At four years old, John Ryan spent 10 months sailing the east coast of Australia with his parents and older brother. To this experience he attributes his strong sense of adventure, a comfort with the unknown and a keen appetite for possibility and opportunity.
John is CEO of the 4impact Group – a technology firm that is renowned for the value it creates by building relationships with both its consultants and clients. He has recently started the company on a journey of organisational change that balances purpose with business intent. We sat down to discuss how an adventurous teen who loved managing theatre troupes went on to a career supporting and progressing others through organisational change.
- Learn how John’s early involvement in stage management fostered his passion for supporting and enabling others.
- Discover how 4impact is combining purpose and commercial constructs to support his staff and progress the 4impact Group.
- Hear how to create opportunities for people to grow, contribute and connect with an organisation.
- Get John’s insights into the importance creating an organisation with its own personality & identity, and projecting that out into the world.
Let’s start by going back to really early on. How was your childhood and where did you grow up?
I grew up in Canberra. Born and bread. One of the few actually. Not surprisingly, my father was a public servant – Foreign Affairs and Trade, and then the Australian Trade Commission. He was actually an Australian Trade Commissioner for the South Pacific and Papua New Guinea, and other areas as well. Mum was a full time mother for early years and then actually was her own entrepreneur. She started and ran a couple of women’s dress boutiques in Canberra, marketing to the more mature, professional women in town. That was her market. She did that a lot.
As a kid were you influenced at all by what your parents did, maybe not the fashion side, but in working with government for example? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Look honestly – no. I never had a clear idea. Not even when I finished year 12 (termed as college down there). Interestingly, marine biology was the only thing that I identified as something I could go into, but that was actually tied back to my upbringing.
Yes, we have heard stories of you spending a lot of time growing up on a boat. Yes that probably comes back a lot to early formation of myself. When I was four, my parents threw my brother and I onto a thirty-two foot sailing boat and we spent ten months sailing the east coast of Australia between Sydney and north of Cairns.
Wow, that is incredible! I want to do that.
Yes, at four years old. If there is any regret about that, it’s that I wasn’t old enough to understand just how different and special that was. In terms of really developing an affinity and a love for the outdoors and the water in particular, we spent literally weeks at a time just anchored up off remote island up north; spent all day just exploring and swimming, and diving… and just sailing.
But it’s not always sunshine and pleasantry, which is lovely, but sometimes there are storms and you are strapped in and it is scary, dark and all a bit overwhelming. So you get exposed to a lot in that.
I bet. Especially at that age. What was the thing that made you buzz in your early years?
Well, I was the stage manager for big musicals every year. Part of it was working with people and relating to people that just had a different view and approach to the world. The artistic set. They listened to different music, related differently, conversations were different, came from different places, and were a lot more honest about things. I was always intrigued by these people that had this ability.
We used to have musicians and there was a guy there who used to construct the whole soundtracks and then conduct the musicians from the college for this full musical. We did things like ‘The South Pacific’ and ‘Carousel’.
Getting involved with those people was great, and the whole coordination of that from a stage management standpoint – organising sets, going through and taking the full script and putting in all the prompts; managing that two or three times a day for the season that we ran.
I remember taking these rugby guys that were part of the chorus and had the odd speaking part. I’d take them into the car park and stand at the other end and teach them to project their voice. Those sorts of things – it was different. It was really good. It wasn’t sitting in a class. It was more inspiring. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. I didn’t know much about music or performing, but really appreciated what they did.
A couple of things gave me a buzz. I think it was the learning aspect of it. It satisfied a curiosity. But I think it also spoke to what was at the time my early learning, which is the ability to be involved and work with and support and construct all these people to go and do these things. Stage management was that. You weren’t the people doing it, but you were helping the background to enable all of that to happen.
“I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. I didn’t know much about music or performing, but really appreciated what they did.”
That’s interesting. There is definitely a connection there to 4impact’s purpose of helping people ‘fulfill potential’. What kind of learner were you?
I’m not a traditional learner. I am an experiential learner – experience, reflect, adjust – doing it that way. In some ways, I think this is harder because you are forever putting yourself into unknown and uncomfortable situations, and you’ve got to be really comfortable with doing that. Sometimes you are forced into it, other times the opportunity appears and you step in. That has been the best learning medium for me.
It’s fascinating, because if you look back to who you were as a teen, it’s surprising to see that you have ended up in technology.
Yes. While it’s logical when I look back on it, I didn’t have a conscious realisation that what I was doing a lot of and the roles I enjoyed the most were the ones that were actually more constructed to support and progress others.
Whether it was running teams and helping them navigate into new spaces – helping teams in organisation navigate into the Agile world; what that meant; how to do that in a more comfortable and controlled way; and seeing how they themselves could progress from that. Whether it’s with this business – the 4impact business – and the various things I’ve done through my journey here. That conscious connection hasn’t come together until very recently.
“The roles I enjoyed the most were the ones that were actually more constructed to support and progress others.”
Would that be what you call your personal purpose? To support and progress others.
Yes, it is. A number of times, particularly through some quite difficult periods in this business when I was working ridiculous hours, people would come up and ask me ‘what’s in it for you in this business? You’re obviously a shareholder’. I would tell them how I was not. They then would say that I must get paid a lot – well, not by market standards, the business can’t afford to cause we are in this position. So they’d ask ‘why the hell are you doing it?’. It was a really good question and one that I couldn’t honestly answer but I can now.
The honest answer was because the business itself, its core personality has actually always been based around care – care for others and value for others. The people that have stuck with it are of a similar value base. For me, that has to be honoured and supported. There has always been so much potential, and if just brought together properly, if just done right… it could be massive.
If you were to bring all that together, what could that look like?
What I hope it will actually look like is a realisation. A realisation for everybody that is involved – not just the people inside the business but all the people we attract to the business – that they think ‘I am doing things that I never realised or envisaged I could do in this business, in myself, in this industry’.
“The business itself, its core personality has actually always been based around care – care for others and value for others. The people that have stuck with it are of a similar value base.”
Not even necessarily what they are doing but the way they are doing it. How they are relating to and enjoying the space that they are in. Because I think that is the critical component. You have got to create opportunities in a space for people and things to grow and thrive. But I think the way to get there is to create a space that people genuinely want to be in and contribute to. If you create that, everything is possible.
What do you love about possibility? It seems like quite a common theme for your life, around ‘what is possible?’ – that explorer theme. Why does that excite you so much?
I love exploring new things, I love adventure and I love going to new places and having new experiences. Then on the other side, I am actually a risk manager – whether it be test management or project management or anything else like that. The thing I have enjoyed most is the balance of risk – not being a slave to method or process, but actually seeing how things can be done while still achieving what needs to be achieved. Working out how all the pieces need to work with each other.
“You have got to create opportunities in a space for people and things to grow and thrive. But I think the way to get there is to create a space that people genuinely want to be in and contribute to. If you create that, everything is possible. “
Whether they are people or processes or phases or methods or any of that – how they work better together to achieve something as an outcome. If you look at risk management and consider my passion for adventure – the space in the middle is where I love to be.
If you talk about counterbalances – even with profit and purpose for example. Are opportunity and risk a counterbalance or are they actually a thing that operates nicely together?
I think if you can get them to work well together, then that is an area of untapped potential. It is not regularly done. I don’t see it widely done, and I’m sure that’s because it is probably hard. But for me there are just a couple of truths in all of that. It doesn’t matter what is being done, it is done by people.
So if you’re connecting people properly and you are creating a space where people are connected to their own purpose and their own joy & pleasure, and they get value out of that whether it be professional or personal, then you have got the first piece solved. It doesn’t matter what you do on top of that, as long as you construct that in a way that can be really effective. I think part of it is also being comfortable that sometimes doing well is not winning.
If as an organisation we want to genuinely be leading the market, or a movement leader not just a market leader, that is not static. You don’t just put yourself there and then hope that holds true. You’ve got to create opportunities for people to both get their in the first place and be comfortable, and then actually ensure that they have a way of being that allows them to continue to question and challenge with comfort everything else.
So the job of moving the business forward is not about creating the commercial constructs. While you have to do that and it is really critically important, which is why I created an equal, counterbalance system. But it’s actually what I’ve got to do in helping the people move themselves forward. They are going to have no inclination to do that and will not feel safe to do that unless they are connected to it personally to start with. That is where having an organisational approach that actually creates its purpose and defines what impact it is going to have from the bottom up. Having the people in the business define what that needs to be for them.
“The job of moving the business forward is not about creating the commercial constructs. While you have to do that and it is really critically important, which is why I created an equal, counterbalance system. But it’s actually what I’ve got to do in helping the people move themselves forward. They are going to have no inclination to do that and will not feel safe to do that unless they are connected to it personally to start with. “
By doing that, we have created a connection and an opportunity, the onus is then on myself and themselves to continue to do that. For me, I continue to do that in part through an ongoing engagement with Hatched to help move that in different ways.
I’m also looking at other areas to help me along that way. I’ve just put a coaching program in for the emerging leaders that I’ve got. We are looking at other ways that people can create a business which has its commercial purpose but also a very deep business purpose in terms of progressing people’s thinking, attitudes, awareness and opportunities.
It is complex and I don’t know how it will work out. I do know that some things will surprise me and happen that I hadn’t anticipated. Some things will happen as anticipated, while others I’ll be making assumptions on and I’ll have to adjust them as I go. Not everybody’s experience everyday is going to be a positive one. So it’s actually about being there for when it is not positive.
That is what my role is shifting to more and more. Yes it is managing the system itself and the complexity of that, but then really very much seeing who is being disrupted through that process and being there to help them or provide mechanisms to help them. That is that purpose and impact side of the system that I’ve got.
“Not everybody’s experience everyday is going to be a positive one. So it’s actually about being there for when it is not positive.“
On the other side I’m working with my advisory council, the board and others about very strongly and equally positioning those commercial and traditional business elements; and in the middle is an innovation space that we’ve put in.
How did you know it was the right time to start the purpose program?
I probably identified it over a year and a half ago when I did the initial analysis to set the new strategy for the business, which had never really been done holistically on this business in its life. I identified a whole heap of really big challenges. One was the need to shift it away from being a founder-led organisation to one that is more strategic, which had nothing to do with the individuals themselves but had everything to do with how the business saw itself.
I’m a big believer that business is its own person with its own personality and identity – treating it that way and looking at what is influencing personality and identity, and then how we are projecting that out into the world. If the founders are what predominantly feed and influence the identity and personality, which has its strengths and inherent constraints. How do I maintain the strengths and move away from the constraints? It will create a void – what do I replace that with?
“I’m a big believer that business is its own person with its own personality and identity – treating it that way and looking at what is influencing personality and identity, and then how we are projecting that out into the world.”
It was never a matter of replacing founders with a CEO, although for a little while you have got to do that because you can’t just switch on people. You have got to make progressive steps. The whole purpose side came up for me when I was asking, how do I reset the identity and personality of the business? How do I fill that void? What should be influencing this organisation going forward?
Traditionally, you would put that on a leadership team, which we do still have and they are owners and champions of culture and behaviours, but they are not what creates, defines and influences it as a living thing. That is everybody that is involved.
Thankfully I had already had line of sight of Hatched and that approach – there was nobody else I could find that actually came from that perspective. So again it was a new thing, and the Hatched process is a new thing. So I was attracted to it because it was a new thing.
The risk manager in me was going ‘I understand the risks of this’ and I knew what I needed to do to get others to take on this approach and embrace it so that it is not just something we have done that ticks a box and we move on from. We make it real.
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