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.

Thanks for following along!

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

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.

The Leadership Lattice – a Leadership Interview Series presents: Rob Meilen, Chief Information Officer


This interview was conducted and summarized by Ann Spoor, Founder of Executive Lattice, in Denver Colorado. 

  1. What’s your approach to leadership?

I see the role of a leader in setting the vision for their organization and communicating relentlessly about it – what is it and why is it important.  People come to work for lots of different reasons but a key aspect is that they want to be part of something larger than themselves.  It’s the responsible of the leader to make that tangible.  Why should someone dedicate their efforts to the project, organization and company?  The leader has to make that case and make it regularly.

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

Early in my career, I was working in consulting and got a lesson around dealing with ambiguity.  I had a great boss who at the right time took the time to plan and at other times just rolled up his sleeves, sat down and got working – sometimes you can plan and be thoughtful but at other he would sit down and get rolling, which brought energy and momentum to the team or project.  He could generate momentum and creativity even when there were unknowns.  As leaders, we need to create an atmosphere of momentum.  

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

Yes, at Ann Taylor I worked on an initiative which ran into trouble.  The Board of Directors brought in a consultant.  Steve had both broad and deep experience in leadership, retail and technology. The key thing I learned from him was around succeeding by connecting with others in the organization.  He was able to talk to all levels, across all functions.  He taught us the value of building relationships across boundaries, especially when it came to solving big problems.

  1. What have you been doing differently in this economy as a leader?

In the past, when the economy was strong, we could look at projects that had a single driver (cost saving for example).  In this economy, where capital is more constrained and we are operating with fewer resources, we have to look for opportunities that hit on several drivers: cost saving and revenue, process efficient and driving strategic growth initiatives.   These are harder to find but they do exist.

  1. How do you hire?

A key part of the hiring process is that I personally interview every finalist who will have supervisory responsibilities. I look not only for people who can win today but, can also consistently win in the future.  I look for people who can collaborate and help to grow their own teams.  Candidates have to be strong technically, functionally, interpersonally and managerially.  I look for the complete package.

  1. What other qualities are you trying to get at in the interview?  

The two other qualities I look for are people who can deliver superior customer service and thought leadership.  IT is a service to the business; it’s not the primary business.  We need to bring solutions, ways to use IT that can advance the business.  Technology skills are easy to train but thought leadership and the attention to the customer is not.

  1. What was your first job and how old were you?

My first job was a Paper route – at about age 11. What I learned was about customer service and building relationships although, I didn’t necessary know it at the time.  My tips depended on it.  You have to get up early on Sunday morning regardless of the weather or how tired you are.

  1. How long have you been in Colorado?

I came to Colorado about 7 years ago for my job at Sport Authority.  We feel very fortunate to be here.

  1. What book are you reading right now?

I’m reading “Cyber War” – by Richard A. Clarke. Clarke is a national security and counter-terrorism expert; worked in White House under Pres. Reagan, both Pres Bush and Pres Clinton. Sadly, the threat to information in private and public sector is growing.  As IT leaders we own the responsibility to capitalize and to safeguard that information.  I picked up the book because I was interested but it’s directly connected to what we do as IT leaders.

The Pixar Story – Lessons from Buzz Lightyear


I recently watched the Pixar Story and was inspired. We often think of companies like this and think ‘how lucky’ or ‘what timing’ these founders had and we’re jealous of their incredible success. There was no luck to what they accomplished. Here are my take-aways:
1. It takes amazing perseverance and dedication to create an ‘overnight success story’
• Pixar’s overnight success took 10 years and they were on the verge of collapse more than once
• The key players worked extremely hard, put in nights, weekends and holidays.
2. Pixar created and fosters to this day, an extremely creative and collaborative culture where everyone is excited to contribute, all day, every day.
3. Encourage risk taking and provide constant 360 feedback and review. Feedback is never personal. When the culture accepts risk, it also accepts mistakes and people naturally are willing to step outside of their comfort zone, experiment, create and innovate.
4. Share your successes with your people and allow them to grow with you. Know when to step aside and give someone else an opportunity to lead. Bugs Life and Finding Nemo were given to others in the organization to lead and direct. Neither of these employees had taken on this responsibility in the past but both were given the freedom to step up and they succeeded- Wildly I might add! “And the Oscar goes to ____________.”
5. Create partnerships to help get you to that next level. Pixar partnered with Disney and the partnership has evolved over time.
6. It’s nice to have someone like Steve Jobs as an advisor and funding source while you are on your way. We won’t all have access to Steve, but there are many successful entrepreneurs and business people – it just takes the right one that believes in you and your product or service.

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