When you get a good client and it’s a big engagement which is going to go on for a while, what happens is that your ability to deliver as well as run the business starts to eat away at you. At some point, you realize that you’re going to have to include other people in the game. Otherwise, you’re going to kill yourself. The interview process then starts and you have figure out who you’re going hire and develop, realizing that it’s going to have a huge impact. Nick Craig’s area of specialization is leadership development. With that is a focus on authentic leadership and purpose. Nick highlights the importance of bringing in someone who understands the dynamics and is able to come and bring a set of skills that you don’t have. Nick is the President of the Authentic Leadership Institute. He works with the crews at Lego, Ben & Jerry’s, West Point, and other interesting places and helps them step into their gift as leaders.
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Leadership Consulting Interview with Nick Craig
I’m excited to have Nick Craig joining us. Nick, welcome.
Michael, it’s great to be here with you. Thank you.
Take a moment and explain what it is that you do, your area of specialization for those that aren’t familiar with your work?
My area of specialization is leadership development. With that is a focus on authentic leadership and purpose. I get to go hang out with the crews at Lego, Ben & Jerry’s, West Point and a bunch of other crazy interesting places and help them step into their gift as leaders. Those are my mechanisms by which I do my work.
I was looking at your client list and you’ve certainly worked with some well-known organizations. Looking at the environment we’re all in now, we live in uncertain times. There are hype and noise in the air all around us. What you and your consulting firm do is help leaders to find purpose. Can you share with us a little bit more about how you do that? How do you help leaders to find their purpose?
The journey of doing that is probably the last many years of realizing that one of the biggest challenges that I had as a consultant earlier on in my career. I got the chance to work with professors at Harvard Business School and as well as MIT Sloan School and Wharton. I got in with some interesting people and we were doing some intensive consulting. What I realized over time was most of them didn’t go well. When I looked at what the underlying reason for that was because the people that we were helping didn’t have enough wisdom to take the gifts that we had to offer them. Truly use them in a way that would make the biggest difference. What I realized was that the few who did have the wisdom take what we did and would do amazing things. The colleagues I was working with writing Harvard Business Review articles about how amazing the model was. They mentioned the person I was like, “No, it’s the other way around.” The thing that made the model work was this wise person who was the leader. I started to say, “How do you help people step into their wisdom?” because when wisdom shows up, everything works. That, in some sense, is what got me to where I am and what we do.
Much of what we do is in the context of a two or three-day journey that we’ll take a group of senior executives through. We take them in multiples of six. It’s usually about 12, 18, 24 or 30. We with a group of my colleagues, each of us take a group of six on a journey over two or three days that leads them to discover the deeper authenticity that they are. Through sets of stories, they tell about their most challenging moments and they’ve been at their best and a whole series of thing. Into that place of understanding what is the purpose that has always been leading them that they didn’t know what it is. Once they know it they go, “That makes complete sense.” We then end up working with them to refine how they’re going to apply that within the leadership challenges that they face and the unpredictable realities that they’re struggling with. Work with them over a period of time to then step into the gift, that’s their purpose. That’s what we do.
Do organizations seek you and your company because they’re looking for help with their purpose? Is something else on their mind that they’re coming to you for help with? That ends up then as part of the conversation shifting to, it’s connected to purpose.
Most of the time when we are walking into an organizational system, they’ve got two or three different levers they’re trying to pull. Usually, they’re trying to pull a lever that has to do with strategic awareness of the world that people are living in now. They’ll be dealing with a lever that usually has to do with interpersonal dynamics and behavior. What is it that people need to step into to be more effective in a world in which teams are being reconfigured all the time? The third thing that they’ll be focused on is the one that we tend to get called in for. Is a deep level of self-awareness that allows the leaders to be much more present and able to bring what it is that they can that is their “rezidentura” into whatever that environment happens to pay. Know into that depth that allows them not to lose it. Many of the times the systems we’re working in, I would say 50% of the population we work with is the top of the house, the top 1%. Many of them have gone from having spent most of their life being rewarded for expertise or skill they have. They’re in a role in which they aren’t doing that anymore. They’re trying to figure out, “Who are they and why didn’t someone pick me?” They all have the imposter syndrome as well. What we are doing is helping them find their identity of which they are that is richer, deeper and more resilient than the domain expertise that happens to get them where they arrive to.
One challenge a lot of consultants have is that they often try to communicate what it is that they do but the end client, the organization they want to engage with might be searching or thinking. It might be the same thing but used in a different language. What I was looking for there is you talk a lot about purpose. Your book is about purpose. That’s the core but is the marketplace using a different language? Has that been something that you’ve evolved over time? Were you able to hit the messaging and the language right on the mark at the beginning?If you're successful, you end up having a lot of power in the system which tends to mean that they don't want to give you the second act. Click To Tweet
The challenge of the work that anyone in our audience does is that there usually isn’t much room for it not working. The reality is that sometimes it works better than others. When I look at times when it has not worked as well as I wish it had, the question becomes, “What was different?” From my perspective, the more I connect to whoever I’m interacting with and what work I’m attempting to do. I forget about all the models and structures. I deal with what’s facing me at that moment is when it always works. The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that what people most want is to see and the thing that most people don’t experience is being seen.
How many people are on your team?
I run a business that has a two-tier model in it. The one tier is the office staff and team that manages the network. About ten or twelve of us here in the office that is responsible for making sure that materials go out and all infrastructure exists. I have a group of about 30 or 40 affiliates around the world that are helping deliver our programs.
Was that intentional from the start? Did you ever consider staying as a solo independent consultant? Going in and doing the work or from the early days, “I definitely want to build this into being more than me. I want to make sure I have a team. I want to have other consultants or associates that work, that I work together with or they deliver programs as part of the work that we do.”
I’ve done both. I spent probably five or six years on my own. The challenge I have of being on my moment and this is what most of our affiliates are talking about is that you get lonely. You have good client engagement but your relationship is with the client, but at the same time you don’t have colleagues in the same way. One of the things I realized was that I wanted to be part of a band of brothers and sisters. Have a sense of community and that was important to me. In some ways, it was more about that than it was about anything else. It wasn’t about growing the business, whatever. The problem with being a single consultant is you sell and you didn’t start delivering. When you’re delivering, you don’t sell. All of a sudden when it ends you’re like, “What am I supposed to do now?” The highs and lows are always this rollercoaster. What I’ve discovered when you run a business size of what I am is that you still have a rollercoaster. The problem with writing the book is you’re not selling. Everybody thinks when you write a book they go, “He wrote a book and it’s successful.” This book I’ve got is successful. Everybody goes, “You must have tons of work.” I go, “That’s what would have happened if I didn’t write the book.”
Many consultants know they want to build a team, but they find it hard to commit to hiring because they aren’t sure when that next project will come. Whether they can in their mind afford to make that higher. How did you approach hiring and building your team amongst this rollercoaster? What did you do? How did you approach it?
The bottom line is that there is a gift that happens when you get a good client and it’s a big engagement and you know it’s going to go on for a while. What happens to you is that the ability to do the delivery, as well as run the business, starts to eat away at you until you become slightly an idiot. Everybody looks at you and says, “You’re being an idiot right now.” At some point, you realize that you’re going to have to include other people in the game. Otherwise, you’re going to kill yourself. I probably went a few months to a year longer than I should have in getting someone in to help run the business so that I could focus on doing what I was good at., which were the delivery and client engagement work and not dealing with, “Where’s the office going to be? Do we have a finance person?” and all the other silly things.
Several months or so, what held you back from pulling the trigger sooner?
What held me back was being so busy, I didn’t even have time to worry about it. I was trying to keep everything moving. Everybody in our audience can relate to what it’s like to be so busy. Trying to get it done that you’re not dealing with, “What’s this going to be like if it keeps like this?” The effort required to then go do a search or go interview people. Trying to figure out who you’re going hire, realizing this is going to have a huge impact. The first time I did it, it didn’t work well. I did it because I was too tired not to. The second time I was like, “I know what I need,” and I was able to pick a resource that was going to balance out what I was able to do with what they were able to do.
How did you overcome that or how did you deal with that?The referral world is the world where magical things happen. Click To Tweet
The first person I hired was helpful to a point, but then the business got too complex in the scale where we needed to bring someone in who had broken most of the dishes already. I brought somebody who had a lot of experience doing executive education globally who understand the dynamics and was able to come and bring a set of skills that I did not have. When I look at what I do for a living and what I’m doing with clients and effectiveness of what I’m able to do. It’s powerful the impact that I get to have. I’m always surprised at how useful what I have to say is for people. I am humbled at my own ability to run a business. On a scale of one to ten of what I do for a living, which is helping leaders step into their gift and lead from it. I’m right up there with about anybody else who’s good. I’m not saying that from a place of hubris as much as pretty much what shows up. When it comes to running a consulting business and all the dealings with it, I feel I’ve broken all the dishes. I still am humbled at how hard it is to put on that hat, how few people I meet who are amazing at it. When they talk about how they pull it off I go, “That’s not exactly the world I’m living in.” I have to think about how would I do it in my world and it’s always humbling.
We’re talking about marketing on running the business. What is working best for your company to generate leads and inquiries so that you can move away from that rollercoaster as much as possible?
There are two things that solve that. One is having a second path to what you’re offering clients so that you don’t end up with the normal bell curve. If you go in, you do a bunch of work. You’re very busy but at some point, it peters off.
A secondary offering, you win the first engagement but you’re able to then deliver ongoing value or services or products to that same client.
With the same quality and the stuff, I was able to put into the book, Leading From Purpose. A good part of what’s in the book is new stuff. Easy to say, hard to get clients to want to do a second act with you. The reason is that most clients want to do the first act. If you’re successful you end up having a lot of power in the system, which tends to mean that they don’t want to give you the second act. You’ll then have way too much power and influence. It’s an interesting challenge to watch what happens but can be solved. Of the 15,000 people we’ve worked within the last several years, probably about 5,000 of them are senior executives and they all end up going places.
What we are putting a lot of energy into is creating an alumni experience and network. Connecting these individuals with each other and creating an ecosystem that isn’t just about the programs, but it’s about the journey over time. When I talked with anybody else who does the work that I do, they all admit to the fact that the referral world is the world that the magical things happen. Going to a conference or paying to be able to sponsor an event with somebody who’s pulled some people together. Those can be helpful but you’re starting from scratch with your relationship. The other thing that I would say is that in this world of uncertainty, the question then becomes, “What creates certainty?” Most of us need a level of psychological safety to balance out the uncertainty that we’re facing. One of the ways we do that is we bring in people that we trust and we know. I’m sitting in my late 50s at this point and I now have a large number of people for which that’s the case, a level of trust and quickness by which we can go from zero to 100 is quite compelling.
I remember reading and getting to spend time with a guy named Edgar Schein who used to be at MIT Sloan School. He wrote the book on Process Consultation. He’s probably the original consultant. We were talking and he said, “The way I’ve been successful is because I did good work and then other people found out about it because of the people that I did it with.” The Laws of Gravity are clear. You can do all kinds of stuff. The truth is that if I’m going to go with somebody I don’t know that has something sexy or somebody who has helped me get out of hell a couple of times. It may not be as sexy what they have, but they’ve helped me get out of hell many times. Who am I going to give my limited resources of funding and available time to?
The best source of a new business is an existing client business. It’s not necessarily we’re going out and finding new clients all the time. It’s looking at who are you currently working with and how can you provide greater value and serve them at a deeper or higher level. That can be tricky sometimes that you can face some resistance in those situations. What have you found to work best? You’re offering your programs to organizations. They maybe bring you in for a workshop or for that first piece of your program delivery. What have you and your company found to work best to be able to continue working, get that second sale from an organization?
Probably the gift and the problem that we have is what we teach. If I was teaching stuff on strategy or results-driven change and strategy execution, which is stuff I used to do. You can sit down with someone, have a conversation. They can have a pretty good understanding of what it is you’re offering. Fairly rapidly, they can make a decision whether they want to do something. It usually will be based on chemistry. The challenge with the material we teach, and this may be the case for some of the people in our audience as well, is that what we offer is impossible to communicate upfront what is it that we’re offering. The only way people get any clue what we’re talking about is if they come and they spend two days and do one of our public programs, which we do four to six times a year in Boston and London.
At the end of it, they always come up to me and go, “I have no idea.” I had a guy who did the program who runs gatherings where they bring together Chief Learning Officers with vendors. I saw you did your talk, but I didn’t believe what you were saying. I was doing the normal cynical thing, but I came and did this thing. At the end of it he said, “If this is life-changing, this is much more powerful than what I thought it was going to be.” I was like, “That’s surprising that you decided to show up.” He did and he was like, “How do we do that?” I said, “It’s hard to do this another format.” One of our challenges is we need to get people who are the decision makers to experience it.Probably the gift and the problem that we have is what we teach. Click To Tweet
How do you do that? For a lot of people, they’re feeling the same thing. The real true value of what they’re delivering or consulting on maybe not as apparent as they’d like it to be at the beginning. They need people to experience the same way that you’re describing this, “How do you get bums into seats?” How are you making that happen so that people can experience what you have to offer?
You spend a lot of time talking to people. You have a price of what the program is, which you have. You need a price that also maps somewhat to what you would charge them if you were delivering it internally. You discount it based on whoever you’re talking to make sure that you get the right people in the room. You run your public programs as a loss leader. What you’re trying to do is to get enough of the similar people in the room. When they’re in the room, they are not only getting the value out of your content. They’re getting the value out of the connection that they’re having with the other people who happen to be in the room. I had a program we ran and the table I had was the President of the American University in Beirut, Head of Executive Ed, two ladies who are Heads of Leadership and OD from Hershey, a guy who runs a conference business. I put them all together because I knew that I needed them to have that connection as well.
I want to clarify the model here so that everyone understands. You and your team are contacting ideal clients, who you’d like to come to these events. You provide an incentive or some discounts to make sure that they come, giving them a real reason. If it’s valued at X, we’re going to reduce it for you. A special offer, come experience what this is all about. You’re going to be surrounded by other executives and peers. They get then in those sessions to see what this is all about, to experience the value. Are you making an offer to everyone in the room or painting what that next step is in terms of a deeper or next stage program with your firm? Is that where you’re generating your revenue and building the business?
Yes. The key is to have had enough conversations before they show up in the room, where they need to be in the room to validate what they’re going to buy. It’s through other people that have done the program that you can connect them to that they know or they would like to know. That they have those conversations with that creates the credibility of them saying, “This is worth taking a look at.” It’s a relationship-based environment that we live in. People are going to trust people that they know. Whenever I talk with someone, I go, “Where are you? What are you?” I looked at their LinkedIn account and I look and see who we have in common.
I’ll go, “You know the Chief Learning Officer from Unilever.” Let me email the two of you guys. You guys should talk about what we do.” All I’m saying is that those are some of the key things. People aren’t going to trust anything that any of us consultants say about our stuff. All of us are going to say that it’s great. What they’re going to trust is somebody that they know who’s a little crusty, who’s done our stuff who says, “It’s good stuff. Here’s the thing you’ve got to watch out for, but it’s worth doing.” I was talking to this guy who runs these conferences and he said, “Nick, your presentation was great. The problem was it was too good. It would have been better if you’d had one of your clients talking about it and talking about what worked and what they struggled with. That would have been what would have gotten everybody to want to do it.” I was like, “That’s interesting.”
That was a unique model and I appreciate you coming on here and sharing what you’re up to. I want to make sure also that people can learn more about you and your work and find out more about your book. What’s the best place for people to go to do that?
Amazon is a simple mechanism. The book is Leading from Purpose. The book is both in audio and hard copy. You can read it. It’s doing well. We got a lot of good reviews. The first part of the book is about why purpose matters in the world we live in? Why does it matter to leaders in dealing with the challenges and dilemmas of the real world that we are facing? There’s a piece where people get to then say, “What might possibly be the purpose that’s been leading me?” It increases your level of stress but it creates positive stress as opposed to negative stress. It’s not exactly correlated to happiness but you will be far more fulfilled and satisfied in your life.
What’s the website that people should go to learn more about you and your company?
They can go to www.CoreLeader.com.
What book are you reading or have you read that you’ve enjoyed?People are going trust people that they know. Click To Tweet
There’s a book called New Power. Jeremy Heimans is one of the authors. It is an excellent book on what does it mean to create a movement as opposed to having a course or having a brand? How do you create those things? What works and what doesn’t work in the digital social space that companies are doing? Does it talk about a different way of thinking about what is power? Instead of being something that you hold and you’re the only one that has it, it’s about how do you let everyone be a participant. We are in collaboration together with the crew at Ben & Jerry’s to see how we’re going to play together on some things. They’ve got a great way of thinking about why did the NRA do well? Why did Trump do well? What is going on with certain organizations that their products have taken off and other ones haven’t? Why did Lego do well for a period of time? It helps you think about what it is that’s going on from a different perspective. It’s been helpful for me as well.
Nick, I want to thank you for coming on. Sharing a bit of your journey, story, best practices and what’s working in your business.
Thank you, Michael, for doing this. There are many of us that are on this journey of running our businesses and being passionate about what we do. The ability to listen and get a sense of what everybody else is doing and what we can learn from each other is a very powerful container. I’m grateful that you are doing this work.
Thanks so much, Nick.