96: Build a Great Leadership Team with Jack McGuiness

Jack McGuinness is the co-founder of Relationship Impact, a consulting firm focused on helping great leaders build great leadership teams. He is also the author of a new book, Building Great Leadership Teams: A Practical Approach for Unleashing the Full Potential of Your Team. We talk about the benefits of having a great leadership team, how to build trust inside a team, and why leadership is not about having all the answers. 

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Build a Great Leadership Team with Jack McGuiness

Our guest is Jack McGuiness the founder of Relationship Impact co-founder of Relationship Impact a consulting firm focused on helping great leaders build great leadership teams. He is the author of a new book, Building Great Leadership Teams. Sounds very similar, which was recently released on Amazon. So, Jack, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much for having me, I appreciate it.

No, it’s great to have you, and I’m very curious about this book and all the things that you’re gonna share with our audience. So let’s start with your journey. How did you become a leadership team coach? And what was the road that led you here? You told me about management consulting, your entrepreneurial venture. So, give us an overview of your journey, please.

So as I’m sure with a lot of your guests, it wasn’t a straight line, and it wasn’t necessarily intentional, but it’s kind of worked out for the better or the good, I think. So I’m a, I graduated in West Point. So I had an immediate experience being a leader, 22 years old of a bunch of infantry troops with the 10th Mountain Division, which was an amazing experience. Learned just a tremendous amount about myself. Some things I like, some things I didn’t like so much. And, and learned from some, some non-commissioned officers that were just really top-notch leaders.

And I learned how to be a good platoon leader. And there’s a lot of lessons I’ve learned from that that have been foundational in my career, no matter whatever turns it took. As far as my entrepreneurial adventure, I got fortunate right out of business school. I went to business school right after I got out of the army and looking for a job, as we all did. And I got very lucky. It was a guy that was consulting to my brother at Verizon. He was a senior executive at Verizon and had worked with him for years.

And he was a partner at Deloitte, started his own consulting firm. And I became one of his first employees and had the fortunate experience of doing two things, learning how to be a management consultant as an engineer with an MBA and some leadership experience as a platoon leader. But I learned the ins and outs of being a good management consultant as well at an early age from a guy that was a great mentor and a great consultant himself. But I also learned how to build a firm with him and some others from nothing. And that was a very cool experience too.

We built a very cool management consulting firm that competed with the likes of Deloitte and McKinsey sometimes and others that we often lost to but we had our share of wins too. And so I learned how to build the infrastructure of a consulting firm, learned how to manage the financials of a professional service business, which was a challenging endeavor of the fits and starts of growing any firm. And so that experience at a early age, I think I was probably 26 or 27 when I got there and it was just, has been foundational for me, for sure.

What about your next business? 

I wound up becoming the chief operating officer at this consulting firm, which as a side note, sold to Accenture a few years ago. I missed out on all that, unfortunately. But I had an itch, sort of an itch to own my own thing and take the principles that I had learned in helping other businesses and build my own. So I, with a couple of passive investors, I bought a contract packaging firm that provided packaging services, mostly club store kind of services for big consumer product companies like Unilever, Hershey, Godiva, among a number of others.

And just another crazy learning journey in my trajectory. It was a family-run company. We did a good job in turning it around, some new process, some new technology in place, some kind of redefining infrastructure. And yeah, we made some amazing headway in turning that organization around and then unfortunately got our butts kicked in the financial crisis of 2008. We’re over leveraged, very cocky, very confident in ourselves and it backfired. We got hammered pretty wide and had the unfortunate experience, although I learned a lot through it, of taking a firm through a bankruptcy.

And just learned so much though, again, you know, in terms of leadership about yourself, about how you treat others in an experience like that. And it wasn’t always rosy, it didn’t always go well. I did sometimes lose my temper and lost my cool sometimes, but mostly I had, I think I had a pretty good experience in managing through a very difficult time and taking care of people that work for me, taking care of creditors, all that type of thing.

So, Jack, my experience is that I also, my business also went through a very difficult time during the financial crisis where we almost went out of business. And I never thought that I would actually at some point in my career going to be able to make money using that experience. And what I have found is that the story of my trials and tribulations allows me to relate to my clients who are going through similar things or who are about to go through similar things. So did you find this as well? And what are the biggest takeaways from this experience that you are able to leverage going forward?

I mean, like you said to start, I work with the executive teams of small to mid-sized companies, and most of them are trying to figure out how to grow and trying to make it big. And so I think the experience I gained early on in building something and then buying a company and turning that around and then struggling, you know, it certainly I have some unique technical expertise and educational expertise, of course, but I also had some strong empathetic skills because I kind of felt the good and the bad of being able to, you know, build and grow something.

All right. Then you establish your next business, where you are training leadership and management teams. Why are leadership teams important? I mean, I’ve got some clients who think that, hey, I can make all the decisions. I don’t really need a leadership team. I need people to execute for me, but it’s not like a team of peers. It’s more about minions that can run the place for me. Is this how you see it, or you have a different perspective? And if so, why is a leadership team important?

Well, I think leadership teams are critical to, obviously, this is the hammer I have, right? So I believe in it strongly. I think what we see is that leadership teams are critical to both the health and the productivity of their organizations. And the balance that a CEO, and by default, her or his leadership team has to manage is that productivity and that health balance, right? It’s not easy and it’s never perfect, but those leadership teams that are pretty good at it, both managing performance and health and the culture of the organizations, have a, what we’ve seen is an ability to accelerate their growth and their goals, but the opposite is also very true.

Those that have not done a good job with that balance hold their organizations back. And there’s been this great study in 2015 or 16 by A.I. Hewitt on organizational culture, I guess it was. But the one thing that resonated with me from that study is that everyone’s looking at the leaders in the organization, everyone’s looking at the leadership team to see how, not so much how nice they are to each other, but how well they’re working to hold each other accountable for the best interest of the organization, not just the best interest of any one player.

And I think that that that’s that one statement is pretty telling in terms of that whole balance of managing health and productivity. It’s it’s not just it’s not just lip service. I think I think executive teams, leadership teams are critical and they can either help accelerate or hold an organization back.

Jack, when you say that managing the productivity and the health aspect, is there a tension between the two? I mean, does one negatively impact potentially the other or is it more of a synergistic relationship?

The aspiration is for, of course, for it to be synergistic, but I think, yeah, there’s definitely tension. There’s tension between, you know, we gotta grow. We gotta hit the results. We gotta end. And look, I’ve run two companies now as a COO and a CEO, and I get that tension. I feel it, right? The challenge is if you don’t create an environment environment where people want to be, that has a, it can get out of whack. Look, there’s some great examples out there of really somewhat toxic organizations being very, very successful with toxic leadership. But I think those are anomalies in my humble opinion.

I haven’t done the research on it but that’s my that’s my opinion. I have heard of organizations that are toxic but still productive high productivity that impacted the morale negatively. In fact, what I found was that when we had a lot of work and we were actually productive because we were forced to, we were juggling things, we were stretching. The morale was actually pretty high unless the team was so overwhelmed that they got burned out.

Obviously that impacted morale, but there was kind of this Goldilocks zone when people were in the flow, where the team was stretching, but kind of succeeding, achieving. And when we had less work, it was also kind of managing consulting business that I ran. And there was the impact of low morale, people got bored and then they started, you know, you know, doing stuff that was not relevant or was getting frustrated about things that really were not a big deal.


So, I wonder if the tension, how that manifests in your view.

I mean, I hear what you’re saying. I think success can mask difficult behavior sometimes and affirm maybe espousing a set of values, but those values get out of whack because we’re just having so much success, everything’s going great, so cut in the corners or not necessarily maybe treating each other with as much respect as we otherwise would or should, can get masks sometimes. And then you have setbacks and all of that stuff becomes a lot more visible. And so I sort of, I hear what you’re saying. I kind of, I kind of get, I hadn’t thought about it like that to be honest with you, but I get what you’re talking about.

Success can mask difficult behavior sometimes and affirm maybe espousing a set of values. Share on X

So, what are the secrets of building a great leadership team? You talked about the relational elements in the earlier conversation. So what are these?

So from our perspective, that point of view is that leadership teams are critical to the health and productivity of an organization. And we believe that there’s two sides of, we refer to it as two sides of the same coin of building a great leadership team. There’s structural dynamics at work or structural factors, and there’s relational dynamics at work. And both are very important, and they have a strong interplay with them, you know, building on our initial conversation about health and productivity, they, I think there’s a correlation there with that model.

Leadership teams are critical to the health and productivity of an organization. Share on X

You know, and structural things are, you know, they can be basic blocking and tackling, like, do we have a set of, do we have a rhythm that we operate under so that we’re not devolving into tactical stuff and putting out fires all the time, but we’re all able to stay focused at some points on where we’re taking the organization as well. Have we had thoughtful discussions about what the characteristics of a great leadership team member should be, right? Or are we just taking functional leaders, promoting them or sticking them on the team and hoping they perform as great leadership team members? And then there’s, you know, do we have a set of, you know, people call them norms, operating principles, whatever.

But I, sometimes I get my, people look at me, their eyes glaze over when I say that, but in our experience having discussions about how we’re going to behave together as a team from stupid things like showing up on time, not talking on the phone, typing while we’re having a discussion to making sure that we’re having direct conversations with each other and not petty stupid conversations outside of the construct of the team. So those types of principles are important. Even the discussion about what they are is almost as important as actually having them. And so those are structural things.

And then the relational dynamics are pretty straightforward when you hear them. They’re the most hard part of building any team, I think. Trust is critical, and not so much do we like each other, but trust in each other’s capabilities and trust in each other’s ability, your ability to depend on your teammates and trust in people’s character. Do they have integrity? Do they have honesty? Those types of things. And so, trust is hard. Trust is easy to say, it’s hard to build and it’s harder to rebuild, harder to repair. But trust is foundational if you’re going to build a team that has the ability to have tough conversations about the most important stuff you’re facing.

Trust is hard. Trust is easy to say, it's hard to build and it's harder to rebuild, harder to repair. Share on X

I really didn’t care if you have petty conversations about stupid things, but are we able to refocus when we need to on what’s most important, be able to challenge each other, you know, have differences of opinion with each other, and do that in a mature, productive way. Because ultimately, what we aspire for in every team we work with, and it’s usually an aspiration because it’s hard to get there, is a team that holds each other accountable without just the power or accountability in the room, or without just the CEO or the president in the room.

And that’s hard to get to. We haven’t seen a lot of teams like that necessarily, but that’s the aspiration. And I say, and there’s strong interplay between relational dynamics and structural foundations, right? If you have bad structure, it can lead to some bad relational dynamics. And then you try to put good structure in place and people don’t trust it. So it’s hard. It’s harder to get to. It makes it makes the environment very heavy.

So those sets of factors are very, very fundamental for the work that we build our houses and our houses build us. So, basically you create the structure which then will impact how you show up.

I’m going to steal that Steve, I like that one.

So, what you describe Jack, this I call it peer accountability, where it’s not the boss that is holding you accountable. And it’s actually easy to not be accountable because it’s a bilateral relationship. You can always come up with an excuse and excuses are really difficult to refute. But then you have a peer group that people are holding each other accountable, then all the excuses become meaningless because anyone can come up with an excuse. They fall away. And there is just the pure thing. Are you pulling the card? Are you showing up? Are you doing it for the team? Or you’re letting everyone down?


So, let me ask you, Jack, how do you achieve that? How do you create that trust? I mean, it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do. I mean, is it about the technique? Is it about the philosophy? Is it both? What do you do to create the trust? Or what do you advise CEOs to create the trust?

Sure. So first, most of the teams we work with were brought in to repair some, help repair some level of dysfunction. At the root of the dysfunction is oftentimes a feeling of mistrust. It’s not always mistrust necessarily, but it’s a feeling of mistrust. We sometimes get to work with new teams that are coming together. And so in either case, while attacked a little bit differently, there’s a few things that are very, very important.

And again, they sound simple. And sometimes, and some people might even say they sound a little flaky, but they’re not, getting to know each other at a couple levels deep of intimacy, I guess is the word. And what that means is at a first level, it’s do I understand where my teammates are coming from? How they see the world and how I see it and what’s similarities and differences there. Because what we see oftentimes is people point to mistrust and it’s not really mistrust, it’s really they do stuff differently or they approach things differently than I do.

So therefore, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me, so they must be doing something wrong. And it’s not necessarily that thought process that’s a linear, but it’s kind of what builds up in folks’ heads. And it really does get in the way. So, there’s lots of sophisticated and simple ways of attacking how do we get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and motivations, right? There’s lots of psychometric instruments that you can use.

There’s some simple dialogue that we try to force that is based on the sort of the theory behind those psychometric instruments. But really, using them as a vehicle for people to get to know each other a little bit better is really important. I think it’s foundational. And the other thing is spending time with folks. And I’m not talking about just going out to drinks and all that kind of stuff. Those team building kind of things are fine, but I’m really talking about getting to know people in how they work and how they approach what they’re part of the world is in the organization, I think is really important.

Using psychometric instruments as a vehicle for people to get to know each other a little bit better is really important. Share on X

So spending time as teammates, individually and collectively is important. And I often get pushback, I’m like, well, how do you do it? Well, just go ask, and go sit down. And you don’t really have to like the other person and like their approach, but you really do need, it’s part of your job to find out. It definitely is. So I think trust is really important in that. And that’s, those are some sort of tactics to get to the root of trust, for sure.

I mean, I agree with you. My experience is really important for people that spend time with each other. And during the pandemic when everything was virtual, I think we have eroded some of the trust by virtual just physically not being together. Yeah. And I recommend to my clients, and I’m pushing for in-person meetings. First of all, secondly, I encourage them to perhaps fly, and many of them are geographically dispersed.

You’ll fly the night before and have dinner together. Use this quarterly meeting to make sure that you spend some quality time outside of the meeting room together to build that camaraderie and that trust. Now, Jack, you talk about in your book, I’ve not read your book, but I read some part of it that you post on your website. You talk about the importance of a good composition for the leadership team. So what does that look like? How do you intentionally compose the leadership team?

So I think there’s this sense that for a lot of the CEOs that we work with, that just bringing together a group of experienced technicians in their worlds, chief marketing officer, chief financial officer, head of sales, whatever, that have good experience, good performance track record, that are the functional lead for a particular, a business unit lead for a particular area. Just bringing those experienced and talented people together is good enough. And I dispute that heavily.

I do think that technicians are critical. You have to be good at your job. There has to be, you know, capability of why you’re the CFO. However, I think there’s also some intangible things that are very important. First of all, as you rise the ranks in any organization, small one to a big one, the level of complexity increases and your ability to be able to manage complexity, make complex assignments, tasks, issues, and simplify them for those around you. I think that’s a fundamental. You know, I know you as a management consultant would agree that, like, I tell any of the consultants that work for me, like, that’s a number one, you got to be able to do that, right?

But as a leader, I think that’s huge. I think the other thing that’s really important, and again, it is somewhat intangible, is the innate ability to have foresight, to not just think about today’s issues, and to be able to think about what’s happening in my part of the world, the organization as a whole, and what potential environmental things are coming that could have an impact. And what are some of my thoughts on how to attack those things? And it’s not so much like a strategic planning discussion, it’s an ability to think like that and help the team that you manage think like that as well.

And so I think that’s another critical thing. I think the other one that we’ve touched on a few times here, not as directly as this, but is the ability to have a greater good insight or a greater good mindset. Now I’m on a leadership team, and I think this is one of the most fundamental parts of the characteristics of a good leadership team member, is being able to have a greater good mindset that it’s sometimes I have to put my functional role second to what’s best for the organization.

One of the most fundamental parts of the characteristics of a good leadership team member, is being able to have a greater good mindset that it's sometimes I have to put my functional role second to what's best for the organization. Share on X

Again, I know that’s hard. It is, it’s challenging, but those three things together are really critical. And I don’t think people spend enough time thinking about what is, because look, not everyone has those capabilities to start out, but if we have a sense of what needs to be developed in someone and the expectations are there for folks to develop those capabilities, I think it’s absolutely critical. Those characteristics I think are really, really important.

Sam Walter said that when they asked him what’s the secret of success, and he said, high expectations. So I agree with you, setting the expectation. And it is challenging for people to say, okay, this is going to be our number one team, it’s going to be the leadership team. And whatever we decide here, you’re then going to have to sell to your team on behalf of the leadership because you represent the company and we are working for the greater good of the business. And it’s easy to be a leader in your own team when everyone is following you.

And what you think is right is being followed. It’s much harder in a leadership team than just one of five, perhaps. And you may not get your way and the ultimate decision may not be your idea. And your job is just to voice your concerns and engage in the discussion and ultimately to support whatever decision is made, maybe by the CEO, and then to sell it and to represent that, it’s a really tough, really tough thing.

It’s not, it’s, if people are, human beings get in their own way and that’s one way we see a lot.

That’s great, great growth opportunity for most team members.

I think it is.

So what is the role of the CEO? Is the CEO just one of the five or four or six or however many, or do they have a specific role to play in creating the leadership team?

Sure, so when we start, my partner, Bill, and I started this thing in 2009, our viewpoint was, you know, it was a little immature, I guess. We kind of thought that the executive team, the CEO, is just like, almost just like any other team member. And we’ve been proven wrong and wrong and wrong over and over again on that. So we don’t buy that. The CEO plays a strong role, and their job is to really set up the construct of how they want the team to operate with the other players.

The input of other folks is really important. But I think there’s a couple really critical roles that they play in terms of building the dynamics for the team. The first is to set the expectations that they want a team. And what does that mean? A lot of the teams we see, I was in the army, so we had staff teams, right? And like a lot of CEOs set up their teams as if they’re staff teams. And they are the ones that are the arbiters of all, they’ll listen to everything and they’ll make a call on it.

And whoever kind of helped win the argument will staff them up for discussions with the board or whatever, you know? And I just think the days of that with the amount of information that’s at people’s disposal today, the complexity with which even a small organization has to manage itself, it’s just too much for any one person to be able to deal with. So I think setting up and saying, I do want a team, right? And so what the second thing that has to come from there is, what do I need to model if I want a team? A couple of things I need to model are not being the problem solver for everyone’s grapes.

And so when people, we see this all the time, going to the CEO after a decision’s been made and lobbying them for why that decision wasn’t a good decision. We just say, hey, I think your best job is to put up your hand and say, hey, look, I appreciate your opinion. First of all, you should have raised it in a room, but next, I want you to go talk to the other folks about that, because that’s what your job is, is to disagree, debate, argue, and help us collectively come to some decisions.

The CEO has to model the behavior that they are not solving everyone’s problem. And then they have to catalyze that everyone else bring their suggestions, their issues, and then propose their solutions, engage with it. Create this forum, which actually solves the problem together rather than the CEO is basically just troubleshooting and because they are the most experienced, and sometimes it’s very gratifying to know all the answers or to believe to know all the answers. I had recently a case where one of my clients, the CEO was doing this.

He was kind of, he had up the sleeves all the answers and whenever the issue was raised, ah, he just jumped in and jumped to conclusion and and after the meeting I put him aside and said, I asked him, listen, do you want this to grow this conference is yes. Do you want the impower this team so that they can do it for you? You are not going to be able to do it on your own? You are already working far too many hours. Yeah, sure. Then how are they going to learn to make those decisions if you do it for them


And it was a hard message for them to hear, but I felt like.

By the way, you don’t have all the answers. Like, you just don’t.


And, yeah, hey, you get to decide. I get that. But I think it all goes back to do you want to have a team or do you want to have a group of people that are running your staff for you? And if you want to have a team, you got to reinforce the behaviors. You got to do a lot more in terms of modeling and coaching than you do in executing. And I think that’s easy for me to say, but I know it was hard for me. It was hard for me as a CEO to do that all the time.

It is hard. Basically, you’re there to build up your team and to coach them. And that’s job number one. And to empower them, I always tell my clients that you want to grow this company by five times in the next five years. And guess what? Each of you will have to become five times more impactful in your job in order to achieve that. Because if you’re not doing that, if the leadership team doesn’t rise, then there’s no room for anyone else to rise. You have to get kept or the company and then, you know, they suddenly realize that, wow, we have to grow, we have to delegate, we have to get out of our comfort zone. Yeah. And it’s going to be a tough, tough journey.

That’s right. That’s right. It’s you hit it on the head, in my opinion.

Sure. So, so Jack, I’m very excited about your, your book. So can you share with our listeners, you know, where your book, when your book is going to be available, where to find it, and then how they can contact you if they’d like to learn more about your work and maybe talk to you, where, where are you available?

So a few things. First, I got my first proof this weekend. So by the time this podcast comes out, there’ll be a bunch of books. My first book, you’ve done a bunch of them, so I’m really pretty excited about this whole thing. So, it’s the website, the book website, greatleadershipteambook.com. It will be sold on Amazon to start. And then my website is relationship-impact.com. And of course, either one of those places are good places to contact me if you’re interested in learning more about the book or getting a copy of the book.

Okay. And you’re also available on LinkedIn?

I am.

I’ll be connected. Yes. So Jack McGuiness, the co-founder of Relationship Impact and the author of Building Great Leadership Teams coming out in a couple of weeks. By the time this podcast is out, it’s going to be out, going to be available on Amazon. So definitely check it out. Jack, thank you very much for joining me today. That’s very good and energizing discussion. And for those of you listening, if you enjoyed this podcast, please don’t forget to rate and review and, you know, spread the word and stay tuned because next week I’m going to bring another exciting entrepreneur who will share their secrets with you.

Yeah, they’re really interesting interviews. Not so much mine, I’m not suggesting that’s the most interesting, but I’ve listened to a bunch of them and I really, I really gotten a lot out of them.

Thank you, Jack. I’ll keep doing that. Thank you. Thank you for all of you. Have a great day.


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