As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Richardson, president of Online Trading Academy (OTA). When Richardson joined the company in 2018 his mission was to help facilitate the company’s growth and realize its full potential, by developing its company-wide agility.
Richardson’s professional career began at Shell International, where he worked as a petroleum engineer on offshore gas and oil drilling rigs in Europe. He also held a leadership role with British public company Spirent plc running the aerospace division. Richardson launched his first consulting firm, Sherpa Alliance Inc., facilitating startups to global corporations in adopting an enterprise-wide agility operating system.
An agility thought leader, Richardson is working on his second book, “The 5 Roles of Everyday Agile Leaders: Cracking the Agility Code for CEOs, Executives and Managers of Small to Medium-Sized Enterprises.” He is also a keynote speaker and was a chair and speaker for Vistage Worldwide, a global peer mentoring organization for CEOs and business leaders.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Richardson now calls the Temecula Valley wine district home. He enjoys studying agile leaders in the real world, from Navy Seals to Airline Pilots, interpreting their agility secrets and translating them into terms relevant to the business world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Imagine it’s the middle of the night. It’s freezing cold. There is horizontal snow driving in your face. We are hundreds of miles offshore at sea, on an oil and gas drilling rig, and we’re in the middle of a hefty operation running heavy equipment in the hole. That’s where I started my career, as a Petroleum Engineer, working for Shell as a 21-year-old.
I am English, had left the UK and moved to Holland. I joined Shell’s international staff and spent eighteen months on onshore, and six months on offshore drilling rigs. A week on, a week off. Helicopter out, helicopter back. When you are on, you are on 24/7. You sleep if and when you can; It was a great experience, the closest thing I ever got to a boot camp. I found out a lot about myself.
My degree was in geophysics which is a combination of math, geography, and physics. I wanted to work for one of the oil majors. However, after my two years on drilling rigs, when they brought me into the office and put me on a technical track, I realized that wasn’t for me. So after a total of 5 years with Shell, I quit and went to get my MBA at the London Business School for 2 years. That’s when I knew I wanted to go into leadership in the industry.
In particular, when I look back on my experience on drilling rigs, I realized I learned a lot about stamina, resilience, thinking on my feet, quality, safety, crisis management, and preventative thinking. The consequences were too dire otherwise. You know what I mean if you have seen the movie, “Deepwater Horizon” tells the story of the BP Gulf Oil Spill disaster. Because I had lived the life and understood the terminology, I read thousands of pages of all of the investigation reports and watched all of the testimonies and documentaries. Little did I know back then how pivotally insightful my experience on drilling rigs would become in my journey in business, with my career, and in life.
It’s also why I am so oriented to developing young people and helping to get their “bigness” out. It’s a fundamental belief I have that people are bigger on the inside than they seem on the outside. Some interviewer saw something in me as a 20-year-old — fresh-faced and soon-to-be graduate — and thought I was made of the right stuff, even though I wasn’t sure myself. They put me out on drilling rigs at age 21, and I learned fast.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
When graduating from my MBA, I knew I wanted to go into leadership in British industry, not least as I had never worked in my homeland since graduating college. I got offered a job with an aerospace company in the industrial heartland of Great Britain — Birmingham — an area referred to as the “black country” for its industrial roots. Pretty much everyone from my MBA thought I was crazy to move there, but I was committed to finding my path. I started out in Program Management and did well, becoming Product Support Manager, then Commercial Manager, and then getting promoted to become the Sales & Marketing VP. Four years later, I was headhunted away to become the CEO/President of a subsidiary of a £500-million-per-year British public corporation called Bowthorpe which later renamed itself Spirent.
I knew I was walking into a turnaround situation, but I quickly discovered it was a lot worse than I realized! The business was losing money and breaking down culturally. My career as a CEO/President was on the line and was at risk of derailing before it got started, so I knew that I was going to have to be a breakthrough leader, be agile, move fast, and find a balance of the and-proposition of being both entrepreneurial and working inside the bureaucracy of a corporate environment. It worked, and I got promoted to run the whole Aerospace Division, which is what brought my wife and I to Wichita Kansas, and then San Diego, a year and a half after that. Two years later, 9/11 happened, the NASDAQ had crashed, the dot com bubble had burst, the technology boom was over, and Aerospace was in the doldrums, but I was lucky that I had managed to get my green card 3 months before 9/11. For me, luck is huge in business and life. More on that later.
So, with my green card, I had options. In the Spring of 2002, I decided to risk taking the leap from the corporate world to do my own thing and follow my passion for breakthrough leadership. I built a consulting business called Sherpa Alliance Inc. My mantra was load carrying support for mountainous breakthrough journeys. As I immersed myself in the challenges faced by CEOs these days across a broad spectrum of businesses and industries, I evolved my passionate purpose from “AGILE” breakthrough leadership. As part of my portfolio of activities, I became involved with Vistage Worldwide for 15 years, as both a chair and speaker for peer groups of CEOs, becoming known globally as the community’s agility expert and writing a book. That was a mountainous breakthrough journey all of its own! All of these experiences are somewhere in the mix of who I am today.
In July 2017, while speaking to a Vistage Group in the greater Los Angeles area, one of the members was Eyal Shahar, who was Founder and CEO of Online Trading academy in its 20th year that year. He resonated with the vocabulary, concepts, and frameworks I was revealing using oil and gas and aerospace analogies and the experiential task-team exercises I put the CEOs through their agility paces with. All built around the backbone of the “5 Things” I share later in this article and in the video. Inviting CEOs and their teams to change their relationship with 5 key attributes of agility: chaos, triage, insight, luck, and journey orientation.
We immediately hit it off and I started working with him and his team. Having worked with so many CEOs, executive teams, and businesses over the years, I was blown away by how special Eyal, the team, and OTA were. While I wasn’t looking to transition from what I was doing, I was intrigued to have a capstone agility experience in my career. We arrived at a meeting of minds that I should join the company as President (aka Chief Agility Officer), which I did in November 2018.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It’s a personal story that I have probably told more than 1000 times in business since, which I call the “Wrong Hazelwood”.
The short version is that back in the summer of 2001, my wife and I were going back to the U.K. for a wedding, in a place called Hazelwood, from the greater San Diego/Los Angeles area, where we still live today. We had received the invitation about nine months prior and had begun planning our trip. We began thinking about all the different aspects of it — flights, cars, hotels, kids, family and friends, dates we were coming and going, me combining business and pleasure as my corporate head office was in the UK. We began asking questions of ourselves about our preferences and how we wanted to spend our time, to fit everything in. We began making decisions and taking actions to line up everything the way we wanted it. We executed our plan flawlessly, traveling really well and feeling really good. We arrived in Hazelwood at the allotted time on Friday at 4 pm in plenty of time for the rendezvous dinner Friday evening, before the wedding ceremonies on Saturday. Except we couldn’t find the hotel! We were in the wrong Hazelwood! With no idea where the right Hazelwood was!
At the time, I didn’t realize just how pivotal this “Wrong Hazelwood” story would become in my thinking and gaining insights into the agility challenge of being a President/CEO. I am sure you all have your own “Wrong Hazelwood” stories in business and life. People reach out and share their “I had a Wrong Hazelwood” stories with me all the time. It gave rise to a journey of insight to what I now call “C2C: Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow” and the idea in business that where the trajectory of your conversation-flow goes, the trajectory of your cash-flow follows. At least eventually, and with the speed of business and pace of change these days, probably bigger, faster, and sooner than you think!
With a particular definition of “Conversation-Flow” as to how we link and accumulate individual Thoughts, Questions, Decisions, and Actions (TQDA) into a journey, just like we did in our journey to Hazelwood. That is really the nature of innovation. The innovation of anything, from a journey to a wedding, to the journey of a new product, to the journey of business model, to the journey of start-up or turnaround or maturing business, to the life-cycle journey of an enterprise and to the journey of a career.
Yes, including “Actions” as a part of Conversation-Flow, which is a critical insight for an agile-mindset. Actions are a conversation with reality. If only we will take real-actions sooner, we bring reality into the conversation talking to us loud and clear about what’s working and what’s not working. Until then it’s all theory, with the possibility of all kinds of flawed assumptions, which are going untested and unverified.
Notice the emphasis on real-actions! Putting together a technicolor Gantt chart master plan is not a real action. Presenting a Power-Point is not a real-action. Holding a product strategy meeting with a sales team is not a real action. A real action is only when you put a real product in front of real customers who really use it and give you real feedback about what they really like and don’t like about it. Anything short of that is not real. Now, I understand that truly real actions are not possible in some industries, like drug discovery or constructing buildings, so the question is, how do we take realer-actions sooner to de-risk reality not being fully in the conversation? Any time we don’t, we are allowing risk to compound.
So I call it, “C2C: Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow”. The trajectory of your cash-flow follows the trajectory of your conversation-flow, inflecting upwards or downwards with the presence or absence of individual thoughts, questions, decisions, and actions, often invisibly and unconsciously. There is an unending list of the smallest examples to the largest examples:
- The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in space because of a simple math error between engineering teams exchanging data between the Imperial System and the Metric System of weights and distances.
- The Space Shuttle disasters which the investigations always traced back to cultural issues, which result in distorted conversation-flows.
- The BP Gulf Oil Spill I mentioned above which investigations concluded was due to business pressures.
- Aircraft accidents that investigations often attributed to pilot error. The Aerospace business I ran was at the heart of something called Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) changing the trajectory of flight safety and accident rates with specialist software and non-crash-protected recorders to routinely analyze flight data after every flight. It was all a part of the emerging Human Factors domain of flight safety in the 1980s and 1990s. We also made crash-protected “black-box” recorders, which was a different experience!
- Of course, all the classic business examples of Kodak, Blockbuster, Blackberry, and Nokia, etc, which are typically over-used and over-simplified, with the benefit of 2020 hindsight. This is why I like to get leaders thinking about their own “Wrong Hazelwoods”. In the past of course, they always had funny ones in life and expensive ones in business. In the present, what Wrong Hazelwoods might be taking shape as we speak, which you are blissfully unaware of but might be here real soon? In the future, what pattern of Wrong Hazelwoods are you prone to and what are you going to do to change that pattern?
What’s that saying? We live life forwards but we understand it backward”. That’s Wrong Hazelwoods for you!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Actually, I like to think of a particular kind of person, namely the hundreds of CEOs, Presidents, and Entrepreneurs I have worked with during the course of my career. Of course, in particular, those who I worked for or who worked for me, you know who you are. Also, the hundreds who were in my Vistage peer groups I chaired and the thousands who were in the Vistage peer groups I spoke to, plus all the clients I have worked with, Boards I have served on, and the keynote audiences I have spoken to globally.
I have such respect for the inescapable responsibility you have as a CEO in the driver’s seat of your businesses and the traction you must drive on the trajectory of conversation-flow to cash-flow! To assure the sustainability, profitability, and growth of your businesses, all with the increasing agility required! If you don’t take the lead in fully filling that seat, no one else will. Those are increasingly big shoes to fill. In my quest to fully figure out the agility operating system required, I have learned something from all of you. In particular, from all the Vistage members in my own peer groups which I chaired for 15 years, who became like family as we were deeply and meaningfully in each other’s lives. While you learned from me and from each other, I learned the most of all from you.
I reserve a special mention for Eyal Shahar, the founder, and CEO of Online Trading Academy where I am now the President. In our short time together we have been through such challenging experiences, lockstep together and with the executive leadership team, and I have never experienced an entrepreneur simultaneously of such visionary heights and such human depths.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I have experienced many of the twists and turns of the journey in business. From turnarounds to startups, being acquired and making acquisitions, working with global companies, public companies, and private companies, navigating through economic cycles, 9/11, the Great Recession, and 2020.
It has been a never-ending journey of learning insights. I realize now that I have approached them all with the compounding clarity of an agile journey-oriented mindset which I first developed when working on drilling rigs when turning around that business which was my first time as a CEO/President and from my Wrong Hazelwood story and all that flowed from it.
Every business is a turnaround in some way shape or form. If it isn’t presently, it will be real soon. If not financially, then culturally, or with a business model that is heading to the Wrong Hazelwood and you just don’t know it yet. It isn’t “if” you will have “Wrong Hazelwoods” it is only “when” and how big and how soon. I have experienced small ones and big ones in every business I have ever run, in client businesses I have worked with or Boards I have been on, and in every Vistage member business that was in my groups.
Including OTA. 2020 was a monumentally challenging year like no other I have ever experienced. I came to OTA for a capstone agility experience in my career and I got it 3X or 10X more than I could have ever imagined. While I wouldn’t have wished it upon anyone, least of all myself, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. My never-ending journey of learning insights has continued!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There is an additional “C” in the middle of our equation of C2C: Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow. Confidence. So it’s really C2C2C with the middle “ C” being Confidence-Flow, as the bridge between Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow.
That confidence flows from agility. If we are developing our agility and driving our conversation-flow with the agility required, we can be quietly confident that with a little bit of luck, everything will turn out OK with our cash-flow. What’s that saying from Oscar Wilde, “Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it’s not fine it’s not the end.” Or, that idea that if you never quit, success is inevitable.
That requires a culture of agility. To keep going, to keep pivoting and adapting, to keep seeking, finding, and driving a pathway through no matter what. That requires agility oriented core-values that are institutionalized and are not just words on the wall. That became progressively clear to me over the course of my learning journey and I found ways to facilitate that with my clients, Boards, and Vistage members.
But at Online Trading Academy I discovered something deeper. 15 years ago, they did a Mission, Vision & Core-Values exercise, arriving at 5 core-values of Passion, Collaboration, Respect, Trust, and Innovation. But the founder and CEO, Eyal Shahar, insisted that a 6th one was added. Love. Yes, these days love as a core value in business is very fashionable and lots of authors are writing and speaking about it. But 15 years ago, not so much!
We didn’t take the easy road of adopting love as a fashionable thing now, we took the hard road of adopting love as a real thing back then and we are 15 years into really meaning it. Eyal really means it, it is those human depths I spoke of earlier. The executive team really means it. The whole organization really means it. Our love for our purpose and passion, our students and community, and our network of team members and instructors. Amongst many other things, we define love as an absence of fear, an absence of ego, and an absence of limiting beliefs. It is what we call our “relentless commitment”. That’s what love is.
More than I ever realized before, if you want to develop the quiet confidence of agility, a fulcrum for that is a core value of love. I truly believe that when the depths of our resilience, grit, and agility were tested to the bottom of our well during 2020, the bedrock we hit was love. Which saw us through. Love conquers all.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
While we are not fully out of the woods yet, things are trending in the right direction, and with a little luck here and there, things will turn out fine.
Indeed, the words grit and resilience are all crucial dimensions of agility, with so many more. Fortitude. Courage. Conviction. Relentless commitment. Despite everything we managed to keep seeking, finding, and driving a pathway through with the agility required, converting sufficient conversation-flow into sufficient cash-flow to survive, with a quiet confidence-flow founded on resilience, grit, agility, and love.
In fact, despite everything we managed to keep investing in our students with new learning modalities and technologies, so we have never been more excited about our future as unique in our industry space.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It really is about how we help our students on their journey. It’s the same journey of Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow with that middle C of Confidence, C2C2C.
Financial wellness has been a growing concern across America, for many years before the COVID Pandemic but especially now because of it. But few people have the financial education to know what they can do about it, resulting in a lack of confidence. This is a void that OTA is dedicated to filling.
We help everyday people develop confidence with trading and investing to participate equitably in the public financial markets. Our focus is Main Street, always believing that trading and investing education should not be reserved for the Wall Street elite. We are leveling the playing field by helping our students learn how to become self-directed traders and investors by building the skills, evolving the proficiency, and developing confidence. With a particular focus on risk management.
Online trading has been in the news a lot over the last year. During the COVID-19 pandemic period of 2020/2021, there was an explosion of novice retail investors signing up with online brokerages like E*Trade and Robinhood. Unfortunately, many don’t have the education they need to know what they are doing in managing risk in particular. We have heard some tragic stories in the news. Then in early 2021, we had the whole GameStop and Robinhood debacle in which an online movement of retail traders took on the hedge funds shorting troubled stocks like GameStop and others. While this helps raise the public consciousness, much of the news coverage easily also reinforces misconceptions (The 5 Misconceptions about Trading & Investing). The most prevalent of which is that “Day Trading” is inherently risky. No more so than crossing the street. If you are wearing a blindfold, then yes, it is inherently risky. If we have our eyes wide open, know the rules of where to cross and where not to, and are disciplined in continuing to look left and right as we do so, would you consider crossing the street to be inherently risky? Probably not. Think about how many times have you done it in your life, hopefully without incident.
The bottom line is a journey of confidence. It’s the same in learning how to do anything complex. A martial art, a language, a sport, driving a car, or flying a plane. For instance, I know the theory of swinging a golf club. I have read enough books, watched enough videos, and observed enough pros. But somehow, when I step up to the tee to do it myself, I lack some confidence that I really know what I am doing and how to do it, as displayed moments later by the results, felt moments later by my emotions, and questioned moments later by my thought of “why do I bother with this game?” It’s a combination of knowing-what, knowing-how, and knowing-why, including managing emotions and motivations.
Which means it’s about human factors. Just like back in my aerospace days. No amount of technology or technique makes up for the human factors involved in the learning journey. Plus, the technique and technology should be progressively aligned with the learning journey, from beginner to intermediate, to advanced.
That is the convergence that we focus on, all aligned with the human factors of facilitating the adult learning journey experientially, which we call our “Compass” program, which we believe is unique and reflects our two decades of experience with more than 80,000 students (The 5 Secrets of the Learning Journey for Trading & Investing). Our progressive technique is our proprietary methodology called “Core Strategy” based upon the fundamentals of supply and demand, which we believe is the best learning pathway. Our progressive technology is called “CliK” which is a revolutionary, first of its kind, and progressively award-winning platform that integrates education, analysis, and trading all in one. We believe there is nothing else like it. (The 5 Myths of Trading & Investing Technology)
We stand out and stand alone with the convergence of these 3 elements all focused on the human factors of facilitating the bottom line journey of developing confidence. Triangulating 3 out of 3 can put you in a minority of 1. No one else has 3 out of 3 as we do. So much so, we proudly believe we are the best alternative to Wall Street. For sure, the best way to learn trading and investing would be to get a top tier finance education, perhaps followed by a finance-oriented MBA, be recruited by a Wall Street firm, go through their training and join the elite! If you don’t have that option, we believe OTA is the best alternative. That is our relentless commitment, no matter what, to keep investing in facilitating the learning journey of our students.
It all starts with that TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions, and Actions) of Conversation-Flow. We get our students thinking differently about the financial markets and how they really work. We explain how the majority of people can be stuck in the mindset of a paradigm full of misconceptions that don’t serve them well (5 Common Misconceptions about Trading & Investing). We invite them to join a minority of people who have pivoted to a mindset of a different paradigm and conceptual understandings. That opens the door to getting our students asking different questions about what works and doesn’t work, deciding upon their individual plan and style, and acting upon that, hands-on experientially in safe practice environments, with discipline and persistence. We help them change their relationship with the public financial markets, progressively pivoting their behavior patterns of TQDA. Progressing up the learning curve of building skills, evolving proficiency, and developing confidence, with techniques and technology which progress along the journey with them.
Whether we are on a journey to a wedding, or running a business, or learning trading and investing, it’s the same journey of linking and accumulating TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions, and Actions), to be ending up in the right Hazelwoods, not the Wrong Hazelwoods!
Of course, we teach students to look at price-action candlestick charts, of green candles and red candles and train their eyes to be able to see the possible story behind the chart which aligns with our methodology.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s the same with Agility. Think green candles and red candles!
Just like it is on any learning curve, running any business, or on any journey. I like to ask people, was it a green candle day or a red candle day? A green or red candle week or month or year? Was it a green candle meeting or a red candle meeting? Was it a green candle moment or a red candle moment?
Think about what drives share prices up or down with green candles and red candles. It’s a combination of tangible things (perhaps an earnings report or a drug discovery trial result) and intangible things (sentiment about how experts are thinking about political or economic outlook or what the Fed might do or not do next with interest rates, plus the dynamics of fear and greed), things in the past (legacy decisions or actions for which the implications are still playing out and becoming clear), the present (today’s news about decisions and actions) and the future (speculation about how particular industries of businesses might be disrupted by each other, who the victors and the victims might be) and many other such things. In other words, how we are linking and accumulating individual TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions, and Actions) into a longitudinal journey, past, present, and future. Green candles and red candles.
I like to ask if we had a price-action candlestick chart for our business or career or relationship or learning curve, what just happened to our stock-price? Invisibly. A green candle or red candle? What if we could make visible the invisible? If we had the benefit of a price-action candlestick chart on our way to Hazelwood we likely would have seen an early warning signal and would have had a much better chance of ending up in the right one, not the wrong one!
Think green candles and red candles, one moment, one meeting, and one day at a time. Ask yourself, what can I do to make the next moment, meeting or day a green candle? How can I maximize green candles and mitigate red candles to net out green? No doubt you have red candle pressures, issues, and challenges creating downside risks, we all do. How can you mitigate those and maximize your green candle upside opportunities to net out green?
This candle-stick mindset reinforces that it’s our leadership presence in the now which really counts. I really like what Dale Carnegie said about living in “day-tight compartments’’. All we have to work with is the present. Today. Being fully situationally aware of what is in flow through today, in continuity of the journey with the past and the future, being as present as we can be as a leader to net out a green candle day. One day at a time. Compounding into a week, a month, a quarter, a year, a decade, a lifetime. In business, with a career and in life, with the agility required.
That’s what my 5 Things are about later. 5 attributes of agility to change your relationship with to be more present in the now as an agile leader, today. Those attributes of agility are chaos, triage, insight, luck and journey-orientation. Indeed, they become the basis for what I call “The 5 Roles of Everyday Agile Leaders”. The roles to step up to everyday to be an agile leadership presence not a fragile leadership presence. In the real world of agility, like in a cockpit, an ER, a wildfire or on an offshore drilling rig, it is very evident whether we were agile or fragile and whether we had a green candle or a red candle day. I have spent a career interpreting the secrets of agility from the real world, translating them into terms relevant to the business world and facilitating CEO and their teams to institutionalize them in the advisory world.
It is all about that middle “C” of Confidence-Flow, as the bridge between Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow, in the C2C2C of your unfolding journey. That calm, collected, composed and quiet confidence that comes from knowing we stepped up as an agile leadership presence today. Mitigating red candles and maximizing green ones. Allowing us to feel complete, whole and at peace, able to sleep well in the knowledge that today was a green candle day and tomorrow can be another one.
This mindset raises our consciousness of noticing any incompletes, any loose ends and any anxieties. These are all information and signals that our situational awareness and triage are not as full as they need to be. These are not things to worry about as worry is not a strategy just like hope is not a strategy. These are things to begin linking and accumulating TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions and Action) about, weaving themes into the flow of your journey. It doesn’t take much to begin that and regain a feeling of being complete, whole and at peace. Perhaps the small action today of adding a new item to our list of open items. Perhaps a decision today to have a conversation with someone tomorrow. Perhaps a question to ponder with your team in your next meeting. Perhaps just the beginnings of a mind map to begin thinking through a complex issue. The sense that you are in motion with an avenue of your conversation-flow can tip the balance. The absence of which might have been taking you to the Wrong Hazelwood and the presence of which might add to taking you to the right Hazelwood.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope I have left some big green candles behind me (and some small red ones too I am sure!) but hopefully netting out at a lot more green than red! With all the CEOs and executives I have worked with over the years. Green candle inflection points at which the share-price of their business, their career and perhaps their life inflected. Hopefully, they can look back at that zone in the trajectory of their journey and remember the point at which I sat down around their table when their share-price began to inflect upwards.
I hope my teams and I left some green candles in the field of FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) and the bigger Flight Safety domain of human factors. I hope I left lots of green candles all over the world in my time with Vistage, in particular with my own members in my own groups. Likewise, with the Boards I served on and the keynote audiences I spoke to.
In particular, I love helping younger CEOs and executives get to the clarity earlier in their careers that I got to later in mine. Including very young future CEOs and executives in K — 12 education! I spent many years on the Board of Junior Achievement in San Diego during the time when we built an Enterprise Village and a Finance Park. Both of which are fantastic physical environments which are digitally enabled, creating experiential learning environments for 5th graders and high-schoolers. They begin learning entrepreneurship for business and financial education for life, all as a force for good, in particular for under-privileged children. Lots of green candles in lots of lives.
That’s our same passion in OTA, which our mission, vision and values align with. That’s why our core value #1 is love. We are driven to be a force for good. So much so, we became a certified B-Corporation in 2017. Still one of only a few thousand companies who have achieved that rigorous assessment and certification, from many tens of thousands who are in process of using the assessment platform — the last numbers I saw were more than 50,000 companies across 150 industries in 70 countries.
As a part of which we changed the company’s legal articles of association, to align with the B-Corp purpose of considering the impact of our decisions on our workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment, being purpose- led with a balanced pursuit of profit. In other words, changing the balance of our TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions and Actions) in our flow of C2C: Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow to include more human factors.
You have to recertify as a B-Corp every 3 years, which means our recertification should have been last year in 2020. Amongst the turmoil of last year, we could easily have just let it go. But it is too important to us for that. So we sought and received an extension and are recertifying by the end of March 2021. It will be tough to achieve again, but we have a relentless commitment to do all we can.
I suppose the common factor in all of the above is in fighting injustices. Incompletes, loose ends and anxieties in my mind with which I don’t feel complete, whole and at peace with. I have some more injustices I want to get to when the time is right.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Yes, so that brings us to my 5 Things which are all about becoming one with the flow of C2C: Conversation-Flow to Cash-Flow with the agility required allowing that middle C of Confidence-Flow.
I have been lucky enough to arrive at these 5 things through an intersection of experiences in the real-world, on offshore drilling rigs where you don’t get second chances, in the business world running businesses and the advisory world working with CEOs and their teams globally from startups to corporations. The intersection of my experiences in those 3 worlds have brought me to a distillation of these 5 things necessary for the agility to keep the journey of your conversation-flow to cash-flow on your desired trajectory with confidence-flow.
It’s about changing your relationship with 5 key attributes of agility. They represent a career’s worth of accumulated experiences, thinking and insights which I wish someone had told me at the start of my career. Mind you, they are a never-ending learning journey so I express them with a “ing” construct as we never fully arrive. I hope they will help you on your journey. They are also here in a video: Mike Richardson: The 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading Companies.
#1 Making Friends with Chaos.
My #1 thing is to be Making Friends with Chaos. Chaos is the first attribute of agility to change your relationship with. It has always been ever present in business, especially now with the accelerating speed of business and pace of change and it is only going to get worse. Just look at the chaos we have experienced with the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Don’t fight chaos as your foe, go with the flow of chaos as your friend. But not in a state of disorganized-chaos, which is where the majority live. It’s a mental trap which many entrepreneurs fall into, thinking that is just how life is and as part of startups and small-to-medium sized businesses being naturally agile. They aren’t. They are naturally frenetic, hair-on-fire and seat of the pants, in a flow of dis-organized chaos! There’s no peace there, as it easily becomes a chronic flow of crises management and frazzled burnout that you will always be fighting and you can’t win. So stop trying. You see there are 2 kinds of chaos and the key is to be making friends with the 2nd kind … which is organized-chaos.
When people tell me they are “overwhelmed” or code for it (they are “buried” or they are “snowed under”, or thay “can’t get their head above water”), I ask them, “well, are you over-whelmed or are you under-organized?” Under-organized for chaos … under-organized for agility … under-organized to be in the flow of organized-chaos not disorganized-chaos. Those are two completely different worlds as any agile leader in the real world will tell you … an airline pilot, an ER doctor, a firefighter … you never want to hear them say they are “over-whelmed”. I started my career as a Petroleum Engineer working on offshore oil and gas drilling rigs. Out there, things are chaotic, dealing with such heavy equipment, complex logistics and so many unknowns drilling miles beneath the seabed, all of which can be impacted by changing weather! You have no choice except to get organized for agility and chaos, to be in the flow of organized-chaos not disorganized-chaos, or things don’t end well!
#2 Developing Trust in your Triage
My #2 thing is to be Developing Trust in Your Triage. A key to getting organized for chaos is to change your relationship with this second attribute of agility, which is Triage. In a world of increasing chaos, the antidote is triage, which is the most acute form of time management, priority management, resource management, attention management and frankly everything management you can get, in a real-time unfolding, high stakes journey of a situation like the cockpit of an airliner, or an Emergency Room, a wild-fire or an offshore drilling rig and like business is these days.
Triage is agile productivity. The problem is, I don’t know too many people in business who truly trust their personal productivity process, system, tips, tricks and techniques, especially when having to triage in an agile flow of accelerating chaos. As a result of a productivity process which is not up to the agile challenge, we can easily default into partial triage, in which we are triaging but inside of partial situational awareness of all that is taking shape. We may be triaging the clear and present dangers and opportunities but not the unclear and un-present dangers and opportunities, which can become clear and present real soon, probably bigger and faster than we think!
There are 2 kinds of triage. We must be developing trust in our triage, by gearing up our productivity system to be fully triaging inside of full situational awareness. That’s the second kind of triage. Full triage not partial triage. Partial triage in a cockpit, an ER, a wildfire or on an offshore drilling rig doesn’t end well, because partial-triage invites disorganized-chaos as the beginnings of a vicious cycle.
#3 Having a Never-Ending Journey with Insight
My #3 thing is to Have a Never-Ending Journey with Insight. You will never arrive because your triage will always be imperfect and you are always going to encounter new and novel situations for which there is no script. Like the COVID-19 Pandemic. There will always be new insights to learn as a never-ending journey. But there are 2 ways to learn insights … in hindsight and in foresight … which I invite you to change your relationship with.
If we aren’t careful we can be way too relaxed about learning in hindsight, with a kind of “stuff-happens” mantra. The trouble is hindsight can be very expensive, especially in the real world often with life and death consequences, like on an offshore drilling rig. So, every time you learn from hindsight, I invite you to ask yourself if you could have learned that from foresight a lot less expensively and a lot less consequentially.
For sure, to change your relationship with insight, requires you to be building some extra things into your triage to be blazing that trail in foresight not hindsight … one way or another, you will end up dealing with everything you need to deal with, either after the fact in hindsight as a post-mortem or before the fact in foresight as a pre-mortem … and we might think we are too busy, we don’t have time, our triage is maxed out already … but remember how we always find the time and the triage to put things right in hindsight which we couldn’t find the time and triage to get right in foresight!
Hard as it may be to accept, learning in hindsight means somehow or other our triage had gone partial, to some degree, with partial situational awareness, allowing disorganized-chaos to seep back in … and dealing with that crisis can distort our partial-triage and situational-awareness even further, which means we may not see the next crisis taking shape in foresight and it will also soon be here in hindsight … and so a vicious cycle can take root. That’s not how you want an Emergency Room to be when you show up in need!
#4 Embracing Luck
Which brings us to one of my favorite topics of all and my #4 thing of Embracing Luck. Let’s be clear, luck is huge in agility … in business and in life … but luck is a lot less random than we think, you know, “luck is where preparation meets opportunity” kind of thing. If we are well prepared we can rely upon more good luck by design. The problem is, if we are under prepared we shouldn’t be surprised by more bad luck by accident. Those are the 2 kinds of luck.
We are talking about smart luck not dumb luck. Don’t get me wrong, we will experience some dumb, blind luck along the way, good and bad, but I am talking about embracing luck as something to prepare for, to invite and to create as a reliable and predictable factor in your unfolding journey in business and life. It is not if luck will be a factor in your journey, it is only when and how luck will be a factor and who you are in recognizing it and being prepared to make the most of it.
#5 Becoming One with the Nature of the Journey
Which brings us to my #5 thing which is the bottom line of Becoming One with the Nature of the Journey. Getting oriented to the journey as one of flow, with the agility required, which requires us to change our relationship with these 5 key attributes of agility … Chaos, Triage, Insight, Luck and the nature of the journey itself … microscopically and macroscopically … divergently and convergently … into traction on your desired trajectory.
Are you letting these attributes or agility define you and your future or are you defining them? Nothing will put you into a wheelspin and derail you from your desired trajectory faster than disorganized-chaos, partial-triage, learning in hindsight and bad luck by accident, all of which can easily become a self-defeating, vicious cycle and downward spiral feeding upon itself. Changing your relationship with these key attributes of agility to organized-chaos, full-triage, learning in foresight and good luck by design can easily become a self-fulfilling, virtuous cycle and upwards spiral feeding upon itself.
For sure, you’ll have worse days when you feel like things have melted down, feeling like a white-water ride, you’re holding on tight, going with the flow, deftly putting an oar in the water here and there where you can to steer the flow, and with a bit of luck you’ll come out the bottom with the boat still the right way up … and you will have better days when you feel like things are gelling, feeling like you are in the driver’s seat of an SUV fit for the journey challenge of the shifting landscape around you and the mountains and canyons ahead of you … finding a pathway through, in traction on your desired trajectory.
I have been lucky enough to arrive at these 5 things through an intersection of experiences in the real-world, on offshore drilling rigs where you don’t get second chances, in the business world running businesses and the advisory world working with CEOs and their teams globally from startups to corporations. I hope they will help you on your journey.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
More than I would have ever imagined. It has been that “beliefs drive behaviors drive results” virtuous spiral over the course of a career, linking and accumulating individual TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions and Actions) into a longitudinal journey.
In two worlds simultaneously, of the inner world and the outer world. The outer world of people, processes and responsibility for results and the inner world of intention, attention, convictions, conceptions and beliefs. Each world feeds the other like two interwoven strands of DNA. Beliefs drive behaviors drive results and results reinforce behaviors reinforce beliefs, as a two-way street. Behaviors of thinking, questioning, deciding and acting in between, shaped and colored by both worlds. As a never-ending journey of conversation-flow and green candles and red candles, flowing from every conversation. Including the conversation-flow of this interview for me, causing me to link and accumulate some additional thoughts, questions, decisions and actions more clearly than ever before, joining up some dots and seeing the picture even more clearly and vibrantly.
It is how we spiral to a place of relentless commitment. I have a relentless commitment to the agile leadership presence, philosophy and style I have articulated in my 5 Things and which strive every day to institutionalize in OTA. They certainly helped us find green candles amongst the red in 2020, one day at a time. In so doing I have learned about love meeting agility and the human factors involved more deeply than ever before.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Yes, so well said … At the essence of C2C2C is the reality that failure is a part of success, making mistakes are a part of progress and losses are a part of gains. We must embrace failure as it is the only way we really learn. That’s why actions are a part of the definition of Conversation-Flow of TQDA (Thoughts, Questions, Decisions and Actions). Real-actions that is. Because until we take a real-action (or at least a realer-action) it is all theory, which is untested and unverified. Abstract as you call it, especially when we are blazing a trail of some new and novel innovation. The only way to really test and verify the theory is to put it into practice, by taking real actions, to learn by doing. To learn from experience as you call it.
For example, a real action is only when you put a real product in front of real customers who really use it and give you real feedback about what they really like and don’t like about it. Anything short of that is not real. A technicolor Gantt chart master plan is not a real-action. Presenting a Power-Point is not a real-action. Holding a product strategy meeting with a sales team is not a real-action. I understand that truly real actions are not possible in some industries, like drug discovery or building buildings, so the question is, how do we take realer-actions sooner to de-risk reality not being fully in the conversation.
You can’t take real actions without risk. Which means you risk failure, mistakes and losses. The odds are therefore inevitable that you will experience some! One of the concepts central to agile is to fail fast, fail early and fail often! Smart failure though, which is small and cheap. Not dumb failure, repeated failure, what-were-you-thinking (or rather not-thinking) failure that is large and expensive, if not catastrophic! If it is smart failure, it’s not failure, it’s learning. It is the only way to really learn. Think small Wrong Hazelwoods on the way to the right Hazelwood. Especially when innovating something new and novel. It is a part of your never-ending journey of insight. You will have epiphanies of unanticipated insights which you will absorb and integrate as you call it. Good luck by design rather than bad luck by accident.
So launch early and iterate often! That is the essence of agile. The opposite is launch late and iterate never, which the agile world refers to as “Waterfall”! A “waterfall” cascade of technicolor Gantt chart master plans, power-points, and meetings with internal teams, including extensive requirements definitions, design specifications, and development stages and gates. All a waterfall cascade to the big-bang release day. Which can so often be a catastrophic failure to some degree, arriving in a catastrophic Wrong Hazelwood! Like some of the largest Wrong Hazelwoods we mentioned earlier — The Mars Climate Orbiter, the Space Shuttle disasters, The BP Gulf Oil Spill, Aircraft accidents, and the classic business examples.
Keeping in mind that nobody likes a Monday morning quarterback! Hindsight is 2020. The trick is to be developing 2020 foresight, and foreseeing where we are developing waterfall tendencies which progressively pile up risk vs agile tendencies which progressively diffuse risk. The problem is that pivoting to the agile approach of embracing risk, failure, mistakes, and loss in the present or near future is uncomfortable. So we can so easily and unconsciously unpivot back to waterfall deferring the risk of failure, mistake, and loss into the far future which is more comfortable.
But it just delays the inevitable. Perhaps driven by an attachment to the saying “failure is not an option”? I suggest that saying needs some clarification. “Dumb, catastrophic failure is not an option. Which means that smart, small failures are not optional”.
We practice what we preach with our students. We teach them to embrace failure and that small failures, mistakes, and losses are a necessary part of learning by doing, practicing, and gaining experience. The key is to learn strategies to avoid big losses that can be catastrophic. Small Wrong Hazelwoods on the way to the right Hazelwood! That opens the door to get our students thinking differently, asking different questions about what works and doesn’t work, deciding upon their individual plan and style, and acting upon that, hands-on, experientially in safe practice environments, with discipline and persistence. We help them change their relationship with the public financial markets, shifting their beliefs, progressively pivoting their behaviors of TQDA (Thinking, Questions, Decisions, and Actions), and progressing up the learning curve of building skills, evolving proficiency, and developing confidence. With techniques and technology which progress along the journey with them. It all comes down to the process of facilitating the human factors of the student learning journey.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think I am lucky enough to already be doing it, triangulating a combination of Financial Education, Agility, and B-Corp which are my relentless commitment. That is the most meaningful work I ever do — helping people go on their own journey of discovery to find their relentless commitment in business, with their career, and in life. This interview has helped me continue my never-ending journey and I hope it helps you too.
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