An Interview with Karen Mangia
Being Humble: Great leaders are fantastic listeners and are constantly picking up ideas from others and learning. We mentioned this before when we talked about having a Growth mindset. Great leaders are not afraid to identify how they can personally improve or how their organizations can be better led and inspired. In fact, they are constantly seeking ways to improve, which empowers the entire team to contribute.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Adolfo Gómez Sánchez.
Adolfo is an Ivy League Graduate from Yale, complemented by three decades of studying scientific research on performance. As CEO, he has managed teams of over 300 members and has led post-merger integrations, transformations, and turnarounds. He also has over 35 years of martial arts training & coaching with professional athletes in sports such as tennis, track & field, motor racing, soccer, & football.
By building Gold Results — he and his team are the go-tos for driving optimal performance that allows any team to finally operate at its maximum potential.
Adolfo’s life and work reflect his motto, “Impossible just means no one has done it…YET!”
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be able to share with your readers. I’d say there are two “new” projects I’m really focussed on now, and they’ll give you an idea of what really lights me up and motivates me.
The first transition I’m working on is the growth of our company. We’ve doubled in size each of the last two years, and now we need to jump up to another level. This is fun but also requires us to challenge our own paradigms (which are part of our DNA). I’m really excited because we’re consolidating our reputation as the GO-TO for optimal performance, and that’s changed the dynamic of how we interact with the market. More and more, we’re getting called by athletes and corporations who are interested in working with us. It’s really fantastic. The metaphor I use is going to the gym. The first couple of months, you’re working hard but see few results. The groundwork is being laid underneath the surface, but it takes a while for the results to become visible. In our case, it’s been years of obsessively working to help our clients improve their performance, and now all that work is coming to fruition and the market begins to identify us as THE key reference for driving optimal performance
The second thing is personal but very related. I’ve been training and competing my whole life across multiple disciplines. I’ve been practicing martial arts for over 35 years; I played 2nd division football, competitive tennis, etc. I truly love discovering and modelling what drives performance and testing it out on myself. I’ve often told clients, I’m my own laboratory, which gives me confidence that the methodologies we use drive results. So a few years back I had an operation because of an inguinal hernia, and it messed up the fascia and alignment around my hips. Now when kicking high is part of your core practice, like it is for me, that creates a lot of challenges. So I started working on recovering and improving my flexibility and strength in end ranges. I rehabbed fully (and actually improved beyond where I was before), but what I found is there’s a whole world of knowledge and science about real mobility which most people, even most professional athletes, don’t know. So I jumped down the rabbit hole and have been
working with experts around the world to learn and apply this knowledge that I was missing. I’m working with a wonderful former professional dancer and she knows so much about deep tissue mobility and it’s been so rewarding. So I’m just having a blast. I love having a beginner’s mindset and learning new things.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
Wow, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. I try to identify admirable traits in as many people as I can. I guess one person who is an absolute titan of a human being and has influenced me is my friend Toñejo Rodríguez.
He is probably the strongest human being, mentally, I’ve ever met, and a spectacular, kind, and generous person to boot. Toñejo was a racing champion in motocross, quad, etc. Anything with wheels that went fast. He had an accident that left him in a wheelchair, but instead of giving up, he found a way to drive himself further and grow with every challenge. After the accident, since he couldn’t use his legs to stay on a motorcycle, he began racing jet skis as he could tie himself and needed just his arms to accelerate and brake. He went on to win the Iberian championships and recorded the pole position at the world championships. Everyone else competing there could walk, so he tells the story of being on the podium and looking left and right and seeing people standing while he was in his wheelchair. He called his Dad and when his father asked “How many handicapped people were in the race”, Toñejo answered “None. I’m the same guy, just sitting down”
That’s just one of a million stories but he’s the personification of the principle that it’s not what happens to you that defines you, but the meaning you give it.
Having a friend like that takes away any excuse you could ever give yourself for why you can’t do something.
On our web, you can see an interview I did with him a few years back https://www.gold-results.com/articles/tonejo-rodriguez-gold-standard humans
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s your biggest mistake as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
At one point in my career, I was CEO of a 300-person company. I remember thinking I was “living the dream”. The only problem was, it wasn’t
my dream. It was my mother’s. I was miserable. That’s where I understood that to really lead, you need to be authentic.
This was about 25 years ago, but the moment I decided to leave and follow my passion, I stopped feeling pressure because I was so engaged with building this company into being the reference for optimal performance and I’d say I was in “flow”. It’s, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of Flow would call it, an “autotelectic” experience, which means you do it just for the pure joy of the activity and don’t worry about the outcome. The funny part is I stopped worrying about financials and just spread my mission and it became contagious, and the company just began growing by itself. People said they were drawn to the passion and belief we transmit that we can change the rules of the game and help people take performance up a level from “really good” to “World Class”
So, the lesson is to be authentic. Even if that doesn’t fit in a nice, clean box, and you have to forge your own niche, that’s actually a good sign. As out motto says “Impossible just means no one has done it…YET!”
So remember, no one will ever be a better “you” than you are, and you’ll never be able to engage people on a mission if your soul doesn’t express it in every action and every decision that defines you and your organization.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved? What does it mean to be a leader now?
I think you can see that in my official title. On my business card or e-mail signature, or on my profile on our web, you’ll see CEO crossed out, and below the title I go by, which is Chief Passion Officer. This is much more than a cute marketing trick, it’s a declaration of how I see leadership and
what 30 years in the trenches have taught me. When I speak with clients, this is always something that comes up. I believe my role as CEO is to have a powerful mission and rally ridiculously talented people who are passionate about the same mission, and create the best environment for them to release their talent and deliver amazing results.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behaviour you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
I’m almost embarrassed that I used to do it, but when someone didn’t perform up to expectations, for example, if they didn’t hit their objectives or they delivered below the standard we expect, I think my interactions were such that they felt pressured, instead of rallying around the person and figuring out what needed to improve. The underlying assumption I realized
is that generally speaking, when someone “fails” at something, it’s the last thing they WANT to do. Really, we treat people like they did it on purpose and we seem to believe that by upping the pressure, they will then do it. But it’s the opposite. It just makes it worse.
So I’ve adopted the leadership approach of the best sports coaches I’ve ever seen. When something doesn’t work out, my first order of business is an open discussion to try to understand what went wrong. Do they have the necessary skills? If not, can we train them? Did we communicate clearly or did they have doubts about what “success” looks like? If so, can I reestablish that? Do they need additional resources, both in terms of volume or specific know-how/skills? Then we start working on a plan to fix what’s not working, and that plan is the responsibility of the person, but also of the rest of the organization, and ultimately mine. We’re a team and success of failure belongs to all of us.
Related to this point, I’ve also come to see performance evaluations as a completely different concept. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be a once-a-year thing, but needs to be an ongoing dialogue. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s research has proven that mastery is the result of thousands of hours of deliberate practice (10.000 hours is the estimated minimum time he identifies). The key is not just any practice, but “deliberate practice”, which has a series of key traits such as pushing beyond your current capabilities, breaking skills into component parts, and using continuous feedback to refine technique. People need that continuous feedback and mentoring from experts to refine their performance and improve. The current corporate model is outdated and resembles more a sweatshop, stick-and-carrot model than what the science of performance has proven really moves the needle.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
I believe you need to constantly have a plan to improve yourself as a leader first, only then can you credibly implement any improvement in the organization. I think that’s one of the differentiating factors of how we see performance: it’s not about how good you are, but how good you SHOULD become with your given talent and resources.
Many people get to “very good” and then stop growing. That’s what I call being satisfied with “good enough”, and it’s an attitude that I despise because it means you’re not realizing all your potential, and I think the real scoreboard in life is whether you achieve everything you are capable of and leave nothing in the tank in the process of striving for optimal performance.
To hold teams to this higher standard, you need to lead by example.
It’s the opposite of what most executives do. Instead of protecting your ego and saying “I’m the CEO, I need to have all the answers” or “I’m not expected to need to improve anything”, you need to adopt the mindset of top athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Rafael Nadal, etc. who continuously drove themselves to improve, even when they were already “successful”.
I often ask CEOs, what’s your 3-year plan to improve as a CEO? They usually give me a blank stare. Why is that? The athletes I just mentioned were as “famous” and “high profile” as any CEO, yet they all had plans they constantly reviewed to improve every part of their game throughout their entire careers. That’s real leadership by striving to be your best and, as a result, you inspire everyone around you to hold themselves to a higher standard.
What advice would you offer to other leaders stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
I’d say the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s brilliant book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” should be a mantra for top performers. What you’ve done is fine if you only want to go up to where you’ve gotten. If you aspire to something more, you need to up your game and change some things.
This is why Dr. Carol Dweck’s Growth mindset is so powerful because it impacts how you view the journey. If you have a growth mindset, you view the things you need to improve as opportunities to grow and improve. They become “mini projects” to keep refining the masterpiece that is your life’s work, and I believe human beings need to be growing and learning in order to feel alive. That’s why so many people get to “good enough” and stop, becoming disengaged in their jobs and just going through the motions.
The opposite of a Growth mindset is a Fixed mindset. Now remember I said this affects how you view struggle? If leaders have a fixed mindset, the meaning they give when they point out an improvement area is to become defensive. The reason is that a fixed mindset is rooted in the belief that you have a fixed skill level and can’t really vary that, so every test is a “pass or fail”. That’s why we need leaders with Growth mindsets, because then we can help them identify what and how to improve, and they gratefully absorb the knowledge and happily get to work.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
I’d say the following THREE guidelines are key:
1) Be authentic. Don’t try to be the 30-year veteran. You’re there because you have shown skill and potential, don’t think you need to be perfect
2) Be humble, and as I mentioned before, develop and share a plan to improve as a leader yourself, and share it with your team. Ask them for inputs and to help you remain accountable (and really mean it). And seek out experts/mentors. They can get you up the curve much faster if you can put your ego on the coatrack for a while
3) Ask more questions and impose fewer solutions. Leverage your team’s experience. They probably know a lot that can help you, and if you include them on the journey, they’ll be much more engaged
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?
Interesting question. Here are my top five, based on the leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with in Sports and Business:
1. Passion: I believe leaders must be contagious with conviction and passion about the mission because ultimately, leadership is a transfer of belief. This links to what we said before, to be genuinely passionate, you need to be authentically you. It’s hard to fake passion about someone else’s dream.
Great examples are Steve Jobs who believed so fervently in his vision that he attracted incredible talent who wanted to help drive his mission and ultimately he revolutionized several industries.
In sports, Herb Brooks, who coached the 1980 US hockey team to Olympic Gold, is a good example. He was able to convince his team that they could do what was considered impossible and beat the Soviet team.
2. Fresh Eyes: I believe leaders need to constantly be looking for ways to improve performance. Far too often companies stagnate because of the “curse of success” and inertia, and they lose rhythm and find themselves becoming non-competitive. Companies like Blackberry or Smith Corona were industry leaders but failed to challenge their models and identify new trends, leading to their demise. So great leaders should constantly be challenging the existing paradigms. One exercise I use with clients when they get limited by their own beliefs is to ask “What may seem impossible, but IF IT WERE POSSIBLE, would raise your game to a whole other level”, and then we work on seeing how to make it possible. Leaders need to bring that and not be afraid of breaking what exists.
Examples here include Kobe Bryant when he scored 81 points in a game, and said “How can you inspire people by only showing them what they already believe is possible? To inspire, you must show them you can achieve what they never dreamt was possible”
In business, I’d have to repeat Steve Jobs, this time when he enters the music industry. Thanks to the fact that he was NOT from the music industry, he was able to challenge existing paradigms (eg: you need to sell the whole album, instead of letting people individual tracks), and ended up revolutionizing how the industry works.
3. Being Humble: Great leaders are fantastic listeners and are constantly picking up ideas from others and learning. We mentioned this before when we talked about having a Growth mindset. Great leaders are not afraid to identify how they can personally improve or how their organizations can be better led and inspired. In fact, they are constantly seeking ways to improve, which empowers the entire team to contribute.
A super example is Ray Dalio. Leader of Bridgewater Capital, one of the most successful fund management companies ever, he insisted decisions must be made based on the merit of the ideas, not the hierarchy of the person defining the ideas: There’s a great story where Ray was asked by one of his directors to attend a meeting with a client. Apparently, he hadn’t had time to prepare properly, and after the meeting, the employee send Ray an e-mail saying that he had been very disappointed and let down by Ray. What did Dalio do? He sent that e-mail to the entire organization indicating that THIS is how you need to hold your colleagues responsible and that the director was completely right and he (Ray) had not performed up to standard. That’s leadership by example!
4. Exceptional Communication: Great leaders are exceptional communicators. They make sure everyone deeply understands and lives the mission and values, and they are not shy about engaging with teams when that is not the case. They are also able to break down messages such that there is no confusion, and people understand exactly what is important and what isn’t. Finally, they are clear and transparent. If performance is not up to par, they make that understood (without spreading blame), and they help map out a path to improvement. When a leader decides to change a team member, it never comes as a surprise because the communication has been there, and usually, both parties understand it’s the right decision
Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh was famous for obsessively communicating with the entire organization, from star quarterback Joe Montana to the support staff that cleaned the locker rooms, to ensure everyone understood his “Standard of Excellence” and he famously said, if each team member performs up to that standard, “The score takes care of itself”.
5. Empathy: Great leaders understand what drives human behaviour and integrate people’s unique preferences and values into every decision. This applies not only to internal team members but also clients. Great leaders are curious about what their clients really need and what excites their limbic brains, then they figure out how to make that happen in a way that the cognitive brain can justify it and decide “I’m in! This is what I want”
Harley Davidson is a great example. The brand is so strong that not only do customers proudly tattoo it on their bodies, but it is so linked to their core identity, that they would never consider another brand of bike.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
LOL, That’s so cool! That’s the expression I used a few minutes ago when we were talking about Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory. I talked about seeing improvements as“mini projects” to keep refining the masterpiece that is your life’s work. It’s an honor to share views with the great John Wooden. So yes, I think that’s exactly the right way to focus it.
In my case, I’d say it revolves around my philosophy that I am my own laboratory. I try to consistently grow in key areas and expand my knowledge base by reading research, working with content experts, and engaging with people from diverse backgrounds that can bring me fresh perspectives and make me constantly examine and challenge my paradigms and how I currently train in order to find milimeters of improvement I can incorporate.
Then I try to be very Grit-sistent, which is a phrase I use to represent long-term consistency towards a unique goal. To ensure an objective perspective, I track my training/work so I can see if I’m doing the frequency and intensity I have designed as necessary.
All of the above seems obvious, but they are some of the keys to optimal performance, and the simpler the concept, the more people wander off the mark. Lack of consistent, focused work on a series of basics is one of the main things that prevents people from growing and progressing. The problem is we don’t have a system or mentor to keep us accountable, so I try to “coach” myself, as I would our clients. This gives me a lot of moral strength when I push clients because they know I do the work I’m asking them to do.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I’d like to be remembered as having had the nerve and conviction to believe in possibilities others could not see, and the passion, intensity, and courage to drive clients and team members beyond what they believe is possible to that higher level of performance. And as a result, I hope to impact positively on the lives of the people I meet.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
Either through our Website: www.gold-results.com
Or via LinkedIn Message, just message us on the GOLD account www.linkedin.com/company/gold-results/
or reach out to me directly https://www.linkedin.com/in/ags1101/
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.