) – Creating flexibility with nonlinear planning

(00:26:51) – Pushing messages as a CEO

(00:29:39) – Turning a group of individuals into a team united

(00:32:47) – How new CEOs can make efficient evaluations?

(00:41:06) – Dustin’s process for writing the book

(00:47:58) – Measuring purpose, vitality, and agility

(00:52:17) – Dealing with burnout and lack of fulfillment

(00:56:24) – Dustin’s journey to improve vitality

(00:59:54) – Key concepts to take away from the book

Alex Bridgeman: Dustin, thank you for coming on the podcast. It’s good to see you and I’m excited to get to chat through all things executive recruiting and leadership and some of the CEOs you’ve worked with and helped recruit. One thing we talked about that was a really interesting search was the replacement for Steve Ballmer at Microsoft and hiring Nadella and finding him as an internal candidate. So, the whole saga was really interesting. I’d love to kick off with that story and your firm’s involvement and then let that lead into talking about executive recruiting and the different concepts of high-performing CEOs that you’ve met, interacted with, and documented through your book. I think that could be a fun place to start.

Dustin Seale: Yeah, well, thanks for having me, first of all. The adventure for Microsoft, everybody in the world knows about it now. There was a great founding moment with Bill Gates and Ballmer would have been in that period of time. They built an amazing company. The second phase was post Gates. And the third phase was refounding, creating the next Microsoft. So in any search, you’re often talking to an organization. They have a definition of what they like to have, what sort of capabilities, background, experience, and that’s an important starting point. But usually what’s on paper, if it matches the job perfectly, you’re not asking all the right questions. And I’ll come back to the Satya search, but we had a recent search where we had two candidates at the end. One was ideal, perfect, ready to go, could step in, had done similar jobs before, CV was perfect. And it was the last conversation which was about where is this business going. And in this case, where the business had to go was actually two or three steps further in terms of size, scale, complexity. So whilst one candidate was perfect, when we looked at the two candidates, the second had greater agility and mindset, growth mindset, ability to continue to grow. So the potential was much higher than the first. Not perfect on paper, but actually perfect for where they needed to go. They needed somebody that could grow with the business and grow the business to a different place. So, in the end, they ended up with the imperfect, air quotes, candidate, but the one with the potential to take the business and grow with the business the next three or four steps. In most searches for a CEO, you are actually looking for somebody, especially if you’re going external, for someone that’s going to be able to come in, assess the business, understand it, but take it to an entirely different level. It’s usually a change opportunity. So, if we rewind to the Microsoft period of time, they were- it was time after a number of years, Steve Ballmer had been running the organization, to look at what is the next leadership for Microsoft. Anything of that size is going to have internal and external candidates. There’s going to be a lot of people interested in that job. Now, where I think a lot of organizations go wrong is not looking closely enough at the internal candidates. So, the internal candidates, the challenge with any internal is you know them inside out, warts and all. These shiny candidates on the outside, you don’t know. So, they do look perfect. So it’s a bit like everybody looks perfect on a first date. So, you’re choosing- it’s not choosing people that you know and you know, it’s you know and you don’t know. It was a robust process to look at what person could actually sync up with where Microsoft was at the moment, but to help Microsoft reinvent itself, as Satya calls it, re-found itself. In that effort, every candidate is interviewed, every candidate is assessed deeply. And the biggest part is their ability, in this case, their foresight and agility, ability to grow and change and improve both themself and the organization. In that case, hands down, one candidate stood above all else. And that was from the inside. And it’s become a well-worn path telling the story of Microsoft from that day to where it is. I think a couple weeks ago, they had a three trillion valuation, something unbelievable like that. So you’d have to say good selection, the right person to re-found the organization. But if you just go on paper, maybe it wouldn’t have been him as the choice. If you do deep assessment and understand how the person operates, how they think, and their potential, he was the right candidate.

Alex Bridgeman: If you think of a broad search for a CEO, are there general pros and cons to internal candidates versus external, or is it so much case-by-case that it’s hard to put broad brushes on either group of candidates?

Dustin Seale: Well, it depends on what you’re doing. It is a broad brush. There are times when an external candidate is the exact thing you need. You need somebody that comes in that has no history, can bring a brand new brush to the canvas. I think if you can’t find at least one internal candidate that’s viable, you have a whole different set of questions to answer as an organization. Because you haven’t built, you haven’t systematically thought about succession and built the capabilities in your people so that you have at least one or two internal candidates that are worth having a deep look at. My bias, if you have a great internal candidate, you go that way. The data shows that external candidates have significantly higher failure rate in the three-year period than internal because internal are actually picking up from what they know. That’s not great for search, but in a search context, the great search firms look at both and are simply committed to getting the best candidate, whether inside or out.

Alex Bridgeman: What are some of the qualities you’re looking for for a CEO of a company as large and successful as Microsoft?

Dustin Seale: There’s a lot. If we look at the recent book that I wrote, Lead Through Anything, there are three components that you’re going to definitely look at. First, does this person have a sense of purpose? Do they know what they’re about, what they want to create? And sense of purpose usually comes with high confidence, low ego. So, you can be very confident and shape the environment, but low ego. The second part is a growth mindset, the willingness to constantly learn and grow, never be done. I have a lot of people that say, well, can a leopard change their spots? Every bit of data shows now with neuroplasticity, of course they can. And you’re looking for people of propensity to constantly learn and grow and challenge not only themselves first, then the organization, and then are they able to take people with them? In our language, that’s vitality. Can they connect with people? Can they connect people to ideas, to a direction, and actually create inspiration for that direction? All three of those are critical. Outside of that, in a job that size, a CEO, if you’re running a giant global bank or you’re running a Microsoft or you’re running an Apple, you’re actually part of a global ecosystem. And are you able to actually understand that system, all the constituent parts, and be a convener of thought and collaboration, cooperation across that ecosystem. Let’s just take a bank, you’re going to have all sorts of regulatory jurisdictions and governments, you’re going to have your competitive set, you’re going to have FinTech coming up. There are a number of parties that you need to be able to bring together to actually have a good response to what you want to do in the market. So we’d be looking at how much breadth can this person understand? Can they understand the environment? So that’s breadth. And can they tie all those together? The second part will be depth. So how far out can you see? Almost anybody on earth can see this year’s or this quarter’s results and what you’ve got to do, this year’s results and what you’ve got to do. It starts to thin out when you start to look at three years and knowing what you need to get done to win in a three-year time period. Then there are leaders that are actually looking ten years out. I would put Satya into this category. They’re actually out there thinking back to right now. So it’s breadth and then it’s foresight that you need to be looking for on top of the three key components of purpose, growth mindset, and vitality, the ability to take people forward.

Alex Bridgeman: So, what are these leaders doing to have that level of foresight ten years down the line when, as you said, it’s really hard to know three years down the line? Are there different habits that they have or things that they’re looking at or paying attention to or thinking about? Like what kind of characteristics go into having that foresight for a leader?

Dustin Seale: Well, first there’s a caveat, which is if you asked any of us 10 years ago, what would the world look like today, I don’t think we would have come up with what we’re looking at right now. So, you’re never going to get somebody that just knows what the picture is, unless they’ve got time travel. One of the reasons for writing the book is that we’re trying to equip leaders for a world where things are changing faster and faster in shorter cycles, shorter cycles but broader impact. So if you look at geopolitical challenges, you look at supply chain challenges, you look at the rise of nationalism, you look at money used to be free, now it’s not. So cost of capital has gone up. It’s just impact after impact right now. So we’re looking for what is it about those leaders that are able to navigate or lead through anything. So being able to lead within this environment is tough enough. Being able to lead within this environment and then start to take a walk out into three and five and ten year time frames, that’s the next step, that’s the next level of leader. Some of it is just, sounds terrible, flat out IQ. You’ve got to have a really, really good engine under the hood to be able to piece together the disparate patterns and ripples and information to start to figure out what does that distant picture look like. So that’s just raw intelligence. The second is linked to that growth mindset. Probably the enemy of being able to think further out is your current thinking because we do have a tendency as human beings to think about the world we have today and then we do a straight line forward. Most every human being does that. That’s how we try to anticipate what’s coming. Non-binary thinking, constant willingness to challenge your own thinking and learn actually breaks that open, starts to release you from a forward-looking path to what I think the world’s going to look like, to actually looking at that disparate information and piecing together and actually looking for what are the surprises? How is the world going to look really different than if I did that from here to there look? Does that make any sense to you? It’s brain power and the ability to let go of your current construct as you analyze what you’re seeing in the patterns.

Alex Bridgeman: And how do you get the rest of your team to have that same level of maybe flexibility with non-linear planning and foresight?

Dustin Seale: That’s where I spend most of my time is with CEOs and their top teams. So you have a new CEO or somebody from inside, I’m working currently with a CEO that was in internal placement, also looking to re-found an organization. So, they’re on the third sort of phase of leaders from founder to next leader. This person’s the third. That’s what he was asking. So how do I get my top team thinking differently? And I go back to, if you’ve hit red, hit refresh, Satya’s first thing is that when you walk into a room, most top teams, everybody’s trying to prove to you that they’re the brightest person in the world. You’re the new leader. They want to say, listen, I’m really good, pay attention to me. That’s the opposite of what he wanted. He says things like, I want to hear the quietest voice in the room, that actually ego and self-aggrandizement would be the opposite of keeping your job. So, check your ego at the door, come in, be committed to where we’re going. So that’s where he was coming from. Same for this leader. We’ve actually spent probably eight days as a collective top team over the last year and then probably an additional five or six days with each individual. And the work is to unlock habitual patterns of thinking and help leaders actually start to see things through insight differently, look at the business differently, look at themselves differently, and in truth, look at life differently, so that they are starting to catch up with him in terms of the picture he can see. I think great leaders are often standing in the future by themself, kind of calling people to them and wondering why aren’t they getting here. So part of my role, I think you interview a lot of CEOs. CEOs are the ones that have to make it happen. I have the luxury or it’s a gift in life that I get to spend time with these people and help them get there. So I’m not the one, I’m the one helping the one. But my main focus is helping the one bring their teams to a different level of thinking.

Alex Bridgeman: Are there any notable examples you can think of of a business problem or challenge or opportunity that a particular leader you worked with did a good job bringing their team along and bringing them forward?

Dustin Seale: A lot of them. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of great leaders. In the first chapter of the book, there is a conversation between a former CEO of PepsiCo, Roger Enrico, and a guy, Martin Glenn, who’s been my client four times. And this is when Martin’s running a business unit within the PepsiCo world. And they’re debating about who is going to- every year, you look at who’s promotable, who could take the next roles, succession. So it’s talent review. And they’re debating about one guy just for the longest time, and they can’t get to alignment. And finally, my friend Martin, who is just one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked with, turns to Roger and says I get it, he’s not a people person but everything else checks out. And Roger smiled and turned to Martin, he said, Martin, that’s the challenge. People are the only species we employ. Now, this was a moment for Martin, the reason we put it in the book, because from there, Martin went on to be CEO of Walkers, which is a snack foods company, then CEO of Birds Eye Iglo, then CEO of United Biscuits, then finally CEO of the Football Association, which is a big deal in the UK. Football is the religion, and so you’re sort of like the pope of the religion. So different businesses, different industries. Everywhere he went, he generated outsized results. So if I look at the last, because he did an amazing job in every place, but the last place was the Football Association. Now, it’s been around, it’s the very first in the world, been around for 100-something years. It’s in the public, everybody’s interest. Everybody wants to know what they’re doing, what they’re talking about. Football reads soccer, by the way. So, it’s the association for the entire game, grassroots up to the national team. The government’s involved. So, you’ve got a lot of different players. So his job was to come in and do three things. First was to find a way to increase investment in grassroots football, or soccer, 5X, so to actually invest more in communities, creating opportunities for kids to play. The second is you had national teams that had not overperformed, let’s say, so to actually move them to playing at the level you’d expect England teams to play. The third part was to create a financially robust Football Association. So it was not thought financially for a long time. Now, in the end, when he left, he stepped down, you had the most successful, from financial terms, FA in their history. So it was in the best possible position with money to reinvest into grassroots soccer. Then the second part was this grassroots upwelling increased, especially they had real focus on getting girls into soccer, which is huge in the States but wasn’t as big here. So they succeeded in building the capability, I think it was 300 million or something like that, into grassroots soccer. The third part was they made it to the semifinals of the World Cup, semifinals of the European Cup before that, and then they made it to the finals of the European Cup. That’s their men’s national team. Their women’s national team won the European Cup. So they went from also rents to constantly being at the top. Those three things achieved. Now, Martin is a pretty humble guy. He won’t say, well, it’s because I was great. He built an amazing team. But the reason he’s able to galvanize everyone around this is he got the team really connected to their purpose as an organization. Why do we exist? And if we didn’t exist, what would the world be missing? And then for each person to think about what’s my role in making that purpose happen, and then engage all the people in the organization. So he actually created a purpose-driven organization and created a culture that was modern, agile, and constantly looking for new and better. I think he does it, A, for the results, but B, that first conversation with Roger Enrico, it dawned on him, nothing happens without people. You have to have their hearts, you have to have their minds, you have to their hands, and when you get them, you can do amazing things.

Alex Bridgeman: Is there something that he’s particularly good at maybe early in his tenure to set the tone for how he’s going to run an organization?

Dustin Seale: Yeah, yeah, it’s a good question because I haven’t really thought about what he was like at the very beginning of different roles. I think he’s always connected people to something that’s looking further out. So, when he started with Walkers, now Walkers is the number one selling crisp here, potato chip, the second biggest in the world after Lay’s, so they’re owned by Lay’s, but they’re second biggest after USA Lays. They basically are the key player in the market. I remember him going on stage. It was the first time he’d been on stage in front of his top 200, and he walked out, and they’re expecting, because he has a big brain, let me tell you about the numbers, let me tell you about where we’re going, let me tell you about, because he’s a marketing genius, the next marketing plan, and he walked on the stage and he said, you know what, I want to talk about why I’ve taken this job and what would success look like. And he took himself, he pictured himself, whatever it was, 30 years down the line sitting on his front porch with his grandchild. And his grandchild says, what did you do? And he said, if I say I made slightly better crisps or potato chips, I failed. He said, if I say I actually built an organization that created opportunity and jobs and growth, I actually took a category and made it healthier and healthier so it was good for mothers to put into their kids’ lunch boxes, and we created some excitement that we could reinvest in schools, in that case, in soccer in the city of Leicester, then I’ve done my job. So minute one, he was already thinking, what do I want to have left 30 years from now? Which caused everybody in that room to think, oh, he asked them, what do you want to leave behind? Why are you here? And I think his ability to get people to think beyond the paycheck, beyond the next promotion, to actually a big contribution to a company and to society, you can see it in each of his businesses that sort of power.

Alex Bridgeman: And then the other piece to that too is now that you’re sharing that, it sounded like that was with the whole company or pretty near the whole company, but as you kind of repeat that message within your executive team, ideally they’re passing it on down the line to the rest of their teams. And while the CEOs say they repeat themselves way more than they thought they would have to, is that like a constant theme too? Is that pushing of that message so that the rest of your team passes it down to their teams as well?

Dustin Seale: Yeah, so in that case, it was the top 200 or so leaders. There’s probably several, well, many thousands that would have had to get the message outside of that room. I think every leader that I’ve worked with who has made a huge difference in performance but also the organization and the culture, they’re really, really serious about their top team being the message, not delivering it, not being able to repeat it, but actually living it out. And they have no room for passengers. Anyone that’s there for the title, the role, the power, and not for the purpose won’t be long-lived. And so, leader by leader, Martin would definitely be one of those, there’s a number of other leaders in the book, you see them make changes that you think, wow, that’s a bold change, letting go of a key player, a superstar, but they don’t have a lot of patience for superstars that are not committed to engaging the organization and engaging people in a way that makes them better. So if they’re there to make themselves better, they usually don’t have a seat with great leaders. Other leaders like all those superstars around them. We actually included in the book Phil Jackson, who is quite a leader, the most successful coach I think in history. If you look at the team that he built, actually teams, when he got there, they hadn’t done much of anything except for Michael Jordan was the highest scorer. He had to get Michael to shift from commitment to being the highest scorer to commitment to winning trophies and being part of a team. That’s tough. To get the biggest star in the world to be committed to the outcome of the team. He surrounded him with some other great players. But if you think about some of the players, a lot of times it’s brought up like Paxson. He wasn’t a superstar, but he was critical to actually that team functioning in the way it could. I went to high school with a guy named Judd Buschler who got to play for the Bulls for a number of years and played in those championship teams. Judd was never going to be Michael Jordan, but he’s pivotal to helping that team get to where it goes to. So I think leaders are great at bringing stars into the mission. So it’s not about the star, it’s about the mission. But they’re also great at bringing, and this is going to be an unfair way to say it, supporting cast, the other players, into the context so that you actually end up having a great team rather than a group of stars. All the data says groups of stars lose to great teams.

Alex Bridgeman: So how do you make that switch from a group of individuals to more of a team that’s united around that mission?

Dustin Seale: Well, there’s a couple of things. One is the leader themself has to have courage. I think courage is massive. I just talked about Phil Jackson, the other leaders I’ve talked about, they walked in and they were not the biggest deal in the world, but they were very clear about what they wanted to get done, and they weren’t going to shy away from tough decisions. So that meant, in almost every instance, people that weren’t committed to something greater, that weren’t willing to go that direction, they were no longer on the team. So that courage. It is scary to let go of great people, but you have to feel the fear and do it anyway because you can bring in someone that’s as good but actually is committed to your vision, committed to your direction. The second part is you have to change your rituals and routines in the top team. If you go ahead and just do business as usual, the same way it was done before, unfortunately as humans, we click our neural synapses in, and when something happens that we recognize, we’ve got a frame, it’s stuck, we’re in it. So if you look at Phil, he did all sorts of weird stuff, but it came from courage and boldness. Like they did the using Native American rituals to bring the team together. Everything they did, they did in a circle, so there was no break in the team. Now, I imagine there’s a lot of managers that go, I’m not doing anything like that. Well, they didn’t get the results Phil did. He had the boldness, he had the courage to do something different, try something different. In the corporate setting, it’s actually changing the way you do meetings. You get a bunch of people in a meeting room. If it’s the same old game, they’re going to be stuck. If you change the game in how they run the meeting, so you may have, maybe they used to go through team things, they all try to do this, 18 things and they cram the agenda and they’re in a hurry and they’re late on this one. We’ll cover it later. I’ve been working with a leader right now who will only bring three things to any top team, and it’s three topics this top team has to align on. They can argue, they can debate, they can disagree, but when they walk out of the room, they have to be aligned. So they went from this long, tiring agenda where none of them really paid attention to anything that wasn’t theirs, they do their bit, to actually wrestling with the biggest ideas. That’s a signal to the whole organization, starting with your top team, it’s no longer the same place. There’s a new set of rules in this game. I don’t know, does that answer the question?

Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, certainly. And these new leaders too, it sounds like they’re making, they’re trying to evaluate the team that’s already there, that’s already in the seat pretty quickly and early on and figuring out if you need to move on from someone or if they can grow with you. What are some effective ways you’ve seen new CEOs do those evaluations efficiently?

Dustin Seale: So, yeah, there’s a lot of parts to it. First, often you can come in and you get first impressions and you make judgment calls. And with judgments, you’re often wrong. So I do talk to a lot of my clients. I say, okay, I get it, because they’ll say, well, this one’s never going to make it, and this one’s looking good, and this one’s somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they’re a little bit right, but I don’t think it’s fair to the individual leaders, they’ve worked hard to get to where they are, to not do proper assessment, to understand where this person is, how good they are, how they think, how they behave, their leadership style, their psychometrics, so that you’re actually looking at people from a data-based perspective rather than just a gut feel. That’s fair and that’s transparent. So, for a lot of top teams, new leaders will say, okay, I want to do an assessment across the top team so I know what I have. The second part is leaders that don’t close the door right away. Because some of your best people are going to be the ones that aren’t with you at the beginning, if you can win them. So I’ll give you an example. I was working with a company. I can’t say the name of the company. And the CEO said, okay, go out and meet the top team. So I was going out and interviewing everybody in the top team to get to know what they were thinking, what they were seeing. I’ll use a fake name. Every person that I talked to said, have you spoken to Tom yet? Like, no, I haven’t spoken to him yet. Almost every person said, well, good luck. And I went, okay. So, I go to the next one. They go, have you spoken to Tom yet? Well, good luck. So I go through everybody; Tom’s the last one. And Tom, I walk into his office and sit down, and I start to say, here’s what we’re doing, this is what we’re thinking. And he said, I’ve got to stop you right there. I’m sure you’re a good person. I’m sure the work you do is good. It won’t work. It won’t work here. We’ve tried everything. We’ve had in – I’ll try to avoid using names – the big strategy firms, we’ve had in the little boutique firms, tried to do it ourself, it just doesn’t work. So the jury was saying, by the way, on the side, Tom’s on his way out because he just isn’t willing to change. So, I said to Tom, I said, so let me understand, first, you used a different approach to change every single time. He said, yeah, different consultants, different approach, et cetera. And I said, and different formats, like sometimes you’re doing workshops, sometimes it was coaching, different formats. I said, so the only constant was you? And that stopped him in his tracks for a moment. He didn’t love it, I have to admit. I said, I want you to think about that. You’ve tried to change the place a lot of times. You’ve been there for each one of them. Where were you? You didn’t change. So we went away for a few days with that top team. The focus was on transforming the culture of the organization. In the middle, you’re off somewhere in a nice hotel and then you go to dinner together. And it was summer, so we were standing outside, and I was talking to the CEO, and Tom came up and said, I want to be the culture champion for this whole organization. And the CEO thought he was joking. And then he realized he wasn’t. And he said, why? What is it that makes you want to do that? And he said- we’d done something, they wanted better collaboration across their organization. They needed it for their strategy. So, he said, that thing we did on collaboration, he said, I realized when I was playing that game – it was a game – my first wife was right. And I’m getting married in two weeks, and I think you just saved my second marriage. And he said, and I’m the same way at work. Now, flipping that person that was going to be off, be sold off and out of the game from negative around it to actually very positive around the change, that went through the organization like wildfire. If he was on board, it was great. There’s no way it wasn’t great. So, I’m always encouraging leaders to look at who are some of your people that you think will be resistant, and if you can win them, it’s going to send a message throughout the whole organization. Don’t give up yet. But there is also a time at which someone’s been given chance one, two, and three, it’s time for them to go. So, assess them properly, understand them, spend time with them individually, give them a chance to change, and if it doesn’t, then you call it a day.

Alex Bridgeman: Did Tom just feel like he was misunderstood or just didn’t understand how to collaborate very well? What were some of the internal switches that flipped there?

Dustin Seale: Yeah. So, he grew up- he really was incredibly successful, COO of the organization, but started from very humble beginnings and had to fight his way through school, fight his way to the next level, finally got accepted to a good school, but had to fight his way in, and he was sort of feeling like the outsider. So I think all throughout life, he had to defend and fight for him first. And that’s what got him to where he was. And thank goodness he did fight for himself and got him to there, but it hadn’t switched for him that it was time for him to fight for others, that he was now one of the key leaders in a large global organization, that that pattern of fighting for himself that was useful at one point in life was no longer useful. That was the switch.

Alex Bridgeman: What other kind of examples and stories like this come to mind for you of a CEO turning a key leader or just identifying someone who’s going to be a fast grower and a key part of the team?

Dustin Seale: There’s a lot of them over the years. I have a client that is transforming their organization. They have a big strategic agenda. The CHRO left the business, and their immediate obvious option was to go outside because it’s a very big job, to go find somebody that’s big enough for this role. It’s a very complex role. We helped him with it, the thinking through that, looking at internal candidates as well. He made a decision on someone that had never worked at that scale, never worked at that level, and in fact was not historically a CHRO, but believed in the person and that the person brought the qualities they wanted to see in a senior team, the collaborativeness, the openness, the transparency, the willingness to challenge, the willingness to be challenged, to continually grow. That was a risky bet. Today? Yeah, it’s one of the best players in this team. I think we were doing work with them around the thriving leadership model, and we looked at internal candidates through purpose, growth mindset, and vitality, and then drilled down how do they represent those things. The thing that unlocked the opportunity for the new CHRO, chief people officer I guess they’re calling it, was that growth mindset, constant insatiable learner. So that’s a big risk that somebody’s taking, raising somebody up.

Alex Bridgeman: Can you talk more about the thought process behind creating the book and documenting the book? I’ve enjoyed flipping through it, and I’d love to kind of understand what was the key reason for writing that book?

Dustin Seale: It’s a long, long story. The key reason, I mentioned earlier working with CEOs, I’ve just watched the world get more and more difficult for them. It used to be you could hit EBITDA, your EBITDA target, and maybe hit your growth target, you were golden. Now there’s pressure on your ESG, which you can get into big trouble if you’re not doing the right things environmentally or for people or inclusion. And you should. You have to hit your numbers. But you’re also working in a world where war breaks out and one of your biggest plants is no longer an option, or you operate in markets where they’ve decided, for Starbucks at the moment, decided to boycott your brand. The world is that way right now. It’s just constant, the challenges of working in certain markets at the moment. So this world’s hugely difficult. I think we used near constant disruption, I believe is what we called it. And it is. So, we wanted to look for what- we did some studies years ago and we followed up that study twice to figure out which leaders, no matter where you put them or no matter what’s thrown at them, they seem to perform in the top 10%, no matter what. We operated with, there was three universities that partnered with us in that, did a global blind study, and that’s where we landed on the leaders that constantly outperformed were high on purpose, high on growth mindset, and high on vitality simultaneously. So many of the leaders have one or two or are good at one, it’s simultaneously. They were outperforming, not just individually, they also had a 2X on compound annual growth rate for the businesses they ran advantage over their peer companies. The fringe benefit is 80% of the time they’re described as a positive role model for values. So this was the definition of a thriving leader. They’re able to transform organizations and transform organizations, create healthier places for people to work. I shared with you earlier that then we tested that during the banking crisis, then we retested it during the pandemic and the post-pandemic. All that happened is it became more true, these three principles. Now, the way I look at it, if you look at thriving, let’s say purpose, vitality, and growth mindset are the three primary colors. And your world is so complex that you need to be able to get to any hue possible, you need every hue at your disposal. Well, if you have three primary colors all in sync you can do that. Take one out, your palette just got significantly smaller. So your ability to respond to a world that’s disrupted got smaller. Take another out, you’ve actually got one play, one color. So the reason for the thriving, us going towards thriving is to equip leaders in a simple way to navigate an incredibly challenging world. Fundamentally, everybody has this capacity. So anybody can be a thriving leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a family, or a mom and pop shop, or the largest organization in the world, it’s resident within us. You just have to learn how to unpack it and get out of the way and bring it to life. The other reason we wrote it is that we’re doing a lot with fast growing companies, a lot of startup sort of situations. Startups, a lot of them stall at a certain point. And we were looking at why is this happening? And almost, not in every instance, but most instances, the top leader had two strengths, let’s say, strong purpose and strong vitality. We call that leader the evangelist. So, they have this new idea, we’re going to this place, and what they create is a culture of good soldiers that are so committed to this person and this vision that they are going to run through walls to do it. And actually it’s a very good way to scale quickly and consistently. The challenge is, if you’re missing the growth mindset as part of the culture, and you just have good soldiers, when the world changes, you become irrelevant because you haven’t been changing with it. So, if you take a BlackBerry, big vision, going to change the world, whole different way, it was a whole different way of doing life, and it became the Crackberry and all that. Everybody committed to it. And then the world changed around it. And it didn’t adjust, didn’t adjust quickly enough. So the same thing’s true if you have high purpose and high growth mindset, you get what we call the explorer. Actually, a lot of tech startups have this. The person that’s out there making a difference, changing, their culture is what we call an expedition force. They’re also on the climb; they’re making the thing happen. But eventually, because of the lack of vitality, connectedness, teaming, et cetera, they start to leave. They leave the expedition force. They lose their energy. And in the middle is if you were high growth mindset and high vitality, that’s more a of a big organization phenomena, which we call the idea convention. They love ideas, they love talking about them, they just never do them. So, we’re looking for how do we recognize that because as you’re going up the curve, you have to develop the CEO to actually take the organization up the next S curve or find the CEO that can. And the CEO, whichever way, you have to have all three components operating, that will change the culture and the trajectory. So, that drove us to write the book. Our fundamental, I can work with about six or seven CEOs a year. That’s it. So that’s my scale leverage. Now, my teams can work with a lot more. But the intention behind the book, Ed, who was my co-author and a super inspiring guy, he’s got another seven, so now we’ve got 14 CEOs in the world. We wanted to get to hundreds or thousands and to get what we’re sharing with CEOs into the hands of young people that are starting to come up through organizations. Let’s have them start growing and developing ways, by the time they’re running the world, they’re in an entirely different place than our current leadership.

Alex Bridgeman: The three values, purpose, vitality, agility, what are some ways that you’re able to measure those and find out where am I deficient and I need to bring this value up and maybe this one’s high and so that’s great but these others need to come up with it? What are some ways you’ve found to assess that yourself about yourself?

Dustin Seale: So, yeah, it’s a good question. There’s two parts to it. One is how do you do that formally, and then how do you do it informally? I was talking to my executive coach, so I have somebody who coaches me every other week, and he was describing a rocket. And the rocket, you watch a rocket take off, it looks like it’s going straight up in the air. Now he’s an engineer. So do you know it’s almost never on course? But it’s got a gyroscope in the front that’s constantly making adjustments. It could be fractions of centimeters or it could be feet or whatever, but it’s constantly adjusting. The way we look at thriving is that it is that gyroscope within us, that you can actually guide yourself by recognizing when you’re off course. So there’s a self guidance part to it. And the second part is that most models, they will say, okay, here are the components, do the test, and they say, here’s what you are. Thriving is the opposite of that. It is dynamic. It changes. So I was, at one point in my life, leading an organization. We started to veer off course, and I thought, there’s something wrong here. What’s going wrong? I was the evangelist. I’d created good soldiers that weren’t going to challenge, not going to do something different. And as the world was changing around us, we were not agile enough to adjust. So I made a big commitment. I said, okay, where I’m going to grow is growth mindset, learning, growing, constantly improving. Fast forward six years, and I’m looking at my organization, and I think, there’s something wrong here. Well, what I’d done is overcorrected. I was high on purpose, I always am, high on growth mindset. I’d lost that vitality piece. So, people were not feeling connected and not feeling like they were part of, a sense of belonging. So a long way to say it’s dynamic, it changes. So as a leader, you first have to- we all have times when we go, I just don’t feel right, or the organization doesn’t feel right. The book is there as a self-diagnostic. In the UK, we call it, when you fix the car, an MOT. Every year, you have to go in and do your MOT. It tells you whether everything’s working right. The book is almost like a human’s MOT. You think there’s a rattle over here, go and have a look, and there’s ways to go deep and to help yourself change. The second part is the formal part, where you can measure. You can understand where somebody is on growth mindset. You can understand where people are on vitality and where they are on purpose in terms of assessment. You can ask them questions and you can actually take them to a place where you can see where they are. Now, a lot of assessments want to be static. This is not static. We use assessments as a growth tool, not to say, well, look, you’re not good enough. It’s rather, here’s where things are going wrong and then there’s a development plan to improve it. So there’s self-help, and then there’s formal help. This one has formal assessment attached to it. Both great ways to keep yourself on track. As a matter of fact, one reason we wrote the book is we were looking around the world, working with great leaders, difficult world, we wanted to equip them to navigate that world. The other is we had the hardest time finding anybody who was happy. I mean, everybody was happy enough, but they were ground down, they were tired. And with one of the outcomes of actually getting all three in operation, there’s a greater sense of fulfillment. You go ask people that are what we’d call high thrivers, they feel pretty fulfilled in their work. They don’t feel done, but they feel fulfilled in it.

Alex Bridgeman: So, for leaders who felt they were worn out or tired, maybe doing things they didn’t want to do or didn’t enjoy doing, what was the solution for them? How do you get them to have a greater happiness and fulfillment in their jobs?

Dustin Seale: I was doing that last week with a top team. The number one thing I’m getting around the world from leaders everywhere is I’m tired. I don’t know if I can do this much longer. And these are people that we all want to be leading the world because they’re amazing. They’re bright, they’re capable, doing amazing things. And the leaders I work with are creating environments where people want to go to work, people want to be part of that mission. So I don’t want them retiring, but they’re tired. Now, if you look at the three parts, of the three, vitality is the one that’s mostly about energy, regaining energy, sustaining energy. And so, we dialed into that because we’re with the top team that is tired, and we spent time on sources of energy. Now, that’s different for different people. If you’re highly extroverted, hanging out with other people is energizing. If you’re highly introverted, hanging out with other people can be fun, but you’re ready to go home at a certain point, you’re just like, oh, I’m done with people. So individually, now there are a lot of other elements, there’s with people, on your own, there’s actually getting better at living in the moment. So all the data shows that we have a propensity to be where we’re not. Like we’re in a meeting, but our mind is somewhere else, or it’s worrying about the last meeting. That is very wearing. There’s completely focusing on the things you can control and influence. Clients, you’re wandering around the office, you hear different conversations. They were all talking about the ownership model. And oh, we should have a different one and it’s making our life bad and everything else. Guess who can change that? Not the people talking about it. So they’re spending energy and bringing themselves down on something they have 0% control over. That is a great way to rob yourself of energy. Let’s say if you had a plant in Ukraine, which a client of mine did, this is the largest plant, or you needed grain at the time of the start of the conflict, you’re in big trouble because suddenly your biggest plant is not accessible and the grain is not accessible. Now you could think, well, I’m not happy that this, well, you should think I’m not happy this war is going on, but you can start to complain about something you have 0% influence on, or you shift your energy to where you do have control and find new ways. There are other doors. If you’re leading a large organization, you probably have some things to be grateful for. Gratitude and finding energy are intimately linked. I actually had a CEO who was having a tough time just write in a gratitude journal every day. He really didn’t want to, but he agreed to do it. He said, I’ll do it. About eight weeks later, we were sitting down actually having a beer, and he said, it’s incredible, it works. He said, I feel better. I feel different. Just capturing what are you grateful for in any given day energizes you. For some, exercise, I think if you’re physically well, it helps with your energy. That’s a big thing. For others, it’s artistic expression that gives them a new energy. Almost everybody that said they had high energy had a hobby they were passionate about outside of work. So, a lot of different avenues. It’s unique, but what we do with leaders is help them figure out the recipe to put fuel back in the tank.

Alex Bridgeman: You talked about vitality being one that you had to bring up yourself and improve on your own end. What did you do that was effective?

Dustin Seale: For me, it’s connecting with people. I was very focused on where the business was going and what we needed to do and new offerings, serving clients, and I hadn’t spent time just connecting with the teams in the business. Because we have amazing people. I absolutely love the people that work in our business. So I actually just started going out. There’s a big section of our floor outside my office, and I’m probably not supposed to say, it was mainly millennials and Gen Zs or Zillennials, I think, are in the middle. That’s sort of the crew out there. So bright, so fun, so creative, and like a good laugh. I started going out, leave my office, and go hang out with them because their energy was contagious. So spending time with people that energize you, that’s what worked for me. The second part was making sure I’m sleeping. So I’ve got this, you can’t really see it, but the Apple Watch. That’s a gift from my sons who said, Dad, you need to get your energy back and we don’t think you’re sleeping. So, I did start tracking my sleep, and it turns out they were right. Because I’m often on airplanes or away somewhere and I was getting like 15 to 30 minutes of deep sleep a night. That’s not sufficient for health. So I had to focus on that. Then my wife, God bless her, she got me drinking more water. As you’ve seen, I’ve been trying to get to my water throughout, water and mood, hydration and mood are truly connected. So those are a few things for me. Learning also, that was one other thing. I just decided I love physics. I would never have made it through university level physics, so it’s not like I’m a genius on the math or anything, but I love physics. So just taking time to just read and learn about stuff that interests me, that’s what I do just to recharge.

Alex Bridgeman: Do you like the movie Interstellar?

Dustin Seale: Oh, I love it.

Alex Bridgeman: There’s a physics book written by the kind of physics consultant for the movie who talks about the different key scenes throughout the movie and the physics behind it and why like the black hole was shown in this way or why like that planet had the huge waves of water that came around. I’ll send you a link to it, you might like it.

Dustin Seale: Oh, I’d love it, I would absolutely love it, and it will help me with my vitality. The other thing, so in thriving, when we’re working with leaders, let’s just say vitality was somebody’s challenge area. They could just go straight into vitality, or if they’re really high on purpose, use your strength to bring in vitality, or if they’re high on growth mindset. If you’re high on growth mindset, go and learn stuff, but do it in a way that brings you vitality. So, you can use a strength to shore up that third wheel. Now, I think there’s just going to be times in life when one of the wheels is a bit wobbly. And it’s just recognizing that and getting yourself back on track.

Alex Bridgeman: What are some key concepts that you hope readers of your book take away from it?

Dustin Seale: One is, maybe it’s not a concept, but it’s recognizing people are not born thriving. There’s not like some set of miraculous people that are thrivers. People have developed in themselves these capacities and everybody has access to them. And you’ll get better results and you’ll probably live a fuller life. So not buying into the superstar mindset. We all have that superstar within us. Another would be that pain and failure are your friend. Almost to a person, the people that we identified as thriving, first of all, I think I mentioned it to you one time, they’re the last ones to find out that they’re thriving. So if somebody’s going, yeah, I’m a thriver, very low chance that they are. If somebody’s going, well, I’m not sure, I still see new opportunities and all that, more likely a thriving person. So you probably don’t find out, you’re probably the last one to find out. So I’d say go in with humility because all of us have areas that are shortcomings. The thing about pain and loss or failure, almost to a person, the people that we found that were the highest thrivers, have some point in their life that they had a significant difficulty. They failed or they lost something or some other challenge came up. It’s a dark period in their life. Now, you can either crumble from that or you can be reborn from that and become a different leader. Almost all of them found different gears within themselves that were a result of going through that difficulty. You know what, in the book we say, and it is true, thriving leaders run towards what we call the crucible. It’s like a challenging period of time, a challenge that looks like a big stretch, they run towards the crucible whilst most people are running away from it towards comfort. I’m working with a CEO right now, offered two jobs. One sounded amazing, basically would have been flying around the world on an airplane being a global statesman of a large organization, go tell people that they’re great, talk about the mission, walk around and see the sights. Literally, the crowning achievement of a career. Now you’re just- you don’t have to do much, you just go around and be powerful. He was offered a second job that is a major turnaround, a lot of hard work. He took the second one. And I asked him, I said, what were you thinking? That would have been nice and comfortable. He said, that’s why I didn’t go. I know the discomfort is exactly where I need to go because that’s where I’m going to grow and where I can do my best work. That’s what thriving leaders tend to do. So those are a couple of the concepts. The other would be, I’m going to try to say this in the nicest way, watch out for what looks like thriving but isn’t. In our book, we call it the anti-thriver. So the reason thriving works is that we have three needs. One is we have a need to matter as human beings. We really want to matter. That’s purpose. The second is we have a need for belonging. We do have a deep need. We’re a social animal, and that’s the vitality. The third one is we have a need, we want to grow and learn and improve, but we actually need to feel in control. When a world is changing around us, if we’re learning and growing with it, we feel more in control. Those are three needs human beings have. They can be misused. So, purpose, which is about having a positive impact on the world, can be replaced with what leaders would use, an existential threat. There’s something coming to get us, there’s someone coming to get us, there’s some sort of danger. That can galvanize people. It looks like purpose. It feels like purpose. It’s not. It’s a fear. You can use fear. Same thing as inspiration, but some leaders use it. The second is give them a sense of belonging, but the belonging and thriving is inclusive. It’s big. The belonging and anti-thriving is exclusive – in group, out group. You’re special. You’re one of the ones. You’re different. And the third part, instead of inventing ways to make things better and improve the world, change the world, the anti-thriver tends to get good at being inventive with facts, shaping facts and evidence in a way that fits the story. Now you have to continue to use those facts to make the existential threat big, and then you have to come down and bring people in, but it generates results, it generates movements, it’s the opposite of what we’re talking about in the book.

Alex Bridgeman: It’s not nearly as sustainable long-term as purpose versus the threat motivation?

Dustin Seale: Yeah, I really hope so. I think the challenges we face in the world, whether it’s climate change or water scarcity that we’ll probably face at some point, food challenges. It’s interesting that some countries are overfed and other ones aren’t eating. So being able to deal with that across the globe, a myriad of challenges. There’s one way that, what you have in anti-thriving is people retreat to a fictitious present or past, but it’s a retreat. The other way is we actually get leaders that are thriving that pull people together, actually realize the answers are not going to be in any one group. These are complex challenges and actually take on the data, take on the challenges, bring people together to solve things. I think everything, my kids always ask me, do you think the world’s getting better or worse? I’m not sure it’s either, but I’ve said, I honestly believe that it will get better. It will continue to get better. But that will take leadership. That will take leaders that actually live the principles that we’re talking about in the book.

Alex Bridgeman: Dustin, this has been phenomenal. Thank you for sharing your time on the podcast and for putting a great book together. I really appreciate it, and it’s been fun to chat with you for a little bit. Thank you for coming on.

Dustin Seale: I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you. I appreciate the invite.

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