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.
It is generally agreed that to succeed in business or any other collective pursuit, there must be the ability to attract and retain the “best and brightest” people. But really, this is just the beginning. In my experience, I’ve found that there are three core value traits that can help organizations to optimize the performance of their “best and brightest.”
These same three value traits surface over and over, year after year. They are: character, competence and commitment.
It requires character to act with fidelity on one’s beliefs. It requires competence to achieve goals. It requires commitment to persevere to a successful conclusion. These core values drive productivity and produce profitability and sustainability for one’s company, its staff, its customers and its investors.
How best to describe these core value traits at the corporate level?
One must be able to demonstrate ethical integrity, an emphasis on seeking solutions not casting blame, an open environment where honest communications are encouraged and honest differences of opinion are allowed, and a commitment to managing on the basis of sound principles. Doing the “right thing” in a professional manner is a demand all must make of themselves.
It is also important that you find people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and relentlessly seek to innovate within bureaucratic structures. You must also find people who have creativity, decisiveness, initiative for self-growth, leadership ability that encourages small work groups and a continuous seeking of the optimal balance between flexibility and control. A truly disciplined organization continues to learn and consistently applies the best methods to achieve goals and the fulfillment of the idea that competency is a key competency.
It is also crucial that the people of your company have commitment to one’s group, one’s company and to one’s fellow colleagues. They must have a missionary zeal in representing the company and its products, responsibility and personal empowerment. They must encourage people to grow and empower them to do so. You also want people who promise to do what has been asked, pledge to provide whatever assistance is required to meet a shared commitment and perseverance in one’s beliefs.
To be successful, people and organizations must act with character, competence and commitment in a harmoniously orchestrated environment that energizes all and synergizes everything. As an employee or employer, these core value traits are essential minimums. But, they are only minimums.
Studies consistently show that among the three most highly regarded leadership traits are those of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. Leaders who cannot be trusted cannot lead. So, besides the ideals of character, competence and commitment of an organization’s staff and leadership, the firm’s leaders must also be people who are honest, trustworthy and have a sense of integrity.
It is this sense of integrity that integrates all other desirable characteristics into an authentic and harmonious entity, which is a mark of all consistently successful organizations.
Thomas M. Nies is the founder and CEO of Cincom Systems Inc. Since its founding in 1968, Cincom has matured into one of the largest international, independent software companies in the world. Cincom’s client base spans communications, financial services, education, government, manufacturing, retail, health care and insurance. Read more about Nies at http://tomnies.cincom.com/about/.