The Leadership Lattice presents: Paul Larkins, CEO SquareTwo Financial, Building Culture through Values


What are the lessons for leadership in the financial services industry  from the meltdown in the capital markets?

The jury is still out in terms of what really happened to cause the meltdown of the capital markets in 2007-2008 but, had there been more transparency, some of the damage could have been mitigated earlier and there would be less suspicion of the leadership of the impacted organizations.

How does your leadership approach change based on the new regulations  enacted in the industry?

It changes the way I think about leadership but shouldn’t change my approach.  I believe that  regulation is inevitable in this (financial services) or any industry and the more transparent one is, the less concerned you need to be about regulation and stepping over a line.  You have to communicate more today than ever before.  Our entire leadership team shares information about decisions, how the company is performing, the good and bad news.  A leader needs to think about empowering the entire organization to  communicate through multiple media- one on one, intranet, quarterly meetings. We find that different employees hear the communication through different mechanisms.  It can’t be one voice or one  format.

What have you had to do differently in this economy?

From a strategic perspective, we have to constantly evaluate what the economy is doing and how to react. The economy hasn’t been stable, it’s been bouncing around.  We have to react when necessary but, not be reactionary.

What is your approach to leadership?

There are three tenets of my approach to leadership: One, put the right people in the right seats, two, empower them and three, facilitate a culture.  As a leader, if you address properly those three things, you have a recipe for success.  As a leader, you have to support your team; making sure they have the resources to do their job.  Culture is the responsibility of a leader.  I believe that in order to make a culture  stick you need a value system.  People who like that value system will stay.  At SquareTwo we have a very open value system that has 5 components: Focus, Alignment, Accountability, Integrity and Trust.   We ask our employees throughout their careers here to ask themselves, are they doing work that is consistent with that value system and if not, tell us. That creates a culture.  They can feel it; they know what is expected of them.

What have been some important leadership lessons for you?

Lessons come in the form of scars.  I have developed some scars with age and experience.  One of those lessons is reacting to something too quickly or directly, which may not always be the best course of action. I try to take in as much information as possible and consult the team we have built.  If I can gather the thoughts of my team, I will make better decisions.

Did you have a mentor that had a big impact?

I have been very fortunate to have 2-3 strong mentors.  Early in my career, I had a mentor who had a  huge impact on me and taught me not to get ahead of myself.  This person had global experience, a very  large staff and he was seemingly unflappable. He taught me to think things through on a balanced basis as well as to be accepting of people with many different backgrounds, who come from different places and cultures and to value all voices.  Another mentor that taught me how to drive performance metrics, the power of a scorecard and the sharing of goals and objectives. We use scorecards here that are very public and are used at every level.  The linkages are key- how my scorecard is linked to the department and the entire organization.  It is an extremely powerful tool that helps to make sure our company is on track.

How do you hire?

The starting place is attraction and that comes from culture.  From an interview and talent perspective,  we have to be clear about our objectives and expectations so there isn’t a mismatch.  I don’t want any hostages.  I want employees who understand why they came, what they bring and are comfortable with that.  I look for professionals that are smart and balanced.  They want everyone to bring their A game every day to the office.  We want people who want to come to work every day.  I personally want to know about someone’s  background but also equally important is that I want to know what they do outside of work.  I believe that balance is very important.  We want people inside the building who are outwardly focused and balanced.

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For the video of this interview, please go to www.executivelattice.com and look for The Leadership Lattice.

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The Leadership Lattice presents: Ken Ross, President and CEO of Pinnacol Assurance in Denver Colorado.


The Leadership Lattice– an interview series conducted by Ann Spoor, CEO of Executive Lattice. These interviews are designed to cultivate conversation about building strong leadership in the public and private sector.  You can view the video of this interview by going to YouTube and searching “Leadership Lattice”   Please subscribe.

What is your approach to leadership and does your approach vary because Pinnacol is a quasi- governmental organization?

There is no quick answer to this question. It’s an approach that has evolved over time and through experience.  I have an open style and welcome ideas from all of our employees.  I may not always agree but I will always listen and receive you.  I believe in staying close to my employees and am honest with them regardless of whether it’s good or bad news. Employees want to know where they stand.   CEO’s have to be open to learning and evolving.  I have always been open to learning.  As a quasi-governmental company, my style doesn’t change, the same skills apply. The biggest difference is that we have additional stakeholders in terms of the Governor and the Legislature.

How do you create culture?

It’s common to hear a company say that they have a ‘strong culture.’  What does that really mean?  Culture evolves over time.  Our culture encompasses a number of things- we have a strong business culture of providing the best service in the industry.  We also believe that our employees are our strongest assets. We are a service oriented business; serving policyholders and our staff embraces this service orientation.  We hold everyone to the same standards at all levels.   Our culture and values are the subject of constant conversation. You can’t be complacent as a company.  I set the tone but it’s not just me that determines our culture, it’s all 600 employees that create the culture together.

How has Pinnacol weathered the storm of the recent recession?

We are very directly affected by the state of the economy.  Our revenue is directly tied to payroll.  Our bread and butter customer is the small to middle market company.  We weathered the recession well because of the financial strength we have built up over the past several years and so were able to reduce our rates and return dividends to our policyholders to help to ease their burden.  Colorado in particular was slow to go into the recession and is still slow to come out.  We don’t have the big companies that can be the big hiring machines as is the case in some other states. The signs are positive though but we are not there yet.

What have been some important leadership lessons?

Early in my legal career in New York, I was working in the prison system.  I received a call from a very angry Sergeant- he yelled and screamed at me, very colorfully.  I never forgot this.  The lesson I learned was if you treat people with respect, you get a better result.  If you just sit down with people and have a calm discussion, even if you disagree, you are more likely to get something done.  The CEO is in the spotlight, you set the tone, and your employees take their cues from you on how they should act.  You always have to keep your cool even in the most difficult situations to get to the proper solution.

Did you have a mentor that had a big impact?

My Dad was my most important mentor.  He was a self made man.  He put himself through college and law school and ultimately became a judge and leader in New York.  I don’t profess to be my Dad, he was a ‘take no prisoners’ type of guy but he was well respected. From an early age, I learned many valuable lessons on how to deal with people, how to support your people but also to motivate them.  He had a very strong work ethic.  He was the most influential person in my early career as a lawyer and also now as a business leader.

How do you hire?

We hire first for culture.  You have to fit into the team.  You may have the best skills but if you don’t fit the culture, it won’t work.  I am only involved in hiring my direct report team so I don’t interview candidates very often.  When I do, I focus on behavioral interviewing. I want to know how this candidate will react in a certain situation.  Past behavior is a great barometer for future behavior.  In addition, we hire very strategically.  Everyone has to make a business case to fill an open position. Just because we have an open position, doesn’t mean we’ll fill it.  We have a very high retention rate.  Getting the right people on board is the most important decision we make.  We like to see people move up the ranks and we promote from within. Our HR team does a great job.  We are working on an overhaul of our leadership development program now.  We try to identify our future leaders and what skills they need to develop their career. We also continue to work on succession planning at all levels.  We are always fine tuning and improving in these areas.

For more information on the Leadership Lattice, contact us through email at info@executivelattice.com

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The Leadership Lattice Presents: Rodger Stewart, CEO on the Importance of Communication


The Leadership Lattice– an interview series conducted by Ann Spoor, CEO of Executive Lattice. These interviews are designed to cultivate conversation about building strong leadership in the public and private sector. The Leadership Lattice presents: Rodger Stewart, former CEO of Ultrashape, Sorin Group and COBE Cardiovascular.  Rodger now leads 2 Nonprofits in the Boulder area. 

  1. What is your approach to leadership?

A great leader establishes a clear and compelling vision and communicates that vision throughout the organization.   They always put the success of the organization on the shoulders of their team, is a great listener and is able to identify and attract top talent. An effective leader is capable of using multiple management styles depending on the situation.  A visionary style is necessary to set and determine long term vision and focus.  In a time of crisis, you need to use a directive style but, this should be used as little as possible because it can be negative.  A participative style is helpful for consensus building and coaching.

  1. How does leadership change in virtual and/or international teams and organizations? 

Leading an international and virtual team creates many unique challenges.  It’s important to spend time, face to face, in their environment, country and culture to develop understanding and relationships. In my last role at Ultrashape, I had half of my management team in the U.S. and half in Israel.  The cultural differences were vast.  We spent lots of time team building and developing a respect for each other’s roles, expertise and culture so that we could better function virtually which we had to do because of the geography and time differences.

  1. What were some important leadership lessons for you early in your career?

The first lesson was the first time I assembled an extremely high performance team. I made the assumption that these high performing individuals would function well as a team and this was not the case.  Luckily, through the use an executive coach, we were able to turn this around. The CEO has to take full responsibility for building an effective team.  The second was very simple but extremely hard for me to do.  I had to learn to be quiet and listen.  In my career, I have been very passionate about my opinions about issues and solutions to problems however, as CEO, your subordinates don’t hear opinions, they hear decisions.  I have worked very hard to be quiet and let the other ideas around the table surface.

  1. Did you have a mentor early in your career?  If so, what was it about that person that impacted you in the biggest way?

My mentor was the person who was the CEO whom I ultimately replaced.  The most impactful thing I learned from him was how to manage, set up and drive sales across the globe, from South America to the Middle East.

  1. How do you hire? What questions do you ask? 

Every time I make a hire, I am looking for a successor.   I look for the smartest, most talented and most experienced people I can find, more so than myself in their particular areas of expertise.  But aside from skills and experience, it’s critically important to assess team fit.  If someone is a fantastic individual performer but not a good team fit, then that’s a deal killer for me. I assess this by putting candidates into difficult, real life team scenarios and asking them how they would approach the situation.  I will dig deep into their answers. This approach will usually reveal their style and fit. 

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The Leadership Lattice presents: Bruce Dines, Vice President and Managing Director of Technology Investments for Liberty Global Ventures.


The Leadership Lattice– an interview series conducted by Ann Spoor, CEO of Executive Lattice. These interviews are designed to cultivate conversation about  building strong leadership in the public and private sector. The Leadership Lattice presents: Bruce Dines, Vice President and Managing Director of Technology Investments for Liberty Global Ventures.

What is your approach to leadership?

Many leaders get confused between their sphere of influence and span of control. The great leaders all understand that sphere of influence is much more important.  Span of control leaders are concerned about the size of their organization.  It’s also much more important as a leader to engage your teams than it is to attempt to control their direction. People want to be given the freedom to exercise their own brain power and develop their own projects. People who are challenged will always perform better and provide more energy and effort to an initiative than if you’ve given them an assignment and demanded completion. It’s about ownership. The art of leadership is helping people discover what needs to be done and how their skill sets can most benefit the business and the company. It comes down to ensuring that every single individual that reports to you feels as though they’re respected, that they’re valued, and that they’re heard.

How does your role differ, depending upon your internal role at Liberty versus the role that you may take on at your portfolio companies?

This concept of sphere of influence versus span of control is directly relevant to my role in Liberty. I have one direct report at Liberty.  It’s a company of 20,000 employees.  But, my sphere of influence is considerable.  First because of the successes that we’ve had within the technology investments we’ve made in new and disruptive technology companies. And second, because of the Office of Innovation that I lead at Liberty. This is our idea incubator – a portal that not only enables but encourages anybody in the company to submit an idea that they think will save the company money, will drive revenue for the company or will engage better teamwork or cross-function development. You can see that my role within Liberty shows the real juxtaposition between span of control which is very limited and sphere of influence which is really global and broad.

As far as the portfolio of companies that we’ve invested in, in most cases I have a Board position in the company, either a non-voting or voting position.  In all the companies where I’ve got a voting position I’m also on a sub-committee.  I actively work with our entrepreneurs in developing the company’s strategic direction and helping the executive team avoid the kind of mistakes I made when I was a young entrepreneur.

What were some important leadership lessons for you in your career?

A lot of young, bright college graduates who are identified for executive roles get identified because they’ve got native intelligence coupled with very strong attention to detail and very good analytical skills. And it’s almost an oxymoron, because people who have those qualities, when they move into a supervisory or executive role tend to micromanage.  That’s what they know how to do.  I took my detail orientation and my analytical skills and immediately thought the best way for me to add value as a leader was to show everybody how they needed to be more detail oriented and analytical, and I learned that this was not the best way to lead people.

Did you have a mentor early in your career?

I had a number of mentors along the way.  The first one that I recall was a really gifted leader, everything that I’ve spoken about.  He was a great listener; he was well prepared; he had a very strong understanding of the business; he valued and respected people. He was the kind of guy who could actually tell you that you were not performing at your best level and rather than go away angry, I’d go away motivated.  It’s so much about how feedback is communicated and ensuring that the underlying message is not one of “do this or else”; it’s “I want to get the best I can from you and I know you want to get the best out of yourself.  How do we work together to realize this potential?”  He had the ability to energize people and get the most out of them and that ties back to this whole concept of Art of Leadership.  He was one of the best overall leaders I’ve ever worked for.

How do you hire and what qualities to you generally look for in a person?

I use what I call the ‘hang out factor’ in addition to the typical Q&A. I meet with people several times.  I want to get to know them.  Would I want to sit next to them on a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam?  Time helps me understand their personality and cultural fit within the organization. I’m always looking for native intelligence.  I’m always looking for people who are thinkers and can articulate their thoughts well.  I look for creativity because I don’t think that business today puts enough of a premium on creative thought. I’m not at all shy about hiring people outside of traditional business realms.  In regards to interviewing, I ask very open ended questions.  Who, what, how, when, where.  I like to get specific examples and so when someone represents to me that they’ve accomplished something, I’m always going to ask them for the specific example and result.

When you’re looking at a potential investment, what qualities do you look for in the management team?

We may invest in a very early stage company where we know we’re going to add people to the management team. This company will have very promising technology and a strong technologist and a strong visionary behind how that technology can become commercialized. We also invest in later stage companies and in that case, I’m looking for a reasonable amount of synchronicity among the managing team. Before we invest we’ll spend time with managing team members.  But mostly what I look for is the leadership qualities I’ve talked about in the CEO. I would rather invest in a company that has a mediocre business plan and a great management team, than a great business plan and a mediocre management team.  They will always outperform.  Ideally, I look for both.

Body Language and Interviewing


I recently read a series of comments on a blog that mentioned how important a handshake is in terms of making a good first impression. What was really shocking to me was how a few readers were total denial about the importance of body language. One reader was very defensive and felt that his handshake should have nothing to do with getting hired. It should all have been about his skills. I wanted to reach through cyberspace and shake him; tell him to wake up.

There are some things that, whether you like it or not, are quite simply, reality.

Here are 8 FACTS-

1. First impressions have a big impact on the entire interview and outcome of that interview.

2. A warm, firm handshake makes a great first impression.

3. A warm, genuine smile makes a great lasting impression.

4. Good eye contact is imperative.

5. Sit forward in your chair. The impression is that you are interested in what the person interviewing you has to say.

6. Don’t fidget or use your hands too much when talking. It’s distracting.

7. Keep both feet on the ground. Don’t cross your legs.

8. A warm, firm handshake when you are done and leaving closes the interview with a good impression.

Stages of a Leadership Team or as I like to say- Know when to fire yourself!


There are several stages and evolutions of leadership teams.  Problems often come when an existing leadership team doesn’t recognize that it’s time for them to move on. Not because they have not been successful in the past, but because their skills as a leader don’t match the needs of the organization today.  Now, by moving on, I am not saying they should leave the company.  That may well be the right answer but the other possibility is to take advantage of their strengths and take a different role within the organization.  I am sure that volumes have been written about this.  I wanted to add my view because of what I have seen and experienced firsthand.

Start-Up and Early Stage Company– this requires a risk taking entrepreneur and a willingness to take on any task, no matter how menial.  There is little or no profit and no financial reward at this point.  These leaders have a vision and are willing to leap off into the abyss of starting a new company.  They are passionate about their idea and can inspire others to follow.

Growth company– This requires a new discipline.  A willingness to put in place structure, process and real operational infrastructure and yet maintain the entrepreneurial culture.  There is revenue and possibly profit, more employees, more financial reward.  The leader can no longer be as hands-on.  It’s easy to get distracted, stay too tactical.  As a leader/founder, you have to be willing to give up some control and hire some people that are smarter than you are to run areas of the company where you are not as strong.  You also have to be very self aware of your strengths and weaknesses so that you hire people who balance your skills.  You have to be willing to listen.

Stable and growing– This is a time I believe for a very different leadership team.  One that has ‘been there, done that’, leading and growing larger companies with a high degree of financial scrutiny. It is highly unusual for the Founder/CEO to continue to be effective.  There are of course, many examples where I am dead wrong.  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc, but the vast majority of the Start-Up founders are not effective at this stage.  It requires both courage and humility for a Founder/CEO to recognize that they just don’t have the skills, expertise, and/or knowledge to continue on at the helm.  Remember that Jobs got fired.  He is more successful this time because he has surrounded himself with a great team that compliments his strengths and weaknesses.

 Turn-around.   This company has gone into the ditch and this leadership team is a very different team.  They are all about figuring out where this company has value, getting rid of the assets or businesses that are not core, cutting cost and gaining the trust and confidence of the employees. 

As I start down my path of entrepreneurship, I am looking ahead to a time when I will be hiring those that bring skills I don’t today possess to help me grow.  I also am looking forward to a time when I have the opportunity to bring in a ‘been there, done that’ CEO to help my company continue to succeed.  This is my baby.  Having children, you recognize when it’s time to bring in someone who knows how to teach them something you don’t know.  You also recognize when it’s time to launch them into the world.

My Top Ten Interview Tips


  1. Research and Preparation – really, don’t wing it.  Just because a friend works there and you think you know enough about the company, doesn’t count as research.  Read the website.  Read all of the latest news.  Understand what they do.  It’s not hard!  Not doing the research is a total turn-off and shows an utter lack of respect for the person who is meeting you.
  2. Know exactly where you are going because – If you are early, you’re on-time.  If you are on-time, you’re late, AND If you are late, You are NOT hired!!!   Traffic doesn’t cut it.  Got lost- lame!  If you are flying in and they booked your travel giving you just enough time but your flight was delayed, ok, call and let them know. But really, there are very few valid excuses.
  3. Dress.  Now I get this question all the time.  And, the answer is not as simple as it used to be.  The pendulum goes back and forth.  In the dot com days, a casual company expected an interviewee to dress casually or they just didn’t fit in.  And, vice versa.  Now, it helps to know something about the dress style of the company and dress a bit nicer.  A suit is almost always acceptable.  A suit for a guy without the tie is good for a business casual atmosphere.  Casual is never ok in today’s atmosphere.  Just because you are coming from work and you currently work in a casual company, there is no excuse for not throwing a jacket in your car and putting it on before you walk in.  Use some common sense.  If you don’t have any common sense, ask a professional for some advice.  Here’s a tip for guys- wear socks- always.  I never in a million years expected to have to say this.  Lesson learned. 
  4. Bring extra copies of your resume.  You are making the job of the interviewer easier.
  5. The first 30 seconds are critical. Smile, look your interviewer in the eye, have a warm, friendly, firm handshake.  The limp handshake is a total turn off.  If you are not sure about your handshake, practice with a friend who will be honest with you.
  6. Based on your research, you need to have some good questions prepared.  Demonstrate your curiosity and prove you did your homework. 
  7. If you are doing several interviews in one trip and you feel your energy waning, ask for a 5 minute break and for a cup of coffee or a Coke.  No one will take this as a negative.  And, if they do, that’s a big red flag for you. 
  8. Some interviewers might not be as experienced at interviewing.  Don’t be put off.  Don’t get critical and start feeling offended.  Just gently take some control.  Start asking more questions.  Have that person tell you about themselves, get them engaged.  Maybe they are as nervous as you are.  Have some empathy.  It’s a major turn off when I talk to a candidate who feels that they are somehow superior to the interviewer. 
  9. Thank you notes.  YES.  It’s a simple way to stand out.  An email is perfectly sufficient.  Handwritten is a nice touch but often, there isn’t time. 
  10. Follow-up.  YES.  Don’t be a stalker and call every day.  If you haven’t heard back after your prompt (same day) thank you note within 48 hours, call the hiring manager or recruiter to follow-up.  If there isn’t a decision, ask that person when you should follow-up again just in case you haven’t heard. You have just gotten permission.  Then, put it on your calendar.  No news is not necessarily bad news despite what you are thinking.  Patient persistence can win the day.
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