Episode 04: The 11 Essentials of Leadership

Dennis Brouwer, CEO

The Brouwer Group

Dennis Brouwer is the CEO of The Brouwer Group, a business analytics firm that helps companies become more competitive, agile and customer-focused. He has over two decades of experience as a senior leader in sales, marketing, and product development roles, including five years as an executive with P&L, responsible for a $300m global IT services business.

He began his career as a naval flight officer and mission commander searching for Soviet submarines while deployed aboard USS Ranger and USS Enterprise. For the past five years, he has applied his military and business experience to the challenges of creative leadership, peak performance, and business strategy. He holds a certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University and is the author of “The Return on Leadership,” which focuses on the Vision, Engagement, and Execution as the key building blocks used by highly effective leaders.

00:20 Speaker 1: B2B marketing and sales can be tough to master. Sales cycles can be long, and buyers are notoriously difficult to close. That's why you need Minds On at your side. We're a B2B marketing and digital agency that's helped more than 200 clients evolve their brands, win more business, and succeed more often, and we're ready to help you. Visit www.mindson.com today to schedule your no obligation consultation. Now, onto today's program.

00:49 Dan Harris: I'm your host, Dan Harris, and welcome back to another episode of Minds On B2B. Thank you so much, everyone, for clicking, subscribing, sharing, downloading, and of course listening to our podcast. This is a weekly show dedicated to helping busy B2B executives, marketers, and sales professionals stay informed, learn something new, and perhaps apply a lesson learned or run with an idea shared by our guest. As we say at Minds On, all of our minds together are better than any one mind alone. Who knows? You just might like what you hear, connect, and network with us.

01:26 DH: Today, our topic is leadership, and I am thrilled to be sharing the mic with Dennis Brouwer, the CEO of The Brouwer Group. And I can tell you firsthand, he's a true renaissance man. He's a Naval Flight Officer, military veteran, a business leader at the enterprise level, startup level, he's an author, a coach, a keynote speaker, and an incredible son, husband, father, and a friend to many. I would like to say we both sat down in the Minds On B2B studio, but we were both standing, walking around and having this conversation over the telephone. We talked about leadership, rapid and constant change in business, who leaders are inside the business, and some of the things that they can look for to recognize what's happening and what they can do about it. So with that, I'd like to welcome you, Dennis, to the show.

02:28 Dennis Brouwer: Thank you, Dan, it's a pleasure to be here.

02:31 DH: All right, so let's jump right in. Well, the topic is leadership and the challenges facing leaders when it comes to change. So change is everywhere; I'm experiencing it, our company, our teams, it seems to be constant, it seems to be evolving rapidly and it's everywhere. So when you take a look at change, how do leaders deal with this change and manage it?

03:00 DB: Well, it's a uniquely challenging time. You and I have known each other for a while, so I've told you some of my sea stories about flying on and off and around the ship under all kinds of crazy conditions. And as I go and talk with people and share stories like that with them, there's sort of a visceral thrill that comes with hearing a story that comes from a cockpit in a military jet. But when you boil it down, people who are in military aviation face a certain set of challenges: They've got the environment around them that they're dealing with, they've got kind of what leadership research calls the inner game, the psychology of the aviator, as Tom Wolfe described it when he wrote "The Right Stuff". And then they've got just trying to get their mission done. And the funny thing about it is that what I find is that the reason those stories resonate with people isn't just because they're kind of fun to participate in from afar, but also because that's what I find leaders experiencing more and more in their daily lives.

04:01 DB: They're finding that in the market, outside their companies, it's more challenging than it's ever been. They're facing competitors who are better funded and more savvy than they've ever experienced. Inside the companies they've got a unique set of challenges around technology and generational changes and those kinds of things. And the third thing is they've gotta be able to stay in the game, they've got to be able to keep up with that level of change. So to be fair to the people that I'm working with and talk with, nobody says they don't want change to happen. What they're struggling with is they wanna be part of change, they wanna be in front of change if they can, but it's difficult to really stay in front of that curve.

04:39 DB: And the three big themes that I hear over and over and over again from leaders in organizations of every size, and this is enterprises, for-profit companies, nonprofits, associations, etcetera, are really the same three things: The first is technology. It just never backs off. It seems to be accelerating every day. There's always some new technology that you need to install, you need to develop a capital budget for, or your competitor's already using to steal customers from you. The second is globalization. If you put your business out there, you're competing with everybody in the world, all six billion people, [chuckle] who've got the same idea that you have it seems, they wanna go out there and compete. So globalization is here, it's real. We've had a lot of chatter about tariffs over the past several months, but it's not slowing anything down from a globalization perspective. And then the third thing is another variable that's completely outside our control and that is generational change. We've got millennials moving in with a different set of expectations and the baby boomers who are retiring at a rate of 9000 or 10,000 people a day. And that's a big shift within a company that has an impact on cultures, and you combine that what the other two of technology and globalization, and it's really a lot for leaders of organizations to keep up with.

06:00 DH: Yeah, and I think one of the other things you talk about, because of those three things, those drivers that are creating this change, is that people are always learning, always having to think, always having to respond, and I think you call it, people are always on, right?

06:19 DB: Right.

06:19 DH: So how do you, as a leader, look at your team, knowing that people are always on, how do you work with them, communicate with them? As you talk about vision, how do you communicate the vision to them to continue to innovate and grow the company?

06:38 DB: Yeah, when I talk with leaders about that, through executive coaching and other discussions that I have with people, there are really two things that emerge. And the first may seem self-evident, but it's something that we tend to forget, and that's that leaders are people too. A leader... It's true and we tend to overlook it. We tend to want our leaders to be always on, all-knowing and all-seeing, except when there's something that we're working on that we'd rather not have 'em look at.


07:08 DB: That's the perfect blend that we're looking for. But leaders are people too, and they're dragged into that always on, why did it take you 10 minutes to respond, you should have responded in five minutes or four minutes or three minutes, into that kind of challenge. You can get caught up in that urgency, you can have work invade personal time, family time, just time that you need to be able to rest your brain and maybe think about things a little bit. So that's the first thing; it's just at a human level, it's a challenge.

07:39 DB: But the second thing is that the unfortunate thing about the always-on culture is that it tends to reward what used to be called the squeaking wheel, I call it the fire truck with the siren, and you tend to become more reactive, your time horizons shrink. And I worked with one company where the joke was that the place was addicted to adrenaline. Once the CEO got a call that affected somebody in the company, man, the phone calls would ripple through the organization, and it was just like, okay, the fire trucks are warming up, the sirens are on, everybody's hearts are pounding, and away we go. It's just like, okay, well, we're all chasing a deal today, but have we actually completed our strategic planning? Do we know where we're gonna drive that fire truck?


08:27 DB: Do we know why we're fighting that particular fire? So there's that challenge with the always-on culture, it drags us to the immediate, and what's perceived as the urgent, and it can often become a false sense of urgency at the expense of our long-term plan.

08:45 DB: Now, what I find is that as we evaluate leaders quantitatively that there are sort of two responses that occur in that always-on environment. The first is that the leader is drawn to what we just described, to dealing with the screaming siren in the moment and dealing... You're just constantly being pulled off of the long-term plan and into the near-term crisis, and that is ultimately very damaging and very corrosive to culture. The other type of leader constitutes about 20% of most leaders in the field, are ones who respond to that always-on culture, to those screaming demands, by focusing even more tightly around their strategic goals and applying in real time the prioritization tests to make sure that the screaming siren that's getting the resources at the moment actually merits those resources and it's not being done at the expense of the long-term success or maybe even the survivability of the company. So that breakdown between the leader's response, are you drawn down into the detail or are you always more tightly focused around the agreed-upon vision and making sure that activity engages your team and you more deeply in that, or are you chasing the latest squirrel?

10:03 DH: Yeah, and it's interesting because even when we talk about change of that nature and the reactive and responsive thing, I think back in our futures and the external and internal forces that are driving that reactionary response is interesting. And just as we were talking, I started thinking about words that I heard inside startups, it's like, okay, you need to respond to this, let's pivot," right?

10:35 DB: Yeah.

10:37 DH: "Pivot, let's flip, let's flip this thing." So those are all things, I think, that put additional due stress on a leader. And I wanna pick your brain a little bit too, because I know when you're in a reactive organization, and your leadership is reactive, and they're changing constantly, what impact does that have on employees and staff and other leaders?

11:01 DB: Well, it's exhausting, first of all, because it's kind of like being a cop on the beat, you're constantly... Every day has this level of uncertainty around it. You're constantly responding to crises, and let's face it, that drives an adrenalin cycle that over time, in a day or a week is tiring, in a week or a month or a quarter is exhausting, and over a quarter or a year is just absolutely dispiriting. You just go, "What are we even doing here? If we're successful at this, what have we done? We put out all those fires, but we're not here... We didn't join a fire department, we joined a construction company. [chuckle] We wanna build things, not just put fires out." So it becomes exhausting, and the way it becomes really dangerous is it pulls your vision in. So your eyes come off the horizon and they come right down onto the burning problem on your desk today. Now, some days, you gotta deal with that, but if you're dealing with it every day, you've really built the perfect environment for burnout and for exhaustion of you and your team.

12:08 DB: Now, the way that surfaces is you'll have some of your most talented and resourceful people come into your office, close the door, and sit down and say, "I need to talk with you about this. I am worn out. Where are we taking this organization? If we're successful at what we're doing, where are we gonna be in a year or two? I need to know because I've gotta pay my mortgage and I've gotta put my kids through school, and right now, all I'm thinking about is what I need to get done by 2:00 this afternoon. Help me understand where we're going." And when you've got your good people coming in, closing the door, opening up to you and asking those kinds of questions, that is a screaming warning sign that you're acting as a fire department instead of a construction company.

13:00 DH: That's terrific insight. What are some other signs that leadership looks for that they could prevent that person from walking in the door and kinda get ahead of it?

13:11 DB: One of the easiest ways to test is to randomly ask people an opinion, not just an opinion, but ask them to express in their own terms where the organization is going. So Jim or Jane or whoever, based on what you're doing every day, where do you think the organization is going? How do you think it's gonna change over the next couple years? And then the flipside to that question is, and with what you're working on every day, the things that cross your desk or come through your email, how do you see them playing into that long-term vision? Now, the answer to that question, I have found, is very difficult for people to fake because if they believe that there is alignment between their daily priority-setting and the organization's overall vision, and the vision of the leader, they'll be enthusiastic. They'll tell you, "Well, look, I had a situation yesterday, and I could have gone direction A or direction B, but what I know about where the company's going, not just what I've been told, but what I know about where the organization is going, I decided to go with option A. And I feel really good about that. It's great to be able to make informed decisions."

14:19 DB: If there is a disparity between those daily decisions and the overall vision of the organization, you may still get an answer that says, "Well, I... " It'll be generic. "I believe that what I do is aligned with the company." It'll lack the enthusiasm, it'll lack the specificity that you get from somebody whose intellect and heart are really engaged in what that organization is about.

14:45 DH: And I think you hit the point, get out and talk to your people and share the vision. One piece of advice that you just shared was make sure you have a vision, [chuckle] number one, and make sure you share consistently 'cause that goes a long way in helping reduce the risk of any of that reactive management. So are there other things that truly matter when it comes to this idea of moving away from reactivity and into proactivity?

15:17 DB: So I'd give you just a rule of thumb. One of the things I've heard from leaders when we talk about employee engagement and communications between the layers of hierarchies in organizations is, "My door is always open." It's like, okay, well, that's very gracious. The same can be said of any really good trap, right?


15:39 DH: Yeah.

15:40 DB: Of the entrance to an escape room. "Well, the door is open, just come in." It sounds great, and I don't want to cast aspersions on it completely, but it really does place the burden on the rank-and-file, on a person who's a frontline leader, maybe an individual contributor, to say, "You know what? This issue has now gotten to the point that I need to put myself out there. I need to go knock on my boss's or my boss's boss's door, and go in, and have a really awkward conversation." So the line about my door is always open clearly takes the burden off the leader who just has to open the door; even less, simply has to not close their door, that's all that's required of the leader. And the manager or the person who's working for that leader has to be the person to pull it together and decide that the issue's now to the point where they have to deal with it.

16:28 DB: The other rule of thumb would be what people think when you "walk the floor." So if you're a leader and you... At one point I had a sales team of 35 people who were in a bullpen, one big room, and if I walked that floor, it was just like, well, here's Dennis, "Hey, I got a question for you," and it's like, "Okay, I got a question for you, let's talk about your quota, let's talk about a deal," whatever it may be. I've been in other environments where when a leader "walked the floor," went over to the sales department or the marketing department, the whispers that went behind were "What's wrong? There must be something wrong because that leader never comes over here. What could have possibly gone wrong? What's gonna happen that all of a sudden that person is showing up?" So when it's viewed as an exceptional event for the leader to walk to the front lines, to walk through the trenches, to go out and help... In the Navy, help clean the airplane, in a sales force, to actually go on a sales call, when that's viewed as exceptional, the leader isn't doing it enough. They need to get out of the office and just go out and see a customer in the wild. It's absolutely a thrilling experience, and too many leaders miss out on it.

17:46 DH: Would you say that it's one thing to start it, but then it's creating a consistent cadence, so that they don't have that event that happens, it's just something that happens, it's a part of that leader's day?

18:00 DB: Yeah, and I would say for the leader for whom this is really uncomfortable, they're probably gonna hope that I say, "Well, you can do it through email," but the truth is for the leader for whom this is really uncomfortable, they need to do it even more. They need to work through that discomfort and just make it a completely comfortable thing to go out and be face-to-face with people at all levels in their organization.

18:19 DH: It's interesting, when you talk about this, Dennis, it feels like common sense, that that's what you should be doing, but as you stated before, and as I've heard in other [chuckle] things, it's just... The doing of it is so challenging and so difficult it ends up creating more harm than good the longer you wait.

18:39 DB: And just one final comment on that, because you did ask a question that I wanna respond to, it's like how do you sustain it? Well, you sustain it by having meaningful engagement. So it's one thing to ask how a soccer game went on Saturday, but if that's the depth of your conversation, you're really not creating a high-fidelity relationship, you're not engaging with that individual. There need to be business drivers, there needs to be a personal connection, you need to be able to weave that together for you to be viewed as a relevant part of the organization and somebody who embodies the vision and direction of the organization as opposed to a potential bureaucratic threat.

19:24 DH: Amazing advice in a short amount of time, and I can't tell you how much I really appreciate the insight, and I know our listeners will as well. So if someone wants to get ahold of you for a speaking engagement, to learn more, how would they do that?

19:41 DB: Well, I'm on LinkedIn, of course, DL Brouwer, that's spelled B-R-O-U-W-E-R. And a great place to start would be at my website, which is dlbrouwer.com. You can email me at dennis@dlbrouwer.com as well. And that's... One last time, it's the Dutch spelling, just like on a bottle of Heineken, B-R-O-U-W-E-R.

20:06 DH: Yeah, alright. Well, and I highly recommend everyone go to that website and listen to the story of how Dennis and his pilot [chuckle] finally land their jet on the deck of USS Enterprise. As always, you've truly enlightened my day, and I hope that of the listeners. And I hope, if you're open to it and willing, you'll come back and join us so we can talk a little bit more about other essential things that are required to be an exceptional leader.


20:40 DB: Yeah, I'd absolutely love to talk about those issues. The thing I love about what you're doing, Dan, is that you're focused on sales leadership, marketing leadership, really the tip of the spear, the cutting edge of our organizations, where we're out in contact with customers in the field. In many cases, that's where leadership is tested at the most visceral level and where it has the greatest impact on the futures of our companies, so I just, I believe wholeheartedly what you're doing here, and you know I love to talk and to debate and chat about this stuff, so any time.


21:11 DH: Sounds good.

21:13 S1: Thanks for listening to today's Minds On B2B podcast. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe. Also, feel free to share this episode with your peers and colleagues so we can keep bringing you quality content from the best minds in B2B. Until next time, from all of us at Minds On, have a great week.

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