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How Karen Gordon Is Using Technology To Create Better Leaders


The art of leadership can be indeed complicated. A blend of intuition, listening and holding steady to convictions play various roles in the intricate management ecosystem needed to grow businesses and oversee talent.

Serial entrepreneur and educator Karen Gordon saw a better way to support leaders in the workplace navigating this journey, and in 2010 founded her company 5 Dynamics, which offers digital ways to maximize human potential. Gordon's team works with Fortune 500 companies, top universities, and nonprofits creating cultures that allow people to do their best work by understanding how others work.

“The biggest reason I was so drawn to this field as a young entrepreneur is that I realized many first-time leaders don't really understand what's going on with the dynamics of their team," says Gordon. “People who report to you end up listening to other people, mostly men who are saying 'you need to be harder, tougher,' this was one of the mistakes I made."

A serial entrepreneur and former educator, Gordon ran a successful business in data and telecommunications called GTCI before founding 5 Dynamics. After coming across the methodology now at the center of the company, Gordon realized she had on her hands "a game changing human performance system" that helps make the work environment more productive and fun. “I felt it had the potential to change people's lives," says Gordon. “It had the impact to help people understand what they do and why and how can they be more successful. It's about being the best version of yourself as a leader and a team member."

Using a backend that measures users' abilities to see, think, learn and collaborate, 5 Dynamics then offers a process model to show how to get things done. The company's 2.5-minute online assessment (which took 10 years to perfect) collects the data points needed to start the process.

“We want to get to the core of the dynamics of what is going on in a room, the insights and the factors we maybe didn't notice," explains Gordon. “Because we all have preferences in what we focus on, there's a psychology of experience. With our methodology, we look at the innate preferences, which is the first step to awareness."

When asked what is the most common question she is asked, Gordon answered quickly; “The number one question I've heard is, 'How do I manage my people?," she says. “All teams have people problems. It's such a simple, elegant, respectful way to understand people. The problem isn't people's differences, it's that we need to better understand what we need for each other, then find a way to compromise, and be satisfied while doing so."

Throughout her journey through the world of leadership, Gordon has learned that it's not always an even playing field. “I think women are judged more harshly for doing the same things that men do, even though those were the traits that made them successful," says Gordon, adding that her ultimate goal, beyond growing her company, is to even the playing field, bringing more diverse voices to the forefront of leadership. Here, we ask Gordon more about her game-changing technology and its implications for the workplace.

Karen Gordon.

1. Can you share what the biggest issues are in today's corporate culture landscape?

People problems are some of the most costly and detrimental issues for organizations, and what's included in the broad-ranging “people problems" bucket can be a range of issues—employee conflict, dissatisfaction, burnout, biases, miscommunication, and more.

Human capital is one of the most valuable resources an organization can invest in, but important considerations are often overlooked when building teams, managing individuals, and scaling out, simply due to uninformed processes for recruitment, project management, and team development. Hiring and fostering talent whose minds will shape the future of a company – and even an industry – is an expensive endeavor, but current practices do not take into consideration a person's natural working style and preferences. Because so much of a typical job description is set in stone based on company needs and structure, conflict often arises when employees are given tasks that don't jive with the way their brains naturally function, putting conflict and burnout on the fast track.

2. What about women in tech/ finance and other male-dominated fields? What are the specific issues there?

There are unique challenges for women in leadership roles in male-dominated fields. Often times, the very traits that catapulted women to the top are the ones that lead to their ultimate demise. Those who have success in male-dominated organizations are often the hard drivers – the ones who portray traits typically viewed as male, but they are neither male nor female. They are simply a person's way of approaching any task. We expect female leaders to be more people focused on the mere fact that they are females, but this characteristic has nothing to do with gender. It is based on the way your brain is wired, which leads to the way you naturally accomplish any project or process.

3. What about the startup culture? How is that influencing workplace dynamics? Can you share positive and negative effects of the startup world?

It's a common adage in Silicon Valley that 90 percent of startups fail. A recent study from CB Insights revealed that incompatible team makeups and disharmony among co-founders were the third and twelfth leading causes of startup failures respectively. This means that roughly 37 percent of respondents felt that people problems were the cause of failure for their companies. Human capital opportunities (and challenges) go all the way to the top.

In the same CB Insights study, 13 percent of startups blamed disharmony of co-founders for their failure – and this is just the percentage of people who noted this disharmony as the number one reason for the failure. Think about it this way: You can bring two or three brilliant minds together to form an equally brilliant idea, but what if those minds ultimately end up not working well together? What if their work styles are too similar or different to be effective together? Often the failure isn't in the idea – it's in the execution and collaboration behind it. Even the most groundbreaking ideas will fail if the minds driving it forward remain ignorant to the flaws in the people processes.

People are a company's square one. Startups that realize from day one that human capital is a significant operating expense and that preservation of company culture is vital will have invested in tools and programs that facilitate one-on-one relationships among team members and support the development of their most valuable assets: you.

4. Can you explain the '5 Dynamics' ?

Psychologist/psychometrician W. Michael Sturm spent over half of his career developing the tools and methodology that form the heart and soul of the 5 Dynamics products. Mike developed this methodology with over 25 years of research and testing on well over 10,000 subjects, combining counseling, Gestalt Therapy/process thinking, learning and educational psychology sciences. This enabled him to create an assessment and related applications that are beneficial in virtually every conceivable business and personal situation. It draws from Gestalt's orientation toward perception, action, energy and goal completion, and maps individuals to a five-phase process that explains many of the business results companies achieve.

I came across this methodology and fell in love with it. The knowledge of this science really had the potential to change people's lives and have a significant impact on helping people understand what they do, how they do it, and how to be more successful. I often refer to it as the best version of yourself, an employee, a team member, a leader, an entrepreneur. Whatever the case, there's value in the content and knowledge shared from that methodology, and so I decided to build 5 Dynamics around it.

The energy you have to spend in the five different dynamics is not mutually exclusive - you are not just considered energy efficient in one dynamic. Everyone has a capacity for each of the five workflows, and the varying degrees to which you have the energy to work in each of those is what makes up your unique profile. The five dynamics/phases are Explore, Excite, Examine, Execute, and Evaluate.

  1. Explore – This phase revolves around understanding the complete situation, seeing relationships, and developing creative solutions.
  2. Excite – In this phase, energy must be invested to excite others about an idea, break down silos, develop internal support, and build a team.
  3. Examine – This is where an implementation plan is developed using data. Creating schedules, budgets, timetables, clear roles, and rules are also found in this phase, as well as attempting to predict problems and find faults in the plan.
  4. Execute – Aggressive implementation of the plan happens in this phase, and people need to be held accountable. Performance is measured, there's an intense focus on completion, and individuals may even compete at various levels in this phase.
  5. Evaluate – Everyone has energy in this phase, as it assesses the preceding four dynamics with a two-pronged test: external success (cost, time, quality, profit) and internal satisfaction (engagement, absence of stress). Then, iterations are made to adapt the process to increase success and satisfaction in the next cycle.
5. Please tell us about your online assessment tool. How does it work?

In a nutshell, Sturm looked at assessments in terms of inputs and outputs based on neural pathway efficiency. The brain comprises only 4 percent of body mass but consumes 20 percent or more of blood glucose, the compound that the body converts to create muscular and mental activity. In this sense, the brain is inherently inefficient, so it seeks to conserve energy through the principle of synaptic efficiency, routing neural messages along the most efficient (electrically least resistive) pathways.

Skills or tasks that you are “naturally good at" follow these least resistive neural pathways in your brain, making it a fairly easy, and in many cases enjoyable, task. If you find yourself struggling to complete a certain project or focus on the specific goals you're trying to accomplish, that might mean you're forcing your brain to follow a neural pathway that is resistant.

For these reasons, cognitive and behavioral theory, rather than personality, were used to design the 5 Dynamics assessment. Personality is highly context-sensitive, where in some situations people might be introverted, but not in others.

Armed with this research and science behind its assessment and collaboration features, the 5 Dynamics methodology directly addresses people problems and everyday team management and collaboration by providing individuals the knowledge and understanding of how they work effectively and how to best engage with team members based on their unique learning, working, and collaboration styles. Using a quick 2-minute online assessment completed via survey, responses are designed to reveal the brain's most efficient neural pathways. Each person's results are then compiled into an interactive online tool that teams can use to get personalized information about themselves and their team members so they can (1) build a team that consists of diverse workflow energies, (2) learn how to work with each team member based on their work preferences to mitigate unproductivity and miscommunication, (3) provide feedback and have difficult conversations with guidance from the tool to circumvent conflict, and 4) establish a foundation for team performance and culture that supports the extended growth and success of startups from day one.

6. What are the most effective types of leaders? Are there specific shared traits that they have?

I think there's a common misconception that there's a picturesque profile of the character traits needed to be a successful and effective business leader. But stereotyping anyone is dangerous. Many effective business leaders may have common traits, but they also have unique attributes that aren't stereotypically associated with the textbook definition of a leader. Some are very focused on people and tend to build happy and productive teams as a top priority. Others are focused on details in the data and keep a sharp eye on metrics. All need to understand their unique gifts and how to lead from those gifts and all need to understand their potential blind spots, but there is no one-size-fits-all profile that people can or should compare themselves to.

7 . How do you work with organizations? Have you seen proof that the method is working?

Our most successful clients are utilizing the 5 Dynamics software in a strategic way. They give all of their employee's access to the software, which creates a unified language and a unifying methodology to build upon. We see proof every day that our methodology is working. Barriers are broken down. Hierarchical organizations move from command and control to cooperate and collaborate.

People are valued for their unique gifts, and development shifts to focus more on moving people from good to great instead of from poor to mediocre. If you let people focus on aspects of business they love, you and they will be more successful and more satisfied.

8. Do you have any quick tips or tricks for managing workplace stress?

Understand your working preferences and the preferences of your teammates. Have open and honest conversations about what you are trying to accomplish together and devise a plan that allows you to work from your strengths. Ask for support and give support to others. The biggest mistake I see people make is acting like they have to know it all and can do it all. We all have areas of strengths where we are able to operate in a state of flow, and no one finds all phases of work effortless. The best piece of advice I can offer is to get comfortable with that fact and find a way to align your daily activities with your greatest gifts.

9. What do you foresee as the most important issues that will be affecting Millennials entering the workforce?

Honestly, I think their greatest challenge is overcoming the negative rhetoric that has been so prevalent in the media over the past several years. They think and act differently than generations before them, but I love the fact that doing meaningful work is more important to them than making obscene amounts of money. They want to leave the world a better place than they found it, and we need to give them the tools that will help them to do just that. Part of that support happens by building work environments that allow them to be their best selves at work.

10. What is the biggest mistake you see corporations making today?

I think that the most successful organizations will be the ones who stop creating a department to focus on “people development," and instead give all employees access to the tools and support that will enable them to optimize their performance and enhance their lives. Spend money on your people, but stop spending on week-long leadership programs or other event-based activities. Instead, give them tools that will allow ongoing development and will enhance communication and collaboration.

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.