What Owners Need to Know about Leadership – Jan Kearce

What is leadership? Are you a leader just because you own a company? Or can you lead, even if you have people above you? In today’s episode we’re going to explore what it means to be a leader, and how you, as an owner, can become a better leader, bringing your team along for the ride.
My fast take for today is that leadership isn’t about being a lone hero, charging the hill, and putting the weight of the world on your back. It’s about facilitation, and developing a team that can help you accomplish your goals and visions. To get the results you want, you’ll need to focus on both relationships and the processes…and that’s the kind of leader that will succeed today.
OK, that’s it for this week. More great content coming your way so make sure you’re subscribed through your favorite podcasting service!



Rich: My next guest is a senior leader for workforce and leadership at the MDF, the Maine Development Foundation. She’s a change leader, strategic partner, a facilitator, and a coach who brings deep passion and experience to a work with leaders, teams, and organizations. Perhaps equal to her depth of passion and experience, is her commitment to building leadership capacity and operational excellence that leads to sustainable, thriving organizations and communities.

With over 30 years of experience working with leaders and teams, she has worked with organizations focused on manufacturing, outdoor education, the environment, the economy, leadership and consulting. She’s led organizations and initiatives that are focused on quality, safety and operational excellence, designed great places to work, strategic and fundraising planning, creating an internal training Institute, multi-location mergers, developing regional and statewide leadership and engaging millennial leaders in local communities.

She is both a graduate and current program director of MDF’s Leadership Maine and ICL, the Institute for Civic Leadership, which is how I know her. Today we’re going to be diving into leaders with Jan Kearce. Jan, welcome to the podcast.

Jan: Thank you, Rich. I’m delighted to be here. And after that bio, I think it’s time to retire. That seems like a long time.

Rich: But it’s all been good stuff, so there’s that. I’m in the midst of one of the MDFs ICL leadership training programs currently with you at the lead. How long have you been leading this group?

Jan: I have been involved with ICL since 2010 and been part of the ICL delivery. And as the program director program leader, day-to-day day in and day out, I’ve been doing it for five years now.

Rich: Very nice. I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit. And as you know, our whole cohort is absolutely just enjoying the conversations and keeping up with each other, even after the event has gone on. It’s been fantastic, and we’re only three months into this. I wanted to chat with you about leadership, as it means different things to different people. Jan, how do you define it, especially how it pertains to business leadership?

Jan: Yeah, I think there’s similarity across all types of leadership. I think leaders often think they have to be the hero, the one in charge, the one in the front of the room. And I advocate for, and our program certainly leads people down the path, of looking at themselves as facilitative leaders. How do they work with and be both good listeners as well as good tellers, and being able to energize their mission through energizing their staff? So for me, leadership is all about embracing the concept of one’s own impact on your team, and how that team can come together to deliver on the promise the mission.

Rich: So there’s definitely this mythos. I won’t say myth necessarily, but mythos of the leader as hero. He or she who basically takes on all the challenges and does everything, and maybe people are just being pulled along by their charisma and in the wake of the work that they do. Are you suggesting that this is not the goal of today’s leader?

Jan: I’m suggesting it’s not a very healthy way to run a business. As I think about that, first of all, what happens when that leader has to step back, or God forbid, something happens from a health perspective. You want people who have ideated together, who solve problems together, who’ve come up with new ways of doing business in that person’s absence. God forbid, maybe that person wants to take a vacation and not have to worry about what’s happening in his or her business. The only way to do that is to not pretend that you have on the cape with the “S” on your chest, but that your staff is the team that you need to be successful.

Rich: I think that a lot of people believe that they are leaders because they own a company. Do you feel that there’s a difference between owning a company and being a leader?

Jan: Absolutely. Ownership does not convey leadership. I think a lot of people who are in companies manage the widgets. When we need to do this, we have that goal. Here’s how we’re going to put things in place. Here’s doing each of the tasks, the timelines, how much money we need to make. That to me is important. Very important. Someone needs to be doing that. But as we think about leadership, it’s about how do you impel people into that vision? How do you work with them to engage and deliver on it. And so that’s a whole lot more about what leadership is today, and certainly that’s changed over time as well. People want to be engaged. We’re in the middle of the ‘great resignation’ right now. And a piece of that is because people don’t feel valued. And leaders need to value themselves but also to value their employees in ways that allow them to reach their full potential.

Rich: I had a conversation with another guest recently, and it was the idea that so many business owners start a business without necessarily having an end goal in mind, a vision. They just know how to plumb, so they become a plumber. They know how to design websites, so they become a web designer. Not necessarily thinking through what’s this going to look in 20 or 30 years. At a certain point they realize that the company can’t grow or even maybe stay around if they don’t evolve. And do you think that that’s the moment where they start to recognize the value of leadership or the need for leadership? Is that a transitional moment for a lot of business owners that you’ve seen?

Jan: I think so. I was doing some work in the past with entrepreneurial business owners to bring in some leadership development initially and get them thinking further down the road, but they weren’t ready for it. They were so busy with ideation, product trials, trying to find customers selling things, or just trying to make it, but they weren’t ready for it. And so I think when that moment comes and they think, well, I have a product and now I know I need to build a company. And a company is not composed of widgets, it’s composed of people. And so how do I make that?

Rich: So maybe there’s that early stage where it’s almost more about survival than anything else. And it’s like the most important thing is not necessarily bring up the next generation of leaders, but it’s to keep the lights on, which means I have to build, or I need to sell. But maybe at a certain point of the lifetime of a company, you realize I can now elevate, I can go up to the next level. I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but I’m just, that’s what I’m thinking from what you’re saying.

Jan: Sure. And to me, that’s the point in which you realize you need to build a team and that you can’t define where you’re going.

Rich: And I think this kind of ties into a little bit of what my next question was going to be, because at ICL, we talk about competencies for facilitative leadership. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what that is and how we can work it into our roles as business leaders?

Jan: Sure. Well, we have a list that we use as we think about our training and what we ask people to consider in terms of their own practices. But I’d say it all really falls under that kind of golden triangle of, if you want the right results, you have to focus on relationships and the process. And by relationships, I mean building those relationships with your team. People talk about how trust is the grease that gets things going or keeps things going. So it’s building those relationships and defining clear processes. People come into work with very different perspectives on how to work and they come in different, different people. And so spending that time as a facilitative leader in developing those relationships and the process for doing the work together is important.

I also believe, and know, that that self-awareness, as a leader is critical. I ask people to be their own fly on the wall, so to speak. And think about what’s happening for them. How are they reacting? What’s the impact that they have in the room? What’s the impact they want to have in the room or in the organization, as they think about achieving success over the long haul, not just over that first year or two of sales. So then it becomes very clearly about working with others, and being strategic and practicing what we call adaptive leadership. Which is more about not solving for simple all the time when you have complex problems. But don’t solve for simple, make sure that you’re tackling the issues, finding root cause.

And then systems thinking and network theory. How have all these pieces fit together? And that’s particularly important as you think about the business ecosystem or as you think about competitors or who needs what now. But to use that systems thinking to better understand. Who else is in this kind of world or business with you, not only internally, but externally, and how you position yourself successful.

Rich: You mentioned that this might be a newer approach to leadership, and I wonder if some old school thinking is more about, leadership is about strength and will to get things done. And when you were using words like ‘facilitator’ and ‘listening more than you speak’, do you feel that some people might feel like that’s not leadership, in fact, I always feel like I’ve lost control of what’s going on in my own company.

Jan: And I would say that that’s risk aversion. Because people want to be able to say, I know what’s going to happen today and tomorrow and so on. But in order to really succeed, to grow, to come up with the new ideas, then we have to allow people some innovative time and space to play together to understand, all right, here’s what we’re trying to produce. And maybe that’s the product that we need for that customer is going to change. And so how do we create an environment where people are willing to challenge and then to play with ideas in order to continue to be successful? And I think that the idea around facilitative leadership is not that new, frankly, but it keeps having to be reenergized in our society. People often look at the newspapers, read the Marvel comics, do whatever to think, “Oh, there’s some heroic leader out there, that’s what I want in my business.” But it doesn’t work that way. And then we don’t have Superman at the top or Superwoman at the top of our hierarchical ladder. And we need to keep reminding ourselves. Frankly, having worked in this field for a long time, I’ve been talking about the equivalent of facilitative leadership and these types of skills since I started. And I said 30 plus years ago in my bio, but now it’s 40 plus years.

Rich: You’ve been saying for a while. So I’m just wondering if certain business owners or leaders are concerned that if I’m always facilitating and I’m always listening to what people are saying, then what role do I actually have except being listener? I want to chart the course for my company. Like, how does a business leader balance those things in terms of upskilling their team and listening and facilitating, and yet still saying that I know this is the direction that I want to take my company? How can you find the balance between those things? Or maybe they work well together, I don’t know.

Jan: Well, being a facilitative leader does not mean you’re not going to make decisions. So what you’re trying to do is make the best decisions. And sometimes you have to make them, and sometimes the decisions are such that you can delegate that to your staff. Or you can say, “This is your job. Here’s the kind of decisions you’re going to be involved in, what you’re in charge of.” So they wrap their selves around and have some autonomy around a particular set of problems or issues. And then the leader of the organization may have to set some guidelines of what that looks like. You know, what are the core values? And setting those together is important.

And so I actually think it’s more challenging to be patient and to listen, but there comes a time when decisions have to be made. So a part of the secret sauce is deciding who decides. And sometimes that’s the person who holds the purse strings and has made the greatest investment. And sometimes that person after listing hard to staff and making the final decision, and sometimes it’s the staff, depending upon that level of decision, I find.

Rich: Absolutely. And I find myself having gone through a real transition over the last five years, which is part of the reason I think I’m at the right point to be taking the ICL course, and why it’s having such an impact on my thinking. I find myself these days as much as possible letting other people make a good portion of the decisions. And when they come to me with, “Hey, Rich, we want to do this”, or “We’re thinking about these two things”, more often than not I’ll just say, “Well, what do you think?” And then, “Let’s go with that.” Which I find to be the next phase of my ownership/leadership in this company. Is there a place where we go too far where we’ve released the reigns too much and people may be going in a direction that we didn’t want them to?

Jan: Yes. And I would say that it’s part of the role is leader as coach. And there are times when people become engaged in projects, they get excited about it, and they have not received any kind of direction around the boundaries of the project. You know, we can’t spend the million dollars. We still have these core values. We can’t operate outside of those core values. We still have a mission about delivering this product. We’re not gonna, we’re not going to deliver something totally different. And I think that’s where things can run amiss, and trust can erode when you ask people to totally jump in and you don’t give them any direction or any guidelines. They come back to you, and you say, “Oh no, we can’t do that.” So it’s about coaching. It’s about setting some guidelines around the type of projects or the way that the organization will operate depending on the situation.

Rich: One of the things I found myself focusing on more and more, the longer I’ve been doing this, is what is flyte’s north star? Where do we want to go as a company? But then letting the team make the individual decisions on how to plot that course themselves. And with each year, it seems like I’m getting less involved with actual plotting and letting them make more of the decisions, as long as we’re in agreement with what that final destination should be. And sometimes, obviously we veer off course and we end up in a very good place that’s not where we expected. But is that the next iteration? Is that adaptive leadership, or is this me giving up control of the company?

Jan: Well, it’s not adaptive leadership. As I think about it, there are so many different models for the way that organizations operate. Like, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to sociocracy and holacracy recently.

Rich: can you define those two for us, please?

Jan: Yeah, I knew you were going to ask me to do that if I said those words. So sociocracy is more about actually structuring the organization. So your management is very, very thin and you have teams of people who have certain tasks or goals, and there’s a lot of autonomy on those teams around those goals. And they have to create some bridges between the teams in order to move forward effectively and ensure that they’re not stepping on each other’s toes. So that’s some of the complexity of that kind of structure. So it depends on what you’re leading, right? If you’re leading, if you think you’re leading toward producing a product, or if you’re creating a community and a culture in an organization that is healthy and strong and allows people to grow. So is your product just that thing that you put out the door, or is that product this marvelous culture container of success that you create for your staff and for yourself? I’m going to stop there. Does that make sense?

Rich: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of the whole Tony Hsieh’s Zappos thing, where he was like, “We’re a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.” So he was creating an entire community there at that company, and shoes was almost an afterthought in terms of what the product was that they were going to be selling.

Jan: And he went down the path of sociology.

Rich: All right. Another big talking point at ICL, you talked about it briefly, is this triangle of I believe relationships, process and results. So can you dive a little bit deeper into that, and then how can we use that triangle to make better decisions or to be a better leader?

Jan: So the triangle is about creating balance between all three of those. So we know as an organization, you may know that you have certain goals around product sales or service sales or whatever it may be. And you have that goal because you have to pay your staff and your rent and all of those other things. So you have a goal. Now you can sit in your office and decide how to do that on your own, or you can engage the staff in helping you to do it. So this is a relationship side when you get into the conversation around, how do you utilize staff? How do they work with you? How do they work together in order to deliver on whatever that mission may be? So there’s a conscious effort to create a good set of relationships in the organization. So those people can work most effectively together.

So it may be through training and development, like you’re doing with ICS. It may be due through conversations or you’re spending time with your staff really exploring what are the most effective ways to work together. It may be bringing new tools into the organization, technology, or ways of meeting together, whatever it may be. But how do you build that relationship? And the process is, that answers a big question for some people who are always saying, “Yeah, boss, you want to go there, but how the heck are we going to get there?” So the process is more about the steps and not necessarily all the steps are defined in ways that those people who are most technical would like to see them. But here are the steps we’re going to follow. We’re going to meet and talk about this. We’re going to have three action items out of this. We’re going to come back, explore what our findings were, and then make a plan for the next steps. So just something that gives people that sense of knowing about what their role is and what it’s going to take to be successful.

You may remember that we did a little exercise called “The Four Corners Exercise”, where we asked people about their initial approach to work. And it was meaning, people, structure, or action. So some people like to just jump right into action without any of those things. Some people want to know why, you probably heard that a lot from your kids. “Why are we doing this?” Some people want to know what’s the structure. So what’s the process. And some people want to know, “Well, what does Joe think about that before we go down this path”, and you’re addressing all of that in this triangle, so to speak.

Rich: So that’s interesting because it sounds like there’s a bunch of different types of both people out there, but also almost leadership types. And so when it comes to leadership types, do we all have a personality type that makes us one type of leader over another type of leader? Is that something that we can grow into? What do you think about that?

Jan: I think it’s really good not to pigeonhole anyone. So there are leadership styles that are more attuned with certain types of jobs, that’s for sure. I think what’s most important is that a leader understands his or her style, understands self as emotionally intelligent, and may say to him or herself, “I’m going to jump right into action here. Who on my team will help me to slow down and put a process in place or ask that question?” “Okay, boss, tell me….” And I’m using ‘boss’ very loosely, because we try not to use that word anymore, right? Who, who may ask that question? What’s this all about? Why are we doing this? Where will it take us?

So I think that that leader in that situation, the biggest challenge is understanding self. And it is a challenge because we’ve got to grow into that understanding. And then think about what are my strengths, how do I use, and who do I need to be on my team to help me with the things that I am not strong at. And that’s a leadership move, to understand both your strengths and the things that are not in your tool set.

Rich: That’s the second time you’ve talked about self-awareness in one of the answers. Do you feel that that’s a critical skill for all leaders? And if so, how can we get better? And if so, how do we even know if we’re not self-aware that we’re not self-aware?

Jan: That’s a great question. So I think self-awareness is critical. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s hard to tackle our own stuff. And particularly since, sometimes we have to tackle it in front of others, not just in our thoughts. But it’s through, the way I’ve seen people tackle it, is by seeking to become more aware. That may be through a course like ICL, it may be through reading, it may be through different types of assessments, people do the four corners work, social styles, NBTI. But really asking oneself those hard questions about how do they approach their work? How do they approach their life? What triggers them? What makes them happy? What makes them sad? So just spending that time and exploring one’s own identity for the sake not of criticism. And I think that’s where people sometimes go astray, “I’m not good at this” or “I should be better at this.” It’s really about, “Okay, here’s who I am. And now what?”

Rich: I think a lot of people are under the belief that great leaders are born. You know, that’s always the conversation about things like that. But everything that you’ve talked about has been this idea of the workshops that people go through. And I know that you’ve assigned reading on leadership things. It really feels like this is a skill that can be taught, that can be learned, but it does take some work. And in this case, business owners need to be open to the idea that this is something that they can get better at. It’s not a, ‘I was born with it or I’m not born with it’, it’s ‘this is a skill to work on’. Would you agree?

Jan: Yeah, I’d say it’s a way of being to work on. And I would also say that as we think about the social styles and Myers-Briggs and those kinds of things, we do have some innate characteristics that we bring to it. And the real key, as we’ve said, is awareness around those innate characteristics. And sometimes they serve as well, and sometimes they don’t.

Rich: But being aware of them in the first place is probably a good way to either lean into them or tamp down on them, I would guess, depending on the situation.

Jan: Lean in, tamp down, laugh about. There are some people who don’t, for example, remember names as well or whatever it may be. Yeah. I hear you, Rich. So it’s helpful to not be overly critical of oneself in that situation but to recognize, here’s what I’m good at, here’s what I’m not good at.

Rich: All right, Jan, this has been great. And we ask the same question of all the guests who come on the show, and I’m curious to hear your answer. What one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Jan: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. Because I think it’s almost like what one thing it is. What one thing you can do to improve your own leadership? It’s about opening up and reaching out. And when I think about this, I think about one of my programs that I run where we visit different places. And people are always so surprised about what’s happening in Maine. And when I look at the ecosystem map for businesses and who else is out there and surrounds that one little business or one big business, and that includes the universities and different types of economic development organizations, et cetera. But it’s being open to reaching out and learning from others. And when I think about one of my recent stops on a program, we stopped off at the University of Maine. Not that I’m pitching, but at the university of Maine, they have a great Center for Innovation, they work with businesses. I would say 80% of the people who are in my programs have no idea that that’s even out there, that that kind of support is out there. And at the manufacturing extension lab, they help people design pieces of equipment that will do X task or Y task. This is not about the University, it’s about the fact that we as business leaders, business owners, don’t know our own ecosystem that well, so how do we learn and how do we put ourselves out there? How do we bring what we learned back home and be able to implement and help our businesses grow and thrive, and our staff?

Rich: Excellent. Jan, this has been great. If people want to learn more about ICL or they want to learn more about you, where can we send them online?

Jan: Well, we have a wonderful website, www.mdf.org, and just click on leadership development when you go to the website.

Rich: Jan, thank you so much for stopping by today.

Jan: It’s always nice to see you, Rich. It’s been great to see you and to speak with you. I really appreciate it.