The best CEO I ever worked for

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We were completely different, you and I.

You were “How’s your mom and them?” and I was “May the force be with you!”

You were seersucker and I was black leather.

You were a little bit country, and I was definitely a lot of rock and roll. And hip hop. And Disney musicals.

We were on opposite ends of the religious, social and legislative divides.

None of this meant a civil and productive work partnership was impossible. But I never expected it to be the most challenging and instructive course in great leadership I’ve ever received.

And over the years, I’ve looked for your habits in other leaders:

1. You actively sought feedback – even criticism.

During one strategic planning retreat, we used an anonymous electronic voting system to gauge feedback on upcoming initiatives. Everyone could view the results instantly on the presentation screen. The tallies were fairly consistent and predictable, until a question about company culture appeared.

“Did the company create a positive work environment, and was it moving in a positive direction?”

Amidst all the “yes” responses, a single “no” appeared on the screen.

It was an awkward moment. Everyone looked at everyone else, while some members of leadership called for a witch hunt, demanding that the dissenting individual reveal themselves.

Instead, you scheduled private one-on-one conversations with every single person in the room over the next two days, giving that individual (and everyone else) the chance to discuss any concerns with you directly.

You managed to validate everyone involved, without forcing anyone into an uncomfortable situation, and you got a lot of valuable feedback that helped move the culture forward.

2. You made it ok to fail.

I had this amazing idea for an event I was sure would put the company in the spotlight, and you let me run with it. I promoted it to death, and even booked you on a local tv talk show to discuss it.

And you stood right next to me at the front door, along with the celebrity host I’d recruited, as we eagerly awaited the several hundred people I just knew would attend.

And barely one hundred people did.

I was mortified, stumbling over apologies and possible explanations. I wanted to crawl under a rock and die of embarrassment.

But you just patted me on the shoulder and said, “The people who attended had a great time, and the next event will be better. Don’t worry.”

You were right – the next event was a huge success. But if you hadn’t made it ok to fail, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to try again.

3. You communicated everything and always.

It was your voice that opened and closed every meeting, training session and event. You kept the entire team in the loop at every turn – when the balance sheet was strong and when it wasn’t, when the industry was running smoothly and when we faced political challenges, and when things were good, bad or just ugly.

You knew regular communication wasn’t about ego or grandstanding; you knew speaking was leading and that transparency built trust.

When you were forced to dismiss a longtime employee, you gathered all of us together and explained the situation with compassion and tact, dispelling any rumors and reassuring us that all would be well.

When you faced a serious medical condition, you shared the diagnosis, treatment and outlook with the entire team -- and the entire team made the journey with you.

The most startling display of authentic communication I remember was when you’d become exasperated with a particularly difficult, though brilliant, colleague.  You actually admitted, “I’m so frustrated, Trudi. I honestly have no idea what to do about this.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard a leader be so transparent. And that moment of vulnerability cleared the way for us to handle the situation more effectively and make the team even stronger.

Today, I quote you in almost every training session I conduct, and when facing corporate culture challenges, I often ask myself how you would handle them.

You are proof that great corporate culture transcends personality types and social views, and unites teams on the basis of mission and vision.

I owe so much of my success to you. You helped make me fearless.

Act of Fearlessness: None of us got here by ourselves. Who should you thank, and who are you mentoring?