Wisdom From A Rebellious Leader

Editor’s Note: This interview is the first in our new series Rebellious Leaders where we’ll report on the unique philosophies and techniques used by leaders who are creating environments that foster creativity and high productivity. If you know of a Rebellious Leader you’d like to see featured here, get in touch.

We talk a lot about Rebellious thinking here at Switch & Shift, so it’s important that we are clear about what that is. The Miriam-Webster definition of rebellious is:

  • refusing to obey rules or authority or to accept normal standards of behavior, dress, etc.
  • having or showing a tendency to rebel

Our focus is on Rebellious Leaders who refuse to accept the normal standards of behavior. They think differently, lead differently and leave their egos at the door.

Rebellious leaders of the Switch & Shift ilk understand that helping their employee grow as a whole person, which means making sure that their career is following THEIR dreams rather than the company’s plan and goals, may mean that the employees they invest in will leave their company someday.

Todd Vande Hei, is a perfect example of an ego-less, rebellious leader. We sat down to talk about his role as the President of Stark, a national leader in high performance for executives and sports performance for athletes. Stark has 15 people and a very flat structure; it is organized into Finance, Marketing and Operations. He heads up all three, has a manager in operations, and a lot of subcontractors.

Rebellious leaders understand that helping their employee grow as a whole person, which means making sure that their career is following THEIR dreams rather than the company’s plan and goals, may mean that the employees they invest in will leave their company someday

45% of Stark’s new clients come from referrals, so it is essential that his employees are motivated to encourage existing clients to refer. There is no dedicated sales force, and because Stark is so lean, most of his employees are actually busy delivering the services that they sell. I wanted to get to the root of how he keeps them motivated and engaged.

We began our discussion with the fact that the average American worker stays in one job for only 4.5 years. I noted that most of the Millennials I speak to don’t expect to stay at a company as long as that.

Q: Do your employees engage on Social Media?

T V H: They completely, independently engage on their own without being asked. Because of the state of the business, which is 4.5 years old, resources are limited and many staff members are very young; they’re naturally involved in social media, primarily Instagram. I had to nudge most of them to get back on Facebook, but I don’t ask them to advocate for us; that happens naturally.

Q: How do you get them to take action and be engaged on their own?

T V H: In my past work life I had a lot of financial resources; now, at Stark, it’s all about leadership. The core of that is getting them to be enthusiastic and hopeful about the future and what it means to them as an individual.

The way that looks from a time standpoint is that when you look at all your people, don’t spend most of your time trying to fix the bottom 10%. Focus on the top 10% and they will do the rest for you.

I pick out key people and spend a lot of time with them, and much of the time is making sure that they understand what they want out of life, and the second thing is that I understand what they want out of life.

Don’t spend most of your time trying to fix the bottom 10%. Focus on the top 10% and they will do the rest for you.

Q: How do you know if you’re having success?

T V H: I keep questioning the process: Are we moving in the right direction and what do we have to do to change that if we aren’t? And I make sure we have a plan. There are a lot of variables when they’re very young; what they have today and what they want to get out of life may change.

Part of our company culture and part of what I teach them is that they can’t ever “have arrived.” When they get close to a goal they need to ask themselves “what more do I want?”

It’s not actually money. In many cases with these people, it isn’t money at all, which is a whole different world. It’s freedom, continuing learning and feeling like they’re getting better… so that hope and vision for the future, and how they’re connected to it – what it means to them, having them visualize it… those are the key leadership tools I’m using right now.

I’d love to throw money into that, and in some circumstances they’re making good money, but for many it is still aspirational. My message to them will be: what more do you want? What will make you feel like you’ve gotten more out of life?

Q: Can you give me an example of this at work?

T V H: We have a 26-year old, Tyler, who wants to write a book about Holy Health – it’s for Christians, based on why they need to focus on their physiological health from a philosophical standpoint. We’re working on a book launch for my partner, and in learning the marketing process from the expert, we’ll be able to replicate this for Tyler. He knows that.

What more do you want? What will make you feel like you’ve gotten more out of life?

I also connect Tyler’s goals to the growth of Stark; he can see that there is a clear connection between company performance and his future.

That connects to his social media engagement because he wants to tell everyone about it. He is the self-appointed VP of Morale; he brought in a Director of Morale and a Manager of Morale. The 3 of them make up the Board of Morale, which they created on their own, and now other employees voluntarily run things by “the board.”

When someone wants, just out of pure enthusiasm, to do something that will be fun or funny and will help them put their mark on the company, I totally step out of the way. You just have to as a leader; you must pick the critical components of what makes the organization unique in the marketplace, what creates the value… make sure that everyone is working within those guidelines, but outside of that let the team create everything else… so there’s a strong sense of ownership.

Q: How often do you meet with key employees?

T V H: We have the conversations as a group once per quarter. I don’t do employee reviews. I look for opportunities; when you have conversations with people that are impactful the timing is extremely important because it adds to the emotion and it creates situations they never forget.

These moments are opportunistic in two ways: one, if there’s a problem I can say “I’m looking at all of our notes from our conversations about what you want to accomplish, and your behavior has nothing to do with any of those things.”

The other type of conversation will be with a highly dedicated person who is connected to the future of the company. Yesterday one of our people was setting up for a difficult conversation with one of her reports. It gave me the opportunity to connect that moment to the future of the company and its growth, which made handling it easier for her.

You must pick the critical components of what makes the organization unique in the marketplace, what creates the value… make sure that everyone is working within those guidelines, but outside of that let the team create everything else.

***

Of course, I am biased, but Todd was the greatest leader I worked under, primarily because he not only showed that he cared about the people who worked for him, but because he allowed us room to try new things, and he allowed us room to fail.

A lot of Todd’s leadership tactics are about knowing when to step back, when to pause, and when the time is right to step in. Allowing people the freedom and autonomy to take risks and be creative is key to rebellious leadership.

 

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Amy is a Writer, Editor, and Content Strategist with a background in Sales and Sales Management. She created The Millennial Think Tank to debunk much of the hype around GenY and has deep insights into all 3 generations. She also writes on Sales, B2B, and Diversity Issues. Amy lives in Florida and PA with her modern day Brady Bunch family.

  • Hi Amy,

    Thanks for putting up a great topic!

    Rebellious leaders: some people will aspire to such a reputation, while others will shun it. Each rebelling against the other. So what we like to see is diversity of conformity.

    In its adjective form, ‘rebel’ means to make war against. So the rebellious leader stands in opposition to something, refuses to act, see or think in a certain way. We are social creatures so the rebellious leader is making a statement to the group that there is a better way.

    Reading the interview, it seems there is a call to action that this is the way we ‘should’ act, see or think. Which puts the emphasis on the rebellious leader to explain why. But to do so in the language of what the leader rebels against only serves to strengthen the opponent.

    So the rebellious leader must talk in terms of what is on the other side of the mountains and walk resolutely towards them. All the while hoping that people are following. Because followers are fickle: they are motivated by belief.

    And if the rebellious leader doesn’t believe, then neither will potential followers, in which case the rebellious leader is simply a rebel. As the saying goes, ‘if you think you’re a leader and no one is following you, then you’re just taking a walk’.

    Which is fine. Because that’s how you find out what’s on the other side of the mountains.

    Thanks,

    Rohan

    • Hi Rohan,

      Interesting, because I’ve questioned the use of the word ‘rebel’ with Shawn Murphy and Mark Babbit because I worry that it will push some people away.

      The reality is that Todd, my interviewee, is actually introverted and a quieter leader – not someone you would think of as a rebel necessarily. But his METHODS were certainly seen as rebellious by old school management who thought that employees should be kept in line and controlled.

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