The following interview is one of many initially conducted as part of the research for a writing project. We hope to share more of these interviews, because the work of these entrepreneurs and executives demonstrates the viability of a well conceived leader development program—in this case the Stagen Integral Leadership Program based in Dallas, Texas. Their focus is on developing integral leaders among the CEOs and executives in mid-sized companies. They have also provided similar training to the leaders of Native American tribes and other organizations.
There are other integrally-informed leader development programs, for example, the executive MBA program at the University of Notre Dame. We would welcome input from developers and others associated with such programs, including the identification of individuals who have successfully applied integral approaches to organizations of all sorts. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Putting Integral to Work: An Interview with Laura Roberts, CEO, Pantheon Chemical
Russ: I would like to get a sense of your business and your role what led you to go into the Stagen Integral Leadership Program. Then, I hope we might discuss some of the things that you accomplished and that you and your organization has achieved, at least in a part as a result of your participation.
Russ: Please start by telling us about your business?
Laura: Well, at first glance we appear to be just a chemical manufacturer. But really we are in the business of moving heavy industries away from toxic practices.
How I got into this business is an unlikely story. I was a school teacher before this and pretty much an avid environmentalist. My parents had a small chemical company that made a variety of green cleaners for a handful of loyal blue chip customers. They built a nice business with those customers, but unfortunately the “green cleaner” segment slowly started to commoditize, which then led to an adverse impact on their margins.
Luckily my dad was a crazy innovator—well actually more like a mad chemist who loved to play in the lab. He started inventing new products that would solve problems that he saw his customers were having. He was not a chemist by trade. He formulated using chemistry that was not in the traditional “cook book” that trained formulators used. As a result, he was able to create some new solutions that would one day possibly solve some problems in the coatings and the metal working industries.
Unfortunately, he passed away suddenly and we were left with the question of what to do with this business. Many of the things that he had invented were not commercialized. In fact they were still on the shelves in some state of development or testing.
For many reasons, starting with my passion for the environment, as well as, an emotional attachment to my dad’s legacy (and all the hard work my parents had done to build the company), I wanted to step in and keep the company going. I believed that a lot of his effort would go unrealized on the shelves if I did not. I felt we couldn’t just let it die on the vine. So, I quit teaching and stepped into a chemical business that I knew nothing about. I also felt that the company might provide a bigger platform to make a difference in the world than teaching in the classroom did. I profoundly loved making a difference in the lives of my students. And, when I was able to work at the administrative level, I did feel like my impact was even greater. But for some reason, I now just felt that having a business might actually provide an opportunity to change the way things were being done on a larger scale. Of course, I had no idea how hard it was going to be at the time.
Russ: Let me ask about the school piece for just a moment. What level were you teaching?
Laura: I was teaching elementary school. I taught most of the grades and I taught for over 10 years. I taught in both the private and the public sector, which provided me an opportunity to teach students across a wide range of socio-economic status. I started my first year as a kindergarten teacher and during my last year I was the school administrator.
Russ: And you were the school administrator for one year?
Laura: Yes, I was serving that function for the last year and prior to that I was doing some grant administration and curriculum development work for the government. I managed a large federal grant for “at risk” kids across several school districts.
Russ: Was that in Phoenix, Arizona?
Laura: Yes it was. It was a federal grant given to the Department of Human Services in the City of Phoenix.
Russ: Thank you. Please go on with your story. You decided to join the business…
Laura: Yes. It wasn’t a lucrative decision. I was a starving entrepreneur for many years.
My brother had worked with my Dad a lot on the chemistry side, which was very fortunate. He was also a nuclear engineer in the US Navy. He served on a submarine. When he was not out to sea, fortunately he was able to help me on the technical side a little bit. It was painful when he was out to sea though. I learned on the fly. Eventually, he got out of the Navy and he came to Phoenix to help. Also, my parent’s business partner was still in the picture, as well as another new partner. We all took turns making sure we were holding down the fort. We were working second and third jobs while learning enough about the business to put together a business plan. It took several years.
Ultimately, we put together a business plan that required us to raise capital. This adventure started probably three or four years after my father passed away. Imagine a former school teacher who is pregnant and trying to raise money from investors during the dot com craze. I just got laughed at a lot. I got told no a lot. This happened literally hundreds of times.
Russ: What year was it that you actually joined the company when you left?
Laura: In the middle of 1997. But by the time we had a good enough plan together to pitch to investors it was in the year 2000. Each time that I’d get told no I would hear a different reason. Some investors didn’t think I had a good enough plan or management team. Or they were concerned with how we had our intellectual property secured. Some questioned our scaling plans. And others focused on whether or not we understood the right way to approach a certain market. We just kept plugging along.
The biggest problem we ran into, though, was the expectation that investors had relative to exit strategy and rate of return. Eighteen-month exit strategies and very large returns were the norm during the dotcom era. And, I had a meat and potatoes business that was going to have a much longer 5 to 7 year play. It was a hard sell, but I knew we could find the right people. Eventually, we got the first investor in Austin, Texas, right after September 11th. to say yes to us. And then the rest started to fall into place.
The amount of energy that was extended for me to raise the money was significant. We ultimately were able to raise the money from some high net worth people who believed in our bigger mission, purpose and vision. And to this day have they remained very dedicated and loyal shareholders.
I was not going to be the CEO on the business plan, of course. I got told many times that I was not even qualified enough to be on the senior management team. So early on in the investor pitching process, I found an industry specific CEO to agree to come onboard. But after I raised the first chunk of capital the shareholders came back and said that they would rather have me be the CEO. They felt this way because they said that I was the one with the vision, the passion and all the skin in the game. I was the one who sold them. That is when I stepped in as CEO.
Russ: That was in 2000?
Laura: That was in the fall of 2002.
At that point Sarbanes-Oxley was out there, so there was a lot of discussion in the business world about independent Board members. I thought I could use some mentors who could help me. So I set out to form a strong Board. Finding the Board members and getting them to say yes in the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley was difficult. Even though our company was privately held, the process of forming a stellar Board was in many ways more difficult than raising the capital. Fortunately, I was able to get some amazing people who ended up being great mentors to me.
In many respects the company started out with a “big picture” purpose. But looking back, I don’t think it was always well articulated or embraced by new hires. That was something I felt needed to improve. I wanted to get a purpose that would resonate with all the people involved and that attracted talent. I can tell you painful story after painful story of hard lessons I learned about culture, wrong hires, wrong organizational structures and even wrong strategies to go to market. Finally, we were able to get to a point, after many years, where our purpose and our vernacular about “why we are here” started to resonate with the founders, the team at large and new hires. This helped tremendously.
One of the first things I did that helped me with this process was attend a three-year program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Business College called the Birthing of Giants. I learned a lot.
While attending the program I also read the The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni. As a result, I made massive organizational changes. From that point forward, I had a better handle on how I could more quickly assess whether someone might be a long-term fit. Often times it was not because they didn’t have the talent, but more because of their lack of alignment with the company’s personality.
From that experience I started to look at the three other founders differently. All of them have very entrepreneurial personalities. They like new projects. I was really struggling with the question of how to turn these three entrepreneurs—who like to do what they want to do—into individuals who are really going to buckle down and work hard on scaling the business?
Russ: How many employees did you have when you took over as CEO? How many people were actually working in the business? Roughly.
Russ: And how many today?
Laura: About 30. I have had as many as 50
Russ: And the reason why there are fewer today is because of the economy?
Laura: No. The reason that there are less today is because we finally got our heads around being better organizationally aligned by “upgrading” our talent. We were able to do more with less people because we had better people.
Russ: How many product lines did you have when you took over?
Laura: The number of product lines has not changed. There were originally four major lines. Although we have new products that have been developed since then, they still fall into the four lines. We have surface pre-treatments for coatings, metal working fluids, and a whole series of cleaners for a variety of industries. Our fourth line, which some people laugh at, is for gun cleaning and weapon maintenance for the military and law enforcement. At times I have been told that it seems odd that a green company is selling stuff to clean weapons! But it was a unique and important market to enter because there are a lot of toxic chemicals used in the maintenance of firearms. It was an industry that desperately needed to clean up.
Russ: Very interesting. I saw something that indicated that the military was the major polluter so…
Laura: Yes. There are many sites that have been heavily polluted with the chemicals that the military uses. Maintaining firearms contributes to that pollution.
Russ: Fascinating. That gives me a feel for the situation.
You went to the MIT program for three years, is that right?
Laura: Yes. It was for three years. People who graduated from the Birthing of Giants Program started a second program for those who wanted to continue their leadership education. It is called the Gathering of Titans. I have been attending that program every year since.
I wanted to continue my self development. Besides the MIT programs, I was also in the Young Entrepreneurs Organiation for a while, and then I moved to Vistage. Both programs are designed to help improve the lives and skills of CEOs. In each program I had a forum, a group of peers that met once a month to help each other process issues. I learned a lot from these programs over the years.
Russ: Before you went to the MIT program did you think of yourself as a leader?
Laura: Yes, I suppose I did think that I had some basic traits for leading. For my whole life, even in high school and college, I had some leadership tendencies. Being the oldest child I often played a leadership role in the family—especially after my father died. And as far as my three other partners (who I referred earlier to as the other “founders”), they seemed to naturally defer to me more and more over time. I didn’t constantly tell myself that I was a great leader. I just felt like it was easy for me to step into a leadership position in a lot of aspects of my life.
Russ: Can you tell us what that concept of being in a leader’s position meant to you back then? Let’s say in 2002 or before. What did it mean to be a leader?
Laura: At that point I think it was largely focused on whether I could get people to effectively hear what I was saying. I thought leadership was about how I could best influence others to move down the path that I wanted them to travel down.
Russ: What was the value added that you got at the MIT program?
Laura: I think there were several value adds from that program. One is definitely the idea of top grading. The top grading concept was a critical thing for me, because I had a lot of people on the team that were clearly “C” players. I just didn’t have a framework to get my head around why I was having so much drama all the time. Why weren’t things getting done? What was wrong with my leadership? Top grading helped transform my ability to let people go when it wasn’t the right place for them. I realized they were going to be happier somewhere else. I also realized it was easier to lead more emotionally centered individuals. Reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team supplemented that message as well. I had a better feel for which people were going to have “trust” potential and which people were just not wired for trust.
Russ: Could you give me a feel for that—the piece around trust in particular?
Laura: For purposes of having really great resumes on the management team I hired a lot of people who held senior positions in big corporations. I learned the hard way that they were very hard wired to “cover their asses” all the time. They were conditioned to hide their mistakes and not rock the boat. And, often times they were so averse to conflict that it created a dynamic in which the team didn’t “trust” people were actually expressing what was on their minds. Trust that team members were enthusiastically executing the business objectives started to diminish, too.
Reading the Dysfunctions book, helped me to at least identify that “trust” was a key element in my problems. I was losing trust with those hires. They did not have—what I would have labeled at the time—the emotional maturity to get into a good debate, talk about the elephant in the room, and walk away without a chip on their shoulder. There were so many of the five dysfunctions of a team going on in 2004-2005 in the company. They were playing out in perfect case study after case study. It was driving me nuts. I was just scratching my head all the time saying what is broken here? Of course, as a result of going to Stagen’s Integral Leadership Program I now have many “aha” moments as I think about the those years. But back then I didn’t have the Stagen tools. I didn’t have the mindset model. I wasn’t speaking their languages. I was speaking Green to a lot of Blues and Reds and some Oranges. [Stagen uses the term “mindset” to refer to worldviews/value systems. Readers familiar with the work of Clare Graves or Spiral Dynamics will be familiar with the colors originally developed by the National Values Center—Ed.].
Russ: And can you give me an example of how that played out? What did it cost you? What did it cost the company?
Laura: I hesitate to say that our failure to grow as quickly as we aimed to was a sole result of having the wrong team, because there were so many other difficult hurdles and dynamics in our market place to overcome. But maybe if we had a more effective trusting team we could have muddled through the challenges more quickly. That being said however, having the wrong people cost real money. I haven’t quantified it, but I know it’s not insignificant. I wish I could have all the dollars back that I spent on people who were just a bad fit.
Russ: How did you first hear about Stagen’s Integral Leadership Program (ILP)?
Laura: Rand Stagen came to Gathering of Titans, the second program I attended at MIT. I heard him speak about the ILP. There were several people in Gathering of Titans who attended the program. I had the opportunity to sit at a table with several people who were going through the program at the time. I overheard them discussing “scrambling versus scaling” [“Scrambling” is the term Stagen uses for Ichak Adizes high-growth, entrepreneurial “Go Go Stage” in the corporate lifecycle. “Scaling” is the term Stagen uses to describe the next stage of an organization’s complexity that Adizes calls “Adolescence.”—Ed.].
I sat down next to Rand and said, “Just talk to me for two minutes about scrambling versus scaling, because it’s resonating with some of the pain I’m going through right now.” We had a brief discussion about it and I knew right after that conversation that I was going to apply to see if I could get into the ILP.
I am just concluding the program now. It’s been great because I feel like the whole experience of going through the ILP has been very challenging and transformational for me. But I’ll tell you when I was shown the Integral Model, it completely changed my perspective about everything.
Russ: Tell me more about that.
Laura: Well, at first going through the process of learning about the mindsets [the worldview/value systems] I instantly recognized each mindset. I could list very quickly all the people who I knew were in each column. It was easy. When first presented with the four main mindsets, I was struggling with the fact that it wasn’t initially presented as hierarchy. I couldn’t get my head around it so I kept discussing it with my coach. He sent me some of the material on Spiral Dynamics that I was able to start reading and then he sent me the one page with the Spiral in the 4Q 8L model [developed by Ken Wilber and Don Beck].
[The creator of the Stagen Integral Leadership Program, Brett Thomas, explained to ILR that the program differentiates “mindsets” (which can be adopted/espoused at any stage of development) from altitudes (stages of development). The legitimate correlations between worldviews and the stages of development at which people are more likely to construct vs. adopt vs. espouse those worldviews are noted in the Stagen program, but these nuances are not heavily emphasized. Rather, Stagen highlights the primary importance of recognizing a person’s “espoused” worldview and simply using the leadership style that correlates to that worldview. In their view, in terms of leadership effectiveness, a person’s overall stage of development and the mechanism with which they “construct” a given worldview is less relevant. Through over a decade of trial-and-error, Stagen has found that this simplified worldview presentation is far better received in their corporate leader development work than presenting a hierarchy of values stages as is depicted in other systems.—Ed.].
I looked at the 4Q 8L model and everything about it quickly clicked in my head. I am such a student of history, social sciences and economics. Everything that wasn’t quite aligning in my mind about the world all of a sudden aligned. This model gave me a framework to make sense of the big picture of humanity. I am a big activist on many levels for many causes. I have had a lot of frustration and irritation and almost contempt in some respects for people who need to have simple little answers to big huge complex problems.
This model really helped me to start washing those frustrations away. Things don’t bother me as much anymore because I can read, accept and respect another’s mindset—change my language to match—and thus create more effective dialogue with people.
I feel like being a leader now has a much bigger and more profound meaning. It resonates with me because I have always been one. In our company we—as a team—have made huge progress changing entire industries. You can actually quantify how much less toxic crap is out there now in some big industries because of work that we did and against huge odds.
You know the David and Goliath type of stories! There is competition with humongous global corporations. I feel like now we have settled into a team that is really great and we are doing great things. But even then I feel like I want to make a bigger difference in the world than just within the confines of this company.
I do feel like building more leadership in the world is very important. Even having more Greens in the business world could certainly help. But there are just so many bigger and broader things that opened my mind. I do think that I am a lot more in tune with how I can better develop individuals at a personal level. Before I was more focused on developing them in terms of just how they were at work. Now I see them a little more holistically regarding how can what they do at work resonate with their life’s purpose and how can I help them get to where they want to go in their life.
And I think without knowing it over the course of the last several years, I think now I can say that I was changing the team intuitively by hiring people who had more green tendencies. I still have oranges and reds and blues throughout the organization—which is good. But I have grown their little Green slice of pie on the pie chart just a little bit. I can use a little Green language and there is some sort of common vernacular that we all can gravitate toward. The way we’ve got our purpose statements resonates with all of the people here. It doesn’t sound like a cliché or not important. It’s probably really different from most company’s vision and mission statements. We don’t even call it our vision and mission anymore; we just call it our “why”.
Why are we here?
To teach how to better care for People, Structures and Resources so that we can all help to make a better life and a better world for a very. very long time…
Additionally we have posters all over the company that reflect what is important to us relative to achieving our goals. Here they are:
- We need to learn why things are the way they are and who benefits from it…
- We need to relate the abstract into compelling and relevant terms for the individual…
- We need to recognize good deeds, good work and good ideas…
- We need to have courage—to believe—to act—to change the way things are…
- We need to take ownership of our thoughts, beliefs, words and actions…
- We need to constantly improve feedback loops…
Russ: Impressive. These are not the phrases you usually find in company purpose statements.
You indicated that you could actually generate some figure from the amount of chemicals that are nonpolluting that you’ve been able to displace the old chemicals. Did I get that correct?
Laura: Yes. Here is a sample: We worked for years to move the aerospace industry away from using materials containing hexavalent chromium when painting aircraft. Since the adoption of our green replacement, PreKote, there is so far, roughly 3,000,000 less pounds of materials containing this very toxic material in the workplace and the environment. This number is growing exponentially as the adoption of PreKote is spreading globally. This is significant because hexavalent chromium (aka “the Erin Brokovich” chemical) threatens the health and safety of anyone who is exposed to it.
Russ: Do you make your financial statements available to employees on a frequent basis?
Laura: Yes. The only aspect of the financial statements that isn’t open is the breakdown of payroll—although the general payroll number is reported. All of our income statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements are open. Everybody in the company sees them whenever they want and there are weekly reports that are generated..
Russ: You have already referred to the use of the values systems or “mindsets” you learned about in the ILP. Are there others practices that had a significant impact and have resulted in something changing in your company?
Laura: I have been teaching many practices to my team as I have learned them. One thing is the concept of becoming a “creator”. I like the way ILP framed the idea of “self authoring your narrative”. I had spent years with my team talking about the critical need to not let internal conversations automatically generate themselves. In other words, I stressed intentional thinking. In 2004 my drive to develop myself in this area was sparked when I started to explore consciousness, and how human emotions physiologically affected the brain. Personally, I realized that my brain could automatically generate a lot of drama when left to its own devices. As I worked to rewire myself, I practiced having intentional thoughts and paid close attention to my emotional state. Over the years, this vernacular became part of the culture of the company. We always joke about how our IQ’s drop when we are “triggered”. After going through ILP, the “Drama Triangle” model became the new vernacular and it helped the team to develop even further toward “creating” their realities. [“Drama Triangle” refers to Stephen Karpman’s model and “Creator” is one aspect of David Emerald’s “Empowerment Dynamic” model—Ed.]
The “Drama Triangle” also became a great tool for new people who came onboard. It was a simpler model than the one I had been using – which was really just a whole lot of different pieces from different books, lectures, etc..
Another integral leadership practice that became very useful was “Gamefilming.” [Stagen has developed a methodology called Gamefilming that incorporates action learning, reflection, contemplation, and meditative practices into a corporate “achiever” friendly suite of practices. These Gamefilming techniques have Kegan’s “subject-object move” built into the design. The result is a method that increase the possibility and velocity of vertical development—Ed.] After introducing Gamefilming to my team, I started a blog inside the company that was inspired by the ILP “e-Journal”. I asked the team to post a personal and professional “gamefilming” experience on the blog. It became a real learning experience for everyone and still continues today. The name of the blog is “Key Learnings”. It is just for the senior management team right now, but it will expand this year to others.
Stagen’s “Attention Management” practice was also very enlightening to me and the team. I personally needed the most work on this. I am very easily distracted and definitely I’m a multitasking addict. It was very good for me to be able to have this perception that multitasking was killing me. Multitasking was something that I had been taught was good. Now I work on one thing at a time. The discipline of managing my attention was and still is very hard for me to get into the rhythm doing consistently. But I practiced religiously thanks to ILP.
If you were going to take a poll of what my team says has changed in me the most the past nine months, as a result of going through ILP, you would find very few people that wouldn’t comment about how much more effective they think I am.
Russ: Could you offer some examples?
Laura: Well, one person walked into my office recently and said, “I can’t tell you how much of a positive change I have seen.” Another person just told me that “I was far calmer” and that I seemed to have more “equanimity”.
Russ: Do you feel that personally?
Laura: Oh yes! I do believe that the Integral Leadership Program work has helped me rise above the fray. I felt like I was the mean green meme as it related to the larger state of the world. Now I don’t feel so mean anymore. I have a calmer view of the state of the world and that has a positive effect on my daily energy.
Russ: You mentioned that a few years ago you were pregnant. Do you have a family?
Laura: I have three children. They are amazing and are the love of my life. My oldest son Palmer is a senior in college. He is 22 and is a straight-A student. He is as Green and passionate about changing the world as I am. He wants to go to law school then go into public service. That’s unusual these days.
He is a complete policy wonk and a strong believer that there just aren’t enough rock stars in public service. We need more and he is a rock star! I know I am biased, but if you met him you would think he was, too.
My daughter Emma is 12 and she is a ballerina, a beautiful ballerina. She is really smart and as Green and empathetic as could be. She cares about the world issues. She is an old soul.
My son JJ, who I was pregnant with during most of the investor pitches, is 10. He is also in the arts. He is heavy into music, dancing and performing. And he is a little math and science genius.
I’m very open with my kids about my lessons learned. I want them to be great leaders in whatever they do. Relative to self development, I want them to be where I am now when they are in their twenties.
Russ: How has learning the practice of integral leadership impacted your inner life.
Laura: My inner life is where these practices have had the most impact. Now, a calmness has settled into me. I have a framework to put all the things that previously would stress me out about the state of humanity. And some clear lifelong goals and a vision for what I can do to make a difference. The program and its approach have been profound for me.
Russ: Fantastic! You have just a couple of months left in the program right?
Russ: Have you thought about how you are going to support and sustain your learning after the program is over?
Laura: Well just a couple things: One, I certainly will stay engaged in the Stagen community and utilize the resources available to me. I also think I have a new view of capitalism. Long before Stagen I felt like one of the disconnects in society was the demonization of the for-profit model. I am not saying that some large corporations don’t deserve the demonizing, but in general the for-profit model is one of the most sustainable models in terms of effecting change.
I will admit I was somebody who used to hate corporate America and if there were t-shirt that said “Kill Corporate America,” I probably would have worn it. But after becoming an entrepreneur, I have a newfound respect for the profit model. I feel like you can really effect some major changes, solve world problems and make money while you are doing it. You can sustain innovation and continue to effect more change. I feel like getting involved in the Coonscious Capitalism group will be good. I learned about that in Stagen.
Russ: Laura, thanks for your sharing. My sense is that you have much to share with the world. I hope this interview demonstrates a bit of that.
Laura: Thanks, Russ. I have enjoyed it very much. I hope that others might find something of value in what I have shared.