Make sure your employees always know who’s the boss

If you ask, the vast majority will give you the wrong answer

Here’s an experiment that may surprise you. Walk out to any work area in your company and ask five random, midlevel supervisors and rank-and-file employees this simple question: “Who is the boss in this place?” It’s a good bet most will, with a quivering lip, say, “Of course it’s you.” Some might even smile nervously and respond in a boot-camp tone, “Sir, I take my orders from you, sir.”

To further my research for this column, I did the logical thing and went to the all-knowing Google and typed in the search bar: “How to know who is the boss.” Not surprisingly, the answers appeared in a millisecond that stated emphatically: the individual who makes you do things, someone who decides everything and one alternative even implied — with my reading between the lines — that it’s the person who makes more money than you. (No doubt on the dark web, there’s likely more pejorative definitions.)

Sure, some of these answers may be partially correct, but the unequivocal response should be the customer. Every employee needs to understand that without the customer, there is no reason for them to have his or her job because, otherwise, what is the company going to do with the stuff it makes or the service it provides?

For the second portion of my little test, I queried several CEO friends. The vast majority of them got it right by answering, “the customer.” However, unless everyone in your organization clearly understands who they, figuratively at least, take their ultimate marching orders from, they’ll work to please an individual and not to satisfy the end user who pays the bills.

It all begins with the person at the top who must beat the drums that everyone works to satisfy your customers — and the truly great companies become manic in doing so.
Companies spend an inordinate amount of time and energy ruminating and debating what their mission statement must convey. Some are supercilious and use too many words to say too little; others try to be homey and communicate in a gee-whiz style, and basically miss the mark completely. A formal declaration of purpose must be easily and quickly understood and, more importantly, be achievable by everyone from top to bottom in the organization.

An effective mission statement should in essence assert, in your organization’s nuanced vocabulary, something that succinctly shouts: serve our customers, provide opportunities for our employees, create value for investors and be a productive member of the community. Sure, this is like G-d, mother and apple pie, but it gets the job done. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet and, as the head of an organization, it’s your job to mix and match these letters to get your message across and then continuously repeat the tenets of your incontrovertible purpose every day to reinforce, remind and indelibly instill your principles for doing business.

As a leader, you will know you’re succeeding when you give an order, and someone asks: “Are we sure this is good for our customers?”

Google may know all, but make sure your employees know better.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.

Have faith in your people and they will have faith in you

“Keep the faith, baby” was a battle cry made popular by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a controversial and theatrical Harlem, New York congressman from 1945 to 1971.

This catchy provocation evolved into the perennial mantra to invoke reluctant and skeptical nonbelievers to become disciples of just about any cause. In addition to furthering religious and spiritual beliefs, having faith in another person, a cause or a company can be a powerful motivator to accomplish Herculean objectives.

In business, employees are beseeched to have faith in management, the company, its products and services. It gets down to “you have to believe, or it likely won’t happen.”

To accomplish major objectives, management must do so through others to make anything scalable. Too many companies and leaders tend to think if they merely will something to happen, it just does. Unfortunately, as virtually everyone in business knows, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, faith must be built on trust, and supported by equipping employees with the right training, tools and motivations to succeed. It would be ridiculous to send a soldier into battle without bullets. It is equally futile to ask your employees to complete tasks without providing them with the requisite arsenal to prevail.

Faith is never a matter of fate. The lyrical melody, “Que Será, Será,” which translates to, “Whatever will be, will be,” is nothing more than leaving success to chance and is simply unadulterated Pollyannaism. Once employees are properly equipped to get the job done, it is up to leadership to imbue them with the confidence to undertake whatever is being asked of them, emboldened by the self-assurance that they’re ready and able to meet the challenge.

Skills, preparation and practice are part of the preamble to winning, but unless subordinates unequivocally know that leadership has faith in them, too frequently, they’ll fall short of the goal. This is no different from when a football coach, a minute before his gladiators take the field, gathers them together in a circle on the sideline and reinforces their belief that they can win by executing the strategy and plays they’ve unrelentingly trained for. At this point, it doesn’t matter if the team is an underdog or the favorite — what counts most is believing they will triumph by the last tick of the scoreboard clock.

Business is no different from sports in this sense. You must prepare your team by providing them with all the elements they need to succeed while elevating their certainty that you have faith in them. A synonym for the word faith, as used in the context of this column, is preparation. Endowing your employees with the right stuff to win is the antithesis of leaving success to mere chance, or fate, and hoping for the best.

When people become true believers and have faith, they also become accomplished doers. After they achieve the goals you’ve prepared them for, their faith in you as a leader will significantly increase.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide. Today, as founder/CEO of Max-Ventures, his firm invests in and consults for retail businesses. 

A leader’s three tools

How leaders should address employees’ workplace struggles

Everyone wants to succeed. Everyone wants to win. But no one gets to go through life without experiencing failure or hardship. As a leader, seeing your people struggle is a difficult thing.

When things get off track, you want to jump in and help. But in the end, all you can do for them arises out of three things: Grace. Resources. Accountability.

  1. Grace: Being understanding and compassionate toward your people when they are struggling is something you have to lean into. Give them every break you can afford so they have time to learn, time to recover, and time to get their act and themselves together. Don’t throw out good people for poor performance when all they needed was a little time and understanding. In the end, the grace you give is the grace you get. Don’t be stingy with it.
  2. Resources: Managers will toil away faithfully with what they have, not asking for help for a surprisingly long period of time. Some will fail entirely without a peep. There’s a lot of pride and fear of failure in the workplace, so offer resources early and often. Those could include using your influence to support your people, providing training, clearing away administrative hurdles, addressing personnel or departmental conflicts that slow progress, hiring temps or additional staff, or approving incentives.
  3. Accountability: After you have poured all of the grace and resources you can on a problem, sometimes you have to hold people accountable. This should always be done with maximum compassion and minimum drama. Respectfully calling people out on situations and outcomes provides a venue to create more understanding and move forward. It’s easier to complain to colleagues, of course, but that does not get the problem fixed. You must address situations and sit in the mess. If you decide discipline or even termination is warranted, be gracious and kind about it. People do not need to see your face get red as you pound on your desk. That is more a sign of a leader’s fear than their power.

Next time you have people who are struggling, these three things are what you have to work with. They might help you make a better choice.

Leadership is a complex and evolving landscape. Every time you take a step forward, the view changes. It is hard to convey how to navigate it. But the best leaders realize that it isn’t about knowing the maps. It’s about developing the tools you need to find your way through the unknown, so you never really need to be in charted waters to begin with.

Under the direction of President and CEO Daniel Flowers, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank has been consistently named one of the NorthCoast 99 Great Workplaces and the Feeding America Food Bank of the Year in 2012, the highest honor achievable by food banks.

Navigating the white-water rapids of business

Last summer my husband and I spent a week at a Dude Ranch in Colorado. As we prepared for this vacation, I expected to participate in new and different outdoor activities. Little did I know that during this week of adventure, I would learn important lessons about leadership.

We decided to experience white water rafting in a nearby river. What we didn’t realize was that the river was running wildly as the snow was quickly melting from the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Prior to our departure, we were given a tutorial in safety measures, and we were told to follow our guide’s instructions. We then climbed into the raft and started our journey.

While the water was indeed running fast, the early experience was quite enjoyable as the water was easy to navigate. I thought to myself, “Not bad… I can handle this.”

Rocky waters

The guide then pulled our raft over to shore and became very serious. She shared we were about to hit some very rough rapids. She gave specific instructions on how to traverse the rocky waters. She was emphatic that to ensure our well-being, we were to follow her instructions precisely and to function well as a team.

We didn’t realize we were heading for a level four rapid.

As we approached the rocky waters, my anxiety grew. We started down the rapid and while our raft felt incredibly unsafe, we did not capsize as did other rafts within sight. However, an elderly man from our raft had gone overboard. The man’s son was rightfully frantic as he feared for his father’s safety.

Yet in the midst of this “storm,” the guide stayed focused on her game plan. She provided clear instructions to the team. She shared that her first priority was to get eight people safely to dry land and that she would ensure the elderly man would be rescued.

Preparation, focus and adaptation

This experience reinforced to me the leader’s role in navigating an organization through white water down cycles that are inevitable within any business.

Like the guide, a great leader coaches the team comfortably through the good times and anticipates rocky waters before they are encountered. A great leader prepares followers by teaching them to adhere to guidance and to execute flawless teamwork. A great leader remains focused on the game plan but makes “in the moment” adaptations when circumstances change. And, a great leader looks out for the interest of the greater good while also showing extraordinary respect for every stakeholder.

I learned about leadership from that rafting experience last summer. From the white waters of a Colorado river to the C-suite or boardroom, the leader’s anticipation, team preparation, focus and adaptation are all required to ensure sustainable organizational success in the midst of difficult times.

And yes, the elderly gentleman was safely reunited with his son and quickly traded his seat in the raft for a welcomed glass of wine.


Janet Meeks is the Co-founder and CEO of Healthcare Alignment Advisors LLC. With 40 years of experience in finance and health care along with extensive service in the boardroom, Janet Meeks is a sought-after adviser to CEOs and other C-suite executives across a variety of industries. She is also the author of the book “Gracious Leadership: Lead Like You’ve Never Led Before,” which was released in early 2018.

Choose to lead

Conducting yourself with integrity is a matter of practice

We really can’t have too many leaders in our business world, our communities, civic life and families. While it is true that more than one authority could create confusion, this is not the only means of leadership. A person can be a leader without being the authority figure.

John Quincy Adams defined leadership best: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
If you think about who inspires you, you think about actions one demonstrates that you wish to emulate. Whether a family member, business colleague, or friend comes to mind, the qualities they practice are likely to include being smart, fair, considerate, honest and principled. The common thread of these characteristics is integrity.

Warren Buffet and Thomas Jefferson both said in their own words, two centuries apart, that estimating a person’s value rests first in integrity. Both men place integrity above intelligence and talent when it comes to the singular quality defining a person’s character. I know that people in my life who exhibit high integrity are the people whose example I want to follow. They are true leaders.

By being a person of integrity, you can be a leader. But how can you be a person of integrity? Many believe integrity is something with which you are born and that some are ‘wired’ for it. But integrity is not like intelligence or talent. While not everyone can be an inventor, writer or professional athlete, everyone can have integrity. Integrity is self-selecting — you decide to have it. You can decide to be a leader.

While you can choose integrity and it is within the reach of all, this doesn’t mean it is simple to attain. Take a look at the people in your life who have it. While they come from varied backgrounds, personal experiences and intellect, they didn’t come to it overnight. The acquisition of integrity lies in developing and practicing good habits of honesty, trustworthiness, and strong moral and ethical principles.

To enhance and strengthen your business integrity, create a code of ethics for yourself by which you conduct business. This will serve as the guide for the habits you practice. Each day, ask yourself, “How did I do?” Were you true to your code? If not, how can you improve?

Share your intentions with a mentor whom you respect. Meet regularly and talk through the challenging moments. Discuss ways on how to better respond.

You don’t have to be in an authoritative role to be a leader. Your personal integrity makes you a leader in any environment. You can decide to become a leader by strengthening your integrity through the development and practice of good habits. Easier said than done, but monitor your efforts and give yourself credit for daily progress. You will ultimately discover you have made a decision, and you will find you have decided to be a leader.

Anthony J. Margida is an accomplished entrepreneurial ecosystem architect specializing in tech startup programing, business accelerator and hub design, equity investment, organization sustainability, and funding.

The emperor has no clothes

Don’t expect your team to tell you you’re wrong

If you want to hold authority gracefully, you need to work extra hard to understand how your subordinates are feeling. How you’re coming off to people might only be reflected in the subtle cues in their responses. That’s because they’re very reluctant to tell you directly what they think, preferring to avoid conflict and quietly resent you rather than risk an open confrontation that could lead to the loss of their job.

It’s hard knowing that people are leaving your meetings and having sidebars about something you said or did. It can lead to feeling misunderstood, unappreciated and ganged up on. Most staff members do such a good job concealing their dissatisfaction with you that it’s hard to adjust in real time. All you can do is watch your people head off to lunch together and know that you’re on the menu.

CEOs like to say, “People can disagree with me all they want, but outside this room we speak with one voice.” Not true. People are not going to leave a meeting through which they fought passionately with you for their ideas or were subjected to a ridiculous rant and then just fall in line. People don’t work that way and any leader who expects them to is naïve. You don’t get to have authority, open debate on ideas, and opinions of your own without at times ending up with annoyed, hurt and resentful subordinates. If you want your relationships with people who report to you to work, you have to own up to the fact that in their eyes, you’re gonna suck sometimes.

To be respected by your people as a leader, you must develop highly tuned perceptions of staff discomfort and annoyance. The worse a leader is at listening and recognizing these cues, the more strained relations become with their subordinates. The more strain there is, the less honest feedback they will receive. The less honest feedback they receive, the more they will remain convinced they are right all the time. The more convinced they are that they are right all the time, the more egotistical (and perhaps maniacal) they become. And, like the emperor with no clothes, they are totally unaware it’s happening.

After years of working with my team, I can tell within the first 30 seconds of a meeting if something is bothering them — there’s a lack of eye contact, the timing is slightly off, they’re too quick to agree — and they can do the same with me. Sometimes these are indications of things happening outside the office, but just as much they are cues that the work relationship is off. I can either lean into it, care about it, learn from it, and adjust, or ignore it and plow forward with the agenda. Ignoring the signs that something is wrong leads leaders to make lots of mistakes, which no one will tell them about, which traps the organization in a descending feedback loop.

No one is going to tell the emperor he has no clothes. He needs to recognize it himself.

Under the leadership of Dan Flowers, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank received Feeding America’s 2012 Food Bank of the Year award, the highest recognition achievable by food banks.

Current leaders are best positioned to develop future leaders

Your company’s long-term strategic advantage relies on strong leadership at all levels. But as veteran baby boomer leaders retire, you’re losing decades of priceless leadership experience. In CLG’s recent study of 54 large corporations across seven industries, a majority cited leadership talent pipeline gaps as a critical issue. Many chief human resources officers and global talent executives acknowledge they’re lagging in this area, and it is hurting them.

Gen Xers have patiently waited to assume leadership, and behind them a tidal wave of potential millennial leaders is swelling. So, the challenge is to accelerate upcoming talent development. HR departments are rushing to do so, but many organizations have a five-to-seven-year leadership development time frame, and companies can’t wait that long.

Fortunately, you already possess your “secret weapon” for developing leadership talent: your current leaders. They have direct knowledge of what is needed for the job. They are available daily. They interact with high-potentials throughout their progression. They already track performance and coach individuals with in-the-moment feedback. This places these experienced leaders in an optimal position to help HR and the organization develop talent, in place, right now. It is the coaching, feedback, and learning opportunities they create that can accelerate development of emerging leaders.

A study of HR professionals at 20 leading international corporations confirmed that the most successful organizations make “development of leaders” central in their culture, and take concrete steps to align their leaders’ behaviors to support the talent pipeline. Competitive advantage doesn’t just come from best practices and standard talent management. True competitive advantage comes:

  • When leaders are selected not only for their technical skills, but also for their ability to grow the next generation of leaders.
  • When observing and coaching others is made a core part of each leader’s role, and observing and coaching is rewarded.
  • When leaders are held accountable for identifying and developing talent.

Leaders at every level can — and must — drive leadership development, because it’s not just a staffing issue. It’s about having the right leaders in place to execute strategy. When new leaders are ill-prepared, their teams suffer poor focus and misalignment, and execution falters.

Unfortunately, leaders often struggle with observing, coaching and supporting emerging leaders, which creates inconsistency in how effectively they develop their direct reports. Some leaders don’t realize it is part of their job. Some lack the skills or awareness of how to do it. Many need to be shown what specifically to do — what their behaviors must be. HR plays a critical role in assisting with the effort.

Leaders who excel at talent development leverage five critical capabilities:

  1. Strategic talent mindset — they’re naturally focused on strategic talent.
  2. Talent identification — they’re good at spotting leadership talent.
  3. Creating development opportunities — they proactively seek/create opportunities that stretch the emerging leader’s capacity.
  4. Coaching skills — they provide feedback and guide emerging leaders through key learning experiences.
  5. Interpersonal awareness — they listen well and understand what drives the emerging leaders.

Reflections on effective leadership

Most of us have read numerous articles and books about leadership. Organizations collectively spend billions of dollars on leadership development. By now we likely think we know all about what leadership is and what leaders do. But in this time of great change in many industries, let’s take a second look at defining effective leadership.

Qualities of great leaders

Great leaders are never satisfied with traditional practice, static thinking, conventional wisdom or common performance, writes Mike Myatt in his 2011 Forbes article. Having a mindset focused on pursuit (of excellence, of truth, of change, of value, of knowledge and service) is so critical to leadership that lacking this one quality can sentence one to mediocrity or even obsolescence.

According to McKinsey, four kinds of behavior account for 89 percent of leadership effectiveness:

  • Supporting others through building trust and inspiring action.
  • Seeking different perspectives.
  • Solving problems effectively.
  • Focusing on achieving results.

An evolving workforce

The following statements highlight an important change needed in approaches to leadership effectiveness:

“Our emerging workforce is not interested in command-and-control leadership. They don’t want to do things because I said so; they want to do things because they want to do them.” Irene Rosenfeld, immediate past CEO, Mondelēz International.

“Whether you are the president of a country or a CEO, your title does not make you a leader — all the title does is make you a senior executive. Leadership happens when people allow you to influence their lives. You become a leader when your influence causes people to work towards a shared vision.” George Ambler, Gartner Executive Programs partner and blogger (Helping Leaders Grow).

These comments are pertinent given the results of Deloitte’s study Global Human Capital Trends 2016, The new organization: Different by design, which concluded that today’s digital world of work has shaken the foundation of organizational structure, shifting from a functional hierarchy to a “network of teams” that must be coordinated and aligned with shared values, transparent goals and projects, and a free flow of information. The team-centric model of work places a new emphasis on learning and skills development, rewarding employees for their contributions, not their “position.”

According to the report, positional authority, which is based on title and rank, is giving way to earned leadership based on skill sets, including the ability to collaborate across generations, geographies, functions, and external and internal teams.

Robin Sharma, author of “The Leader Who Had No Title” and founder of a global consultancy, tells us: “Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire teammates and customers.”

Smart organizations will succeed with teams built and sustained by collaborative and inclusive leaders at all levels who are rigorous about self-development, care deeply about the work and are grateful for the opportunity to serve.


Becky S. Cornett is a member of WELD Impact Committee, and Barb Smoot is president and CEO of WELD. Women for Economic and Leadership Development desires to increase the number of women in business and government leadership in Central Ohio.

30 minutes a week

A strength and conditioning routine for a healthier leadership team

A few years ago I, decided we needed to add a strength and conditioning program at work, but not for physical improvement. I wanted our leaders to grow and become stronger. That was the start of our weekly, 30-minute Strength & Conditioning meetings.

The results have been outstanding. From these meetings, we’ve:

Created a common language.
Improved communication.
Facilitated team building.
Built trust.
Fostered individual growth.

The most powerful outcome has been the creation of a common language. For example, during one of the meetings a story was shared about a university that underwent a major renovation, adding several new buildings, but no sidewalks. Instead, they planted grass and waited. After a year, the routes people naturally took to navigate the campus wore paths through the grass. They used those paths as a guide to create the sidewalks. Now, when a situation arises during the course of business that needs action and not over planning, all I have to say is “sidewalks” and everyone gets it.

Our S&C meetings have been effective because the intent is not to solve current or urgent problems. The intent is to create an environment for learning, for questioning, for debating perspectives, and for growing individually and as a team. Executing this weekly, for 30 minutes of focused effort, allows a deep dig into the “messy” concepts found in all businesses with employees and customers. It’s not always easy, but just like a personal workout regimen, it is worth it in the long run.

To put this idea into practice:

  • Commit to a set day and time for a 30-minute meeting each week.
  • Create a safe environment for open discussion.
  • Find a book with concepts that fit the most effective ideas to grow your company’s leaders. We have used:
    • “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business” by Patrick Lencioni.
    • “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything” by Stephen Covey.
    • “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath.
  • Assign 10-12 pages to read per week. Have everyone contribute their takeaways.
  • When appropriate, split into groups and dig deeper using situational exercises.
  • Send a recap.

Our businesses are only as strong as our people. Having a healthy, vibrant team will prepare your company to excel in whatever game of business you are playing.

So, what are you waiting for? Get down and give me 30 minutes per week!

Harvey Nelson is co-founder and co-CEO of Main Street Gourmet, a custom manufacturer of frozen bakery products with distribution throughout the U.S.

Branding yourself as a leader

Leaders are defined by how they connect and relate to people

“Do you know anyone who has decided to do business in a particular city based upon the city slogan or logo?” That was the question asked this spring by the leader of a consulting group hired by the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce to help it define our region’s brand.

Predictably, no one answered “yes.” As the facilitator shared later, relying on a logo to solely promote a brand won’t work. You must start with deep assessment to determine a message and brand that will, ultimately, rally communities, visitors and businesses.

This thought process led me to think about my role as CEO of the Akron Global Business Accelerator and president of The Bit Factory. In these roles, I am continually assessing myself:

  • Do I set a good example of leadership?
  • Do I represent my organization in an effective manner?
  • Am I cognizant of others’ needs and act to address those needs?

Many of our client entrepreneurs would admit that leadership is one of the areas in which they still need to grow. There are four key areas I recommend to entrepreneurs as I help them develop their leadership capabilities.

Be authentic and genuine

A strategy and implementation plan is important. However, the messages and actions of leaders need to be authentic and genuine. Your character is revealed in all your relationships. Stay cognizant of your behavior. Ask for and be fully open to feedback from staff, peers, superiors, family and friends. They will likely be willing to provide it if they believe you will accept it.

Stretch beyond your comfort zone

I was inspired by the recent TEDx Akron speakers who offered their perspectives on making a difference in our communities. They promoted getting outside one’s comfort zone, living in the moment and practicing bravery. The more successful leaders look to expand their horizons.

Practice empathy

Many of the TEDx speakers experienced tragedies that were transformational. As leaders, we shouldn’t have to wait for a transformational event to force us to care for and support our people. You can be a strong leader and care for your team at the same time.

Support givers and encourage staff to ask for help

Research has shown that the highest-performing staff members tend to be givers, or they can be the lowest performing if they are taken advantage of. As a leader, you can make your organization more effective and higher performing by creating an environment recognizing the performance of the givers who make it easier for everyone to succeed. Encouraging teams to seek help when needed will improve productivity and strengthen relationships in your team.

A strong corporate or nonprofit brand is based upon more than just a logo or tagline. It is what is under the surface — strategy, message and communication style — that makes it most effective. It’s the same with a strong leadership brand. It’s more than just being well-versed in your professional field. Having soft skills such as the ability to connect and relate to people on a variety of levels is what defines the best leaders.

Anthony Margida is CEO at Akron Global Business Accelerator