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Posted: August 23, 2011

The Leadership Lattice: Paul Larkins

A conversation about building business strength from the top down

Ann Spoor

The Leadership Lattice, an interview series designed to cultivate conversation on building strong leadership in the public and private sector, presents: Paul Larkins, CEO of SquareTwo Financial. You can view the video of this interview by going to YouTube and searching "Leadership Lattice."

What are the lessons for leadership in the financial services industry from the meltdown in the capital markets?

The jury is still out in terms of what really happened to cause the meltdown of the capital markets in 2007-2008 but, had there been more transparency, some of the damage could have been mitigated earlier and there would be less suspicion of the leadership of the impacted organizations.

How does your leadership approach change based on the new regulations enacted in the industry?

It changes the way I think about leadership but shouldn't change my approach. I believe that regulation is inevitable in this (financial services) or any industry and the more transparent one is, the less concerned you need to be about regulation and stepping over a line. You have to communicate more today than ever before. Our entire leadership team shares information about decisions, how the company is performing, the good and bad news. A leader needs to think about empowering the entire organization to communicate through multiple media- one on one, intranet, quarterly meetings. We find that different employees hear the communication through different mechanisms. It can't be one voice or one format.

What have you had to do differently in this economy?

From a strategic perspective, we have to constantly evaluate what the economy is doing and how to react. The economy hasn't been stable, it's been bouncing around. We have to react when necessary but, not be reactionary.

What is your approach to leadership?

There are three tenets of my approach to leadership: One, put the right people in the right seats, two, empower them and three, facilitate a culture. As a leader, if you address properly those three things, you have a recipe for success. As a leader, you have to support your team; making sure they have the resources to do their job. Culture is the responsibility of a leader. I believe that in order to make a culture stick you need a value system. People who like that value system will stay. At SquareTwo we have a very open value system that has 5 components: Focus, Alignment, Accountability, Integrity and Trust. We ask our employees throughout their careers here to ask themselves, are they doing work that is consistent with that value system and if not, tell us. That creates a culture. They can feel it; they know what is expected of them.

What have been some important leadership lessons for you?

Lessons come in the form of scars. I have developed some scars with age and experience. One of those lessons is reacting to something too quickly or directly, which may not always be the best course of action. I try to take in as much information as possible and consult the team we have built. If I can gather the thoughts of my team, I will make better decisions.

Did you have a mentor that had a big impact?

I have been very fortunate to have two to three strong mentors. Early in my career, I had a mentor who had a huge impact on me and taught me not to get ahead of myself. This person had global experience, a very large staff and he was seemingly unflappable. He taught me to think things through on a balanced basis as well as to be accepting of people with many different backgrounds, who come from different places and cultures and to value all voices. Another mentor that taught me how to drive performance metrics, the power of a scorecard and the sharing of goals and objectives. We use scorecards here that are very public and are used at every level. The linkages are key- how my scorecard is linked to the department and the entire organization. It is an extremely powerful tool that helps to make sure our company is on track.

How do you hire?

The starting place is attraction and that comes from culture. From an interview and talent perspective, we have to be clear about our objectives and expectations so there isn't a mismatch. I don't want any hostages. I want employees who understand why they came, what they bring and are comfortable with that. I look for professionals that are smart and balanced. They want everyone to bring their A game every day to the office. We want people who want to come to work every day. I personally want to know about someone's background but also equally important is that I want to know what they do outside of work. I believe that balance is very important. We want people inside the building who are outwardly focused and balanced.
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Ann Spoor is the Jerry McGuire to Corporate Executives and Professionals. She is the founder and CEO of Executive Lattice www.executivelattice.com Ann is an Executive Talent Agent, Executive Coach, Career Manager, Executive Branding Expert, and Social Media Coach. She lives in Denver with her husband Mark and their two kids.

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