John C. Maxwell wrote a book called The 5 Levels of Leadership where he describes the different levels of leadership and shows you how to master each one and rise up to the next to become a more influential, respected, and successful leader. In this episode, host Bill Higgs sits down and talks with the Founder and CEO of Level Five Associates, Robert Mixon, about his company that teaches values-based leadership that works. Robert has over 35 years of leadership experience in building teams and growing level five leaders in both the military and business, from units the size of 40 people to companies of over 30,000 people. Today, he explains the attributes of a Level Five leader and what he’s doing with his company to help others develop that type of leadership.
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Values-Based Leadership That Works With Robert Mixon
We are visiting with Robert Mixon, a retired Major General in the US Army. He’s the Founder and CEO of Level Five Associates. Level Five Associates teaches what he calls values-based leadership that works. Robert’s last military job was as Commanding General of the Seventh Infantry Division in Fort Carson, Colorado. It’s a pretty big job. Prior to that, he was Deputy Executive Assistant to General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Robert has over 35 years of leadership experience in building teams and growing level five leaders in both the military and business, from units the size of 40 people to companies of over 30,000 people. He has held leadership positions while working to help develop people to their maximum potential. Robert has authored or co-authored two books featured on Amazon, including my favorite, We’re All In: The Journey to a World-Class Culture, which became the best new release in 2017. That book title sounds perfect for someone to be on Culture Code Champions. Robert, welcome. Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up at West Point and the president of our class, one that is chock-full of world-class leaders.
Thanks, Bill. It’s a real privilege to be with you. Congratulations on the work you’re doing with the Culture Code Champions program with Forbes. I’ve been a fan of yours for many years. It’s great to get reconnected here. I ended up in West Point back in the days when the giants roam the earth in 1970. I was looking for a way to get to college. I was the oldest of six kids growing up in Georgia, North Carolina. The only attribute I had at the time was I was a decent football player. The Army football team had a decent program at that point in time as they do now in the Army. I had a dream of playing major college football and there were the largest school that recruited me back in those days. Academically, I had enough to get by. I was good enough to get in. When I got in and realize my dream of being a football player, I was pretty mediocre. I played a little bit in the second year. That dream ended for me with a series of injuries. You’ve had your share of injury so you know what we’re talking about here.
They kept me on the team there. Thanks to an attitude that I developed from the guys around me. All the guys that were around us. We had a culture code that we were going to stick together and we went through a lot of hard times, but being the president of the class for me was an enormous privilege that you all considered that I was worthy of doing that. To this day, I’m extremely proud of that honor. It was a formative experience for me. We all go through several crucibles in our life, your battles with cancer and things like that. Mine is another way, but certainly going through West Point together at a time when the military was not very popular, the Vietnam War was winding down. Our attrition rate was extremely high. That’s what brought us together. We became part of the band of brothers that we are. Obviously, it’s an all-male school at that time. That’s part of the connotation here of band of brothers.
While you’re in the Army, I’m sure that you had some units where you felt like you were in a bonded team that had good esprit de corps. What are some of the things that you witnessed and did in those units that you are able to bring into the civilian world?
My first assignment was with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment patrolling the East-West German border. I’d seen almost all the John Wayne movies, as we got to sneak down and see these cadets. They were making movies about cavalry officers and staff. I thought that was cool, so I wanted to be in the cavalry. I went to Germany in 1975. I was over there in Germany and the Army was in crisis. However, the 11th Cavalry Regiment was overcoming some of those challenges in some ways. We had challenges with the mix of drafty and volunteer soldiers. Neither one was the best mix of people we wanted. The Vietnam War had been largely blamed on the military. In many units in Germany, race riots and drug problem were endemic. The 11th Cavalry Regiment had such a strong bond of history, our culture and our behaviors that we were expected to manifest. We were able to overcome some of those challenges. I’m over there. I’m not denying that at all. I was around other soldiers who modeled the behaviors of what life was like.
The bonding that had occurred at West Point was reproduced for me in those formative years in Germany in the mid-1970s, even though the Army itself was struggling. We got through it better than most. I came out of that four-year assignment feeling as though I belonged. That was a critical part of the esprit de corps I felt as a soldier. I know many of our classmates chose not to stay in the Army after that. For me, it was a formative point in time where I said, “I’m going to stay in the Army at least for the near term because of that positive first experience.” It’s almost impossible to undo the bad first impression. I found that in my military life and I found it in my corps. That first impression, my first assignment to 11th Cavalry was formative of my attitude going forward about being a positive leader.
One of the things that we started doing at Mustang was what I call a new hire breakfast. It’s like what you said, try to get that good first impression. We would get all the new hires out to an offsite for breakfast and all our managers would be there intermingled at tables. We’d go around and ask each person, “How did you come to this company? What project are you on?” Managers would take off from that and talk about cultural points and how we won that work, how we’re integrated, how we’re cross-fertilizing and cross-training. From that first impression, they saw a tight-knit leadership team that could joke with each other, mess with each other a little bit in front of the people. They could feel, “This is a family, this is bonded, this is different than any other business I’ve been in.” You get that first impression and that can go a long way to get people through some of those early bumps in their career.
I’m a firm believer. I was fortunate enough to be part of that positive first impression. You and I have also seen what happens when you don’t make that first impression leader business. When you make an administrative function, you give someone an administrative person a clipboard and tell them, “Give the person a computer and say, ‘Here you go.”’ That methodology of not connecting leader business with onboarding and that first impression, that’s fundamental to establish in the framework for world-class culture. When you talk about your seven steps, for example, creating a sense of team and bonding, continuously recruit top talent and that new hire breakfast you mentioned. This is all a part of what leaders do. The best cultures, the level-five cultures are not negotiable. When someone new comes in the door, this is our opportunity and we’re not going to mess it up.
The numbers don’t lie. 70% of new hires don’t make it to twelve months with their company. What surprised me is 60% don’t even make it to six months. The way you and I are talking, it probably all goes back to that first couple of weeks. Whether or not the leadership connected with them and whether or not they were able to connect sideways with those that are around them.
I absolutely agree with you. That’s fundamental stuff.
Years ago, you founded Level Five Associates. Would you take a little time to explain the attributes of a level-five leader and what you’re doing with your company to help others develop that type of leadership?
The idea behind Level Five Associates was based on my observation and study of some other people. Particularly John C. Maxwell wrote a book called The 5 Levels of Leadership, which I thought was very powerful, where he describes the five levels of leadership. The ultimate level-five leader in his view was someone who had two characteristics where he called them personhood and respect. Those two attributes are only achieved through dedicated servant leadership. He described how all of us are on a journey as a leader is somewhere between level-one, which is called the positional leader. I lead because my name tag says so to a level-five personhood and respect, where people follow you because of who you are and what you represent. What I have been doing with Level Five Associates is helping companies and organizations understand that journey and grow leaders who have those kinds of qualities through the big six principles that I’ve developed, which aren’t rocket science.
It’s the practical application of those tools for your toolbox that creates the conditions for leaders to move forward in that journey. They move upward in that journey and thereby create the conditions where a culture or ecosystem where people thrive. I enjoy doing that. I’ve also been doing a series of executive coaching journeys with some individual leaders at different types of companies. That’s enjoyable work. I also do a fair amount of strategic planning to help people set the pathway that they want to take their organization towards a defined in state and not using hope as a method to have an outcome-based pathway. They can measure their progress or lack thereof and take action.
One of the things we’re looking at with the seven steps in Culture Code Champions is to also give people those tools to where they can measure where they start each one of those steps and how they’re progressing across time. As you’re trying to move leaders from level 1 to level 5, one of the key opposite faces of the coin of leadership is culture. As they’re growing as leaders, they’re growing and developing that culture. One of the big six leadership principles that you talk about is to do the right thing when no one is looking. How do you see people creating the cultural environment where people are going to do that right thing when no one is looking?
There are a number of indicators that give you an idea that you’re creating an environment where people are going to do right. One of them is if you model accountability. We’ve got to walk the talk. If leaders don’t walk the talk, they can’t expect others to do it. It’s a tried and true attribute. Don’t ask people to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. That modeling of accountability has to be embedded in your leadership persona. The way I use to codify that is called the personal leadership philosophy. I help leaders who write their personal leadership philosophies based on their personal mission statement. Who am I, what do I do and why do I do it?
Here’s my philosophy that outlines where my values and behaviors fit inside that personal mission statement. It takes up a while to do that. You don’t sit down and do rough draft people’s final copy. You’ve got to sit down and go through this. Beat your way through it because most of the leaders I’ve been with have never modeled their accountability in a deliberate way with a personal mission statement and a personal leadership philosophy. Those are two of the tools that I use with leaders to help them not only to learn about themselves but start to codify who they are and what they represent so they can hold themselves accountable and others can hold them accountable. Putting a personal mission statement and leadership philosophy in writing, finding it and personally giving it to each member of their team, their colleagues, their direct reports, those that they work for. What’s going to happen is they’ve got to hold themselves accountable to it, but they can expect everybody else to hold them accountable as well.
They handed it out and said, “This is what I’m about.”
It’s a wonderful accountability mechanism that I’ve seen work over and over, but you’ve got to make the commitment. This is a journey, not a destination and you’re not going to get it in 30 days. Cultures don’t emerge in 30 days. It takes, in my experience, 2 to 3 years to move the needle in a culture. As a leader, you should expect your journey to be continuous and you’re going to be at some stage of that journey a linear progression from level 1 to level 5. There will be times when you go up a little bit, you come back some and change positions of the companies. You go into a different culture and you have to get back to that. Your personal leadership philosophy may change over time. I’ve written mine at least four times.
What you’re talking about there is our step four, which I call hard copy communication. You’re writing it down, you’re handing it out and it’s hard copy. You want to be measured against that.
That’s a great step, that hard copy communication. I like it, Bill.
I agree with you that it takes 2 to 3 years to change your current culture. If you’re wanting to create a market-changing people-oriented culture that builds people up and you don’t have it now, it can be a 2 to 3-year process to work through the steps, develop the leaders, develop the systems to create that and build that culture.
I’ve seen it in many instances here where companies, their senior leadership will get all fired up and get a flavor of the month. They don’t sustain it. They create energy but they’re not persistent. In my view, the reason that moving needle in culture is difficult is because it takes that persistence that some leadership teams can’t sustain. You’ve got to have some help to do it. In many cases, I’ve been serving as an accountability buddy for senior leadership teams to encourage them not to lose your momentum to sustain their azimuth. Once they see that the direction establishes a strategic planning process with an end state in mind, codify their values, codify their culture, have that personal commitment in their leadership philosophies. In many cases, we’ve been helping groups build the team covenants, which are collective agreements among the teams as to how we are going to be. You’ve got to hold each other accountable to that because mutual accountability is much more powerful than vertical accountability.
Your flavor of the month comment is very apropos. You can’t say, “We’re going to have a culture in 30 days,” announce it and expect it to happen. You have to create habits and those habits have to get reinforced. Everybody has to start believing that you’re authentic. You’re going to stick with this. This isn’t going to go away. This is how we’re going to be. You can get them on board with the measuring and the tools, but you also have a good point that you need some outside person to help hold you accountable because everybody within an organization is fighting alligators all day that are chopping at their butt. You need somebody who’s not in the fray coming in and saying, “Have you moved the needle on this?” If they know that meeting is going to happen, they may not have done it for the three weeks, but they’ll do it within the four days prior to that meeting. You will have taken another step in the right direction. Have you seen that?
I seek first to learn about them, who are they, what do they want to be when they grow up as an organization? Over a period of time, because we work together, it’s not a two or three-day workshop. I usually work with them over a period of a couple of years in iterative workshop engagement sessions. As I learned more about them, I know enough to be dangerous and I’m also not a threat. I can be an accountability friend for that team of leaders, whether it’s senior leaders, immediate leaders. I like to work with senior leadership teams upfront because if they bought in, there’s a good chance the other people will buy in. If you try and do it from the inside up, it’s much more difficult because you have to convince your boss as if this is a good idea.
I enjoyed a book some years ago called In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. You’ve probably read that, but I was a big fan of what he called Management By Wandering Around, MBWA. One of the things you encourage level five leaders to do is something similar in what you’d call doing a listening tour. How do you recommend implementing that action with a leadership team?
You as a leader got to model the behavior of becoming an effective listener. Stephen Covey asked the question, “Do you listen with the intent to understand or the intent to reply?” 90% of the people I’ve been around are in door number two. They are listening with the intent to reply, which means they’re not actively listening. They’re not seeking to understand. You as a leader, you’ve got a model of the behavior of active listening. I think management by walking around means that you’re out with people where they are doing what they’re doing and you are listening. You are asking them what I call power questions. For example, “How’s it going?” is not a power question. “What’s up?” is not a power question. Power questions model curiosity in an authentic way as you alluded to.
I’ll give you some examples of power questions. One would be, “What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing? What’s the number one resource that you like to have for this project that you don’t currently have? What are your dreams? What do you want to be in this company or organization?” If you ask those questions and you’re going to get some feedback, first of all, that’s going to be informative, not just, “Are you okay?” “I’m okay.” You need more than that as a leader in order to be effective in enabling them trust and empowering. You can’t empower people if you don’t understand them and they don’t understand you. That clarity is fundamental. I don’t think you’d get the clarity by listening with the intent to reply. You’d get the clarity by listening with the intent to understand. Modeling curiosity with power questions and circling back. A lot of times, you end up asking someone a power question and you move on. They never get any feedback from you.
They think that you just did that to check the box. When you manage by walking around, you’re out there more than once. You’re out there asking power questions and you’re circling back to them. You may not always get the answer you want to hear, but you’re going to get some feedback to the power answers that they’ve given you. That’s how management by walking around generates authenticity in leaders and their ability to listen, to understand. It shows people that you care and I’m going to be around leaders who care. There will be times when we have some tough love, but if I know they care, I’ll be okay with that.
When you’re coming back and responding to that person in that conversation and you’re coming back two or three days later and talking about that, now they feel like there’s a personal connection between them and the leader. Now you’re starting to get their hearts and minds into the organization.
It’s part of that ownership. That’s what I call it, Bill. When people own what they’re doing in an organization, they’re going to do the hell out of them. When they’re doing it because they were told to, what I called directive leadership, they’re not going to own it. It will be someone else’s initiative or idea. It’s not mine. When it’s mine, I’m going to get after it.
I’m going to make sure it works. That leads me to what I consider a fun question I have. One of your big six leadership principles, this is one that I love, “When in charge, take charge.” It’s like there should be “hoo-ha” after that because that feels very military. Civilians have a tendency to think the military is all about giving orders, which you alluded to. Would you please dispel this while explaining this principle because you want people to own what you’re asking them to do?
Most people in corporate settings that I’ve been with tend to look at this principle as being loud and being directive. That’s not what it means. It means being present and by being present that you’re the calm and the chaos. You can handle bad news. You have tactical patience. The first report is always wrong. We know that. In many cases, if you’re going to go flash a bang in two or three seconds when you hear some bad news, you’re saying to people the impression that you’re not in charge, that you’re being reactive. You’re putting gasoline on the fire. Being in charge is all about command. Command and control are two different elements.
The control freaks out there are not demonstrating that they’re being in charge. They’re demonstrating that they want to micromanage. When you’re in charge, you are one who can handle bad news. You understand the credibility of the first report is not 100%. You’re going to be the calm and the chaos that keeps people focused and balanced even when things are not going the way they should. I don’t know how many times do you and I go to work every day and get surprised by what happened. There are things out there that are going to happen. We’ve got to be the ones who keep things on a steady, even keel. That’s what that principle is about.
Deal with the reality of what you find when you come in for that day.
Let’s see the world as it is.
This has been fun visiting you. The overarching big six leadership principle, one that you mentioned is called Setting the Azimuth. We found that we needed to communicate that Azimuth relentlessly top to bottom through the organization and that we had to live it because everybody’s watching what we were doing. If we’re going to create the habits throughout the organization, we needed to be aligned with that Azimuth. Would you talk a little bit about how you help people set that?
The setting of the Azimuth is first among equals here in the big six because if you don’t set your Azimuth, you’ll be like Alice in Wonderland, you don’t know where you’re going. Azimuth has four components: mission, intent, values and behaviors of culture. You’re going to set those four elements of Azimuth. You and I learned that Azimuth in the military. It’s the cardinal direction of where we’re going. It’s the true north. It’s one component you have to set as a team and you’ve got to revisit them continuously. We have a saying called the seven-time people. If you wanted someone to receive a message, you had to tell him seven times. I don’t think that’s correct. I think the number is more like 70.
In my experience, it has to be a drum beat. Azimuth is the drumbeat of your organization. I haven’t met anyone yet, been in any organization where they’ve said, “We’ve set and repeated our Azimuth and revisited it too many times. It’s guarding us off.” In most cases it is, “We need to get reset. We’re outside the limit markers.” We’ve got to get back inside those limit markers of our Azimuth and make sure that what we do is consistent with our mission and our intent captures our key tasks, purpose and instinct with going towards in our strategic form. Our values are defined. We can’t write them down and think everybody gets it. You’ve got to define them. Our behaviors, the culture component of this Azimuth is how do we expect people to behave to demonstrate they understand and model the beliefs that we have kept personally as a team.
One of the things that I found is if I said things enough times and demonstrated them up and down through the organization, eventually I would hear a conversation where what I’d been putting out was coming out of somebody’s mouth in a little bit different words, but you could tell that they totally understood it. They had put it inside themselves and now they were teaching it to others. To me, that gives a chill up and down my spine when that happens because you know how hard that is to do especially down three or four levels into an organization. It takes a lot of work.
Management by walking around, you should be listening as well to hear the language of your message. Once you hear it from other people having a sidebar conversation, that’s a measurable indicator that people are starting to get it. Their behaviors indicate they’re starting to get it, but also their language as humans. They’re understanding. We’re getting some traction here. I use a culture survey that’s in the book, We’re All In. I use that with teams as a benchmark. Those twelve questions of, “How do they see our organization at this point in time from their vantage point?” Then we benchmark or measure their responses against the twelve questions by the departments of their organization. They begin to address those areas where the perception is we’re weaker versus stronger in a deliberate way. That’s part of collectively circling back, collectively listening and collectively circling through that. That’s a powerful tool, but again, you’ve got to be persistent. This cannot be the flavor of the month.
It takes a lot of habits. Robert, I know that you’re an avid reader. Is there any book or article that you would recommend to the people reading?
There are many outstanding ones out there. I would say, Mustang The Story, we need to read that. Simon Sinek has a book called Find Your Why. He’s hit the key point in our information age leadership skills. We’ve got to be able to find our why and help our teams find their why. He’s done some good YouTube work. I know you’re probably familiar with him. Of the books that I’ve been reading, his has resonated with me in terms of a fact that the Millennials that we’re leading. They need to know why. There was a time when we were simply living in a directive world where people told us what and they were not going to tell us why. We weren’t expected to ask, but that world has changed. If we don’t adapt to that, I don’t think we’re going to be effective in moving the needle towards the world-class culture and having culture champions in our ranks and no one will nurture that ecosystem.
Simon Sinek is doing some good work and I’m sure a lot of Millennials are reading that and trying to figure out how to bring some of that into the companies where they’re working. It’s been a lot of fun visiting with my classmate, Robert Mixon, CEO of Level Five Associates. Robert, I plan to enshrine you in what we call the Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame for Contribution. What would you want to be known and remembered for?
Thank you very much. I would say that I probably asked to be remembered as someone who appreciated the value and power of culture in creating a world-class organization and creating a high performing organization that consistently excels. That would probably be my legacy at that point.
It’s all about culture. We’ll definitely enshrine you for that. You provided some real golden nuggets to help our readers put Culture Code Champions, the seven steps to scale and succeed in their business to work. Especially step one, which is opening up the communication top to bottom, getting people talking to each other, getting them to want to live that culture. One of the things I was wondering, do you have any charities that you like to help and support that our audience might be interested in?
I do have one that’s dear to my heart called the Warrior Salute Program here in Rochester, New York as part of CDS Life Transitions. You can go to WarriorSalute.org and see what they’re doing. It’s basically a community-based life and job transition program for veterans who have post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Here in the Western New York area, we’ve had veterans come in from this area as well as nationally. They’ll be part of the program that’s run at CDS Life Transitions. It’s a 4 to 6-month program that’s totally privately funded. The goodwill of Americans is what keeps us going. I was privileged to be part of the establishment of that program. Over a few years, we’ve had the program, 200 graduates have come through it and are living their lives independently. Our success rate is about 80% plus. This is a program that works and I’m passionate about it.
How do they research that?
They go to WarriorSalute.org or google Warrior Salute. They all see that program as part of an organization called CDS Life Transitions, which is a 501(c)(3) here in the Rochester area. The CEO of that organization, Mr. Sankar Sewnauth is a visionary leader who wanted to give back in some way from a community standpoint to veterans. He already had an organization which already had all the life support structure to it and the job transition program. He needed to bring in some veteran expertise and he’s done that. It’s a great story.
I like to thank you for your service for 33 years in the military and for continuing the service. It’s been super fun visiting with you, Robert. You’re definitely a world-class leader and thought leader that puts people first. You’ve got the strategic vision to help people develop their culture and develop their maximum potential as leaders. Until our next episode of Culture Code Champions, I’d like everyone to get out there and make heroes of everybody you come in contact with and to remember to make your culture count.
- Level Five Associates
- We’re All In: The Journey to a World-Class Culture
- In Search of Excellence
- The 5 Levels of Leadership
- Mustang The Story
- Find Your Why
- CDS Life Transitions
About Robert Mixon
Robert W. Mixon, Jr. is a retired U.S. Army Major General, former President of a manufacturing company, EVP of a diverse, innovative not for profit company, and Leadership Consultant. He serves as a faculty member at the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point and various premier business schools including The Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester, The Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, and the Cox Business School at Southern Methodist University.
Robert served his country for over three decades in various military leadership roles before deciding to bring his high-caliber leadership style and values to the corporate world in 2007. Robert is an expert in the field of Change Management, and has made it his mission to develop cultures defined by trust and empowerment.
He co-authored the best-selling book, “Cows in the Living Room: Developing an Effective Strategic Plan and Sustaining It”, and founded Level Five Associates, a change management consulting company which helps organizations develop strong leaders and unique cultures through the use of their trademarked “Big 6” Leadership Principles. He’s a recent recipient of a Business Leadership Teaching Excellence Award from SMU Cox School of Business.
While in the military, Robert served his country in peace and war, including assignments to front line units around the world. Robert’s final assignment was commanding general of the 7th Infantry Division and Fort Carson, Colorado from 2005-2007. There he led the training and deployment operations for over 20,000 soldiers to both Iraq and Afghanistan, including training National Guard brigades for combat deployments from across the western United States.
As the President of Magnatag Visible Systems and Executive Vice President of CDS Monarch, Robert put an emphasis on growing a strong culture with empowered teammates, enabling both organizations to grow despite the Recession of 2008-2009. He continues to provide his leadership expertise as a member of the Rochester Business Alliance and Rochester Professional Consultants Network.