While I was President and CEO of the Calgary Chamber, I sat through many award dinners for CEO’s that were being recognized for their career leadership and performance. Each of them spoke about different experiences and paths that shaped them into who they are today and bore influence on how they were a leader, there was one common line that they would each say: “This isn’t about me, it’s about the team.”
I think they are wrong. It very much is about them. In fact, it’s all about them.
Being a leader, studying leadership, reviewing leadership research, and interviewing leaders, I have come to the conclusion that, as a leader, it is all about you.
Okay, I know that sounds trite. I recognize that this goes against the whole “leaders eat last” and “servant leadership” themes going around and in vogue. I don’t dispute any of those frameworks. But what I hope you come away with is a recognition that leaders won’t have great people to eat after, or to serve, if they don’t step up and set the table first. Yes, it takes a team. But there isn’t going to be a team (or not a very good one at least) if the leader doesn’t recognize that they need to set the tone and model the way. In all our discussion about serving and letting others eat before you, I think we have lost the true defining characteristics of what gets people in positions of successful leadership in the first place.
And I recognize that every good leader worth their salt knows they need to display humility for their accomplishments and at opportunities like award ceremonies they pay due appreciation and recognition to their colleagues for the role they played in the overall corporate or organizational performance. Humility is the sign of a true leader. As is gratitude. It is always the case that the results of an entire organization are the outcome of a team that is working hard, together and diligently.
But, it does all start with the leader. It is about you. This is becoming more and more apparent the more leaders I work with. Organizations that don’t get remarkable results didn’t have good leaders. Some organizations, yes, do succeed despite their leaders. Steve Jobs was apparently very difficult to work with. Elon Musk seems like he might be a tricky one too.
The vast majority of truly successful organizations got there because it started with the leader. And it is based on three key ideas: the vision you craft; what you value; and what you do and say. Those three things will help create a direction to work towards, will set the culture and will set expectations of behaviour and performance that will drive results.
The Vision You Craft
This one is pretty straightforward. Leaders need to inspire their colleagues with a vision of where they are taking the organization. They need to paint a picture of the future, of the target and the goal. And they need to do a great job of making people feel like they can see it, feel it, taste it and see themselves in that future and vision. It is hard to stand up and say, “our future is automation, with robots everywhere” and expect people to be excited about that. It needs to be rooted in story, narrative, and vivid in its detail of what it is, and how you will know that you got there.
Leaders don’t need to always know how you are going to get there – that is part of the work to be done by the team. But they need to tell them where they need to get to. Elon Musk inspired people by saying he was going to get humans to Mars. He had no idea what the rocket technology looked like, but he inspired the vision. Paul Polman of Unilever told colleagues that they were going to make people healthier. He relied on the expertise of the team to come up with foods and products that would achieve that end.
Give people something inspiring and vivid to shoot for. It has to be about more than just “make more money” or “raise more revenue” or “get bigger donations.” That won’t inspire people. But something that speaks to your purpose, and your impact on people and the world will get colleagues inspired to rally behind you.
What You Value
You can’t expect to get certain outcomes if you haven’t made those explicit in terms of the culture and operation of the organization. If you have certain things that you value that you want to permeate the organization, then those need to become embedded in activity, culture and behaviour. You need it to become the default as to how people show up.
What you value and make part of the operating system of your leadership will filter down into the organization either formally (through process and policy) or informally as people get used to your style.
Are you a stickler for being on time? Respecting schedules? Then time management and respect of time needs to be part of the culture. Do you value direct and honest feedback? That needs to be part of the culture. Is high performance and excellence a top value for you? Then holding people to that will flow through the organization. Is rewarding people for doing the right thing and going above and beyond important to you? Then it will show up in programs and the ways in which you treat people and they treat others. Is ensuring people get opportunities to grow and develop critical in your eye? Then your value of growth and development will make it’s way into the operations of the organization.
Figure out what you value so that you can take the next step – acting and talking about them in ways that motivate, guide and inspire people to take action.
What You Do and Say
How you show up is a critical part of the success of an organization and the rooting of its culture. If you want certain results in the organization – culturally, financially, impact wise – then you need to be the role model for everyone in that organization. You need to model the way.
If you say you value one thing, and then do another, then it isn’t genuine and doesn’t stick. If you act in a way that only you feel you can act and everyone else has to act differently (i.e., you think you are better than them) then you will get a lot of resistance to you and your efforts.
History is ripe with examples of people that have a big variance between what leaders talked about and did. Britons enduring rations while Churchill drank champagne and brandy every day. CEO’s talking about cost reductions while flying private jet and eating Michelin star wherever they went. Respect and dignity to be upheld throughout the office while secretly pursuing sexual relations with younger staff. All of these demonstrate a large say-do gap.
Start by acting first, saying second. Actions speak louder than words. If people see you doing things they are more inclined to follow suit. Words are cheap. You can talk all you want about knowing the customer but if that is important to you, you do it first and people will follow. When I was CEO of the Calgary Chamber I believed in keeping a clean office and particularly the kitchen. People would see me washing dishes, unloading the dishwasher and wiping the counter. I didn’t tell people it was important and hope someone else would do it. I just did it. And you would be amazed at how many people followed suit.
As you build your vision and roll it out, you can speak about what you want to achieve, and what you value, but you must then act on it. People need to see you behaving in that way and modeling the behaviour. Those that believe in you and your vision will follow suit. Those that don’t – well it’s likely their time is limited.
How you talk is equally important. What you say and how you say it sets a tone for your style and approach, and ultimately what you expect in others. My good friend and mentor Ian Chisholm of Roy Group reminds us all that what you say and how you behave has a profound impact on what others think. What you say and do creates a feeling inside people and that feeling will determine whether they are with you or hurt by you. How you treat others is vital. It is fine to want results, but no one gets anywhere by treating people disrespectfully. You want interactions to evoke a response that makes people feel good and positive and willing to work for you and with you.
Do Your Own Stunts
Ever since I started working, I have always admired and respected the leaders who I worked for that never felt anything was below them. Some of the best leaders in the world started on the shop floor so to speak. They have worked up through the ranks. They know what each level is like and what it is like to do even the menial of jobs. I have started in some pretty low roles in my day but those leaders who took the time to jump in on those roles when things were busy – boy, I would follow them anywhere. I have never asked someone in a junior role to do something I wouldn’t do.
I was never afraid to jump in. If we hosted a function at the Chamber, I was the first one to the vacuum to clean up. If a guest needed a drink top-up, let me get that for you. If the hotel staff was slow in pouring coffee for the Premier, allow me.
Burt Reynolds was famous for doing his own stunts. Leaders need to be the same. You can’t have someone step in for you when the job gets dirty or tough. You need to buckle up and get ready for the punch.
Finally, none of this sticks without the discipline to see it all through – the vision, the values, and the behaviour modeling. Without holding yourself, and then all in the organization, to account for upholding this approach, then it will purely remain in the “to do” list.
Stay focused on these three things: your vision; your values; your behaviour. Ultimately, you want to evoke a reaction of people willing to follow you anywhere. When you do, you have the recipe for team performance that will be remarkable. Then you will have the opportunities of organizational performance that will get recognized. You may start winning awards. And yes, I am certain that when you give a speech, you will be humble and thank everyone who you work with and has supported those results. But know, that you would never have got there if it hadn’t all started with you.