Josh Singer of Kognitive Marketing on making an impact through being true to who you really are
Josh Singer is the President, CEO and Co-Founder of Kognitive Marketing, an industry leader in face-to-face direct sales programs. Since starting Kognitive after graduating from the University of Toronto, Josh has been featured in Marketing Magazine’s 30 under 30, with his company being named as the #1 fastest growing marketing company over a 5-year period on the Profit 500 rankings. Outside of the business world, Josh is heavily involved with volunteer work through organizations including the United Jewish Appeal, Young Presidents Organization and the UNITY Charity.
What were some of the most important business lessons you have had to learn the hard way? How have they contributed to your current success?
I’ve been running a business for my whole career. As an entrepreneur, the hardest lesson was transitioning the business operations from “me to we”. Since we bootstrapped our business, we essentially did everything ourselves and once you reach a certain size, it is impossible for one person to get all of the necessary things done. The learning was around how to transition from doing things yourself to empowering people to lead others to accomplish our goals. Our key was figuring out the system around this and as a result, training others in a way which would enabled our business to scale. Teaching people how to subsequently teach other people to do the work was very important.
How did you build that system?
It all started with setting the expectation that management was not there to micromanage and that the work isn’t going to be done for you. As a result, we developed a four step process which is the foundation of how we do things at Kognitive. Everyone learns to speak the same language so that whenever a new hire comes into our company, they are surrounded with what we are about. We also provide our people with coaching tools and retraining programs to drive our core methodologies home. Starting with hiring capable people and ensuring they are trained has also been key for us. On the flip side, if we find that we’ve hired someone who isn’t the right fit for what we do, we tend to part ways pretty quickly. From our perspective, if it’s not working from our side the feeling typically is the same from the employee’s side, so one can’t be scared to do what is ultimately best for that person.
From your experience, what is the most common misconception out there about what shapes culture? What is Kognitive’s culture like?
Founders and CEOs often get caught up in drafting a beautiful set of mission, vision and values but forget that it is only as good as the paper it is written on. We’ve learned that the hard way. It needs to reflect the true values, beliefs and actions of those at the top, otherwise all of it is useless. Culture to me is about what do we value in the organization, what do we reward, and what we spend our time on. At Kognitive, we think of ourselves as a high performing sports team. We are a sales and results-focused culture so it’s not for everyone, but top performers get rewarded and move up quickly.
What does leadership look like to you and what is the most exciting leadership opportunity for the next generation to make a real impact in today’s organizations?
Leaders set the tone of outlining were the company currently is, where it needs to go and how it needs to get there. The hard work happens when you need to execute on the strategy. I think of leadership like a personal trainer guiding and motivating their client through a workout program. The trainer shows their client how to do things, gives a clear picture of the end point but doesn’t do the actual work. Their job comes down to pushing their team to be better and build capability every day. Leadership is also about having the resolve to let people go who are not right for the organization. If an individual is not thriving, feels stuck or is not developing their career, it’s your obligation as a leader to do the right thing by that person.
Most people think that you need to be a CEO to be a leader. The reality is that if someone is reporting into you, you are leading them. Younger people need to start with the mindset shift that they are leaders because then they actually start acting like leaders. I have people who are in their twenties who are leading sizable sales teams and they have a larger day to day impact on their teams than I do.
How does the CEO of a high growth company stay on top of his game?
I have a coach that challenges me constantly and I’m in peer-to-peer mentoring groups which help me see things in different ways. I spend lots of time sharpening the saw and investing in my personal education because you can never stop learning. Prioritizing is always critical. You need to align your schedule to what you want to accomplish and be disciplined in ensuring that you stick to it.
What is the best piece of advice you would give to those new to the workforce to help them get ahead of the game in today’s marketplace?
First, one needs to find what they love and what truly makes them happy. This isn’t something that is just in your head or something that is predicated by an arbitrary financial goal. When you aren’t aligned to who you truly are and are doing things that are incongruent with your personal happiness, you burn out. Nothing can replace passion.
When I coach people who are not happy or not thriving in their current roles, most of the time they are doing the role out of fear of not being accepted; they believe that in order to be accepted, they need to take a certain job or act a certain way. This is not something that people can easily find on their own which is where a coach fits in.
My advice to make an impact is to find out who you are and what makes you truly happy. Everything else will follow.