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Fulfillment Based Leadership with James Laws

A conversation with James Laws | Audio InterviewVideo Interview 

We have James Laws with us today, and we're going to be talking about fulfilment based leadership. And in the pre interview, James and I were talking a little bit just about kind of what fulfilment means in the contemporary business world. And there's a lot of initiatives that kind of get around it. But one of James' beliefs is that a lot of the contemporary understanding doesn't quite get there because, for example, if we talk about work life balance, well, people don't necessarily want to have, like, a work life and a personal life. They want to be doing something that integrates with their life so that they're not necessarily having to leave one and start the other at any given time. James, please introduce yourself. And. Yeah, let's keep the conversation going. 

Yeah. Well, first of all, thanks for having me. It's an honor to be in Terminal Value. I really appreciate it. Yes. I think you said it really well in the introduction. Right. Is that the old way of thinking about business doesn't work anymore so long. We think about as we're trading time and money. Right. We think of this as just as an exchange with people. But the people that we hire, we hire to be whole people, not part people. We don't just hire their professional skills. We hire their personal experiences. We hire their backgrounds that we don't have. If we're trying to create a diverse organization, we want more than just the skills that they bring to the table. And we don't just want their time. We want the best use of their time. We want them to be able to create a little work when they are at their best. And that means we have to think broader than just are they engaged? Do we have butts in the seats? I started my business on site like everyone was in an office. And I realized when we switched to remote and our company all went to their home, everyone basically went to work from their homes. I started to realize we were measuring the wrong things. Like you start to fool yourself into thinking that your business is being productive because there's butts in the seat and there's people typing on keyboards. And so obviously work must be getting done right. But we weren't measuring the right objectives. We didn't we're setting the right goals and people were working harder, not smarter. And I know that's kind of a cliche term, but I think it's true right. There is a way that we can help people work when they're at their best. And so this idea of work life balance, nobody wants a work life balance. We want our whole lives to win all the time. First of all, work life balance is a misnomer, right. I'm not professional and personal. I am a leader. I'm a son, a father, a husband. I'm all of these things all at the same time. And I bring all of me into my work. And don't we want that from the people who work for our companies? We want all of them. 

Well, I was just thinking that's the reason why people self select into entrepreneurship, and that's the reason why people will choose to work for a smaller company instead of a bigger one, is because they want to want people or they want a situation where there's more of your soul in the game as opposed to more of a contractual relationship. But one of the examples that when you were talking that I thought of that's kind of that's related, but a little tangential. But one thing I should say, that the tangent rule that I have for my podcast is I say I'll allow any 32nd tangent, no questions asked, and I'll go up to two minutes if it's a really good tangent. So I'm going to try this to 30 seconds. But one thing that I saw was that in my corporate career, a lot of people had this really big thing about offshore. So what they do is they take a group of heads and they say, okay, we're going to source them out of like, Malaysia or Costa Rica or India or China or wherever. But what they would do is they would just say, okay, we're just going to take this thing that this 20 head group is doing, and they call it lift and shift. But what would happen is you'd send us over to Penang in Malaysia, and a lot of people would have these really vague job descriptions where basically they'd have to just sort of figure out what was going on. What was going on and a lot of people who they sent this scope over to were like, okay, well, what do you want me to do? Well, we just kind of want you to figure out. Figure it out. They're like, okay, well, figure out what well, just figure out how to get what people need. Okay, well, what do they need? That's what we want you to figure out. And it just ends up being, I call it wasting time for less money. Before you decide you're going to offshore or before you decide that you're going to send scope over to employees, you need to have it very well defined because otherwise you'll end up burning a lot of time. And I think what happens is when people are on site, you can kind of get away with that because you're there for people to consistently get clarification. On the other hand, if you're only on the other side of, say, a slack channel, it can be a lot harder to get clarification about what's going on because they don't have that consistent stream of consciousness by having you right at the next desk or write down the hall. At least that's my observation. I don't know if that tangent aligns with what you've seen or not.

No, I think that is absolutely correct. I found myself when I was in an office and I didn't have information. I could just yell down the hall or walk in somebody else's office and get the information. And when we went remote, I realized if I have to bother someone to get the information I need to do my job, then I failed. Like I didn't plan ahead. I don't know what I'm doing. I didn't gather the information, I didn't do the research. I didn't understand the project well enough to even start it. And now I'm bothering everyone else. And let's be honest, whether it's a slack message, an email, a phone call, or I walk into your office in the building, I am causing you to contact switch out of what you're doing to help me do what I want to do. And that's just bad leadership. It's bad management. It's bad work.

Yeah, exactly. Because that was one of the other things I saw all these articles, people saying, oh, well, with the remote work, we found out that people can beat people are just as productive remotely as they were in the office. And I thought I could well, that's certainly very possible. Or it's possible that maybe people weren't actually as productive in the office as you thought. And the level of productivity remote is just as low as it was when they were on site. Well, I think there's some truth to that, right? People are not nearly as productive as we think.

I think this whole idea of an eight hour straight work shift is not healthy anyway. I can't work and hold that longevity of 8 hours straight and actually do my best work. I work in chunks and blocks and in cycles. So when I wake up in the morning, my 1st 2 hours, I'm extremely creative, I'm extremely productive. But then I have to walk away. I need to do something else. And a typical office environment doesn't give you that flexibility. It's kind of like you're stuck there while you get your 15 minutes break. But I want to go run for a half an hour. I want to get on the treadmill. I want to do something to get my mind away from the work. 15 minutes just isn't enough. So we ascribe to a flexible work schedule. I don't know what anyone on my team is working ever. I just don't know. I go into my tool, I may send a message, but I know that I don't actually expect a response for 24 business hours. I may get one, but I might not. But they have what they need. I have what I need. And I've set objectives. We've agreed on the objectives that we're trying to reach. So I don't have to wonder if they're working. Because the truth is I don't care if it takes them 3 hours. If I agreed on the objective and you agreed on the objective, that's the work I want to get done, we agreed on this. Now, if we find out that it's always 3 hours, we start making adjusting those objectives. Obviously, we can aim higher, we can go for larger goals. But you figure that out as you work. But we ascribe to that kind of flexible work schedule because I want people to work when they're at their best and they can work out less and get more done. 

Yeah, well, I personally, of course, this resonates with me because I think that really is the future facing model because, for example, in a lot of the old kind of archaic work models, you would have, say in a family unit, you'd have one person who essentially was chained to the office all day. Typically it was the husband, but not necessarily, especially with evolving work trends now Well, I think there's a couple of things you're seeing. One thing you're seeing is that obviously you're seeing many more dual profession households where both people are full time engaged and you're also seeing a lot more situations where both parents want to be engaged in their kids' lives. It isn't going to be okay, I work and you take care of the kids or you work and I take care of the kids. It's more of a mutually shared type of environment, which I think is more healthy overall anyway, just because otherwise then both parents really have engagement with your kids, with their activities, et cetera, as opposed to you only see dad in the morning before work and then after 06:00 at night. I don't think that's all that healthy. 

Yes. And that's exactly how I grew up, right. My dad was a truck driver and he was up at three or four in the morning and didn't get back until seven at night. My day was mostly wrapped up when he was getting home and he was spent. He was tired. He was selling fuel oil all across the country and around the city. And it was a grueling job. But that's exactly how I grew up. And that's the way our family was. Now, my mom was a homemaker. She stayed home and she raised that. So I saw her, but I barely ever got to see my dad. And now in my family, I'm here all day and my wife is here all day. And so when my son is home, he has access to us 24/7 the other ways we try to work around that. And you see this in corporations is the idea of the four day work week, right. It's being very popular. People are talking about a lot. And I actually hate the idea. And I'll tell you why I hate the idea, because my life doesn't happen only in the three days you have decided on the days that I get off. So if you are a company that says, oh, we just take Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and we give everyone a three day weekend every week, that's nice. I like the idea. I like the spirit of it. But the problem is my kid doesn't only have field trips on Friday and my kid doesn't only have school things that happen that I need to be at on Friday. Sometimes it's a Wednesday afternoon, sometimes it's a Monday morning. And I need the flexibility to be with my family. That's a choice I've made as a business owner. And I recognize in order for me to give my team fulfilment, it's the same flexibility I have to give to my team

Yeah. And I think that really is kind of where the future model is headed. If I kind of think of it almost from a historical entomology perspective. Long, long ago, kind of pre industrial revolution, you had a lot of people basically operated family farms, which is where you would have the entire family unit, meaning husband, wife, children, pets. Everybody had a job, everybody had a job, everybody had to work, and everybody had to figure it all out. Whereas I think with the industrial revolution, people, everybody urbanized. And then there was this construct came in, which is where you would have, say, one person again, typically the husband again, although that construct is changing. We would have a full time or full and a half time occupation. And then it's like, okay, kids go to school so you can get your degree so that you can be qualified to go have a full and a half time occupation so your kids can go to school, get your degrees, and be qualified for a full and a half time occupation. Now, this isn't to say that higher education shouldn't be sought. Of course, it's definitely beneficial. But I think that the model, that industrial model that this is all based on, I would say it's breaking, although it might already be fully broken. I don't know if I'm overstating it, but I think what we're seeing right now is that the industrial model is kind of finally falling apart.

I absolutely agree. And I think the pandemic and the great resignation is kind of an example that's accelerating all of a sudden all these corporations have sent their people home to work because of the pandemic. And the people have decided, oh, you mean I can actually do my work and get it done from home? Why should I ever go back to that environment? And corporations are calling people back and people are voting with their feet and saying, no, I'm going to go somewhere that affords me the flexibility. And the truth is there are lots of places that afford that flexibility now, and it's only going to get bigger now. It's taking the corporations and the larger corporations a lot longer to get there. But even they are starting to see the kind of the winds change, and they're always going to fall a little bit behind. Right. Because it's harder to move a big ship. And so to make those adjustments. It's going to take longer for them. But the small businesses are now just deciding we're just going to start remote, we're going to start flexible. There's no reason for us. I didn't I made the mistake. I knew because I came from an old school philosophy. I was in office all the time. I understood what it was like to work in an office environment. So I started my business that way. But eventually I came around and I saw, wait, there's a great opportunity here, not just for me, but to give to my team. And so we moved in that direction. But I agree with you, I think the winds are changing. That way of doing work is broken and people more and more people are starting to realize it.

Yeah, exactly. Well, and because, like, I would think from a competitive perspective, like, for example, say you're trying to find somebody who said just a couple of years out of school or so the prime candidates for large corporations, what the Corporation offers is going to be the career path. You're smaller business, you might not necessarily have a corporate BP career path, but if you say, hey, look, we're going to start you out remote, and then we'll work this around your life so that, for example, if you decided you wanted to have a family or something like that, you'll be able to work your life around your family as opposed to the other way around. I think that's very appealing. 

Yeah, I absolutely think that. And there are still going to be people who want the title, who want that traditional career ladder. And small businesses are changing. Right. Where there is room for that to adjust. And you can find a career, even if it's stepping from business, small business to small business into higher and higher roles. We see people do that all the time. But more and more, I think people are less concerned about whether or not they have the title. And ultimately, in my model for fulfilment, I asked three questions of my team members. I say, do you love the work that you do? Do you believe the work that you do matters, and do you see the progress that you have on what matters? And if they can answer yes to those three things, I know that I have a team member who fulfill and is happy. Now, do we have to pay them, although those are table stakes. Right. You have to pay a good salary, you have to have good vacation, PTO policy, you have to have a paternity leave, all those other things. You have to have those things. Those things are not. But those are the table stakes. Now, that's expected. If you want to get good

That's cover charge at the club. 

Exactly. 

That's what you have to pay before you get to the two drink minimum. 

Right. But there are fewer companies who are saying when you come into my company. I want to find out what you love, what really gets you excited, because at the end of the day, I don't want you depleted. I want you full. I want you to be excited at the end of the day to say I can't wait to start tomorrow and do it again and solve more problems and stuff like that. So I want to know if they love it, do they believe in it, and do they see the progress that they're having? And ultimately, those are the things I'm trying to create. I'm trying to create purpose, passion and progress. And if I can create those three Ps and each and every one of my team members, I know the business is going to be okay, because if I take care of my team members, my team members will take care of my customers, and my customers will make sure my business is around for a very long time. 

Yeah, that's excellent. Well, because one of the things that your conversation was just kind of making me think about as I was introspecting sort of on my transitions, I was thinking, okay, because I spent 20 years in a corporate career path, that's quite a while. And so I'm like, okay, what was I really looking for? Of course, a lot of people say, well, you want to ascend, okay, well, why? Okay, well, so you can earn more money. Okay. There's more than one way to earn money. Okay. Well, you're looking to be able to earn money while you have the feeling of safety from a big company, and then you have some kind of title that confers importance. And so what a lot of it really comes down to, at least in my view, was that external validation. And I'm like, okay, well, is that really that important? Do I really need that external validation, or is it just like a psychological crutch that kind of helps me to feel better about the fact that I'm not really getting comfortable with the chaotic nature of real life? Those are some of the things that I was thinking about. 

And I think you're spot on. I think culturally, 

we have been trained what success means, and so we've been sought to seek status and title and more money instead of actually introspectively looking at our lives and saying, what do I hope to get out of the life the years that I have.

I have a limited amount of years on this planet. What am I looking to get out of this life? And how much do I really need to make in order to get that out of them out of my life? And how much status do I actually need to get that out? You find out it's not much status. You don't need a lot of status to get what really matters to you out of your life. You actually don't need a lot of money either. There's a certain level cap of money where I think it's like they said something, after you make $75,000 a year, everything above that is not really impacting your happiness. You've already gotten rid of most of the stress levels at that point. So now that you have rid of the stress and so you just move on from there. So 

I think we have to change what we define as success and help people define success in greater ways and to small businesses.

And I hate to say this, titles are free. They don't cost anything. Right. I tell people all the time, if you want to stay an engineer or stay as a marketer or stay as whatever role you're in and make a lot of money, you will continue to grow. We don't put caps on those things. If you're great at what you do and you are amazing at what you do, you're going to continue to make more money whether you get a title or not. If you want a title, we can work it out because titles are free. They don't cost anything. 

Yeah, I will do title in lieu of pay. Ten days out of ten. 

That's easy. If that's what you care about. We can make an arrangement.

 Because I think the thing that I ultimately kind of came through my self analysis is I was like, okay, why am I putting so much of kind of myself impression into someone else's, into what somebody else says? Why is that external validation holding so much weight with me? And I don't know that I ever really got to the answer to that question other than thinking it really shouldn't, because otherwise you just end up revolving your life around someone else's validation. It's like, well, but it's your life, your life, and you have to live it your way. And I mean, if your way is looking for validation from someone else, I guess. But I think a lot of people just kind of go after that outside validation without really thinking about, okay, what do I really want out of my life? 

Yeah. And I think there's another phase to that, too. Right. You talk about what kind of external validation you want, but before you can really answer, what kind of external validation do you want, you need to ask, who do you want that external validation from? Who's important to you in your circle? Who is really important to you? Is it the coworker? Is it your boss? Is it some person or some other Corporation? Is it your business peers, or is it your spouse? Is it your children? Is it your friends? Those are the people I want to respect me and think highly of me. And they get that by me spending time with them and being generous and kind and being me, because that's why my spouse married me for who I am. Obviously, she thought I was good enough like that. I've gotten her approval. I need to just nurture that relationship and not worry about people who, let's be honest, don't ultimately matter, like what they think of you

No. Precisely. Well, we went a little ways of field from the other fulfillment based leadership, but I think that was what I would call a value added tangent. Let's bring it back to our team. Absolutely. Just give us a few more thoughts, kind of on how we tied it, because I think the way that we've been unpacking this is really to say that your work life is a lot bigger than just the job that you do, because if we assume that you're going to be around for more than six to twelve months, then that means your work life and your life life are going to inter, mesh and cross over quite a bit. And so to me, it really comes down to being deliberate about how the two of those things are going to work together. And I think that you've obviously come up with a way that really works for your business. And I think that a lot of people listening to this, the challenge to the listeners is to find a way to really incorporate that convergence of work and life so that they're not separate entities, but so that they really kind of work together seamlessly. At least, that's my thought. Don't let me talk for you. 

No, I think that's it not every business can do this. I'm lucky. I work in the tech space for most of my business. I have a brick and mortar coffee shop as well, which is a little more challenging to do some of these practices, but we try to implement them as much as we can. But a lot of it is this idea of finding out how your team wants to live their life, what's the life they want to live, what do they ultimately want to get out of it, both professionally and personally. And then you think about it. We say this all the time in small businesses. Small businesses are job creators. We don't think about the fact that when we create a job, we are creating the job. We're not borrowing a job description from some other business. Some of us do wrongfully. Just grab and copy and paste the job description. But if you're doing it right for your business, you're creating and fashioning and designing a job, not just for the company, but for the person who's going to fill that role. So when you hire somebody into a job, you're first hiring them to the kind of the generic idea of the role. But then once you get to know them and you know who they are personally and where their different strengths and weaknesses are professionally, you have to start continuing shaping the role. That's not something you do just when you're hiring. You do this throughout their career. You continue to shape and mold and design based on their changes in their life that they have kids? Did they just get married? What are the things that are changing in their life and how do you help them fashion that role and create as much flexibility as you can? Obviously, you still have objectives. You have goals. The business has to get its work done. It's got to serve its customers. But I promise you if you make the priority their lives, shaping the work around their lives they will do great work. They will do amazing work and they won't burn out and they won't fizzle or rust out. And just like disappear from you they'll stick because they recognize that you actually care about them and that you're invested not just in their professional growth but their personal growth. 

That's awesome. That's great. Well, I don't think I can top that. So I'm just going to ask you to let us know where we can learn more and how people could connect you on social media.

Absolutely on social media. I'm pretty much James Laws everywhere. There's a few places that I'm not but if you search James Laws, you'll see this bald mug as a picture and you'll know exactly that. You found me. I hang out mostly on ciircles.com that circles with two i’s. There you can sign up for my newsletter, I send out leadership and team advice. We talk about a lot about fulfilment and of course, I have a podcast myself called Leading to fulfilment where you can hear from a bunch of people talking about this very topic. 

Outstanding. Outstanding. Well, James, really appreciate your time today. 

Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been an honor.

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