The Primitive Podcast: Alex Fairly
Posted by Kade Wilcox | January 6, 2021
Going from a successful offense to confronting a pandemic with Alex Fairly
The CEO of The Fairly Group, Alex Fairly, guides us through the fundamental principles he has taken from leading his firm to navigate leading through a global pandemic.
As the first repeat guest on The Primitive Podcast, Fairly brings a renewed sense of transparency to 2020 while also challenging leaders to unearth what it means to lead with humility. You won't want to miss it.
Kade Wilcox (00:02):
Hey guys, Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. Thank you for listening as we take a deep dive into all things leadership. On today's episode with Alex Fairly from Amarillo. This is actually the second time Alex has been on the podcast. The first time was about six to seven months ago right as COVID was starting to really impact our lives. And so I thought it'd be really great to have Alex back on and learn some things from him about his company's response to COVID and what he's learned about his own leadership. I also wanted to ask Alex onto the podcast because he's chosen to involve himself in a couple of issues on a local level in Amarillo that really are outside of his normal day-to-day work. And I wanted to ask why and hear from him on his perspective of why a leader like him would involve himself in other things that really matter. So I hope you enjoy this episode. I always learn so much from Alex and appreciate his time. Thank you for joining The Primitive Podcast and sharing it with your friends. Take care.
Alex Fairly (01:02):
When I was young, when I was 30 and 35, I just knew I was so smart and everything I thought of was the right answer. I just said, that's a good idea. Let's just go do that. And I went and did some stupid things and I did some things that utterly failed. With time failure brings you the humility that lets you say all ideas aren't good. So I have my experience to draw on and you get experience however you get it. But the main thing is I let time take its toll on ideas.
Kade Wilcox (01:38):
So first of all, thank you for joining. I told you via email, you're our only two time guest so far. And so it's really fun because the first time you were on was six to seven months ago, it was right when COVID was hitting and a whole lifetime of stuff has happened in the last six to seven months. So what are some of the most significant leadership challenges you faced over the last seven months? When you think of these last seven months what are some of the biggest challenges you faced as a leader?
Alex Fairly (02:10):
Yeah. I would put that in a couple of categories. One is it's a challenge to lead people that are fearful and aren't sure what's going to happen next and are discouraged and are tired. Our companies have had the good fortune of being successful. And when you have momentum and you're playing offense and you're winning, it's frankly easier to lead that group of people when something comes crashing in and their worlds have to change and their parents are sick and their kids can't go to school. That requires a whole new level of leadership. So that's been a different challenge. We lead through the same principles. They apply in good times and tough times, the same principles apply. You look after your folks and you take good care of them and you wake up everyday thinking about them.
Alex Fairly (03:09):
I don't remember exactly what I said six months ago, but I'm sure I said that the other challenge is just your clients. Your clients are in trouble and they need help in ways that they've never needed your help before. And other vendors are panicking about their own businesses. And we just made a commitment in those times that we were going to wake up everyday still being who we are. Thinking about our clients and thinking about each other. And we just kept doing the same things, but it was definitely harder. You have to be more intentional. You have to spend more time. You do things you've never done before. Take care of people. Fly somebody to see their father before he dies. We did some things that the times demanded, but principally, you lead in the same way in crisis as you do in good times.
Kade Wilcox (04:06):
Yeah. That's good. What are a few things you've learned about yourself, through these last seven months? So, both of the things you talked about, doubling down on your people and caring for them and leading them in the same way, but with intentionality. Same thing with your clients doubling down on serving your clients and being there for them during their tough times. What have you learned about yourself throughout the last seven months?
Alex Fairly (04:35):
I think I would have said going into seven months ago that people who know me think I probably work harder than anyone in the company. My clients might say that. And one of the things I learned is there was more in that tank. There was just more. And I think that's probably true of all people in a crisis. I think I went at one point through a stretch of 40 some days and I worked every day. There was no weekend and there was a period of time in there that people and most of our clients were in such a crisis that you just kept working and you just showed up the next day. And there just was a lot more in there. My runway, I thought I knew what it was and it's just even a little bit longer now. Not that you could go that pace forever without a break, but there was more in there.
Alex Fairly (05:31):
The other thing that you find out in crisis, if you're looking, you find some flaws and there were some things that I probably don't want to go into though, that I just could do better. There were some things I got involved in that I didn't need to be involved in. There are things that other people can do better than I can. There are new ways to do things. That pressure rises to the top that just made us better. And so frankly, besides knowing we were up to it and feeling like I was up to a difficult time I also found out several ways that I just can be better. And some of that is doing more. Some of that is doing less. But in the middle of the fire, you find the impurities, if you will.
Kade Wilcox (06:24):
That's really good. How do you work? You just talked about how you learned that there's more in the tank, that you have this ability to go deeper than you thought you could in terms of effort and giving yourself to your company. How do you work? This is a super practical question, but I like this stuff and I guess it's my podcast, so if I'm the only one that cares I have that luxury. Did you have to be at your office? Do you have a home office that you have perfectly set up? Do you have to get away to do your best work and travel away from the company? What does that look like on a practical level?
Alex Fairly (07:08):
Yeah, so we closed our offices in the beginning of March, even before Amarillo issued a stay home order. About a week before, I made the decision, not knowing what was going on, that we needed to be out in front of it. I felt like it was coming. There was a little work that we needed to do, so it gave us time to get in front. We were pretty ready, so we did it early. But in our building, we have a couple of floors, they're 15,000 square feet. So I needed to come to work and I came to work every day. All my things are here. My computers are here. I'm just comfortable here because I could come. And there was no one in the building. There were some days there were four or five people in the building.
Alex Fairly (07:57):
And so I came to work every day. Some mornings I get up at four o'clock and I just put my clothes on and I came to the office, there was some freedom in that. It didn't matter how I looked, I wore shorts and I just was in go work mode. So I came every day. And I live five minutes from my office. I'm not comfortable being at home working. I just can't focus and concentrate at home. So I was here every day.
Kade Wilcox (08:29):
Are you a big note taker and a journaler or whiteboard guy, or is all your best work done in your head and then it's expressed through relationships internally or with clients? Or is your work always on the phone with clients or employees and teammates? What does that work look like?
Alex Fairly (08:49):
I'm not a huge note taker. In fact, it's probably a weakness. I should take more notes. My office has a whiteboard and I'll use it sometimes, but probably not nearly like some people would or could. I tend to have a lot of things going and I am constantly going from one to the other, what I got to work more to do. So frankly, this is going to sound really disorganized, but it is where I am. My emails and my tasks and my phone calls, they become my go-to to do list. That's how my life is organized around those things. And some of them are more important, some are less, but I don't have another system. I don't take notes on another piece of paper. But I keep up with all of it. I file things when they're done. I keep that thing pretty tight.
Alex Fairly (09:48):
My best thinking time I have is to get away from it all. And honestly, I do that on my bike. I rode my bike this year about 300 hours, which probably equates to about 6,000 miles. On my bike, the phone is off and my best thinking, all my best ideas, happen there. I don't know if it's because there's adrenaline going when you're exercising, but all my thinking, all my best ideas, they all come in my quiet time on my bike. And so that might be more than you wanted.
Kade Wilcox (10:21):
No, it's perfect. I think about it a lot, the practice of work. How you stay organized and how you organize your goals and objectives, and it's easy to overthink it. Everyone has their own model and what works for them. So that stuff's really fascinating. There's a publication called Lifehacker and they have this whole series on how I work and they interview people and it's like, what is your computer? What's your to do list? And so I just find it completely fascinating and you can always learn from people.
Kade Wilcox (10:58):
Why have you been successful? When you think about your success, what I know of you, you're a successful husband, you're a successful father, you're a successful business owner. We'll get more into some other things in a little bit, but you've engaged yourself on some community level issues and you've been successful there. I know this could sound really egotistical and arrogant, but why do you think you've been successful? Has it been luck? Has it been hard work? Have you been in the right place at the right time? What is it that you think has attributed to your success?
Alex Fairly (11:38):
I'll do the easy things first. There's some luck. I don't think that's why anyone's successful because sometimes there's good luck sometimes with bad luck. I think mostly, and the reason I don't feel like I'm bragging is because I think this is true of all people. And I've been very deliberate in my professional and my personal life to focus on this. I think that every human is amazing at a few things. We raised our kids looking for their gifts. Our very first kid had a physical gift and it became utterly obvious to the world without us looking or trying that he was a world-class athlete. And I looked at that as a parent and realized our younger kids were all going to be asked, do you ride bikes like your older brother? He was known all over the world as a cyclist. And I began focusing on the fact that I felt all my kids had special gifts and we as parents, we needed to help them find them. And I think, Kade, your kids have them. I think every human is amazing at a few things, but here's really the more important thing, that we are average to bad at everything else. And I, as a leader, am always looking for my people to further refine and understand the shape of the peg that they are. Because when we get those people in as close as we can, the exact hole and that peg fits that person is happy and they're successful and they perform incredibly. And so I basically have ascertained the few things I'm good at, and it's really just a few, literally two or three.
Alex Fairly (13:39):
And I've come to this conclusion, everything else I'm not very good at. And I have spent my professional life focusing my time on doing things I'm good at and letting other people do the things I'm not good at that they are good at. And that becomes the makeup of a team. Johnny does what he's amazing at better than I could. So I let him do it and he's happy doing it. He's not doing what I'm good at, cause he would fail at it and Sally is the same thing. But I would say of all the things, I do have some gifts, you have gifts, everyone has gifts. If you can find them and spend your time doing those things. If you're the most amazing teacher on the planet, then fine. Let's figure it out and be an amazing teacher. I think the only sad thing about that is our society ranks things that are important. We don't think teachers are as important as guys who can make money, which I utterly disagree with. So our best people don't go teach because we don't pay them to teach. But people are amazing, and if they can figure out what they're good at and then do that, everyone I think can be successful in their version of success.
Kade Wilcox (14:47):
That's really good. Thanks for sharing that. When it comes to evaluating new opportunities for you to express your gifts, whether it's business or non-profit, whatever it is, how do you decide or evaluate whether you should or shouldn't pursue something?
Alex Fairly (15:07):
There's some painful history behind that answer. So as you work and live life and be in business and raise kids and do all the things, whatever you do you get more experienced and as life goes on, you just make those decisions better. But I would say one of the main things is when I was young, when I was 30 and 35, I just knew I was so smart and everything I thought of was the right answer. And I said oh, that's a good idea. It's mine. I'm sure its good. Let's just go do that. And I went and did some stupid things and I did some things that utterly failed. With time failure brings you the humility that lets you say all ideas aren't good. So I have my experience to draw on and you get experience, however you get it.
Alex Fairly (16:03):
But the main thing is I let time take its toll on ideas. I give my ideas time. Some big complicated ideas, it may be nine months. Some other things, it might be three days and I let time just sift my ideas. And then I go and I get input, but I think those are the reasons why we are where we are now with our ratio of picking things that work well. I'm not in such a rush. I'm more experienced and I hope we have the humility to know that I can come up with some bad ideas that I need to let go of.
Kade Wilcox (16:45):
You talk about giving space to think through and really evaluate, is there anything you do practically there? Or is it literally you think on it and you give it mental space and you give it physical time? That nine months you mentioned. I'm not good at that is why I'm asking. Cause the moment I have an idea, I'm like, I have to act on that. That's the best thing I've ever thought of. You just said the opposite. You have an idea. And then you sit on it for a while. What does that look like?
Alex Fairly (17:19):
So two things. The only practical thing that I do is on things that I think I could use some input on. I go get input. I go and I specifically look for people that I think will be negative or against it so I can overcome those things. I don't need advice from people who agree with me. There's no value in that. I'm looking for people that maybe they're pessimistic or I just know that they think a certain way. I go to those people, but I mostly give it time and I let my gut take over.
Alex Fairly (17:58):
And the other thing though that I am doing is, if it's an idea, I keep going down the road of thinking and maybe taking a step one way or the other toward it. I would need to do this or that. So I'll dig into that a little and usually the good ideas, those things fall into place and you get momentum and you get comfortable and you get confident or it goes the other way. And when it does, I just recognize that. And so I just made a big decision that I've worked on really hard for six weeks, a deal that I was going to do. It's contracted, it's under agreement. A lot of people were involved and this morning I nixed it and I just have had a feeling a few different times over the last three weeks. It's just something in my gut. I can't put my finger on it, but I can't come to peace with it. And I came to a place where I had to go. I had a deadline and I nixed the deal that may have been a good deal, but I just give it time and I work through it and see if that goes well and I go get advice, but if I don't get comfortable, I don't do a deal. If I don't know if we have confidence and peace about it, I don't go through with it.
Kade Wilcox (19:17):
That's good. Thanks for sharing that. So this is shifting gears just a little bit, but in 2020, it's been real clear that you've involved yourself and exerted your energy, your passion, your skillset into a couple of high profile projects, for lack of a better word. One was a congressional election and the other was an issue at the city level. I'm just curious, and this is playing off a little bit about what I just asked, but I feel like this is different because it's outside the scope of your professional life, so to speak, but how do you make a decision to jump into two really big issues, complex issues that, from an outside perspective would almost seem like out of your lane. So how do you process that and why do you do those kinds of things?
Alex Fairly (20:15):
So before we went on the air, I was telling you about my feeling that focus is a big part of every inch of my life. And the ability to not just to be focused and not let distractions bother you, but to walk away from things that don't matter. So the beginning of my answer on that question is I have this belief that comes from my faith, that when people have any kind of need, it may be money, it may be influence, it may be status, that they have a responsibility to use that for right and good, and to give back. And it's a bit of a philosophy about responsible stewardship. And so at this time in my life, because of some success we have, or some reputation we've gained, I feel like I have a voice in some places.
Alex Fairly (21:23):
And I feel like I have a responsibility to use that voice for right and for good. And so one of those things was the congressional election that ultimately Ronny Jackson won. I met him in a meeting, completely unrelated to the election, and had really no interest in the election. And when I met this guy, he was the underdog. He was behind by 20 points. No one thought he was going to win. I was so utterly impressed by him, and again we never talked about the election. The whole meeting it never came up. It was about another project that some guys that I knew were asking him to help us with because of his influence at the White House. And I got through the meeting and I heard him talk and I just thought, this is the kind of person we need to be a Congressman. And it was this principle like moment, like this guy needs to win this race and he needs somebody to help him. And I just got in it.
Alex Fairly (22:17):
This other thing that I got into was called Proposition A in Amarillo. It just got decided in the last election. It was similar in that it was a plan that was raising taxes, that the city were raising it by 38% or 39%. And I felt like the plan besides that being a lot of money, I didn't think it was a good plan. I thought it was going to fail. And it's an area of things that we know some about. It's our area of expertise. And I first went and tried to turn their minds. But they wouldn't. And so it was, again, that one was similar, but it was me saying Amarillo taxpayers don't understand. They're about to get hit for 39%. Most of them won't take the time to figure out if this is a good idea or not. And I knew that and I felt like the plan wasn't good. And I literally just felt a responsibility to expend my resources and my influence. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to get involved in it. I knew I was going to make people mad, but I just felt like I had a responsibility to give back because it was a moment that I could. And so it has to matter, it's not like let's see what way the wind's going today. It has to matter. And usually, it needs to be some principled issue. And then there's a thousand things every day I don't do. There's really not many, but it's true when we pick one, we're all in.
Kade Wilcox (23:53):
Yeah. It makes sense. You mentioned relationships, what have you learned about that? I guess I could ask this in so many ways, but how do you manage relationships? We live in a hyper, souped-up culture. It's like every single issue is 50-50, and you either love it or you hate it, and there's really no middle. So how do you approach these things? How do you try to manage and maintain and nurture relationships while still being principled? And what is your advice there? Because all of us face different ways where we find ourselves on the opposite end of a spectrum from someone that we're supposed to be good neighbors to and friends with and things like that. And so when you dive into these things, how do you still try to stay focused on people? Because people are more important than issues, right? And so just interact with that and what's been your experience and how do you think about it? How do you repair relationships that are damaged through the course of things like that?
Alex Fairly (25:11):
Yeah. Well, it's such a good question. And I will say this part has been a really tough awakening for me. It's really true. When you disagree with people, you find out who your friends are. So the first thing is you have to just remember that relationships are the priority. You just can't forget that when people who you thought were your friends start shooting arrows at you or saying things that you think are false. You just want to go to the other side and attack them. And so you have to remember that it's the priority. And you do that all the way through. After the elections, I went back to a group of people in a couple of different ways and said, hey, this is over, we should come together and be collaborative. That was met largely with a little bit of a go to hell response. But today I'm working on still rebuilding those. And some of those people, they come around. There's a guy in Amarillo who's really well known. And he was as mad as anybody in town at me, but I let the thing happen and I let it die down and I've gone back to him and he's just proven to be a great friend. He still disagrees with me, of course. He doesn't know what I'm hopefully going to do in the end. And he will agree with me in the end. Cause he just can't see it yet, but he will.
Alex Fairly (26:44):
What I've learned is you have to be prepared to know that some people, they don't have tolerance for you to disagree with them. And when you do, you become their enemy and you have to accept it. And it's sad, but I still am optimistic. And I think some of these people are mad. I'm not going to quit trying to be their friend. And I'm not too proud to think, see you later. I intend to heal those. Some come fast, some take longer. Some may never happen, but if that's your priority, you never give up and you keep working.
Kade Wilcox (27:27):
That's good. Thanks for sharing all of that. And thanks for being honest. One of the things I really appreciate about you is, you're not trying to wax on wax off. It's all here and some is good, some is tough. And so thanks for your honesty and transparency there. Just a couple more questions for you and then I'll let you go. What's your assessment on leadership in general? We've had a lot of cultural moments this year, whether it be on local levels, state levels, the national level. You have the pandemic, you have the economic crisis that came with it, you have the presidential election. We've experienced a lot in a short period of time. And I'm just curious about your overall assessment of leadership in general on all levels of society. What are your thoughts there?
Alex Fairly (28:19):
I think good, healthy leadership is the shortest resource we have on the planet. I said a few times if having this pandemic is the worst thing that's happened to the world in my life, it happening during a presidential election was the second worst thing because the leadership that we needed, it was always jaundiced with I have to run for reelection in eight months or ten months or eleven months. So people didn't always make the absolute, most unselfish best decision. It was always watered down with how's this going to look and frankly you have another side just attacking whatever you do. So it was also political. So we didn't handle the pandemic that well, but healthy leadership wakes up every day saying I'm doing the right thing for everybody else no matter what it costs me.
Alex Fairly (29:21):
I had somebody push back against what I want to do next in Amarillo with the downtown project, because I want to put something on the ballot in May. Well, city politicians don't want to put something to spend money on the same ballot as they're running. And my answer to that is how dare you? If you're unwilling to do the right thing at the right time, just so you can stay in there, why be in there? You're not doing anything just so you can stay in there. That's not great leadership. And so I just think, and listen. I wake up a lot of days too and I'm selfish and I don't do the right thing. And I'm not as good a leader that day. It's not like we have some perfect people and some imperfect, we're all imperfect. But leadership is the most scarce resource, in my opinion, on the relational planet. And I think it's showing in our world right now.
Kade Wilcox (30:24):
Yeah. That's really good. What's your encouragement and challenge to leaders? When you think about how critical leaders are and when you think of the shortage and just how desperate all levels of society are for really great leaders. If there's a leader listening to this podcast and you could really challenge them on a couple of levels, What would you say?
Alex Fairly (30:48):
That is so simple, I would say be unselfish and be humble. If you're unselfish, then you will just be focused on the mission. The only thing that matters every day is the mission and your people and their well being. And that requires some humility. You can't always get the credit. You can't always be the guy there with the trophy. Wake up every day and be humble and be unselfish. Think about your clients. Think about the people beside you. Think about the people who work for you. In our company, we call it being outward. Everything you do, think about how it affects the people I work with, the people I work for, the people who work for me, my clients. And then when you get off of yourself, then you can get on the mission. And we wake up everyday thinking about the mission and taking care of each other. And I don't get it right every day. But no matter what level you lead, if you're the president of the most powerful country in the world, or you're just some guy in Amarillo like me, or somewhere in between, or you're leading your kids, I would just say, be humble and be unselfish. And that's the most crucial thing to become a good leader.
Kade Wilcox (32:08):
Yeah. That's good stuff, Alex. I really admire you. Thank you for giving your time and for always letting me ask questions and learn from you. I really appreciate it. It means a lot to me.
Alex Fairly (32:19):
I'm happy to do this cause I have the same respect. You've been incredible for us and projects and rushes and stuff. So I always have time even when it's off the air.