I once balked when asked to do a presentation on leadership. My response was that leading was just something I did rather than thought about. Lucky for me, one of my employees began citing examples of where I was vocal, even prescriptive, about how we at Cbeyond make decisions, achieve results and treat each other. She pointed out that I fiercely protected the culture that makes us unique, was deliberate about norms that we create and was extremely thoughtful about the people who are asked to join our team. She was right.
While I did not have leadership defined in a PowerPoint, I was adamant about certain tenets that had served my career well. It was a challenging, but powerful, experience to put those lessons on paper, and I am humbled to share some of those with you.
I don’t think of a leader as the guy with all the answers but rather as the catalyst for influencing others to overcome obstacles, find solutions and live their opportunity. Leadership, for me, is informed by my faith, by the successful family, friends and co-workers I have had the privilege to know, and by the places where I hated working coupled with firsthand observations of leaders who squandered their opportunities by creating self-serving environments full of bureaucracy, back-biting and blame. My lessons in leadership come as much from what I never want to become as they do from the excellence that I aspire to daily.
For now, I’ll share two fundamentals: integrity and listening.
Integrity is nonnegotiable, and as a leader, you’d better model the behavior you expect.
Do what you said you would do. People have to trust you, and they have to count on you. Be careful of judging importance by the size of the promise. Responding to e-mails is as essential as delivering results. If you are going to be known for it, it has to be consistent.
View things objectively, not personally. What is the best decision I can make with the information I have, regardless of the implications to me? Viewing things objectively builds credibility, and it sets you up for doing the right thing even when it is hard or unpopular. Practice this one and it will serve you well when times are tough.
Admit mistakes and ask for help. Leaders aren’t expected to know it all. It’s whether your team and your peers can trust you to find the right answer, to own up to unexpected or unintended consequences, and to change course when circumstances merit it.
“Listen to your customers and your employees, and do what they tell you to do” is a mantra that I share often. Leaders listen.
Establish feedback loops. Be relentless about seeking the good, bad and the ugly. I reach out in customer and employee surveys, offer my e-mail to customers and have ongoing “lunches with Jim” with employees. It isn’t always pretty, but I hear what we should start doing, continue doing and stop doing.
Appreciate intellectual curiosity and reward gutsy, confident input. You want people who will stand up and be counted. Robust, honest discussion helps us arrive at the best decision — and then, once made, it’s all hands on deck — we own it together.
Trust moments of clarity. Take the time to truly listen to others’ opinions and encourage others to do the same. You’ll find, often, in those discussions that moments of clarity arise; listen to them, and act on them. None of the stuff above matters if you aren’t using it to make yourself or the organization you lead a better place.
We need more leaders than ever, and they’re not going to fall in our lap. Modeling the behavior we expect and listening to our constituents are fundamental to us being the best leaders we can be and in growing our leadership of tomorrow.
Jim Geiger is the founder, chairman, president and CEO of Cbeyond, a company that provides IT and communications services to small businesses throughout the United States and also provided the world’s first 100 percent VoIP local phone network.