Lessons Learned From Leading
As a CEO specializing in revitalizing global businesses, I have worked with many brilliant, passionate people who accepted and inspired strong leadership. They helped collaboratively drive change. But not every situation is so receptive.
At one company, for instance, I took over for a leader who tried to force change on an organization that resisted it. This leader, who felt his decree was enough, sowed further distrust through a style best described as narcissistic. As a result, company morale was low when I arrived, and skepticism of management was high. So this is how I led.
I engaged with the team, shared my concepts, and listened to their unique ideas for change, many of which I hadn’t considered. From that, we forged a new course of cooperation and community. Ultimately, the team responded, turnover was minimal, and we produced record growth in a brief time.
The ability to lead change is an invaluable asset that requires a blend of skills, values, and habits to create a healthy organization. Leaders learn from every place they work, every team they lead, and every decision they make. If they don’t, they’re ineffective leaders.
I have worked with ten companies, five as a CEO, during my 35-year career in the public and private sectors. These businesses made and distributed everything from medical devices to various consumer products. They all had diverse cultures and value systems but shared common goals: growing, generating cash, and achieving success for both associates and shareholders.
In my career, I’ve celebrated successes, learned from failures, and made mistakes that made me a more effective, more well-rounded leader. Every successful CEO has a story. Here’s mine. These are my lessons learned from a lifetime of leadership.
Respect The Culture
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker, management consultant
People want to feel proud of where and with whom they work. They want to feel empowered to make decisions. They want to contribute to a culture that values them. The best leaders start there.
I have worked for two CEOs who did not value the culture of their companies. They were brilliant leaders with what I believed to be the right vision for their company’s future. But they minimized the organization’s culture and people, and that lack of respect affected shareholder value.
Leaders, particularly those taking over underperforming businesses, must respect the culture they’re joining. According to Deloitte, thirty percent of mergers fail because company cultures can’t or won’t integrate. It doesn’t have to be that way. Effective leaders respect the positive aspects of a company’s culture while redirecting unproductive energy. They provide long-time associates with the means to embrace a productive future while holding tight to their accomplishments.
Indeed, existing company cultures might need to change to foster growth. For example, at one organization, I met team members who thought that making a personal profit at the company’s expense was an acceptable practice. I ended that quickly, which most employees cheered. Within a year, we had purged the bad actors while retaining the positive core of the company’s culture.
But leaders who introduce themselves by saying, “This place is terrible and needs to change,” do not represent effective management. Learn about your company’s culture before setting out to change or replace it.
“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
Full disclosure: I have been a bit of a bully at times in my career. We were driving enormous change at warp speed at one company I took over. I pushed people too hard, lost my temper, and lost sight of how negative behavior restricts productivity. I learned the value of empathetic leadership from that experience, something every CEO should better understand.
“Empathy is the most important leadership skill for our troubled times,” the World Economic Forum notes. Studies demonstrate that people are more productive and more innovative at work when they have empathetic leadership. Yet workplace stress is rising, heightened by the pandemic, and costs companies $300 billion a year.
The essence of empathy – putting yourself in another’s shoes – is difficult. We all struggle to comprehend how others perceive workplace issues or conflict. However, when people are doing good work for leaders they don’t feel good about, that’s a problem.
Here’s an example. At one company where I worked, we grew earnings by 50 percent, made better-quality products, and increased customer responsiveness. Yet when informed about saving $1 million, I asked, “What about that other $200,000?” What I should have said was, “Great job,” and then asked, “What can we do next?”
It’s not enough to have empathy. You must show it. Congratulate team members. Be sensitive to signs of overwork. Listen. Employees take cues from your behavior and work accordingly, so give them the right cues. Demonstrating empathy takes practice. Do it every day.
Provide A Vision
“You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet,” said Theodore Hesburgh, longtime president of the University of Notre Dame
My foundational belief is that businesses cannot cost-cut their way to prosperity. So I bring that core value to every company and build a unique vision around that belief.
When introducing yourself to new team members, it’s vital to provide both a vision and a map for getting there. For example, “I want to grow the company by 15 percent,” is an appealing but incomplete goal. Your new team must understand your specific growth targets and how you plan to achieve them.
Leaders should consider writing a vision statement that summarizes and clarifies their plan. Vision statements define your purpose and principles. They give team members a blueprint of how you plan to grow their organization, acquire new properties, or enter a new product line.
“What could this company be in the future?” is a compelling and aspirational question to ask your team. They will answer it primarily based on the vision you provide.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” playwright George Bernard Shaw
For leaders, communication represents a daily internal and external duty. Managers, team members, customers, and vendors all have one question: “Is this somebody I can work with?” You can alleviate that implied concern through communication – even over-communication.
Internally, team members want to understand your vision. Externally, customers want to understand who you are. Leaders can reach both audiences by being direct about their intentions and expectations. I do that by being visible and available. I take or return calls quickly and try to message before being messaged. I answer questions promptly, ask questions, and listen to answers.
According to the Center for Creative Leadership, effective communication involves collaboration and story-telling, followed by action. Conversely, poor communication costs leaders time and money; it leads to mistrust, complaints, and resignations. And it’s a mistake that leaders easily can avoid making.
I recently met with a valued customer to explain what we’re building at the company I now lead. I shared my outlook but also was frank about the details. The customer was excited and wanted us to service their equipment. I expressed my gratitude but said that we weren’t yet ready to provide the level of service they deserve. But in six months I told them we would be prepared and would call then.
We earned the customer’s respect through communication and honesty. As a result, we kept an important customer.
“Trust happens when leaders are transparent.” Jack Welch, former chair and CEO of General Electric
Operating a transparent organization is one of the most cost-effective ways leaders can drive change. Transparency increases employee engagement, improves talent recruiting, and removes barriers to innovation. It also costs little. Yet some leaders inexplicably choose to remain opaque.
Several years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Psychological Association found that only about half of employees considered their companies to be open and upfront with them. “This lack of trust should serve as a wake-up call for employers,” the APA said.
Have we heeded that call? According to 2021 statistics compiled by the Society for Human Resources Management, one-third of employees don’t trust their employers, and 55 percent of CEOs say lack of trust threatens growth. We can do better.
I believe it’s vital to share, and for employees to understand, a company’s financials and performance metrics. That way, they don’t assume we’re hiding anything. Without information, people rely on imagination, which can spin some wild theories. It’s another pitfall leaders easily can avoid.
The Harvard Business Review found that 71 percent of employees rank engagement as “very important” to success. Transparency represents good engagement.
Walk The Walk
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams
Be the leader for whom you want to work. Here’s what I mean.
Arrive early to meetings. Rather than cold-calling team members, first send a text to ask, “Have a minute to talk?” When working late, respect that others might not be on the same schedule. Leaders should expect employees to put in the time and effort. But first, they must demand the same from themselves. They also must respect the work-life balance of their team members.
One more thing: The word No is OK. It’s important to say and sometimes better to hear. I encourage team members to tell me No and then defend it. To expect acquiescence is arrogant. You’ll learn more from people who say No than who say Yes.
At its core, leadership isn’t about identifying problems. That’s easy, and there’s no shortage of them. The true challenge of leadership involves hiring, enabling, and motivating people who both identify problems and find workable solutions.
Author and leadership expert John Maxwell said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” Each characteristic I’ve discussed here — culture, empathy, vision, communication, transparency, and walking the talk — is an essential component leading the way.
Leadership is a journey, not a landing place or peak. I’m still navigating my way through a lifetime of leading; learning more each day from the people and places I interact. And the more I learn from others, the better leader I become.