Episode 21 – Dan Dupee – finding your strengths as a leader, tactical tips on developing and retaining talent, and how to get the most out of your leadership teams

The Talent, Sales & Scale Podcast serves up some unique insight on Episode 21! Host Bryan Whittington is joined by Dan Dupee, President/CEO/Chairman of the Board at CCO Campus Ministry. Dan covers insight around strengths-based leadership, building and scaling his own non-profit organization, and much more!

Here are some key takeaways from this value-packed episode with Dan:

-tactical and practical tips on scaling a business 

-investing time and resources into front line leadership

-the power of setting up “bonding and formation” time with your team

CCO Campus Ministry’s website:

You can connect with Dan on LinkedIn here:

Read Full Transcript

Bryan: Hello, everyone. It’s Bryan Whittington with the Talent, Sales and Scale Show. I always typically say this, but I’m really excited for today. We have Dan Dupee.
And here’s the reason why I’m excited. Now my fear is this. All of you are going to have this confirmation bias whenever I lay out why I have Dan on the show. So Dan comes to us out of his family business into a nonprofit. So you’re going to sit here and think, Why do I want to listen to this nonprofit?
Well, I don’t know, Imagine this. Your whole entire team is structured by a bunch of people that are paid at nonprofit rates, which are notoriously less than for profit rates. Not only that, but then they have to go out and raise their own funds to help pay for their salaries. So imagine if you asked your employees to go out and fund-raise for part of their salary.
So if that’s what you had to do, (and by the way, this nonprofit ran a more effective, accountable, incredible organization than almost any, if not any for profit company that I’ve seen), that’s why it’s really exciting to have Dan on the show today. So Dan Dupee, welcome to the show.
Dan: Thank you, Bryan. It’s great to be with you.
Bryan: Yeah, I’m glad to have you here. So today we’re going to be talking about how Dan levers this strength-based leadership and the power of presence to really drive this. So I guess the first question to ask you here, Dan, is this. You’re nonprofit. And worse yet, some people might say, you’re not only a nonprofit, but a Christian organization. So why in the world should anyone listen to you about leadership and how to run a world-class hypergrowth organization?
Dan: Yes, Bryan. I mean, I think I cut my teeth in business for a number of years in the staffing business. And you know, having made the move from a number of years doing that into nonprofit, in this case a faith-based nonprofit, I am much more impressed by the similarities between the two worlds than the differences. There are differences. But it seems to me that when those differences are what gets focused on you don’t get the same result. All organizations have a mission. They all have people, they all have processes.
And in a way there’s no such thing as a nonprofit. You can’t achieve mission and financial stability in the entity that you’re trying to grow. You’re not going to be around. Profit or nonprofit or otherwise, you’ve got the same building blocks that are part of the enterprise.
Bryan: So let’s unpack that a little bit—the same building blocks. And you know, my fear is okay, here we go again: mission, vision, purpose. How many times do we need to hear this, right?
So talk to me through that. I mean, how did you leverage that? Let’s talk first about those similarities. What are those exact similarities that you found between the for-profit when you were running that business there in Cincinnati, right?
Dan: Yes.
Bryan: All right. So you’re running the business over in Cincinnati. And then you come to a nonprofit. So talk to me about the similarities.
Dan: Yeah. I think the similarities are these. Look, in a for-profit enterprise you and the people who work for you still need a reason to get up every day. And you’re right; mission, vision. And the reason I go back to these things is that they get a lot of lip service. But I haven’t seen it done well all that often. How compelling is our purpose for being in this organization? And how clear is it? Have we made it explicit why it is that we exist as an organization? What are we here to do?
So that right out of the shoot, you know, that’s a pretty critical thing. And then the talent acquisition piece which we’ll talk more about, have we identified what it is we’re looking for? Have we got a strategy to go get people? And then what are we doing with them when they’re here, because inheriting talent acquisition is talent development and talent retention. You know, those two things are part of it as well.
Bryan: All right. That was a lovely mouthful. So how do we identify? What’s our strategy to get them? How do we develop them, because I didn’t even think about going that way, Dan? So how do we develop them and then retain them?
So let’s talk through that. The first one you talked about is why are you getting up in the morning?
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: So let’s tie that into the talent side. How did you identify the people that would come alongside what you were trying to do that you knew that would get them up in the morning? Talk to me a little about that, please.
Dan: Yeah. And obviously I skipped over some things there. (Laughter) You know, I think that identifying the people who are going to want to be part of this, they will respond to the clarity of the mission, the clarity of the values. Do we know what we’re about?
I mean, good people, Bryan, they always, always have options. I mean, that’s got to be at the core of talent acquisition. If I am talking to people that I want to talk to I have to assume that there’s a range of things that they could be doing. I don’t want to be in the business of talking to somebody who has no other option but me. That’s really not where you want to live.
Bryan: So let’s hit that one a little bit. So good people have options. And who here, what listener is going, “You know what? I really want some B&C players. They’re going to be loyal and stick around even when I don’t want them to,” right? So it’s 100% accurate that good people will always have options.
Now let’s really hit this. All right, so these good people, they have options, which means that they likely can get more money than coming to a nonprofit.
Dan: Right.
Bryan: So how did you win them over based upon what you were doing?
Dan: Yeah. I think that’s often the case. You know, there’s a bit of a courting process. Now what I counted on was the culture of the CCO to do some of its own talking. And by that I mean that one of the things good people are looking at is a place where they’ve got a mission that they care about. And again that can be every bit as much of a for-profit mission as a nonprofit.
if you have a mission you care about, then the organization is fundamentally healthy. Most of us do not get up in the morning to go to a place of work that’s toxic. It doesn’t matter what the rewards are. And if I’ve seen one thing that we who are running a for-profit business, one of the things we fall into, is the belief that compensation will cure all ills. Well, you know, those good people are looking for a healthy place to hang their hats. They don’t want to be part of drama. They want a place where you scratch it and what you smell is good.
And then, you know, they want a place where somebody, particularly younger people, is paying attention to their development. Am I going to grow in this place? I think you’re a. players are always thinking about how they can get better. So an environment that’s healthy, that seems to be about developing people, is really attractive to the best candidates.
Bryan: So you said that good people are always looking to get better.
Dan: Yes.
Bryan: So how do you uncover that whenever you’re looking for people? And I really like what you said, because talent acquisition, if you look at talent,--and that’s why it’s talent, sales and scales. It’s not talent acquisition; it’s not recruiting. It’s really talent.
And I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. But my belief is that your talent, your team, that is your only non-duplicatable competitive advantage, because I can rip everything else off. So you talked about how do we identify and what’s our strategy. And I think that a talent strategy really has to align with a business strategy.
So let’s talk through that. I mean, did you do that intentionally? Did you accidentally align talent with business strategy? Talk to me a bit about that, please.
Dan: Yeah. There is certainly an accidental nature to it. (Laughter) That’s the story of leading anything.
Bryan: Right.
Dan: It’s the stuff you learn along the way mainly by screwing it up. But I think it becomes apparent over time that with the strategy there’s got to be a “there” there. So we’ve got a really great selling proposition. And you still have to sell candidates. I mean, my organization went through a period where we had the identifiably best place to work in the country among peer organizations.
There’s a survey, the Best Christian Work Survey, that confirmed that. And yet the first year we won the award we also had pretty miserable recruiting numbers. So it’s not as if hey, we’ll build this great thing and they’ll come. You still have to go get people.
But with the notion that you want to tie it to business strategy there ought to be a through line, so that first of all there are compelling reasons for people to come, because they’re looking at your organization going, “This is a well-run place; this is a healthy place. This place will develop me.”
But then when they get there, the thing they ought to experience ought to confirm what they saw when they were candidates. You know, what you don’t want to have happen is that people will go, “Well, it’s true. It looked like one thing when I was a candidate. And man, it looks like an entirely different thing when I got here.”
Bryan: Yeah; it’s funny that you bring that up, Dan. One of my first leading questions whenever I’m doing interviews is that I say this. “Listen, don’t give me the interview answer. And I promise you that I’m not going to give you my campaigning speech, because the last thing that I want to do is to do campaign pitches and promises. You elect me; come on board. And you find out the person who I really am. So let’s cut through all the falseness and be transparent, because I’m going to share with you the good, the bad and the ugly. And if you are still crazy enough to come on board, we’ll get along well.”
So, you know, it’s that transparency. Dan and I met each other whenever we were doing some Sandler training with our mutual friend Johnny Rosso. And you know, that negative sell, even on the job recruitment, is a really good piece.
So now you said that you have to sell your company and develop that. So let’s talk a little bit about that. So how are you going about selling your company? How do you do that?
Dan: Yeah. And I think you touched on something important, which is that you can’t do it dishonestly. (Laughter) That’s for sure! (Laughter) Again, think of the best person that you want to get. And then by the way, you should know what that target looks like. There’s a whole other exercise, and perhaps a whole other conversation. But you should have a set of critical requirements that describe the job—not fewer than six, not more than nine. This is not a job description. This is the stuff underneath the job.
Bryan: So this would be the job function, if you will?
Dan: Yeah. And actually they even go beyond job functions into the characteristics of the person that can perform the job functions.
Bryan: Okay. So if I can unpack that just a little bit to make sure I understand it, if you look at job function, whatever that is, then six to nine key rules within that job function that are going to be the characteristics? Or is it the skills, the competency? Can you unpack that a bit more, please?
Dan: I’ve got amusing characteristics.
Bryan: Okay.
Dan: And this is built on the work of a fellow named Barry (Hannas), who is in the school of interviewing called “behavioral interviewing,” which is what I think is something that people learn how to do. But the critical requirements really are your characteristics. So let’s give an example.
You really do the thorough work on what you’re looking for. And pretty much universally you need folks who can play well with others, who can make a contribution to a team and accept the contribution from other teammates so that you get somewhere together. And so if you wanted to you could actually call this characteristic team player, although gosh!, we know that in every interview we’ve ever done that everybody is always a team player. (Laughter) So you probably want to use some different language like, you know, “willing collaborator,” or something that’s a little more descriptive, and then a one-sentence description of what does that actually look like. It could be stated as something like “he has good ideas, but not so married to his own ideas that he can’t learn from other people.” Or “willing to either lead or follow in a team context.” Whatever it is about what you have culturally, and whatever it is about that particular position, if a person has this quality he can go somewhere in this. But if they don’t have this quality this could be a dumpster fire.
Bryan: Let’s continue on that specific example. Okay, so we have that; so we’re interviewing for that.
Dan: Right.
Bryan: That team player that can play along with others, the collaboration kind of thing. So staying on that specific example, what are some key things that I’m going to be listening for in their answers? What am I looking for?
Dan: Yeah; very good. And by the way, these critical requirements become the backbone of the interview. So these are the things. One of the reasons that you develop on those is this is what you’re inquiring for in an interview process.
So how that would translate in that example, how that would translate in an interview, is that once you’ve taken the resume and sort of sketched it back out chronologically. And you do it chronologically so that when a person has changed and grown you can notice that.
Then you pick a couple landing places and you ask the question. Tell me about a time with the ABC Company when you worked with other people who were part of ABC to achieve a particular result. And typically in this stage you have to ask this question three times, because people are not used to giving examples. They’re used to saying things like “I think that being a team player is really important.” (Laughter) “I’m a great team player.” (Laughter)
I don’t know somebody who goes, “You know, I blow off pretty much every team that I’m part of.” (Laughter) “I really don’t like people very much.” So you want to get the example and you’re going to have to be persistent to get it. But that’s how you take the characteristic and turn it into a series, beginning with that question.
And then follow-up questions. How did that work? What did you do? What did other people do? Tell me about a time when there was tension on your team, or something that came up that really made the going hard. What did you do then? And so that’s how you want to go at it.
Bryan: Okay. So at the risk of putting you on the spot, (sorry for this), can you give me some real-life examples of really good answers that would perk you up, and real-life examples of when you would go, “This person is completely full of malarkey?”
Dan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, if I, in spite of all my best efforts, can never actually get a concrete example that is the malarkey alarm for me.
Bryan: Sure.
Dan: If I keep pressing an interview with any stories and persons don’t follow me, it could be for a variety of reasons. But I’m just probably not going to feel comfortable going farther with that, unless somebody has some other compelling reason for me to keep the process going.
But the kind of answer that I love to hear is to hear somebody tell the story. And I’d like to hear in the story that, you know, the car hit the curb a few times here. This was not a completely smooth experience, because working in a team typically isn’t. I may have to prompt them about disagreements or tension points. But when they’re willing to do that, I want to hear what they did. I want to hear them express an appreciation for the contributions of other people, because if you’re telling a team story, and the only person you can talk about in the story is yourself, then, you know, I’m wondering. It doesn’t conclusively prove that you’re not about being a team person or a collaborator. But I need more from you that expresses appreciation for what other people did in contribution. I think that probably what I can get on the job is what I got with the interview, which is, can you make room for the contribution of other people? Can you lead or follow or encourage? Can you help to be a person who makes this team really hum?
Bryan: So out of that,--and I love this,--so what you just pointed out there is that I can now dig down and really see. Are the true characteristics that I’m looking for within my culture within this person? Because if I ask anybody, “Hey, are you a hard worker?”
“Oh, yeah, you betcha!”, right? But that’s going to come out in the examples. And by you asking questions you can dig down deeper to really vet. “Hey, tell me a little bit about when there was that conflict. How did you deal with it?”, right? And then really dig down a little bit more deeply.
So you’re going to find out a couple of things. 1. If they don’t have examples and stories, they’re making it up and they’re good interviewers. And that’s a real challenge. If you’re hiring good people, really good interviewers are typically really good at dealing with people. Those are the ones that get through.
So you think that you have Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday, and then Woody Allen comes showing up Monday. You’re like “what the?” … So it’s insane. So if you ask those questions and dig down, look for the specific examples. And then have specific cultural questions that you might be looking for throughout the interview. So whenever you’re asking these things, you go “Yep, that aligns with our culture; one, that wouldn’t align with our culture,” because each one of your cultures, it’s not a good culture or a bad culture. It’s yours. And is that the thing that people want to come into and be a part of? Because a culture that I have, you know, some people hate it. I’m okay with that. Other people long for what we’re trying to build here. So it’s not right or wrong; it just is. And how do you make sure that you get others within that culture, where it’s not like you said a little bit earlier—lip service. Is that rambling? Does it make sense, or is it kind of aligning with what you’re saying there?
Dan: Oh, absolutely, because I mean, the example I picked—the collaborator—that itself may not be appropriate to what you’re trying to do. And it may be. What you want to stay away from in all of these situations is, you know, the “mom and apple pie” sort of things. It’s the turf wire for when we create core values for organizations. Saying things like, “high ethics exceed customer expectations.” Well, you know, who’s going to argue with that? I mean—
Bryan: Right. but what does that mean?
Dan: Yes, that’s true. So you don’t want that. And it’s the same thing for the critical requirements. You want them to actually reflect the culture that you have. And maybe the culture you have has got a hard edge to it. And maybe a characteristic would be the ability to have thick skin, or to handle blunt feedback. Maybe that’s part of your organizational culture. Well then, that belongs in the critical requirements if that is something that a person has to have to succeed.
Bryan: Right. And the other thing as you’re explaining that—that example, Dan,--I was thinking, boy, authenticity! What you’re really looking for is that authenticity whenever you’re asking for those examples. And tell me about when you ran into the guard rail a couple of times. Just tell me where it didn’t work out quite the way that you learned. So you’re looking for that authenticity.
But then also learning, right? What did I learn out of this? What did I do to grow? Because if growing is a key attribute of what you’re looking for from your team, which is what you said, A. players want to grow. That’s likely something that you would want to put in there.
So the beauty about what Dan just laid out in that behavioral interviewing is the fact that you can get all of these things from a cultural alignment—authenticity, specificity in what they’ve done-- how they’ve grown, do they want to grow? All of that comes out from just a couple of questions. And that’s where I believe that most people mess that up. I don’t know; I might be wrong on that. Yeah?
Dan: No. I think there are a lot of wrong turns that we can take. And I think that what you just said is true, because, you know, to grow in the way that your clients want to grow, part of it is the practices that you’re going to do that are going to be really helpful and really additive.
But part of it is, you know, don’t do stupid stuff if you can help it. And you know what? We all do it; there’s no way to avoid it. We’re human; we’re going to make some—
Bryan: I excel at it, by the way.
Dan: Yeah. Well, right. But we will certainly have our share of wrong roads that we go down. But with the whole talent acquisition and talent development you just want to live in the real world. You don’t want to live in the one you’d like us to be in or that the candidate would like to be in. You have to get into reality here.
Bryan: All right. So I’d love to stay on the strategy side and keep building this out. But I’m going to pivot, based upon what you just said,--and that’s a good transition,--over to this. Okay, so we’ve identified who we have. One quick question. So you have these six to nine characteristics. Do you put any individual score card to those objective measurements? Or did you not go down to that level on those cards?
Dan: On the characteristics.
Bryan: On the characteristics; thank you.
Dan: Yeah. I think that in the interviewing process, you’re just doing a neutral plus-minus on there.
Bryan: Okay.
Dan: On each characteristic. And you know, at least the primary school of thought on this from the folks who I’ve been around who have practiced it, is that if you’ve got seven characteristics, and you’ve got a negative on one of them from anybody who is part of the screening process, then you don’t move.
Bryan: Okay.
Dan: (Laughter) You know, that’s if you’ve got six things you love and one thing you don’t. You’re going to have a decision to make. But at least you’ve got the data in front of you.
Bryan: Yeah. And one thing off of this too, as a tactical tip for you, is that you can lay out those interview questions in advance, and put in what a good answer is that we should be looking for, and what are some bad answers that we should be looking for, and give that document to the whole entire hiring team. And that way we can drive out some subjectivity, because we’re all going to bring our own biases to this. I mean, you can’t help it. So by having those already pre-printed, pre-laid out,--what’s a good answer, what’s a bad answer?—that’s a good tactical tip to be able to do that a little bit more deeply.
Okay, so now we have them on board. So now let’s talk about strength-based leadership.
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: Right? First off, what is it? And after what is it?, the second question is, how do we tie that into the day-to-day operation? I mean, is it fuzzy? Is it blah-blah-blah? So first off, what is it?
Dan: You know, strength-based leadership is simply orienting the activities of the organization and all of its members towards the things that you do best. So the presupposition here is that there is something that your organization has that it can contribute in a way that nobody else can. And then to drive it down to the work of each individual, they have particular things they bring to the enterprise that you want more of. If they are operating in the place where they are most talented and most capable, you’re going to go a lot farther than if you operate in a perpetual state of trying to close the gaps that people have when they do stuff they’re not good at doing. I mean, that’s it in sort of a nutshell.
A little bit of background on it, just in case people are wondering where this comes from. Is there substance to it, or are we just back to sort of being nonprofit nice?
Bryan: Yes; another flavor of the day.
Dan: Yeah. So I would take the roots of this back to a couple of people. One would be Peter Drucker. You know Drucker; he’s the man when it comes to management training. I mean, he’s a giant on the landscape. You know, over the last hundred years he’s the most important figure in—
Bryan: We had to dial that back, didn’t we? You were going to say “the last fifty.” Oh my gosh, it’s 2020! (Laughter)
Dan: But people still orient a lot of their work and management training around Drucker and leadership training. One of Drucker’s ideological sons or grandsons is Marcus Buckingham, Who you’ll frequently see in Harvard Business Review.
At the same time there is a fellow named Don Clifton who has a Ph.D. He got interested in talent, and how talent works itself out in the relative success of people. He started working with doctors and got more interested in the project. That became Strengths Finder—the Strengths Finder tool, the survey that Gallup has owned for years and years and years.
And the entire Strengths Finders enterprise, and what Clifton believed that he found to be true, is that first of all there is no such thing as well-rounded leaders. There are only well-rounded teams. You will read that almost verbatim in the book you just put in front of us.
Nobody is good at everything. But if you can find out what people are good at, and get them to do more of what they’re good at, you’re going to cover a lot more ground than if you’re perpetually focused on trying to fix what they’re not capable of doing. So Clifton kind of worked out of that framework. That’s where the Strengths Finders survey comes from. That’s what strengths-based leadership is based on.
Bryan: Okay. So I can hear people right now. “Well, wait a second! All right, great! So now I’m going to have everybody coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey Dan, hey boss, the reason I can’t do this is that’s just not my strength. You can’t hold me accountable; it’s just not my strength.’”
Dan: Right.
Bryan: So what do you do there? How can I have strength-based leadership, have a well-rounded team without a whole bunch of specialists, because I now think that head count has to go through the roof? What does that even look like?
Dan: Yeah. I do some work with my wife who has a Master’s in counseling. And she’s great at this point because she’s straight out of the shoot. She just puts a spear through that. “This is never an excuse for not doing your job.” You can’t use Strengths or the Myers/Braser disc. Whatever the thing is, you may not use that as a reason not to do the job that’s in front of you. So-- Bryan: How do you balance that, though? Because you just said, “Hey, this isn’t my strength. But, you know, that’s just my personality; I’m not detail-oriented.” All right; got it. So how do you balance that? There’s a tension there.
Dan: Yeah. I think that’s why somebody wrote a book from a leadership perspective. You know, it becomes the work of the leader to help people figure that out.
So when you balance it, the first thing you have to know is what you’ve actually got. That’s why I’ve gotten interested in doing this strengths work with individuals and with teams.
Bryan: So whenever you say, “know what you have,” meaning that you do some type of assessment to find out their strengths. Is that what you mean?
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: Okay; got it.
Dan: And I think the intention of the Strengths people is pretty accurate. An awful lot of us don’t actually know what our best contribution is. We don’t understand our own capabilities—our own talents, the expertise.
Here’s the reason why, Bryan. Things that you’re really good at doing that are sort of baked into who you are as a human being, that are just innate to you, are by definition things you don’t see.
Bryan: They must take it for granted. I’ve found that people just take it for granted. They go “What? Doesn’t everybody have that?” And they don’t realize their super power.
Dan: Yeah, Bryan. That line, “doesn’t everybody do those? Doesn’t everybody have those?” If we had a nickel for every time somebody says that,--
Bryan: Yes.
Dan: You know, it’s sort of the discovery process. “Well, of course! What else would you do?” (Laughter)
And sometimes you go, “Well, let me tell you. There are about a hundred other things that you could do. What you’re doing is a wonderful expression of a talent that you have. And not everybody does this.”
Bryan: So let me ask this question. So if I make this super simplistic, dumb it down for somebody like me to understand.
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: And I go, okay. So if I’m playing to my strengths,--
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: That’s really the area in which I think Marcus Buckingham—and there might be some others,--they call it “the flow,” right? It’s where I can skip breakfast, lunch and dinner and I’m just going because I’m in my groove; I’m just in my flow.
Dan: Sure.
Bryan: If I can spend more of my time—now this is humanity, right? We can’t always be in the flow. We have to do stuff that we don’t like or that I’m not strong at. But if I can spend more of my time in flow, that allows me to be more effective, get things done more quickly, have more energy, and really excel. Is that an accurate understanding of what strength-based Marcus Buckingham is really talking about?
Dan: Yes.
Bryan: Okay.
Dan: (Unclear) I think most people, when you describe it the way you’ve described it, Bryan, most of us can identify a point where we’re in that. Or we’ve seen teams that are in that. If you get a whole organization that’s in that state, that’s the point at which I look and see something. And I go, “I wouldn’t want to compete with them.” (Laughter) When whole organizations get in the flow, they actually redefine the business.
You know, when we were in the temporary help business, there were periods where I thought to myself, We’re not really in the temporary help business anymore. And oh, by the way, I really wouldn’t want to compete us, because we’re crankin’, you know? That’s exactly what you get from that.
Bryan: So let’s go down this tangent, because I think this is important. I’m trying to understand this a little better myself.
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: So this really goes into why talent was first. Talent is that foundation, because you can hire right, get the A. players functioning to their strengths, minimizing the times that they’re out of flow, being realistic as a leader that when they’re doing things that are not in their strength, that they’re likely going to need some time to decompress and re-energize, you know, to get back up to energy, to get back into flow state. If we have a whole entire team functioning like that, where we tie the Simon cynic’s Why or tying Talent, Passion and Purpose all together, that is really the bedrock. It doesn’t matter what the industry is or what you’re selling, what you’re doing—profit, nonprofit. If you’re able to figure that thing out, is that really what allows us that hypergrowth, that 50 to 100% year-over-year growth in a sustained manner because everybody is looking to develop? Everybody is in their sweet spot as much as possible? I mean, is that kind of the secret sauce?
Dan: well, to me it would be. Now anybody you bring on a podcast, (speaking with discerning honesty), (laughter), I’ve been more of the builder than the hypergrowth leader. So you know, I want people that want to be in that 50% and above category to understand that I’ve certainly grown the things that I helped to lead—maybe not at that rate. And I think a little bit more like a builder. But if you’re going to catch fire—which I think you need to do to pull off what you’re talking about,--and you’re going to develop people, it doesn’t matter if you’re a 15-year builder person or you’re a 2-year hypergrowth person. The need for people to grow and move into higher levels of proficiency, and even to move from being a contributor to being a leader, that never goes away. That’s really critical. In the state that you’ve just described, Bryan, of people making their best contribution in the best place that they can as part of a high-performing team, that which is high-energy fun, that also tends to spin out people who will grow into the folks who can lead the enterprise as it hits its next level of scale.
Bryan: Yes.
Dan: So I think that from my perspective it’s absolutely critical, because it also helps to indemnify you to a degree against having the whole thing explode, which in a hypergrowth context is something that can happen to you.
Bryan: Yes. Guys like Geno Wakeman with Traction Eos. He says, “It’s easier to die of indigestion than it is from starvation.” So, absolutely; you can absolutely implode on yourself.
So let’s talk through that. So you built this thing out. Were you intentionally a builder rather than a hypergrowth? You know, you probably had segments of time, because you had some explosive growth.
Dan: We did. And it’s the story of growth that’s the real story which is not perpetual, up and to the right, anise, steady point. (Laughter)
Bryan: Right.
Dan: Right; good point. Gee, we’re plateaued. And then the next thing you know, you’re running as hard as you can to keep up with the growth that you have. So we had, as far as intent, it’s been a nonprofit. I didn’t feel that I had a funding model. In fact, I know I didn’t have a funding model that would sustain hypergrowth. Initially that’s actually where John Rosso, who you’ve had on, was very helpful in making our financial model more robust. As you said, people have to raise part or all of their salary.
We needed work there. Every time we hired a person we lost money by definition. And I had to go out and raise that to offset what we were losing.
To my point earlier, there’s no such thing as a nonprofit. You can grow your way to bankruptcy. So a lot of what was sustainable for us was determined in large part by what we could do economically. And we fixed the engine while we were driving the car. We worked on that economic engine so that it was more sustainable. That’s where we hit our period’s inflection points where it took off more, where we had the dollars underneath the support.
In the business context it was where wow, we would hit some crazy periods of growth. And you know, that had a lot to do with the same things that all of us experienced do in business, working for other enterprises. So I’d say it’s somewhat by design. But I probably have been more of “let’s build this thing the right way; let’s pay attention. Let’s take the opportunities that we have. Let’s work the strategy that we have to the degree that we can, and let’s see where it takes us.”
Bryan: Got it. Okay. So let’s go through this. I mean, what were some of the biggest challenges that you ran into where you stubbed your toe and had those hard lessons learned, that maybe we can glean from you and avoid?
Dan: Yeah. Oh, so many! (Laughter) So many! Yeah, I think that the challenges along the way, the places where we stubbed our toes, I think there are probably times when I’m thinking particularly of the nonprofit, the CCO, where you’re trying to get some lift to get from where you are, which is not a bad place. I was handed an organization that was in fundamentally good shape. But there was also a lot of stasis to overcome, to get moving.
And so they’re probably being more honest sooner about people either just not being in the right position, or that this may not be the right place for you, period.
Bryan: That’s a hard lesson, right? Especially whenever you—You know, I always say that’s the hardest part of being a leader. It’s whenever you have to put somebody back to the marketplace. But it’s the reality because my sense, (and you can just tell me if I’m fooling myself to try to make myself feel better), but it seems like if you finally do ask the person to leave, the rest of the team is like “Thank heavens!”, right?, because typically speaking, what I’ve found is that the first time you thought it, you’re probably about three months behind from getting rid of that person.
Dan: You know, it’s the part where it’s something that I’ve got to do a lot of in my career for whatever reason. I’ll never like it; I’ll never get used to it. It tenses me up right now to even think about it. (Laughter) But you know, really what you said is absolutely true. You know, the experience of having to have that hard conversation with somebody, and other people implicitly or explicitly saying, “What took you so long?”, which is a clue, because this is the part of the job that universally nobody wants to talk about. But the most important thing you’re going to do as a leader is to set the boundary that you decide what you tolerate. And really that’s not a decision other people can make for you, particularly as you’re growing quickly.
They can learn how to see it that way. But that means “Yeah. This doesn’t look like the place for you to be right now.”
Bryan: I think that was a golden nugget right there. Your culture is what the leader allows, right?
Dan: Yes.
Bryan: It’s what you tolerate. The culture that you have is what the leader tolerates.
Dan: Yes.
Bryan: So if you tolerate a lack of accountability, if you tolerate a lack of commitment, if you tolerate a lack of execution, that’s your culture and it’s the leader’s fault. (Laughter) That’s a hard thing to say. Love it.
Dan: Not a whole lot of fun.
Bryan: No, not at all. That’s why they say that it’s lonely up top, right? So this has just been tons of good stuff here. Hopefully people find this with tactical execution in here as well. But what’s your biggest hack for whether it’s talent or sales or scaling the business? What is one tactical real-world thing that you can help us with?
Dan: Yeah. I’m going to give you one that I really haven’t done. I support leaders now; that’s my work.
Bryan: Okay.
Dan: So for the first time, gee, in my adult life that I can remember, even going back into college, I’m not actually leading anything. I’m supporting people who do.
So the first one is something I’ve always been intrigued by. If I were thrown back into the arena of leading something it’s what I would do: the 15-minute standing meeting that’s held at regular intervals. You might get away with it weekly. You might need it daily. Of course the standing meeting over Zoom is really an interesting idea to contemplate. (Laughter)
But I think that the principle behind this is that you do need a bonding and formation time with your teams. And that takes time. You can’t shortcut that. You have to ideally put your mask on and do it face to face if you can. You have to build some rapport. You have to get on the same page. You have to have some human connection with people that you lead.
So you can’t skip that step. And that step takes as long as it takes. I would argue that’s not an inherently efficient process—to onboard a person. You can design it well. But there’s a human element of trust there that has to be built; it’s really critical.
So you take as long as it takes to get a person on board, to understand the mission, to connect with the coworkers, and to be on the same page with you, whatever that design looks like.
But once you’ve got that design, then you travel light and fast. My hack would be to go for frequency and short duration in your interactions with your people once you’ve established what you’re trying to do. It could be a metric dashboard meeting. Okay, here are our three metrics. How are we doing? It could be a brief check-in at the beginning of the week. But it’s quick.
If you need to have your one-to-one you can go deeper. And you need to have one-to-ones. And if you’re running a go-go organization, you do not want one-to-ones any less frequently than every other week. You’re going to start losing your grip on your organization if you don’t have regular one-to-ones at a good interval. They can be fairly efficient too. But the standing 15-minute meeting—what are we doing?
As part of that meeting, as part of other things you do, my other hack I’m taking from a West Point graduate who is part of the board of directors—the CCO. And it’s called “After Action Review.”
Bryan: Yes.
Dan: People in the military know about this. And the way we express it in our board meeting is “three up, three down”—three things that are good, three things that could be better.
You know, I’ve gotten to the two-hour and 58-minute mark in a three-hour board meeting, and turned it over to him thinking, Oh my gosh! We have not left ourselves enough time to really get feedback on the right-now of this meeting, which is how you ideally want to do it, right?
Bryan: Right.
Dan: And in two minutes we get three up, three down in a room full of 25 people.
Bryan: Wow!
Dan: It’s unbelievable! And so that whole three-up, three-down business—just building in the discipline of okay, how are we doing with that? Good, bad?
Both of these things I think of as hacks because there’s a lot of agility to it. And in an organization that is moving fast these are things that keep people connected and keep their eyes on the ball.
Bryan: Yes. So really what you said there is a foundation of trust.
Dan: Yes.
Bryan: Build on communication, quick check-ins, realistic accountability. What’s to be done, right? Are the to-do’s getting done? And what do you need, right? What are you doing and what do you need? So that’s great, great stuff.
And you can read a little bit more out of that too if you look at Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up, for those that are listening. And actually that might have been the book that you were going to suggest here. So let’s move to that one—resources that you’d recommend—books, podcasts, guides. Where can we learn to be as smart as you, Dan?
Dan: Yeah. I’m not sure you want to go down that path. (Laughter) But in a lot of what I’ve garnered over the years, I’ve been part of the Vistage organization; that’s been tremendously helpful, just getting in a room with other CEO’s. The resources that you’re tied into—Traction.
There’s a modular series on management development and training. It looks like it’s just coming out now. It’s called “Admired Leadership.” And I’m assuming that will hit the market soon. And what it does is that it gives you the ability to help give your people some blocking and tackling skills within the management, because that’s one of the things in a growing organization. You hit exponential points of needing people to execute leadership. So how are you going to develop them, right?
Bryan: Right.
Dan: And when I say exponential, what I mean is that it doesn’t happen conveniently. You go from “we’re fine. I don’t want to build people’s hopes that there are any leadership positions here in the next year” to “Oh my gosh! If I had six people I could use them.”
Bryan: Right.
Dan: So that’s where something like Admired Leadership is a piece that we miss. You’ve asked about mistakes. I’d say that it’s not paying more attention to front-line leadership development. You know, we throw people in the deep end of the pool. That’s our greeting. That’s the single most neglected area of most growing organizations. What are you doing for your front-line leaders?
Bryan: Smart, very smart. All right. So we’re winding down here; I know we only have a couple of minutes left here. Pull out your crystal ball, whatever they call that thing. What does the future hold for us? What do we need to be watching out for? What’s going to whack us?
Dan: Yeah. You know, we work with young people, and I’m concerned. (Laughter) And I don’t have the same kind of concerns. Like the millennials. Everybody was just hammering. I love the way millennials do their work; I just love it—very fluid, but much more conscientious than they’re given credit for. And of course it’s hard to generalize.
But I think the crystal ball is that you’re bringing younger people. If you’ve got a hiring demographic in the 20s, we’ve got some folks that are somewhat justifiably, somewhat not, that aren’t in love with authority. So the need for organizations that are healthy, that have transparency, but also the need for organizations that are willing to assert a normative understanding of what it means to be a boss and what it means to be a follower, that are willing to articulate that.
Clearly this is going to be kind of important, because I think we’re going to have a lot of young people who have been sort of malformed. I hate to say it, but what we’re seeing on campus is malformed around issues of authority. So the crystal ball: Be aware of organizations, as you said. You know, our teams are what make us unique. I wish I were giving a more optimistic report. But I think we’ll find the silver lining in the clouds. We’ll continue to find great people and bring them to our organizations.
Bryan: All right. So you bring up an interesting point here. So in reality—and leading through influence rather than authority and through influence rather than title,--is probably a skill set that’s more important than ever.
Dan: I think it is.
Bryan: Okay.
Dan: Now having said that of course there are rubber meets the road moments, a little bit like parenting and other exercises, I suppose, where the understanding between the leader and the follower is “I may not always be able to justify or explain to you what I need you to do. But I just may need you to do it.”
Bryan: Right.
Dan: And you know, that moment of truth may come. But that’s right; leading through influence is never going to go away as an opportunity to really engage people in the mission.
Bryan: Yeah.
Dan: You know, as grown-ups good people have options. We can decide. Do I want to be here or not be here?
Bryan: Exactly. Well, speaking of not wanting to be here, I’m using up all your time, Dan. So let’s end it with this. So Dan Dupee, who should reach out to you, how should they do it, and why should they reach out to you?
Dan: Yeah. If the strength-based part of the conversation today is something you feel: “Boy, I’d like to push into that a little bit,” then those are the folks that should reach out to me, particularly for their role in leadership. I may also have folks on the podcast who are just curious about their own makeup. And that’s also a group of folks that should reach out to me.
The best way to do that would be an email. And the address is:

That would actually b:

Bryan: Dipper. D-I-double
Dan: Yeah.
Bryan: All right; got it.
Dan: That’s right. This is my left-over adolescent handle. (Laughter) which may make people decide right now that “I might not do that.”
Bryan: Yeah; not so much.
Dan: Yeah; not so much. So if you’re dipper, I bow out. (Laughter)
Bryan: Yeah. I’m dipper, I’m skipper. All right. So reach out to Dan. And if you’re looking to find your strengths, or you want to build up your ability to lead with strength, definitely reach out to Dan. He’s a world of knowledge, an all-around good guy with a ruggedly handsome beard. So thanks so much, Dan; I really appreciate it. Hey, this is Bryan Whittington signing off for this session of The Talent, Sales and Scale Show. Thanks so much; let’s get after it. See ya.

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