Kevin Kruse should be dubbed the “Manager of Managers.” His company, LEADx, generates dozens of courses, webinars, articles, worksheets, and other resources for small business owners who are looking for managerial guidance. And with decades of company leadership under his belt, Kruse is the ideal mentor.
But the path to his current success wasn’t clearcut or easy. Early to Rise sat down with Kruse recently to talk about how painful business failures opened his eyes to the pain points of many small businesses—and how this ultimately vaulted him to worldwide mentor, author, and educator.
Birthplace: Redondo Beach, California
Education: BA Economics and History, Rutgers College (New Jersey)
First company: Advanced Software Products (defunct)
Specialty: Founder and CEO of LEADx, a provider of free leadership training and professional development for patrons around the world
Favorite book: “I was a big fan of ‘From Rags to Riches’ by Horatio Alger growing up. But I also enjoy the classic ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill.”
Favorite quote: “‘Life isn’t about making an income, it’s about making an impact.’ That’s actually one my own.”
Hobbies: “I’m a single dad with three kids, so when I’m not working, I’m taking care of the kids. I do try to get in time on the treadmill every now and then, but it’s tough.”
Guilty pleasure: Jameson whiskey and Netflix (“Game of Thrones, for sure.”)
You were ambitious as a college grad, starting your own company at 22. What was the idea behind it and how did you go about launching it?
First, let me offer some context. When I graduated college, my dream was to be independently wealthy. I thought, “Why wait?” So I rented a 10×10 office in an accounting firm—where I also lived. I worked my butt off, climbing under my desk at midnight to get a few hours of sleep. Then, around 5am, I would drive to the nearby YMCA, shower, and be back at work before anyone else had made it to the office.
As far as the concept goes, I wanted to work on computer games and software. But I wasn’t making any money. The company lasted all of one year, then tanked. I remember looking at myself in the mirror at the YMCA one early morning, deciding whether or not to renew my lease. This was in early ‘90s, when computer stuff was very exciting, but I just didn’t have a clue. And, after a year, I was out of money, out of time, out of customers. I quit.
What was the reason for your failure? A bad business plan?
There were actually two big reasons. First, I had no idea about leadership or the value of other people. I thought I was always the smartest guy in the room, and had no idea that the greatest business accomplishments come with “tribal effort.”
Second, I didn’t understand productivity. I thought it was all about the hustle. Gary Vaynerchuck and others have talked about the importance of hustle, but at the same time, you can’t just work non-stop. In fact, there are diminishing returns working on your own. You’re doing more damage than good when you work 24/7—you have no time to rest and recuperate.
At least you had a sense of why you were failing. But how did you stumble across the management and productivity techniques that ultimately landed you success?
It took me 10 years to realize I was screwing up on the productivity front, but I realized right away that business was a game and I didn’t know how to play it.
So, instead of diving into a new business, I got a job at a small software company that was focusing on corporate training. I spent a year working directly with the owner and ended up making the company $1 million, while also solving a slew of internal development problems. At the end of the year, I thought I’d get a raise and a pat on the back. But I just got a cost of living increase.
Now, that might have defeated me, but I learned a lot during my tenure at that company. I discovered the whole B2B marketplace, learned the language of the “business game,” and what to do (and NOT to do) to bring in top talent and create a thriving corporate culture.
As a leader, are you encouraging the personal and professional growth of your employees Are you recognizing their accomplishments? Are you trusting them to do their job well AND to value your own humble admissions of failure?
This led to another startup of your own, then?
There were several new companies that followed, actually. After several builds and failures (or sales), I sold the biggest company of my life—called Axiom—at age 40. When I made that multimillion-dollar deal, it was a huge day. I remember signing the papers, toasting with Champagne, and driving home to my wife to celebrate. We looked at our bank account together, recognizing a dream come true.
Sounds like a happy ending.
Not quite. While my wife and I were looking at the account, she said something very odd: “I could leave you tomorrow, take half of this money, and never work another day in my life.”
Within a year, that’s exactly what happened. I ended up a single dad, and with a multi-year non-compete contract in place, I couldn’t dive back into the same business.
But you were set financially. What more did you need?
I needed more than money. I had to ask myself, “Ok, now what? What’s my purpose?” Being a parent was my first answer, but the rest of the answer was: “Now is the time when I can start to give back. I can focus more on speaking, writing, non-profits.”
Which is exactly what I did. I spent about 10 years running a non-profit, working abroad with small business owners, and teaching people what I knew from owning my own businesses. I really just wanted to mentor leaders.
As you can imagine, this led to the launch of LEADx in January 2017.
Which is the official business around the mentorship you’re offering, correct?
Yes. It’s all about how to catalyze 100 million leaders around the world in 10 years. We offer plenty of business resources on our website, but the articles are more promotions for upcoming courses and programs we’re going to offer for young professionals.
Have you noticed there aren’t many of those? There are all kinds of “free universities” and courses for college-age folks, but what is there for young professionals who are building their careers? There’s so much fight and energy out there, but no knowledge about how to lead, sell, and manage. That’s what LEADx is about—I want to offer professional training and development anywhere, anytime. [Readers can also check out ETR’s online courses, available here.]
You talk a lot about “whole-hearted leadership” in your LEADx programs. What does that mean?
Put simply, whole-hearted leadership means bringing your whole self—including your heart—to work. It means being authentic—sharing mistakes and failures, not just successes. It’s about being open to criticism.
It also means loving your people. All of the greatest leaders love their people. If you look at the best sports coaches, they say things like, “I don’t always like my players, but I LOVE my players.” That’s a love for humanity, for personhood. Not just a love for profits.
Put another way: Don’t only bring your analysis, bring your emotion.
Bringing emotion to your job is only possible when you know yourself and what you want in life, says ETR Editor Craig Ballantyne. It’s not coincidence that the leaders who know their own strengths and weaknesses are also the best at bringing out the best in others—while also deftly navigating failure.
If anybody knows how to find your best self, it’s Craig. Read his advice on how find your own best self by getting a FREE copy of his book, “The Perfect Day Formula.”
Can you talk about the biggest pitfalls of business leaders today?
There’s a statistic out there that says only about a third of employees in North America are totally emotionally committed at work. That’s a failure of leadership. Too many companies promote managers based on domain expertise or experience, but the problem is that they don’t have the people skills to round that out. In a more holistic world, you have both.
This comes back to being a whole-hearted leader. I typically break this down into three categories: growth, recognition, and trust. As a leader, are you encouraging the personal and professional growth of your employees Are you recognizing their accomplishments? Are you trusting them to do their job well AND to value your own humble admissions of failure?
It’s about making sure employees feel certain about the corporate plan, vision, and direction.
If that’s the ideal, then what’s happening in workplaces now?
We have a bunch of task-oriented people with their heads down. The whole human element is gone. And the idea of a leader as a coach is also gone—leaders who are also mentors are not very common. That’s where I think a lot of places get it wrong.
The newest message is: Leadership is influence. We need to be mindful of how we influence others.
Let’s play devil’s advocate. What do you say to small business owners who don’t have time for this—the same ones who wear four or five hats while also being asked to be a cheerleader for their teams?
It takes very little time and money to lead wholeheartedly. It’s as simple as remembering to say, “thank you.” You want some baseline tips? Start here:
- Show gratitude.
- Be mindful of catching people when they do things right, not just when they do something wrong.
- Explain why something matters. Really, it just takes 15 seconds to explain WHY an employee is doing something. This gives their tasks meaning.
- Reach out to your employees every six months to talk about their career. Show them that you care about their growth and development—even if there’s not much you can do to advance their goals.
If you do this, I guarantee that you’ll have engaged employees. When it’s time for all hands on deck, everyone will jump into the fight with you.
There’s a ton of new technology out there that purportedly helps keep employees happy—most of them in the form of mobile apps. How does this fit into the “wholehearted leadership model”?
It’s never truly about the tool. We need the motivation to care before the tool is any good to us.
But in the area of employee engagement and career-pathing, there are beneficial tools that can be used. Real-time employee surveys are now being sent to tablets and mobile phones instead of collected on paper, while real-time digital dashboards on company culture keep conversations about workplace morale active.
But we need to be careful about technology. As I see it, the next big thing is the emergence of cognitive computing (or AI). My mission is to democratize management development, and AI can help with that. Heck, I see the future as a sea of IBM Watson-powered business coaches that are cheap enough to offer to entire teams. But is the technology going to give us the motivation we need? What about emotional connectedness?
I hear you talk often about the employee in this equation, and while your approach is clearly a “top-down” model, the manager-employee relationship goes both ways. So what advice are you offering to employees to help keep that relationship healthy?
I actually addressed that at a book talk not long ago. I noticed that managers were speaking up and asking about the role of their employees in changing the office dynamic. Because, as they asserted, it’s not all on them.
My response was simple: This is an equal partnership. So, if a manager is failing to lead whole-heartedly, employees should ask themselves how they can “lead up.” If they’re not being guided, then they should take the initiative to suggest a conversation or check-in with the boss. The same goes for gratitude—the more that employees show gratitude to others, including superiors, the more superiors will mirror it back. And let’s be clear—employees often don’t thank their bosses. If they did, can you imagine how that would change their relationship?
Dedicated time and conversation are important—magical, even. They can make the difference between a successful week and a week of confusion, lost productivity, and frustration.
Let’s dig deeper into the “emotional commitment” you’ve highlighted as a necessity for leaders. Does that make it difficult to draw relationships boundaries in the workplace?
I’m not talking about sharing unnecessary personal details. Ideally, when you’re leading with vulnerability, you’re being vulnerable with the people who have earned the right to it. And there are layers to it. If I’m running a mid-sized business and we’re having major cash flow problems, I will share that information first with my VPs, who have the most experience. And I’m going to be candid about the possible consequences of going under.
The next level down, I’ll share only the information that matters to employees’ financial health or stability within the company—not to mention whatever might change in their day-to-day responsibilities.
In other words, before you are vulnerable, ask yourself if there’s a point to it. It’s not just for sympathy or attention. It’s a way for your team to know it’s okay to make mistakes—while also working with the team to get past them.
Speaking of, what are your thoughts on a traditional work hierarchy? Do you think that’s going by the wayside?
There have been no-structure communal environments, but I think they are dying out. I have seen the gig economy trending, however. There are plenty of examples of talented people coming together for a project that lasts a short time, and that project has a lead.
But solid management is even more important in these cases. You have to give your workers vision and mission. How else can you ensure growth, recognition, and trust? How else do you motivate?
Lost of larger companies—and even some smaller ones—are creating work environments that encourage employees to build an entire life at the office. Google, for example, has been known to offer meals, fitness programs, childcare, and so on to make working at the office easier. What do you say to that dynamic, and more generally, the balance of work and home life in these instances?
I don’t have strong feelings one way or another about that kind of work environment. The research is clear, though—in the longterm, these perks don’t drive engagement. Employees will still take interviews at other companies if they feel they have no future where they are.
So what’s the corporate goal? I think these perks make it comfortable for people to work long hours. And sure, that works in the short term. But in the longterm, it’s short-sighted. Employees quickly lose balance and productivity, while their relationships suffer and they burn out.
What management challenges will we have to address in the next 5-10 years?
What comes to my mind is the AI issue. People don’t realize that robots aren’t just going to be building cars—they’re going to be our accountants, lawyers, doctors. Even creative careers will see replacements.
Overall, I think this is going to mean a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots. And if technology takes over the work force, what will leadership look like? I don’t have an easy answer.
Last question: If you were to give managers/CEOs one actionable takeaway today, what would it be?
Take time every Monday to have a brief one-on-one with each of your direct reports. These meetings can be a few minutes or 15 minutes, but make sure your employees have the opportunity to ask or say anything. Then, highlight their most important task of the week. Lastly, ask how you can help them accomplish it as their manager.
I talk to a lot of managers who say they don’t need one-on-ones with their employees—mostly because they work so close together. But that’s wrong. Dedicated time and conversation are important—magical, even. They can make the difference between a successful week and a week of confusion, lost productivity, and frustration.
For more information on LEADx, Kevin Kruse’s leadership training portal, visit LEADx.org.