The difference between being a good leader and a great one is having a mentor. Bill Hicks, author of The Leadership Manifesto, has been working in corporate leadership over the last 30 years. Whichever side of mentorship you are interested, being or finding a mentor, Bill has great insight to share, and this interview serves as a strong introduction to his illuminating book.

You’ll learn about:

  • How individuals have a culture and brand just like businesses
  • The unique format of Bill’s book and why he made that choice
  • How to create opportunities to grow as a leader

Who Needs The Leadership Manifesto

I’ll go back over 25 years ago, young guy out of college. I’m a consultant, and I get thrown out to a project where I’m going to manage a handful of individuals, all of which were twice my senior in age. And I get thrown on the project.

I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I wasn’t doing good. I didn’t know how to talk to the people I was managing, I didn’t know how to talk to the client, and I honestly had no one to turn to.

My boss just wanted me to make money for him, and the client just wanted me to fail so he could prove that he was right. I essentially bullied my way through it, put my head down, and did the best I could with no guidance.

I just tried to apply common sense, courage, and willpower. It was such an uncomfortable feeling. I got through it and got to do another project. But I didn’t like that feeling of not having guidance and support. If you have guidance and support in life, you can always do better. It’s really the guiding force.

Fast forward 25-plus years later, I’ve been managing for a long time and felt like I had all these experiences that I wanted to share to a community of individuals that were in my situation 25 years ago.

Charlie Hoehn: Were you pretty proactive about seeking out a mentor at your company or did you struggle to find one? What did the process look like?

Bill Hicks: I was challenged by the fact that I didn’t know who to go to. I didn’t think it was okay to ask for help—I just kind of thought you were supposed to know what you’re supposed to do.

When you look back, of course you don’t know, you didn’t have that roadmap. But I didn’t have the strength to ask and I didn’t know who to ask. Eventually over time, I’d make a mistake and then maybe do three things right. Then I’d make another mistake and do a couple of more things right.

“I learned through trial and error and eventually looked back and thought, ‘Hey, I’m doing a pretty good job.'”

That gave me the confidence. I got bigger teams and started moving forward and tried to do those right things. Eventually, I moved up to a level of leadership where I had peers that it felt okay to ask him how they were doing things.

It wasn’t really asking upwards, it was more asking sideways.

Charlie Hoehn: Who did you write this book for?

Bill Hicks: It’s really for anybody who is leading or who wants to lead. That was the audience I was trying to serve. There are so many people out there who are in leadership, and we kind of just keep doing the same thing over and over—learning through trial and error and maybe asking around.

We’re not making ourselves better.

So that’s an audience I was trying to serve and provide information for. It’s been great since the book’s been out. I’ve had people come up to me, people that I respect as leaders. They’ll share, “Hey, thanks for reinforcing this,” or, “Hey, I kind of took my eye off that ball, and reading this really helped me go back to the basics of the things I should be doing.”

The second audience I truly I want to help is the Bill Hicks of 25 years ago that doesn’t have a mentor, doesn’t have a leader that they can ask questions of. Really help them through eight steps. How do you become a leader, how do you get better?

Developing Your Personal Culture

Charlie Hoehn: Out of the eight steps listed in the book, what one do you want people to remember first?

Bill Hicks: Think about a company where you respect their brand. You don’t know if they are inexpensive or they do the right things. You just think they treat their people well. Because when you’re in there, the people are happy, they’re there to serve you, they’re chipper when you’re checking out.

I think of Subaru. They have those great commercials where they’re showing that they do the right thing. I don’t know if their car’s a great car. I mean, I know it is because I know people who drive them. But they give the spirit of: they care and they want to do what’s right. If I were in there buying a car or getting a service, I’d think they’re going to care about me. Because that’s the brand they project.

“People as individuals have a brand they project.”

I want to make sure that I’m projecting the brand that I want to be. If I can’t think of what that brand is, then how do I project that? How do I have that image? I want to project the brand that makes the most sense for who I am.

People ask: What do you mean, a culture? That’s what businesses have.

We have a culture that’s within us just like a business does. Does your culture of who you are match with the brand that you want to project?

You’re never going to be satisfied in the role that you’re portraying at work. Because you’re portraying something. You’re not actually being yourself.

There are so many people who say, “I want to go into leadership,” because they think that’s just the next thing. But if they don’t like the dynamics of what comes with leadership—having the tough conversation, representing your team in the right way, caring about what other individuals are doing—if that’s not your personal culture, that never really can be the brand that you project in the best possible way.

Charlie Hoehn: Are you saying that if you never investigate what your personal culture is, that you’re not accurately portraying it to others and being your best self?

Bill Hicks: Right. If I say I want to be a medical surgeon but I don’t have the discipline to see blood and understand anatomy and have really good biological understanding, I’m never going to be a great surgeon even though it may sound like that’s what I want to do.

My favorite one is, “I want to be a fireman.”

A lot of kids grow up saying, I want to be a policeman, I want to be a fireman. If you have a fear of those dynamics, then you’re never going to be a great fireman, even though it sounds great.

First off, ask the people that are closest to you—your parents, a significant other, your friends. How do they see you?

My wife is going to know me best. If you have that close group of individuals, they can share how they see you and how they know you. And then you have to be receptive to that feedback.

It’s also just giving yourself some time to think about who you are. When are you uncomfortable? In the beginning of my journey, I remember that I didn’t like giving feedback to people. I felt like, “Who am I to tell this person what to do?” For years, that was always something within me that didn’t feel right.

It was one of those things that I had to overcome because I enjoyed all the other aspects around leadership. I loved the coaching aspect, I loved the opportunity of marketing my team to other individuals.

I was not only hurting myself by not giving feedback, I was hurting the individuals I was leading. If you do it in the right way, giving feedback can be an enjoyable experience because you’re making that individual better.

“I felt the feedback was telling people what to do, and that wasn’t the right mindset.”

The right mindset is that I’m helping these individuals. I knew that was an uncomfortable space, so I had to pour myself into that to understand why and whether there was another way of doing it.

You ask friends, coworkers, family, “What do you think of me?” Then more objectively assess the personal culture that you’re portraying and make the adjustments that you need to, to be more aligned with what you want to portray. That’s the big idea.

You could ask almost anybody that knows you because that’s the persona that you’re representing. The reason I’m recommending to getting to other people that are closest to you, is that hopefully you’ve been honest enough with them that they understand who you are.

There’s a persona we all project, like, “I want my boss to see me in a certain way, I want those certain individuals to see me in a certain way.” But with those that are close to you, hopefully you have the type of relationship where you can get that information.

“It’s hard for some people to admit, ‘I’m not good at this.'”

Understand it’s okay not to be great at everything. It’s okay to not even be good at certain things. We’re not going to be good and great at everything. Let’s find that place where you are strong so you can accelerate in those areas.

Developing The Leadership Manifesto

Charlie Hoehn: Can you tell us a little bit about the style of this book?

I wanted to have something that you could finish. Something that you enjoyed reading while you were absorbing the information. And then six months, six years down the road, you still will remember components of the book and can point back or reference it with a smile on your face. You want to go back for that information.

I wrote it as a fable. It’s a story of myself mentoring an individual named Jennifer, and I am walking her through her journey of leadership. The first half of the book is for when she’s not in leadership and I’m helping her get ready to become a leader. Then halfway through the story, she gets promoted and I get to work through the disciplines and the foundations of being a leader.

It’s written in storytelling fashion, trying to help people consume the book in an easy and enjoyable way. Then we’ve really worked hard on reinforcing aspects in there, reminding individuals of what we’ve talked about. Because if you write a great book and readers don‘t remember anything afterward, then you didn’t meet your goal.

I wanted you to finish it and enjoy it and get value out of it and come back later down the road to read it again.

Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the other big steps that you feature in the book?

Bill Hicks: One of the things that people get stuck in when they are leaders and want to become leaders is how can they lead outside of the world they’re in. There’s a whole section devoted to leading outside the organization.

That’s through volunteer work, community work, helping other departments that don’t know they need your help. Giving yourself an opportunity to continually get better in areas where you’re not taking as much risk.

When you’re leading at work, the eyes are on you. You have a certain level of responsibility.

“If you don’t have opportunities to get better as a leader, it’s all just in your head.”

It’s just reading. I want to encourage individuals to find leadership opportunities.

One of the things you see in a lot of corporate organizations is, “Oh I want to become a leader and I can’t grow.” Or, “I am in leadership but I can’t do more.”

You can take it upon yourself to find other avenues to lead. That’s the encouragement that we go through in the book. To help individuals find those opportunities.

Charlie Hoehn: Can you give a few examples of easy ways to create those opportunities for yourself at a company?

Bill Hicks: A lot of companies have the concept of boards. “We’re going to have a group to work on a new project or a new opportunity.” Or better yet, “We’re planning a big event or having the annual X meeting.” Whatever that meeting is, volunteer to be in those groups. Meet other individuals that you can network with.

My favorite, and what I’ve gone through quite a bit, is serving on boards in my local communities.

Maybe you’re a project manager and there’s a board in your local area for project managers. There are so many opportunities, you just kind of have to open your eyes and look. Find those organizations that are looking for help.

“There are thousands of organizations that are seeking help. Put yourself out there, volunteer, put the effort in.”

Volunteer means different things to different people.

You could volunteer for business, for personal, for friends and family organizations, there’s so many opportunities to put yourself out there. Of course, there’s the benefit of just being a volunteer. But there’s also the opportunity to serve in a leadership role in those organizations that may not exist in your corporate environment.

Developing Leadership Qualities in Yourself

Charlie Hoehn: What does a great leader look like to you?

Bill Hicks: There’s so much written now about the idea of “servant leadership.” A little bit of what I’m going to say is going to sound like some of that. But at the end of the day, a leader who wants to develop their team to be at its highest performing capability, a desire for them and not for themselves, is a great leader.

That can look like so many different things.

But if you’re trying to help individuals, you’re watering them so they can grow, not so you can be successful. That’s a leader that people aspire to be. You know, someone that knows that you’re in it for them and not themselves.

Who doesn’t want to work for that leader?

Charlie Hoehn: Can you give an example of a leader in the business world that you think embodies the qualities that you’re talking about?

Bill Hicks: This isn’t in the book, but I want to give a real-world example. It’s the gentleman I work for. Today, I work for Ultimate Software, and I have the fortunate opportunity to report directly to the CEO and founder Scott Scherr.

Here at Ultimate, Scott has a mindset that says, you always do what’s right. That’s with your employees and with your customers. When you work with a guiding principle—the tone from the top that says, “Always do what’s right”—that’s empowering. That empowers you to make great decisions on things that you know through your experiences feels right or looks right, that’s a great feeling.

A lot of times in the real world, you have to make decisions based on things that you know aren’t always the right thing to do. I’ve been there many times, and it is an uncomfortable place to be. We’ve all been there many times.

But working for Scott, you have the guiding principle of doing what’s right. He is always there for you. You reach out, and he’s there to help. Whether it is with an employee or a customer, the answer is always, “What can I do to help?”

That inspired me to have that same leadership style with my team. First off, I know it’s okay. I have been given that freedom from Scott to work with my organization to really work on doing what’s right.

“Sometimes doing what is right may not always feel like the culturally right thing to do.”

You have to make tough decisions sometimes. Maybe it is not giving the customer what they want, but it’s still doing what you know is right.

I get a lot of inspiration from Scott just with that core tenet of doing what’s right. Then within the book, even though it is a fable, every story in there is a real story. There’s the famous “changed the name to protect the individuals,” but they’re all real stories. They are stories of people who are ascending and trying to become leaders.

You run into this dynamic of getting where you thought you wanted to go. And you arrive and don’t know if that’s where you really want to be.

We see that in leadership all the time, of individuals that are saying, “Okay I have arrived, but is this my place?”

We as leaders can help those individuals find those right places. At the end of the day, it’s work. If we can get people to feel like they’re in the right place when they come to work, it feels like success.

Charlie Hoehn: What do you think the impact would be if more people rose to the occasion of leading?

Bill Hicks: When we hear the word mentor, a lot of times we just relate it back to work. I challenge everybody to be a mentor in whatever they are good at. If you are a great fisherman, help other people learn how to fish. If you are a great writer, help other people learn how to write.

“Mentoring can be so many different things.”

It’s helping someone in their youth become a better adult. It’s all those different aspirations. I think that’s really the challenge I would put out there. If anybody can help others be better, then go for it.

If it’s in work, that’s great. But it’s anything in life. Help others become better.

On the flip side, if you want to improve your personal journey, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find someone who is better than you and ask them to help you out.

What’s the worst they can do? They can say, “No,” and you are learning to accept no as the answer, right? Go find other ways, go find other individuals to help you improve on whatever it is that you feel is best for you.

Charlie Hoehn: What are your thoughts on virtual mentorships?

Bill Hicks: It’s really however you learn. There are so many people who don’t want that face-to-face, or they live in an area where they don’t have access to the right resources. So if a virtual mentor is going to help you, go for it.

Maybe it’s when your work shift is. Maybe you are going to school during the day and you only have the time to do it at night. Whatever that is, don’t let the physical interaction be the stopping point for you to get better at what you need to do.

Reader Takeaways from The Leadership Manifesto

Charlie Hoehn: What have been some of your favorite transformations?

Bill Hicks: One of my favorite stories is someone that I worked with. This individual came up to me and talked about the brand piece, which is towards the end of the book. This person was talking about how she spent so much time worrying about how well her team was doing and how little time she spent asking others how her team was doing. That’s really how we wrapped up the book.

It is this whole idea of asking others how you are doing, kind of how we start the book off. How you as an individual seek guidance on how you are doing. But when you become a leader, if you are not out asking how you’re doing and how your team is doing you are selling your team short.

We all have this grandiose idea that we are doing such a great job. But I am talking about the people in the outside. Not within our team. If they don’t have the same vantage point, then we failed, essentially.

There is also a whole piece in there about, “Don’t eat lunch alone,” so there is this running joke now of people that are saying, “Hey do you have time for lunch? I don’t want to eat lunch alone.” They put a little fun to it, but it’s a great point.

“Take all of your opportunities to constantly find that chance to get better.”

And if that is meeting with people that can help you grow, if that is helping others so they can grow, find those opportunities. Don’t let them go dormant eating at your desk when you could be out eating at the cafeteria and helping other people.

Charlie Hoehn: What is something readers can do from your book this week to change their life?

Bill Hicks: I think the thing I would encourage everybody to do is find that one thing they want to be better at. It doesn’t have to be work-related. What is that one thing? And identify an individual who can help you achieve that goal.

It takes a little bit of your time. If you ask with sincerity and explanation, it’s hard for the individual to say, “No.” It can happen, but it is hard for them to say, “No.”

Charlie: Can you give an example of what you might say to an individual once you figure out the one thing that you want to get better at?

Bill: I had someone come to me, “Bill, I am not in a leadership role right now. I want to be a better leader. I want to know what that looks like. Could you spend an hour with me going over what you think I need to do to become a leader?”

So the great point of the question is that I know it’s an hour of my time. It is not forever. The person is asking to get better, so of course, I want to help them. Who knows? Maybe after the conversation there will be a relationship or there is a mentorship opportunity there that we could grow upon.

But you may say the very simple question: “Hey Bill, I want to be a leader one day. Can you help me with a roadmap on how to get there?”

Very simple question, asking for help. Put a time box on it so the person doesn’t feel like they don’t know how much they are committing, and it is pretty easy to say yes.

Charlie: How can people connect with you and follow you going forward?

Bill: Hey, I love the interaction. I love the connection. You could find me at [email protected] if you want to shoot me an email, or you can find me on LinkedIn under Bill Hicks. I welcome the opportunity to interact out there as well.