Saturday, January 24, 2009

What It Takes To Be A Good Leader

As I assumed leadership positions in my career, I came to understand that you are responsible for many more people than those who report to you directly. Your responsibilities, and the impact of your decisions, touch many, many more people.
I’ll never forget one of the first times this really dawned on me, and, again, this might sound trite, but it really hit me at a company picnic. It’s one thing to walk in the door every day, go into the board room and work together with your direct reports. It’s very different when you go to your first company picnic with 3,000 employees. The average family has around three and a half people. So, you are looking out at a sea of several thousand people and children and suddenly it dawns on you that there are families out there depending on you to make the right decisions. It’s no longer just about me and my career.
In addition to patients, there are a lot of families in your local community that are counting on you to make the right calls – it’s just a different level of responsibility. And what I found is that when I was promoted, I went from being responsible for a product or a small team to very suddenly realizing not only did I need to deliver on my commitments and the commitments of my team, but I also needed to set the tone for the company. I needed to create and nurture the team’s vision and keep the ship on course – because, as you know, over time, if a large ship isn’t heading in the right direction it can take you years to correct. And so, I had to think about the future a lot. What behaviors I allowed to take place in the organization really set an important tone.
I’ll give you an example of that. I was talking earlier about feedback and how important it is to be able to give people feedback, set the right standards and bring diversity of thought to the decision-making table. I’m a firm believer in building teams comprised of people with diverse skill sets and perspectives. I want people on my team who are not just like me, but people who complement my skills, who can challenge me and who bring a different point of view and perspective to the table. Otherwise, if we’re all thinking the same and have the same characteristics, why the heck do I need you sitting there? I can just listen to myself and it’ll be easy for me to make a decision.
I had one experience with one team where everybody was extremely opinionated and outspoken. There was one member, in particular, who was very bright, probably the most competent leader I had. He was part of a very large business unit and always felt a need to demonstrate that he was the smartest person in the room by winning every argument. It got to the point where other people would just shut up when he was talking and if other people were talking, he’d look the other way, work on his Blackberry and not pay any attention to what was going on around him. You can imagine the dynamics. You could just see the non-verbals going on in the room.
I was new into that particular role, so after observing this a few times, I pulled this person aside and said, “Look, you’re bright. There are a lot of things you can do, but the impact you have on other people is that you shut them down. And, it’s very clear, even though you don’t say anything, that you’re not valuing what’s being said and the problem with that is that once and a while they may actually be saying something that could really help you. You’re not going to pick this information up and you’re not going to make the right decision.”
Well, he didn’t really change his behavior. He listened, but his behavior went on. In a board meeting, I saw the same thing where somebody started talking and he literally talked over them. Something needed to be done, so I said in the middle of the board meeting, “You know, let’s just stop for a minute. When somebody else is talking we need to behave in a respectful and a professional way. And, I don’t think talking to somebody else out loud when someone else is talking is the right behavior that we want to have among this team. “ Well, you could hear a pin drop.
Now, it was risky for me. This was one of my most talented people. And you might ask, “You did that in public forum?” Well, I had given him a chance before that to change. I talked with him. The behavior continued and, in my mind, no one person is more important than the team. And sometimes an uncorrected standard becomes a new standard. And, again, I’m not saying this to say, “Well, see how tough I can be?” I’m saying, once and a while as a leader, you’ve got to take one approach. And, there are other times when you’ve just got to be brutally honest and direct and call people out.
After that, the whole dynamic in that room and among that team changed. It wasn’t perfect, but we certainly made a lot of progress. But, to me, it was an important moment. As you assume leadership roles in business, you take on broader responsibilities in creating the right tone, culture and attitude.
Another thing that we spent a lot of time talking about was how do we get the organization lined up behind a goal. With 3,000 people, four or five different franchises and functional areas, it’s very easy for everybody to move very fast without a vision of the direction they are heading in. So, we conducted a goal setting exercise to line up our strategies and to make sure everybody in the organization, all the way down to the administrative assistants, knew what the goals of the company were. We felt that if everybody understood the goals of the organization, it would help to insure priorities were being followed. Secondly, we wanted to make sure that everybody in the company had their personal goals lined up with the goals of the organization.
So, we started a contest by functional area in which all of our board members carried tickets. If a board member stopped somebody over a two-week timeframe and asked, say Amanda, about the company’s top five goals and how it relates to her job, if she responded with the right answer, she got a ticket for her functional area team. The team with the most tickets received awards like parking spaces by the front door or they got to wear jeans for three months. It sounds a little bit hokey but I’ll tell you, what it did right away was drilled down ownership of company objectives.
And, it actually got to the point where I would be stopped on my way into the office in the morning with people saying, “Ask me, Alex!” because a ticket from the president was worth three tickets. Another thing that came out of this was that it started a whole new dialog between managers and their teams and kept managers accountable for good training. For instance, I told people who stopped me that if you can’t tell me how your job relates to company goals, it’s time to have a talk with your manager.
This exercise added a lot of power to us. It got us aligned. Our company survey scores went up when we asked employees how they felt about the vision of our organization, about our goals. And, there was much more ownership of our overall business. Setting that tone became really important, strategically and culturally.
This one, simple, creative approach to drive alignment behind our goals also created approachability with management because up to that point there were people who felt, well, they couldn’t or shouldn’t talk with a board member. Suddenly, people were approaching each other, starting conversations in the cafeteria and during walks from one meeting to the next. So, I really think it was a successful way for us to engage the organization and have people feel part of something.

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