An interview with a pioneer—Paul Kearney

For some time I've been meaning to experiment with the notion of interviewing those I consider to be pioneers in their field. I encounter many inspiring folk in my travels. One of which, whom I’m very lucky to know, is Paul Kearney—the CEO of the award-winning Kearney Group Financial Services. Paul’s business philosophy business is inspiring—and so, I thought it might be nifty to share his perspective here.

Thus, please do enjoy this mini-interview. And know that, if we had the time, we could go *much* deeper on any one of these elements.

Righto, let’s ease into it. 

Paul! What’s considered ‘taboo’ in the financial world (which really ought not be)?

It’s actually one of my personal peeves… I have to say a lot of financial services firms pay lip service to this idea of providing ‘holistic’ advice.

The fact is—truly holistic advice is still very rare because it’s really, really hard to deliver. 

From our earliest days (30 years ago now), I had a vision of a multi-disciplinary practice that could care for the needs of individuals, families and businesses without a beat in service.

We know that businesses are an extension of, and indelibly entwined with, households for much of their lifecycle. And, many individuals are involved with businesses to one degree or another. But Financial Services legislation dictates that we must look at those things separately. Whilst this distinction is artificial, its impact is very real; most accountants are pretty ill equipped to deal with the needs of households at a high level, as are financial advisers who struggle to grasp the needs of businesses. What’s actually required is a truly interconnected service offer, delivered by skilled advisers and multi-disciplinary practices who understand both sides of the coin, simultaneously.

So be aware—working with an accounting firm that just employs a financial planner doesn’t make your advice ‘holistic’. Good advice requires a whole network of professionals, from within and across disciplines, rowing in the same direction, in the best interests of the client. The firm requires systems and tools and infrastructure that supports this view of the whole client and these things are just now coming into existence. 

Pioneering practices are out there, already paving a new path. They’re getting their advisers cross-skilled. They’re developing technology. They’re integrating their service model and re-imagining how advice will be delivered well into the future. But overall, the pace of change in Financial Services has been glacial, and for a long time, the profession has lacked strong leadership… 

But there’s hope—the pioneers are emerging and they’re doing amazing things for their clients. And like working with any coach or mentor, finding a good financial adviser can be a game changer to a business or a family’s wellbeing.

SMART goals work for many, but when you are pioneering—venturing into unprecedented territory, with no map to follow—they’re a bit manufactured and of dubious value. Or are they? How do you work with folks who know the direction they’re heading in (but not the destination)?

The issue with SMART goals, is they’re short-term and they can close us off to thinking deeply about the big picture.

At Kearney Group, we believe a key responsibility of a good adviser is to lead, mentor and actively wedge conversations open so clients are aware of the many possible futures that lay ahead.

Our job is to help them embrace that ambiguity and create habits and processes (in their lives and businesses) that force them to stay open to and watchful for opportunities that lie just over the horizon; those ‘futures’ that may still be out of reach or aren’t even visible just yet.

When we coach people, we ask them not to invest too much of themselves in one, specific future. We create a space where it’s okay to abandon an idea and carve a new direction entirely. We constantly question what their customers need (especially if, like many, they’ve never really asked). We look at precisely what it is that their team must do to perform (Do they have the right mix of skills to deliver to customer needs? Where are the gaps in capability?). And, we give a long, hard look at legacy systems, processes and business measures (Have they been measuring the right things? Do their systems and processes entrench ‘one possible future’ and make it hard to be nimble and adapt?).

The most successful people we work with are ‘many futures’ types—they’re happy to embrace the discomfort of ambiguity and find ways to channel this into something exciting and positive. They surround themselves with visionary people who share ideas and challenge assumptions and ultimately, help each other to become their ‘best self’ and/or the best version of their business.

And how does one increase empathy for their future selves? It’s so much easier to just… buy more stuff from Mr Porter…

‘Future selves’ is such an exciting prospect because it implies hope, optimism and opportunity for evolution. 

For me, empathy naturally stems from potential for growth. Knowing we have agency and the ability to design and constantly reinvent ourselves… that’s powerful. It provides the oxygen needed to take important risks and really challenge ourselves. When you understand that opportunities to reinvent yourself and change direction are endless, it’s easy to see that failure is not a permanent state nor does it define us. This knowledge lets us go a bit easier on ourselves when it happens (and it will happen).

The other crucial way to increase empathy for your future selves is to be uncompromising in your ethics. As long as your values and ethical principles underpin your decision-making, and ultimately, the evolution of your future self/selves, empathy and compassion will naturally follow.

What mistake have you made twice?

Oh where to start! They’re endless. If you’re not making mistakes regularly though, you’re not taking chances… but if you make the same ones too regularly, you’re not learning. So it’s a balance.

I’m absolutely guilty of regularly underestimating the amount of time and effort involved in a worthwhile project. I love ideas and I’m a fraction excitable when something new and interesting comes along—so I’m at risk of bouncing from one great idea onto the next before the first is fully delivered. Many times in my career, this has ended up with me delaying the delivery of one project or both (not to mention driving our team crazy).

What do you think it takes to genuinely pioneer in business?

I’ve actually just spent the last couple of months touring Australia talking about adaptive change, imagineering and thinking like a CEO (no matter how big or small your business is, or your role within it).

The premise of my talk was this: too many people incorrectly believe CEO or leader’s primary job is to drive profits. Let me be absolutely clear… it’s not (though profits follow in a successful business). Rather, the job of a pioneering leader is actually the very people-focused and highly creative work of:

  • Imagineering products or services for your clients or customers; and
  • Creating Futures for your best people.

Imagineering to me is exactly what it sounds like—imagining what could be and then engineering so it is. It’s both philosophical and process-driven, and it requires huge stores of creativity and simultaneously the ability to design systems and execute on your vision. And—it’s really, really bloody hard. With that said, being the catalyst for Imagineering in our firm it’s also one of the most exciting and energising things about my role as CEO.

The other crucial responsibility of a leader in a pioneering organisation is creating futures for your best people, and getting them to believe in that future. Like Imagineering, creating futures requires conscious investment; investment of our money and our time into a whole range of things that will help us develop and retain great people, over the long run. 

It’s about investing your time in your people, in a culture of constant learning and development, in ways to make progress visible, in encouraging mastery, celebrating success and rewarding your people—not just with good salaries—but with genuine opportunities to shape their futures within the business.

This is why we have a Participatory Strategy Program that includes everyone—from the most junior to the most senior people in our team. When we do Business Advisory & Strategy Coaching with our clients, we encourage them to do the same—giving your people the opportunity to have a say in the future of your business… it’s an incredible gift to those you’ll want on your team for the long haul.

It’s also absolutely crucial that as leaders, we make succession possible and visible. Co-ownership or shareholder opportunities should be exclusive, yet attainable for the right people. The best amongst us know that retiring (or worse, dying) as 100% owner is a terrible waste—your legacy and your business’ legacy is too important to fizzle after you’re gone. The only way to ensure it doesn’t is to flag talent early and get your people on board.

What gets you out of bed in the morning? What impact would you like to think your business has on its clients and the profession?

At Kearney Group, we empower people to make a lifetime of great financial decisions. Empower and lifetime are the key words here—we want to coach and guide, and create genuine lifelong partnerships with our clients that go beyond the surface.

In interviews with prospective team members, we always say, “if you’re looking to be an adviser because you love numbers or the markets… we’re probably not the place for you”. Rather, we look for big-picture thinkers, who are genuinely interested in improving the lives and wellbeing of others—because at the end of the day, a household’s financials or a business’ numbers, they only matter because the people behind them do.

We’ve seen the difference good advice and a good advisory team can make, time and time and time again. And that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Where is the next step-change in business capability going to come from?
20 odd years ago now, I witnessed a major revolution in business with the dawn of financial reporting software. Tools like MYOB allowed businesses, for the first time, to really figure out where they were at and access detailed financial reporting.

More recently, with cloud-based software, businesses can now collaborate with their advisers, in real-time—and this has been a game changer. 

But, in my view, there’s a big change is still coming—and this time, it’s not software. 

The next big step-change for SMEs will be one of capability; a future where every day small and medium businesses begin developing the strategic know-how that’s required to make good businesses great. 

The best businesses I’ve come across understand that building a product or delivering a great service is a completely different skillset to running a good operation—and they are already seeking out pioneering advisers to assist them with this. As advisors, we’re charged with tasks above and beyond the financials. We help facilitate strategy programs. We act a board of directors of sorts. We give access to benchmarking data, and help owners to unlock and interpret business insights. And, ultimately, we facilitate and foster the growth of in-house strategic capability for our clients.

I firmly believe this will be the future for businesses (and advice practices alike). For SMEs, gone are the days of just plying their trade. For advisors… no longer are we useful from a strictly compliance and financial reporting stand point. This is definitely the next big shift. It’s already started but it would be amazing—revolutionary—to see it in full force.

Percolate much?

Here's an excerpt from one of my museletters, in support of our most wondrous 2016 event—Percolate: a precursor to progress.

9 fantabulous reasons to come Percolate.

1. Ace Speakers Not Doing Their Usual Thing.

The last thing I want to expose you to is a predictable set of thoughts you’ve seen, heard and contemplated before. As such, I’ve curated a diverse mix of thinkers, philosophers, leaders and friends who are primed to offer us fresh perspectives. The type of perspectives that spur new thinking. Each speaker has been briefed to not simply distil things down into pithy ‘top tips’ but rather, to gift you with worthy questions to consider through December in preparation for the new year ahead.°

° They know that you are smart, and—in the spirit of antifragility—can handle having your thoughts provoked. 

2. Keen-minded, pioneering folk.

I love our speakers and… I daresy the audience is even more exciting. Firstly, you’ll be joined by fellow museletter subscribers (people who, like you, actually read these things). This makes for wondrous conversations—these are the people I relish meeting at events.
We also have folk from Atlassian, Telstra, Suncorp, MYOB, Red Cross, Commonwealth Bank, and fab other organisations I’ve worked with. Some are in senior leadership positions, and many are the intrapreneurs who think deeper and further than their colleagues.
And of course, there are fellow thought leaders, authors and artists in the mix. All in all: delightful, thoughtful, quality, keen-minded folk.

3. Starward whisky.

Oh gosh, where to begin? We’ve had a secret crush on New World Whisky for some time. David Vitale (CEO and founder) is a the epitome of a modern pioneer and renaissance man. 
Also, Starward just recently won Best Australian Single Malt Whisky. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it is pure wonder—the pairing of Australian wine casks with Melbourne’s 'four seasons in one day' makes for a wondrous dram (even for those who don’t fancy themselves to be whisky drinkers). 
But what I love most is David’s shared philosophy for quality conversations. The type of conversations that allow us to explore new perspectives and that open up new horizons. The type of conversation a good whisky opens up.
We're delighted to be partnering with Starward to bring you Percolate.

4. Proud Mary Coffee.

What better way to start the day than whilst savouring a brew from the world’s foremost pioneers in coffee? I don’t say this lightly—we’re super proud to have Proud Mary Coffee partnering with us to bring you this event. Fun facts: 
» Proud Mary’s founder—Nolan Hirte—is currently bringing Melbourne magic to Portland in the US (a country that desperately needs brilliant coffee). 
» A good proportion of How to Lead a Quest was written at their flagship cafe: Aunty Peg’s. If you visit in the morning you may catch me there (or at Proud Mary around the corner).
» I was recently interviewed in 99U magazine, and one of the main things I talked about was how good Aunty Peg’s coffee is. The Best Coffee I Have Ever Experienced In The World is from this place.

5. Jazz.

I love jazz, and what it represents. As an introvert, it's the perfect form of live music. You sit back and soak up the vibes, without having to worry about dance moves, crowds, or what to do if someone starts grinding on you. And so, at Percolate, there will be jazz.

These vibes will be lead by none other than artisan thinker Mykel Dixon.

And this is all rather genius. You know when sometimes you're at an event and you just want to chill and think and reflect and ponder and project and... not necessarily talk to the person next to you? Well but ah!—there's jazz to enjoy.°

° Of course there will still be plenty of opportunities for meaningful conversation and connection. Possibly over a coffee or whisky (see above).

6. Clarity amidst the ambiguity.

It used to be that the path ahead was relatively clear and straightforward. But now it's anything but.

We're living in non-linear times, and our minds can't quite handle it. We make predictions based on past patterns (despite the causal opacity), and yet cannot accurately predict the trajectory of things to come (as much as we like to convince ourselves otherwise). The more clarity and conviction you hold about the future—the more likely you are to be wrong.

At Percolate, we'll explore how clarity can be found on the path to relevance—without succumbing to the narrowed focus encouraged by tools of the past, or the frenetic and thoughtless pace induced by fads of the present.

7. Progress amidst the complexity.

I'm frequently (quietly) dissatisfied by speakers and 'experts' who fail to empathise with the sheer complexity faced by leaders and intrapreneurs attempting to influence change in large and multinational organisations (amidst enhanced volatility). Heck, even smaller businesses working in complex industries know that there are no easy simple solutions—otherwise they'd have already tried it.

Rather than dumb things down (and risk a recursive loop), Percolate does not shy away from the complexity of our times. Rather than provide quick fixes and simple hacks, we'll offer perspective—the type that will help you unravel a path amidst the complexity of your own context.

(I'm quietly quite excited about Josi Heyerdahl's session. Josi manages partnerships between the World Wildlife Fund and large enterprises seeking to do better for biodiviersity and the greater ecology of our planet. Josi will be providing insight in how meaningful progress can be made towards conservation goals amidst incredible complexity.) 

8. Time to Percolate.

We're building this into the day. But note that when I say this, I'm not talking about an abundance of 'empty time' in the programme. Instead, we're making the most of the time we have—mixing the right ingredients together, to give you time to Percolate throughout December, in time for the new year ahead.

What does this mean for you? It means:
» Better questions to ponder. This opens up new avenues of exploration, beyond your well-established habits, patterns and defaults.
» Better conversations throughout December—be they with family, friends of colleagues. You'll be able to ask them such questions too (creating richer perspective and possibility for you and them).
» Ultimately: it means that you'll have a much greater chance of unlocking meaningful progress for the year ahead. By taking the time to Percolate, you'll discover a path amidst the complexity and ambiguity.

What does this mean for your team? If you're magnanimous enough to gift folks on your team with a ticket, you can look forward to:
» Even greater curiosity, and a greater ability to explore alternative options to the default.
» Even greater empathy, for colleagues working within complexity, and for the emerging needs of the market.
» More meaningful progress for the new year ahead. By coming to this event, your people will start 2017 with fresh perspectives for the business, along with renewed and refreshed sense of possibility and emerging relevance.

9. A secret surprise. Something strictly limited and special. 

I’ve already said too much.



Sneaky Inspiration—a guide for the sceptical


I have a complicated relationship with inspiration°, probably because my thresholds are so high.

° And by inspiration, I am referring to the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something—especially something creative.

When someone proclaims that something is inspiring—“Come and Be Inspired” or “So-and-so is SUCH an inspiration”—I can’t help but cock my head, place my arms akimbo and think: ‘Oh. Really?

In the same way that being told “this will make you laugh” is a great way to get my arms crossed. “Ha. We’ll see.”

I feel bad about it, so I feign interest so as to not offend. But I’ve come to be very sceptical of bold claims to inspiration. I’m dubious about anyone or anything that touts themself/itself as inspiring—be it a movie, anecdote, speaker, conference, holiday, or whatever.

And I’m even more sceptical of inspirational advice.

But: Sneaky Inspiration.

Now we’re talking.

I’ve come to learn that I need for inspiration to sneak up on me. To slip past my sceptical defences, and catch me by surprise.

And, given that the majority of folk who read these musings are possibly likewise-inclined°, I thought I might share some of my more reliable ‘sources’ of inspiration. These are the fountains and wells to which I draw upon.

° I imagine you to be of the pioneering, forward thinking and curious sort, quietly dissatisfied with mediocrity, predictability, stagnation and the status-quo.

Now, before I tour you through my main wells, let’s remember: inspiration is a personal thing. There’s no magical formula. This is not advice. What might work for me might be dreadful for you. 

The type of inspiration that works for me, exists in the peripheries. The moment I think I have it reliably figured out, it becomes formulaic and predictable—and therefore stops working.

Righto, good. Caveats be damned.

I want to be backstabbed by inspiration.°

And here’s how I do it.

° I’m referring to the rogue’s sneak attack—the thing that catches you completely by surprise.°° Except in this instance, it’s an act of benevolence that is able to slip through my guard. “Ah, inspiration! You delightfully capricious nymph. You got me again!”

°° To enhance your chance of being backstabbed by inspiration, venture beyond the well-lit path.

1. Worthy books (physical)

There’s something so special about the depth offered by a good book. 

When reading beyond the first few chapters—and presuming you’re not reading a book that’s full of padding—you get exposed to delightful nuances in the author’s thinking. The time required to be properly immersed in a good book is partly the reason why they are so inspiring. Your defences are naturally lowered as you are drawn further into the web of the author’s reasoning.

For example, Antifragile remains one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in the past few years, precisely because I gave it the time to get immersed in the author’s perspective. I know it has vexed those who have attempted to skim it.

But that’s the thing—reading a good book is a serious time commitment. It’s a borderline luxury, and we’re all very busy.° 

° Independent magazines mitigate this somewhat, providing a diversity of articles that can be savoured in pockets of time. Our current favourites include: The Alpine Review, Offscreen, New Philosopher, Monocleand Drift.

We can’t afford to commit to a book that’s a dud . But nor do we want to prematurely dismiss something as a dud without giving it a good chance—lest we succumb fully to our own cognitive biases.

This is where digital helps.

2. Worthy reads (digital). 

Reading on screen doesn’t have quite the same feels as their physical counterparts. The digital landscape is also so full of garbage and distraction—it’s natural to have your guard up.

Here’s how I navigate through the noise.

  • I use getAbstract’s compressed knowledge to help me decide if a book might have some merit.° 
  • I then buy the book on tablet, and scan for the popular highlights. If these are appropriately provocative enough to warrant a deeper look, I’ll give the book a week. It’ll become my companion on flights and evenings away from home.
  • After the week, I then decide if it is worthy to buy in its physical form (for a deeper read).

° How to Lead a Quest scored a rare 9/10, btw. It also made the subscriber’s top 10 downloads for the first half of 2016. (It’s also been a bestseller for some time—I’m just waiting for the new bestseller covers to arrive then I’ll make a big song and dance. And by big song and dance, I mean: I might tap my foot to the beat for a short while. And by new cover, I might mean new 'bestseller' sticker.)

Right now I have Kevin Kelly’s new book: The Inevitable (and it’s on track for a physical incarnation). I own several copies of Finite and Infinite Games, and Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy is set to become a classic in our home. The dangerlam managed to pilfer it for a buck at our local secondhand bookstore, but this doesn’t stop it from a physical re-reincarnation.

Books aside, I tend to meander on the interwebs. 

I pursue folly. 

My journeys often start in familiar places—medium°, pocket, and Facebook°°, primarily—but then I follow a non-linear pathway down the rabbit-hole, following the threads and breadcrumb trails that connect great articles, until I figuratively stumble across inspiration. Something surprising and unexpected: new thinking that stimulates my own, inspiring me to explore further.

° As far as internet reading goes, Medium is fantastic. The signal to noise ratio is nowhere near as bad as it could be.

°° I know right? Maybe I’m kidding myself here, but I follow some pretty ace companies and people. Amidst the lol kittens and humblebrags, seeds of good wonderings can be found within my Facebook feed. Sometimes. And again: the signal to noise ratio is higher for me than other social platforms. 

Such worthy reads then get captured into Pocket for deeper reading (and sharing with you in these museletters). Pocket is like your own curated magazine, and excellent when you make time to contemplate.

3. Time in contemplation. 

This is the closest thing to a meditation practice I seem to have these days. In the spirit of hobonichi° I try to dedicate time each morning to contemplate. I journal, as a means of processing my thoughts (ala morning pages). I often do this digitally (with the Day One app), but journalling aside, sometimes I find inspiration with the simplest of ingredients: blank paper + pen + time.°°

° Japanese for ‘almost everyday’, and the most wondrous daily planner you’ll ever use. Allow @dangerlam to demonstrate here and here.

°° At a cafe with a good pour-over happening.

At a more meta-level, I recommend a decent peppering of sabbaticals throughout your life. Some of these might be mini-retreats for perspective, others might be longer ‘breaks’ from work.° 

° I’m not sure if I’ve been alive long enough to comment, but I suspect these are an almost essential luxury on the quest to enduring relevance.

4. Rare conversations. 

We just had a weekend together with the Jaxzyns (like-minded pioneers and travel buddies who work in the field of strategic comms and employee experience). Amidst the champagne, whisky and good times came those rare conversations that simply cannot be engineered in advance. All we can do is create an environment in which such conversations are more likely to manifest. 

This is partly why I advise some teams to occasionally go out to a fancy restaurant for a long lunch together. The shift in context combined with time immersed in multiple perspectives can serve as a precursor to new, rare and meaningful conversations—which, in turn, can inspire new pathways to progress.

5. A really good event. 

As with inspiration, my relationship with events is complicated. 
I speak at a lot of events. I also attend events too. I see patterns.

Things become predictable. Conventional wisdom gets injected with another round of botox, to be paraded as some new truth by supposed authorities. “Ah, this again.” Or—great thinking becomes buried in a deluge of content. PowerPoints and agendas become engorged to the point at which potentially powerful points miss the point entirely.

But yes—my threshold for quality is quite high. 

And this frequently does me a disservice.

I remember attending an event in New York once, only to be quietly dissatisfied by the opening set of speakers. Predictable, self-absorbed, safe, polished, unoriginal. 

So what did I do? I went and ate Eileen’s cheesecake and bought magnificent blazers in Soho at a ridiculous exchange rate.

Later, that evening, alone in my hotel room, I checked the twitter feed for the event, where it quickly became evident that I had missed out on some pretty extraordinary sessions. The quotes people were tweeting were delightfully contrary, and hinted at a deeper meaning and contemporary relevance to which I wasn’t party/privy to. 

Up until this point, I didn’t even realise I had inspiration-fomo.

And so I found myself reconciling to the fact that “the videos will be online later—I’ll just watch them then.” But in my heart (and mind) I knew that nothing beats the power of actually being at a really good event.

Chris Anderson—the curator of TED—describes it well:

“… She clears her throat and begins to speak. What happens next is astounding. The 1,200 brains inside the heads of 1,200 independent individuals start to behave very strangely. They begin to sync up. A magic spell woven by the woman washes over each person. They gasp together. Laugh together. Weep together. And as they do so, something else happens. Rich, neurologically encoded patterns of information inside the woman’s brain are somehow copied and transferred to the 1,200 brains in the audience. These patterns will remain in those brains for the rest of their lives, potentially impacting their behaviour years into the future…”
(excerpt from the opening of TED Talks).

Ah. That collective gasp—the literal inspiration, en masse—followed by immersion in context, and a diverse mix of thoughtful people to have meaningful conversations with. These are all precursors to new thinking and inspiration. Oh my, yes.

6. Something unexpected, not on this list. 

Ah, the final source of Sneaky Inspiration that I’m currently unaware of—the Absolute Surprise. The inspiration that strikes when you least expect it. There’s no way prepare for it—the only thing we can try to do, is be somewhat open to it.

This means widening our gaze—to not be so narrow in our focus.

Pablo Picasso was said to have quipped that “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” This reeks of common sense—but I wonder if it might be distracting us from other opportunities? What about the gaps between the work? The space of pointless pursuits and goal-less progress? I’d argue that, for anyone pioneering beyond the default, we equally need to step outside the context of our work, to find inspiration in the overlooked.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

Where are your wells? How do you find inspiration without discarding discernment?

The above list is a good snapshot of where my current (known) wells lie. My job is to ensure I frequent them regularly (mixing them up where needed), lest I succumb to bitter irrelevance. This means prioritising the nourishment of the mind (which also means looking after the health of the body). 

You might be a bit more inclined to extraversion, and so your main wells might be found in networks and gatherings. It might be live music, time in the wilderness, or strolls in the city. Or maybe you are genuinely inspired by things that claim themselves so. In any event—great!

The more we are inspired by fresh thinking,
the more we can expire stale thinking.