AMA interview with John Robinson, CEO of BackUp CEO, a company focused on CEO leadership coaching. John shares how he made the transition from corporate marketing to becoming an independent consultant to founding his firm. John also discusses the power of detachment, embracing vulnerability while leaning into danger, and his passion project, Mind at Ease network.
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For this episode, we are going to do an AMA interview, which is Ask Me Anything.
Interview with John Robinson
We have an amazing guest. Welcome, John Robinson. He’s the CEO of Backup CEO. Thank you, John, for taking time to connect with us on the MECE Muse Unplugged.
Thank you so much for having me.
Before we jump into questions, maybe you can give our audience a brief overview of your background, how you got into consulting, and what are you doing right now?
My timeline is pretty simple, but it’s going to sound complicated. I spent about fifteen years in traditional corporate marketing roles at brands that you would know such as GE, Citibank and Discover Card. That was in the financial services sector. I went into telecom so I worked at AT&T. Then I ended up in healthcare. I was Head of Marketing for Health Net and then a division of WellPoint. I’ve spent a majority of my posts undergrad and postgraduate years in corporate America. All of a sudden, one day, I figured that I wanted to do something different and that something was to become an entrepreneur. One of the easiest ways to become an entrepreneur is to become a consultant because all you’re doing is monetizing your experience, your skills, your techniques, and some of your gifts.
That’s how I started about ten years ago and going into this space of helping CEOs who needed to boost their confidence and needed some support that wasn’t out there. That’s when I created Backup CEO. To give you a little background on Backup CEO and the naming alone, it had to do with a bunch of research that I was doing on vulnerability and vulnerability and leadership. We all know that we struggle sometimes to ask for help. I know I do. A lot of times, I struggle with asking for help. When it comes to painting, I am quick to make a phone call to call a painter. When it comes to other things, it takes me a bit of time. I was doing a lot of research on vulnerability and leadership and Enron happened and I was puzzled.
Enron happened, and I thought, “Why did that CEO not have someone around him or a team around him that would hold them more accountable to higher values or that would challenge them to make them uncomfortable? Most CEOs hire people that they like, hire people that are speaking the same language. In essence, what they’re hiring, they’re just hiring themselves.” When I uncovered this concept that said, “How can I get CEOs that don’t ask for help to ask for help?”the naming convention, Backup CEO, came up because I called one of my friends that I thought would never ask for help. My friend Pete, who I went to undergrad with, is a Chicago police officer. He’s a Chicago police officer since he was 22 years old and he’s still on the force.
I asked him, “When do you ask for help?” He told me, “I call for backup every time I pull a car over.” I thought, “What do you mean every time you pull a car over?” He says, “Every time I pull a car over, anytime I walk on the left side of the car, the driver’s side, there’s a blind spot on the right side of the car. Walk on the right side of the car, there’s a blind spot on the left. If I pull one car over, I could have pulled the first car of a caravan of cars. I always need a second set of eyes on the situation.” That’s when I had my a-ha, is that I think every CEO needs a second set of eyes on the situation, hence Backup CEO. That’s how I stumbled into that catchy naming convention.
Another question is what commonalities that I learned about the shortcomings of CEOs who we’re unwilling to ask for help. I’ll say one of the shortcomings that I noticed was this idea that I already know it, this idea that if I’m wrong, then my self-esteem is tied to that. The CEOs who were afraid to be wrong, the CEOs that didn’t want to acknowledge other shortcomings were the ones that didn’t have support systems around them that could have self-sustaining company. What I mean by self-sustaining company is the fact is that if you are good at asking for help, that means you’re good at delegating. If you’re good at delegating, that means you can set up a business that you don’t have to be there all the time and that it will have higher employee satisfaction, higher customer satisfaction. There are a lot of corollaries to the consequences of CEOs not being able to ask for help.
I hear the term Backup CEO, I hear the vulnerability piece and I’m trying to connect the dots of what a service like that would look like. Can you bring it a little visualization of how you go about doing that?
Whenever I’m asked the question of what you do, I don’t answer it in the traditional way. I answer it in two parts. I said, “What do I do with my time and how do I make money?” I’ll answer how I constructed my Backup CEO consulting arrangements and there’s been a mix through the years. Some have been by project but it’s evolved to a retainer with percentages of performance, either revenue, profit or even shares of the company. I created a pretty unique consulting model that is beyond just billable per hour person. My consulting engagement are few because I believe that I’m not scalable. As a consultant, that’s what you learn through time is that the more clients that you have, the higher the likelihood that you won’t be able to create the value at the level that you want to create the value consistently.
That would be one tip that I would share is that if those that are out there considering what’s the best design and consulting arrangement, I would say, “One, part retainer. Two, part performance.”Some type of performance arrangement if it’s tied to whatever the metric is that they are hiring you to do. If it’s to increase sales, if it’s to increase profitability, if it’s to make something ten times easier, whatever it is, tie it to that outcome. That definitely is risky because at the end of the day, I used to have$15,000 a month retainers and I did better when I had a $5,000 a month retainer that was tied to a yearend performance of 10% of improvement of revenue. There’s a mix, that’s how the pricing model is where it is today.
I liked the hybrid that you’ve come up with for the model. How do you go about getting clients? Is it someone that reaches out to you? Hearing that vulnerability in leadership, based on what you’ve shared, that’s probably not something people can easily admit to, especially at the C-suite level. Maybe you can share a little bit about that.
I’m pretty strategic in the clients that I work with. Not only am I strategic in the ones that I’ve worked with but also who I attract. My client list is mostly referral and it’s mostly organic. When I say organic, I spend a good amount of time in settings with CEOs and CEO forums that I belong to. I end up either picking up a new client in within the CEO forum that I belong to or I’m referred by someone there. It’s truly handshakes. It’s not Facebook ads, it’s not email list, it’s nothing like that traditional. If you said where some clients come that surprised you, that you didn’t expect. I’ve had some that come through listening to podcasts because I’ve done a lot of podcasts and video webcasts and things like that and been guests on and that comes from there as well which was surprising.
What is the one thing you’re most proud of since you started your company?
I’m most proud of is that I’ve owned a skill of value creation. I thought that I was a good listener. I thought that I was providing great feedback. I thought that I was being valuable and as time has gone on, it’s been constant iterations and redefinitions of what someone would deem valuable. That would be the thing that I’m most proud of is getting on the same page of what value is to my clients.
Now that you know, you have the setup and it sounds like such an amazing concept. It’s spot on, especially these days. There are many different lenses that people have to have. Your service definitely is timely. What would be some advice you would give to a consultant that got started in their profession or maybe like you, they’ve built up an expertise in their world and they’re deciding to strike it out on their own and come up with something that’s not out there? What advice would you give them?
It’s going to sound pretty silly but I called my mother. I called my mom and I said, “Do I have a place to live?”This is when I’m in a million-dollar house in Scottsdale and all this stuff that’s associated with all those years of me working in corporate America. She says, “You have, I have two homes. You always have a place to live. Why are you asking?” I said, “Because I’m about to do something really crazy,” and that’s when I decided that I wanted to get into entrepreneurship and start my companies. If you said, “Why would you call your mother?” The reason why I called my mother is because I wanted to know what the worst possibility that it could be for me if it didn’t work out, which was living with my mother. Once I knew that that was a possibility, I said, “No way, I’m not going to end up living with my mother,” so I pushed myself pushing needed to be done, but I had a safety net. If your safety net meant the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of having basic shelter, I knew that I would have it. My advice is to know what your worst-case scenario is and then embrace it. That would be the first thing.
The second thing is I would lean into danger. What I mean by that is what are the dangers that are ahead that I have to be aware of? I’ll give you some examples. Anytime you’re starting a new business, consulting or what have you, there’s a danger that money can run out. There’s a danger that it may take longer than you expect to get the clients you want. There’s a danger of getting clients that you don’t want, but they’re paying the bills. My advice is get your arms around all the possible harms or dangers that might be ahead so then you could at least prepare for them a little bit. When I say prepare, I don’t think you can prepare for everything, but to be aware. You can be aware enough for sure.
There’s a YouTube video where it looked like you were speaking at an event, Ignite San Diego. Can you maybe share a little bit about that story with our audience?
This event that you’re talking about, I didn’t know Ignite was an organization all the way around the world. It’s a simple concept that says, “Tell your story in five minutes with twenty slides,” and the slides should have no words on them, just pictures. My talk was the first time I’ve ever spoke in front of a public on something that wasn’t even business and we talked about vulnerability. It was my vulnerability experiment and the vulnerability experiment was to share that I had made a decision, a conscious decision to give away all of the possessions that I had accumulated over the years for over 42 years from all those companies.
All those places, things that you collect or accumulate when you get a little bit successful, you end up with a lot of stuff. I did a talk on what it’s been like to give away everything and reclaim myself esteem. As people are leaning into considering going into consulting, there’s a moment that you will wonder what your self-esteem or what your self-worth is when things aren’t going well. This experiment is my journey. It’s my journey of realizing that possessions aren’t what makes people who they are. That’s the talk.
How did you feel after that talk when you walked off the stage?
Relief and release would be one. I had an energy of achievement that I hadn’t had in a while. When you’re in corporate America, what corporate America sometimes has you believing is achievement really isn’t until you are all by yourself. Until you’re on a stage, until your heart’s pounding like you’re a hummingbird. When you lean into that uncomfortableness, that fear, that anxiety and then to hear applause, to hear laughter, to hear thinking, here’s silence because you are connecting with an audience. It was powerful, the moment I walked off that stage. That’s the first time I’d ever been on a stage.
Have you been since? Have you gone to Ignite or other?
I have done a few things but not as big as that. I have spoken to children in undernourished school districts to talk about that story as well. I have done a few things.
Thank you for sharing that story on Ignite and having it on YouTube so people can check it out. To our audience, it is worth the time. I advise you to go and watch it because that’s one of the keys to living a fulfilling life is having that sense of detachment can be freeing. I thank you for sharing that. It was so powerful. I was so moved when I watched it.
I’m glad that it touched you because I had not heard someone say that, so to thank me like you did on what the intention was, which is detachment. I believe detachment is a skill and that’s something that we all should practice a bit because it grounds you .It grounds you when you detach yourself from possessions, detach yourself from unhealthy relationships, detach yourself from unhealthy habit but detaching for sure is a skill.
I have a couple of mentees of mine that they’re struggling with that concept of detachment. As a consultant, they have spent several years building their careers at prestigious firms. It’s two different mentees, two different firms but they’ve somehow associated their identity to a title of consulting, but also to the firm. The firm that they work at is top firms in the world and they’re struggling with that. They want to walk away but because they want to be able to say, “I work at X company,” and they know that when they say that, people look at them a certain way and they get a certain type of credibility. They’re struggling with that detachment. For someone like that, and you talked about vulnerability, what advice would you give them?
I directly can empathize with them because of the logos that I shared. Those logos of opened doors for me, those logos have perceived as badges of honor that I’m credible because I’ve had those logos and that history. The truth is the impact that I’ve made has had more runway. When I say runway, runway toward a deeper trust in myself and a deeper competence in myself, than those logos did. My advice to anyone who is considering detaching from those logos, it would be to attach to something that’s bigger than the logos, which is of value. Something that you want to make a difference in the world with.
That’s something that I’m working on. I have a fundamental belief that if Uber can get you to think it’s okay to get into a stranger’s car and Airbnb gets you to think it’s okay to sleep in a strangers bed, I will get the world to trust talking to strangers whenever they’re stressed. My big dream, my big impact is to create the largest global network of gifted listeners, from psychologists to therapists to social workers to bartenders to where anybody on demand 24/7 can talk to somebody whenever they want to be heard. In this society now, no matter Facebook or all of the different social media channels, there are so many people that are not being heard. I state this passion of mine because I think that that’s the key when someone’s considering leaving the logos. Attach to something bigger than yourself.
You’re working on some cool, meaningful stuff, John. This is great.
I use consequence in a positive way. That’s the consequence of letting go. I could still be in corporate America right now, making a pretty good salary and not being as healthy, free, and able to show up for people. I know this. I was not able to show up for many people, including myself, when I was overworked and overpaid. For those that are considering it, that is a huge upside is that you’ll have space to create.
Making that space is critical. My last question for you is around the altMBA. You and I both went through the Seth Godin altMBA program. Maybe you can share a little bit about your journey of how you found out about it? What did you learn? If you cans hare a little bit about that.
I had a big smirk on my face on the altMBA program because life is about timing and I was very intentional when I decided to do ultimate altMBA and it was brought to me by Seth Godin through one of his blog posts. At the time I needed the jumper cables put on me, like a battery that was almost dead. I needed the jumper cables and that’s what it was for me, that it was jumper cables, a new boost of energy, a kick in the right direction and the experience of shipping and experience of collaboration. Experience of getting into a healthy habit of creation and providing feedback was a big surprise for me. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect it to be put into an arena with 99 other people who we’re impacting the world and see what revealed itself. That’s what I thought before and what I think after. I was an altMBA five, and I would tell you, I am just as engaged with the community as I as I was over a year ago. There was a community that is available after the altMBA traditional experience.
It’s truly a remarkable program. I know you probably heard me sprinkle in the altMBA and I talked about it in my first episode. It’s such an amazing leadership development program that both John and I went through. John, this is such a pleasure and thank you so much for joining us on our show. I know you will continue to make a ruckus out there. I cannot wait to see what you do next, especially with your project of the gifted listeners and that network. That’s awesome. We’d love to have you back on the show with the future.
The movement is called Mind at Ease. That’s what that is. It is the state that I want the world to be in is mind at ease and their app. That’s what I think we all need to do a better job of is venting freely to where we can put our mind at ease. That’s my movement.
With that, John, you want to share your contact information if people are interested in your Backup CEO services or more information about your Mind at Ease network, do you want to share a little bit of a contact for them?
Two ways, with Twitter @BackupCEO and then email, John@BackupCEO.com. Feel free to connect with me on anything. If you’re interested in altMBA, if you’re interested in going into consulting or if you’ve gone into consulting and want to go back into corporate America, I did that as well. If you have any questions or anything, please reach out.
With that, ladies and gentlemen, thank you. For John for having us speak with you and continue making a ruckus. I cannot wait to continue to watch your journey. If you have any questions, thoughts about this episode, want to send us your questions and then we can have future guests answer them, remember to drop us a line at MECEMuseUnplugged@Gmail. With that, thank you again John. Here’s to your journey to greatness.
Links from today’s episode:
- Backup CEO
- Health Net
- YouTube – Oops! My Self Esteem Isn’t Mine? | Ignite San Diego #4
- Ignite San Diego
- Seth Godin altMBA
- MECE Muse’s first episode
- @BackupCEO – Twitter
About John Robinson
I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, a proud graduate of Northern Illinois University with a B.S. in Marketing and DePaul University with an M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship.
In financial services, I spent years of strategic service in senior marketing roles for Discover Card, G.E. Capital, and Citibank; time and time again, I found myself selected to lead key business initiatives. In healthcare, I tackled co-CEO responsibilities for Arrowhead Health, a Phoenix-based multidisciplinary outpatient services facility, where I provided insight and expertise to all strategic discussions and plans. In telecommunications, I spent three years as a key marketing leader and contributor at Ameritech New Media, where my division won the JD Power & Associates award for customer service – the first and only cable provider to win this award.
Above all, I’m deeply dedicated to my family and community, investing time and energy toward my local church, National Society of Hispanic MBAs, American Marketing Association, Senior Center, and Marketing Executive Networking Group.