The Rise of the CEO

What if your organization’s CEO was the most trusted person among the staff? Among citizens in your community? In the United States or around the globe? If you are the CEO, what if it was you?

There are more than a billion mentions of CEOs on Google. CEOs going to jail. CEOs threatening to “axe” mediocre staff. CEOs who are the best performing executives in the world. CEOs accused of sexual harassment and misogyny. CEOs who are activist leaders. There are debates about the merits of female CEOs in a world overwhelmingly populated by male CEOs. There are stories of high-profile companies with low-profile CEOs. All manner of debate, conversation, and confounding analysis.

None of it explains the recently released 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reveals trust has changed profoundly in the past year. People have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their “employers.” Globally, 75% of people trust “my employer” to do what is right.

• 58% of employees look to their employers to be a trustworthy source of information about contentious societal issues.
• 67% of employees expect employers will join them in taking action on societal issues.
• 71% of employees believe it’s critically important for “my CEO” to respond to challenging times.
• 76% of the general population concur – they say they want CEOs to take the lead on change instead of waiting for government to impose it.

Uncertainty Is The Only Certainty

Stephen Kehoe, chair of the reputation practice at Edelman, points out that “in the face of heightened expectations on CEOs to step into the trust vacuum left by government, pressure is on them to do more – and quickly – to invoke a sense of certainty, reassurance and confidence with employees as well as the general public.”

If, as Kehoe writes, “CEOs must clearly also consider the significantly heightened expectations on them to be advocates for change in a world that is still confused and uncertain,” a critical question remains. How does a CEO lead in a world that is “still confused and uncertain?” As writer Kirsten Ludowig cleverly noted, “For CEOs, uncertainty is the only certainty.”

Michael Ventura’s new book “Applied Empathy, The New Language of Leadership.” explores the significant improvements in customer satisfaction and new business opportunities when companies deploy empathy as part of their overall product and service development cycles. Consumers are increasingly savvy about what makes truly great products and services. Under the right circumstances, when asked to contribute their ideas and opinions, consumers – residential and commercial alike – will happily share their insights.

The momentary discomfort of a cold toilet seat brought about several innovations to warm things up. The push to eliminate the use of toilet paper will drive others. The commercial application of automatic flush toilets, hands-free faucets, towel dispensers, hand dryers, and even those nifty paper dispensers next to the bathroom door, keeping customers from grabbing the door pull bare handed, reflect empathy for the concerns (and fears) shared by travelers, hotel guests, and consumers. While most of us believe our sense of empathy is well-developed, there are always lessons to be learned. The effort by U.S. airlines to shrink the size of the standard airplane bathroom from 48 inches to 24 inches wide may be distancing empathy for and from travelers.

Are Best Performing CEOs Empathetic?

Assuming empathy is a critical component of leadership, so too is performance. In seeking to assess the best performing global CEOs, Harvard Business Review (HBR) examined companies in the S&P Global 1200 Index. The top 100 roster is full of well-known brands from around the globe—Marriott, Salesforce, JPMorgan Chase, Disney, Northrup Grumman, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Microsoft, Accenture, and 92 other firms.

With the rise and potency of populism in the global political environment, business leaders are facing the reality of a range of dynamic business conditions. Whether it is government tariffs, a long-term trade war, or citizen push-back on tax incentives for corporate relocation or growth, CEO’s are finding fresh uncertainty.

The significant amount of push-back aimed at Amazon and its selection of a new HQ in Long Island City, New York further illuminates the point. Amazon was set to receive $1.2 billion in refundable tax credits and an additional $505 million grant assuming the company created 25,000 net new jobs in New York by 2028. The deal broke down over protests by  residents, unions, and political leaders concerned about increased housing costs, congestion, and the scale of the taxpayer funded incentives.

Asking HBR’s high performing CEOs for their take on how best to manage this and other uncertainty was instructive. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon pointed out that, “If you want the right public policy, you have to be an advocate…you can’t be parochial. You can’t talk only about that one little regulation that’s going to help your company. You need to talk about tax policy, trade, immigration, technology.” In other words, you need to build trust and that’s how you earn a place on the barometer.


The Future of Change

Has the nature of change really changed? In her just released book, “Imagine It Forward,” former General Electric Vice Chair Beth Comstock points out that “what started out as seemingly isolated, episodic incidents has come to resemble an epidemic…the nature of today’s challenges cannot be solved by yesteryear’s tried-and-true expertise.” Our world no longer works that way. She writes, “The coming onslaught of ever more digitization, and automation, and artificial intelligence – it means virtually every industry is coming to its point of reckoning.”

Future of Change Sphere

Why does this matter? One reason is that human beings are bad at changing. Yet, they are surprisingly capable of adapting. Wait, what? Isn’t changing the same as adapting? Actually no. Adapting is becoming accustomed to new conditions, while changing is all about becoming something entirely different. It has been said that it is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent, that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Steps To Change

Have you ever noticed that special, warm, certain feeling you get when visiting with an old friend, a mentor, or perhaps that special member of the family? I got that feeling in abundance this week when I had the opportunity to discuss John Kotter’s work on change with a great group of leaders. Kotter is a favorite among business people. The quality and caliber of his thinking – the wisdom he has extracted from his experiences – resonates at so many different levels. His work is both thoughtful and profound.

Kotter, trained as an electrical engineer at MIT, earned his doctorate at Harvard, and joined the faculty of the Harvard Business School. In the universe of “publish or perish,” Kotter has excelled. He wrote one of the Harvard Business Review’s all-time best-selling articles and has, over the past 30 years, produced 18 books, many of which rank in the top 1% of sales on Amazon.com. His work speaks authentically to the challenge of leadership and change. So, what does it take to create real lasting change? Kotter offers a road map of sorts in his best-seller, “Leading Change.” Kotter says there are eight crucial steps leaders must take to assure success:

  • Establish a sense of urgency
  • Build a guiding coalition throughout the organization
  • Develop a vision and strategy
  • Communicate the change vision
  • Empower employees to take broad-based action
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Consolidate gains to produce more change
  • Anchor the new approaches into the culture

If you’ve ever undertaken a change effort, you know it is not for the faint-hearted. There are just so many opportunities for sabotage at so many levels within an organization. On more than one occasion – even in the face of certain collapse – individuals and organizations cannot and will not muster the necessary resources and energy to change. Need an example? Look no further than Sears Roebuck. Frustration doesn’t begin to describe the feeling.

Change is daunting. It is often thrust upon us – these days without much warning it seems. It is an enormous catalyst for expanding your success and assuring continuity. Unexpected change created by the actions and decisions of individuals or entities outside our control is the most challenging, oftentimes because it is so unexpected. Oddly enough, change you can see on the horizon is challenging too. Fear, paralysis and resistance often force poor choices.

Think about public and private colleges and universities for a moment. First, there was the rise of private, for-profit colleges and universities vying for students, financial aid funds and prestige. Then came the growth of the lifetime learning movement catching colleges off-guard. Both the non-profit and private sector took to the marketplace with fresh offerings. Then came online degree programs. With the fast rise in popularity and the benefit of education software, online payment systems and high-speed Internet access, public and private colleges were able to ride the wave.

MOOC Future

And now it’s MOOC – massive open online courses offered by leading colleges and universities such as MIT, Harvard, George Washington University, Rice, Emory, Brown and others. While still in its infancy, MOOC certainly suggests investments in “bricks and mortar” may be coming to an end. MOOC proffers a dramatic rise in quality, diversity and depth of educational content not seen outside the walls of the Ivy League ever.

Change from the outside. Adaptation. Small victories. Innovation. And now, change from the inside. It’s worth pondering your own organization’s future in the context of both types of change. It’s also worth thinking about the ways in which current business models no longer fit our collective futures. Bring your sense of mindfulness, awareness and imagination to bear on what’s to come. Be part of the future.

Want To Be A Great Leader? Build Trust First!

Why Building Trust Makes Leaders More Successful

Building trust is hard, but there’s an unspoken goodwill supporting your success.

There is an amazing amount of trust, tradition, and protocol that surround the inauguration of the President and Vice President of the United States of America. The symbols of power are ever-present. Former Presidents, elected leadership of both major political parties, the United States Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries and nominees, elected Representatives and Senators, Diplomatic Corp, Governors, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Honor Guards, military bands, motorcades, security teams, and government staff.

As the winner of the general election, the American people have placed their faith and trust in new leaders.

It’s a good parallel for you as a leader especially if you’re new to your post or working to overcome an organization failure. There’s an unspoken and perhaps unseen goodwill encouraging you in your leadership position. It emanates brightly from the moment you accept the post. Your job, is to keep that goodwill alive and healthy by building trust. New leaders sometimes overlook the enormous power of goodwill and the trust they have coming into a leadership role. That is a mistake.

Savvy leaders know that building trust is key to their own success and that of the organization they lead. Here are five things I’ve learned about trust in my leadership career.

Trust Requires Risk Taking

Whenever I have accepted a new leadership position, one of my first actions is meeting with the entire staff and then individually with every staff member starting with the person on the lowest rung of the organization. Oftentimes, that person is the janitor, receptionist or stock room clerk. It doesn’t matter. I want them to have the same opportunity as everyone else in the firm to see the new boss up close. It’s important I get to know them and share a bit about myself.  Finally, I want them to see they are an important part of the enterprise and more importantly that I see them.

Savvy leaders know that building trust is key to their own success and that of the organization they lead.

Trust, Like Respect, Must Be Earned.

It’s also true that your place as a leader will come with a loan of goodwill–funded by the “trust bank”–to get you started on your way. Don’t squander it. Expect your words to be parsed for meaning and your actions watched closely. One of my unofficial jobs as an association  Chief Operating Officer was explaining what our CEO really meant.
Trust and Leadership

His staff meeting edicts, shared news, or strategic pronouncements often met with much confusion among team members. Absent real trust, I became the “CEO whisperer” to staff, clarifying edicts and making meaning from his words. Being obtuse is not helpful to building trust with your team. As Warren Buffet reminds us, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

When it comes to leading, your team, your members, your Boards, Committees, and stakeholders need to meet you.

Trust Comes From Being Authentic

I’m often asked for reading recommendations for leaders. Who’s the best to read? Peter Drucker? Tom Peters? Rosabeth Moss Kanter? Jim McGregor? Steve Covey? Bill George?  My answer is always the same. Carl Rogers. His book “On Becoming a Person” first published in 1961 provides exceptional leadership insight and guidance.
Written as a treatise for psychotherapists and counselors, Rogers explores the value and meaning of being authentic and the simple power of being oneself. You and your team benefit enormously from a willingness to lead with your best self. The comedian Chris Rock tells a dating joke that illustrates the point. “When you go out on that first date, you’re not meeting me, you’re meeting my representative.” When it comes to leading, your team, your members, your Boards, Committees, and stakeholders need to meet you.

Keeping Your Word Creates Trust

The greatest tool to engender trust, is to keep your word. My greatest leadership mishaps have come from not doing what I said I would. There’s never any malice behind my inaction. Oftentimes, I changed my mind after agreeing to something because upon further thought, it seemed like an unworkable or bad idea.

Saying “no” is almost always a better choice, if you cannot see a clear path to success.

If I agreed to do something under pressure, knowing the work needed to get done, the results were awful. Typically, after making these commitments I found my work schedule overloaded or worse still that I lacked the essential skills for achieving the goal. Poor choices. Worse results. Here’s what every CEO and leader has learned.

Trust, Leadership, Followers
Changing your mind after the fact isn’t a crime, but your trustworthiness will take a hit, especially if you delay communicating your change of heart. Saying “no” is almost always a better choice, if you cannot see a clear path to success. Sure you can take the occasional flyer, but not at the risk of you being viewed as untrustworthy. Don’t do it.

One the ways you take the lead here is to model the behavior you expect from your team.

When Trust Is Nowhere To Be Found

How can I trust you? We’ve all been let down by someone. The team member who misses deadlines.  The one who sows dissent and discomfort among the team. Those who lie, dodge, diffuse, and deflect responsibility. It’s all part of the human condition. But it’s not okay. When it comes to disruption save it for your latest innovations and product launches.

One the ways you take the lead here is to model the behavior you expect from your team.  When you sense a team member is being less than truthful, ask more questions. Dig in. Clarify the issues as you see it and ask them to do the same. Avoid blaming, shaming or shifting responsibility. Use “I”messages, like those developed by clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon famous for his Leadership and Parenting Effectiveness (P.E.T./L.E.T.) Training workshops.

Building trust is challenging work. Keeping it requires you to keep a critical eye on your own behavior and actions. It’s probably worth remembering Albert Einstein‘s thoughtful assessment. “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”