Cox knows a thing or two about great leadership. Not only is he the pacesetter at his own company, he is also active on the boards of several well-known Ohio organizations, including Canton's The Timken Co., the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and Cincinnati Bell, where he serves as chairman.
And while leadership is more of a natural talent for Cox than an acquired skill, he still struggles with how to create an environment of openness and candor.
"You have to understand that it's important to be candid," he says. "It's important to have an environment of trust [and] hear what people really think."
That kind of environment depends entirely on one vital skill - the ability to listen.
"A good leader has to be a good listener," Cox says. "You don't chide somebody when they say something you don't like. You don't show disapproval for a divergent point of view. You listen.
"Leadership is about listening, asking and questioning, and developing heroes at every level. [When you do that] people get a sense of trust, a sense of openness and a sense of candor."
Developing heroes at every level is an ambitious goal, but Cox sets the bar high. He looks for particular traits, the foundations of company heroes, in all of his employees, whether they're coming in as senior management or at entry level.
"The traits remain the same at every level," he says. "Loyalty, trust, mental dexterity - the ability to go from one thing to another and still be on point. People who are constantly questioning, 'How can we do it better?' Not what you do, but how can you do what you do better? [You also need] people who bring order when there is time of great change and people who can bring change when there's a time of order."
The concept of company loyalty is almost old-fashioned. After all, a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that baby boomers have held an average of 10 jobs by the time they reached age 40. Cox recognizes this and takes a realistic approach to achieving his goals. Loyalty must be created. And for the most part, it is earned, not expected.
"You expect people to say, 'OK, I'm here. I'm on the team. I'm [going to] be loyal to the team,' and then you build from there," he says. "They can't come in saying, 'I'm going to jump ship the minute something goes wrong.' But you have to earn it. Loyalty is constantly growing."
So how does Cox build loyalty? By being consistent.
"Do what you say and say what you mean," he says. "When you tell somebody something, it happens. If it can't, you deliver the worst news the quickest. You tell them it didn't happen and why. I think that's what builds loyalty - a sense of safety and trust; a sense that somebody's going to be fair with me and I don't have to watch my back."
One foot in front of the other
Creating and keeping loyal employees may be one challenge Cox faces no matter where he goes, but it's not his greatest one. As an African-American, Cox finds that his greatest challenge is not over-analyzing his interactions with others.
"I think people who are minorities have a tendency to misunderstand," he says. "You can spend a lot of your time focused on things that don't exist. There's enough of it that does exist.
"My biggest business challenge is making sure that as I interact and work with people and things happen, that I don't attribute it to the wrong thing. That I don't take it to a place that is inappropriate [and] that I don't dwell on it, even when the reason was clear to me."
That may sound easy but it requires a commitment to sticking to it.
"You put it behind you," says Cox. "You just do it every day. You put one foot in front of the other and you go through that exercise."
Much of what Cox knows about leadership has been fine-tuned by his experiences serving on boards. While there are great similarities between running your own private company and running a public company, there are great differences as well.
"[In the role of] chairman," Cox says, "You are more a statesman, more a diplomat, more a mentor. As CEO, you set the strategy, you direct the strategy, you execute the strategy, and at the end of the day, you are accountable for its outcome."
These differences have given Cox a new perspective on his own business.
"[My board responsibilities] help me stay better prepared in my own company, help me be more thorough and help me take advantage of the pace, the rapidity with which we can change a decision, make a decision, adjust a decision. You can't [do that] in corporate America today.
"And I think [it's taught me] governance; how to lead an organization in a fashion that is fair to everybody else. As [Rudyard] Kipling says, 'All men count with you, but none too much.'"
All men count in both private and public businesses, but in the latter, employees aren't the only concern. There are shareholders to consider, and sometimes there are conflicting interests.
"You're trying to make sure you do the right thing for all of them," says Cox. "The employees, the management team, the people who buy your stock, the shareholders. All those people count."
The key, Cox says, is to "get on the page of right thing, right reason. If you do that, you will serve everybody well. Nobody can ever criticize you if you do the right thing for the right reason."
When Cox is faced with tough decisions regarding conflicting interests, he asks himself three questions. What is the situation? What's the right thing to do? Why would I do this?
"You can't look like you're favoring one group or interest over the others," he says. "So if you can look back and see right thing, right reason, you'll come out pretty good all the time."
Again, that's easier said than done. Leadership brings with it several downsides. It is the leader who must make unpopular decisions. And it is the leader who has to present and defend these decisions to employees and shareholders. As such, Cox approaches his decision-making logically.
"When I have a tough decision to make, I try to first define the problem," he says. "Someone once said 'Fanaticism is redoubling your effort after you've forgotten your aim.' Sometimes people forget what the problem is. So the first thing you have to do is define the problem, not get an answer."
Once you really know what you're facing, Cox says, "The solution becomes very clear. It may not be one that you like, but it becomes easier. You have to ask yourself, 'Am I real comfortable with it or am I not?' If you're not always comfortable with it, you have a chance of it being a better solution.
"Solutions are not normally comfortable things. You might be happy that you made one, but somebody isn't going to like it."
Cox cites an example from his own experience.
"We closed an office in Columbus once. That was difficult," he says. "We are a small dog running with big dogs, and we've got to do certain things to compete. So making those decisions about where you put your resources outside the company and in the community and still stay a viable player, that's tough."
Cox asks himself, "What is the problem? Who is it going to impact the most? Why is it going to impact those people? What would happen if I did nothing about the decision? And what happens when I make the final decision?"
And when it comes time to deliver the news, "You stand up straight and tall. You don't blink and you tell people, 'This is what I've come to and this is why. And now I need everybody to buy into it.' It may not have been your best decision, but having been made, we've got to go this way together.
"And you get everybody to join you in that, because that's what the leader does."
Cox speaks about getting everyone to join in on his missions as though it's the natural course of things. But he knows it's not. To get people on board, he uses the Gestalt theory - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"We try to get employees to understand that's the key to being happy in life," he says. "All of us have this innate feeling, whether we understand it or not. All of us want to be a part of something that is greater than we ever could be individually."
Cox believes that when people understand that the organization they're working with can help them get there, they'll buy into its mission.
"If the organization reaches its goals, [they] will ultimately have the things that they want," he says. "The part, no matter who that part is, can never be greater than the whole."
He includes himself in that. Cox measures himself not by his personal accomplishments but by the impact his accomplishments have on others.
"I measure success in terms of [the community]," he says. "Have I created good citizens of my children? Can they go out and become good contributors to society, as opposed to takers? Are people changed and improved and better people as a result of interacting with me and knowing me? Have I created a business where other people and families can do those same two things?
"And do I have something that will go on and live after I am gone, so that that entity, that business can continue to do those things for generations that I won't even live to see? If I've done that ... then I'm a successful guy."
Cox Financial, (513) 621-1771 or www.coxfinco.com