22 October 2020

Alina Siegfried: On James McCarthy, A Journey of Personal and Collective Growth

Editor’s Note: storyteller and member, Alina Siegfried, is penning an occasional series interviewing members/alumni for stories on where their Collective Intelligence journey has taken them.

James & Alina headshots

At his first Collective Intelligence meeting, after having listened to the stories of the 5 or 6 other members of his small personal and professional development team, James McCarthy got up in front of the group and introduced himself with the words:

Well, I don’t know what to say, but I can say that I’m nowhere near as fucked up as you lot.

Amid much laughter, and a slight easing of a new and uncomfortable situation, the response came from one of the older team members, “Give it time son, give it time.”

James had no way of knowing at the time, that the man was right and that the following years of personal and professional development with his Collective Intelligence team would illuminate for him that he was indeed, more fucked up than he had given himself credit for.

James grew up on a dairy farm in the Manawatu, working and playing with his younger brother who he describes as a best friend, and learning to take responsibility at a young age. When he was seven, his father advanced him the funds to buy a calf. James reared it, paying for the milk to feed it on that same line of credit, and then sold it back to his dad at the end of the season. It was an early introduction for him that if you apply effort to your own asset, you could get a return on top of what you had put in.

After graduating from Massey University, he went to work as a garage hand at a horticultural implement manufacturer with a boss who loved his helicopters. Not long afterwards came an incident that would inform the next decade of his career.

Somewhere on a helicopter flight from Auckland down to Queenstown, liquor baron Michael Erceg and one of his business associates from the Netherlands disappeared. It took 8 hours for anyone to realise that they were missing, and even after they were able to narrow down that the chopper had disappeared somewhere between Auckland and Whanganui, and it was still more than two weeks before the wreckage was found.

The accident and subsequent lengthy search highlighted an obvious problem to the team that James worked with, and so in early 2006, Spidertracks was created – a system to track, manage and communicate with aircraft in real time.

The following years were tumultuous. The company grew fast, but the founding team were experiencing philosophical differences and had different ambitions for the company. James was halfway through a European OE, working remotely, when his younger brother was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He spent the next two years working on his company by day, and pushing the boundaries of hospital visiting hours with his brother every night.

My brother’s cancer brought about a shortening of horizons, a different perspective. We didn’t know what was coming next. I remember sitting there with Luke, early on, pondering whether to throw my life savings into Spidertracks; Luke couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t!

– James McCarthy

After his brother went into remission, James spent a year in the United States, tapping into the commercial market and attempting unsuccessfully to break through into recreational aircraft. He was working long hours, 6 days a week, juggling work across three time zones, and was exhausted and frustrated upon his return to New Zealand in 2010.

It was at this time that he met Collective Intelligence founder Harv (AKA Ian Harvey). Giving in to “relentless hounding”, James joined the network as the first scholarship recipient.

I had been considering the idea of offering scholarships to exceptional young people for whom finances were a barrier, and I was really impressed with this young entrepreneur and his bold ambition. I hounded him to join, and rapt I did.

– Harv, Founder of Collective Intelligence

Over the following two years, James’s team came together three times a year, cracking open his initial scepticism, and helping him to navigate a period of increasing tensions with one of his co-founders. But his moment of personal reckoning was yet to come.

Things came to a head in late 2012, when after a weekend of partying with friends up in Auckland, one of his closest mates texted him asking what was wrong. Not accepting “I’m fine” for an answer, his friend called, and James found himself opening up to his friend about an uncomfortable truth he had been grappling with – the realisation that he was gay. While surprised, his friend was supportive, and James spent the next few weeks compensating for a lifetime of hiding, by telling everyone he knew. Such is the nature of things when we open the floodgates on our true selves.

It is looking back in reflection that James realises how pivotal his Collective Intelligence team was, not just in his professional life, but in his personal development as well. Three months prior to his coming out, James experienced his first “host day” with the team – an intensive, facilitated process through which the team interviews the host’s close friends, family, and colleagues, asking about strengths, weaknesses, blind spots and barriers to growth, and provides feedback to the host in a safe, structured way. James recalls a poignant and telling moment:

During the process of receiving feedback from my team, one of my team members looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘It feels like there is a big secret that you are holding back’. It was terrifying. When you open yourself up with people you trust, they have a way of seeing through.

– James McCarthy

As James started to become more comfortable with himself, he felt a growing discomfort with the disconnect between who he was, and who he was expected to be in the aviation industry, and in early 2014 made the decision that it was time to leave the company. He set off to finish the European adventure that he had cut short almost a decade earlier, working as a groundsman at a French chateau and dancing in the samba parade at Carnaval do Rio de Janeiro.

James at Carnaval in Rio in 2016 with two friends
James at the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro (2016) with two friends.

Re-joining the Collective Intelligence network upon his return to New Zealand he was put into a different team – Outside the Bell Curve. The dynamics were different, and there was a spate of new members who only attended one meeting before leaving the network, making it difficult for the team to be comfortable and vulnerable with one another.

Every meeting felt like a first date. I knew what the team experience could be, and I knew it wasn’t there.

– James McCarthy

In mid-2017, the team had reached a crisis point and was on the verge of calling it quits. At this point, James made a bold decision. Feeling that there was a lack of adequate structure to onboarding of new members, he insisted that network founder Harv come to their next team meeting and discuss the situation with the team. He threw down the gauntlet, opening up a brave conversation with Harv and team facilitator Sarah Tocker, appealing for a series of requests, including improved processes for selecting members and a period of no new members, to allow their team the time they needed to build trust and culture. The team also established a set of internal boundaries and guidelines, agreeing that they would all remain committed to working together for a period of at least two years.

We select members based on the four attributes of competence, ambition, curiosity, and authenticity and we aim for a mix of comfort and healthy abrasion balanced within a team. However, there are times we don’t get it right. What I really enjoyed about James’ challenge (and I always take it as a sign of members giving a shit), was that I got a chance to push back to the team, and say ‘Ask for what you want’.

– Harv, Founder of Collective Intelligence

To some extent, this level of hard, honest and vulnerable conversation is the point of Collective Intelligence. It is when we are challenged and pushed to our edges of comfort that the most profound personal growth can happen. For James, the journey saw him going from being a young fish out of water, unsure of himself and struggling with his company, to getting to the point of leadership where he felt comfortable challenging the founder of the network to a courageous conversation, ultimately leading to improvements and better outcomes. Going through the fire together helped his team to build trust and challenge each member to think about what they really wanted out of the network.

Collective Intelligence isn’t a professional and personal development network for like-minded people, but rather one for like-hearted people.
– Harv, Founder of Collective Intelligence

When asked if there is one thing he would change about his journey if he could go back and do it all again, he describes wishing he had come to terms with his sexuality earlier. He wondered aloud what might have happened had Collective Intelligence been in his life five years earlier?

The more significant the gap between the real you and the public you, the more mental gymnastics you have to do to make sure people see the one you want them to see. And the work of unlearning the mental gymnastics is a lifetime journey; it’s a soft, tender underbelly that has to come out and go wandering around.

– James McCarthy

James has now started another company, Cradle, which addresses a problem that was persistent at his previous company – helping people communicate with others effectively. Cradle aims to improve inbound and outbound calling services between companies and their customers, to make the experience more efficient and human.

Just like his Collective Intelligence team has done for him, James helps clients fix those problems by having hard conversations and providing the tools to help them improve.

My toolbox is much more full than a decade ago, and much more full than many of my peers that don’t have this in their life. It’s made me much more resilient than I was before.

– James McCarthy

As for Harv, he has some authentic words to say:

Since joining Collective Intelligence, James has dropped the bravado and replaced it with vulnerability. I am very grateful he joined us, as he has had such a big influence on how we operate.

– Harv, Founder of Collective Intelligence

Alina Siegfried – October 2020

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