We’re passionate about the world of work, and how we can make it better. To help satisfy our curiosity, we’ve launched an interview series where we pick the brains of experienced leaders, business owners, managers, and individual contributors to get their thoughts on how we can collectively build better workplaces.
Join us in our next installment below as Rod McDermott—CEO at Activate 180—shares his insights with us
We’d love to get to know you a bit better, tell us a bit about your backstory.
I like to say that I was born, at least from a career perspective, at the age of 33. That's when I had a realization that I was going down a road that I was not meant to go down. I was always very intentional with my career. I always wanted to be the CEO of an international company: traveling, opening offices, and managing people. I was on track at 33 years old as a VP of Sales and Marketing of a computer security company. Yet, I quickly came to the conclusion that living that life was not for me for a couple of reasons.
Number one, it wasn't my company and I didn't control the agenda. It was a struggle for me because I had my own small business prior to filling that position, in which I got to control the levers we had to pull and determine what the key deliverables were. The second thing was that the position wasn't the right thing for my family. At the time, I had two little kids and I was traveling 70% of the time. I was lucky enough to have the realization that I was doing what I wasn't meant to be doing, which then led me into a 6-month journey toward crafting my ideal life.
During my travels, I would take out a yellow legal pad and draw two vertical columns. On one side I would list out job characteristics without stating what the job entailed, such as building relationships with C-Level executives. On the other side, I would list out the characteristics of my ideal life and the things that I wanted, such as unlimited vacation. At the time, I wanted to rent a house in Spain for a summer. I dreamed of being able to travel when I desired to while doing work from wherever I was located. I needed to find some level of flexibility in the balance between life and work, as the world of business has always been a hobby of mine.
I am an intellectually curious guy who wants to know how things work. I am naturally curious when it comes to how companies run and how they make money. I found that the higher you go in an organization, the more contact you have with somebody who has a macro perspective on the company. Therefore, I put on my chart that I wanted to call on C-level executives, CFOs, and CEOs, as well as create an opportunity for myself to have uncapped income potential. I wanted the opportunity to create my own destiny in terms of financial independence and I wanted to do something where I could make decent money.
At the time I had two kids, and my wife and I always knew we wanted to have four. We wanted to live a pretty big life, so you know, that was going to require me to make pretty good money. I wrote down that I wanted to earn half a million dollars a year, and that was back in 1998. I wrote down all the characteristics I was seeking on both sides of the page and purposely did not start looking at new job positions because I wanted to make my own destiny into a reality. I wanted to find my ideal life. That was the important thing for me. I did not start searching for a job until I finished defining my ideal life, that way I could see which opportunities fit that mold.
It wasn’t until speaking with a consultant that the firm I was working for hire, that my search to leave my job began. I expressed to him that I knew what I wanted my life to look like, and showed him my yellow legal pad. He then asked if I had ever thought of executive search. After he sparked the idea, I met with a dozen firms over the next six months and made a selection to work with a Chicago-based firm to start my new career path. This is where my initial statement comes full circle. I like to say that I was born at 33 because that’s when I hit the reset button. Anybody can be born at any age, professionally speaking. It all boils down to the time when you make executive decisions on what you want your life to look like.
This is where our mission for Activate 180 holds immense value for the companies and organizations with whom we work. Activate 180 has adopted an affordable model so that anyone who wants a coach can have a coach — creating a life that is desired is not just for executives. Our clients receive thorough, hands-on training in the Activate 180 coaching methodology, which evaluates the five pillars and identifies the core areas an individual needs to work on the most. This approach ensures all areas of the individuals’ lives are thriving while connecting their success back to the businesses they are working for.
If we were to ask a friend to describe your personality to us, what would they say?
In a word, a friend would describe my personality as “intense”. In a sentence, I would say “intentional” in terms of where I want to go, extremely driven to get there, but not at all costs. A qualifier is that it has to fit the characteristics I set for myself for my dream life, but also the characteristics I’ve set for myself as a leader, and what I currently do to lead.
My purpose as a leader is to create opportunities for people to live great lives by developing a need for our product while bringing in the right people and leading them the right way so that they can live their dream lives.
I feel like if I can help them live their dream lives within our company, we’re going to hit our goals and we’re going to grow our business.
Thinking back to your career journey, what’s an interesting story that stands out?
I think oftentimes people are afraid to share with their bosses what they’re really thinking. In reality, I think oftentimes the bosses might be thinking the same things. In addition, just because you share where you want your career to go, doesn't mean your boss is going to say “you're out” if your vision is different from what they want to hear. I had a previous boss that I not only had a respectful relationship with, but also a friendship with, and I remember having to tell him that I was going to leave the company. Prior to my exit conversation with him, I said to my wife that if I were to become the president of this company, I could tell them ten things I would do differently that would supercharge the growth of the business significantly. I never had that conversation with them until I decided to leave that industry to go into executive search.
Once the conversation was had, he expressed to me that he didn’t want to lose me and offered me the opportunity to move up within the company as president. I further expressed that if this conversation had taken place six months prior, I would have accepted the offer. But at this time, I had been on the journey of figuring out what life I wanted to live and felt that executive search would give me the life I wanted. I was pursuing that and I have now done executive search for 23 years. But the lesson for me was to not be afraid to have an honest conversation with my boss.
If you have a boss that is really bought into developing their people and giving their people the best opportunities available to them, your boss should be part of your team around you. If you have a boss who doesn't think like that, you probably have the wrong boss. Or if you have a boss that does think like that, but doesn't think it's right for you or you're not right for them, why not know it?
You know what you want. They know what they think you can do. If those two things don't align, why spend another year or two years trying to get something that you're probably not going to get there? At least have the conversation and then be prepared to not leave immediately, but start preparing to embark on a different path.
So that's the lesson. I think we should all be willing to have courageous and honest conversations with our bosses.
What’s the most impactful lesson you've learned over your career thus far?
I am a firm believer that I can have everything I want in life if I just help enough other people get what they want; that’s a shift that I made about ten years ago. If you look at my philosophy, ten years ago, it was very old school. “The customer comes first, the customer’s always right…” That’s where I came from. Now, it’s much more evolved in that if I do everything I can to give my people the best lives possible, I know that I’m going to attract and retain quality talent, and I’m never going to have to worry about the customer.
My job as the leader is to build an amazing place for people to work and build their careers, and their jobs are to worry about the customers.
Thanks for giving us some insight into who you are! Let’s jump into things. When you hear the phrase “build a better world of work”, what comes to mind?
Historically, I think that company leaders have focused on building a really good company and a great place for people to work. I think what's been missing in the workplace is helping people live their best lives, and that is a multi-pillared strategy, not just a single career and professional development strategy.
A lot of people—and a lot of companies—think that they need to create this career path for their folks and develop other initiatives, and that’s absolutely true. But there are other pillars that make up the whole human experience, especially in the workplace. At Activate 180, we focus on five pillars when it comes to enhancing employees' lives, including life experiences, health and wellness, career and leadership development, relationships, and finances.
If your company can be the middleman helping employees live their best lives based on these five different pillars, providing them with the right training and development, while also showing your people that they are important to you as humans rather than just employees, I think then your company can see employees bring their best selves to work. This is what we're trying to help companies achieve with Activate 180.
For you, what’s the main blocker you see as standing in the way of building a better world of work?
From my perspective, there are two main blockers standing in the way of building a better world of work. First, the market is just now being educated on employee coaching. Executive coaches have been around for 50 years or longer, in different forms or titles. Executives have been coached for a long time. Athletes have been coached for a long time. Yet, the idea of giving everybody in a company a coach to help them perform at their highest level is a fairly new concept.
So, I think we have to begin to educate the market on things they can do differently. It's not just about offering great benefits, vacation plans, and 401ks; it's about helping people live their best lives in a holistic manner and looking at the entire human.
Next, companies need to have the courage to say “this is the right thing to do and I know that if I write the check and spend the money, I will get a return from this without knowing upfront what that looks like”. So far, as we’ve done pilots, every single one of our clients has continued with us month after month, year after year, and they’ve grown their employee base since being coached because they see the difference. But, they had to have the courage to write that initial check for something that sounded good, but that they didn't truly understand.
What’s one thing within our control that we can practically do to build a better world of work today? And, how do you recommend going about it?
One thing that is within our control is talking to our people about what their greatest concerns are from a holistic perspective and showing them that the company cares about the things they care about.
Start asking them questions about their lives outside of work. Make it a point to understand the non-business challenges that your employees face and how you can help them see the light through their challenges.
One thing that good companies are good at is creating strategies and plans to achieve the desired vision. You can do the same thing in life, right? Why aren't we doing that with our people to live their best lives?
Can you share one thing you’ve experienced, seen, or read about that is leading us towards a better world of work?
You know, there are quite a few. One of the ways I discovered recently was shared with me by a friend who was offering pet insurance to their employees. I thought to myself “is that really helping them live their best life?” It wasn’t until I talked to one of my employees who had a dog with multiple ailments that I was reminded that not all decisions that are made are for me; there are people who have different needs than myself. This was a good lesson for me as I’m not the person who needs it.
So when you start seeing companies offering things, such as unlimited vacation, it’s because they trust you. They trust that you're going to get the job done. Companies are starting to hire the right people and then give them the freedom to do the job. When companies give employees the ability to live their best lives, I believe we’re going to see more and more of that holistic relationship being built. I’m already seeing it. We are seeing companies focusing on improved benefits, increased vacation initiatives, developmental promotion opportunities, and enhanced DEI initiatives, as we are in the space to not only treat people equally but treat them differently based on their individual needs so that they become equal.
I’m curious, thinking about building a better world of work, is there a company and/or leader who stands out to you as someone we should follow? If so, what are they up to?
I like Eric Schmidt, a previous CEO of Google. In the early 2000s, he created a culture at Google where people can live great lives at work by offering unlimited food in the break rooms, beanbag chairs to take naps on, and other things you may roll your eyes at today. But he built what has become the most valuable company on the planet, and he really empowered growth in his people. He looked at them as human beings and wanted them to have their best professional experiences while working with him.
He is also a believer in coaching. He's one of the reasons that we launched Activate 180. He had a coach during the entire time he was at Google. He saw the value that his coach was able to offer every two weeks, and that's what we're doing with Activate 180. We are utilizing Activate 180 to provide the same tool of value to every employee, not just the executives.
He was a bit of a pioneer in discovering the impact of coaching. He paved a path to demonstrating the value of being coached by somebody you trust, who is objective, who will tell you what you need to hear versus what you want to hear, and who is in your corner every step of the way by helping you become the best version of yourself. This is the best way to lead people.
How can our readers follow your work?
Readers can follow along with Activate 180 at www.activate180.com.
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