Phil Soran is a bold leader who knows himself very well. Not in a braggadocios way but in a confident, warm, and engaging way. Before committing to the actual interview, Phil wanted a conversation and asked me more questions than anyone I’ve interviewed to date. I thought that was great! And interesting.
Through our two conversations, I met a leader who is curious and confident and has a clear point of view. And he has a marketing orientation to the way he sees the role of a leader. This culminated in a statement he made near the end of our interview: “I tell people that come to me all the time, ‘Figure out your differentiators, name them, brand them.’”
Do you know your personal brand? Can you name it?
Set boundaries for what you will and won’t do
Phil, with two engineering partners, created and built Xiotech which was sold to Seagate. The three founders did it again, building Compellent, going public on the NYSE and selling to Dell. Today Phil is primarily a philanthropist (focused on education), investor, board member and mentor to many company leaders. The entrepreneurial spirit is still there – he recently founded a new video collaboration company called Vidku. He founded this company with two other entrepreneurs, Jim Leslie and Charlie Miller, and is very active as the executive chairman. Check the company out – Vidku.com.
Like all entrepreneurs he worked (works!) very hard. But he set boundaries that really helped him keep life and priorities in check. “I started two companies. You always hear about the person working 100 hours a week. I worked really hard, but I also chose to coach my kid’s sports teams for over 15 years. You learn discipline: if you commit and there are 12 girls waiting, you can’t be late!”
What boundaries have you set for yourself that help you focus and get the most out of any effort?
Focus on what TO do, not what NOT to do
“I started out as a math teacher and coach. It’s the same with adults as kids; teach them what TO do, not what NOT to do. People talk about ‘constructive criticism.’ I found it always better to help people build from their strengths. Emphasize the positive.” If you’re interested, Phil has a TED talk where he explains his (branded) philosophy, “Think, Live, Be Positive Aggressive.”
Listening to Phil’s point here while watching his TED talk, I started reflecting on so many people I’ve met who are in some state of defeat, because they are working in a system of don’ts. Where performance reviews are about the negatives – or the positives are so buried in a list of competency ratings the real strengths of a person are lost. It is a really simple but powerful idea to change whatever feedback you’re going to give from the negative (don’t) to the positive (do) and what a difference it will make.
So let me ask you, are you a DO person or a DON’T person? If you aren’t happy with the answer, what do you want to do about that?
See yourself as others see you
I asked Phil a question that I have asked others: Do you think of yourself as a bold leader? And, why or why not? “YES, I do” was his reply without hesitation. “People tell me this. I’ve heard it many times. It comes naturally to me, I think, although it is different depending on the role I am in and the environment. Bold leadership as the CEO is one thing. Coaching or governing as a bold leader from a board seat is completely different. The CEO has the mantle – the title and position to lead. The board member should not be telling the CEO what to do, but plays an important coaching role that does require boldness to be effective. Sometimes you need to cause action where others can’t.”
Phil went on to describe what he calls a “spider sense” and how it distinguishes bold leaders from others.
“I have worked with some strong leaders, but I wouldn’t call them bold. Bold leaders have a gut feel, what I call a ‘spider sense’ that guides them. They are able to create something bigger than the group believes possible: They can create a vision AND bring it to life.”
Do people tell you (in so many words) that they see you as a bold leader? If so, do you claim it? Hopefully “Yes, I do” is your answer, too!
Bold leaders stand out for what they do and the culture they inspire
In another interview with another bold leader, Sam Yagan, he made this same point that Phil brought out: Boldness comes through action and sometimes it’s “BOLD” simply because it hasn’t been done before. Even the simplest of things.
“You can help people be more effective, be stronger, but you can’t really flip people out of their core style. When I’m interviewing, I am listening closely. If someone brings something up three times – for example, they don’t do well with office politics – chances are they are the cause of the political stress wherever they currently are working.
Another example, you see people in many settings preaching the loudest. When this happens I think ‘The more you have to talk about it, the more likely you don’t have what it takes.’”
We talked about many more bold topics, too many for this column, but Phil ended our conversation paraphrasing Maya Angelou and this bold leader notion of doing: “You may not remember what they said or did but you remember how they made you feel.” Bold leaders create a “positive aggressive” culture and give you energy that you can hang on to and appreciate.
I’ll sign off today with one last question for you: Are you aware of the culture you create around yourself and the energy you provide to others?
Please share your thoughts on any of the questions above – or ask any questions this conversation with Phil sparked for you.