Dan E. King: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

King, Dan EDan is the founder and principal of CloseReach Consulting and has developed a proprietary growth acceleration model designed for business leaders and senior teams striving to outpace the competition. The model consists of and numerically scores three growth drivers: Strategy Planning, Execution, and Talent. Dan developed this data-centric concept for assessing critical aspects of an organization’s capabilities in order to provide leaders with the knowledge of where weakness resides. Only then, can investments be targeted to the right elements of the business in order to steepen the growth trajectory. Dan helps leadership teams overachieve – fortifying the business so that financial targets are surpassed – the hallmark of hyper-growth.

Prior to CloseReach, Dan held a senior executive role with a mid-market enterprise that delivered double-digit revenue growth for five out of six years and was named winner of the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Pacesetter Award in 2010. In December, 2012, the company was recognized by Inc. magazine as one of the fastest growing companies for the fifth time.

He has developed white papers on topics such as The Keys to Flawless Execution, Achieving Talent Density in a High Growth Enterprise, Strategic Planning – Getting it Right, Applying the Organizational Prowess Scorecard to Create an Integrated Organization.

His book, The Scorecard Solution: Measure What Matters to Drive Sustainable Growth was published by AMACOM (2015)

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Morris: Before discussing The Scorecard Solution, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

King: Certainly my parents – my Mom had a strong influence in helping me build relationships and a social aspect to my life. I was rather shy as a young person and she gently pushed me out the door to build friendships. To this day, she tells me “don’t forget to have fun.” She never asks about work. My Dad was more about the work ethic and being conscientious. He pulled some strings to get me my first summer job at 16 working for the Department of Sanitation in a small upstate NY town. Collecting garbage with who we called the “lifers” was the greatest motivation to pursue a college degree. Dad expected me to give 100% to any endeavor and that has served me well. And then there was Willy Carpenter. My little league coach. Willy was like a second dad to me. In addition to baseball, he taught me so many valuable life lessons – respect for others, humility and laughter. He wore a perpetual smile and had a contagious laugh. People loved to be around that man. He worked in a maintenance job and coached little league for 25 years. He exemplifies for me what it means to give away your gifts. He was a legend in Corning, NY.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

King: Interestingly, it occurred early in my business life. I was two years out of college, having moved to Atlanta from upstate New York. I was what I later learned, a wandering generality. No focus, no dreams. Just a single guy who moved to Atlanta because a friend had preceded me by a year and convinced me that the 6 girls to every guy was a reality in the early 80’s. I never actually confirmed the ratio, but I also had little reason to question it. I was working in retail. Long hours, but energizing. I found the pace to my liking and apparently it showed. My store manager called me in one day and told me I was being considered for a job in the corporate office in downtown Atlanta.

That interview introduced me to my first mentor. The company was growing rapidly, opening stores throughout the southeast. The interview was with the EVP of Human Resources. He had to add to his team as the business grew and he had asked his current managers for a list of 10 high potential from the stores. I made the list, although I wasn’t convinced it was a good thing. HR was not something I had interest in. However, I got the offer and the money was better. It was a Director of Employee Relations role and I spent much of my time visiting the stores, working with store managers and their HR leaders on how to apply best practices in managing a large hourly workforce.

Over the next 8 years, this mentor (although I was too young and naive to recognize this dynamic) moved me through multiple roles with ever-increasing responsibilities. By the time I was 30, I was the youngest VP in the company. Professional growth certainly requires a dose of hard work and being conscientious, but accelerated professional growth almost always requires a mentor. I was very fortunate. Ironically, at the time, I just thought that was how it was. Leaders who cared, were selfless and spent time investing in others. Sadly, authentic mentoring is all too rare. We can’t count the synthetic mentoring programs big companies create. The programmatic approach never is as good as the genuine thing.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

King: After my stint in retail, I was recruited for an executive role with Kinder Care Learning Centers. At the time, it was a dynamic, high growth business with 1200 centers around the country, looking after 100,000 infants and toddlers a day. I found the business model intriguing and the nurturing aspect of what the caregivers did each day, humbling. Unfortunately, the founder made some missteps financially during the junk bond era and the business suffered. The epiphany for me at this stage of my career was deciding to depart from the corporate environment and enter the consulting world. I was introduced to an Australian who had moved to Atlanta in order to replicate the consulting practice he had in Sydney. He sent me to Sydney for two weeks to work there with the managing director. Upon returning, we began working with mid-market businesses on various performance improvement initiatives, focused at the individual, team and organizational levels. That’s when I knew I had found my passion.

Entering an unfamiliar organizational setting and going about learning the model, the culture, the growth drivers and the barriers to improved performance. I loved it. Some have said I have a sixth sense for rooting out systemic issues and grasping the essence of what drives performance. I love the challenge and love helping a business leader see the realities that are often hidden from him or her.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

King: You know, I’m sure I acquired a certain degree of personal discipline through those years of schooling. The reality is, I have not directly applied a great deal of specific course or academic content in my professional life, given that I changed my major a few times and took courses that appealed to me at the moment. Since I had not identified a professional track at that point, I wandered a bit academically. I did tend bar for all 4 years of college in order to have some spending money and learned quite a bit about life, people and how personal decisions can impact our futures. Decisions can take one to a glorious place and just as easily to one of extreme sadness and hardship. I learned that what path not to take is often more important than what path to take when it comes to personal growth.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

King: That, even though most business settings are civil, respectful places, everyone is subtly looking out for themselves. Trusting that others will look out for you is not where young professionals want to place their bets. Looking back, I would have been more aggressive, in a positive way and more proactive in mapping my career. I was very fortunate to have had someone who had enough self-confidence and had accumulated sufficient accolades in his career, that he could direct his energy to grooming another. I would tell young professionals to look around and seek out a mentor. Someone who is respected, has integrity and not necessarily trying to reach the next rung.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

King: Apollo 13 comes to mind. The Gene Kranz character (Ed Harris) is just such a great example of leading under pressure. His steady hand and refusal to accept defeat made the whole team better. Against all odds, they found a way to win when giving up would have been so easy. CEO’s need to know their people are watching every move. Those in mission control were keying off of Kranz. His confidence made them better. I’m also reminded of the Andy Dufresne role in The Shawshank Redemption. From a leadership standpoint, look at the positive impact he had on so many lives. Thrust into a horrible environment, Andy never gives up hope and acts in an extraordinary way, carrying out acts of kindness throughout the prison. He rose above feeling like a victim and changed the world around him. That’s a leader.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

King: John Eldredge wrote Wild at Heart in 2001 and I re-read this book every so often. It speaks to the innate need within men to seek adventure, to find ways to be that hero in someone’s life. Understanding this concept and figuring out how to apply it makes a man better in personal relationships and in business. Something as simple as a weekend in the woods camping and hiking will test us – force use to use ingenuity and to overcome simple challenges. As a man, we may not have to slay dragons anymore, but we still need to discover how to release the hero within us. Doing so will have a positive impact on our business relationships and success.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

King: Tapping into the intellect and experience of others is the hallmark of a great leader. I once worked with a CEO who made it a practice of sitting with employees at every level of the company to learn. He would show tremendous curiosity about their jobs, the obstacles to getting work done and would solicit ideas for making the business better. He learned so much more than simply relying on his lieutenants to tell him what was going on in the bowels of the business. Such a practice also empowers the workforce. Asking someone what they think unleashes discretionary effort – the key to overachievement in a business setting.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

King: The power is not in the idea, but rather in the execution of it. I spend quite a few pages in the book discussing the execution framework. It’s really the only way to translate a good idea into revenue. Apple is a great example of a culture of execution. They have mastered the ability of converting product ideas into marketable outcomes in record time.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

King: This quote really speaks to me. I talk often about the pace of change and why status quo is such a dangerous concept in a growth company. I have seen many examples of companies coming off of a great year and then hunker down hoping the good results will repeat themselves. It rarely happens. This is why sustained growth is so elusive. Companies that overachieve year after year don’t stand still. They continually seek out ways to be better – average is never good enough for real growth companies. One of the driving factors in my introducing the Organizational Prowess Scorecard is to give leadership teams a numerical benchmark, allowing for the continual improvement of key capabilities. No resting on your laurels after a decent year.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

King: Curiosity! Back to the leader who makes a point of wandering around the business asking questions and observing how work is getting done. I am often amazed at the number of senior executives who have decided, based on their rank, that all the answers now reside within them. Curiosity has dissipated, replaced by what one mind can grasp. Being curious also has a way of humbling us. Wondering how we strengthen our business and also wondering what the completion is up to are wise attributes for a leadership team. Without curiosity, data about organizational capability will be allusive and can actually lead to false positives. Without information, we assume all is good when that may be far from the truth. This is one more reason to apply a scorecard.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

King: I worked with a high growth mid-market business where this quote would have been extremely relevant. While fortunate enough to post decent results in most business cycles, the company had a track record of missed opportunity. The leaders were superb at planning and coming up with bold strategies. Unfortunately, they spent very little time and energy examining how ambitious goals would be achieved. They employed what I like to call the “cross your fingers” method of execution. Create strategies and then hope everyone can step up and make it happen. Not a good approach.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

King: Oh yes, the science of making choices. Drucker hit the nail on the head with this one. Smart leaders have learned how to say no to the shiny object. I had a client not long ago where this discipline was pretty much absent. The team did a nice job of establishing annual strategies but then allowed themselves to get sucked into the vortex of new opportunities throughout the business cycle. Resources were diverted to chase these un-vetted opportunities. The execution of fruitless endeavors drained energy and money. In the meantime, the strategies agreed upon were left to wilt on the sideline.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

King: This is right on and a fundamental principle of how I advocate companies plan the future. The highest quality planning endeavors include all those with the insight and experience to contribute. I am often dismayed when I see organizations that use rank as the qualifier for who should participate in planning sessions. Few things are as disheartening as a room full of senior executives determining the fate of all those left back at the business. Obviously, you can’t put 100 people in a meeting room, but you can engage 100 or more through small team meetings prior to the offsite session. Using a similar approach during the year to gain input on key decisions and to identify barriers to execution is a best practice.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather [begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

King: This is a provocative point of view. What this quote says to me is that research can’t always guide you to the right investments. Sometimes you just have to try something. This is akin to the concept of the educated guess. Gather facts, do the research, but then act. Growth companies have learned to overcome the fear of the unknown. There are few sure things in life and in business. We have all heard the phrase, fail fast. The key is having done enough due diligence to make the investment a good risk. Then set the milestones. Know when to pull the plug or double down. This is the tough part for most leaders. No milestones and no conviction to say “enough” when the return is not evident. Making mistakes is not and should not be the barometer for a growth business. Not stopping the madness is what a leader should be measured on.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

King: This tends to happen for two reasons. First, there are those C-level executive who have risen through the ranks rapidly and have done so primarily due to their job related skills. Consequently, they have adopted a belief that no one can get the work done as well as they can. This is a trait of an immature leader. Such a person also finds it difficult to hire “A” players, as they could pose a threat to their skill set superiority. This then reinforces the dynamic that only the boss can do the really important work. The second reason is due to the insecurity that resides at the C-level. The economic downturn in 2007/2008 left us with shell-shocked leaders in many sectors, wondering if their role was secure. Many have yet to recover, resulting in a resurgence of “looking good” versus being good. A great deal of my work with clients today is helping them build back the competence within the ranks so that true delegation can occur.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

King: I agree and I believe it is an undeveloped art for a leader. Stories fuel the imagination and help people see what could be. A vision, cast within a story, can be inspiring. Of course, effective leaders can’t stop with the story. It must be followed by a solid plan, an execution framework and the talent to make the vision a reality.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

King: I have found that avoiding the word “change” works quite well. People in organizations have a natural propensity to resist change, even before understanding the benefits to them. This is the cultural resistance you reference. Status Quo is predictable and comfortable. Problem is, while status quo for an individual might be comforting, it is a death knell for an organization. This creates a chasm that must be bridged. In other words, individuals need to be enlightened to the fact that change is what ensures personal security. My approach and advice to clients is to avoid the word and develop a growth roadmap that has milestones and metrics. Once that is in place, leaders need to work with their teams to build individual goals that support the roadmap. This makes it personal and creates accountability. What people don’t realize is that they have now become part of the change management process – without ever having uttered the word.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

King: Universities seem to be attempting to bridge academia with reality, but it has been slow. The criticism I hear most often from CEO’s is that freshly minted M.B.A.’s bring too much theory and too little practical know-how to the business world. From my view, a M.B.A.’s contribution is largely depends on the environment. Large multi-national organizations can benefit from an injection of theory and have the luxury of grooming a M.B.A. over time, providing the practical experience. Smaller, fast growth companies need immediate contributors and typically look for the relevant experience versus the degree. I have always believed that a high potential contributor who has put points on the board in a business setting and then pursues a graduate degree is the ideal path. This brings reality to the classroom and instills proven leadership traits within the individual, making them even more valuable to the business.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

King: I believe the greatest challenge will be revamping traditional methods within the business in order to be more relevant to today’s workforce. Fundamentally, we need to re-think how we motivate, compensate and measure performance. Progressive, innovative companies are already there, but they reside in the minority. Too many companies are holding on to worn out beliefs and systems. For example, how does it make sense that we wait 12 months to have a performance discussion with a contributor? It’s pointless. We measure financial performance monthly, why not people? I advocate monthly coaching sessions and quarterly goal review at the individual level. Companies that embrace this approach have seen material improvement in productivity, morale and retention of key talent. Compensation schemes are also woefully outdated. Tie the money to the results. Paying big salaries for showing up is not a good plan. Putting more money at risk helps insure you have the right people in the game. Those who can’t get the job done will self-select out. That is healthy for the business. CEOs need to challenge the status quo when it comes to the traditions and systems they grew up with.

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Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His consulting firm link

His blog link

The Scorecard Solution link at Amazon

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