Welcome to People First Profits Follow. I’m Hollie and I’m here with Matt Spooner. I’m so excited to have Matt be our guest today. Matt is a good friend and a major colleague that is a mentor of mine and somebody that I look up to and respect a lot. Matt is the Vice President of Operations and Marketing at a company by the name of McDermott & Bull. McDermott & Bull is based in Orange County, California, an executive search firm, and they are really growing like crazy. They have been ranked in the top 25 recruiters by Hunt Scanlon’s recent report.
The thing that I love about Matt and I why I invited him to be a guest here today is he is the example of what I think good leadership embodies in terms of how he embraces both the soft skills as well as the hard skills and brings all of that into what he does when he interacts with people. What he actually does is he leads and oversees McDermott & Bull’s executive network. It’s a community of about 9,000 executive members from across the country who come to McDermott & Bull to network on functional topics, on geographic, just wanting to network across different companies in the area. The other thing that he does is he really believes in giving back to the community. He spent a lifetime prior to McDermott & Bull working in various non-profit roles, anything from the United Synagogue Youth group to the American Jewish University to the Jewish National Fund. He is an avid athlete.
Listen to the Podcast Here:
Great Leaders Build Great Connection with Matt Spooner
We’re really excited to have you here.
Thank you so much, Hollie. That’s a great introduction.
You are just such a gift for me to know. I want to share you with other people to learn and appreciate what you bring and what you model. That’s why I was really excited to have you here today.
Thanks, Hollie. I really appreciate it. It’s been an absolute pleasure partnering with you. I’m sure we’ll get into it later in the podcast, how we met and how we collaborate and how we get to know each other. I feel the same way about you. This is going to be a lot of fun.
Matt, we’re here to talk today about how to build great connection and what great leaders do to build great connection in their business. Tell me what your philosophy is on what leadership influence really entails and what really yields the most leadership influence in an organization?
For me, it really boils down to three points. The first is that leadership requires listening. Leadership also requires leading by example. The third piece, for me at least, is that leadership is truly action-based and not title-based. That last point is something that really sticks with me when I think about leadership. What I mean by that is that I believe that we get caught in a cycle of believing that people are leaders based on what job title they have or where they have ascended to within their organizational life. To me, that actually is very thin when it comes to leadership if that leadership is not backed up by actual action in treating people in a way that is respectful of their time and of their talents. To me, action-based respect and not title-based respect is a huge part of the leadership equation.
That piece about paying it forward as well, I know you alluded to it in your introduction, but that’s really what McDermott & Bull’s executive network is all about. That’s why it’s so exciting for me to lead that initiative here at the firm because what we ultimately do with that group is we offer a service to thousands of senior executives throughout the country that’s completely complimentary. The number one goal of that organization and of that effort is to make sure that executives throughout their career continue to form and model what it means to stay connected to each other and to really benefit each other in community. All of that really plays into my serving-based leadership equation.
I really appreciate that; in particular, the thought that it’s action-based rather than title-based seems to be so relevant and possibly not intentionally considered when people are in their titled roles or even a non-title role in terms of how they can actually still yield major leadership influence. What mistakes do you see people in titles of leadership roles; whether it’s C suite, VP, executive director roles, what mistakes do you see most people are making? Is it mindset, action-based, a specific or not specific activity that they’re doing? What would you see that they’re missing in the world?
I don’t know if this is mandated for a leadership, but I do think part of the issue comes into play where leaders aren’t necessarily steeped in or even knowledgeable about what they’re attempting to lead in. For me, part of this challenge with leadership is you need to be able to teach people and sit with people and listen to them, as opposed to just telling them what to do. I think that is an antiquated model that I’m really happy is going on its way out the door, this whole leadership is about telling people what to do. When you’re really leading people, you’re leading from a place of knowledge, you’re leading from a place of compassion, from a place of empathy. Most of that stems from having actual experience in what you are asking others to do. Because if you’ve ever endeavored to do a job, you know that there are some inherent challenges in accomplishing a task or learning a new trait or a new role. Those things take time and those things take a great amount of empathy and understanding in order to really see the world through the eyes of the people who you’re leading.
What I’m hearing in what you’re describing is that a great leader, as he or she is working with their team member, it’s almost like how to empathize and say, “I’ve really been in your shoes. Let’s talk it through and help me understand,” so that you’re coming from a place of not judgment necessarily but you’re actually seeking to support them.
Empathy, huge. My example of that is earlier this year, I was actually looking for someone to join my team. During that process, I was actually wearing multiple hats within the organization; hats that I typically wouldn’t wear. What occurred to me is that for the first time in this role at McDermott & Bull, I was doing work that people that I had been managing had been doing. What hit me immediately was I had no idea how much work I was actually asking them to do. This was highly engaged, very involved, very detail-oriented work that I had really taken for granted. This was someone who considers himself to be fairly enlightened when it comes to this stuff.
When I was actually able to bring someone on to my team several months ago, I’ve really been able to work with them on a completely different level. I understand truly what I’m asking them to do. I can completely empathize with the time commitment and the level of independent thinking and strategic thinking that they need to put in to the tasks and into the daily work that I’m asking them to engage in. Coming from that place of empathy, which was really hard to come from unless you’ve actually done the work. It might not necessarily need to be identical to what you’re asking someone to do, but something that’s in the ballpark where you can really understand the level of dedication, the level of thinking, the level of executive leadership that people need to take in order to accomplish their tasks, I think is all important.
This is an interesting concept that I’d like to explore with you. I actually might use the word and talk about how you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your employee. Many people think of vulnerability as a weakness. When I hear you and I’m listening to you describe coming from a place of empathy, “I’ve been there, done that, let me help you walk through how possibly I navigated those waters, or have you help me understand better what am I missing in the equation.” That’s a different conversation that requires the leader to be a bit more confident on who they are and open for sharing.
I couldn’t agree more. I have to tell you, Hollie, the change in my career or the switch that got flipped I should say was when I actually started allowing myself to be vulnerable. I’ll qualify this by saying again, early in my career I was actually very open to being vulnerable. Then I had my risks slapped so many times by my superiors. They started to become a little bit more insular and I wasn’t engaging as much and I wasn’t allowing people to really get to know me as well as they probably should have. In my leadership role in McDermott & Bull I made a point of putting myself back out there, which for someone in their mid-30s, having not done that for several years, you might have figured that by this age I would have figured that out. But it took me a while to really be comfortable with that again.
I have to tell you that it’s been a sea change, just being open and being a real person and being empathetic and being sarcastic and being open and funny and weird and strange and all the things that I am, has really helped me to get to know my team faster, get to a point where we understand each other better, and where we have a heck of a lot more fun with each other than we would I believe if we were just engaging as if this was some transactional interaction that we’re having every day with each other. My colleagues that I work most closely with have really become some of my closest friends. I can say that from a very authentic, very genuine place. This is not just me putting anyone on. I really do adore them. It’s because I think I see them for who they are and I hope and I believe that they see me.
What you’re also speaking to is being real, which is beautiful. Yet, if I’m hiring people, what might this thought process relate to in terms of hiring people? For example, what if they just don’t get my type of humor? How would you manage that? How would you guide someone to make decisions around how they’re hiring people to make sure that fit actually falls into place?
This is delicate and it’s intricate. Here’s another belief that I have. You obviously don’t just hire people that you feel you share every trait with. You want to have a diverse team. One of the major fallacies and one of the major errors that most people make when they’re looking to hire people on to their team is that we may have a tendency to try to hire people who reflect our own world view or reflect our own skillset, but you do want to have a diverse team. I think it’s less about needing to have your antenna quivering in a way that is reflective of what you hold closest to you and have it be more reflective of the roles and the positions that you’re looking to fill. It’s one thing to try to win everybody over with your personality and have them win you over, but it’s another thing to see people for who they are and appreciating that.
My team definitely took a little bit of time to understand my personality but it’s because they were seeing me. It’s because I was very open with, “That joke probably didn’t hit with you. You probably don’t get my strange send of humor,” but we would laugh about that. I would openly laugh with them about how my bizarre comments and my little riffs during the day, “You’ll get used to this. Don’t worry, this is going to be fine.” We would laugh about how we were just getting to know about and learn about each other. That would go both ways. It didn’t really take much time. It’s not to say that we still aren’t learning about each other, we do every day, but it’s made that much more fun by just understanding that this is going to be a process and it’s not plug and play.
Everyone wants to hit the ground running and that’s well and good. But I think that you need to be able to hit the ground running from an effort standpoint. It will take a while for people to really gel and get to know each other. That desire to make that happen needs to be there. That desire to be open and to not just link up with people who are a mirror on to yourself but to really bring in people that are going to challenge you, think differently than you and allow you to continue growing and expanding and vice versa.
There is a level of sophistication in this discussion that we might not be actually hitting on just yet. I can hear all of that and it sounds really good. It’s almost, if I’m the leader, what I’m doing is I’m creating the container or the tone or the culture to allow people to show up, somewhat suspended of judgment. If I’m creating a high performance team and I’m hiring and I’m recruiting people for fit, I do want to look obviously to have the skillsets that the role entails and type of thing. In terms of behavioral fit, it’s allowing the person the place to maneuver without being judged so that they can learn how they show up more powerfully in that particular situation.
What I find, in my world at least, many people aren’t confident enough to do that. Whether it’s the leader, whether it’s the team member, they’re functioning more from a place of fear. In the past, we’ve had conversations of how much more powerful it is to come from a place of service. How does that play in to what you’re sharing with us?
When I think about service, you start to equate it to a muscle. You think of the service-based muscle. The only way to develop a muscle is to actually use it, to get activity. Some people are more equipped and more adept and more accustomed to getting that type of exercise. For those who aren’t, to me, it’s really all about recognizing that you need to flex that service-based muscle in order to get there. It’s all in the doing. I do think that this is the way things are moving. I’m not sure if you agree, but as the millennial generation ages and starts to start companies in greater number and take leadership roles in companies in greater number, I do believe that this is the way that generationally you have language and you have an understanding, is by focusing on this culture stuff that has historically been seen as maybe potentially pretty soft, but really putting it at the forefront and starting to become more of a service-based type of an organization and having that mentality. I think it’s just the way to the future.
You’re mentioning something powerful. People talk about the millennial age, if you will, and how that entity is showing up in business today. What I have found is many people that are maybe a little more seasoned in their career have somewhat typecast that group as being either lazy or not willing to work or they just want to come and go so quickly. What I found is actually very different. I think this is what you’re speaking to. I have found millennials have grown up actually knowing, “I want to know my purpose. I want to live and work on fire with something that really stirs my passion.” If I would equate that, we call that employee engagement if we tap into that. Is the job of an effective leader then to understand how to bring that inspiration and light the fire in the individual and that would aid retention numbers because you’re just doing the right thing?
A thousand percent. It’s purpose, autonomy and mastery. PAM. A lot of people really believed strongly in that. I’m not the first person to listen to TED Talks about that or to do a research online about that, but I truly believe in that. That purpose piece is where it all starts. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be relegated to the millennial generation even though I think they have it in spades, I couldn’t agree with you more, Hollie. I really do believe that having a purpose behind your work makes showing up every day exciting and make showing up every day worthwhile. I really agree with that. I think helping people find their purpose and making that a central piece of your organizational mission is critical to your organization’s mission. This piece about autonomy, to me, you really do obviously need to start with a purpose. That’s the reason why I’ve ordered it in this way. Some people ordered it autonomy, mastery, purpose. I intentionally switched it for myself to be purpose, autonomy and mastery because I think that’s the order it needs to go in.
This piece about autonomy, I think you need to give people rope. I think once they have their purpose, I think in their role you need to give them the ability to flex and bend and move within their space and figure out how they’re going to best accomplish what you’re asking them to accomplish. Really, what it’s speaking to is getting away from a leadership style that is micro-managerial, where you’re feeling you need to hover over people in order to make sure that they’re getting their job done. I think that is probably one of the biggest ways that you’re going to lose millennials and lose younger generations and one of the biggest things that is going to change as millennials age and once again become the leaders of industry. I’m hoping that they will give people what hopefully they have been given to thrive, which is that autonomy to just do things and the freedom to do things away that they feel is going to be leading to their success.
That last piece about mastery, hopefully if you have the purpose behind your work and you feel like you have the freedom to do it in the way that you want to do, you will be inspired to continue learning more and to get better and to evolve and to change as an executive and as a leader. That’s where that mastery comes in. Mastery, I think, dovetails so brilliantly with learning and with being curious and we’ve seen that as a career long pursuit and not something that you ever fully get to the end of.
I’m actually sitting here and thinking it also relates to not being afraid to fail. If I’m giving somebody some rope, I am also giving them the opportunity to make a mistake but not treat them as being wrong for having made the mistake.
Empathize, people. This isn’t something that’s foreign to any of us. We’ve all failed. I think people who claim or make an assertion that that’s not the case for them are most likely doing themselves a disservice because this is a great connection point. I have failed an innumerable amount of times in my career, but to me what’s most important is that you just get back up and you learn from that opportunity or you learn from that mistake and then you create your next opportunity from that. Then you move from that space and you benefit yourself and your company and your career because you’ve made those mistakes. I wouldn’t want someone who hasn’t made mistakes on my team because to me, I don’t think that would indicate that they’re living in a real situation where we’re going to be able to truly connect.
I love when people make mistakes because those are teachable moments as a leader for me. There are hundreds of those moments every day where I can teach people or others can teach me. As a leader it’s about, how do we do that teaching? It’s not about whether or not we will be doing that teaching. We’ll have countless opportunities and we’ll also have countless opportunities for other people to teach us. It’s about how are we going to take those inevitable moments of growth and realize the potential in them because it’s going to happen a lot. Let’s embrace that and let’s grow from that.
What’s really interesting as I’m listening to you is how often people don’t want to say or share where they “messed up” because there’s a fear that I’m going to be judged or made wrong or maybe I’m putting my job at risk, versus a leader who actually allows people to understand, builds enough trust so that people will come and bring those issues and bring them openly. What do I need to do as a leader? What does the CEO of their business, or the VP of Marketing or Sales or what have you, what do they need to do to allow their team to be that open?
From my own personal experience, I not only openly admit when I make mistakes, which I have no lack of opportunity to do. I also engage my team and I ask them what could the next step be. I truly value their input and I give them opportunities to give that input. Not only do I want them to see me grappling with the goals that we set for ourselves and the task that we have at hand. Not grappling in a negative way, I just want them to see the effort. I want them to see what we’re putting into realizing the goals that we’ve set for ourselves but I also want them to weigh in on them and I want them to help. I think that is probably a missed opportunity within the executive world, within the leadership realm, is that we don’t allow the people who we are engaging with on a daily basis who technically might be reporting up to us to actually openly influence us.
That’s a beautiful thing because that’s why we have teams of people. Being a senior leader is not about having all the answers. Being a senior leader is about getting the best possible results and the best possible performance out of our teams. Why not extract that knowledge as often as we possibly can? You’ve seen our work in an environment around here, Hollie, you know how literally and figuratively, intimately we worked together just due to our space and how we get along with each other. I really do take those opportunities to engage in conversation with our team about a challenge that we’re having, getting their ideas and implementing them in a strategic way to see how we’re going to move the needle.
I love what you’re saying Matt because one of the things that you said early on is that we have to model the behavior. What you’re actually doing is building a conversation vehicle in your normal day-to-day manner of being that sets that example and allows others then to follow that example.
That to me is part of the fun of being a leader, giving them something to aspire to. I really do draw distinction between aspiration and inspiration. I think inspiration is all around us. I can be inspired by somebody who summited Everest. I may not do that. I probably won’t summit Everest in my life, not because I wouldn’t want to but it probably won’t happen for me. If I can actually aspire to do something that’s someone else is doing, because I see that it’s achievable, it’s attainable and it’s realistic, that to me is what I’m going after. I’m actually much more interested in having my team feel like they have aspirations rather than inspiration from me. That’s what I like to focus my energy on and the type of attitude that they’d like to bring in any environment that I step into, is that being this way in the world and treating people in this fashion and having this type of an attitude and outlook is actually something that you can do. You can actually start doing it right now.
The interesting thing as I’m listening to you is this is a very intentional strategy. It’s not just happenstance. It just doesn’t occur because you’re a good person. It’s something you’ve thought about, you’ve planned a strategy around and you’re executing too.
I don’t think you need to at the same time have this written down in an actual strategic plan. I think it can just be your own personal intention to either steer into a strength that you may have or to steer into a space that you’ve never explored before to see what it can do for you. I may have told you this at previous points in our conversations together, Hollie, but I am by no means a natural or a native extrovert. I’m very introverted. I am by nature very shy. I have found that when I take that type of an approach and when I strategically think in that way, not only do I end up having more authentic, more interesting engagements with people, but I tend to do better. My projects tend to go better and things tend to be much more successful when I really think strategically in that way about how I’m engaging with people.
That also goes back to investing the time and finding your purpose. If I know my purpose, and it’s got to be a real purpose, not something that I’ve just read from somebody else, it’s got to be what’s unique to me. I’m working towards that and I developed a strategy around that, how much impact can I yield.
I couldn’t agree more.
I’m so appreciative of you giving us your time and sharing some of your experience. What I’d love to leave with are two questions. You’ve talked about how you’re actually more in favor of aspiration than inspiration. Why is it so important for a leader to focus on that aspiration and/or inspiration?
I probably hit on this in some capacity but to me, it has to do with what is achievable. You want to set goals and you want to set a type of a feeling around you that people actually feel is attainable. For me, when I think about the difference between inspiration and aspiration, it has to do with aspiration being rooted and what people can actually grasp on to feel like they can achieve. I love it. I get inspired when I see LeBron James throw down a hammer dunk but I know I’m not going to be able to do that. I would definitely aspire to be as good to people and as wonderful of a leader as some of the men and women that I’ve worked with in my career. I can see that I can treat people that way. I can have a method of approaching my work and my team so that makes them feel good about what they’re accomplishing. It makes me that much more happy and fulfilled in my professional life.
At the end of the day, that’s employee engagement for all of us; the people in the leadership role and the people that want to be the individual contributors. It’s all about feeling like you’re contributing. If you had to leave our listeners with one suggestion on a book that they have to read or a thought leader that they have to read, what would you share with them?
I’m so thrilled to do this podcast with you because I am a huge podcast consumer. I probably listen to podcasts multiple times a day; whether or not it’s on when I drive to work or whether or not it’s when I’m doing some chores around the house, which is definitely a lot of what I do these days considering I have two young kids. I spend a lot of time with the ear buds on listening to podcasts. The one podcast that I listen to that has given me an immense amount of food for thought both in the world of business and also just in the world of even potentially spirituality and just a way to be in the world is this podcast called the Rich Roll podcast.
Rich Roll is a fascinating guy. He brings on business leaders, he brings on authors, he brings on athletes, he brings on world leaders, political leaders, he brings on a whole slate of fascinating people for long form two-hour, two and a half-hour conversations with him where he really goes deep. I’ve learned a lot about the world of business. I’ve learned a lot about the world of leadership. I’ve learned a lot about the world of entrepreneurism and about a way of actually engaging in the world that has truly given me aspirations on how I can be with people, how I can be in business, how I can be with my family and even how I relate to myself. That’s a good one for me, the Rich Roll podcast.
Thank you so much for sharing that. For people listening, you can follow Matt on LinkedIn. Matt, thank you so much for making your time. It’s always about people first, profits follow.
About Matt Spooner
Matt is the Vice President of Operations and Marketing at McDermott & Bull, an executive search firm headquartered in Orange County, California. Matt oversees the firm’s efforts to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with senior-level executives from throughout the country.
In addition to partnering with McDermott & Bull’s various consultants on their marketing efforts, Matt oversees the firm’s Executive Network, a community of ~9000 executive members from across the country. Matt and his team plan, promote, and produce ~300 networking events a year for their members, who come from nearly every major industry and functional background.
Prior to joining McDermott & Bull, Matt spent most of his career forming relationships with influential contributors to various non-profit entities, whose markets he helped establish in Southern California. These entities include United Synagogue Youth (USY), American Jewish University (AJU), and Jewish National Fund (JNF). Matt is an avid endurance athlete who has competed in several marathons, ultramarathons, and triathlons. Matt received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001.