Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes about leadership, equality, diversity, innovation and entrepreneurship every week for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Matt Sheehan has worked in executive leadership at some pretty impressive organizations, including Primo Water Corporation, Redbox/Coinstar and his newest venture, Exhale: a membership-based property management service that offers homeowners a one-stop-shop for maintenance, inspections, cleaning, repairs and anything else. “Our mission is to create havens” he told me, “to turn homes into havens, create an inspiring place to work and serve our community.”

Last month, we sat down together for my podcast to talk about lessons he’s learned along the journey. In the first five minutes, he told three great stories about the ways in which his childhood left permanent impressions on his view of work, commitment and purpose: how his dad made him chop wood all day at eight years old to show him that “work should be hard and hard work matters;” how — by asking him every day to talk about his day — his mom taught him that listening is a critical piece of caring for people; and how the bumper sticker on his family’s van became a personal mantra throughout his life. “The clock of life is wound but once,” it read.

One of the greatest things about hosting a podcast is that it offers a ready excuse to get in touch with people you admire and learn from their perspectives. I see a number of my own leadership lessons reflected in Matt’s personal story, but I also learned a lot from our conversation. Matt Sheehan is a value-driven leader at the head of a value-driven organization, and I believe his perspective will be helpful to many of you who are also navigating the world as purpose-driven business executives. Here are a few of my favorite parts from the conversation. Listen to both full episodes on The Donald Thompson Podcast

Donald Thompson: You’ve lived in quite a few places. What brought you to Raleigh?

Matt Sheehan: When we’re looking for somewhere to live, my wife and I look for three qualities in any place, and those three things match the environment I want for my business, too. The first one is a growth mindset: the idea that “we’re doing well, but there’s a long way to go.” I look for that in people, too — a combination of humility and drive. Humility is knowing that you’re not as good as you can be; drive is the passion to be better than you are today. When I see that in people, in companies or in cities, I know I’m in a good spot. 

Donald Thompson: Scaling up, or burning out? Talking with startup coach Veronica Kirin

The second one is diversity. I look at the power of diversity in the broadest sense: not just race or religion, but truly where people come from and the perspectives that they bring. I’ve always wanted that for myself so I can grow and so my family can grow, but I also truly believe that diversity is an engine for business. And Raleigh has it. 

Then lastly, I’ve been so impressed with the Triangle’s willingness to connect to others, just to be helpful. I call that “open source thinking.” It is one of the reasons Raleigh is great and will be even better. 

DT: I want to give you some space to talk about mission, vision and values. Tell me how you’ve structured your mission so that you can keep your true north.

MS: Those three things have become so important to me as a leader and as a person. Also, it’s a fact that purpose-led businesses outperform those that don’t have a “soul.” I firmly believe that soulful companies are the ones who can grow really big and also withstand the tough days because they have that center of gravity. At Exhale, we worked really hard on what those values are, and we have four of them. 

Most importantly, service excels. We strongly believe that we’ll only be successful if we serve our clients and our members well. But it goes beyond that. It’s about serving each other as peers and as employees. And then, it’s also about serving the community. While you’re serving others, optimism rules. That doesn’t mean we’re smiling all the time; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It means we believe we’re going to be okay. I’ve been in business long enough to know that we’re going to have some amazing, bell-ringing kind of days, but there are also going to be days that are really tough. Now, I almost look forward to those days because I truly believe that optimism will carry us through. 

Donald Thompson: Three rules for gaining executive buy-in for your idea

Also, range matters. On one hand, this is our diversity pledge, but it’s also broader than that. We have to be diverse inside because we have to take care of diverse clients and members. We won’t be able to do it if we’re not diverse internally. And finally, we like to say, “trust builds.” I believe the foundation of all great businesses, certainly service businesses, is trust. We have to trust each other, we have to trust our members, and we have to earn their trust back. So, a significant portion of my job is to make sure that we are owning and living that mission, that we are operating with those values. 

DT: That makes sense. People want to work where they feel valued and know they can deliver value as well. They don’t want to work at a company that’s just delivering transactions, even if it’s a very large company. We all want to be a part of something that makes us feel powerful, makes us feel needed, and makes a real impact on the world. Let’s dive into some leadership lessons.

MS: When I think about leadership, I break it into three segments: personal leadership, systematic leadership, and strategic leadership. Personal leadership is how you lead close-up: how you lead yourself, your family, and your direct reports. Systematic leadership is when you are called to lead broader than just a small team, so you have to start thinking about how your voice translates and how you can lead systematically across multiple teams or geographies. And lastly, there’s strategic leadership, or how we make decisions. We can lead our people really well, but we still have to make good decisions, right? 

My dad carried so many lessons with him. One of them was “you don’t need a C on your jersey to be a captain.” That’s a lightning rod of a lesson to give a seven-year-old. It was a welcome mat to go be a leader, even if I wasn’t at the top. For me, that’s real power, and so I try to share that lesson with others. I despise hierarchy. I know you need some hierarchy to keep businesses in order, but in general, I want everybody to bring that internal leadership quality. I want to give everyone that view. 

And this is another tip my dad gave me. It’s basically “know yourself well.” Know how you impact your environment. Spend time on reflection and self-awareness. Learn about yourself. It feels selfish at times, but if you can’t lead yourself, then you can’t lead others. Don’t mistake leadership for authority. I see this all the time, and it’s unfortunate. I did it early in my career a few times too. I thought it was just, “oh, they gave me the stamp and the badge.” But now I see that true leadership is not like that.

DT:  I want to jump in here on this topic, because that lesson took me a lot of years to learn. The first time I was in the big chair and leading a company, I was leading afraid, and because I was afraid, I was harsh on every detail. I was too aggressive. I didn’t really know my place or my style. Yet as I matured, I started to simplify things. I thought, “if I help each one of these 100 employees, in my own way, become 20% better, how strong can we be?” 

Donald Thompson: Want your employees, clients, investors to trust you? Lead with facts, act with empathy 

The moment I took my eyes off what I was going to do that day, versus what we needed to do together, I was able to retain more folks, I was able to recruit better, and the change had ripple effects everywhere. 

MS: That’s great. You know, leadership is so personal. I hear this all the time, you know, “it’s not personal; it’s business.” But leadership is so personal. I want my legacy to be that I left good character behind me, that I treated people well along the way. That’s what I think about a lot. 

Listen to the full conversation on The Donald Thompson Podcast

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com