The Primitive Podcast: Keith Mann

Posted by The Prim Pack | January 7, 2021


Taking a deep dive into all things leadership wouldn’t be the same without Keith Mann, an individual whose career has included time at one of the big four accounting firms, Arthur Anderson, to his eventual role as CEO of Diversified Lenders.

A long track record of exceptional leadership has propelled Keith to the top of his game and within his years of career adventures comes a path full of highs and lows. 

And in this episode of The Primitive Podcast, we get a chance to explore the full journey with Keith where he even surprises us with his own leadership secret weapon. 

Trust us, you’ll want to stick around ‘til the end.

Connect with the folks behind the episode:

Keith Mann and Kade Wilcox

Kade Wilcox: Hey guys! Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. Thank you for joining us for another episode where we take a deep dive into all things leadership. On today's episode, we have Keith Mann. Keith Mann has a great background. He started out at Arthur Anderson, one of the big four accounting firms, was the CFO of United Supermarkets for a while, was the CFO and the eventual CEO of Lubbock National Bank. So he has a long track record of really great leadership positions and I learned a whole lot talking to him just about leadership and what he's learned through his leadership journey. So thank you for joining us for the podcast and have a great day.

Kade Wilcox: Keith, thank you so much for joining the podcast. I've known you a long time. It's a real pleasure to have you here. And so thanks for joining us.

Keith Mann: Great. Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Kade Wilcox: So for those who listen to the podcast that don't know who Keith Mann is, walk us through your background. Tell us a little bit about your family, your career, your leadership journey and all that good stuff.

A Little About Keith

Keith Mann: You bet. Actually, I was raised here in Lubbock. My father was an accounting professor at Texas Tech for 43 years. And I didn't want to go to Tech because of that. Like a lot of kids who grow up here, I wound up at Tech and in accounting and absolutely loved it. I had him for three classes and he was by far and away my favorite professor.

Kade Wilcox: That's great.

Keith Mann: And I wish I'd kept track over the years of how many people have actually told me that he was their favorite professor. I graduated in 1993 with a master's degree, went to Dallas, worked for Arthur Anderson, who many people know as the firm that was behind the Enron debacle unfortunately.

Kade Wilcox: Were you in the middle of that, was it your fault?

Keith Mann: No.

Kade Wilcox: Okay, good.

Keith Mann: No, but I can tell you that there are a lot of great people in that firm that really got hurt through all of that. And it was really sad. United Supermarkets was one of my clients at the time and they asked me to come back and be their CFO. I'd been in Dallas about six years. So I'd really had enough of it and I was ready to move. And that was a wonderful, dream opportunity come true. 

I came back and went to work for United and the Snell family for about six years, and that was a wonderful time. Then Lubbock National Bank asked me to come be their CFO. So I did that and had a 10 year run there and left there as president. And now I've been the CEO for Diversified Lenders going on five years.

Kade Wilcox: That's crazy how fast it's gone.

Keith Mann: Yeah. Three wonderful family businesses there.

Kade Wilcox: How long were you the president of LNB?

Keith Mann: For about three years. I was CFO for about seven.

Kade Wilcox: Okay. That's cool. What was your experience like going from CFO, number driven, to CEO? What did that transition look like for you and what was that experience like going from the numbers to the guy leading the organization?

CFO vs CEO: The Common Misconception

Keith Mann: Well, when you look at good CFOs, they are well in tune with the numbers, but they're way more into strategy than you think. And a good CFO should be. 

CFO's should be building a team that is really focused on internal controls and understanding the business, but really you should be removing yourself from that and involve yourself much more into strategy issues, people issues, vision issues, and really plan on playing a very supportive role both to the CEO and to the board. 

So the transition really is not that big.

Kade Wilcox: What was the hardest part? It sounds like those aspects of being a CFO prepared you to be CEO, but what were the biggest surprises when you made that transition?

Keith Mann: I really had been very involved in the human resources aspect and they actually reported to me in my CFO role. And so I thought I was prepared, but really it's always the people issues

The financial issues, you can figure that out. Problems, you can figure it out. There's usually math involved. You can figure that out. You can figure out the dollars and cents. It's always the people. So how to lead people, how to challenge people, how to get rid of people that need to be and so forth. That's what it all boils down to.

Kade Wilcox: That's fascinating. That's a helpful perspective on what it means to be a really good CFO, because I think most people, when they think CFO, they only think numbers. And so that's a fascinating perspective. And clearly that would have helped you transition to the role of CEO.

Keith Mann: I think most people misinterpret what a CFO is. When you look around Lubbock, it's a lot of small businesses and a lot of people who are called CFO, but they're really controllers. And when you look at say a large Fortune 500 company, or much larger companies, CFOs and controllers are very distinct in what they do and the smaller the company, the lines blur on who's doing what. 

So I think a lot of people misunderstand a CFO and they instantly start thinking of a controller. Numbers, putting together journal entries, that's a controller's job, which are wonderful jobs, but in a larger organization, that's not what a CFO should be doing.

A Look Back on 2020 Through The Eyes of a Leader

Kade Wilcox: That's fascinating. That's really good. So 2020 has been a really interesting year for a lot of folks. For those listening to the podcast, this is being recorded in mid December of 2020. So when you look back on your 2020, what have you learned about yourself through this very unique experience all of us have been through?

Keith Mann: Wow. What a great question. We do a lot of work in the oil and gas space, and you look back into January and February, and I think you learned real quickly that if you had any sort of ego in this business at all, you got wiped out really fast. 

And so I think some of the lessons that you learned or that you see unfold is be careful on the bets you're making as a business because overnight things can change. And they actually did, literally, overnight in some of the financial markets and the commodities markets. 

In March, things changed overnight, over a weekend in particular, and then the next thing you know, all is crashing through the bottom of the floor.

And so when you dissect a lot of that, hopefully what you're learning from yourself is that you can look back and say, “Remember these times. Don't be arrogant in what you're doing. Don't bet the farm on the way you go about your business. And when times are good, be very careful.” 

I want to talk a little bit about this book(How the Mighty Fall) here because it dials into some of these concepts; be careful in the good times because they can change rapidly, and make sure that you haven't put your company or your owners in a position that can fail if things change overnight.

Practical Presence in the Eye of a Storm

Kade Wilcox: What did you do practically? For us at Primitive, things changed really fast. Literally what you just said. One day everything's just cranking away, the next day it's not. I'll never forget it the rest of my life. On March 16th, for us, it just dramatically changed. 

And so I think back to that day, I think of the way I felt, and I think of the way we started making decisions. So what did that look like for you? What'd you do with your team? What were you thinking? How did you calm the storm, for lack of better words? Practically, what did you do in that moment of disruption with your team and your clients and things like that?

Keith Mann: The first thing that I think that you have to do as a leader is you have to be present. So we pulled everybody together and we spent time in the same room and spent time just talking to each other and allowing each other to share their thoughts and fears and concerns about what was going on. 

At one point we described the situation as trying to catch falling sharp knives. You're going to get hurt. You're going to get cut. But how do we do this? And so I think what was really important was we pulled together our team, we pulled together our owners, and we sat and we spent time staring at each other and talking because that was so important to do at that time because everybody was afraid. 

Everybody was concerned. Our clients were concerned. So we spent time with each other, letting everybody air their fears and their concerns.

And we spent time on the phone with our clients. We started reaching the time where, with COVID, you couldn't really go spend time in clients’ offices. And so we spent time on the phone helping them understand that we're in a stable position and we're there to help them. They needed that reassurance and that confidence that we're not going anywhere. 

We had several companies that we talked to during that time that were coming to us, and their banks were cutting them off. They were telling them, “No, we can't deal with you anymore. You're in oil and gas.” And literally giving them a two week notice to be gone. 

That's a scary proposition for anybody. So we made sure that we were trying to talk to those companies and walk them through a transition phase and just trying to have a calm voice during the time and a clear head and making sure that we were listening. I think it was so important to listen –  listen to everybody, listen to your clients, listen to your owners. What are their fears and concerns and how do we manage that? So it was time.

Kade Wilcox: Yeah, that's really good. As the leader of the organization, what were you doing to absorb your own stress and your own concern, because everyone deals with these types of things on a personal level, not just a work level. So what were you doing to stay healthy and stay engaged and stay in a strong place?

Keith Mann: Well, part of what helped me was what I just described there, too. Being present wasn't just for the team. I needed the team around me. I needed to be in the presence of owners. I needed to be around our people to hear them. I needed to know where their concerns were and where their fears were so that we could chart a course. 

You may have grand visions and mission statements and so on and so forth, but in March of 2020 all of that just flew out the door and you had to be careful. You really had to listen. Where are your fears and what are you worried about, in the midst of this pandemic and oil and gas debacle? What's keeping you up at night? That really helped me then chart very short-term courses of action. 

Same thing with our clients, really dialing into where their injury was about to happen and how we could either help or not. Because there are times when you can't solve everyone's problems. So that helped me.

And I think at the time, we spent more time at home. Of course we were about to roll into a lockdown, but just spending time around Sherri and the boys, and trying to eat well, exercise and just maintain a balance. 

And really trying to sleep, although, it was hard. In the midst of all this, trying to be as healthy as you can mentally, emotionally, spiritually; it was important to try to be healthy so that you can make good calls.

Kade Wilcox: I appreciate that. At a time when personal health is the hardest you need it the most. And so it can be hard to press into those things because you feel like, “No, I need to work longer hours,” or “I need to make something happen.” 

And it's hard enough where you can't really try any harder, you know? So I admire your approach.

Keith Mann: You need those moments of clarity. And moments of clarity don't come when you're extremely stressed out. You have to find a way to find that peace and that balance and the clarity or else you're just chasing your tail. And your company and your owners, they depend on you to not be chasing your tail and to not be overly fearful in the midst of tragedy. That's when you gotta be calm and focused.

The Primary Responsibilities of a Leader

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. So my next question for you, when you think about the role of a leader in our organization — and you can answer this from your own personal experience, you can speak into it aspirationally, you can think about it in your current role at Diversified, or you can think about it in your past roles, any of those are fair game — but when you think about the role of a leader for an organization, what do you see as their primary responsibilities or the things from your own experience you feel like are really critical and important for a leader to provide an organization?

Keith Mann: I touched on it when we were talking about the tragedy and the turmoil, but it doesn't stop there. So when I say be present and engaged, I mean all the time; I think it's so critical for leaders to be around. 

You look at some of these larger corporations and people never have any idea who their leaders really are or they might even just read about them. And that's unfortunate. 

One of the things that always really impressed me about being at United was the family and the leadership throughout the organization. They were everywhere all the time. Now that might drive some people crazy, but they were there and they were very present. And I was really learning from that. If you worked up in the corporate office, you were in the stores all the time and you were listening to our people, listening to our customers.

That's how you figured things out. 

So being present. But not just present, but being engaged. 

I was always fascinated watching the family at United and how they knew everybody in the store. They remembered names. Whether it was somebody sacking groceries to cutting meat or whatever it was they were fantastic at that. And I learned a lot from that. So learning how to really be present and engaged started with them. As I've talked about working for different families in Lubbock, don't take me wrong or anything. If I'm talking about one, that doesn't mean the others weren't good at it. I'm just trying to highlight some points. 

Of course I think it's very important to be driving towards a bigger picture, but at the same time, you've got to understand the building blocks and the details of what you're doing, because sometimes you might be pursuing a course that's just not possible. It's just not feasibly possible, no matter how loud you bark, no matter how hard you push, it might not be in the best interest of a company, or it might not work financially. It might be too risky. And I've seen that, not in the organizations where I've worked, but primarily in the organizations that I used to audit when I was in Dallas. I saw too many leaders not into the details of understanding what was really driving their company. In fact, I've seen that quite a bit in banking and in finance. You'll have companies out there where leaders can sell the sizzle on a steak and they can sell their product. And they're really good at that. They have a great elevator speech. 

But they really don't know what's going on inside their own organization. And they're generally terrible listeners because they want to talk, they want to tell you what's going on. 

The reality is, if they  go listen to their team from the janitor all the way up they'll figure things out.  But they won't, and they don't take the time to do it. 

So when you talk about a role, to me, you have to be engaged in what's really going on. You have to understand the details.

Kade Wilcox: That's really fascinating how that can shape the vision. Because my first instinct I had when you were talking about that is like, well, what about the vision? What about the future? What about what the future could be? What about crafting and creating the future? And so maybe a really good leader isn't all just vision or all just what's currently real and what's currently happening, but someone who can take both the reality of what the team is hearing and what the team is seeing and what's really happening in reality. And then that influences the future. So how would you balance that? Because as a futurist over here, I'm really struggling with that answer. It's like, wait a second. There's nothing wrong with the sizzle or the spice or the future. So how have you tried to balance those two things?

Keith Mann: Okay. We'll go back to your point. Yes. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the vision and the sizzle. You have to do both. You've got to be all of that. And when you look at the greatest leaders out there, they're all of that. They're not just one-sided, they're very well-balanced. You better be prepared on a moment's notice to give your elevator speech to somebody as to what's going on in your organization and how to sell the vision and what you're all about. Because you'll get asked or you might have to make a pitch or whatever it is, you have to be good at that. But if that's all you have as a leader, then your day is coming because you really aren't going to be tied into what's really going on in the organization. So you have to do it all.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. If you don't have the insight from the team, from the clients, from listening, from all the things you said, it's almost like you have a thin veneer of a vision, but it has no real substance. It's not really rooted in truth. I've never thought of it that way. I could almost pause the podcast and really think through that. That's really good. What else do you think of in terms of the role of a leader?

Keith Mann: Find great people. Because the way that you do all that I was just describing is by having a great team. It's a little overused, but people often say, “Try to hire people smarter than you.” That is so true. Find people that are really great and passionate and try to inspire them, dial into them, push them, and work with them. And you'll find yourself better able to do all that I was talking about from the details to the vision. 

Build a good team, and build a team that trusts you. You've got to be trustworthy because if you're not trustworthy, the team's not going to trust you. They're not going to share with you. And you're still not going to know what's going on.

How The Mighty Fall

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. You are the first podcast guest ever to bring a book with you, which I think is awesome. What is it about this book? And for those who can't see it, you can tell it's very much read. It's not one of those books that just sits on a shelf. So can you tell me maybe some of the biggest things you've learned from this?

Keith Mann: Yeah. So this book is called How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins. And so in the early 2000's, Jim Collins wrote a book Good to Great, and everybody was quoting it. 

Every conference you went to, it just seemed to be all over, talking about level five leaders and the right seat on the bus. (You need to put people in the right seat on the bus or get them off the bus and these constant analogies to the bus.)

And what fascinates me about this book is the author came in and said, “Well hold on a second. We've had some really good companies, some great companies, fail.” And some of the companies that he was talking about in the book Good to Great failed. And I love how he wanted to go back and dissect and say, ”Timeout. What happened?”

I tend to learn better that way. I like to learn from dissecting something that went wrong. People talk about failure all the time and I hate it, but it's part of life and it's how you build a corporation and a corporate culture. And it's really how you build your business, unfortunately. But he took a deep dive in How the Mighty Fall. And so throughout all of his research and so forth, he came up with five key points in here. And if you don't mind, I just want to go through those.

Kade Wilcox: Please do. That’s awesome.

Keith Mann: So point number one, he labeled it Hubris Born of Success. You can lose sight of what actually brought you success and sometimes even luck brought you success. And so the more arrogant you are about that, that's your first warning sign. 

That moves into the second phase of the decline. You're on the upslope here, but it’s an Undisciplined Pursuit of More. The word undisciplined was very important. They're overreaching, and you can see this in different types of industries when they begin to feel like they're bulletproof and they start making big bets or into different areas where they really are reaching way outside of their zone. 

The third point here was the Denial of Risk and Peril that you face. So when things start to not go well, or you're starting to suffer some setbacks and so forth, you'll hear people start to blame external factors. It's always some other issue. It's always somebody else's fault, always something's fault. It's the economy, it's COVID, it's whatever. And there's real destruction that's gone on in 2020, but in a sense, I took a lot of what he was saying as there is denial of your role in that as well. Denial of your role, and having taken these risks and not really taking these perils as he would describe them seriously. 

The fourth step was when you see a company start to Grasping for Salvation. You're on the downhill side here, and some of the things that he mentioned there were when you hear companies trying to look for that silver bullet. Some of those he described are “We've got to go out and get a very charismatic leader” because “they're going to lead us out of this,” or they all of a sudden enter into some bold and untested strategy, or you hear a company say, ”We're going to go through this radical transformation.”

Basically, they don't know what's going on. They don't know how to fix it. So they’re just going to radically transform everything and hopefully that'll work. Take, for example, when you see companies going for some just game changing acquisition thinking they’re going to acquire such and such or some technology or something, whatever that may be, whatever company that may be, and that's going to solve their problems. 

Acquisitions are probably the hardest thing you'll ever go through in companies. So thinking that you're going to go through acquisitions and make life better is generally off the mark. That doesn't mean it doesn't need to happen, but when you hear CEOs touting something huge that’s going to change the course, the author's argument is you're probably already in stage four decline.

Then stage five indicates you're pretty much done. He called it Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death of the Company. These cumulative setbacks and failures just erode the strength of the company to the point where they're either going to dismantle, sell, whatever it might be. And one of the very interesting companies he mentions in here is Bank of America. But you got to go back into the seventies and eighties to understand what he's talking about. The original Bank of America, not the one you know today, but the one that failed. And it was actually sold. 

Today there's been a series of name changes and so forth to this great company we have as a Bank of America. But back in the day I think he quoted it as the largest institution in the world at the time, and it failed.

Kade Wilcox: That's really good. When you think of the first three points, particularly like hubris, undisciplined approach for more, or denial of risk, I wonder if it'd be fair to say that one really important characteristic of an organization is self-awareness? And if you agree with that, as a leader, how do you stay self-aware so you don't forget where your successes come from, or you don't start to have an inaccurate depiction of reality? Then you start going off in a wrong direction because you've lost grip. How do you think a leader really promotes and builds self-awareness which then helps promote self-awareness as an organization?

Keith Mann: I think it goes back to what we discussed earlier and understanding the details. Why aren't you successful? What is driving your success? Who's driving your success and not just your customer base. Too many times companies want to look to a customer base for example, and that's a great place to understand, but what about your people? What about how those customers are connected to your team? What's really driving your success? Is it blind luck? I think understanding all of this is part of self-awareness. You've got to know that information, not just selling your vision, you've got to know why. And part of the author's arguments in here is that too many companies and too many leaders don't know why they're taking risks and they're patting themselves on the back for a lot of success, but they're not quite sure why maybe. And when I say that, not quite sure why, I mean, they know the successes they've had say with customer wins or product sales, and they know some of that, but they don’t know what are the real tipping points behind their success and who's behind it. And I think that's where it's got to start, that self-awareness.

Kade Wilcox: What is your approach to your own personal growth? How do you stay inspired? So much of being a leader is giving of yourself to others. But what do you do on a personal level? And feel free to be as practical as you like on how you approach personal growth and staying inspired as a leader.

Keith Mann: When I think about that, the first thought that came to mind was, you have to spend time around people you would deem as good leaders or mentors, and you have to listen. Good leaders listen more than they talk. And so for me, I like to seek out people who I think are either good leaders in the field that I'm in or other fields. And I love to listen to them. I love to ask questions. I like to understand how they lead, whether it's a not-for-profit charity, whether it's a healthcare organization, whether it's any type of business or government, I like to hear people. I learn that way.

I like to read. I wish I could say I was a great reader, but I'm a slow reader and that's very frustrating. And so it'll take me a long time to read and digest something. One thing here I think is practical maybe for your listeners, I know of one source, and there may be others where they have book summaries. One's called Soundview. Have you ever heard of that?

Kade Wilcox: No, I haven't.

Keith Mann: What they do is they take books, maybe this book here, How the Mighty Fall, I don't know if it's on that list or not, and they'll summarize the book into eight pages, always eight pages, and they give you a synopsis of the book. And it's meant for speed reading because a lot of leadership books, you can boil it down to eight pages and that's all you need. So that's something that may be practical for your listeners to do is go check it out. And there are a lot of good books out there. It's a little bit at times like Netflix in that you're not going to get the blockbusters that are out right away. But they have a lot of good information.

Kade Wilcox: It's awesome. I, too, am an extremely slow reader and I struggle with retention so I can spend all this time reading a book, and then a week later someone says, “What'd you learn?” and I have no idea. I have to go back to all the things I underlined. So that'd be a really helpful tool for me.

Keith Mann: I have to mark and highlight and make notes because when you do want to go back in time and remind yourself what stood out. So I have to do that.

Advice for a Younger Keith

Kade Wilcox: That's awesome. My last question for you is if you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you give yourself based on what you know now? If Keith Mann could go back 20 years and speak to the young leader that was developing at that point, what would you tell him?

Keith Mann: Well, I'd go back into my twenties and I'd go back to when we were living in Dallas and thinking that I had to work the crazy hours and I had to do what I was doing to try to get ahead or to try to survive, try to pay the bills, whatever it was to build a career, and I'd go back and say, “Over the course of your life, your jobs are going to change, no telling how many times. We all hope they don't, but the reality is they're going to, especially for this upcoming generation. But I'd go back and say absolutely focus on your marriage. Do not let any career, any job get in the way. It's not worth not being dialed into your marriage because I think too many times we struggled through this that we think, “I have to do this for my family,” or “I have to do this to try to maybe learn something or get another promotion.” And at the end of the day, what you really want is to be married for 50 years. And if your job changes 10 times, that's okay. And I'd go back and say, ”Don't lose sight of that,” because we got married in our twenties and lived in Dallas and it was hard. I traveled all the time. It was really hard on Sheri. And I'm grateful that she stuck with it quite frankly. But I go back and say, make sure you're doing all you can to focus more on her because at the end of the day, that's what's going on.

Kade Wilcox: Thanks for all your time. It's been really great having you on the podcast.

Keith Mann: Thank you. It's been an honor and I appreciate it.

Stay Up to Date With Primitive

Subscribe now to receive your free, all-access pass to the wisdom and lessons learned from your favorite local leaders. Only on the Primitive Podcast.