CEOs want to create inclusive cultures and provide a strong sense of belonging. One part of that kind of culture is conscientious participation. Discover how this plays a role in company growth. Today’s guest is John Spencer, CEO & Co-founder at BrainGu. Inc Magazine ranked his company #1468 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. BrainGu develops custom DevSecOps software that enables mission success and boasts exceptional user and developer experience by working directly with end-users to solve real-life problems. John and I discuss conscientious participation in our look at powerful leadership.
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John Spencer: The Transcript
About: Known to most as simply “Spence,” John Spencer co-founded BrainGu with the desire to bring a creative blend of technical and business to deliver advanced tech that solves real problems. Spence is passionate about solving and building innovative solutions that help organizations tackle their most challenging needs. As CEO, he draws on experience leading innovation efforts and a “Swiss Army Knife” technology background to keep BrainGu aggressively focused on delivering advances for our customers. When he’s not brainstorming with the team at a whiteboard, Spence is all about cranking it up to eleven — both as a huge music fan and as a hobbyist musician. Catch him off duty at a concert or around town, belting out Queen’s Greatest Hits at a karaoke bar.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
John Spencer: [00:00:00] You’ve got to lean into the space where there’s some opposition to how we do things. And what we would argue is the right way to do things. So when you look at so our primary customer right now is the government, but I think you could really see this in a lot of different industries for us. Our big problem is software as job number one goes to the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks, and everyone else software as a supporting function. And they’ve been doing software for 20, 30 years. So who are we to come and tell them to do it differently? You can choose to walk away from that, or you can choose to step in and be a partner to those organizations. And we’ve chosen to step in and be a partner.
Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insights from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?
Gene Hammett: Every company has to go through strategic shifts that allow the company to operate differently, aligned people differently, and all of those things require [00:01:00] great leadership today our special guest is John Spencer. He is a co-founder at BrainGu. They were on the Inc list. Last year’s group grew really fast. And today we talk about their strategic shift, which is conscientious participation. I had not heard of this term before, and I want to introduce it to you because what it really means is shifting the way you partner and engage with your customers. And we look at this from the perspective of how do you lead the culture through this? What are some of the resistance points and how do you actually get this going? Now, I’m going to go ahead and say that John Spencer asked me to call him Spence. So you may hear me say that inside the interview today, I want to just make that clear that that’s what his friends call him. So that’s what we’ll call him today.
Let me ask you a question. Do you know exactly what it would take for you to be a stronger, more effective leader? Well, I think self-awareness is a really important aspect. And if you don’t know, what’s getting in the way of your leadership, then you really don’t know how to perform at a higher level. This is just basic psychology, but I want to help you become a more powerful [00:02:00] leader when it can inspire ownership, help you communicate, and align people to the deepest levels. All you have to do is get on a phone call with me now, why do I say that? Because this isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. I can’t do a five-minute video or a 700-word article.
I write those things all the time for Inc magazine and other places. But I want to sit down on the phone with you and really talk about what is getting in your way. Talk about really what you want to create and talk about the blind spots and expose them for what they are. This is the most powerful thing I can offer you. And all you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com and schedule a call. Now to make this clear, I’m not trying to sell you anything. I don’t need to sell you anything. My business is doing great. I love what I’m doing, but I want to make an impact in this world. And I want to help leaders. Lead more powerfully and inspire a sense of ownership across their team.
If you’re interested in doing that, having a free conversation with me, all you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com and schedule a call. Absolutely free. Look forward to it. Now here’s the interview with Spence.
John, how are you today?
John Spencer: Good. How are you?
Gene Hammett: Fantastic. I hear that your friends call you Spence. I’ll refer to you by [00:03:00] what your friends call you today. Is that okay?
John Spencer: That’s absolutely great.
Gene Hammett: Before we lock into our core topic today, I want you to tell us about the company. I know it grew fast on the in-class, but tell us about BrainGu.
John Spencer: BrainGu, we founded it, in 2012. And the idea was that we were going to swim upstream on the cybersecurity issues that we’re facing, across the world. A lot of folks are focusing on bolt bolt-on solution that happens downstream of developing the software. We really wanted to get to the root of, you know, how do we make software better in the first place?
Gene Hammett: I got to ask you a question about this. Cybersecurity is something I’m fairly interested in, but it’s a little technical for me. What is the major ships coming as it relates to cybersecurity?
John Spencer: I think what you’re starting to see the big behemoths, like the Googles and others talk about is this shift left, which, you know, like I said, swim upstream on software. If we build software better, if we train the people coming out of college to write better software and, and enforce these better best practices, you could have less holes in there, less bugs, and less for others to take advantage of.
Gene Hammett: Perfect. Well, we’re not going to talk about cybersecurity today. So anybody [00:04:00] who’s already feeling like they’re there in left field, like me on this topic we are going to have a conversation about, you know, what really is the major shift that allowed your company to grow? Our research team came back with this term that I’ve never heard before. So you’re gonna have to tell us what it is, but what is conscientious participation?
John Spencer: Yeah, that’s, that’s our way. I’m saying you’ve got to lean into the space where there’s some opposition to how we do things. And what we would argue is the right way to do things. So when you look at so our primary customer right now is the government, but I think you could really see this in a lot of different industries for us. Our big problem is a software as job number one goes to the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks, everyone else software has a supportive function and they’ve been doing software for 20, 30 years. So who are we to come and tell them to do it differently? You can choose to walk away from that, or you can choose to step in and be a partner to those organizations and we’ve chosen to step in and be a partner.
Gene Hammett: So this is kind of external what you’re talking about. How does that relate to your team and how do you get people who are also buying into this [00:05:00] conscientious participation?
John Spencer: Yeah, there’s sort of two facets that you see. And especially when we talk about the government, but you could see it in the energy industry banking. There’s this, this first facet is this like moral or ethical piece where people say, Hey, I’m really smart. I got a lot of skills and I don’t want to contribute to that because I have this view of that as some kind of evil, evil, or negative. And my point there is if you want to see it be a better thing, be a part of it to make it that better thing. The second facet would be the bureaucratic or paradigmatic approach, which is this thing doesn’t work, right. It’s broken. And it’s so broken that I don’t want to waste my time with and really look at like our biggest customer space. Like I said, as the government, Silicon Valley, the tech industry doesn’t want to deal with them and it’s not companies, it’s people, the people don’t want to deal with the paperwork and the grind.
Well, I know this is the right way to do it, but you’re not going to give me that, that space to do it right. So we really encourage our people to sort of walk in there, like I say, lean in but bring a diplomatic approach, which [00:06:00] is if we teach, if we coach, if we partner people do want to come along, they do want to do the right thing and someone’s got to help them on that path.
Gene Hammett: You know, I love the fact that you’re talking about this, but, what I feel when you talk about it is it’s really, this is the mission of the company, right? You’re looking at cyber security, in a different way. You’re inviting people along on this mission with you, is that, do I have that nailed?
John Spencer: I think that’s, that’s really appropriate. This is the thing I really personally passionate about and I know all of our founders are.
Gene Hammett: How many employees do you have spent?
John Spencer: We’re walking right up to a hundred. I think we’re at 95 today.
Gene Hammett: So it’s not a small organization, not huge. And how do you ensure that you have, you keep a sense of alignment across the organization? What would we see inside your meetings? Or what would we see across the way you guys aligned together toward your goals?
John Spencer: We really encourage our team, all the individuals in that team to bring their whole self. You know, if you’re a parent if you’re some kind of minority or you come from a unique background and perspective, we want to see people bring that in because when you’re doing this lean in thing and you’re [00:07:00] participating, you’re also participating in BrainGu. As BrainGu, as the collective participates in the customer’s problem space. So when you get inside really looking to create a safe space for people to be who they are and to bring what they’re passionate about.
Gene Hammett: You know, this term safe space is something that’s got a lot of play recently because there’s a Google research around there about highly performing teams. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but they talk about psychological safety. When you creating a safe space for people. What does that mean for your leadership and your executive leadership team?
John Spencer: It’s a really tough one, especially when we look at how political identities are extremely polarized right now. And people feel very strongly on different sides of that equation. We have people across all sorts of spectrums at BrainGu. And we want to be able to not just cover our ears and say, I don’t want to hear about your perspective. We want to be in a place where we can all talk to each other about those things. Bring those influences to how we think to the table, but it has to be done in a respectful manner. It has to be done with intention and care or else [00:08:00] we get into a place where a discussion turns into an argument, and that’s really where you go down a bad road.
Commentary: Now Spence has been talking about creating a safe space. I mentioned the Google study, but I want to give you just a really clear insight of what a safe space means and psychological safety. It really is your employees feel no sense of judgment and their ideas and in how they communicate across the team. Now, a lot of times we think this is a pretty good place. We have that kind of culture, whether we can say anything, but the reality is there are some people that don’t feel safe in those situations, and that will cause them to want to leave or worse they’ll keep those ideas to themselves and they’ll never share them across the team. And so you never get to tap into the genius or innovation inside these employees. So how do you create a place where people don’t have a sense of judgment with others? Well, you can’t tolerate judgment across the conversations. You can’t tolerate the things that are getting in the way of psychological safety. You probably know what these things are, you know, when you feel safe, but [00:09:00] you can not just let it go. There are some times people have ideas that are, you know, people think that might be crazy and people will laugh and people have fun with it. You may think it’s not a big deal, but if you tolerate it, people will not share those ideas. You want to create a safe space? You want to be judgment-free, just listen to these words and make sure you step up as a leader. Now, back to Spence.
Gene Hammett: You had mentioned earlier that you have kind of a teaching and coaching approach to keeping alignment. Do you have a solid understanding of the difference between teaching someone or coaching them as they grow as a performer inside your company?
John Spencer: I think I would say no. I think that teaching and coaching are different and I’m not sure that we intentionally differentiate from those two things.
Gene Hammett: I know in my world, we do some leadership development programs where we teach new concepts of leadership. Right. We give them frameworks, we give them ideas. But coaching is to me is how do you apply those ideas? Inside the real world. One of the examples we have is how do you have a difficult conversation with a [00:10:00] customer or a partner, or even a fellow team member when you’re not really prepared or whatnot. And so you coach them through that as opposed to teach them how to do it. Does that make sense?
John Spencer: Yeah absolutely, I think maybe by that definition, In the coaching direction. We’re really big on watch one, do one. So if I know that you’re going to be interfacing with customers a lot, and as we grow very quickly, scaling is a problem, right? So how do I get in the right mindsets and skillsets in people’s brains? It’s like, Hey, I have to go have a difficult conversation with a customer. I’d like you to come along and I’m going to spend some time setting the stage, building the context, with that individual. And then they’re going to sit in that, meeting with that customer, see how I handle it. And then we’ll debrief afterward. All right. What did you see happen there? How did, how did you understand, what would you have done in that situation? Do you feel like you could do this on your own? And then when the opportunity arises for them to do one, they’ll be in the driver’s seat and I’m going to be there as a backstop in case they need it, but also to observe, give them some notes at the end of that.
Gene Hammett: [00:11:00] Well, I appreciate you making that. Not real clear about how you approach that. Because I think that, you know, as the leader, you have to employ different skills at different times sort of situational leadership. Where would you say that you get most of your insight as a leader to be able, to really run this company to the growth you are?
John Spencer: That is a tough question. I have been lucky enough to have lots of really great real-world mentors in the companies that I’ve worked at before. I’ve also had a multitude of examples of what not to do behaviors that I felt I didn’t want to you know, replicates. There’s that as far as real-world experience, but this company has grown faster than I’ve been able to. And I have no formal training. So when I look at my examples, I’m reading books, I’m looking at Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, you know, I’m really trying to be a voracious learner to understand how people think about these podcasts, like your own, you know, just trying to soak up as much as I can but a certain amount of experiential too. So trying to, trying to [00:12:00] live up with my personal growth to what the company’s growth is.
Commentary: As Spence just mentioned something about what not to do inside of our leadership and our culture. And that’s where a lot of the leaders that I talked to on this show are born into really understanding what does it take to be powerful leaders? Now a lot of the people that I talked to really want to be better leaders because they never had it before in their careers. Maybe they had one or two, but in general, they didn’t have the kind of leadership that really allowed them to play at their best. And so they wanted to create a space where people like employees and partners and customers can really play at their best. I share this with you because I want you to understand that you’re probably not alone. You want to be a more powerful leader. You want to create a space that’s unlike you’ve ever had before. You’ve got to step up and do the work that it takes to be the leader that your team deserves back to Spence.
Gene Hammett: I love for you to share. I dunno if this is a story you can share about an employee and certainly don’t have to share names, but where someone was really able to use this conscientious participation in a [00:13:00] way that, that served the client to a higher level.
John Spencer: I think we use these terms in a software engineering world, like an agile and big splashy buzzword. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation and like anything that anyone does, you can do it. And that can express in a really positive, really efficient way, or that can express in a I checked the box. I told my boss I did it and they can be happy that we’re doing the buzzword thing. We run into that situation a lot. And I had a really key individual in the company step into a space and really embed with a customer for six months. Really just plugging into other key meetings, you know, writing on and just helping them tune their thinking about what does agile really mean when I make these decisions. When I prioritize, when I strategize, how am I sending signals to either follow the paradigm or ignore the paradigm and really tweaked it little by little for them to where their capacity was enhanced.
And they’re working on more strategic [00:14:00] objectives, rather than just getting lots of little stuff done that doesn’t sort of meet that center line goal.
Gene Hammett: I want to give you a chance to kind of take the interview where you think it needs to go next because I’m not sure what else we haven’t talked about as it relates to your leadership or culture that you’ve built this successful BrainGu with.
John Spencer: Yeah, I think I’d go in the direction of how can conscientious participation or the way that we’ve looked at this diplomatic approach work for others. We really, you know, I said we were founded in 2012. We didn’t take this approach until 2019. And we were leaning into the idea of. In 2018, what would this look like? How would this affect our business? And we really wanted to be from our engineering roots, sort of like that engineering purity, like this is the right way to do it. This is how the pros do it. This is the best way. And we had to really take that lens of not just the business piece. Like how do I make money on this, but how do I get to a place where my customers understand what it is, where they get the need for it?
And, you know, we really, we really had to break down our understandings of what success looked like. I think that was the hardest part. [00:15:00]
Gene Hammett: I’ve got to ask. So what does success look like in our conscientious participation culture?
John Spencer: We really had to change the roles of how we brought ourselves to customers. We didn’t just bring like a sales engineer or a technical architect, some of the more tech, heavy people, but we were really looking at an empowered individual with a high IQ who really was able to look at a customer and not just tell them what they want to hear. Right. That’s the easy thing. Of course, you can do it. But to hold the customer accountable to themselves is a thing that’s a really delicate and dangerous idea. And we were terrified that these customers would just kick us out. They wouldn’t want to hear it. And you know, that, that change was really powerful for us. When we started to see at work.
Gene Hammett: You had mentioned that it was a shift that took a few years for you guys to find. And then in 2019, you really went over hard. Did you have any resistance inside the existing workforce?
John Spencer: Absolutely. And I wouldn’t say that any of it was negative resistance. I think it was uncertainty. You know lack of understanding. Well, what would this mean for me? How is this going to work? And really, truly we had to [00:16:00] say. Look, we’re going to take a few people. We’re going to experiment with this. We’re going to try this on one piece of the company. And if it goes great, we’ll widen that aperture, but don’t freak out. It’s going to be okay. Give us the space to try this out. Trust us and to their credit they did. And once they saw it work, once they got curious, they got excited and then they started to slowly but surely buy-in. They started to want to participate. They started to, well, how do I get on that team? That team seems to be doing something what’s going on over there.
And that was all the difference for us once we got our, like our early staff there really that foundational group of people who were in early to when they came to adopt, it was, it was like a light switch, right? Culture eats strategy for breakfast. I could strategize all day, but until the culture was there, we weren’t going to be ready to pour the steam on.
Gene Hammett: I wanna give you a chance to paint a picture for us because I want to make sure that no one leaves the interview of not really understanding what you’re talking about with conscientious participation. So what would we see inside your meetings or inside your interactions with your clients that let us know that your people are using this to the highest [00:17:00] level?
John Spencer: We had a lot of heartaches, a lot of strife. And when I talked earlier about that psychological safety piece and that ability for people to be their whole self, what really had to happen, there was the ability to come and sometimes just to vent this customer, doesn’t get it. They’re not hearing me. They don’t like me. They don’t want my idea. And for us to hear that, understand that that’s frustration that’s sometimes you hit a wall. How can we change our approach? How can we improve the message? And we would, we would team on that, right? We would all get behind that individual and say, how can I support you to go back in their head, held high?
And remember, it’s not that they don’t like you it’s that you’re challenging their worldview. And that’s always going to be tough. They do like you, or else you’d be having a completely different set of problems, but conscientious, participation’s not easy. It really takes a lot of fortitude and it takes everyone to be behind the individual. Who’s sort of bearing the brunt of an individual engagement.
Gene Hammett: Spence you really put a spotlight on this forest to talk about something that’s unique. One of the big things is how do you get a culture to [00:18:00] shift? And what you talked about will really help. I think our audience in the shifts that they’ve got in front of them. So thanks for being here.
John Spencer: Absolutely. Thank you.
Gene Hammett: There’s a moment where I get to reflect back on what you just heard today. Conscientious participation may not be something that you’re familiar with. I wasn’t familiar with it until today’s interview. My team does this research and we kind of get into their record in the moment. I wanted to create a solid understanding for both of us in this interview with Spence. And what I understand from it is, you know, it was something that they needed to do to shift the market and they needed to get buy-in from their people. And they needed that sense of psychological safety, which is such an important piece. And if you don’t know what that is, really, you want to make sure that you tune in to this as a leader, because it really is the driving force of high-performing. Don’t take my word for it. Google did this research but it really is. It goes back to, you know, people being able to say what they feel without a sense of judgment.
And so being the leader that can create this kind of unity and alignment is a very powerful way. My hope is that you strive to be the best leader you can be. And [00:19:00] in fact, if you’re not quite sure what’s standing in the way of your leadership, leading powerfully inspiring a sense of ownership across your organization, then all you have to do is get on a call with me. I’ve got a few sets of things I can walk you through to spotlight. Really Identify what’s getting in your way, the blind spots, if you will, if you want to have that conversation and they just put a GeneHammett.com and schedule your call today, it’s absolutely free. It’s not a sales call. I promise you you’ll leave with a hundred percent value.
And I love to do this with our audience because it helps them grow as leaders. Just go to GeneHammett.com and schedule a call today.
When you think of growth and you think of leadership, think of Growth Think Tank. As always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
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