By Bryan Wish
Dan Pontefract is a leadership strategist, author, keynote speaker and trusted advisor. He is a best-selling author whose award-winning books include LEAD. CARE. WIN.: How To Become a Leader Who Matters, OPEN TO THINK, THE PURPOSE EFFECT, and FLAT ARMY. As a speaker, Dan has presented at four different TED events and also writes for Forbes & Harvard Business Review. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, Gustavson School of Business, on the Thinkers50 Radar, and garnered more than 20 industry awards over his career.
He is also the founder of the Pontefract Group, helping organizations & leaders reach their full potential. Through his company, Dan provides clients consultative services that assess and recommend how to become more collaborative, productive, engaged and purpose-driven. All of Dan’s work is nested under the concept of agency. He believes the age of agency is upon us, be it employee, team, organization or community. From Dan’s point of view, agency will become the glue that binds our book of worth.
Bryan Wish: Dan, welcome to the One Away Show.
Dan Pontefract: Hey, Bryan. It’s an honor, to be honest, having seen some of the guests you’ve had before. This is great, looking forward to getting into my One wish.
Bryan Wish: Your One Away moment, could be a wish for others by the time they’re done. For those that don’t know, Dan told me prior that he had a keynote after this, and I told him that this would be a great warmup for him. So if his performance skyrockets, Dan, you’ll have to tell me. All right. Dan, as you said, it’s an honor to have you here too, I’ve followed your work for a number of years, so thank you for what you do, helping people lead and employees and all the bright things.
But I want to dive on something personal and professional as well and a moment in your life that changed the trajectory and your path for the better, so what is the One Away moment you want to share with us today?
Dan Pontefract: Well, I’m, I guess if anything, a bit different, so I’m going to explain one that turned into the One, because I can’t un-separate them. So I’m Canadian, it’s two-for-one, with the exchange with America, it’s basically two American dollars for a Canadian one. So when I was going to university or thinking I was going to university, I wanted to be a doctor. Then I had pretty good marks, so it made me get into that notion really, “Oh, what can you do with these good marks?” So I went to McGill University in Montreal, but as I’m leading into the summer of, good god, 1990, I realize that I didn’t really like the look or taste of blood, and so I wasn’t a vampire, that’s the good news, and the second is I wanted to do something with my life.
I figured out really quickly that maybe it wasn’t getting people back to their 100% level, but something more than 100%. So I went into the guidance counselor’s office at McGill University before I started, I said, “Hey, I don’t really want to do this, what else do you have?” She looks at me like I am actually crazy and says, “No, you’re supposed to be doing this.” No, I’m not doing it. So we went through a list of things, she was like, “How about engineering?” No, my dad’s an engineering, that’s not going to work. Then I looked at her and said, “Hey, what about education?” She says, “You can’t do education, you’re too smart for that.”
Right away, Bryan, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to show you.” So I did, I switched into a BA, B.Ed. Bachelor of education, to become a high school teacher. Did that for four years, taught a whole bunch of times, because it was concurrent, meaning you got to teach as a 19 year old, a 20 year old, whatever, and then I graduated and I got a job. So this is where it segues into the real One, and that is the guidance counselor, although I didn’t want to be an engineer, she was probably right, but I still proved to her that I’m an educator. So here’s the deal, I’m teaching high school, it’s my first gig and it’s October the 12th. In Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving six weeks earlier than my American friends.
So it’s the Tuesday after Canadian Thanksgiving and I’m in the staff room and one of the teachers in the staff room before the beginning of school says, “Well, that’s Thanksgiving over with, we’ve got another holiday on November 11th, Remembrance Day, then it’s the Christmas break, then we’ve got St. Patty’s day,” because we get that off apparently, “then there’s March break, then there’s Easter, then it’s the May Two-Four week, a long weekend in Canada called Victoria Day weekend, and then it’s holiday, it’s summer. The year’s over, everyone.”
So here I am, basically a 24 year old punk whom was wondering what the hell have I done? Subsequent to that, I lasted teaching two years in a high school and decided that I needed to be really helping people that wanted to also help themselves. It wasn’t with the kids, the kids were fine, but I just couldn’t do that lethargy in terms of the culture. I got out and I’ve worked my way into this career where I’ve helped adults and organizations essentially with leadership, culture, purpose and all that. So had I not sat in that guidance officer’s office and said, “I don’t want to be a doctor,” and then had the epiphany with the teacher or teachers in that staff room that day about, they were just paycheck collecting and here they were as educators, I guess ultimately I wouldn’t have been where I am today without those two moments, which coalesce into one.
Bryan Wish: Wow. Really appreciate you sharing and some hard decisions clearly you had to make at a young age, that can’t please everyone at home or at the counseling office. You said your father was an engineering, what was your mother?
Dan Pontefract: An artist.
Bryan Wish: So my question is, what made you maybe early, before you did even education, what gave you the inclination that maybe doing the medical field? Was that maybe internal at home?
Dan Pontefract: I love this, you’re intuitive. I’ve seen some of these shows before, it’s like part psychology, part epiphany. No, it’s a great question, because when I was a teenager, between I guess the ages of 12 to 18, for a Canadian, given the sport wasn’t really that popular per se, I was pretty good at soccer. English parents and thus I had a pretty good soccer career. I’m talking about playing for provincial teams, trying out for national teams, not a bad soccer player.
Anyway, I got ridiculously injured one session and I had to, as a 16 year old, go under the knife, and back in ’87 or ’86, whenever that was, orthoscopic surgery wasn’t really a thing. It’s like the internet wasn’t involved, you’re like, “What? The internet wasn’t?” No, so no internet, no orthoscopic surgery, and so they had to put me in a body cast for three months and then what they called a hinge cast for another three months to repair my knee. A hinge cast actually is just, it swivels about an eighth of an inch, it’s not a lot of mobility.
So anyway, once the casts came off, my left leg was about the eighth of a size of my right leg, I was sick to my stomach literally when the cast came off, because my leg had atrophied to the point where it was just a bone. You’re like, “Okay, that’s gross.” But then I had to go to physio for the next eight months, and so between the doctor’s visits, the physio and learning about the whole medical profession before Grey’s Anatomy told us what it’s all about, that’s where I got this inclination that that’s how I wanted to help people. So it was an injury.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, wow. That sounds disturbing, the cast moment, maybe that was the One Away moment we should know.
Dan Pontefract: Maybe, yeah. We’re at seven Away moments.
Bryan Wish: No, this is fun. It’s so interesting how those experiences can set you down like, “Wow, I want to learn more, help others through this.” Dove in, maybe saw all the chemistry and biology classes that you were going to take and said, “I can’t do it.” But no, I appreciate the backstory, obviously tough injury, but clearly helped you get to something of more purpose, to help others with purpose. So very cool. Then my question for you, you had these two moments and we’ll dive into maybe the work itself that you’re doing, but you had these two moments in engineering and teaching where you just knew it wasn’t right, it sounds like, is that fair?
Dan Pontefract: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Like nails on a chalkboard to add a pun to this whole thing.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. Describe that for us, was that an internal feeling? Because it seems like a lot of the work you do, that you’re helping people with alignment and purpose, but for you, how did you know to stop and not keep going, even though maybe that was a path you could follow? What did that feel like?
Dan Pontefract: Yeah. I suppose I wasn’t the principle and it wasn’t about being the leader or the boss or the CEO, but I could only affect, and again, in a school there’s two audiences, right, Bryan? There’s the kids obviously and their parents by extension, but then there’s the staff. It was the staff that was concerning me, and there were lots of good people, there were great coaches, great teachers, but the general mood was apathetic. I couldn’t really get past that in my head, I don’t want to be one of them, I’m not collecting a paycheck, I’m not here for a pension. I’m here to “change the world,” or at least these kids, and how come everyone’s not like me?
So it was a bit egotistical and naïve as a 24 year old I suppose, but at the same time I had conviction and I had an incredible time in the classroom. I would argue the kids liked me, we had great times teaching English, phys ed, math, I built a school newspaper for God’s sakes, just out of thin air with these kids. I had fun, but it kept gnawing at me about this apathy and about how it wasn’t clicking for me, in terms of me looking at whatever, 30, 40-year career and saying, “Am I going to look back and say, ‘Why did you do that?’” So I wasn’t having any of that, and then the second part was I found out that I wanted to change the way people think about their work.
So twistedly I suppose, here I was thinking I was getting into a world where I was going to teach kids and the aha moment perhaps was the fact that, “Well, if I can teach kids, but I also want to, I think, ‘help adults’ and maybe I can help them with the way in which they view the world.” So again, had I not taken the gig at this high school, I don’t think I would have been able to connect the dots of who I am, I think I’m an educator, be who I want to be, a helper, a giver, an educator of others to help them think differently or perhaps behave differently, and then I realized the environment. I needed to be in a place in which I’m not just affecting 20, 25 kids in a class four times a day, but that I have an opportunity maybe to help that in many other ways. So as I’m playing this back to you now, 25-odd years ago, I think that’s what’s happened.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. So neat, right? You realized maybe your impact potential was a bit squashed, because it was being shared with people who couldn’t carry that forward, who didn’t see the world in the same way. I was talking about, we built our brand on the idea of belonging and helping people find a path, and I was talking about this with someone the other day and they said to me something, they were talking about my story and some things I’m working through right now and they said, “You’re just showing up in the wrong show most of your life.”
So as you’re talking to me, that hit, as you’re talking to me. It’s like you maybe all along knew your impact could be seized in a deeper way with the right people, it was just you hadn’t found the tribe yet of people to further that impact, until you did. So let’s go there. Teaching sounds like a good experience, but you realized there was a threshold that just couldn’t go further, and how did you, what led you to the work that you do today, which is very meaningful?
Dan Pontefract: Thank you. I guess this proclivity that I’ve always had as well for technology, as an 11 year old, my dad came home with one of the “first computers,” a Texan Instruments computer of which you could only make anything work by inputting it with binary code. It would take you, as a kid, seven, eight, nine hours to punch in ones and zeros to build a sprite game that was like Pong. So I was addicted, if you will, to the technology side, but also to that humanistic, compassionate people thing. So I was like, “Well, what can I do to blend these two things?”
Eventually, after I’d given notice at the high school and my wife and I, Denise, decided to move from Vancouver, which we had just moved to for two years, we moved to Ottawa to take this one-year all-you-can-eat high-tech program in now 1997. My theory was, “If I learn a whole bunch of technology skills, look at this whole internet thing coming, I’ve got a proclivity for technology, maybe I can turn that into an education-plus-technology career.” So it’s a one-year program, I’m six months in and I’m thinking, “This is great, I love this.” I’m doing things like the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certifications, I’m like, “This is fantastic.” Windows 95 had happened and Steve Ballmer is dancing to Start Me Up by the Stones on stage, he’s going crazy. It’s like, “Okay, I can do this.”
So Denise and I also pined deeply again to move back to Vancouver, because we hated snow and cold in Ottawa, so I pitched, literally, Bryan, I pitched, now as a 27 year old, I pitched the dean of computing at the British Columbia Institute of Technology this idea that we should, we, I already Freudianly and pseudo asking, “Hey, you should hire me,” but we should be building out these high tech leadership programs for career changers. The idea would be that whether it was networking or business development or tech support or programming, whatever, that I think people who have a diploma or a degree of some sort right now they’re looking to change their lives, because they too see what’s happening in the world. Again, don’t forget now we’re circa ’97, ’98.
The dean and the associate dean, Ken and Lorna, I put together a video, a VHS videotape of me pitching them. I sent it to them, I said, “Hey, let’s talk. Let’s build out a new program.” They said yes. So here I am, this punk in the summer of ’98, now tasked with building out the first flagship program to start the following year, and then subsequent programs on, again, the blend of culture, humanistic leadership, business skills with technology. Again, I owe a lot to the endearing compassion and trust and courage of the dean and the associate dean to say, “Yeah, Dan, come on board. Have at her,” if you will.
Bryan Wish: Yeah.
Dan Pontefract: Bryan, I had just under a six-year experience of honing my own leadership skills, how to build a business frankly, it was all what’s called cost recovery, so there’s no government involvement, so you had to charge tuition. Tuition ranged from like $5-grand to $25-grand. So you had to sell, you had to learn about how to build these cohorts of teams, they were running simulated businesses inside the program. It was magic, and I had such a license to learn. If anything, I can impart in this podcast to leaders is to do that with your teams, give them licenses to learn and you will be rewarded.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. That experience was incredibly formative, because it was the testing ground for you to do it under another brand, so to speak, the risk was a bit mitigated, but you got to really be the entrepreneur that perhaps was a catalyst for what was to come and learn a lot of the school of hard knocks under their [tutelagion 00:18:52], probably have a deep, deep impact in feeling that. I guess this is a deeper question, so feel free to answer or not answer it, but you described yourself as a punk trying to bring these ideas to the table, and you also said, “They were lucky enough to have me come to them with these ideas.” But I bet they looked at you and said, “Who is this guy? How does he develop and think about this to make an impact on our organization?” I’m curious for you then, did you see the value or the worth in yourself that you were bringing to the organization that you were able to impart such a big impact on?
Dan Pontefract: No. I have still to this day, I turn 50 this year, I still don’t understand that question, to be honest. I’ve never looked at the journey I’ve been on as one in which that I need to somehow be told, “You’re awesome or this is fantastic,” or the accolade is the goal. So for the dean and the associate dean to, A, accept my idea, B, allow me the latitude and grace to fail and mess things up, and I did, to then with full on Niagara Fall tears in my eyes in their office saying, “I think it’s time for me to move on,” about five years later, because I also knew that I needed to move on to develop my journey continuously. I thought I’d tapped out and it was time for someone else to do something with this program, this whole whatever, and I also thought I needed to learn more about “the real world” outside of academia.
That was one of the toughest moments, to be honest. Again, to answer the question specifically, I went tangential there, no, but it’s not something I sought out. But in hindsight, I do remember that meeting about me leaving and the tears came because I suppose, not suppose, I know that in that discussion I felt so loved. They really appreciated what I was doing and what I had done.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, yeah. No, appreciate you taking us to that waterfall moment and maybe seeing that appreciation for you and the work you had done. Of course, not in a cocky way like you needed the validation or “I’m awesome” type of thing, but in a way of just, I think it’s so hard for maybe higher achievers, this is something I’m starting to uncover, to realize what’s pushing them are things of the past in a way, they never take the time to slow down and understand that, and then also realize their value through it.
So that’s why I asked the question, not from the perspective of, “Did you realize how epic you were?” All of that, but just that internal sense of value. So yeah, no, I’m glad you could share. We can move on, unless you wanted to say anything to that.
Dan Pontefract: No, I think you’re spot on. The joy I got was being given the keys to do something pretty creative and pretty cool for adults, and building up this small little enterprise that became, I don’t know, it was two or three million a year, and I’m still a punk really, at the time. They were so gracious and unrelentingly supportive of allowing me to do all these crazy things that tested out the absolute abstracts of how education and leadership and culture could manifest. Yeah.
Bryan Wish: Well, thank you for sharing such a meaningful time in your life in a formative part of your career. So you have this moment, you realize there’s a world outside of education, there’s a life outside for you to grow, develop, build your own practice and things that followed, what were your next steps? How did you go about taking everything you knew from a beautiful five-year journey to saying, how did you step outside the world? I’m sure it was a pretty scary decision.
Dan Pontefract: Yeah. So now we’re circa 2002-ish, and for the previous year, because I had built up the programs at the Institute of Technology to have apprenticeships and work terms and job shadowing, so I’m plugged into a lot of organizations, mostly Western Canada into Washington State area as well, because it’s the Northwest I’m based, people started phoning and saying, “Hey, would you like to come work for us? Here’s what you could do.” So that’s an adrenaline boost of course, you’re not applying to anything, but people are phoning you. I’m like 31 years old, so that was tempting, but I had to sort through first and foremost why am I interested in these phone calls?
I was interested in the phone calls for the opportunity to again learn, to build up the network, to grow something and to get into, as I say, “the real world.” Again, it’s not that academia isn’t, but you’re kind of protected. So I finally accepted one of these opportunities, because we had talked it through several times, and it was an organization that, to be quite honest, eventually became SAP. So the company’s name at the time was Crystal Decisions, and Crystal Decisions was the maker of business intelligence software, things like Crystal Reports and so on. They had about 2000 people across the globe of which about half of them were in their main headquarters in Vancouver.
I thought, “All right, here’s an organization that actually wants to help its people with education.” So they wanted to set up essentially a corporate university, and they thought I might be the jolly old man for it. I thought, “Okay, well, this is cool. Thank you. Another set of keys, different car.” And off we went. Within a month, I’m not only doing the internal stuff, they asked me to do the external education services for profit stuff. So now, the cars on the track and it is revving. It’s fire hose time, I am learning acronyms like EBITDA that I have never even heard of before, I didn’t know what quarterly earnings meant, it’s full on, “Oh, okay. So this is actually what happens.”
Then about a year into my tenure, a French company acquires Crystal Decisions, called Business Objects, and Business Objects, a rival company, basically merges with Crystal and then I assume a larger role in this corporate university, helping now about 7000 people. We’re growing like crazy, it grows about 10,000 people, I have built now what’s called UBI, the University of Business Intelligence, the team is 120 around the world in 10 countries, and that’s just helping again our team members inside the org, as well as customers. It’s fantastic, it’s like, “Hey, what are we going to do now? How do we build this great culture? How do we build out? How do customers love what we’re doing? How do we help consultants deliver?”
It was just like, you name it, Bryan, we were doing it. We were doing crazy stuff too, this is again circa 2002 through to 2007. Then I became the site lead of the Vancouver office, there’s 1600 people there, so I’m now leading a site as well as this global team. I’m having a blast, it’s a family, if we were even to record our employee engagement on a score of 100, it’s probably 112. It’s just ridiculous. Then SAP announced the purchase of Business Objects in the fall of 2007, and for about a year I tried my best to help SAP see that, yes, they had bought the technology and a whole bunch of smart people, but that they had actually bought a culture that they probably should put at the top of the list in terms of integrating into their culture, not the other way around.
Big SAP acquiring a 10,000-person company and saying, “This is our culture, get in line.” Bryan, I failed on that one. My small little team of 120, I was told would be broken up into four and parsed out throughout the company, and I had a choice. I had the choice of, “Well, am I actually going to make a difference here? Do they care about me, maybe even “my talents” and what I do think bring to the table? Or do I accept that package they put in front of me and say, ‘Yeah, maybe there’s someone else out there?’” I chose door two, Bryan, I took great liberty in making sure that everyone’s job was saved, that they were all in a part of the organization, whether they liked it or not, that they could then make their own decisions.
Then at some point, in the end of June 2008, I had to have that conversation with the team. I said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m leaving the organization.” Just like I did six, seven years prior at BCIT, the waterfall of tears came out because here I was thinking I was letting down this team, I was leaving something, but I knew again, Bryan, in the end it was the right thing to do. I had to move on. I had to go do something different, because the journey continues.
Bryan Wish: Sure. I was really thinking about just how much pride you showed when you were talking about the 100-plus person team that you built, along this journey, all this responsibility and the culture. When you think of an acquisition, you’re not always thinking about what culture are you buying? That’s invaluable, yet, the company acquiring you wanted to shatter the bubble, beautiful, let’s just say, world that you were able to create. So before we talk about how you moved on to the next door, tell us, tell me what, how did you go about building such a sticky culture that cared and valued its people? What were some of the things that you remember from that period doing specifically that made people feel valued, heard, understood, connected? What would you say to that?
Dan Pontefract: I suppose in retrospect, one of my deepest elements of pride these days are on LinkedIn or social channels and someone invariably, once a quarter, couple times a quarter maybe, from the former team of UBI pops in on some comment and says, “Best team ever. So glad that you were my leader. Remember when we did this?” I would say, Bryan, that A, get out of the way. You’ve heard innumerable times hire people smarter than you, well, do that, but get out of the damn way. I think there’s far too many examples of leaders that want to be in the way, and that’s just not my style.
So direction of course, clarity of purpose, yes, systemic support whenever necessary, absolutely necessary. People say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have a family at work. Don’t treat it like a family.” Really? Okay, sure, maybe the family word is a little too strong, but could we at least consider the humanity of where and why we’re all doing this thing called work? Whether you are a team member in Bangalore, in India, what are you doing to make sure you understand the culture that’s different for them? The means in which that they have to get to work? How they travel to get to work, in what conditions? Then empathize and find ways in which to reach, to support, to understand and so on.
So to me, it’s always about that. It’s always about what are the humanity and humanistic characteristics and attributes that should inculcate an entire culture? If your team is seven or your organization is 7000, what are you doing as a leader to build that? So again, back to me, which is very un-Canadian and very selfish, this was another six or seven-year chapter of me understanding more about the human condition, what makes people tick, how the real world works, but how you can “work in the real world” and still be a human being and still be compassionate and empathetic and nurture and love. There’s nothing wrong with the word love, it can just be platonic.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, absolutely. No, I feel like you really thought about the actions and decisions you made, how they had impact on others, how you let them drive decisions and empowered them. I want to get to how that has enabled your work today, but before we get there, what drives you? What makes you tick?
Dan Pontefract: Oh, gosh. There’s a few things, one is curiosity. I am looking under any rock I find proverbially and figuratively, what’s under there? It just fascinates me the people who remain in the lane, in the swim lane and don’t look under the rope and say, “Hey, who are you? Oh, that’s a butterfly stroke? Didn’t know. I’ve just been doing breaststroke all my life, tell me about the butterfly.” So I have a pension, a thirst and this just absolute curiosity factor that I want to know what’s underneath the hood, I want to know what’s underneath your hood, I want to get to know you.
Anyway, so curiosity is just number one, which I guess you could also argue this, I have a learning mindset. To my three kids and Denise’s detriment, I’m always curious and asking and learning and trying to get us to do things as a family different and whatever. So it’s not just work, it’s life, it’s just Dan. What you see is what you get. I’m like Wizzy Wiggy. So number one, that, but the other one is I’m terribly empathetic. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but I just don’t like to see pain, whether it’s cognitive, emotional or sympathetic empathy, I look out for others I suppose.
So whether it’s little texts or emails, every time this year, whether it’s whatever holiday that you celebrate. For the past month or six weeks, I’ve been sending out cards to people and to say, “Hey, I haven’t chatted with you in a while.” I don’t do it every year, I haphazardly send out cards to people and say, “Thinking of you.” So I guess empathy, huge for me. So curiosity, empathy makes me tick.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. No, I love that. Cards these days, .004% of the people actually do them, so when you do them, it sticks. It’s good. Talking about at home, your behaviors at work will show up other places. I’m sure it makes a stimulating family environment, keeping your eye, education at the forefront, it sounds like you’re always learning. So really neat, just your internal, how that shows up externally in your life. So Dan, I would love for you to share, how did you start the business that … Let me back up. You had some incredible experiences, you had an education experience, then you were in charge of leading a big team and growing a big team and seeing culture first and foremost, what ultimately led you to starting your business to maybe impart some of these lessons and learnings on organizations and people?
Dan Pontefract: Probably, Bryan, it was actually always in me, however it wasn’t until 2008, in December 2008 when I joined Telus, which is, for those that aren’t away, like AT&T of Canada, big telecom, it’s about $15.5-billion dollars of revenue these days, so I joined as its chief learning officer. In that role, I joined, because there was an opportunity to help fix a culture that was not so hot, indicative of its employee engagement score, if people believe in that, the annual or twice-a-year score of asking people do they like where they work basically. The engagement score was 50%, so half the people were kind of there and half the people were not.
But I accepted that on, again, going through the process of having left SAP and now people phoning and saying, “Hey, do you want to come work for us?” Because I was a free agent, this was an opportunity. I was like, “Oh, I’ve never been in telecom, culture change, let’s do this. Sounds like fun.” So to speed up the story, I stayed in that role for about five years, and we got the culture to a really cool place. We introduced flexible work styles 10 years before the pandemic, where we had 70% of the organization working mobile or from home, engagement got to 87% from 50%, and you name it, we probably did it. We did virtual worlds, we did hybrid events, we instituted an enterprise-wide leadership model for all, not just for leaders.
Bryan Wish: Wow.
Dan Pontefract: A pervasive learning model, where learning was not just a training event, that it was equal parts formal, informal and social. Again, ’08, ’09, 2010. So we were using microblogging, we had executives microblogging inside our organization. We got them to do open mic lunch-and-learns where there was no pre-formulated questions, it was just open up, share. So again, I had a CEO and as COO and as CHRO that were all behind me, and basically said, “Hey, have at her.” Okay, I’ve heard this before, this is great. I’m now three for three in opportunities basically where senior leaders have said, “Go for it.”
So long way of saying, did that for six years and then I was like, “Okay, well, I really like this organization, but I think I’m done.” So I was thinking about eventually an exit to build out a business, and so I pitched our COO, I said, “Hey, what if we did this, what if we took all the learnings of how we do culture change, how we do employee engagement, all that stuff, and what if we were to sell it and/or give it away to our clients?” They did look a little crazy at me when I first proposed the idea, but eventually they came around. They’re like, “That’s a great idea, let’s go do that, Dan.”
So I gave, I launched, I gave birth to something called TTO, Telus Transformation Office, in 2014. So I handpicked a few team members, members of the troubadour, that we would go out and literally help our sales execs get into accounts by helping that organization see that they had some culture issues, but we’re here to help. Did that for four years, until the summer of 2018 in which, demarcation point again, right? It’s like, “Okay, well, time to learn again.” So the Pontefract Group, which it’s a pun, it’s irony because it’s just me, but I like it, it’s fun, the Pontefract Group was born on January 1st, 2019.
Don’t forget though, during the Telus tenure, here’s a point in which I’ve now written three books and published them, I’ve delivered four TED Talks, HBR asked me to write, Forbes asked me write, I’m doing 30 keynotes a year, so there’s a little bit of an external brand thing that’s also happening within Telus, which I don’t see a lot of it, I don’t see a lot of folks that are able to do both. Tiffani is pretty good at Salesforce, there’s a few others, but nonetheless, anyway. So it was like, “Okay, time to go on your own.” I did, but then the first client to win my business I suppose was Telus. They right away said, “Hey, can we get you on a retainer to help things around here?” There you are, I’m coming towards the end of my third year and still Pontefract Group is a company of one, love what I’m doing.
Bryan Wish: That’s amazing. Wow. There’s a very consistent thread line throughout I think this whole episode, two things, one, the fact that, like you said, you always had it in you. You were building companies at every place that you went, or new ideas within. I’m sure that thinking with the clients that you get to work with, I’m sure that comes through in your work there. So I just find that fascinating, every place you’ve been, you’ve succeeded. I know it’s been harder and I’m sure there’s some hard challenges along the way that we’ve skipped over, but you found some good success.
Then the second thing too is these platforms, these companies you worked with in a sense were platforms to build the relationships and the skillsets and the tool belt to transfer into a team of one, maybe the team of 10 in a few years, that you have today. So I just think it’s really interesting, your journey and your path. So for those, not for those, but for you, you’ve had a couple years and probably the pandemic, which has been a nice time to get some stuff off the ground, but what’s your journey been like the last couple years? Where are you in the business? Who are you working with? What you can share and take us down the memory lane of the last couple years.
Dan Pontefract: Yeah. This is a bit of a psychology experiment, being on a couch, a bit Freudian here, but looking back at 25 years and then, now the last three. So we, I go live January 1st, 2019, as I mentioned Telus was my first anchor client on a retainer, but then again, now I’m untethered from obviously an executive role. I had the previous 10 years of engagements, whether they were keynotes, whether they were books, whether they’re articles, whether people are hacking away on a comment on LinkedIn, it was just I was, I am networked. So 2019, it became, “Oh, so you’re not working at Telus full-time, can you do this? Could you do this?”
So I was like, “Okay.” I have no plan, I just knew that I was going out there and then whether …. I often, Bryan, talk about the Pontefract Group, again, irony aside, it is a pie graph and so the pie graph is basically me. So what do I like? What do I enjoy? Well, that’s the line of businesses. So you don’t make much writing, but there’s a good portion of pie graph, if you will, a slice of the pie is writing. I really enjoy the process of researching, of interviewing people, of collecting ideas and then piecing it together. So there’s time there on the writing side.
But then where the actual or more substantive revenue comes from breaks down essentially into four other pie slices. So there’s what I’ll call keynotes, and that’s a 20-minute to 90-minute virtual or face-to-face engagement obviously, and it’s more often than not a one-and-done, I’ll just say. Now, sometimes those keynotes might turn into something else, which is pie graph slice number three as we’re going up the list here, and that is I’ll just call them series. So a series could be multiple keynote engagements or indeed workshops. So again, that’s a chance for me to be the educator I started 25 years ago, and so that might be a six-part series, it might be a three-part series, whatever it is. I get to work with people or an organization or a team specifically over a period of time.
That’s fun, because again, you’re getting more rapport, you’re building out the relationships, you’re getting the nuances, et cetera, so that’s pretty cool. Then pie graph four and five, the last slices here, so number four of five I will say is consulting. So I’ll do things like culture assessments, flexible work assessments, I’ll go into organizations and say, “Hey, what do you need?” I’ll work with the board, I’ve done org design, org charts, leadership models. So all of my previous experience from the big three companies or organizations I worked with come to fruition. It’s like I’m a hired gun to help with something, and I love it because again, it plugs me into a team or an organization or both.
Then the fifth one is just, I would call it one-on-one. So that could be guidance, sherpa stuff, help them up the mountain. I don’t really call it coaching, but it is kind of like just, “Hey, I’m your consigliere, if you’re a Tony Soprano fan.” I’m on the sidelines, not in the front lens there. That’s my pie graph and it’s been a blast, and so quickly, 2019, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but still did pretty good revenue wise. 2020 had a whole bunch of things lined up, sure, deer-in-headlights happened when the pandemic hit, but then all of a sudden people woke up and said, “Oh, we need leadership and flexible work and hybrid work more than ever. Dan, are you there?” I was. Then 2021 has been very much of the same as 2020, with way less travel.
Bryan Wish: Totally, yeah. No, super interesting journey, how you broke out your products, how you productized your knowledge and your work, and I love the sherpa example because it’s probably within those learnings of your past that the seeds are spread across the other products in a way. The more you guide up others the mountain, the more valuable. So super neat. Now, this pie chart, I think it’s more fun to think about it in terms of the pizza, because it tastes good. If you could, what piece of the pie do you find the most fulfillment or gratitude from?
Dan Pontefract: Well, again, that’s tough, because together the pie is [crosstalk 00:50:29] the ingredients, right? Again, I think this is a bit of a lesson for others, I’m not saying I’m right or being pretentious here, but I think having different personas is important. There is executive Dan whom is the consultant who goes in and is very strategic and clear, and there’s a process, but then there’s fun and happy, engaging on the stage Dan who has almost an alter ego. As we say in England, takes the piss out of the audience sometimes about the realities and the banalities of what goes on in the organization.
I have a hell of a lot of fun with that character, maybe it’s a bit like the Colbert Report where you’re at times playing a character for an audience. So it’s really hard to answer, because different personas require different Dans and that’s okay with me.
Bryan Wish: I’m not saying to pick a favorite child, okay?
Dan Pontefract: Good, because I have three.
Bryan Wish: All right, so we spent a lot of time on the past, so thanks for your Freudian openness as you maybe coined, or yeah. Let’s go into the future, because I think a lot of the fun is in the future and in the building, is dictated by the past. So for as many years as you can go out, it might be five, it might be 10, it could be 30, where is future Dan? What does life look like in there as your life that you care about?
Dan Pontefract: So when I left Telus, I started writing a book that was like my leadership principles, so I’d done three books during the Telus time, one on culture, one on purpose, one on thinking. 2019, I started writing what eventually became the fourth book called Lead. Care. Win., and that’s the empathy leadership, but still being clear and strategic leadership principle book. There’s nine lessons in the book, purposely put it out in the pandemic, because I thought it was needed. Then since that came out in September 2020, I’ve been thinking exactly this question, Bryan. Like, “Okay, what’s Dan? Where’s Dan? Why Dan? What’s the next 10 years?”
Partially because I hit that seminal 50-year age moment, and partly it was like, “Okay,” because you’ve heard my career for the last 40 minutes, every three to five, six years I’m like, “Okay, what’s next? How am I going to grow?” So to be a little more succinct, because sometimes I blabber on, I think I’ve nailed it with an idea called decoding. So the banner brand and next book will be called Decoding Work. I think I’ve been actually now put on this planet, in hindsight after these 25 years, to help X and obviously Millennials and Zed, and whatever’s after Zed, with the nuances of how to decode work. Why is this, this way? Why am I this way? What can I do to alter, fix, mediate, remediate this, that or the other?
Again, it’s written, and my theory is that this is a decoding work banner brand and book to begin with, but then there are probably going to be offshoots, decoding the boss, decoding the team, decoding this, decoding that. So I think that’s why I’ve been put on this planet in hindsight, to get to this point, for the next 10 years, to help people and to continue my learning and curiosity of what else is going on to help decode that for others. So there you go.
Bryan Wish: The great simplifier.
Dan Pontefract: I am a simple pea-headed man.
Bryan Wish: No, I think it’s interesting, you’re helping so many find their own purpose in certain ways, and while you’re finding your own and seeing how that plays out. That’s meaningful, it gives you direction and a north star to guide you, a compass. So very cool. I’m excited to watch how it plays out, you’ve done a lot in your, let’s just call it, short career. You have lots of years left to make an impact and excited for you and what’s to come.
Dan Pontefract: Thank you.
Bryan Wish: Where can people find your writing, your books, your website, to LinkedIn, where do you want to take them to?
Dan Pontefract: Yes. There’s only one Dan Pontefract, which is weird, but it’s not a very common name. So I hate to say this, but you could Google my name and you’ll find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, website, but yeah. DanPontefract.com also is available for you peruse.
Bryan Wish: Awesome. Thanks so much for showing up, this was such a blast and talk soon.
Dan Pontefract: Bryan, I can’t thank you enough helping me through this catharsis in conversation.
Bryan Wish: Great, great for a Monday morning. That’s what I’m here for.
Dan Pontefract: Cheerio, mate. Thank you.
This post was previously published on BW Missions.
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The post Dan Pontefract: One Guidance Counselor Away From Helping Others appeared first on The Good Men Project.