What’s your game plan for success in 2013? As leaders we receive plenty of conflicting advice. Real world insights are hard to come by and sometimes extremely difficult to comprehend. We all know foresight is better than hindsight, so where can you gather both insight and foresight for the New Year?
If you’re planning on stepping up your game in pursuit of high level performance and greater success in 2013, you have a lot to gain by examining the thoughts and advice garnered from more than seventy-five CEO interviews captured in The Corner Office. The experiences were gathered up by Adam Bryant, a senior editor at The New York Times who writes a weekly feature entitled Corner Office. Bryant recently gave an interview to Knowledge@Wharton in which he identified five qualities of successful leaders gathered from his interviews with CEOs:
Passion and curiosity. Having a deep sense of engagement with the world — a questioning mind.
Battle-hardened confidence. Having a track record of facing down adversity and knowing your capabilities.
Team smarts. Having the organizational equivalent of street smarts.
Simple mindset. Having the ability to distill a lot of information into the one or two or three things that truly matter.
Fearlessness. Having a bias toward action — not recklessness, but a willingness to take risks.
Bryant’s crisp and concise writing draws on his extensive conversations with dozens of top CEOs including Ford Motor Company’s Alan Mulally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, Xerox’s Ursula Burns, David Novak at Yum Brands, and Teach for America CEO Wendy Kopp, among seventy plus others.
As Bryant points out, leadership is not a one-size-fits-all skill. Understanding and uncovering how these individuals kept getting promoted and what key skills they possessed drove much of this work. As one of Mr. Bryant’s interview subjects points out, “Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organizations may be asking the right questions.” That’s good advice for all leaders new and old alike.
The day after the head of the White House Military Office stepped down, President Obama could joke about the fiasco. Sasha and Malia are grounded said the President speaking at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner this past Saturday in Washington, DC. “You can’t just take Air Force One on a joyride to Manhattan. I don’t care whose kids you are…we’ve been setting some ground rules here.”
Ground rules or not, the photo of Air Force One flying over the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan—serves as a reminder of the dangers of flyover leadership. The Air Force photo-op frightened New York and New Jersey residents reminding many of the nightmare of September 11th. The flyover created a public relations firestorm for the White House. The President and his Press Secretary were queried as was the Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, each of whom said they were unaware of the decision. While claims about proper procedures being followed and notifications to the proper agencies including the FAA, Secret Service, FBI, US Park Police and New York City Police being made, they forgot to tell the people who mattered most—the citizens of greater New York City. So after spending $357,000 for the photos and following an internal review of the decision process by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, the man in charge of the White House Military Office former Secretary of the US Army Louis Caldera, who had been quick to accept responsibility for the decision, just as quickly tendered his resignation.
There are vivid lessons here for leaders. The cynics say its just politics as usual when a staffer is dismissed over a poor decision. Yet, if you are determined to be a leader, whether it’s the White House or your house, leadership requires a strong dose of the political. Leadership most assuredly understands that foresight is far better than hindsight; (b) vetting your thinking and decisions beyond your own “inner circle” pays big dividends; (c) being certain information is flowing up, as well as down in the chain of command is Job 1; (d) making sure those who most need to know are absolutely, positively in the loop—no excuses; (e) assume nothing—ask the tough questions to make sure you fully understand what actions or steps are being proposed, double-check by personal contact if necessary and perhaps finally, expect to be held fully accountable for the quality (or lack thereof) in your actions and decision-making. I’m certain there are even more leadership lessons to be found here and I invite you to share them so we can all learn from the lessons of flyover leadership.
In my career I’ve had the benefit of observing the working style and behaviors of hundreds of business executives, community leaders and professionals. Each of them brought differing personalities, temperaments, skills, and experiences to our shared work. Many of them provided important or interesting teaching moments. Yesterday’s disclosure that Treasury Secretary Nominee Timothy F. Geithnerhad failed to pay overdue federal back taxes and penalties brought one of them immediately to mind. The details of Geithner’s tax troubles are ably reported in today’s New York Times so I won’t tread over this well worn ground. There are several solid lessons to be had. One of them is about “RM’s”, which leads me back to an earlier teaching moment with a venture capitalist.
Judging from his curmudgeonly ways, he had seen more than his fair share of bad ideas, poorly executed business plans, sloppy strategies, and less than stellar executive performance. He had also seen oodles of what he called “RM’s”—a not entirely positive short-hand for “rookie mistakes”. He had a knack for throwing “RM’s” at you, whenever he thought you’d overlooked the obvious, failed to think through your approach to an issue, or simply fell short of his expectations. “That’s an RM”, he’d say. His judgement omnipresent. “You need to look at this differently. You need to re-think your strategy here. Have you given any serious thought to the long-term impact of what you’re planning to do?” Invariably, the questions would come fast and furious without sarcasm or rancor. But the “RM” judgment was as crisp as a sub-zero winter morning. It had the feel of the character Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street (played by Michael Douglas) or perhaps Fox television’s 24 Agent Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland) up close and in your face. It was discomforting to be sure. Many a budding entrepreneur and even some senior level executives withered under the imprimatur of numerous call-outs for “RM’s”.
To be clear, if you’re interested in achieving any level of personal and professional growth you’ll likely collect your own set of “RM’s”. I’ve got mine and am still adding to the set from time to time. The trick is not to have a matching collection. If you do, it means you’re probably repeating the same “RM’s” over and over again. That’s a mistake of a different type. Rookie mistakes come with the territory. In the process of learning something new, exploring a fresh frontier or discovering a new interest, the odds are something will go astray. Dealing with a rookie mistake is easier than it looks. When you make a mistake, own up to it. Apologize directly, clearly, and quickly to those affected. The “I” message, as in “I made a mistake and want to apologize” works best. If there’s a means to remedy the situation, do so as quickly as possible. Among the largest “RM” is the temptation to cover up, gloss over or deny your culpability. That’s a far greater danger and much bigger risk to your career, reputation and self-esteem than you might ever imagine. Don’t do it. Making rookie mistakes is human. Learning from them and managing them effectively is a leadership imperative.