Transcending boundaries Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Dr. John H. Klippel is a few decades older than the average softball player, but each summer, he still takes the field at first base for the Arthritis Foundation team.

As president and CEO of the $133.6 million organization, which helps people learn about and treat arthritis, he feels it’s important as the leader to make yourself visible to your organization.

“I think the fact that (employees) see me out there just like them, as they are, out there playing softball and trying to have a good time, shows them that the leader wants to be a part of them and wants to join them when they’re having fun,” Klippel says.

Smart Business spoke with Klippel about how to effectively transcend boundaries in order to build relationships and trust with your employees.

Lead change. Leaders have to have the courage to recognize and constantly think about change. Change is inevitable. You can build a culture of change into a successful organization.

You have to show people that change is important to you personally. You have to show people that you are committed to change and that you are committed to lead during times that are uncertain.

I think there are many individuals who want some assurance of success, and change does not always succeed or play out the way that you would envision. So people are going to have to have some faith and confidence in the leader, particularly in a time of change. You have to be a visionary, and you have to show people what that change has the potential to do for them or for the organization, and you constantly have to bring this back to mission.

You start with where we are and some of the challenges that we face. Let me give you a classic example that we struggle with. Arthritis, in this country, affects 46 million people, and between now and the year 2030, [it] will affect 67 million people, so the number of people that we propose to reach is enormous.

Then begin to think about, how do you approach that many people? And it’s going to require a different way of thinking about social marketing so that they understand the importance of arthritis.

Thank people. I don’t think you can ever thank people enough for what they do. I’ve become a big believer in very promptly, after someone has done something that has come to my attention, writing them a note.

There is a still a time and place for handwritten notes. There’s a time and place for calling people and speaking to them.

In your actions, one has to be mindful that people are looking at you, and they, too, want to share in the pride and accomplishments of the organization. They want to feel as if they’re a part of it, and they need to hear and see from the leader that they are being recognized for the role they play.

It’s just the recognition of understanding the value of people, and it’s not just the heads of departments that are important. One has to understand that every single individual is important.

We want to make, for every individual, this more than a job. They have to see that their actions have the potential to touch the lives of millions of people that they will never get to know. They have to know that that’s important to leadership in this organization and that their contributions are being recognized.

Admit mistakes. Have a good sense of humor, but be the first one to recognize that there are going to be times when you make a mistake, and you don’t take that personally. People have to see that in a leader.

I often will be the first one very quickly to acknowledge that I screwed up or that I goofed. And the sooner one does that and you don’t fall into the trap of trying to cover up for errors — and truly, all of us make errors — the sooner you can acknowledge that, I think you’ll find that not only will most people understand, but then they’ll go out of their way to help you correct it.

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not pushing your leadership agenda strongly enough. If you’re constantly going to be looking at decisions in which there are no errors made, you’re probably not as aggressive enough a leader as you need to be.

So I think you need to understand that mistakes are going to be inevitable, and people are going to understand that you’re doing everything in your power to correct and to minimize mistakes.

Listen instead of just hearing. You have to have an open mind.

Listening is a skill. People are always encouraging me to talk more, [but] I learn more when I’m listening.

People have to learn quickly from you that you are open to listening. I think anytime one becomes the CEO, there’s always a tendency to think that that person is in a decision-making mode and does much of the talking. There has to be some role reversal so people do understand that the CEO needs to listen.

My first approach for any problem is to gather as much information as I possibly can before I proceed to make a decision. You bring the right group of people together so that you can actually listen, and then on your own you try to process any and all information that you have.

HOW TO REACH: Arthritis Foundation, (800) 283-7800 or