The Leadership Game Plan: How Jeff Walpole Of Phase2 Builds Trust


What do you think makes people follow a leader?

John C. Maxwell, the author of 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, explains that many leaders maintain a misguided philosophy when it comes to leadership:

  • To be in charge.
  • To make the organization run smoothly.
  • To make money for shareholders.

Regrettably, this is the prevailing thinking in today's corporate culture, and it's wrong. Leadership is not about subtracting from your team it's about adding value to your team.

What Are The Two Secrets To Becoming A Great Leader?

If you ask Jeff Walpole, CEO at Phase2, if he has always been an effective leader, Walpole would chuckle and proclaim, "Absolutely not!" For Jeff becoming a good leader has been an evolutionary process and one where he has failed more than succeeded. Walpole has not allowed failure to define his leadership. He has leveraged failure to succeed in becoming an effective leader.

And becoming an effective leader requires the knowledge of two leadership strategies:

  • Leadership Strategy #1. The surest way to become a great leader is to model a great leader. If you're not modeling someone, then go out and find the best leader in your industry, and find out what makes him great. Once you have learned everything you can, find out who he learned from, and that becomes your next leader to model.
  • Leadership Strategy #2. Ask for help, seek out leaders that have already achieved what you are trying. Ask what they are doing right and more importantly, ask them what they have done wrong. High achievers are busy so before you ask them to add value to your life -- add value to their life.

Does Pedigree Define Your Level Of Success?

Walpole has become an effective leader because he has taken an active role in his growth. Jeff is committed to mastering the two leadership strategies as well as becoming more self-aware. So if you are in the market for a leader to model, Jeff would be a solid start.

Leadership has little to do with pedigree it has more to do with what you do, consistently, to become the leader you want to be. So let's get into this interview with Jeff Walpole, CEO of Phase2.

The Interview

So Jeff, what's your story?

The interesting part of my story started in 2001 when I found myself and my team out of work. We were working for a web company in the late nineties building .com sites and suddenly found the company shuttered around us when the bubble burst. We took it as an opportunity and started Phase2 with the only client we had left, which happened to be the NFL Players Association, a great client whose leadership helped enable our incubation.

Now almost 15 years later, we have grown the company to 150 people working from 4 offices across the country. I have served as CEO throughout that time and learned most of what I know about leadership from trial and error during that growth.

Why should leaders lead? And when they do, what is their first responsibility?

I think there are two aspects to leadership - one is forward looking and the other is looking back. Forward leadership is about going somewhere and bringing others who believe in what you do along the way. Your primary responsibility as a leader in this mode is to inspire others to believe the destination is both possible and worthwhile. Backward leadership is about making sure that others are equipped to follow.

This includes ensuring the organization has the right people, skills, resources and systems in place to make the journey. You have to balance both perspectives and provide alignment between them so people understand the connection.

That starts with shared values that help to shape the way the journey progresses. The key is to both communicate and live those values and make sure others do as well. While leading with values often seems ethereal, using a common set of values to lead is actually quite tactical - day to day decision making, management and interpersonal interaction can be guided by your choice of values and the team’s adherence to them.

For instance, one of our shared values is “collaboration” which we use to guide our communication style everyday and to make determinations about who to hire, promote and (if necessary) part with. People who exemplify collaboration tend to thrive in our environment and as a result help to guide others.

How does a leader build trust?

Building trust is perhaps the most important and often most difficult aspect of leadership because smart people are hard wired to question - and you need smart people to help you lead the rest. It is imperative that employees trust a leader to avoid dissent and constant questioning of the direction - letting everyone move forward together confidently.

Personally I believe in using authenticity to build trust - that means not being afraid to admit mistakes, weaknesses and having the humility to act and interact with everyone genuinely. I also believe that transparency builds trust.

If you show everyone the information you have to make decisions and guide direction, they will more readily be able to understand the result of those decisions and get onboard. Of course trust is also built by having the conviction to make difficult and important decisions and to act decisively - no one trusts a leader who constantly equivocates to try to please everyone.

How are you making things better for the people who follow you?

Everyone needs both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and motivation to be happy in their work. The intrinsic aspects are usually self explanatory - champion fair compensation, benefits, treatment and rewards. On the extrinsic side, I believe part of my responsibility as a leader is to help everyone see the value in the work they do.

Day to day stress, complexity and adversity can cloud anyone’s visibility into the progress and good they are achieving. A leader needs to remind everyone in the organization they are making a difference. People in leadership positions can do a lot to make others feel fulfilled because they have a better vantage point on progress.

Also, it is your responsibility to create career paths and opportunities for others to expand learning and challenge. Last, but not least, is the simple job of saying “thank you” and providing proper recognition to individuals and teams when they deserve it.

What are you currently doing to develop your leadership?

First and foremost I am working on self awareness by getting feedback from my colleagues. There are times when I have realized that what I construed as leadership was not as effective as I might have believed. As is often the case in learning, I find that listening to and observing great leaders is a great way to learn.

I love studying how great leaders have made difficult choices and handled adversity. Also, I try to read everything I can on leadership and when time is short I rely on podcasts, blogs and articles. For the last three years, I have engaged a “coach” that I meet with every other week - I share my recent challenges and she walks me through my approach, communication and thought process.

Sometimes that devolves into a “therapy session” but it allows me to share frustration and doubt in a private setting so I can try to emerge with a more positive attitude for my team. For what its worth, I believe I have always been a better leader than manager - the latter is probably what I should be studying, but that’s a topic for another article.

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