Jack Pickard

Jack Pickard’s employees are often surprised when he gives them handwritten notes of recognition, but the CEO of FedEx Custom Critical says it’s all about setting an example. It’s an example his employees have taken to heart under his leadership of t
he 600-employee, Akron-based division of FedEx, which deals with shipping emergencies. Smart Business spoke with Pickard about how a CEO with a sense of humor can improve employee morale.

Be a role model. Successful business leaders need to be well-informed about their business. In other words, they need to be well-read, open-minded to what’s going on around them, very curious.

You’ve got to have the fundamentals of good character, honesty and integrity. A good work ethic. A good leader needs to set the example. Just because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you can stroll in late in the day and leave early in the day. Pretty soon, people will begin to emulate your activities.

Credibility is key — you’ve got to be credible in everything you say and do. Walk the talk.

Have a sense of humor — it will improve employee morale. A leader needs a good sense of humor. For the most part, when I got out of the military, a lot of the decisions I made there could have been life and death. In the business world — although it feels like it sometimes — most things are not life and death decisions. A sense of humor tends to center an individual, particularly a business leader.

Also, a good leader has humility. You’re not always right. Your organization is not always right. When there are errors and things go wrong, you need to be humble enough to recognize them openly.

When things are going well in business, we call that the genius de jour, because as sure as I’m standing here, things are going to turn around and you’re not going to be the genius you were when things were going so well. You have to have a sense of humor when things are going really well, and also when things aren’t going so well.

It doesn’t mean you’re not serious about the business and enterprise. People are more relaxed if the leader has a sense of humor and is not serious all the time. If they’re relaxed, they can do better work.

They’re not fearful. Someone who is serious all the time and does not have a sense of humor creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to creativity or innovation.

Keep your finger on the pulse of your business. You’ve got to find the right amount to be involved. It depends on the size of the organization. If you’re running an ice cream shop with five employees, you’d be very involved every day in every single aspect, including dipping the ice cream.

As you grow, you want to have the right people in place to take action for customers. You shouldn’t have to micromanage good people in every aspect of their day-to-day activities. Obviously, you have to be in touch with what’s going on, so you need to review the information. You have to stay on top of that, but in terms of really hands-on motivation — that depends on the individuals you’ve got working

You need to be involved intimately with business every day in the sense of knowing what’s going on, and having the right information structures and reporting flows, and have a good idea of the pulse of the business.

Give them the straight scoop yourself. We have something we call the “Heard it in the Hallway” sessions. We pick 15 to 20 employees at random.

I sit in that room with them and answer questions. Every year, we do a kickoff meeting. We talk about the tactics and strategies for the upcoming year, what we did well the past year.

We do that meeting in an unusual fashion. Rather than make it one of those boring business meetings that has the ever-present slides that go up on the screen — that are one step behind sleeping pills — we try to keep it short and on point. The meetings are stand-up; nobody has a chance to sit down. It seems to be the most effective.

Innovate to leave competitors in the dust. Growth is the fountain of youth. If you’re not growing, it’s going to stagnate and die.

You need growth, and it comes down to three key elements. In order for any business to grow and prosper, you need to do three things: You need to be operationally excellent. You’ve got to have quality — you do what you say you’re going to do. You make pickups on time, you deliver it on time.

Second thing is product and service innovation: You’ve got to constantly be bringing new services to the market. Sometimes it’s quick and easy, sometimes it takes years. Generate and spark new life and growth.

As soon as you do one thing well, it becomes very successful and you make a lot of money, you always attract a host of competitors. Ultimately, it becomes very competitive. You need to figure out a way to get out of your own sandbox with new products and services. A lot of that is the marketing team.

The third thing is you need to have a real close tie and connection with your customers. You need to understand what they’re thinking and where they’re going to go. If you go to customers and ask them what the new products should be, they won’t have a clue. You need to understand how they’re going to be.

It’s like Wayne Gretzky, the hockey player. What he did better than any hockey player out there was anticipate where the puck would be before it got there. He’d get himself into position to take the puck and score.

It’s about anticipating where business is going to be going. The chairman of our organization, Fred Smith, recognized the Pacific Rim as the world’s area for manufacturing. He worked to get us in position.

Had he not had that vision, we might not have gone through all the strain and pain — my words not his — of acquiring the Flying Tiger line (an all-cargo airline with flying rights to 21 countries).

HOW TO REACH: FedEx Custom Critical, (800) 762-3787 or www.customcritical.fedex.com