Watching “Undercover Boss,” the show where a CEO goes undercover to learn more about his or her organization, got me thinking about the various CEOs I have encountered. In my years as a consultant, employee and volunteer Board member, I have worked with some wonderful leaders, some that were not so wonderful, and many who had elements of both. Irrespective of the quality of leadership, I have witnessed that organizations tend to take on the personality traits of its leader. And, like the leaders, that can be a wonderful or a not so wonderful thing.
On the good side, I work with a very collaborative leader in a non-profit setting. He is known in the community for his willingness to work with others. As a consequence, his people also work well with people in other organizations. He does not try to empire build, so if someone has a greater competency in a specific area, he will find ways to collaborate with that entity. He also values the input from his team and because of this his organization will not rest on its laurels and look for ways to improve what they do and how they do it. The best ideas tend to come from your clients and customers and those who serve them.
On the bad side, I used to work in a company that had multiple businesses. One of the businesses was run by a cantankerous SOB. He was combative on most issues and would argue for the sake of arguing. As a result, his direct reports were also combative and difficult to work with. So, the organization was a pain in the rear end to deal with and unreceptive to change. Part of the unreceptivity to change is also due to people would stop bringing ideas to them, as they did not want to get beat up. There is a great example in the book “Built to Last” in how Texas Instruments, once the darling of technology in the late 1960’s, stopped innovating when combative leaders who took over the company scoffed at people for harebrained ideas. By the way, the company I mentioned above, does not exist anymore as their technology did not scale well and did not grow as a result. And, the cantankerous leaders I mentioned ran the technology and operations group.
On the good side, there is a superregional bank that continues to do well. They did not take TARP money a few years ago as they did not need it or want it. Their leader and direct reports were very gracious and egalitarian people. You could approach them with ideas and they would take the time to listen. And, they would respect the person who brought them the idea and would engage that person rather than borrow the idea. They also paid themselves fairly, but not richly. As a result, the organization was gracious and respected customers. They were also a very nimble and flexible organization, so transactions unique to the customer could be created. Here is a quick example. I needed a bridge loan as my house was having trouble selling and we had purchased another (lesson to all, do not do this). I went to my bank and three hours later, they came back with an unworkable idea. The superregional bank came back with three ideas within the hour. The realtor told me not to bother with my bank as it would be a waste of time – she was right.
On the bad side, in another company, a leader came from the outside and was known for not listening to others. When success was not achieved after she gave everyone all the tools they needed, she chastised everyone on town halls and within her leadership group. Her leaders stopped trying to tell her what was wrong as she would not listen, so they began chastising others and making their lives miserable. When an employee survey was done with an unheard of amount of criticism (including write-in comments), still nothing was done to change. More tools, more initiatives and more agitation of the employees resulted. Eventually after several years of less than stellar results, the CEO and her direct reports were swept out on a Friday. Ironically, that is exactly how people were let go in Reductions in Force – of which the company had several over the preceding five years.
While I have more bad examples than good, let me leave with a good one. I worked as a consultant with a Board of Directors. The Chair of the Committee I worked with was a very gracious, diligent, and analytical person. He was high up in the ranks of another organization. When I read that he was promoted to CEO, it was a wonderful and deserving tribute. A couple of years later, I was sharing with someone at the CEO’s firm how positive my relationship with this CEO had been while serving this Board Committee. The person shared multiple stories about the CEO, some personal, some hearsay, regarding positive interactions with the CEO. He made the point to say, someone who need not have remembered my name, knew it anyway and also knew something about me. I would add this organization is a well-performing, high dividend paying company.
I selected these examples with purpose. Leaders who are approachable, collaborative and team oriented, tend to have better success rates than others who are less so. There are examples who are not – Steve Jobs could be quite the jerk to work with. Yet, beneath him were people who realized they were doing some cutting edge stuff and creating a market, so they could tolerate this genius, but unpleasant personality. But, what I have said to others who would listen to me, “if you plan on being a jerk to others, you better be damn good, because if you are not, people will not put up with your bullshit for long.”
I have consulted and worked with CEOs that are imperialistic in both personality and behavior. They also are some of the greediest people I have ever met. One asked a colleague of mine who was discussing a new idea with him for the company – “what’s in it for me?” It should not be a surprise that this organization had a lot of perquisites for this CEO and his direct reports. You may also appreciate that this company no longer exists either.
Does this mean leaders must be nice to be successful? Not necessarily, but it sure does help. I do believe leaders need to treat people fairly and be approachable. No one owns the best ideas and, in my experience, we should never be surprised where the most elegant idea might come from. Since many good ideas come from the customers or clients and those serving them, if a leader is approachable, then so will be his or her direct reports and on down the line. He or she will stand a better chance of hearing about the better ideas if he or she creates a listening environment. And, back to Jobs, there were occasions when he was pursuing an idea that was not the best one, yet no one would tell him. What ended up as the MacIntosh was actually a project he did not think was well-grounded, so when he failed with another idea, he came back to the one that people kept working on in spite of him.
So, Mr. or Ms. CEO, if you want to succeed, you may want to be gracious, approachable and treat people fairly. In so doing, your organization will be as well.