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: Rob Meilen – Communicate Relentlessly


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.

TEAMWORK- Lessons from a 12 year old tennis match


As I watched my 12 year old son play his first doubles tennis match yesterday, I was eye witness to what happens when a team doesn’t work well together.  In this case, these two boys had never played together.  They had no established communication, no respect or trust for one another and because they are relatively new to the game, confusion over basic strategy and rules.  The end result was mixed.  They won some games but mostly due to errors from the other side.  They lost the match.  They were angry with themselves and each other.  There was finger pointing.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that bad- no shouting or temper tantrums.  I can’t speak for the other guy, but my son cooled off and now the teaching begins.

I am thinking about teamwork in organizations and these basics apply.  For a team to work effectively together and succeed on any project the following must exist:

  1. Understand the objective (my tennis boys did know this- to WIN!)
  2. Understand the rules and how to keep score.
  3. Apply strategy.
  4. Strong communication
  5. Respect for others on the team
  6. Keep a level head even when you hit roadblocks. The game is not only skill based but also about attitude and perseverance.
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