This blog is a chapter from my book Letters to a CEO. These are actual memos I sent to senior executives I have worked with around the world. In these notes I’m offering my best ideas and advice for how they can be more successful in their career and in leading their organization. I hope you find this helpful.


This is a follow-up memo I sent to a good friend of mine who had just become CEO of a large national association. He and his COO are both incredibly bright, honest, high-integrity people who truly want the organization to be successful. I was called in to do an Organizational Effectiveness Audit (an online survey) to determine where the organization stood as my friend took over as CEO. So he could get things moving in a positive direction immediately and begin his tenure on the right tone and focused on the right things.

After working for three quarters of a day with his senior staff, we invited the entire organization to come together for an all-hands meeting to basically kick off the new organization under a new CEO. Here’s the memo I sent to Dan, the CEO, and Anthony, the COO immediately following the meeting.

(They  call their customers “Members,” but you could also replace that with patients, consumers, clients, partners … whatever term your business uses to describe the people you serve.)

Dan and Anthony, good day today, my friends!!

Let me recap some key ideas and make … even a few more recommendations!

After spending the day together in our advanced leadership workshop, here’s my list of the feedback on the key leadership competencies from your senior management:

  1. Accountability—delegation, empowerment, set very clear expectations.
  2. Competence—everyone must be consistently learning and improving – do NOT tolerate mediocrity.
  3. Action—the senior management team demonstrates passion and commitment for the organization.
  4. Trust and Honesty—two-way, consistent, reliable.
  5. Vision—strategic, shared goals, all contribute.
  6. Communication—transparent, honest, open, robust—two-way—set clear expectations.
  7. Team player—positive attitude, shares ideas, works well with the other team members.
  8. Empowerment and Delegation—pushes authority down the staff.
  9. Kaizen—committed to personal and staff growth.
  10. Organizational Courage—deal with the tough situations, be realistic, be compassionate.

Here is the list of the combined leadership characteristics that your senior team developed:

  1. Accountability + Empowerment
  2. Trust & honesty—two-way
  3. Team player/organizational citizen
  4. Passion
  5. Effective, transparent communication
  6. Competent—self/staff
  7. Strategic vision/shared goals
  8. Extreme customer focus

As discussed, here are a couple of key things that need to happen as soon as possible:

  1. Increase communication across the entire organization. Institute several ways for people to get messages up to senior management and push your management team to clearly communicate down to the entire staff. Surveys, comment cards, lunch with the CEO, HR hours open for feedback, an employee liaison/representative. Any and every way you can think of to make it super easy for information to flow up, down and across the organization.
  2. Institute multiple recognition programs—employee of the month, extreme member focus award, top team player award, lunch with the CEO … numerous ways to show people that you truly appreciate their contribution. By the way, handwritten notes are probably the most powerful.
  3. Kill any stupid rules. Create a competition for people to nominate stupid rules that should be killed. For every suggestion you enter that person’s name in a drawing. Then pick one at random and award a nice gift certificate. Do this once every three or four months to show them that you want to wipe out unnecessary rules, minimize bureaucracy, make it easy for them to do their work and get quick decisions when necessary.
  4. As quickly as possible, send out the scores (not the personal comments) from the Organizational Effectiveness Survey I did of your entire staff. Redeploy the survey at six months to see what progress has been made. Use this survey as a scorecard for organizational improvement. You can have your HR department deploy the next survey, or if you prefer I’m happy to do it for you so that we can maintain strict confidentiality and make your people feel comfortable in being very frank and honest.
  5. Make sure you have a highly robust “Voice of the Member” program in place that captures feedback, ideas, compliments and criticisms from your members in several different ways.
  6. Then, Identify your key Moments Of Truth and create specific and detailed procedures to ensure that they are delivered flawlessly every single time, for every single member.
  7. Identify some training programs you could put in place immediately; my recommendation would be for some conflict resolution training and problem solving training for your senior management team. Survey the rest of the staff to see what training they would like and then determine which ones are priorities and will have the biggest impact on the organization right away—create a schedule to get that training to them as quickly as you can. Try to find local experts who can deliver reasonably priced training, build it into the contract of future speakers, use TED talks, Big Think, YouTube and Google Scholar’s talks for free training during lunch. Not all training needs to be on business issues, could also be on creativity, life balance, stress reduction—anything that will help your employees be happier and more productive.

Whenever you do an all-hands training program like this, the key is to get a couple of small wins VERY quickly. You have 24 hours to show them some sort of progress in at least one or two areas to prove that you and the senior management team are absolutely serious about making positive change and improving the things that your employees have identified as issues, problems or roadblocks. Then you need to focus like crazy for the next 30 days to show them that you are not going to let up. This is not a “flavor of the month” program. You listened very carefully to their feedback and are implementing it with a continued sense of urgency and discipline.

Never hesitate to remind them that you are doing all of this with the clear expectation that they will step up and also make the changes necessary to improve themselves and the organization. It is a two-way street: You give them some of the things they want, they give you back high quality work with a great attitude. It’s going to take a minimum of six months to convince people that you are serious and are truly listening to them.

You will have to manage expectations and communications EXTREMELY carefully. Everything you do, everything you say, every program you implement will send a message—either positive or negative. Be extremely mindful and look for ways to send a clear, consistent, positive message about communications, teamwork, excellence, accountability and extreme member focus.

I was recently asked to contribute a chapter to a book one of my good friends is writing on leadership excellence. I think that as the new CEO of your organization there are some great things here to keep in mind. Here’s the article:

To be a great leader of others, you must first be a great leader of yourself.

Oftentimes when I’m teaching a team-building class I will ask the attendees to give me a short list of the most critical skills, abilities and characteristics of an “Ideal Team Member.” Someone they would absolutely love to have on their team.

After more than 15 years of asking for this list, the ones that come up over and over again are:

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Proactive
  • Excellent Communicator
  • Highly Competent
  • Innovative
  • Creative
  • Takes Accountability
  • Works Well on a Team
  • Delivers Results
  • Good Strategic Thinker
  • Enjoyable to Be Around

As you read over that list you probably thought to yourself, “Yes, I would love to have someone who had all of those characteristics as a member of my team.” Here is the hard truth for you as the leader: You don’t get anybody like this on your team unless you are like this first! People who have all of the attributes on the list above will only follow a leader who has all of them as well. So to be a successful leader the first thing you must do is take a look in the mirror and realize that your greatest challenge is to be a living example of what you expect from your followers.

Once you accept the mantle of leadership, whether you lead two people or 20,000, you have given up part of your life because you now live on a stage. Your followers see everything you do, they hear everything you say … they see what you don’t do and hear what you don’t say … and make up a story about it.

They go home at night and sit around the dinner table and talk to their family about YOU. They talk about whether they enjoy the person they work for, if they are learning and growing, if they feel like they’re being treated fairly, if they might have a chance for a raise or a promotion. Or they talk about how bad it is at the office, how unfairly they are treated, that they never get a simple “Thank You” from their boss … which is you!

Once you understand this you realize that you truly have a huge amount of impact and influence on the lives of the people that you lead. Consequently, if you want to be a great leader you will take that responsibility very, very seriously and work as hard as you can to be a leader who builds up other leaders and improves people’s lives.

I recently did a survey of more than 8,000 high-potential employees at companies around the globe. This included top employees at firms such as Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, Abbott, Qualcomm, GE and IBM. These high potentials are the employees who have been hand selected as the next group of senior leaders of their organization. The best of the best in companies with as many as 100,000 employees. These sorts of people are what I call “voluntary employees”. They are so good at their jobs and so incredibly talented that if they quit at 10 in the morning, they would have a job at any competitor by noon the same day.

In other words, they could work at just about any company they wanted to, so I was curious to ask them:

“What is it about your company that makes you want to stay?”

The vast majority responded that their major reason for staying was that they respected their leader and truly enjoyed working for them. So my next question was “Then please tell me: What are the key characteristics of your leader that make them so fantastic?” The answers from around the world came back highly consistent and constitute what I call:

The Seven Cs of Leadership.

Character

Without question the single most important thing that people look for in a CEO is someone who is honest and displays impeccable integrity. In another global research study conducted by my colleagues James Kouzes and Barry Posner for their superb book The Leadership Challenge, they state that 89% of the people they surveyed (1.3 million over a 30-year period) said that honesty was the single most important factor they look for in leaders they would willingly follow. It is really quite simple.

If you’re going to be a successful leader: TELL THE TRUTH ALL THE TIME.

Competence

To be an effective leader you must demonstrate high levels of competence in two areas: in your actual job function and in your leadership skills. Consequently, this means you will have to become a serious student of your profession and of how to be a great leader. Luckily, we now live in an era with access to more information (free information) than ever in the history of the world. A great CEO take the time to read, study, listen, watch and learn as much as they can about how to improve and grow. They are committed lifelong learners and value that trait in the people they surround themselves with. It is the single most important thing I’ve learned in 25 years as a leader, CEO and teacher of leaders:

You become what you focus on and like the people you spend time with.

Courage

We of course expect a CEO to be courageous, to take big bold risks, make important decisions, and embrace risk, but what the respondents to my survey said is that they also want a leader who could be courageous enough to be … vulnerable. Everyone knows that there is no way to be successful completely on your own; things move too fast, there’s too much going on, no one can handle all of this alone. Yes, we all want leaders who can be courageous in the face of difficult times, but we also want a CEO who can admit that they don’t have all the answers, that they are scared too, that they need our help. Furthermore, leadership is not about being invincible; it is about being honest and at times even vulnerable.

Collaboration

As was clearly stated above, we don’t like or want Lone Ranger leaders. We want leaders who can roll up their sleeves and do the work shoulder to shoulder with us. What my respondents told me was, “We know you’re the leader, but you don’t have to lord it over us. Treat me like a peer and partner most of the time, and if every now and then you have to pull rank on me that’s okay. But I really want a leader who is part of the team—not standing apart from the team.” Great leaders today are superior at working with and through other people.

 

Communication

Again, we all expect our CEO to be great communicators, to be able to stand up at the front of the room and give an inspiring speech that gets the team pumped. But what the people in my survey said was that in addition to that, great leaders are highly skilled at asking focused questions and then listening intently. There is no argument that one of the keys to business success is hiring the absolute best people you can possibly get on your team. Great leaders understand that if they get these sort of people to work with them, it would be foolish not to ask them lots of questions, listen carefully and learn as much as they can from their incredibly talented employees.

Compassion

Because most of the high-potential employees at large companies are in their mid-30s to early 40s, there is a generational difference in the way they view work. Although highly committed to their organizations and very excited about the work they do, these folks also said they wanted leaders who had enough compassion to understand that they would not sell their soul to the company. They wanted to have a vibrant life outside of the office. Working 9 to 5 or even 8 to 6 was absolutely fine with them, but after that it was time to go volunteer, hang with friends, make some microbrew, have a life.

Contribution

The final characteristic of truly great CEO is the ability to plant the seeds of trees under which they may never sit. To embody a sense of enlightened self-interest. This allows them to balance the short-term decisions of running a successful business today with the long-term decisions of contributing to the world around them in a strongly impactful way. Wise leaders understand that with great power comes great responsibility. They use that power to leave a legacy, not just great quarterly earnings.


Lastly, I’d like to share a tool I learned a few years ago that I thought was extremely powerful for someone coming into a new leadership position. I was attending the Global Institute for Leadership Development and met with a senior executive from P&G who was basically a turnaround specialist within the company. When a division of the company got off track, this gentleman was sent to get them back on track and moving in the right direction. But one of the biggest problems he had was that he was often sent to places where he had never met the people he was now in charge of.

Imagine this:

You work in a division of a large company that you know is struggling, and all of a sudden a brand-new president shows up that you’ve never met before. You know nothing about them, and this person is now completely in charge of your part of the company and your future in the company. Then, he realized this created great fear within the people he was now in charge of. That fear caused them to hesitate, double guess him, and politicize things. Spending a lot of time trying to figure out what the new “boss” wanted. He realized that was a very destructive situation and created an elegant tool to fix it immediately.

Upon arriving at the new division of the company that he was about to take over. He would hand everyone in the entire division one piece of paper that summed up everything they needed to know about him as a new leader. On the front he would write out very clearly what he was going to focus on as their leader. What he expects of everyone that works for him, and what numbers would be the main metrics he will use to measure the success of the organization. On the reverse side of the paper he wrote down his own personal leadership philosophy. What everyone that worked for him could expect from him, and what core values he was going to manage the organization around.

He would then tell them:

“I’m going to hold you strictly accountable for everything on the front piece of paper—performing in a way that I need you to, focusing on the areas that I feel are important, meeting or exceeding the metrics that I’ve set for you. However, I am asking you to hold me 100% accountable for everything on the back of the piece of paper—for living my leadership philosophies every day, for doing the things I am promising I will do for you, and for making sure that we have a values-based organization of integrity and professionalism.”

He did this so that there would be no guessing, no ambiguity and no fear. As a result, people knew from day one exactly what he expected of them and what they could expect from him. Instead of spending months of innuendo, rumors and political maneuvering, he put all of that to rest on day one. This is a tool I have recommended to lots of new managers, leaders and CEOs and one that might be helpful for you too, Dan.


I wish you every possible success, and please know that I’m here if you need ANYTHING. I believe that the issues within your organization are absolutely fixable. As one of the folks in the class today said, “It might be tough, but it’s not impossible.”

Please never hesitate to send a note or call if there is any way that I can help you. I look forward to working together on this and watching as your organization gets better and better.

Thank you very much for asking me to assist in this extremely important project. It has been a joy and an honor, take good care.

-John

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