John Phillips: When Opportunity Knocks, Be Conscious

John Phillips joined Tekara in the spring of 2013. A seasoned business leader, John was a founding member of Selkirk Financial Technologies, which grew from a tiny startup to a five-time Fast 50 tech company that was eventually acquired by Thomson Reuters.

John and I took a moment last week to talk about his time at Selkirk, how he got into organizational development, and what is driving him these days.

What was it like to build a company from the ground up?

Well, that question really takes me back. In the beginning, it was all about the excitement of creating something new that was not in the marketplace and displacing some of the long-standing vendors. We did not think much about “building” or where we could be in five or 10 years, we just grew opportunistically and responded any way that we could. Sometimes we were in way over our heads.

It was a lot of hard work and fun. I got to wear a lot of hats (at the start, there was only 4 of us). I remember a time when we had made a last minute decision to attend an industry conference, but we had no marketing collateral. So, three nights before the conference, I taught myself how to use Microsoft Publisher and created a series of one-pagers to describe the modules of our technology. And I was heading up Client Services – there was nobody officially managing marketing so we rolled up our sleeves and made it happen. Our CEO edited and we published just in time.

What made you successful?

One part luck, another part being in the right place at the right time (maybe, more luck?). The last piece was determination without arrogance; we were fortunate in that many of our competitors were not so humble and had their heads in the sand; this created opportunity. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell that sighted that many successful leaders started by being in the right place at the right time. And we had to learn the hard way that to succeed, you need to embrace your mistakes and learn from them.

What was your biggest learning?

Two key learnings stand out for me. First, beware of self-perceptions. We thought that our key to success was client satisfaction. When we finally got around to measuring this versus our competitors, we were not nearly as far ahead as we thought.

Secondly, always incorporate people into the picture. You can offer the best technology in the market, but that’s not enough. You have to ensure engagement from all of your stakeholders – investors, employees, suppliers and customers. It sounds simple in theory; yet we often see these stakeholders in competition with one another. There is a way to reframe this so that everyone benefits.

How did you land in management consulting and leadership development?

In both cases, somewhat by accident. In university, my major was finance and I held more than a bit of contempt for my studies of organizational theory. I thought it was pretty fluffy and irrelevant. I landed my first corporate work doing long-term planning using mainframe systems. I had an aptitude for building systems although it took me many years to realize it was not my passion. Through consulting and working with clients, I reinforced the insight that no matter how great a system is, it is destined to fail if it ignores the human factor.

Luckily for me, I have an outstanding mentor and best friend who guided me through some key insights. And then an opportunity in our organization emerged as we embarked on a period of rapid growth. I assumed the leadership of Organizational Performance which merged IT and HR. We grew from 35 to 85 people in one year and it became essential to create an infrastructure for developing and communicating with our people. I was able to collaborate with my mentor who had left IBM and founded a leadership development organization. So my entry into the practice of organizational and leadership development came from the practical rather than theoretical side.

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What is Conscious Capitalism? What fires you up about it?

My first exposure to the term Conscious Capitalism occurred about a year ago when I signed up to hear John Mackey, co-CEO and founder of Whole Foods speak at a conference on this topic. I remember thinking “what a great term.” Yet I didn’t really know anything about its definition. As I listened to John speak, I realized the principles were the essence of my philosophy around effective leadership, good business, and making a difference in our lives.

I start by describing Conscious Capitalism as a ‘movement’ that engages leaders around a set of principles or tenets that include:

  • Recognizing that we have a higher purpose that serves to engage us and bring meaning to what we do.
  • Treating all stakeholders — investors, employees, suppliers, customers and communities – with respect while recognizing the interdependence of these relationships.
  • Creating awareness around conscious leadership and culture.
  • Seeing our organization as a conscious entity — like a person with a soul — to guide our actions aligned with our values rather to hide behind an anonymous company.

And I appreciate the skeptics who state this sounds good and well intentioned but that in business, to serve shareholders, you have to focus on the bottom line, which does not jive with the tenets of Conscious Capitalism.

That’s when I pull out the statistic that over the past 10 years, the average company of the S&P 500 has returned less than 5%, while “Good to Great” companies as defined by Jim Collins (well executed but not focused on soul) have achieved about 8%, and “Firms of Endearment,”companies that have lived the principles of Conscious Capitalism have returned almost 25%.

Why did you decide to create a conference on conscious capitalism? What do you hope to achieve?

When I shared the term Conscious Capitalism with a group of 12 business leaders, only one had heard of it previously, and he couldn’t describe what it meant. So the conference, LEAD with Conscious Capitalism, is designed to create awareness around the movement, the principles and ideally, to enable leaders to incorporate the tenets into their businesses.

As leaders, we have a huge impact on individuals,  society, and the planet.  This footprint can follow the principles of greed and self-interest; or, if we choose a path that is based on the principles of Conscious Capitalism, we have the potential to make a positive impact and money at the same time, hence our tagline “Profit at its Best.” Some may consider this naïve, so my goal in hosting this conference is to expose mainstream business leaders to a community that has excelled with this philosophy and prove that it not only works, but is the future of business.

 

Nathanael Baker

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