I recently connected with serial tech entrepreneur Luke Cooper, who sold his mobile tech support startup Fixt to Fortune 500 firm Assurant in 2020 for an impressive eleven times revenue. Luke and I chatted about his leadership journey, how he stacked the deck to sell his business for a large multiple, some of his key leadership principles, the value of learning and accountability, and his powerful mantra—which likely applies to your leadership journey as well.
And, just like my interview with Stephen Shedletzky, this session produced so much insightful content for growth-minded leaders that I’ve split it into two parts, the second of which will be in an upcoming edition of this newsletter.
The Meaning Behind the Mantra
Luke and I kicked off our conversation by digging into the meaning behind his website URL and the first words you’ll see on his landing page: “WHERE THERE IS MUD – THERE IS MAGIC.” He explained that to be an effective leader, resilience must be part of your DNA. “You’re always going to be met with challenges and problems,” he said. “I’ve learned the most when those problems and challenges require a new maneuver. So, all of the great things in my businesses—in my life—have really come out of the mud.”
At first, Luke believed he was successful in spite of the hardships he experienced—including rising from his youth in the housing projects of Bridgeport, CT, critical family health issues, and more. But he realized over time that the difficulties he faced actually made him the leader he has become. For him, the idea of “No Mud. No Magic” is reminiscent of the lotus flower, a plant that grows beautifully from the depths of the mud. “Great things can come from that mud when you understand the power of hardship and leverage it,” he added.
This truth can be hard to accept, as many of us were conditioned early in life to expect things to be neat and tidy. For example, you may have earned a college degree, planned to enter the workforce, and then progress in your career in an orderly fashion. And you may have been jarred to realize that—in many cases—the greatest things and moments in your life actually emerged from a bit of a mess. Years ago, I had a speaking coach who said, “you need a mess before you can create your message.” Luke’s mantra captures the same concept to help leaders find their footing.
Are you focused on tidying up or truly embracing life’s messes?
Power through Problem Solving
So, how do you accept the mud when you may have been encouraged to avoid it for much of your life? Luke says it starts with a shift in mindset. “If you chase ideas and the sort of vain features of a startup, you’re not going to succeed. The best and most efficient way to find a true path to something great is to become addicted to problem solving.” He shared a crucial insight from one of his mentors: “You’ve got to fall in love with the problem—the mud—way before you fall in love with the solution.”
Most founders tend to take the opposite tack; they are romanced by potential solutions—buzzwords we hear thrown around, like machine learning, vertical integration, and user engagement, to name a few—without understanding the true nature of the underlying problems to be solved.
Luke shared that when he started Fixt, although he was up against two worthy competitors, he and his team knew they could win because of the way the others were positioned in the market. While the competition was pursuing episodic revenue in the form of one-off transactions, he saw a massive enterprise market with recurring revenue in which customers would pay a monthly or annual fee for tech support. By identifying the weaknesses in his competitors’ models and improving his own, he was able to rise to the top. As Luke aptly points out, “it’s best to market, not first to market.”
Ultimately, his addiction to solving problems—not just his own, but also those others missed—led to his success.
What big problem are you striving to solve?
Seek to Understand
How do you teach yourself to fall in love with a problem, particularly if you aren’t naturally inclined to do so? You can start by challenging your question-to-statement ratio, which is something I work on with all of my coaching clients. If you think you have all the answers, you’ll find yourself in the unproductive leadership habit of making lots of statements. Asking questions, on the other hand, flips the script. The act itself requires opening your mind to new possibilities in an attempt to learn more.
This concept is embodied by one of Luke’s core leadership principles: “seek to understand.” The idea here, Luke said, is that “you should seek to understand before you are understood. If you walk into a meeting, conference room, or brainstorming session, and you’re completely focused on your ideas and promoting your vision, you’re not going to get many people to support you.” A better way? Luke says leaders should give people autonomy by asking open-ended questions. The goal shouldn’t be to guide them somewhere; it should be to comprehend their perspective, why it matters, and its implications for overall strategy. “to seek to understand—with no bias whatsoever—is the quest of a good leader,” he said.
How can you improve your question-to-statement ratio?
Grappling with Ego
Asking for others’ perspective—and truly listening to their answers—requires leaders to subordinate their egos. For example, I’ve watched leaders ask for feedback even though they didn’t really want to hear it. This practice compounds over time and eventually demoralizes the team, as they know it’s a hollow request. Even worse, because they know their leader doesn’t want to hear what they have to say, the flow of productive information slows to a trickle and the team ends up stuck.
“I think every leader has blind spots,” Luke added. “A coach can help uncover some of them, but you’ve got to do the hard work of removing them yourself. I think the way you do that is with data. For the first three years of Fixt, I told myself I was a great CEO, a great leader, great visionary, great product originator—yet all these were just thoughts in my head.”
“The reality was that we had an attrition rate that was probably one-and-a-half times higher than the average startup. Our employee happiness score was really low. So I could sit there and believe I’m this great leader and I have all these great abilities—my ego can tell me all that. But the way to benchmark your leadership is against real data. And even when you see positive or favorable results, you have to keep asking questions.”
Luke’s shift to a data-informed view of his leadership began several years ago when Fixt conducted an anonymous company-wide employee survey. When the results came in—including detailed feedback on his leadership—they were shocking. He felt attacked and defensive. And then he hired a coach: “I asked, ‘How should I react to this?’” With his coach’s support, he realized that communication transparency—the kind the survey had the potential to create—was a crucial leadership tool he was missing.
“Transparency reduces anxiety; it helps everyone understand the conversation we’re having. And it levels the conversation with a measure of truth that usually doesn’t exist.” This realization caused Luke to create and share a presentation that directly addressed the comments from the employee survey. He shared which perceptions of him were accurate (many) and which weren’t (a few)—and worked to clarify any confusion. And he let the team know that he hired a coach to help him be accountable to the changes he was committing to make. The outcome? “We didn’t lose a single person after that. We continued to grow revenue 400 percent year over year. And we exited in August 2020 for eleven times revenue.”
From that moment forward, Luke led with vulnerability. He put himself out there and his efforts paid off. Self-awareness, which Luke was able to embrace with the help of a coach, is crucial for leaders. If you’re blind to how you feel internally versus how others perceive you, then you’re going to have one or both hands tied behind your back when you try to enlist those around you to accomplish great things.
How can you use data to improve your self-awareness and effectiveness as a leader?
Care Deeply but Tell the Brutal Truth
At this point in our conversation, Luke turned the tables on me and asked: “Mark, how do you access the power of motivating people to accomplish more?”
As a coach, I strive to continually improve my self-awareness. I’ve learned that when I enter a meeting with a client executive team, I must do so as a contributing team member AND as their coach. When I join them this way, it’s easier to deliver the hard messaging my role demands because they know, based on my actions, that I care deeply about them and their success. I behave as Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor instructs, “care deeply, but tell the brutal truth.”
Luke’s willingness to release his ego and create a fully transparent culture also demonstrated his willingness to learn and adjust his behaviors, another vital element of leadership. We’ll get to the ins and outs of Luke’s learning experience at Fixt and the power of accountability in part two of this article series.
In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.
“Months into the pandemic and its economic fallout, a lot of workers are feeling understandably anxious and insecure about the future. What can companies do to boost morale?
Laura Gallaher, an organizational psychologist in Orlando, Florida, suggests one deceptively simple exercise: Ask the management team to name their top priority.
Most higher-ups will struggle to answer, she warns. They’ll rattle off their top five goals of the quarter or their individual aspirations, she says. In fact, when she has put the priority question to corporate leaders, they’re often confused by it.
That spells trouble for esprit de corps. Most employees want their companies to succeed, she tells Quartz, and they need to see and feel progress. “When you can create a really clear sense of focus and priority and direction, what’s going to happen is the company is going to actually move faster,” says Gallaher. “And I think that that can be very uplifting for people.” It can also save employees a lot of time and wasted energy…”
“One of the true marks of transformative leaders is that what we learn from them can transcend time. Every year as I remember the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am in awe of how his writings, actions, and the leadership principles with which he lived are still just as relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago.
As we continue to navigate through a time in our history where we deal with threats to our democracy, racial injustice, and vast inequalities across many levels of society, I’ve seen many leaders frustrated and at times paralyzed about what their role should be in creating positive change.
Here are four leadership principles to embrace from Dr. Martin Luther King to guide you in your quest to be a better leader…”
Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…