Mike Lantz On Creating Impactful Cultures with Transformative Leadership

Written by Matthew Ludden / January 9, 2024 / 22 Minute Read
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If you want your business to grow, you need to nurture your people. For Mike Lantz, Founder of ML Talent Strategies and trueU, investing in the whole person, not just their professional development is table stakes. Find out how he approaches development for the whole person on this episode of Here We Grow.


Here We Grow

Episode 7

Your company could be the hallowed ground for life changing, transformative leadership. But…that doesn’t happen by accident.

In this episode of the Here We Grow, Marcia Barnes sits down with Mike Lantz, founder of trueU, to explore the impact of transformative leadership and how you can cultivate a great culture that is achieving organizational success. Mike shares his lessons for building businesses around contributors who align on values and have plenty of opportunities for personal development.

Tune in to hear Mike’s leadership insights and learn how to implement his strategies within your own business to create a positive and long-lasting work culture focused on lasting growth.

To learn more about the podcast and Marcia Barnes’ book Here We Grow: The Marketing Formula to 10x Your Business and Transform Your Future, visit https://mathbeforemarketing.com/podcast/.

Key Takeaways:

  • Transformative leadership can elevate both individuals and businesses, instilling a sense of purpose and growth that transcends traditional success metrics.
  • Organizational clarity and talent development are essential for sustainable growth.
  • Leverage the power of organizational clarity, talent attraction, talent development, and the talent experience to shape a culture that propels your business forward.
  • By delving into the intersection of personal and professional development, you’ll uncover how investing in the whole person significantly enhances their contribution to the business.

About Mike Lantz

Mike Lantz

Chief Executive Officer & Founder

ML Talent Strategies, trueU, & SRV HR

Mike is a twenty-five-year veteran in the HR, culture, talent, training, coaching, and leadership development space. Mike’s stated purpose in live is to lead, inspire, and coach others to their greatest potential.  This purpose has driven his personal and professional decisions throughout his life.

Mike has worked with companies in business and talent strategy and employee development solutions across 31 different industries, helping him to refine a proven system that works for any size company or industry.

Prior to launching ML Talent Strategies, trueU and SRV HR, Mike spent eight years as the Chief Learning Officer at DEFENDERS, where he led all aspects of HR.  Early in his tenure with DEFENDER’s, Mike cast the vision and developed the strategy for talent and culture to be the cornerstone for DEFENDERS’ growth.  Under his leadership, DEFENDERS was recognized by Training Magazine as the 17th Top Training organization in the world.

Before joining DEFENDERS, Mike owned and operated LQ Performance Strategies for ten years before selling the company in 2009.  LQ, a full-service talent strategy firm, served over 250 companies in 30 industries.

Mike is a graduate of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.  Mike and his wife, Julie currently reside in Indianapolis, IN and they have five adult children.


Full Transcript

Marcia Barnes [00:00:05]:

In business, there are people who just show up, do their jobs, watch the clock and punch out. You don’t get as much performance out of team members who don’t find value in their work and are just trying to fulfill basic needs. However, if that same person is working for a well-run business with good processes and development of people, they can find purpose in what they do and take pride in how they do their jobs.

I will never forget Darren, a salesperson who ended up at my lunch table on his first day of work. I was the CEO of Defenders at the time and he asked me directly, what is the one most important thing I need to do to be successful here?

I told him to get a passport. I explained to Darren that he would learn about the process for making sales and being deliberate about his work and growth. This would lead him to awards and opportunities to travel the world.

What I didn’t know was that Darren didn’t have a home or a car at the time. Four years later, I got an email from Darren one day at 05:00 a.m. He wanted to share what that first conversation had done for him.

Darren got his passport. A passport to an amazing journey of becoming his best self. He began winning sales very quickly and was able to move into an apartment close to the office. In the course of five years, he had taken a sales superstar award trip every year and used his passport every time.

The morning he emailed me, he was sitting at the airport and was on his way to his third mission trip in the Dominican Republic to build a home for a family who didn’t have one. He was at a low point in his life when we had that first conversation. By counseling him to get a passport as a tool for success. I was saying in my own way, you’ve got what it takes. You can win here. Let’s plan to win and prepare ourselves this way.


Here We Grow Narrator [00:02:13]:

This is Here We Grow. A show for growth-minded leaders looking for transformational impact hosted by Marcia Barnes.

Darren’s story is a case study of the impact that this kind of transformative leadership can have. In this episode, Marcia speaks with Mike Lantz, founder of trueU, an exclusive community of companies which believe their people are what make them successful.

Mike and Marcia met during their days at Defenders along with Darren, and in this conversation, they reminisce on how transformational leadership impacted the business’s bottom line and how you can start implementing crucial culture touch points to do the same in your business today.


Marcia Barnes [00:02:58]:

Mike, I really appreciate you being in the story with Dave and all the things we were doing at Defenders. And part of what here we grow is really talking about is transformation. And at the surface it might look like transforming the value of your business, transforming your earnings, things like that. But when you really get into it, it’s much broader and deeper than that.

It’s about the transformation of human beings. We approached you about coming and joining us at Defenders. We needed you pretty bad. Now, I’m thinking at the time we were about 80 million in revenue, but some things had happened on the sales side that caused a growth plan.


Marcia Barnes [00:03:32]:

We were going to see growth of about $220,000,000 over the next couple of years, and we did not have any official development of our people in place. So we were hiring managers from the outside, and our people are not getting promoted. And that was a problem, as Dave saw it, and as I saw it too.


Mike Lantz [00:03:50]:

I’m a big believer that you’ve got to have a strategy. Everything else is just a wish and a prayer. And so hearing what you guys really wanted to accomplish, what we wanted to accomplish at Defenders, the first step was really putting a strategy into place and saying, if we want to go to half a billion in five years, how are we going to do that from a talent perspective. And so it was our pleasure to be able to put together a strategy which included the leader in training program to be able to figure out how to get there.


Marcia Barnes [00:04:17]:

I talk with a lot of companies that are clients of yours, or they belong to trueU, which is under your leadership today. And I hear about the same types of growth going on for their people and their business. As I’ve been used to seeing from you over the years, there’s some strategies behind that. Like we’re always trying to align the marketing strategy with the business strategy. How do you do that for clients? How would you tell people who are listening to think about their development strategy as they go forward?


Mike Lantz [00:04:45]:

Yeah, we see everything as overall business planning. Having three legs to a stool. It’s like three legs of a stool. The first is the overall business strategy. What do you do? What do you sell? And so it’s what they sell at what pricing? What’s the marketing strategy? Those types of things. And most organizations have that down. They understand whether it’s through an EOS model or scaling up or some other type of business planning philosophy, they have that down. The second leg that we typically think of is the financial leg.


Mike Lantz [00:05:15]:

How are they going to be able to pay for all of the things that they want to do in the first leg? And that might be raising money, it might be organically, through revenue generated in the organization, it could be taking on other investors. But usually what’s missing is the third leg. And that is how are we going to make sure that we have all of the people we need on our team who are high core value aligned people who understand their job and understand how that they contribute to the organization and they miss that piece of it. And then they wonder why they don’t achieve the goals that they set out to achieve because they didn’t have the team to go do it. Right. I’m a huge baseball fan. I know that you are as well. And at the end of the day, usually in a seven-game series, the team with the best players and the best coaches, they win.


Marcia Barnes [00:06:00]:



Mike Lantz [00:06:01]:

And I feel the same way about business. If you have the best players and the best coaches on your team, you’re going to win in the game of business. But you have to think it through and create a strategy for how you’re going to make sure that you have all of those people on your team. And it can’t just happen overnight. It’s not like you can wake up one day and say, let me go get the best people. It’s a process.


Marcia Barnes [00:06:20]:



Marcia Barnes [00:06:20]:

You spent a lot of time helping us understand that we couldn’t microwave a leader.


Mike Lantz [00:06:26]:

That’s right.


Marcia Barnes [00:06:27]:

It was more of a crock pot. Some people are going to pick up some things pretty quickly, but getting the whole of the whole person and the whole job developed takes time.


Mike Lantz [00:06:35]:

And we had an interesting dynamic at Defenders, if you recall, and we had a lot of conversations about this is not only were we needing to develop leaders, but when you’re doubling the size of your business every year, what you needed last year in a role is totally different than what you would need this year in a role when you were growing from 100 million to 200 million. A vice president of sales at 100 million is very different than a vice president of sales at 200 million.


Marcia Barnes [00:07:01]:



Mike Lantz [00:07:01]:

So it introduced some unique challenges to us on how we were going to develop those people. So we put a lot of stuff in the crock pot, but we turned the heat up because we had to get the crock pot cooked pretty quick.


Marcia Barnes [00:07:13]:

Yeah. In my world, I would think of it as I got to sprinkle some magic fairy dust over these folks and turn them into leaders quickly.


Mike Lantz [00:07:20]:

A lot of prayers.


Marcia Barnes [00:07:21]:



Marcia Barnes [00:07:21]:

And when you came in, I mean, I could see hiring managers from outside the organization was not working. So I one day said, I’m not going to hire anybody else from outside of the business for this one division, right, which was sales. There was no reason why out of 500 salespeople, that we couldn’t find a percentage of those that could be developed and moved into management. So I started working with those people who looked like they had the potential to be leaders, but I didn’t know what to do with them. So we just created little book clubs all over, and it worked. We had people that were getting promoted out of that. It was a start, but it kind of created the seed of what if we had somebody doing this that really knew what was going on? The people were hungry. They had shown the ability to grow right now, bring in the system.


Marcia Barnes [00:08:05]:

So in that scenario, we weren’t really funding l and d the way that we should. So you’re out in the marketplace talking with businesses to try and get this fixed in their business. From the marketing perspective, they’re typically, they’re spending money already or they aren’t spending any at all. And so how do you see that when you show up on the client side of the investments that businesses are making in their people? And then how should we be thinking about that as making investments in our people?


Mike Lantz [00:08:32]:

Yeah, the first thing is we find that people either get it or they don’t get it. Like they either understand the value of their people in their business. We talk about all the time that we’re looking for organizations to influence where the leaders see their people as the greatest strategic advantage they have to grow their business. And that’s the way we felt at Defenders. And you either feel that way or you don’t. And if you do feel that way, then we want to continue the conversation. And then it’s about finding in your first year, what kind of investment can you make? It’s not going to be the defender level of investment. Right.


Mike Lantz [00:09:07]:

And so what can you do to just get started? Because that’s really what happens is once you start to get started, then the thing kind of takes off and it starts to self-fund. We were spending a lot more in leadership development the day I left Defenders than the day I got there.


Marcia Barnes [00:09:21]:



Mike Lantz [00:09:22]:

But it was self-funded by the enablement that the leadership development department created for the rest of the business.


Marcia Barnes [00:09:29]:



Mike Lantz [00:09:29]:

So percentage of revenue of what we were spending was about the same over all of that time, but we were just creating a return on the investment, and that’s what I encourage businesses to do. You can’t go boil the ocean, right? Know it’s starting small and then just start growing it and building it and let the results self-fund the next year’s worth of leadership development and culture tools and things like that.


Marcia Barnes [00:09:51]:

So, Mike, a common thing that we see happening in these conversations about people development is focus on professional development or personal development. Because if you ask people, they’ll tell you, I want to know what I need to do to get promoted or get paid more. But is that the whole of what we’re dealing with in development? How do you look at that, professional versus personal development?


Mike Lantz [00:10:12]:

Well, I think at Defenders we were ahead of our time relative to that because it’s table stakes today, right, where you have to invest in the whole person and not just the work person. And back in defender days, we provided personal financial resources for people to be able to learn through people like Pete the planner. We provided education on how to grow your relationships, how to be a better parent. And so we did it because it was the right thing to do.


Marcia Barnes [00:10:36]:



Mike Lantz [00:10:37]:

But then there was also a business motive behind it because it was really impossible for a sales rep, for example, to come into a call center, receive 15 calls in a day, and really do the best job they can do protecting our customers when they just had a huge argument with their spouse in the morning or when their cell phone’s blowing up with bill collectors. And so I think the business case is really simple. The better your people can become in all aspects of their life, the more they’re going to serve your business. There’s a trueU member, one of the original trueU members who said to me one time, he said, whenever people, their performance blows up at his company, it’s never because they don’t know what they’re doing professionally. It’s always because they can’t manage their personal lives.


Marcia Barnes [00:11:20]:

That’s great.


Mike Lantz [00:11:20]:

And I think that that’s an important part of it. And a lot of businesses, they’re just like, that’s their personal life. This is our business life, but all lives, and we can thank Covid for kind of bringing this home for us, are integrated. Right. For a year or so or more, we saw your kids, your dogs, what you were having for lunch, we saw inside of your house sometimes we saw.


Marcia Barnes [00:11:41]:

More than we wanted to see through that.


Mike Lantz [00:11:43]:

Yeah. So we have to look at everybody as a whole person. And the good news is that that’s what the employee of today expects.


Marcia Barnes [00:11:50]:



Mike Lantz [00:11:50]:

And they’re not going to go to a company that sees them any differently. We believe that Defenders, that we wanted growth-oriented learners to be a part of our organization. We believed that we could learn our way out of any challenge.


Marcia Barnes [00:12:06]:



Mike Lantz [00:12:07]:

And I still believe that today. And I know that you believe it as well. That’s why learning was such a big part of it. And when we were sitting down, really looking at our core values at Defenders, we didn’t want to create something aspirational. We wanted to look at our organization and say, what’s already here. And I remember we had some conversations with Patrick Lencioni around this. And one of those things was growth, error, and learner. And the story that hinges that core value is when you and Dave woke up one day and the no-call list had come out.


Mike Lantz [00:12:39]:

Why don’t you tell that story?


Marcia Barnes [00:12:40]:

Sure. It was in 2003. We’re two separate businesses, Dave and I, and we were providing leads for a sales team through outbound calls. We had a call center. We’re on the phone dialing and setting appointments for Dave’s salespeople. We had grown the business to 25 million in revenue on this dependency of this one marketing channel. And I kept saying, this is going to be damaging. I don’t know if we’ll be able to pull this out, Dave.


Marcia Barnes [00:13:08]:

And he said, oh, I think it’ll be fine, because the people who buy on the phone, they won’t go on the no call list, and the people who don’t buy, they’ll go on the no call list. And it worked just the opposite. People who knew that they would say yes more than they wanted to on telemarketing seemed to be the ones that went on to the call center because the close rate to appointment just dropped drastically. The lists were not as big, so we could see that we needed to make the phones ring in. And so we merged the two businesses together. I came on board as the director of marketing. Neither Dave nor I knew anything about marketing, but his philosophy was that if we tested and found things that worked, then we could grow those programs that worked. And we were going out to every DMA conference we could find.


Marcia Barnes [00:13:52]:

We were reading books. We were talking to other people who made their phones ring in to get ideas from them. We met companies like Bob Massey’s marketing informatics that helped us in Valpak and Velasis and all the things. Reach Magazine was something that was a big deal then. This is way before the Internet. And that was the impetus. Trying to manage that change was the impetus to be able to get ahead of the competition in that space. Right?


Mike Lantz [00:14:21]:

Yeah. So you had to learn your way through it. We did, and you did. And I know this was true the day I left Defenders, which was in 2017, that we had nearly a million calls coming into that call center every single year. So from no inbound calls to a million calls in 15 years, that’s pretty impressive.


Marcia Barnes [00:14:40]:

So, Mike, as you have people coming into trueU and ML talent strategies, what are the parts of the culture, or the culture overall that people need to be focused on developing?


Mike Lantz [00:14:51]:

Whenever we look at culture development, we look really at four key areas, and then I’ll give the four key areas and then I’ll zero in on one. One is organizational clarity, which is really about who are you as an organization? What matters to you as an organization, what are you trying to accomplish, and what is everybody’s unique role in the organization in helping you accomplish that. And that all has to be crystal clear from the CEO throughout the entire organization. The second area is talent attraction. And that’s more than just most people think about it as just recruiting, but it’s more than that. It’s about how is your organization perceived in the marketplace, not as a consumer brand as much as an employer brand. There’s lots of resources out there today where people can research organizations and determine, do I want to go to work for that organization? Do I want to give my precious time and talents to that organization? And so they have to be thinking about that as well. Talent development is always a big bucket.


Mike Lantz [00:15:44]:

How are you developing the whole person inside of an organization? And then the fourth thing is the talent experience. What’s it going to be like? What’s the experience that someone is going to have inside of your organization? People need to feel that they need to understand it, and it needs to be very intentional as to what that’s going to be. I’m going to zero in on the organizational clarity piece of it because I think it’s very difficult to build a great culture when you have people in your organization that are not culturally aligned with your organization. And the EOS model has a really great tool. It’s called the People analyzer, and it really identifies whether or not somebody is culturally aligned with your organization based on your core values. And then do they get their job? Do they want their job, and do they have the capacity to do it? They call it GWC, and so do they get what really needs to be done in their job and how that contributes to the organization? Do they actually want to do that job, and do they have the capacity city to do it? And the capacity isn’t necessarily time. It’s more capability to do it as well. So I think that’s a great place to start because it’s hard to build a great culture when you have people that aren’t aligned with the culture that you want.


Marcia Barnes [00:16:53]:



Marcia Barnes [00:16:53]:

You just showed the massive importance of the organizational clarity piece of developing your culture. I used to roll out in every single meeting and go through that document every time. I mean, it was a standard operating procedure.


Mike Lantz [00:17:07]:

Yeah. So we have to make sure that we’re not making those decisions and those determinations and that feedback based on us. We have to do it based on our team and how much they’ve heard it.


Marcia Barnes [00:17:17]:

There’s that, and then there is, as you get, as a copy of a copy of a copy starts to blur at some point, at least once a year, when they’re leveling up at the national convention, everybody’s hearing it come straight from the CEO’s lips.


Marcia Barnes [00:17:30]:



Marcia Barnes [00:17:30]:

Which helps you keep aligned on how the other VPs, directors, managers are talking to that as well.


Mike Lantz [00:17:37]:

And you’ve got to keep talking about it, and you have to keep modeling it and showing it. It’s not something you roll out one time and then be done with it.


Marcia Barnes [00:17:45]:



Marcia Barnes [00:17:46]:

Years ago, I was at an educational event for CEOs and the HR director who really helped, exact target as they were scaling, he came in and presented on this day and he said, the company culture is what it is on the day you get there, there are good things about a culture and there are bad things about the culture. And your job as a steward of the culture, no matter what position you’re in in that business, is to lift up that which is good. Manage correct, fix what’s broken, you’re always going to have some good, some bad. You want to lift up the good and reduce the impact of the bad as much as you can.


Mike Lantz [00:18:23]:

Yeah, for sure.


Marcia Barnes [00:18:24]:

In our business at Valve+Meter, we go out to market and say, we’re going to hit a return on marketing spend. For every dollar you put in, you’re going to get this many dollars back. We have a great culture here. The difficult part could be the pressure to produce that return on marketing spend. So all I’m trying to do is help us learn and coach and adapt to be able to handle that thing. That can be friction.


Marcia Barnes [00:18:47]:



Marcia Barnes [00:18:47]:

What are you seeing in those types of things? Common good in culture, the things that work against it.


Mike Lantz [00:18:53]:

We have to say, what are the unchangeable, unwavering parts of culture?


Marcia Barnes [00:18:57]:



Marcia Barnes [00:18:57]:



Mike Lantz [00:18:58]:

Okay. But then we have to be flexible in the other parts of culture. Listen to our employees and our team members. And I think sometimes we were too rigid. And I encourage leaders that find the things that are just table stakes. This will never change. That sort of thing and make sure that those aren’t like double-digit things. It’s a few things that you go, this is who we are, and I’m not changing that.


Marcia Barnes [00:19:23]:



Mike Lantz [00:19:23]:

But be open to evolving your culture. 2010’s culture in any organization isn’t going to work in today’s culture, not even close. But there are a lot of leaders that say, hey, it got us here. It’s got to be able to get us there. And that’s not the case.


Marcia Barnes [00:19:37]:

Right. Mike, you’ve talked about a lot of great things here that I know work and I’ve seen up close and personal the effect and impact that they have on businesses and people. How can our listeners get in touch with you to learn how they could implement and work with these tools that you offer?


Mike Lantz [00:19:56]:

Yeah, well, first off, I’m on LinkedIn, so Mike Lantz and it’s Lantz. And so you can find me there or you can check out trueU.com. That’s trueU.com or mltalentstrategies.com. And we’d love to have conversations with people.


Here We Grow Narrator [00:20:14]:

Thank you for joining us for here we grow. This show is proudly brought to you by Valve+Meter Performance Marketing. Be sure to check out the show notes for exclusive content that will help you be become a more transformational leader, like Marcia’s ceilings and curveballs worksheets. For more, visit valvandmeter.com.