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Lessons from a CEO
by Howard Breen

Great leadership isn't quantum physics, but there are some basic rules to follow. HOWARD BREEN reflects on the lessons learned throughout his career from bosses good and bad.

Recently someone asked me about the bosses I had worked for throughout my career. It brought back memories, both good and bad. I've been blessed with working for outstanding individuals as well as outstandingly bad ones. There was much learning from each group. From the latter, I learned that simply because someone was in a position of authority, it didn't necessarily make them an authority-certainly not at leadership. I observed bosses abusing people verbally and emotionally; disrespecting their rights; destroying the spirit of a good team; and misrepresenting the company's code of ethics and conduct. These "empowered" leaders were anything but. From these bosses, I learned how not to conduct myself as a leader.

To the former group of bosses, I express thanks for their daily examples in showing the way. Most of these outstandingly talented leaders are now CEOs with flawless reputations and heavily involved in charitable foundations and in the well-being of their employees. The inspirational and lasting lessons I absorbed from these bosses could fill a book-which I'm not clever enough to pen-so I'll just present 10 of them. These lessons are applicable to anyone in a supervisory position-they are not quantum physics, but then again, neither is good leadership.

You can't lead people who don't want to be led

Gandhi was quoted as saying, "I am their leader. I must follow my people." It took me a long time to understand that people must want to be led. They must believe a leader is worth listening to, and worth following. This doesn't happen in a day. It happens over time when enough goodwill, consistency and trust has been generated by the individual standing at the forefront. This trust and belief will create the support needed for a leader to be able to take bold and decisive actions. But first and foremost, you must listen to the people. You must hear their concerns, understand their needs and fears and seek their input. This is how, as a true leader, you "follow your people."

Earn your title every day

Your behaviour as a leader is not something you can turn off and on with a switch. The consistency with which you conduct yourself is vital to the level of calm and stability you generate around you. Ensure your people know what they can expect from you. Clearly lay out where you intend to focus your energies and the company's resources. Be prepared for the unexpected because as a leader there will be days you feel like you are the only hydrant on a street with 100 dogs. No matter what comes at you, it's imperative that you never lose your head or your perspective. People are watching your every move and decision. They're watching to see if you make the hard calls or procrastinate. Don't ever rest on your title or your laurels.

You can be a strong leader and have a proper balance in life

Your career is not a sprint. It's a marathon. So is your family relationship. The example you set in balancing your life will permeate your organization. For any hope of balance, it is vital that you orchestrate your life to be as time conscious and aware as technology and your work/home calendars will allow. Focus only on what moves your company forward. Surround yourself with richly talented individuals who "get it" and know exactly what is expected of them and how their contribution helps the bigger picture. Be crystal-clear in your marching orders and use your skills to drive efficiencies. Always look for a better way to get the job done. Involve your family with what is happening at the office. Pre-warn them when you are heading into hectic periods. Don't separate your job from your family or your family from your job. It does not work. Make a concerted effort towards the balance point, and both your career and family can prosper. Your own balance in life must also include a diligent effort at physical fitness. The stress and workload facing a strong leader is intense. Marathons can't be run without a proper training schedule and diet.

Junior employees deserve the same respect and candour as senior employees

Think about this. A business pitch is prepped over three weeks with 10 people going at it day and night. Materials are to be couriered out Friday at 9 a.m. The call comes to you Monday that the materials weren't received and your company has "de-faulted" the competition. You learn that the mailroom failed to courier the package. Before going ballistic, consider this: Did anyone pre-warn the mailroom people? Were they involved in the pitch timing? Did anyone follow up to ensure the package had been sent? Remember this: The most junior people can make or break your company. Their salaries and accountabilities may not be as high as your senior folks, but every person has a crucial role to play in the success of the team. As a leader, it's your job to reflect this in your behaviour with all levels. It's also just plain courtesy and common sense.

Leaders who sit in their office all day never played on a winning team in high school

Leaders can't lead from the back of the battle. They need to be on the field. Winners don't learn how to win by sitting on the bench. Neither should you. Get out of the office and wander the halls. Don't be afraid to walk into someone's office and say, "Hi, what are you working on?" You'll learn more about your company by being away from your desk than you will sitting in front of your computer. Hold weekly breakfasts with your employees. Set up procedures to enable two-way communication. You'll have an opportunity to interact with people who are looking to you for inspiration and clarity of direction. You'll also have a chance to provide constructive and honest feedback on what's happening.

Leaders who don't suffer fools should look in the mirror more often

Good leaders understand that the people working for them have different skill sets, talents and flat sides. Let people be themselves, warts and all. That diversity is what makes a team interesting and able to work off each other to find new ways of thinking. Help each person to find that way of being the best person they can be. Allow them to experiment and sometimes make mistakes (never the same one twice, mind you). Encourage your employees to reach beyond their scope of skills and their comfort levels. Start by taking a hard look in the mirror at yourself and your own calibre of leadership.

Never make a decision you wouldn't make if your mother was sitting beside you

I can't remember the number of times I've faced down an ugly decision and considered this advice. My mother, God bless her soul, was a very simple and decent person who taught her children invaluable lessons of life including the love of family, the importance of neighbours and community. She showed us the need to strive to be our best every day, knowing that some days it wouldn't be possible. Most importantly, my mother helped us see the difference between right and wrong, to treat others with respect and courtesy, and to never make a decision that breached our integrity or family's name and reputation. Perhaps all those CEOs in hot water across North America should have been thinking back to lessons their mothers taught them.

People and ideas need to be protected, challenged and nurtured

We've moved to superior technology that has phenomenal advantages in communication and information dissemination. It is no longer dependent on location, given the transient nature of our devices. This means that people can, and do, take their work home with them. They can e-mail, surf the Internet, play and work anywhere or anytime. All of this has created an expectation of a dramatically faster speed of turnaround in product development, getting to market, responding to customers and generating ideas. But "too fast" increases the risk of error. It's a double-edged sword. People need time to think, to work as a team and share ideas that are based on sound thinking and the right information. And ideas need time to germinate. Take away an adequate amount of time and you will damage the quality and fabric of an idea. You might beat all your timelines. But what are you taking to market?

It's important to consider how timing pressures and influx of information affects the long-term well-being of your employees and the ideas they generate. Seek out new ways of harnessing technology and speed of turnaround to your benefit as a competitive advantage. Ensure you have the top IT people available to keep your company ahead of the curve. Help your employees help themselves (and the company) with proper training and education. Set fair timelines that will allow your people to generate rich thinking and long-reaching ideas.

Don't ever direct someone to do anything that breaches integrity, good taste or humanity

I am personally very disturbed with TV programming, music videos, movies and computer games that promote rampant violence, foul language and the debasement of women. Where are the standards for integrity, good taste and humanity? Who determines what is, or is not, acceptable? A leader does. You can make a difference that affects all of your employees and their families, your customers and your industry. The actions of your company directly affects our society. Ensure that you and every employee in your company lives up to a code of ethics and conduct that addresses integrity, good taste and the fair treatment of all people. Take great interest in how, and where, your products are being marketed and sold. Don't let your company slide on these parameters, or the very DNA that has brought you success will be contaminated. We all play a role in protecting the soul of our society. Recognize how far reaching your actions can be.

Take your partners with you

I worked for a CEO who used this expression daily. It drove me crazy. Now I hear myself saying it all the time. Don't run off like the Lone Ranger without your teammates. Don't assume people around you know or accept your game plan, expectations or timing. Don't believe that simply because you added someone's name to the e-mail that they agree with you or don't have valuable input to add. Bring the right people to the table early in the process. Have open discussions about your project. Seek buy-in and clearly delineate the action plan with timing and accountabilities. Create and document action standards. Then keep close to your teammates and be there to clarify and help. Follow up religiously.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said that "people don't do what you expect...they do what you inspect." With every obstacle or opportunity include and inform everyone involved. The results will surprise you. When things go well, always shine the light on your team members. If things go astray, be the first to stand up and know when not to duck. Take your partners with you every step of the way.

HOWARD BREEN is the chair and CEO of MacLaren McCann Canada in Toronto.

 
 
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