Recently an interviewer asked me a frustrating question, “Why are we constantly watching leaders on television who are boastful and self-serving?”
My answer, “Because the leaders we see on television in the United States are predominantly politicians. Those politicians, be they Republican or Democrat, often place their political careers above the broader issues of the country. Those are NOT the leaders who inspire me every day.”
Consulting in the C-Suite
My career as a customer experience consultant has given me access to some of the most remarkable CEOs, senior leadership teams, and frontline leaders at iconic global brands. Every one of the leaders I have come to know atop these high-performance companies understands the importance of listening, unifying, and rallying teams to achieve a common vision.
As a specific example, John Gainor, the CEO of International Dairy Queen, (a great leader who will be retiring at the end of 2017) demonstrates inordinate levels of approachability, humility, compassion, intellect, and candor. All of that is packaged with high-performance expectations and a commitment to creating shared profitability for his franchisees and the International Dairy Queenbrand.
I could similarly delineate the strengths of any number of leaders like Ben Salzmann, the CEO of Acuity Insurance (a company that is perennially chosen as one of the best places to work in America). Ben is a strategic thinker who is playing five moves ahead on his business chessboard, and he does so with remarkable humor, ferocious passion for people, and an unflinching commitment to creating stakeholder value.
The follow-up question from the same interviewer also generated an emotion-rich answer from me. The interviewer inquired, “Isn’t a lot of leadership success today simply a matter of choosing the right technology before your competitors do?”
My answer, “NO!”
Ok, I can’t stop with a one-word answer, so I continued, “The great leaders I know start by listening with their ears and eyes. They ask lots of questions; they watch their teams and customers. They survey for trends, and they find tools – many of which come from technology – to position their people, products, and processes for success.”
Grounded in Research
Often during these types of interviews, I leave feeling regret about an answer or two and fear that some of my responses are nothing more than opinions. With regards to these two questions, I know I am on solid ground. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article suggests that leaders of profitable businesses spend the predominance of their time with people, not technology.
Looking at the workday (not just their time in the office) of a CEO, HBR’s survey of 1000 CEOs across six countries found:
On average, about one-quarter of CEOs’ days are spent alone, including sending emails. Another 10% is spent on personal matters, and 8% is spent traveling. The remainder (56%) is spent with at least one other person, which mostly involves meetings, most of which are planned ahead of time. About one-third of the time CEOs spend with others is one-on-one; two-thirds is with more than one other person.
Using John Kotter’s distinction between leaders and managers, the HBR article suggests that both “leader-type” and “manager-type” CEOs spend considerable time interacting with others. Additionally, the research found:
CEOs who tilt more toward “leader” than “manager” run more-productive and more-profitable companies. And, to our surprise, these previously ignored behavioral differences across CEOs have quite a large association with firm productivity, about one-fifth as big as the impact of a firm’s capital inputs (machinery, equipment, buildings, and so on).
In essence, leadership is a full-contact sport. Leadership involves high levels of human interaction and effective communication. The images we see splashed across our television screens aren’t necessarily in keeping with global business leadership, and the stereotype that great leaders win largely through technology is false. Great technology in the hands of a misaligned workforce or applied to the wrong opportunity is worthless.
Action and Gratitude
So, here’s my two cents (although unlike the interviewer you weren’t necessarily asking for my opinion)…
When in doubt as a leader, get out of your office and ask a team member, a customer, or a shareholder, “What’s on your mind?” and follow that up with, “Tell me more.”
Thanks to John Gainor, Ben Salzmann, and so many other great leaders, with whom I’ve worked, for teaching me the human side of the CEO role!
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