This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?” As he writes in his introduction to this series, “There has been some incredible wisdom and teaching shared on topics such as; the definition of leadership, how to lead, and what it takes to develop leaders. But, I have found little on what it is actually like once you get there.”
I received a phone call from a reader and a friend. She had just accompanied John Leahy, president and chief operating officer of KIND Healthy Snacks, on a call with a key retailer. “You have to interview this guy,” she said. “He has so much energy and personality.”
As a fan of the product and an admirer of their grassroots go-to-market strategy, that was all the encouragement I needed. I spent much of this interview with a smile on my face. He made my job easy. I would just ask a question and sit back and listen.
In his book “Do The KIND Thing,” founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky describes John as “folksy and friendly.” John is an executive who believes in two things: “Straight talk, which means transparency, and speed to market, which means winning.”
I found John to be passionate, honest, raw and funny. He is one of seven kids, a really good athlete in high school, a three-sport captain. As I listened, I could see how that shaped who he is. He said, “I am really competitive. I like to play offense, and I like to win.” My friend was right, John was a blast to interview, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
What keeps you up at night?
“Culture is such an important part of KIND and who we are and what we are trying to do,” John explained. The company has been in a rapid growth mode, adding over 160 full-time team members in the past two years. He said what he lies awake worrying about is “maintaining the culture and protecting it”.
As a follow up, I asked him what he does to “protect” the culture and the team he has worked so hard to build. “I’m very fortunate in the fact that everybody who joins KIND or works for KIND is granted equity, a financial stake in the company.” He explained to me that this fosters an ownership mentality and “creates an environment where everyone wants to work together and win together.”
Who do you think with?
“My first go to is Daniel,” the founder and CEO. “He is probably the best entrepreneur I’ve interfaced with in my career. He is the one voice I really depend on. While we are very different, we’re each other’s mentors.”
I asked him what happens when he and Daniel don’t agree. He said, as he laughed, “We agree to sleep on it. Then we go behind closed doors and we work it out. While we approach things very differently, our end game is the same.”
How do you deal with doubt and fear?
He wanted to make a discernment between doubt and fear. “Doubt is an after-the-fact circumstance,” John said. “I’m not afraid of making a mistake. Where doubt creeps in is when I make a mistake and things didn’t go according to plan. That’s when I start to doubt the decision and reflect on what I could’ve done to enhance the decision or what I didn’t consider that I should’ve considered.”
He shared that he uses self-reflection to help him set that doubt aside and move forward.
“Fear is a very different emotion for me. It’s a self-inflicting emotion for me. Did I give it the right amount of focus, was I all in? Can I put my head on the pillow every night and say that I represented the day with the same qualities that this brand and this company stand for? That is a fear that drives a competitiveness in me that I don’t necessarily think is bad.”
What do you do when you are wrong?
“The first thing that I personally do, and I really encourage my team to do from a leadership standpoint, is ‘the buck stops here.’ So, I admit I am wrong. I encourage my people to just stand up and say, ‘I made a mistake.’”
He then got quiet for a moment, struggling for how to phrase what he planned to say next.
“I don’t have patience for excuses. We all make mistakes. The first part of learning is admitting. It is not dancing around the mulberry bush, it’s saying, ‘I made a mistake,'” he laughed. “You’re going to make mistakes. Nobody is perfect, Elliot. I’ve met met a lot of people who think they are perfect. You can hear their egos coming a mile away.”
How do you make time for the other important things in your life?
“I make time for the other things in my life on the weekend. The only other important thing in my life is my family. I wasn’t home a lot when the kids were young. The minute I get home Friday night, my iPad and phone go into a drawer. I don’t look at one thing over the weekend until Monday morning on the train. I just got back from a 10-day vacation with my family. I did not answer or look at one email. I have a very unique ability to go off the grid in its truest form.”
What have you learned about connecting and motivating people?
“I’ve learned that not everybody comes at problems and initiatives the same way. So, I’ve learned, quite frankly, how to be a little more patient and little more open minded.” John chuckled and then said, “I used to be a quick trigger, a quick gun, and thought I knew it all. You need to listen to your team members.”
Does it hurt when others say negative things about you?
I was surprised by his answer: “Yes it does, immensely.” I was certain John, who was so self-assured and had such a strong personality would not be affected by the comments of others. I shared that with him. He responded by saying, “I process it in a form that that person is uninformed. That they don’t have all the facts. Doing so makes it very easy for me to give them a pass and move on.”
What do you want people to know about you?
“That whatever it is, family or company, I don’t do it unless I am all in. That can be a good thing, and in some cases that could be a bad thing because I wear it on my sleeve.”
He added, “Whether it is a friendship, or business relationship, whatever it is, I want people to know that my heart and mind are all in. I give it everything every day that I have, and my heart is always in the right place.”
KIND has 10 tenets. You can see John’s hand in their construction. Tenants such as purpose, grit, transparency, keeping it simple. There is a little of him in every one of those. He has a big personality and a raw and brash exterior. But, after two conversations, I couldn’t help but be swept up by his passion, his desire to win, and do the KIND thing.
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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief and Linked2Leadership. He serves as a thinking partner, providing clients with the clarity, focus, and tools needed to make good people and product decisions. He helps clients build lasting relationships with their customers, develop leaders who make others feel heard, cared for, valued and respected, and most importantly grow.
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