Trent Kaufman, CEO of the Cicero Group, on Culture, Relentless Feedback, and Good Books
Dr. Trent Kaufman is the Chief Executive Officer of Cicero Group, a strategy and management consulting firm based in Salt Lake City. Trent is respected globally for developing sophisticated systems to enable the use of performance data to maximize individual and team performance. Trent’s first “career” was in public education. He began as a social studies teacher in Washington D.C. before becoming a high school principal in the Bay Area of California. Trent earned a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and master’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard.
In our discussion, Trent shares his thoughts on:
- The importance of culture on product and their culture guidebook, the Cicero Way
- “Do you treat each other like your clients?”
- Holding people accountable to live the Cicero Way
- The influence of his dad on his leadership approach
- The influence reading books by Steven Covey, Harvey McKay, and others had on him as a boy
- The importance of relentless feedback from his university professors and their willingness to mentor him
- His belief in the capacity of humans, especially kids.
The best ways to connect with Trent are:
- LinkedIn - Trent Kaufman: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trentkaufman
- LinkedIn - Cicero Group: https://www.linkedin.com/company/cicerogroup/
- Twitter - Cicero: https://twitter.com/cicero_group
- Website: https://www.cicerogroup.com/
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- Twitter - https://twitter.com/brettpinegar
- Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/brettpinegar/
- Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/brettpinegar/
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My dad was a sucker for Covey and Harvey Mackay. And Dale Carnegie. These are authors that I read by the time I was 12 or 13 years old and I soaked it up. I loved How to Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. I loved How to Win Friends and Influence People. I love The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and so those without a doubt some of that thinking made a huge difference.
Welcome to Seeking Excellence. I'm Brett Pinegar. Seeking Excellence is all about identifying and learning from the habits, traits, and skills of great leaders. They share their experiences with us. We learn what motivates them, how they stay focused and what keeps them grounded. It's an amazing opportunity to be able to share these experiences with you. If you're enjoying this podcast, we would appreciate it if you take the time to subscribe, write, review, and share with others. And if you have suggestions for people that would be great guests on Seeking Excellence email us at SeekingExcellence@BrettPinegar.com. My work, I coach executives, facilitate peer groups and offer leadership development programs. I love helping leaders and teams become their best and enjoy the bottom line results in striving for excellence enables. You can learn more about my work at BrettPinegar.com. Check the show notes for all the specifics. Now, let me introduce my guest, Trent Kaufman. Trent is the CEO of the Cicero Group, a management consulting firm based Salt Lake City. Trent has done some amazing work on how to use performance data to maximize individual and team performance. Trent's first career was in public education. He began as a social studies teacher in Washington DC before becoming a high school principal in the Bay Area of California. Trent earned a Master's degree from Berkeley and a Masters and Doctorate from Harvard. In our discussion, Trent shares his thoughts on the importance of culture on your products. And whether or not you treat each other like your clients or customers. He introduces us to their cultural guidebook, The Cicero Way, and the innovative approach they use to hold people accountable to it. The influence of his dad on his leadership approach and how relentless feedback from his University professors and their willingness to mentor him has made all the difference. And lastly, his belief in the capacity of us as human beings. Let's jump right in. Trent, it is great to be with you today.
Thanks, thanks for having me.
It's an honor to be able to interview you and learn a little bit more about your approach to leadership and also the great work of leadership you do here at The Cicero Group. I'm wondering if you can start out by just telling us a little bit about your work at The Cicero Group.
Absolutely. The Cicero Group is a strategy consulting, management consulting company. One of many that has attempted to set up shop here in the Salt Lake City area. We believe we're the most successful that's ever set up shop here and certainly the largest management consulting company in the, inner mountain West. And we you know, there's a lot of very traditional management strategy consulting work we do. And it runs the gamut from you know, I'd say we help inform strategy. We help create strategy and we help implement strategy. Those are our three pillars. But our particular areas of strength are in the first and third of those pillars. The first is, our ability to inform a company's strategic direction with good, quantitative often new data that we can bring to bear to help our clients understand their market, understand their business, understand their competitors, in ways that help them leapfrog the competition. And then the third pilar which is implement strategy. We, one of my favorite client quotes we've ever received was from Dave Bywater down at Vivint who I think is on your--
He is, in fact will be--
He was at Vivint, not Vivint Solar when we did work for him. He's a former Bain Consultant himself and he said, "The beauty of Cicero is that "for the same price that you would pay "one of the big three consulting companies, "Cicero will actually stick around "and help you implement the strategy "they helped you create." And we love that part of the work where we get to roll up our sleeves and help companies implement a new direction. It's a highly accountable way to work if we're creating a strategy for you and we know we're the ones that are gonna be on the hook to actually do it. It's a very accountable way to you know, to help us have skin in the game, so to speak.
Sure. Tell me a little bit about the typical client. How big are they? Are these typically regional firms, multi-national firms, Fortune 500 firms?
Yeah, we, we've served firms of all, basically all sizes and geographies, but we do have some sweet spots. We work particularly well within the marketing and sales function and operations functions of an organization. Especially projects that center around growth. And so when companies in the two, three, 400 million to three to four billion dollar range are looking for you know, could be a new, a new product category, could be an acquisition. You know, it could be new channels. Those are great moments for those sizes of firms to, to employ Cicero.
Outstanding. So you're the CEO of Cicero Group. What's it like to lead this firm? What are some of the unique opportunities or challenges you face leading a management consulting firm?
Yeah, there's I think there's a lot of unique things. For listeners, I would imagine a lot of your listeners run or are involved in product companies, so services companies are very unique and management consulting is very unique within the category of services. And you know, the main difference is that our product is our people. And so, when we talk about capacity development of our team and we talk about training, when we talk about on-boarding, those are not just critical business functions, those are actually product improvement dollars that we're spending. And that, that dynamic of the work we do with our people here internally is, is our product development work, leads to a lot of I think, really exciting leadership opportunities because that work that I think a lot of leaders love to do which is developing internal capacity, has just immediate impact on our bottom line because our, if I help, if I am able to help a team become a little more efficient in the amount of time they take to come up with a solution for a client, well, that's a bottom line, you know, immediate bottom line response. If I'm able to help a team better position themselves, and win more work, because of that positioning, again, a direct impact to the financial performance of our company. So, I think that makes for a, a really exciting leadership dynamic. I think the regional, the regional aspect of our, of our firm, the fact that we're in Salt Lake City Utah you know, there's a real mix of blessings there, on the one hand, there's a lot of talent in Utah.
On the other hand, companies have really figured out that Cicero's a talent, a base, what should we say? You know, there's a plethora of talent at Cicero and we do a lot of training and so we work hard to retain our folks.
There's a lot of coaching going on, of our team, of our team here at Cicero. Which you know, we take some pride in that as well.
We have alumni at all of the major Utah companies and very senior positions now which is exciting. So yeah, those are some of the, some of the immediate thoughts that come to mind.
So when you think about the culture you're creating here and the opportunities that creates for leverage in the delivery of your products, your offerings to your clients here, there are lots of different elements of culture. There's things like communication, decision-making, interacting with other people, holding good meetings. Are there certain things you've seen that are the most impactful in terms of over all effectiveness to your team? I mean, what does it come down to? Is there some basic building blocks of team success that you see here at Cicero, that we could help to translate to other organizations that are thinking about, boy if there's one or two things that I could improve in my teams what would they be?
Yeah, that we work, we work really hard on that because like I said, it's not just, like any business. We're actually tweaking our product. When we work on culture, we're actually directly impacting our product. And we have a large document called The Cicero Way and I've been asked many times to boil that down. And I'd say, I'd say it probably comes down to one basic principle. And it's treat each other like clients.
And so what we do, is we practice, well, an analogy I'd give is I have a good friend of mine who, who pushes me on my parenting. And he says, he says, "Trent, you realize that your kids "practice for the real world, "is in the home." And so you, you know, "You need to constantly be providing kids "opportunities to engage "and interact in ways in your home "and fail and make mistakes "and that's, that's proving grounds" You know, you get to, you get to train and help develop. So I then analogize that to inside Cicero Group, the way we interact with each other is a practice for how we're gonna interact with clients. And so that basic principle leads to lots of sub-principals but treat each other like clients. You know, simple things like, return and report.
It is the responsibility of the person who gets a task or an action to figure out the right way to return and report to the individual from whom he, you know, he or she received the you know, the action item. And clients require that.
Internally, it's not as much required unless we are, unless we commit to treating each other you know, like clients. Responsiveness, eagerness, those are, those are the sorts of traits that we you know, that we require internally even though we really don't have to but we do it because we're practicing for that client ready moment.
I love this concept of The Cicero Way, this document that seems to capture the sort of the essence of what means to work at Cicero. How did that get developed? Who's involved in the development of that?
Yeah, that's great, it's a great question. I joined the firm now 11 years ago. A lot of the core principles of The Cicero Way had been ingrained already by our founder, Randy Shumway. And he had learned that through his own work at a, at a, he worked at Bain, and then he was in the startup in the 90s, a bunch of startups in the 90's in San Francisco. He has a, an MBA from HBS and so you know, just some neat people he'd interacted with in his life and had developed some things. And interestingly, they hadn't been caudified and so, I've really enjoyed the role over the years of putting those principles that were almost so ingrained in Randy and the organization that they, they couldn't even describe them themselves, to you know, having the role of caudifying those and writing those down and refining them and expanding and contracting and trying to you know, synthesize them over the years. And you know, so it's a, it's something from the foundation for sure, and then some refinement over the years as we've brought in senior outside talent who have their own perspectives and their own ways of you know, of working. And then it's become very formal now. We have Cicero Way certification. It takes about a year and it's something that employees get a thousand dollar bonus when they get their final sign off on Cicero Way certification. They get a bunch of just swag with Cicero logos. They get a little plaque that you know, people have some pride in them and some people have said they've learned more in the Cicero Way certification than their, than their MBA program because it's you know, it's that, it's that powerful and me myself, we developed it but I had to get through and have people sign me off.
Yeah, it's great.
And get my own Cicero Way certification.
And what kind of fees would occur on the sign off? I mean, is it basically being able to sort of, recite certain elements of it or is it, are there other sort of key parts of the certification?
Basically, you have two kinds of quote unquote, supervisors at Cicero. You've got whoever is leading the current project you're on, whatever current client project you're on and then you have an internal mentor who does your reviews. Either of those individuals can sign off on one of the I think 27 or so elements. But what you need to do is demonstrate three times in real projects, that you have learned that Cicero Way attributes. So going back to return.
So it's not just book smart.
No, not at all.
It's actually sort of boots on the ground. I can do what it is I learned in The Cicero Way.
Yeah actually, in this, in this case, there's no reciting, there's no, there's no book. There's no, you know, test. It's just demonstrating it three times.
Oh, I love that.
In a project setting.
I love that. What, that is so cool. That is so cool. What a great example for a lot of organizations to be thinking about. So let's sort of pivot from there sort of to you, now as a leader here. Obviously, you've embodied the Cicero Way to a certain degree. You've done it for 11 years. This is a part of your DNA now, your leadership DNA. Let's sort of take a step back here and talk about some of the, maybe the formative milestones that developed you as a leader. You know, as a kid, maybe as a young adult. You know, let's identify kind of the two or three or four milestones in your life that you say, "Boy, this is really were "formative periods of time "that sort of established who I am as a leader. I once, in fact it was said, on a previous podcast here, I learned everything I know about leadership before I became a leader. And so, what would be some of those key sort of activities in your life or experiences in your life that defined you as a leader?
I wanna touch on that point for a moment. As I was thinking this morning, knowing you were coming this morning, one of the thoughts that really recurred to me was again, a parenting analogy. You know, by the time you have teenagers, you can't really spend much time working on yourself any more. You really kind of need to be working on, on them, and I don't mean that you're not doing any self care. But you need to have developed the kinds of habits and behaviors and attitudes that are gonna, are really gonna stick with you and help you keep improving without a lot of deliberate attention becauseif you have any time for deliberate attention to improvement, you're gonna wanna spend that on your, on your teenagers. I feel similarly about having taken this role as CEO. It, it doesn't by any means, reflect the you know, a stagnation. I'm improving everyday, I hope. But by the time you're, you have a position like that, you know, any moment you have, to set goals or to you know, change a major behavior, probably needs to be spent on your firm you know, not necessarily on yourself. So I, that really resonates with me, this concept that you need to have you know, everything you learned kind of happen before you actually became a leader. So a couple foundational moments. One, I had a sad, but meaningful experience of laying my dad to rest about 10 days ago and so--
Oh, I'm so sorry.
Yeah, thanks. It's, it's a trying time for sure but what it did for me was, make me go back to a time that I don't spend a lot of time reflecting on but I went back to those formative years and tried to define you know, his role in who I am today. And so, you know, it's hard for me not to share a couple of those experiences 'cause they're very top of mind. One, my dad was a sucker for Covey and Harvey Mackay, and Dale Carnegie. These are, these are authors that I read by the time I was 12 or 13 years old. And I soaked it up. I loved, How To Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. I loved How to Win Friends and Influence People. I loved The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and so those without a doubt some of that thinking made a huge difference. I'd say of all of it, the one that made the biggest difference was Covey's First Habit, which is be proactive. And I was surrounded by individuals in life who seem to be you know, succumb to victmitis. And talked a lot about the influence of their circumstances on who they were. And Covey and my dad taught me the exact opposite of true, it is true within the circumstances you've been given, you have enormous control. And so if you focus on those things, you can become and do just about anything, anything you want. So that lead to a conversation of my sophomore year which you know, seemed really ambitious at the time I was at a 4,000 student high school in Southern California. It's a huge high school. And I said, "Dad, I think maybe I wanna be involved "in student government." And he said, "Well, that's a great idea. "You know, let's start talking about it." And for whatever reason, we determined that it was time for me to get my first Franklin Day Planner. So I was, this is 1992, or '91. I'm a sophomore in high school wanting to run for junior class president. And we decide that I ought to start figuring out how to organize my day, and plan my time and create priorities, and so that summer, I ran for office. I won for junior class president and that summer, I listened to a series, hours and hours of casette tapes that trained you on how to use the Franklin Day Planner. And again, I just soaked it up. And I look back and I compare it to the kinds of things maybe some of my peers were, were interested in and they were doing and it's you know, it's very different. And really from, at that moment, learned about being proactive, planning ahead, prioritizing things. And I'd say, I'd say probably the most foundational thing in my life to prepare me to be a leader were those years, my sophomore, junior, and senior years. I'd say there's probably a second thing and then I don't know that I have a third or a fourth but they may come to me.
But a second thing I'd say, is I was a a freshman at BYU and I was in Paul Edward's Political Science 110. And I had gotten good enough grades to get into BYU, but I hadn't, never taken an AP class, never taken an Honors class. I didn't really know what rigor was. I got you know, kind of the easy A concept in high school. And I wrote my first paper for Paul Edwards who is now, who actually was the head editorialist for the Desert News for a while and then he ended up, he's now an advisor to--
A spokesman for Gary Herbert, right?
Yeah, good guy.
Amazing human being. But at the time he was just a political science professor at BYU. And we wrote our first paper and I, it was, it was marked up when you got it back. Worse grade I'd ever gotten on anything I'd ever submitted. And Dr. Edwards was very disappointed in the effort I put forth in the paper. And so I went to see him and the skills I had learned through the you know, Franklin Day Planner, et cetera was more, wasn't how to write or how to learn. It was maybe relationships. So I went, I thought I'd kind of work this guy a little bit. And let him know that I'm the real deal and you know, I'm okay, and he was relentless with me instead. He didn't, he didn't want to have a man to man talk. He wanted to tell me how terrible a writer I was and I remember he went from being frustrated with me in the same meeting, to being angry with every English teacher I'd ever had for clearly not having taught me. He said, "Trent, do you know simple concepts "like parallelism?" And I said, "Dr. Edwards, I'd never heard of that "in my life." And he said, "Didn't you take English 105 "or 101 last semester? "What did you do in that class?" So he was frustrated with me, ended up frustrated with my teachers, and what ensued was a once a month meeting I had with him during that semester where he would open writing books with me and teach me writing as my Poli Sci teacher.
And so, so the care and attention he gave but mostly the skill he taught me which is how to communicate in writing, I think is very, very foundational to my leadership today. I had a similar experience when I was pursuing a doctorate at Harvard even though I had learned a lot from Dr. Edwards, I still got the, the everything was graded on a curve in my program at Harvard and I got the lowest grade in my cohort, my first year at Harvard on the first paper we wrote. And again I had a developed a relationship with a professor, Susan Moore Johnson, who very patiently walked me through what it means to write well, and I view both of those as very foundational to what it means to be a leader. Writing isn't, isn't just about writing. It's about thinking, and so I feel like I learned to write but I really learned how to think clearly as well through those experiences.
So let's go back to both of these and maybe think about the parallel. So when you think about your reaction to Professor Edwards and his saying, "Hey, this is the worse paper "I've ever seen or you can do better than this. "Your teachers didn't teach you." What did it feel like initially? I mean do you have any kind of rememberance of wasn't like, "Oh!" Was it an ego hit? Was it a, was it, "Man, I'm bad. "I'm no good here." I mean, what was the kind of, the mental model--
Two very different reactions. So for the Dr. Edwards paper, it was just, it was shock and surprise. I didn't, I didn't even have a framework for how I would respond. I assumed it was misinterpretation on his part or something, something had gone wrong in my understanding of the assignment or his reading of my paper. Because I just never experienced that before. So without question, it was, it was more shock at that point. I wasn't humble enough maybe to receive the message he intended to send. My, my paper at Harvard on the other hand, I had really worked hard on it. So I had put my full effort in. I thought I knew what good thinking and good writing was, and that was a moment of feeling inadequate. From the beginning when I got in, I didn't, I didn't really feel like I belonged at an IV league school. You know, I was a public school kid from Southern California, squeezed by in my undergrad. My test scores were good, not great. And so that feeling of inadequacy was, was revisited when I got that first paper and I realized that I wasn't gonna relationship my way through that class. I was gonna actually have to dig even deeper and learn some really tough skills and work even harder and proudly on our sixth and final paper that year, I received the highest, the highest mark. And I'm convinced I received probably the third or fourth but the teacher saw my effort and said, so I kind of relationshiped my way through, through that. I know I did a lot better but I have, I have big doubts of whether or not I, knowing the there writers in that class, whether I actually achieved the highest mark there.
Well, knowing many professors here, the fact that both of these professors were willing to spend a lot of time with you is in itself quite remarkable. What do you attribute that to?
Oh, they're, and actually I said Susan Moore Johnson. She was the initial one that that hit me hard but her co-teacher, Noni Lesso was actually the one that spent real time with me so Paul Edwards and Noni Lesso. I don't know, I love 'em to death. I can't believe they took the time they took. It's going far and above and that's not what professors are rewarded for. In fact, they're rewarded for other things.
Edwards showed his stripes a couple times. He was very frustrated and impatient with what I didn't know and the fact that he was the one responsible for teaching you know, it to me, but he still did it.
He was in.
He did it.
He was in. Do it for you.
He did it for sure. Noni I think, I think was a true educator at heart and got a lot of joy out of seeing the development of someone else. And you've inspired me. I've written Paul, I wrote Paul a big, long letter you know, reminding him of this or he hadn't really remembered it. You're, you've inspired me to write Noni and remind her of one impact she's had in my life.
Oh that's fantastic. I mean I think that that may also if I were to peel back a little bit here, wonder if whether or not some of the skills you learned from Steve Covey and from Franklin, the Franklin Covey Group and those other people, sort of allowed you to be sort of, in the moment enough to where you could say, "I'm really interested in learning "and this isn't just about getting a good grade. "I want to get better here." I don't know if you feel any of that at all?
I think, I think that's a, a really meaningful leadership dilemma, which is when do you dive in? When do you get technical? When do you get in the weeds and when do you not? And I think a leadership studies and some of those studies I had as a kid, taught me how to get through life without getting into the deep and without learning technical hard skills. And there were moments in life especially with the degrees that I've pursued where that was not adequate. Again, I couldn't relationship my way through it. I had to, I had to dive deeply and so I think as you think about a role as CEO it's, look, being a CEO is a series of contradictions. You know one of them, one of the many is, I have to know everything that's going on in the firm, all the time, and I have to be enough aware that I can engage with almost anyone about what they're working on so they know their work matters to the organization. On the other hand, there are moments when I have to dive so deeply that I need absolute quiet for hours on end so that I can dig to the very core of an issue. This happened just yesterday, I had to dive to the very core of the issue to come up with the right solution because it's that was my job, No one else was gonna ideate a solution. I needed to come up with the solution for a dilemma we've been encountering and it required the kind of depth and technical skill that you know, I learned from some of these professors.
So how do you balance those two things? You know, 'cause obviously, you could go deep a lot and lose traction as the leader, as the person who's championing the company and yet if you don't go deep enough, you're going to, the company's going to be less effective, less efficient here. Any sort of guidelines or rules that you use to guide how much time you spend doing either of those or is it more intuitive?
I'd give a couple core principles. One is you know, you take yourself everywhere you go so I think there's gonna be some personality differences between leaders and I don't think you can ignore that. If you're the type of person who is really good at and gets a lot of satisfaction by diving deeply into the details I think you're, you should probably do that a little more than the next leader who gets a little more satisfaction in staying at a higher level and you know, covering more ground at not such a deep level. I'm the opposite. So my personality is, is more one that likes to quickly ramp up to let's say a B level of understanding about something, contribute, add value and then expect others on the team to get all the way to the A, you know, to get all the way to the root. That's more my personality. I've seen leaders who are the other way and it can totally work. So I think the first principle is you can't ignore your personality. It is what it is and so embrace it and then you know, I have to push myself when needed to go deep and be the guy who, who knows all the facts and figures. Others probably have to push themselves to not go deep all the time and I think that's fine as long as you're aware of that. So that's one principle. Second principle that I'm really learning, I'm now in my second year and I'd say, the number one shift I've made in my leadership between year one and year two as CEO of Cicero Group is that the leaders probably number one, the best way a leader can make a difference in the organization for the organization is to be the one that's always focused on impact. And that may seem super intuitive to most listeners but I can get excited about systems and processes and people development like anyone else can. But I think the point there is, most of the people we hire, are gonna be good at that and can really easily grasp you know, how to improve an internal process or how to improve development. The rare skill is constantly figuring out the priority, which things are the highest priority because which things are gonna have the biggest impact on the firm. And so, keeping a really careful eye on impact both your own, the impact of your own actions on the firm and by impact I, like I mean, on the bottom line of the firm.
Like either top or you know, either revenue or costs. And if I can be the one that's constantly harping on that and focusing on that, then other people can play to that more natural way of thinking which is how to you know, improve and create sustainability within the org.
So say for a second here, you've got an area where you see a disconnect between maybe the actions of the firm or group and impact that you're trying to create here. What's your approach from a leader's perspective to build alignment between what you see needs to occur and what is actually happening so far?
Yeah, I'm a, so let me contradict myself. On the one hand, I think the leader's job is impact. On the other hand, there's a constant balance between working within the systems you've created of the organization and creating some intentional disruption. And I also think here, leaders have personalities and you stick with your personality and then force yourself to be a little more balanced. So I've worked with senior leaders who the moment a thought comes to their mind, that's the right idea. They will go and immediately address it, and compel a team or an individual to change path. I don't have that bone in my body. It's been, I think it's been done to me enough in my career and I know what it feels like.
So what does it feel like?
Well, it often feels like boy, that's a good idea, but how do we know right now at this moment it's better than the idea we were already on because there's gonna have to be a tradeoff. We can pursue that but we're gonna have to drop something else. And so until we can talk clearly about the tradeoff, and then I have a hard time accepting that that new thing even though I can often be compelled by a good leader who's energetic and excited about idea, that idea, until we can talk about tradeoff, I have a hard time you know, charging up that hill. And these same individuals who can be super articulate in the moment about a great new idea they often, there's often an assumption that there is no tradeoff.
That we're gonna pursue think new thing and it's not gonna come at any cost at all. And that's just never, that's just never true. So, so that's how it feels. And so as my own, in my own leadership, I actually need to force myself sometimes to go to someone with a new idea and be a little disruptive because I think that's healthy for an organization too to be willing to make mid-course adjustments and be excited about an idea and chase it immediately when the iron's hot.
But my more natural instinct is to think, "Okay, what meeting, "what group of people, "what system or process "do we have that this new idea fits in." And then I figure out how to get it on the right agenda you know, for the right group of people and then what's nice is, by the time that meeting happens in two weeks or one week or three weeks, I've had more time also to process how important is this idea? Where does it fit in? When should we pursue it? That's the more natural pursuit for me.
So when you use that natural approach how do you think your team responds to that? I mean, do they, do they, are they even aware that you're doing it if they see your intentional use of existing systems or processes to inject new ideas or you know, what is their reaction if anything?
I think I get both. I think there's people who, who like the excitable leader who's--
Who's gonna you know, come up with an idea and help, let's get charged, let's work all weekend and let's you know, let's get this done. So I think there are some personalities who find that uninspiring.
But I think, I think most internal leaders in the firm, if you're really trying to empower them and help internal leaders develop their own sense of ownership and their own sense of direction I think it shows, I think they appreciate that it shows an enormous amount of respect for the plan they already have in place for the work that they're already doing. I think for the most part, it's very well appreciated.
So if you take that kind of day to day impact, that you got. And then you've got kind of what I call the vision organization which is maybe the umbrella upon which all this stuff fits in here. How do you sort of vary your leadership style between, "Hey, I've got an idea "for a way we can either better support "this client or better support the on-boarding "of new employees." Or whatever it happens to be to. This is who the Cicero Group is, this is what we're all about and this is where we're going here. Do you find you use a different style when it comes to kind of the vision or do you use that same style?
It's a, it's a great question. The balance between the vision and the day to day operation of the company, I'd say, I'm looking forward to year three as a way to better figure that out. I, I find that I personally lose track of the vision pretty easily. And that's a terrible thing for a CEO to do. The one person who shouldn't do that you know, is the CEO. And so I'll be listening for your podcast to see if others have ideas for me there. If it's a tickler in your calendar everyday or if it's a you know, some formal moment to you know, to approach that or, and to remember that, so.
I think you've got it right under your nose actually, Trent. Just from the earlier part of our conversation, I think this way, I think the Cicero Way at some level is the embodiment of that vision. It's if we behave and we act and we do it in a certain way then, we will eventually become or go where we want to go. I mean it's sort of this notion of thoughts lead to, words leads to actions, lead to outcomes. And if you're trying to sort of capture who you are as an entity, then it's likely just going to naturally evolve into the outcomes you're looking for because they flow from step to step to step.
Yeah, I love it.
So let's talk a little bit about your leadership style. Obviously, from what we've heard we talked about so far, sort of not super sort of, in your face, not super intense, kind of my way or the highway. You know, you're not a task master, you're an influencer in that regard. That's an, that's an incredibly important part of leadership but there are other elements of leadership as well. Let's talk about accountability for example here. How do people describe your style of holding people accountable to results?
I think that's a strength of mine. I may not be in your face, but when the deadline comes and you know, when the monthly meeting where we review your practice areas, progress comes, we're gonna be looking at what you promised. So I'm a big believer in letting people set their own kind of goals and expectations so long as it fits within you know, the organization but then with that ability to choose your own outcomes and goals, comes I'd call it relentless accountability. I mean I think if we can't get done what we commit to get done in the amount of time we committed to get done, who are we? I mean, that just, that's a essential part of at least my leadership approach. And I'd add to that, there's something unique about what I was doing before I became CEO. I was the number two for 10 years. To an amazing leader from whom I learned an enormous amount of, of things. And one thing you learn quickly is the number two, it's kind of like a Chief Operation Officer. What I learned very early on is that the best way to help the firm grow is to take no credit for the good things that are happening. Liberally distribute credit to other people. And I'm really proud to have continued that as the CEO. My self esteem is coming from the company's performance not from anyone attributing the company's performance to me. And I think, I think leaders you know, I've read a lot of books about good senior leaders in companies and I've developed a little bit of, of an allergy to some of them. And it's because there's, there is a trend I think, between the leaders that we read about and their company's performance after they leave. And I want to build the type of company that will continue on the exact same growth trajectory it was on while I was there.
And it's not dependent on me, but it is dependent on my leadership but not on me and so I'm building the kind of company that continuous to grow long beyond the time I'm here. In fact, we just hired a principal which is one level below partner so a top 15 person in our firm, and she has worked in a variety of organizations including big consulting firms and she's actually, she actually was formally on George W. Bush's cabinet. So we're talking, I'm sorry, she was a staffer for a cabinet member--
For George W. Bush. Senor, senior person super, mega talented. She came to our first management team meeting which is every Monday morning at 8:30 am and afterwards, I said, "Uh, what do you think?" She said, "Trent, I've been in a lot of meetings. "I never heard so many people "give other people credit "for the successes we were talking about." 'Cause we have a moment in leadership team meeting where we talk about recent wins, and she said every single one credited someone else for the win even though the spokesperson was the one who was you know, describing the win. "And they were, Trent, they were crediting junior people." Like most organizations people trying to you know, get the credit.
Maybe assign more credit to themselves then they deserve. And here they were assigning more credit to others than they deserve. And I view that, that's not just me, that's part of the Cicero Way. That's part of the culture but there's almost nothing she could've said that would've made me more proud than to hear that impression. And that's, you know, you don't wanna be dependent on a person, and in particular the CEO. You don't wanna be dependent on them.
That's clearly the way, sort of, sort of screams out of that but also your style because you reinforce that through your actions. It's the actions and way you sort of embody yourself as a leader that also makes that way possible. It's not just what's in the book, it's actually what we see our leaders do here. Would you say you lead more from the front or more from the back?
So we, when I became CEO, the first, my first day of my tenure was also our first day in our new building. We have this fantastic new space that we built out.
It is awesome.
Part of the vision of our, of our former CEO Randy Shumway, who's by the way, still here and an active partner, and still works full-time at Cicero. So I, I you know, inherited this amazing space and I made a decision when we moved in to not have an office, and instead to sit in an open, shared you know, basically an open workspace with everyone else, with no additional amenity relative to the other, you know, the other employees. And again, we talk about we talked earlier about your kind of natural instincts. My natural instinct is to lead from behind. And I have to do things to force myself you know, to develop different kinds of habits. So one thing I did was sit in the middle of office. That's a lead from the front kind of--
Kind of approach. Your in the thick of it. You're in it, you're there, accessible and available. So I think by natural instinct is to lead from behind but you, people need the firm needs someone who's willing to step up, make big announcements, get excited, grab everyone for a fun putting contest on a, you know, kind of a lazy summer day. And I have to coach myself to do those sorts of things, to be that leader from the front. So I think without question, my instinct is lead from behind and I'm trying to learn from other good leaders, I've watched, and be a little more of that symbolic leader that I think teams need as well.
So who are some modern day sort of leader examples that you look to existing CEO's for other organizations. Modern day, well known figures that really sort of exemplify the leadership style that you are seeking to implement here at Cicero?
That's great. And I get to work with some really neat and impressive leaders out there with whom I've developed strong relationships with because of--
Because we're a consulting firm. A couple that I absolutely adore. One is a relatively new leader at Western Governor's University. His name is Scott Pulsipher. He would be someone I'd recommend you interview for the podcast if you haven't yet. Do you know Scott?
I do know Scott.
We actually worked together many years ago.
Okay, so you know Scott. So this is an also, kind of a new position for him. He's a very public leader of a very public organization. And Scott, talk about that vision, almost every meeting I'm now Scott, he's reminding someone of his four pillars. And I can almost recite them to you. I've heard them so often. And I think that's neat that he is staying at that vision level and he is constantly reminding people of what that vision is. I've seen him also get into the weeds when he needs to. But at that size of an organization I think he needs to get into the weeds less often than you know, then I do as a CEO of this size of this organization. I also have seen existing, so I worked at, we were, WU's been a client for about five years before Scott ever showed up. So I knew the prior President very well, Bob Mendenhall. I also knew all of the senior folks on the team. One of them in particular who, with whom I've had a great relationship that I respect a ton of, is Pat Partridge. Pat was there from the beginning. He's the CMO. He was there from the beginning with Bob when the University was founded. And you would have predicted that he would not have survived a regime change like this. Instead, he's thrived. And he's not the only one. So many other senior leader there have just thrived under Scott's leaderships. How does someone come in with such strong aptitude for a vision and direction and actually be so vocal about changing the direction of the organization and maintain the institutional knowledge? That's, that's impressive.
Not everybody stayed. The folks who didn't believe in the new vision, he didn't want them around. But that's pretty neat. I'm inspired by Scott Pulsipher. Then there are two that are very similar. One is named John Vanderarch. He's the Chief Operating Officer at Republic Services. The Fortune 300.
A trash collection company headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona. And other is, Dave Bywater, now at Vivint Solar. Both former consultants. Not just like one or two years of consulting but John had become a partner at McKinsey. Dave Bywater, I don't know what level he achieved but he didn't just do an internship at a consulting firm.
And so I, I view their leadership as more accessible to me because we have a lot of similar instincts. Both are incredibly data driven and that's an impressive leadership style to me that they can be excitable but not if they are, not without data to compel them. And I think the neat thing about that trait is that because they use data in their vision and in their leadership, it's really hard to argue with them. You know, they get consensus pretty quickly 'cause there's kind of hard data behind what they're suggesting. And there are also leaders that keep that data very top of mind and they're able to communicate it in the moment with a team member without needing to go back and consult a dack where the data point was. You know, Dave, Dave and my son played in the same baseball league last year and he, I asked him how it's going and you'll ask him the same thing if you have an interview with him already. And he will tell you five or six very quantitative things that are, are forcing Vivint Solar to be a very unique provider of you know, solar power. And he'll use really hard data to describe it. John Vanderarch, in meetings with him at Republic, he's used data that I've given him to argue a point to me maybe a data point that isn't, has not been top of mind for me but he'll remember it and use it to you know, make a very compelling point that helps steer the direction of the company. So there's a couple folks that I respect a lot and for very, actually different reasons.
Yeah, but good examples, because one of the things that I see all the time is that it's lonely. Even though you're out there in the middle of the bull pen out here and you're standing in the middle of 30, 40 people all around you, here on the main floor of Cicero. There is an isolation that occurs. And so obviously you have the ability to interact with clients and talk about things but how else do you stay sort of, centered and to stay connected and to make sure what you're hearing is what you really need to hear?
Yeah, no that's, that's a great, a great point. Being a CEO of a, of a consulting company is less lonely than being the CEO of another type of company. It's like a managing director kind of role. I'm like the partner who's taking a turn at this for a few years. And so, really that senior partner team and then the full partner team. There's almost nothing that I'm thinking or doing or learning that they aren't at the same time. So there's not much that I, I, there's not much of a burden I bear on my own. But, I was told about that loneliness and so I joined actually a group called YPO.
Young Presidents Organization. And I have a group of eight CEO's who are roughly my age, running companies you know, roughly, this size. And we have an opportunity in a absolutely tight-lipped confidential meeting once a month, where we explore the deepest of our personal and professional challenges together. And I see how relieving it is for the others who do work in more lonely CEO jobs, and it's even relieving for me even though I'm not as lonely you know, as the CEO of Cicero. And so I would, I, the counsel I would give other CEOs especially those that are new to the job, it's, first of all, it's more different to be the CEO then you would think. And I was as close to being the CEO as anyone could be at Cicero prior to becoming the CEO. And nonetheless, it's a very different mantle and it's much more challenging than you're gonna think. It's much more, it cause you to question yourself much more than you had previously questioned yourself. Much, much more difficult. So that because of that, I would look for opportunities to help to share that burden and learn from others.
Peer groups that obviously--
I think it's--
It's a really big deal.
I think it's a big deal. I think it's
Something we're actually going to be implementing here at the group I'm with here. We're gonna be doing some slightly different peer groups than you do at YPO but the same concept. We're bringing together executives and help them learn from each other, hold each other accountable, gain insights here. Have some fun in a way that allows them to feel less isolated.
Yeah, that's great.
And more connected with other people here.
Let's talk, let's go just a little bit deeper here into your mindsets here and then we'll go ahead and get towards wrap up here. Let me just grab one drink.
You go ahead and uh.
So when you think about your, sort of your world view. You know, let's talk about kind of when Trent sees the world how do you see the world? Is it? What's the kind of, the mental model that you use to view the world? Is it, what kind of words would you use to describe here? You're just world view of Cicero, of your leadership. I mean, how would you describe that?
Wow, huh. There's one I'd like to say and there's probably the real ones so I'm gonna give you the real one. What fuels and drives me is a deep borderline spiritual belief in, in the human capacity. And I am so passionate about kids so we didn't talk much about the education work that I've done in the prior parts of my career and I still do. And it's probably not real. We don't need to dive into that but I, my wife always says, well now that my dad has passed, she's seen my cry more. But she, she's only seen my cry twice as an adult. The first was, when we broke up prior to getting engaged, which is good that I cried then. She knows how much she means to me. And second, was when I was driving home from having seen a movie called Waiting for Superman which is a, a really tough documentary on the state of public schools in the US. And so, so the life model that or the mental model that fuels me is that humans are so much more capable than we believe, then we actualize and every person has room for growth and development and increased happiness. So I definitely believe that about myself and seek for opportunities to learn and develop and grow and find ways to be more balanced and to be happier and more content. But man, I love working with my own kids maybe that's why I had seven, so I have many opportunities, many swings at the you know, at the, at that. But I just love to listen to kids. I love to hear what's going on in their minds. It's so inspiring to hear a four year old who has no social filter, who has by the age of four, has learned to do two of the most sophisticated things they'll ever learn to do. They've learned to walk and talk.
You know, mostly without formal learning. They just kind of watch and try and experiment and figure it out. And then to hear the way they describe what they're seeing. I can't, I can't describe with words what it does for my soul to interact with, with other humans who are on a development or a growth trajectory and then to feel like I can contribute in some way to their development. So you know, as I say that outloud, it's probably super predictable that I would have gotten into a servces business and it's super predictable that I would have had a big family. It's predictable that I would've gotten into education and you know, be passionate about education. So is that enough of a mental model?
Well, actually, is what, yeah, that is a mental model.
Getting into those fields influenced my mental model as well.
Or the mental model then you acted with integrity against that mental model by the doing the things you've done here and frankly, it's one of the things that's challenging at times is that we have these mental models that sometimes we don't act in integrity with them. We behave in ways that are different than we believe and it creates distance and pain and suffering for us here. But, when you think about this mental model here, think about it's development here. I mean, did it spring like from whole cloth in your mind here? Or is it something that's evolved over time and where do you think it's genesis was?
I made a decision in undergrad to become a teacher. So my first job was a high school teacher in Northern California. So at some point, I had a mentor, I had a mentor who was a high school principal and got me excited about the career option. I then went and interviewed four different colleges at my undergrad institution. I interviewed their like their placement directors. So like the person who thinks about jobs and what jobs are available. And I went, I only got to two. And I went to the business school, and I couldn't get the business school person to talk about anything other than exiting salaries and growth, financial growth opportunities for graduates. Had a hard time even getting him to name the specific roles, organizations that, that the graduates had gone to. What he was clearly most focused on was exit, exiting salary. So I didn't know at the time how uninspiring it was. I just knew I walked out and I remember calling my dad and saying, "Hey, are you, turns out they're producing like "45, 50,000 dollars a year kind of "exiting salaries." This was the you know, late 90's. Wow. You know, like I could maybe buy a house. And we can start a family and you know, those sorts of of things. I went to the second which was the education school and Bobby, I remember her name. She told me I was in the wrong, like, "Trent, this isn't for you." And I said, "Why?" And she goes, "Well, tell me about your life goals." I said, "I really, you know, "I'm married. "I wanna have a family. "You know, I wanna have a certain lifestyle." And she said, "You're just never gonna get it in this field." And it actually intrigued me more than anything. And so as I probed, what she could articulate was the kind of impact I could have on kids. And I, I remember then calling my dad and saying, "Is this crazy?" And he said something to the effect of, "If you do something you love, "you'll figure out a way to make it work." And here I am running you know, the largest management consulting company at least in the state of Utah, if not the inter-mountain west. And I get to still influence education but I cut my teeth in my career as a high school teacher and then I became a high school principal at age 26 in Northern California. And you know, making more money that I need. And that I ever thought I needed or would you know, would earn. But still getting to focus on that core principle of helping others grow and develop.
Boy, I love that. We need to do a whole another podcast here on your experiences as a high school principal here. I'm sure there are plenty of experiences there to share here. Just as we wrap up here, would you describe you yourself as somebody who is motivated internally or externally.
Yeah, tell me a little bit more about that. I never heard that exact question. I've heard introvert and extrovert but--
You're motivated, does your motivation come from within or you motivated by more external goals and things of that sort?
Oh man, I wish it were internal but it's definitely external. If, if how hard I workout when I'm alone in my gym at home compared to when I'm in the, the gym where other people are watching. If that's a sign, I workout much harder in the public gym so I fear that I'm more motivated externally than internally.
That's a good awareness there. Would you say that, where does pressure come from for you?
Is this again, within or without?
No just, what are the sources of pressure for you?
I avoid regret like the plague. So the biggest pressures I feel in life are the worry that my 25 year old, my future 25 year old kid is gonna say, "Dad, why did you take the easy road "and let me quit that sport? "Why didn't you take the harder road "and have the long conversation with me "and compel me to do you know, "this other thing?" So that, that fuels my parenting for sure. Similarly, at Cicero, I never ever want to take the easy road unless that's the right road. And I, I'm fueled by the fear that you know, at some point we'll realize that we took an easy road and that led to less growth then we could've acheived otherwise. So, I don't know if that's scalable or replicable to other people but that's an authentic answer for sure.
Communication style. Indirect or direct and don't pull the punches?
Don't pull the punches ever. You can be generous and kind but I have developed loyalty from others and they openly, if there's, actually if there's one characteristic I'm praised for most often by team members, even clients it's not mincing words. And being super direct, and what I've learned it accomplishes more than anything is it helps you fail fast, it helps you know who the winners and losers are early on. And, and leads to more mental stability for me and inner peace if my relationships are based on you know, an open, kind of dialogue, an open discussion. And in fact I have to, we've talk a lot about what your natural instinct is versus what you coach yourself to do. I have to talk myself into using you know, prepping people for what I'm about to to tell them. I have to talk myself into not talking to my nine year old the same way I talk to my 17 year old. I have to coach myself into three positives for every one correction, but definitely direct.
Fantastic. Well, Trent, this has been an amazing interview here. How can people follow you on social media or keep up on what the work you're doing here at Cicero?
You bet. I am pretty active on LinkedIn. Less active on some of the other social media platforms. So pretty easy to search for me, Trent Kaufman at Cicero Group. Also our Cicero Group page on LinkedIn and Twitter are pretty active. You also can sign up for our newsletters straight on our website. And we are producing a quarterly thought leadership paper, a newsletter that I would put against anyone's in the world. We're producing some really good thinking about you know, various topics such as, data driven growth, how to overcome some of the basic change management implementation challenges that companies face. Yeah, so those are, those are some of the key ways.
Well Trent, it's been great to be with you today and thanks for taking the time to meet with us here.
Yeah, you bet, thank you.