John Spence talks failure, success and the importance of corporate culture
The author, business consultant and professional speaker is impressed by the level of innovation in Alberta
by Jim Kerr
Over the past two decades, John Spence has experienced his fair share.
From failing out of college to becoming a CEO at 26 and eventually launching into a career that would take him around the world, Spence is well qualified when it comes to helping business owners take things to the next level.
Alberta Venture recently sat down with Spence to talk about success, failure and the state of Alberta’s business culture.
Jim Kerr: Let’s start with some background on you – how did you get your start in the business world?
John Spence: After failing out of college on the first try, I graduated in the top 100 of all college students in America the second and went to work for the Rockefeller family at one of their private foundations. At the age of 26, I was named CEO, overseeing a company with offices in 20 countries around the world and reporting directly through Pete Rockefeller III.
JK: Was there a turning point between the first go-round in college and the second?
JS: There was a very clear turning point: I had gone to the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, and failed out miserably. I went to apply at the University of Florida, which at that time was a good school but not a great school, and they literally laughed at me. I’ll never forget – the woman took my transcripts and said ‘We don’t take people like you,’ and I remember walking down the steps of the registrar’s office, sitting on the corner and crying. I realized my parents couldn’t fix this; it was my fault. I had caused it and if it was going to get better, I had to turn it around. I had dreams of being a successful businessperson and travelling around the world and I knew that I wasn’t going to get there without a college education, so I better turn things around quickly.
JK: What was it about that experience that drove you to reach the next level?
JS: It was the flat-out rejection of, ‘We don’t take people like you.’ That was a thing where I said basically I was going to prove her wrong. I don’t know who that woman is, I don’t know where she is today, but she did upset me enough that I decided I would turn things around. I just decided right then, and it’s a great comment, that I would become an expert on success. Obviously I was pretty good at being unsuccessful, so I started reading, studying, learning everything I could about how to be successful in college, in life and in your career and basically became a fanatic for it. That’s when I started my process of reading 100-120 books a year on business, success, career development, personal development and I’ve kept it up ever since then.
JK: Was there ever anything else you considered as a career before coming into this line of work?
JS: It’s interesting because I never, ever expected to be in this line of work. I’ve owned or run 10 companies, so I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life. I always thought I would just run businesses and the truth of the matter is, even though I do a tremendous amount of professional speaking, I don’t really like being in front of crowds. I still get nervous, I’m awkward, I don’t like everybody looking at me, but years ago I took over as CEO of a large training firm, and as part of that they asked me to make some presentations. [When] I came back to the owner of the company to say, ‘I’m ready to take over as CEO,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry, but all of our clients want you to present, so you’re not going to be CEO. You’re going to be a presenter.’ I went ‘That’s not really what I signed up for,’ and long story made bearable, I found out that I was good at it. I still get nervous 17 years later, but I like teaching and I like helping people and because I have a real good skill at synthesizing things, making complex things simple, it seems to be a way to help people take really difficult information and apply it quickly.
JK: I imagine the experience of being a CEO at 26 puts you in a different class from a lot of people in terms of experience. Does that help you relate to the audiences you speak to?
JS: I was in way over my head when I became a CEO. Luckily, Mr. Rockefeller had a right-hand man named Charlie Owen who basically became my mentor. I had an education that few people get. I had three billionaires on my board and everyone else was worth more than $100 million. I had Don Tyson of Tyson Chicken, Greg Norman the golfer, Mr. Rockefeller and a few other names no one would recognize, but very wealthy people. All of them helped me, all of them gave me advice, all of them gave me input, but Mr. Rockefeller’s right hand man, Charlie Owen, really, really mentored me. They allowed me to make mistakes and they taught me a ton. They would put me on a jet and fly me some place to sit in a negotiation or watch a business deal close or something and just say, ‘Sit and watch and learn,’ which is the best way you can learn.
JK: You mentioned that you read at least 100 books a year and listen to 30-50 audiobooks. How important is it to stay on top of the latest business trends?
JS: I’m at a different level because my job is to do this, but for the average business person, the idea of life long learning, being committed to being really good at your craft and understanding what’s going on is the thing that separates the good from the excellent. People who are okay at their job come in and focus every day and try to do well at their job, they’re going to do well. People who expand their horizons, who are bringing in new ideas, who are reading, studying and learning [will do better]. And it doesn’t have to be 100 books. Literally if you read one book a month, 12 books a year, for self help or business improvement, you’d be in the top one per cent in the world. Twelve books. One of my goals was to be on the top of the game, I’ve been named one of the top 100 business thought leaders in America three times, I have to do that amount of homework to keep at that level. Luckily, I enjoy business very much and I really like what I’m doing, so it never feels like work or it never feels like I have to read. I’m excited to read the next book or listen to the next book because there could be some really cool ideas that I can take and go help the people that I help.
JK: The workshops you held in Edmonton and Calgary were about turning great ideas into action. What were the main principles of that talk?
JS: There are two main principles: the first thing I taught everyone is what I call the formula for business success, something that I created. That is: talent plus culture, plus extreme customer focus, times disciplined execution, equals business success. You’ve got to have great people, a winning culture, really own the voice of the customer, get really close to your customer, and then execute efficiently. The second part, which is the ideas into action, is all around execution, which is probably the biggest problem I see in most businesses I work with. There isn’t a lack of great ideas or creativity, but there’s a tremendous lack of the ability to take those ideas and create a culture of accountability and a culture of disciplined execution to turn them into reality in the marketplace.
JK: One of the problems we see regularly here in Alberta specifically is the labour shortage. A lot of businesses have to not only fight to attract people, but they have to fight to keep them. So that winning culture I think is probably a very important thing in a market like this. Would you agree?
JS: Oh, absolutely. All the research and all my experience shows that as long as you pay someone fairly, which would be 10 per cent above or below what they would make to do the same job any place else, as long as the compensation is reasonable, culture is what attracts top talent. People want to go work with cool people doing fun projects, where they’re engaged, where they enjoy the people they work with. As long as you pay them about what they would make to do the same job any place else, if the culture is fantastic, that’s what brings the top talent in.
JK: How hard is it to change the culture though?
JS: Changing culture can be difficult. The most important thing to remember is, for the most part it’s the employees who set the culture. There are more of them than there is of the boss and if they decide they want to have fun, enjoy each other’s company and do good work – they can decide that on their own. I’ve been in several companies where they had maybe 100-200 employees and I said, ‘Hey, there are 200 of you and two of them, and if you don’t like the way the boss runs things, you can just decide that you’re going to create your own great culture.’ The other side of that coin is that a really smart business owner or business leader should understand that culture equals cash, and that culture is a competitive differentiator. If you create a culture that attracts the very best people, you have now done something that will allow you to have a much more successful business. Hopefully the leader figures it out and does it on their own, but if not, you can overrule them and say, ‘We’re going to have fun whether you want us to or not.’
JK: Have you identified any other kind of difficulties that business people in Alberta are facing?
JS: I wish I could say it was totally unique, but it’s pretty much the same thing I see around the world. I can list from the class I did in Edmonton, because I asked them what their weaknesses were – it was not doing a good enough job of listening to our customers, not owning the voice of the customer, not having enough open, honest, robust communication internally, tolerating mediocrity and then execution. That’s, for the most part, what I see pretty much everywhere I go. I could add in there sometimes a lack of a clear vision. I had a couple of business owners come to me and ask, ‘How do you set a vision for your company and communicate it throughout the organization?’ But if I look across the scope of businesses I work with, from Fortune 100 down to mom and pop startups, it’s the same issues, just more zeros.
JK: From what you’ve seen and heard from being around Canada and Alberta specifically, what are your thoughts on where Alberta is at in terms of its business culture?
JS: I see a lot of innovation [and] it makes me very happy. The folks here, I think they think small, but they’re starting to think bigger. I’ve had several people come up to me and ask about how do you scale up an organization, how do you get bigger, how do you attract more capital? I think they understand that they’ve got the basics down pat and they’re doing a good job, it’s just how do you grow that and add a few more zeros on the back of it. I saw people trying to take it to the next level, wanting to scale, wanting to increase the size of their organization, wanting to be more professional. The flip side of the coin is pretty much everyone I ran into was kind and thoughtful and serious and wanted to do a good job, and you couldn’t get a better business culture than that.