John Lacy of ‘Idea Grove’: “Good companies need to focus on two things”

Good companies need to focus on two things: Being profitable and generating cash. Some will say that they must generate a return for shareholders, but without doing those two basic things, there will not be a return for shareholders. Great companies do these two basic things with the addition of a healthy culture and engaged […]

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Good companies need to focus on two things: Being profitable and generating cash. Some will say that they must generate a return for shareholders, but without doing those two basic things, there will not be a return for shareholders. Great companies do these two basic things with the addition of a healthy culture and engaged employees participating in the success of the company. There are many, many good companies out there. But fewer truly great companies. We’ve implemented a lot of the business theories from Patrick Lencioni’s set of fables, as well as the concepts from Crucial Conversations, in order to ensure we have the healthiest organization possible.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Lacy.

Mr. Lacy has over 30 years of experience in information technology and business operations. Prior to joining Idea Grove as its president and chief operating officer, Mr. Lacy spent several years working for a Dallas-based digital marketing company growing the firm and preparing it for a successful sale, which closed in December of 2018. Before scaling and selling the digital marketing company, Mr. Lacy spent a year living and working in the Dominican Republic as the vice president of operations for a New York-based branded apparel company, leading the manufacturing operations with full P&L responsibility for the entire overseas operations.

Mr. Lacy has held several technology and business operations positions and was previously the chief operating officer of Tandy Brands, a 100M dollars publicly traded apparel accessories company. Mr. Lacy also served as the owner and managing partner at Lacy Consulting Group, a management, operations and technology consulting firm, and the chief information officer and supply chain vice president for Walls Industries, a 100 million dollars clothing manufacturer and distributor. Additional roles include the vice president of technology for Trinovia Technologies, a startup software company within the technology venture division of Trinity Industries, the chief information officer for USCardioVascular, Inc., a startup healthcare company which develops outpatient diagnostic catheter labs for cardiologists, and the chief information officer for MD Buyline, a healthcare information management company. Before his transition into information technology operations, Mr. Lacy was a management consultant in the Business Consulting Group of Andersen LLP, specializing in the development of custom developed software systems for small to middle market companies. Mr. Lacy received his BBA in management information systems from the University of Texas at Austin.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Well, my father was a 30-year IBMer, therefore I have always had technology in my life way before it was commonplace to do so. After graduating from the University of Texas with a BBA in Management Information Systems, I started my career at Arthur Andersen as a technology and business process consultant. From there I proceeded into several positions as the head of technology for both public and private companies, across both start-ups and well-established organizations. I made the leap to operations after the successful turnaround and sale of a consumer goods company and have continued in a mix of IT and Operations ever since. After a stint running factory operations in both Mexico and the Dominican Republic, I returned to the US and re-entered the world of professional services but remaining in the operations side of the practice. Today I’m the president and chief operating officer of a Dallas-based unified PR and marketing agency for B2B technology companies.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Actually, the hardest time I faced when I first got started was the interview process before I got started. With a younger brother and two younger sisters, a completely paid for education was not in the cards for me. Therefore, I worked my way through college to help my parents with the total cost of my education. This resulted in my grades not being the very best they could be. When it came time to graduate, I had a 4.0 in my major, but less overall. When I asked for an interview with Arthur Andersen, I was told that I was not their ideal candidate, but that didn’t stop me. The day that they were going to be on campus, I got up very early, put on my suit and tie, and went and sat outside of the interview room that they would be using all day. I was there before the recruiters even arrived. When asked if I had an invitation for an interview, I told them that I did not, but I would like an interview anyway. I sat outside of the interview rooms seeing candidates come and go. Not until the very end of the day, did they make time to see me. I guess I impressed them enough with my drive that they gave me a shot at a position, which has made all of the difference in my career! Since that time, I have used that drive to continue pursuing the things I wanted to do in my career, never letting someone else place a limit on what I knew I could learn and accomplish.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Oh, I have made a TON of mistakes in my career! Apparently, I am the type of person who learns better from my mistakes than from formal education. One mistake that stands out early was thinking that I must have been really good at what I do to get the position at Arthur Andersen. I mean they only hired the cream of the crop, right? But on day-one I realized that I was most certainly one of the least intelligent persons at the firm. It was probably more lack of experience than lack of intelligence, but it certainly came across as full blown naivete in the ways of business. In either case, it was a very humbling experience. Once I realized that I did not know everything there was to know, I dove in and learned as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I realized that the feedback I received was provided to help me become better and as long as I took it that way, I would improve. This was the moment I made the life-long decision to take my ego out of my business life and continue to learn something new each and every day.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Idea Grove stands out because of the people that work here. We are a collection of technology lovers that really love getting into the technology of our clients and telling our client’s story in a way that non-technology-oriented people can absorb and understand. We are also outstanding because of the culture we have created here. Our hiring process is VERY tuned towards making sure that new employees are a cultural fit before they are a skills fit. When I arrived at Idea Grove, just over a year ago, we definitely had some very talented individuals that were not a cultural fit. They were doing great work, but wreaking havoc on the teams. Once the leadership team was introduced to a culture-based evaluation technique, they were able to identify those people and gently ask them to change their behaviors and/or coach them out of the organization. Once the cultural mismatches were gone, the teams leaped-forward in their performance, both in team cohesiveness as well as the quality of work product for our clients.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

There are a couple of recommendations I would have here. The first one is finding something you love doing, with people you love doing it with. Nothing gives me more energy in the morning than knowing I get to come to Idea Grove and do what I love to do and know that I have a great team I’m working with each and every day. We spend way too much time at work to not love what you do! The second is taking time away from the job. No matter how much you love what you do, you must take time away to recharge. I am the type of person that takes time off a couple of times a year… But what I really look forward to is our winter break when the office is closed between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. I usually end up taking the week before the winter break as well and really try to disconnect from the day to day. I spend a LOT of time thinking about the things we want to accomplish in the coming year and doing a lot of pleasure reading.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am very grateful for many people throughout my career that have helped me along the way. Starting first with the interviewing manager at Arthur Andersen that took a shot on me, to the many mentors I have had along the way. I hope to be able to repay them someday by paying it forward to future generations of leaders.

A couple of people that come to mind are David McGuire, Frank Iannelli & Michael Kramer. I worked for David at a startup during the internet boom as his CTO. When the boom went bust, David went on to a turnaround, consumer goods company. David did not even hesitate when he got there. He called me very shortly thereafter and asked that I come work for him again. This time in an industry that I had never worked in before, taking the chance on me expecting that I could keep up. In addition to David, I got to work with two of my former Arthur Andersen colleagues who also went on to become influential in my career. Frank Iannelli and Michael Kramer both mentored me into that new industry and have remained friends and advisors ever since.

I am also very grateful for a close-knit group of gentlemen that have also contributed, directly and indirectly, to the success of my career. Chris McKee, Michael Adams, Christopher Brown, and Manuel Morin are a group of highly successful businessmen in their own right, that I have the honor of also calling my friends. This is my forum of businesspeople of which I get to bounce crazy ideas off, and from which I learn as much about business with the crazy ideas they bounce of me.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Good companies need to focus on two things: Being profitable and generating cash. Some will say that they must generate a return for shareholders, but without doing those two basic things, there will not be a return for shareholders. Great companies do these two basic things with the addition of a healthy culture and engaged employees participating in the success of the company. There are many, many good companies out there. But fewer truly great companies. We’ve implemented a lot of the business theories from Patrick Lencioni’s set of fables, as well as the concepts from Crucial Conversations, in order to ensure we have the healthiest organization possible.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. How to build a cohesive team.
  2. How to create clarity throughout the organization
  3. How to develop “soft” leadership qualities
  4. How to establish and maintain the right culture
  5. How to educate the employees on the operations of the business

When I started at Idea Grove, I told the leadership team that our number one priority was to create clarity throughout the organization and that my number one priority was to build a cohesive leadership team to do so. I am a huge fan of Patrick Lencioni’s business fables and the organizational management he teaches through those fables. We started an executive book club and have read and discussed nearly every one of his fables. We continue with leadership development through this executive book club. In Q4 of 2020, we are reading a book about unconscious bias called Blind Spot. And, ironically for this interview, on the schedule for Q1 or Q2 of 2021 is Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great.

Since I started at Idea Grove, just over a year ago, we have (re)implemented the Traction EOS as a way to operate the company, connect the team to company goals, communicate results, and ensure that we have a culturally-aligned team. We have implemented Open Book Management using the Great Game of Business methodology to educate the employees on how the business works, drive a higher level of engagement from our employees, and allow the employees to participate in the successes they create for the company.

We are starting to see the dividends from these investments as our team has the least amount of drama than ever before and our client work is at its highest output and quality.

Without these investments before and during the COVID-19 public health crisis, especially in the area of employee education around how the business is run, I would have expected that we might have had a lot of employee dissatisfaction when we froze raises and asked everyone to get involved in sales, to help get the company through the crisis. Instead, everyone has pitched in to help get the company through the crisis, and we did it without a reduction in staffing levels.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

If you have a business that caters to, or will cater to, people who have recently or will soon enter the workforce, having a social impact cause that the business supports will be an important item for recruiting and retention. The research has shown that the younger generations want to be part of a larger cause. At Idea Grove, we are that very type of company, hiring a lot of our workforce right out of college. We struggled for a couple of years, trying to find a cause that was both authentic to the company and appealing to the entire team. This year, we settled on Texas Trees Foundation, a group that organizes tree plantings in and around Dallas, Texas. This organization is both authentic to the culture of the company and is doing good in our own city. While COVID has wiped out our participation this year, we do look forward to being able to participate in events as soon as the public health crisis has passed. We expect this to help with internal teambuilding outside of the job, as well as for recruiting purposes going forward.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I would follow the mantra “what got you here won’t necessarily get you there”. If you have had a string of growth years, and then suddenly fall flat, I would ask that very question. What are we doing to get us here that is no longer continuing to move us forward? This means taking an extremely critical and fact-based top-down and bottom-up deep dive into your organization to figure out what is not working. This can be a huge hit to the ego as you must first admit that something just is not working. But once you get past that, you can dig into the problems and work with your team to find the solutions that will restart you on the path to growth.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I will go back to our implementation of the Great Game of Business here. Without having put in the work to educate the entire employee base, from the office manager to the CEO, on how the business works, we would not have pulled through the public health crisis as we have. We are still not out of the woods, but with the entire team pulling together, I know that we will make it out just fine.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The most underestimated part of running a company is the soft stuff. It is the leadership development, the team building, the crucial conversation training, and the culture building. It is building an environment of trust and hyper-transparency forcing out the drama in the organization. In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, there is a quote on the very first page after the introduction: “The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it.” This is the mantra I have tried to live by and continue to learn by.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Have a system! Here at Idea Grove, we follow the Sandler approach to sales. Sandler emphasizes the building of relationships early in the process, and then to seek to quantify “the pain,” that driver that is causing the prospect to reach out. Positioned as a trusted business advisor, we then tailor each solution to meet the client’s needs and eliminate that pain, all the while continuing to establish the relationship with the prospect. Our sales process is a bit longer than most for that very reason, but I also believe it gives us a higher chance of winning the business.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

It is interesting that you asked about trust. Our founder, Scott Baradell, is nearing the end of a journey writing a book called “Trust Signals”. We believe building that trust is the foundation of all brand equity. There is a set of 77 (and growing) Trust Signals outlined on his website and in his book that a brand can implement to help reinforce their reputation in the marketplace. One of our key Trust Signals here at Idea Grove is public reviews. We are constantly asking for feedback from our clients and asking them to turn those into public reviews on review websites important to our industry.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

For Idea Grove, a great customer experience is built through the trust we build with the client and the work product we produce. We are not perfect, and we know it. But when we make a mistake, we own it, apologize for it, work to make it right. Through this process, we continue to build trust with our clients. We have found that when we make a mistake, that owning it and making it right builds a greater level of trust with that client, creating that Wow! experience, and leading to the great reviews we have garnered for our work.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

As a marketing company with a social media practice area, we are always thinking about this, both for ourselves and for our clients. Social media has become a bit of a double-edged sword for companies and you must carefully think through your posts, as they will live forever. But within that, you must be true to your own authentic nature.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistake I have seen is when the CEO or founder tries to do everything themselves. I was brought to Idea Grove by our founder, Scott, because he is a great visionary, but he will tell you that he is not a great integrator. While I excel at getting a company from “here” to “there,” I need a partner in crime to analyze the market and determine where the “there” is. Business is a team sport. You must know your own blind spots and fill those in with teammates who complement you in that blind spot.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would create a movement around the book Crucial Conversations. If everyone in the world could get to a point where we could have a dispassionate conversation coming from a place of understanding the other person’s point of view, regardless of topic, the world would be a much better place! We must re-learn how to have Crucial Conversations around politics, religion and other sensitive topics that seem to be driving divisiveness in our country and around the world. We, as human occupants of the great spaceship Earth, have more in common with each other than we have differences.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Quite ironically, as a company that provides social media services for our clients, I am not found on many social media channels. I can be found on LinkedIn, and you can also check out Idea Grove’s website and learn more about Trust Signals here.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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