Originally published by Tim Redpath
Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.
John assumed the role of President and Chief Executive Officer of Kinaxis in January 2016. He first started at the company as a key contributor in the architecture and development of Kinaxis’ supply chain management solutions in 1994 and has since held a number of senior management roles in development, professional services, business consulting, sales/marketing and customer support. Prior to his current appointment, John was Chief Products Officer, overseeing all aspects of the product life cycle, including product vision and strategy, design and development, product management and quality assurance.
John earned a Bachelor of Computer Science from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, with a strong focus on software architecture and UI Design. John is also a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.
In many ways, my wife saved me
My father was in the Canadian Airforce and we moved every two years. My early years were in Quebec, speaking French, and my given name is Jean, not John. When we moved to Colorado Springs, I had to learn English, very quickly. I ended up dropping out of school to be a rock & roll drummer. My father, as a military leader, did not appreciate the length of my hair, which was like Peter Frampton’s.
My mother was a classic military wife – supporting the family and handling our frequent new homes. She was a lot more supportive of my expressive, artistic side than my dad.
When I was in my early 20’s, playing music in a bar, I realized there were better musicians than me playing the same bars. There is a lot of luck involved in a music career and not much money, for most musicians.
My wife, Pina, helped me see the light and got me to finish high school. In many ways, my wife saved me. At university, I did exceptionally well in mathematics which launched my career.
When you stop learning, you start dying
I am a forever learner and a strong believer that when you stop learning you start dying. Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of learning from people who had the grace of sharing everything they knew about leadership. For example, one of the things I have learned about leadership, as I have grown, is the value of humility. When you become CEO, you realize there is so much more you do not know, than you do know. Just because you are in charge does not mean you are supposed to know everything, so I rely a great deal on my staff.
I have to create the environment where everyone learns. If I make all the decisions, no-one learns.
I go through a trust exercise with everyone on my executive team
When you are the CEO, you are the primary motivator of people around you.
You cannot trust people you do not know, and you cannot know people with whom you do not spend honest time. I go through a trust exercise with everyone on my executive team and I often start meetings with a trust-oriented activity. For example, write something you appreciate about each of your peers. The time we take to write something down and share it is an investment in the team and our trust for each other.
“How did you become the person you are?”
I spend a lot of time trying to dissolve perceived title privilege. I am just a player, like everyone else. We play together and we win or lose together.
I meet every new employee and I ask each of them, “How did you become the person you are?” Not what have you done – that is your LinkedIn profile – but, how did you become you? I always start with my own story, so people quickly realize I am no different from them. Hearing each other’s life stories helps to disarm any sense of privilege.
In talking to young, new employees, I tell them (to add to a Jim Collins analogy) to “worry about the bus they are on, not which seat they are in. You can always change seats when you are on the right bus.” It is about having those enriching experiences when you are young.
Every soul matters
In leadership, the performance measures are a side effect of focusing on the people.
Every soul matters. To be human is to be imperfect so you need some empathy for people’s rough edges. You have to exercise radical candour so when people are colouring way outside the lines you help them self-correct while still feeling safe and appreciated. Colouring outside the lines can lead to innovation and improvement so I do not diminish its value; I just need to manage the risk.
I focus on unifying the culture, unifying the mission, helping others understand why we are going where we are going, promoting what it means to be part of this family and acceptable behaviours. It is all about culture because a strong, positive culture happens on purpose, not accidentally.
If the culture is being compromised in any way, the speed at which you react is critical. Delaying things can lead to your culture being poisoned.
Nothing is more important than family
My favourite activity is to play drums – to be behind the kit. I tend to be an aggressive player, playing music like the Foo Fighters, for example. I even have a professional recording studio in my house.
It is true that it is occasionally lonely at the top. I deal with it by having a wonderful wife and family and playing drums, on my own and in a band.
One of the things my parents taught me is you always dine together as a family. Even today, our two twenty-something boys join us for dinner, every night. It is a family ritual and it feels unnatural not to be dining together. Breaking bread together is an investment in each other. You are sharing sustenance and sharing nutrition and providing another day of life on the planet.
Nothing is more important than family. Nothing that happens in the business is bigger than anything that happens at home. This is how I live my life.
Diversity of thought is the pathway to innovation
One of my sons is autistic and this guided me to support an Autism at work program (neuro-diversity) at Kinaxis. Diversity of thought is the pathway to innovation, and you have to create the conditions where diversity can flourish. I still believe in meritocracy though I recognize diversity leads to improving your empathy.
You have to seek out potential through diversity of thought and our collective empathy at Kinaxis has improved since we began our autism at work program.
Fall in love with what our software means not what it does
I tend to be quite resilient and used to dealing with transitions, probably as a result of my military upbringing.
I have done, literally, every job in Kinaxis except leading Finance and Human Resources. I started in R&D as a software engineer and I thought “someone needs to know how to sell this thing.” At the time there was no one else so I stepped into sales which was the most meaningful transition of my professional life.
Selling is part art, part science. You cannot learn the world of sales through theory; you have to experience it. Half of sales is IQ, half of it is EQ, and both are exercised at an incredible pace.
As a salesperson, I had to gain the trust of people who were suspicious of every word I said. It was the best education I ever had, and it taught me to fall in love with what our software means, not what it does. When you spend time with prospects, gaining their trust, you have to focus on what it means to them.
If your motive in an argument is to learn, not to win, then you cannot be wrong
If someone wants to try something I disagree with, and it is low risk, then I will let them try. One of us will learn something and all outcomes are positive. Sometimes I have to say no because, as CEO, I have to make judgements on the risk to the company’s brand, reputation, culture, revenue and customer satisfaction. In those cases, I tend to ask a lot of questions. If your motive in an argument is to learn, not to win, then you cannot be wrong. It comes back to having humility. When you trust each other, you should not be disagreeing with each other’s motives.
Apologize for one thing every day
One of our Board members, Ron Matricaria, taught me to apologize for one thing every day. Do not forget you are imperfect; do not develop the “Do you know who I am?” syndrome; stay humble.
A mistake can be as simple as getting the wrong tone in a message. You have to own up and apologise for mistakes when you make them. Accept you will always make mistakes – I am just hoping tomorrow’s will be minor.
Leadership is like being a drummer
Leadership is a journey about learning, and I am still a student. There are lots of challenges I have not experienced yet. Leadership is like being a drummer. There is a continuum from beginner to Buddy Rich and everything in-between. Some days, when I feel the rhythm, I play better than others and being a CEO is no different.
As the CEO, you are setting the pace and influencing the joy of the people you lead.