Jim Geiger

Throughout all of the elements of leadership that I’ve learned, having a shared vision underscores them all. Without it, you won’t achieve the others.

Let me start by sharing a favorite “aha” moment. A few years ago, I was speaking on a panel at a conference and this question was posed, “How do you hire your leadership team?” Another panelist responded, “I hire my senior leadership members like I buy shoes for my kids, two sizes too big.” I quickly quipped, “Well, then I buy a size 12 for my kids.” It was a great analogy. And it makes a great point. When looking at the team you are building, it has to start with finding players who can embrace your organization’s vision and, as importantly, values and who have the capacity to grow with you and drive you and the organization to a better place.

It is not enough to declare a goal and demand results. You have to cultivate vision and purpose so your teams are moving in the same direction and are inspired to stretch in order to deliver results that go beyond expectations. Results are only one element. If you want to build relationships, listen effectively and create a place of integrity — it’s critical to have a shared vision for success. (And by the way, this is owned by every leader in the company — not just the CEO.)

Declare the dream. If I am going to inspire you to join in my cause, I have to be committed enough to say it publically, say it often and measure against it. Each year at Cbeyond, we unite our teams around a theme that maps to our strategic imperatives. We call it the “Year Of … .” This simple “rallying cry” supported by an ongoing communication of outcomes on metrics that we measure against provide our employees a link to what’s important and how we are doing. It is a powerful way to align our efforts, unite the organization and achieve results together. The “Year Of” theme introduces a shared vulnerability into the organization where we are all committed to a shared vision and shared opportunity — from the CEO down to each individual contributor.

Match incentives to foster collaboration. At Cbeyond, every corporate employee gets a bonus, and we all share the same bonus goals. It’s our way of ensuring that our incentives align with our focus, drive the behavior we want and create an environment that prizes collaboration. We’re in it together and it impacts our compensation. Period. Consider this: Our vision is to be a champion for small business and to deliver an experience that has them stay longer, buy more and refer others to us. To insure that happens, 20 percent of our bonuses are based on how our customers rank their satisfaction with Cbeyond. We turned our vision into a commitment and we aligned our culture, our focus and our compensation. As a result, how we serve our customers permeates conversations every day and in every department. It doesn’t happen in every company and it isn’t an accident that it happens at Cbeyond — our goal is “customer intimacy.”

Paint the picture, tell the story. Context is critical to leadership. “This is where I am taking you and why — and what it will look like when we arrive.” Putting it in every day terms and talking about it in a way that can be understood is key to gaining commitment. I’ve learned through the years to slow down, include others in my thought process and share the experiences that are driving my “moment of clarity” and informing my decision-making. Whether you are talking privately, with your team or with an audience of hundreds, consider the power of framing your point in a story. Telling stories can be an impactful way to create a clear, compelling vision.

You won’t do your team or yourself any favors if your “shared vision” changes every week. Know your outcomes, measure your results and analyze your gaps. Achievement certainly isn’t a given. The power is in quickly organizing around your opportunities to move into a positive trajectory and then rallying all hands to get there as a team. The value of having and communicating a shared vision is that your teams will begin to recognize gaps as fast as you and come to the table eager and ready to be a part of the solution.

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. Learn more at www.cbeyond.net.

Two elements of leadership — trust and service — unfortunately, aren’t always obvious to us analytical types whose focus is primarily metrics and results.

Cbeyond has a unique culture, one that we diligently protect and one that creates an environment in which we are proud to work. There is a return on investment for creating an environment where employees are expected to contribute and, at the same time, have the tools and encouragement to succeed.

A leader isn’t the guy with all the answers. Rather, a leader is the catalyst for influencing others to overcome obstacles, find solutions, and seize and create opportunities. Leadership begins with trust, and leaders are most successful when they combine trust with a challenge to look outward.

Trust dangerously, protect vigorously

Here is a fact: People will not remain motivated, growing and achieving at high levels of performance if they are insecure about their place on your team. As leaders, we can create exponential levels of creativity when we build an environment where employees and teams are encouraged to share ideas and where courage and risk-taking are complemented with both reward and safety.

Encourage vulnerability. Ideas that are proposed today may not work today. However, experimentation will develop a culture of creativity and lead to better ideas in the future. When employees can count on your support, it creates an environment where there is honest and proactive conversation about what’s working and what’s not. People become comfortable with risk, which, in turn, encourages them to move into uncharted territory, expect problems along the way and find ways around obstacles. It becomes natural to learn from mistakes.

Dance with the one who brought you. Continually looking for the “100 percent” employee is a futile and exhausting exercise. Experience has taught me that bringing in the next “great guy” often exposes me to a different set of weaknesses. A better approach is to know your people — what motivates them and makes them tick. You’ll find great success and earn tremendous loyalty and trust when you leverage employee strengths by putting them in the right role rather than painfully focusing on their weaknesses.

See what you don’t like and stamp it out. As the leader, you are responsible for a healthy team. As a role model, you owe your team consistency between your walk and talk. And you owe them an environment that is free of politics, backbiting and ill will. You need to be fair, consistent and diligent about how you treat, respect and encourage each other. What you value will get done.

Promote community involvementOne of our key missions as we grew Cbeyond was to build a company of which we were proud and that would enthusiastically give back to the communities where we lived and worked. We’ve built a grassroots outreach program that has delivered more than 50,000 hours of passion-led service in our 14 markets in the last 10 years.

It’s good for our people, and it’s good for business.

Create capacity. As our world expands, so does our capacity. Engaging beyond the workplace connects us to amazing people and increases our networks and energy levels. Our Cbeyond University goes as far as to promote strategic volunteering; encouraging our employees to use their volunteer efforts to build skills, gain proven leadership experience and build resumes.

Drive citizenship. Community outreach helps our teams become citizens, not taxpayers. You know, those people who actively engage in their environment and drive the change they want to see. We find that attitude, when practiced in the community, also is reflected in our workplace.

Encourage “passion-led.” Drive community service by inspiring, recognizing and encouraging people to engage their communities in imaginative ways that are near and dear to their hearts. We call that “passion-led.” Employees may choose to focus volunteer efforts on coaching, school or church rather than board involvement. We also use volunteer events to drive team-building and have fun.

You are creating a culture — whether deliberate or not. Your employees have to feel safe, appreciated and encouraged if you expect them to make your customers feel that way, as well.

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.

Let’s talk about creating an environment where you achieve results. If you aren’t achieving results, your leadership won’t matter to your business. But it isn’t just about the “business of business” — it is also about people. I’ve been places where relationships didn’t matter. It isn’t pretty or successful in the long term. I vowed relationships would be the nucleus of any company that I had the opportunity to lead.

At Cbeyond, we spend a lot of time on culture and the “how” around “what” we accomplish. It is table stakes for having a successful career here. Don’t mistake my compassion as weakness. It isn’t soft — it drives return on investment. Period. It puts the focus on what is important (i.e., results) and gets us there by developing trust in each other, which drives collaborative growth and shared achievement.

Develop a legacy of trust and partnership. We call it “relationship capital” at Cbeyond.

Build the right team with the right character. Your job is to build the team and then emotionally invest in its members. Like any coach, you own the job of finding the talent and coalescing the players. And once they are on your team — invest. It is a slippery slope to think that the perfect employee is out there and you just haven’t hired them yet. Embrace the 90 percent capability you see in their talent and use sincere “frankness” and coaching to get closer to 100 percent. There’s an exception: Hire for competence; fire for fit. If they aren’t a cultural fit, get them off your team — and quickly.

Encourage vulnerability and avoid a culture of blame. We want teams that are comfortable and confident in their competencies, but we also want them to be self-aware. If we create environments where we assume good of each other, candidly declare the breakdowns and then arrive at a solution together, we create a culture where our employees feel trust, acceptance and support. If you as a leader provide positive regard for your people, they will be able to offer it to each other and to your customers. We call that “making a simple promise to each other.”

The world is a place of abundance and someone doesn’t have to lose for you to win. Benchmark against others — compete against yourself. Think this way and it will change how you lead and fundamentally how your teams interact with each other.

Focus on achievement — not status.

Stamp out bureaucracy. At Cbeyond, we all sit in cubes, we don’t print titles on business cards, and we don’t publish organizational charts. It isn’t just about bureaucracy; it is about having the ability to play as a team. Put the right talent on the proper challenges without regard to rank. When we are not trapped in “status” discussion, we are positioned to make the right decision for both our employees and our business.

Create shared values. Establish metrics, measure your business, create alignment and then celebrate success. For the past 11 years, we have rallied our troops around an essential imperative, our “Year of …” theme where we align our strategic initiatives, departmental objectives and individual MBOs (management by objective). And to make it stick, we share the same bonus objectives — everyone’s incentive compensation is paid on the same metrics. We rise and fall together and together we make decisions, drive priorities and ask the question, “If it doesn’t support our ‘Year of’ theme, should we be doing it?” You must have shared values to create shared success.

Speak in partnership language. Simply put — it is we, not “me” or “I.”

I have one final thought on all of this: Eliminate the rearview mirror. Learn from your experiences and move forward.

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. Learn more at www.cbeyond.net.

Saturday, 19 February 2011 22:48

Integrity and listening: Core to leadership

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.