I never should have gotten this far
Everything that happened to me screamed “You’re gonna fail!” But I was stubborn enough to make it.
All I remember about being little was my obsession with soccer. I'm still obsessed but it was all I thought about in primary school.
Oh, and my Dad is an accountant and he would come home and I'd call out a maths question to him from my bedroom window which was next to the front door and he would answer it (kind of nerdy, I know!).
I did well at school but always had an underlying anxiety that threatened to overwhelm me.
I managed to get good grades in high school and got a scholarship to a university on the Gold Coast in Australia.
At the same time, I had a band and decided I wanted to pursue music full-time. So I quit my scholarship and left it behind.
When I left university without finishing a degree I had no clue the beat down life was about to throw my way!
I left university to pursue the dream of being a rockstar.
Around the same time I left home and I had expenses and needed to find a better paying job.
One of the first jobs I came across was doing door-to-door sales for Telstra (big telecom in Australia).
The job was 100% commission sales.
I was terrible and never earned the weekly retainer in NINE MONTHS of being there.
I barely made enough money to put food on the table and my bills were always last minute. I remember weeks where I would run out of money and have to live on whatever was in my cupboard.
One day my life changed when a good friend got a job in sales for a company that sold water coolers. I was 19 at the time but he told the owners from Sydney, "You have to hire this guy!"
I wore my best suit and tie (from my grade 12 formal) to meet them at a Coffee Club cafe.
They interviewed me over lunch and decided to hire me.
Within 30 days I started my first full-time job as a “salesperson”. I was working for a company that sold water coolers (WaterFirst at the time).
Something I kept hidden for 4 years changed lives
At WaterFirst I figured something out as a complete fluke.
It's changed my life. I use it every day. And the skill has changed my clients' lives.
As I started selling water coolers, I got SICK of all the 'salesy' advice I kept running into. I refused to give people 'two options' rather than a yes or no so they would choose to go ahead with something.
I was sure there must be a better way. I wanted to engage with people as a salesperson without sacrificing my integrity!
In this case it was a series of books I stumbled across that threw everything I'd heard about sales on its head. I read them and knew the pattern I was reading about could work for me.
On a whim I thought, “THAT'S IT! No more salesy strategies, I'm going to go in and get good at asking questions.”
From that instant I started practicing listening. I practiced in EVERY conversation with a prospect over the phone or face-to-face.
Over the next couple of years I spent countless hours failing to listen well. I tweaked my questions and tried new ways to listen for my own use.
I never had any intention of using listening as a coach or consultant. I saw it as a tool to help me sell things with integrity.
Over the next couple of years, I improved my listening. I would make budget some months but I would still completely fail in other months…
I was MISERABLE.
I felt confused about what I was doing with my life. I was SICK of selling water coolers and knew there had to be something better for me.
My dream job was ripped away from me...
Four years into selling water coolers, I was a soon-to-be-married 23-year-old. I wanted to make a difference in the world so I wouldn't have to go back to uni and start studying from scratch.
I knew I didn't want to sell water coolers for the rest of my life.
I wanted to build a career where I loved doing what I was doing. I wanted to support my new wife, Liz, and leave a legacy that matters.
The thing is I was barely making budget most months.
I was trying so hard and couldn't seem to achieve breakthrough. I wanted to build some amazing career that would make my wife and family proud.
I felt like a failure at 23.
Then, after 4 years of working as a salesman, I had an opportunity to step into a dream role in a large Australian bank.
They were willing to take me on board without a degree and it ended up down to just me... I was a shoe-in for the job!
In the last few days of hiring, someone internal put their hand up for the position.
And they got the job.
I felt devastated to be stuck in the world of sales when I KNEW it wasn't my sweet spot.
PLUS there was pressure mounting on me to hit the next month's targets (but I was less motivated than ever).
Then I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
How I started seeing breakthrough in my life...
Some seasons of life are black and white. It's predictable and you move forward.
At this point in my life, it was the opposite. I needed to have an epiphany moment that turns everything upside down.
I've had a couple of these in my life! But this was the first big one.
I felt transfixed in the moment, almost like an out-of-body experience. I was crying and it was crystal clear what I needed to do.
I caught a glimpse of my calling and a clear sense of direction for my life.
I learned you CAN speed up the process of finding your calling and clarifying direction.
You need to have the right person beside you!
So, in the same week I asked someone to be my mentor for the first time.
After I did that, I started seeing breakthrough in my life.
I was clear on what I wanted to do with my life and what to do next to get there.
I started encouraged those around me by investing in them.
But there was still a problem...
I had no idea what was coming...
It still took a LONG time before I was able to do the work that I'm here on earth to do.
It took years of stepping out time and time again. I had equal measures of successful breakthroughs and disastrous failures.
Some steps were fun, others were the most painful seasons of my life. I went through seasons that formed my foundation as a person and helped me become who I am today.
The devastating lows were the most formative moments (unfortunately)!
THEN, I had to humble myself, pick myself up off the floor and decide whether to keep going or to give up.
(Side note: There's NO WAY most leaders haven't had monumental moments of doubt.)
So, it was still a LOT of work, a LOT of time, and a LOT of failure to find my calling and purpose this way.
Also, I spent long periods of time doing work that I now know wasn't in my sweet spot. I wish I could have learned what I know now, sooner.
Then life threw me a curveball...
In 2013, I was still selling water coolers. I'd been with WaterFirst for six years.
Finally, I'd decided to look for a new job and had an interview booked with a recruiter.
I had applied for a sales job with a company called The Urban List. I realised it was less than a kilometer away from the recruiter's office.
I emailed the address in the ad and mentioned I was going to be in the area on Friday afternoon.
I received an email back shortly after offering an interview that afternoon. The interview would be with the founder and CEO, Susannah George!
In the interview, I mentioned my idea of creating a blog for people to learn about soccer skills.
Susannah leaned in straight away. In hindsight, I realise she is an INCREDIBLE entrepreneur. It was my entrepreneurial spirit that drew her to me.
The Urban List was only a year or so old but was passing 50,000 unique visitors per month in a competitive industry. The Urban List is a curated guide to food, drink and arts in Brisbane.
I felt intrigued.
It wasn't just the idea of working with some of the best cafe and restaurant owners in Brisbane. It was also the idea of working with Susannah.
A few weeks later I got the job!
That began an intense 10 month odyssey of learning how to take my sales expertise and apply it in a new industry.
I was only there for 10 months, but it felt like 5 years.
It was the fastest moving organisation I've ever been a part of. While I was there Susannah expanded the business into Melbourne and Sydney.
Ever since The Urban List I've been passionate about entrepreneurship and leadership.
I've learned step by step (through trial and error!) how to become a better leader. I've built a high performance team.
But I've found it hard!
The ticking time bomb leader [My leadership story]
Becoming a leader rocked me to my core. Not long after my role with The Urban List I stepped into my first 'real' leadership role.
I started at a fast growing nonprofit in Australia.
I'm a fun, loving, smart and generous person, but when I became a leader, nothing I expected happened.
It was as if the frustrated leader I became consumed the person I am.
For me it started with little conflicts. Why wouldn’t people get on the page with what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go?
Once I started trying to make changes and create momentum, I felt people pushing back. They would not say it to my face and I felt confused about how to navigate the underlying tension.
The underlying push back overwhelmed me. I couldn’t understand why leadership was so hard.
When I managed to resolve some of the small conflicts, much to my relief, I still wasn’t able to recover. These early experiences set the stage for how I felt for many months to come.
The thing is, I became frustrated with my team because I felt this way. And I felt frustrated with myself for not being a better leader.
I felt frustrated with the people who wouldn’t get on board and the pain that came with that. I felt frustrated with the lack of results in my team and organisation.
I no longer felt excited about leadership.
I felt confused, so very confused.
I didn’t resemble the fun, loving, smart and generous person I was at heart.
Instead, I turned into the leader I never thought I would be.
I felt overwhelmed. I would sometimes leave a room of my people to find a quiet spot.
I didn’t how to deal with the people I was leading.
When I didn’t see bigger conflicts resolve well, I grew even more frustrated. I knew with every cell in my body that it was not how I wanted to be, but I didn’t know how to change.
I would read books and they would help, but I still couldn’t conflict well and get my team on the same page.
I tried to get help and even had mentors but they weren’t able to help me solve the problem.
Every once in a while colleagues and my leaders would hand me books they recommended. Books on how to become a better leader which would make me feel worse! I felt so helpless and alone.
Because my default setting is to be happy, friendly and bubbly, I felt I had to hide the overwhelmed side of myself. I tried to get on with it in front of my friends and family.
I felt more overwhelmed and withdrew further.
I developed a pattern of being able to remain calm by shoving my feelings down when I felt overwhelmed. This created a ticking time bomb of a leader.
And when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I would shut down.
I felt HELPLESS.
Then I would feel bad and depressed for a couple days. I would need to spend a few hours getting my head around the projects on my plate.
Once I felt on top of everything again, I would keep going.
Then I would feel overwhelmed again.
And so this was my life. And it was miserable.
I knew there had to be a better way, I had no idea how to find it.
And when you don’t know where to turn, there’s only one source you can turn to:
Just kidding! I happened to stumble across Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and it changed my life.
Ever heard of a Shelf Help book?
It was no coincidence the random day I decided to pick up The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
It's a book by the world renowned leadership consultant and author Patrick Lencioni.
Lencioni unpacks the five foundational layers of dysfunction every team needs to overcome. Light bulbs started going off in my head like fireworks!
I read it in one night.
I borrowed another Lenconi book from a friend. It's what I call a Shelf Help book that could make my leadership better, but ends up sitting on a shelf :-)
I borrowed The Advantage, and let it sit there for a while.
I sort of stared it down because I thought it might be one of those books that would only make me feel worse. I didn't want to hear how damaging everything I had done was to the people I was leading and to the organisation.
Instead, it changed my life and set in motion a chain of events that led me to you and this story you're reading today.
The book spoke to me in a way no other book or person had. I learned about the challenges of building a healthy team and organisation.
I learned how to get everyone rowing in the same direction. I devoured Lencioni's Organisational Health approach.
I read The Advantage many times. The concept of The Four Disciplines of Organisational Health took root.
I decided to try it out for myself!
I finished the book on such a high. I thought I was a changed person and a changed leader. I squashed the idea of getting help from a coach or consultant.
I met with my team and announced how I had changed. I declared I would be implementing the four disciplines of organisational health.
I was going to be a better leader! A great leader! Yay!
And then within weeks Yay! turned into more frustration!
(I came to understand later that there was neurological wiring in place. This makes it impossible to read a book and execute it well immediately - we’ll come back to this later.)
Row, row, rowing in different directions
I was leading a team of 30 and thought if I did my job well, everyone would follow me.
I was leading 30 competent and passionate people.
But no matter how well I did my job, my team wasn't aligned. Team members were rowing in different directions.
I felt frustrated, confused and angry.
I'd been implementing Lencioni's framework along with other ideas. I was trying to turn my dysfunctional leadership team into a healthy leadership team.
It had been a few months now. And there were moments of two steps forward.
But then we'd take one step back.
My team would call me out and say, “Jonno, I thought you said you were going to be vulnerable and build a healthy team?”
Which made it all the worse because I WAS THE ONE WHO ANNOUNCED IT! Lame!
I was so frustrated that I had digressed. Then I met a new mentor who understood the four disciplines of organisational health.
He'd been helping multinational organisations around the world for the past decade. He used the same frameworks I was using with my team!
(By the way, I met him by calling his mobile and asking if we could have coffee. It never hurts to ask!)
We sat over a coffee and I showed him my answers to the six questions of clarity. I explained how I felt frustrated with the lack of results in my team and in the organisation.
The teacher is the student
There was a near immediate sense of relief at having a clear and strategic plan to move forward.
Finally, FINALLY, I had someone who could help me.
Someone who I could talk to about vulnerability, commitment and accountability. Who listened to me and helped me turn my limiting beliefs about my team and my leadership around.
He helped me to see how culture can’t change in one fell swoop. It can only change through intentional and consistent decisions.
You need clear vision, core values, strategic anchors and a top priority in any given season.
It was like the wool was finally pulled from my eyes! I came back to the world of the living.
I felt more confident and more connected to my people.
I, for the first time, was able to bear witness to the emotions of the people I was leading and not get caught up in them.
I had a pattern of making whatever they were feeling, or how they were behaving, into a story about me as a leader. I broke this pattern once and for all.
This concept created space for me to focus on the things that matter most.
Then everything changed during an Arrow Emerging Leaders program intensive ...
I was lying down on the ground with my eyes closed during a session where we had space for contemplation.
I pondered everything I was doing in my life. I had no idea I was about to have another life-changing revelation I'll never forget.
There I was in Melbourne, Australia, at a leadership intensive. I was six months into implementing Lencioni's principles of organisational health. I was loving every minute of it.
We were building a cohesive leadership team. We finally had clarity around the vision, core behaviours, strategic anchors and priorities!
Then, as I lay there, I saw my life 30 years down the track.
There were two paths.
Up to that point I thought my role was to lead great organisations or to be part of great organisations.
I wanted to be up front in prominent leadership roles in larger and larger organisations. That was one path.
But for the first time, I saw another path. I could get beside leaders and help them build great organisations.
To choose behind the scenes over prominence. The role of trainer and advisor over point leader.
Somewhere in my heart I knew the burden would be lighter, the wins sweeter and the impact—greater. So I decided then and there to pursue a life of helping other leaders to build great organisations.
Everyone needs to be able to do this (EVERYONE)
I was still working for someone else (I hadn't started Clarity yet). But I knew I needed to do something to start moving in this new direction.
A friend of mine was starting a leadership development organisation in Denmark.
I approached him. I asked him if he would be my first client. He said yes.
I worked with him to clarify the vision and values for his organisation from the ground up. I also helped him get clear on the top priority as he was about to move from Australia to Denmark.
Not long after that I started investing more of my time in Clarity.
Fast forward one year from the leadership intensive and I was at a crossroads.
What had started as a seed of an idea in my heart had now grown into something more. I had used the tools at my disposal to answer the six questions of clarity for my own organisation.
I wanted to invest in leaders to help them become everything they can be.
I decided to step out and pioneer Clarity.
So how did things end up?
Today I am the happiest I’ve ever been.
I’m far from perfect and still have the occasional off day or moment. But it doesn’t consume me anymore and send me spiraling into a depression.
I'm on a journey to becoming a conscious, connected leader. I've faced my leadership past and reflected on my challenges with conflict in a different way.
I found the secret to leading with empathy and compassion. AND achieving high-performance in a team and organization.
Uncovering this secret is like lifting 1000lbs of your chest.
The lightness and liberation that comes from it is incredible.
My book on dealing with difficult people, Step Up or Step Out, has sold more than 10,000 copies worldwide.
I'm also the host of The Leadership Conversations Podcast. We have listeners in more than 100 countries worldwide.
I coach entrepreneurs, managers, executives, heads of schools and CEOs.
I run board and executive team offsites. I help leaders find out what their customers and employees think. And I present workshops and keynotes for conferences and staff teams.
If you’d like some help finding your freedom as a leader, I would love to help you.
Click HERE to buy my book, "Step Up or Step Out: How To Deal With Difficult People Even If You Hate Conflict."
Or, click HERE to book a call with me to chat about your situation.