7 Leadership Lessons from a CEO


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I recently had an opportunity to hear Gail McGovern speak to a group of high-potential leaders at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, DC. She shared her personal history from her early career at AT&T where she started as a computer programmer and rose to Executive Vice President. There were a lot of lessons learned along her career journey, and here are seven she shared with the next generation of leadership at the Red Cross:

1. Pick the best people.
Attract, retain and develop top-level talent. If you have any doubt before you make an offer, run.  It’s better to wait and find someone who is going to be the right fit.  Never staff from urgency.  When interviewing, people are on their best behavior, and it will only go down from there. The two most important questions you can ask; “are they smart and are they nice?” You can’t teach “smart” and you can’t teach “nice” but you can teach just about everything else.

When looking for new people, staff for chemistry.  Require every one of your direct reports to interview potential team members and give them veto power. You want people on your team who enjoy working together. However, that doesn’t mean you hire people that think alike, or always agree with you. Staff for diversity of thought.  You want your team to engage in robust dialogue and debate.

Young leaders, because they are insecure, often put “B” players around the table. There is nothing worse than being the smartest person at the table. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. As you progress you have less and less control of what happens below you, but you always have control of your staffing decisions.

2. Make every decision based on what’s best for the institution.  
When making tough decisions ask what is best for the Red Cross?  Don’t ask yourself , “What will my boss think, or what will my team or colleagues think?” Just put the institution first. You may make mistakes but no one will question your motives, and you’ll usually make better decisions.

3. Embrace change and course correct.  
Everything around us is changing and the pace is increasing. Change is inevitable. When you embrace change you’re going to make bets, and when you make bets, you’ll make some mistakes.  Acknowledge the mistake and course correct.

Bill Gates is a great example. There was a point of time in the 1980s when Microsoft was mailing floppy disks to its customers and the Internet was seen as this fringe experience.  One morning he woke up and realized how important the Internet was, and he course corrected.

Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross instilled a disregard for the status quo in the DNA of the organization. There is a picture of Clara Barton in Gail’s office with this quote:

“I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent.  I go for anything new that might improve the past.” – Clara Barton

You often hear that people don’t like change. It’s not true. People like change but they hate uncertainty.  It’s your job as a leader to fill in the blanks and help people understand why things are changing and why it’s better for the organization.

4. Be Resilient and model optimism.
Let things roll off your back, and don’t act like the sky is falling.  People look to you in a leadership role. If they see your body language and it communicates pessimism, your people will be pessimistic. There will be set-backs along the way, so deal with them, but always maintain optimism for the future.

5. Push back but support the direction with your team.
Early in your career, as a front-line leader, there will be times when senior management makes a decision and you don’t understand why. You so desperately want your team to like you, you may say things like, “Yeah, I don’t know why senior management has us doing this.” Resist this temptation. As soon as you succumb to this, you lose control, and you can’t get it back. Every time you say, “I don’t know why they are making us do this,” your people are losing faith in your organization and they will become disengaged. Make it your job to find the reasoning behind these decisions. You may not agree with it, and you can push back to your manager, but when it comes to communicating the decision to your people, support it and explain the rationale behind it.

6. Be inclusive, listen intensely, and then be decisive.  
The way you lead is through influence, not through the power of your office, especially when you’re leading volunteers.  It is the most liberating, freeing way to lead.  Listen to people. They want to be heard.  You won’t get 100% consensus, but you will get their support.

7. Lead with your head AND your heart.  
At AT&T, Gail was leading with the left side of her brain. And when people freaked out, she reminded people “it is just phone service…no one is dying.” In 28 years in business before she arrived at the Red Cross she never cried. Here, it’s a good week when she only cries once. It comes with the job when you see people impacted by disasters, or hear from brave men and women who serve in our Armed Forces who the Red Cross has helped during crisis, or hear a heartwarming story about an ordinary person who saved a life through Red Cross training. She realized that rather than downplay the importance of what an organization does, it’s better to tap into the emotion and inspiration people have for the mission of an organization. When you’re asking people to do more than they think is possible, remind them of the importance of what they do. Appeal to their heart to win over their mind.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management.

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