I’m in the early stages of outlining thoughts for a book focused on how transformational leaders turn the “impossible” into “possible.”
In my career, I’ve seen extraordinary people and extraordinary efforts change teams, organizations, and even governments. I’ve also experienced the thrill of doing what others say cannot be done. After high school, I enrolled in community college (while working full-time) – an unlikely first step en route to becoming a Fortune 100 CEO.
At the CEO’s desk at Aetna, one of America’s largest healthcare companies, I worked with a talented team to turn around a business that was losing $1 million each day. During my tenure, the company was recognized as one of the nation’s most admired companies.
To accomplish this, I energized people around a mission that unlocked their discretionary energy. Together, we changed the organization, its culture, and the industry. Here are some of my early thoughts on the qualities that enable real transformation at a corporate or personal level.
A Clear and Elevated Purpose
At its core, business is about creating and delivering value to a customer. The idea of increasing “EBITDA” or expanding margins simply will not motivate employees to improve the way the business serves its customers. And, without satisfied customers, few businesses find long-term growth sustainable.
The dirty little secret of business is that it’s easy, in the short-term, for employees to just “get by.” Each day, individuals choose to engage in their work with either their essential level of energy or their discretionary level of energy. If not fully engaged, these employees will leave undone the items not immediately visible to managers, peers and customers.
As an executive, how do you unleash this power?How do you unlock the discretionary energy of your workforce? You must ask for it by making the case for how your company’s mission will create a better future for your customers and employees. There must be a clear and elevating mission and purpose that explain how the world is a better place as a result of what the employees are asked to do each and every day. The mission and purpose must answer the question, “Why should I be proud of my firm? What are its values? What is its place in the community?”
Compelling organizational values – reflecting integrity, respect for the individual, a commitment to excellence, and a priority on meeting the needs of the customers – should support this purpose. Collectively, these attributes can help instill pride and enhance employee engagement.
Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground
Successful leaders have their head in the clouds and their feet on the ground. They recruit and develop a world-class team. Effective leaders have developed the ability to operate at three distinctly different levels. These three levels are supported by a foundation of talent management:
- Strategic Level: We lead with strategy, which charts the course of the enterprise.
- Operational Level: Operational execution fulfills the promise of the strategy, making it real.
- Financial Level: Strategy and operational execution are building blocks, but the payoff is in having a strategy that can be operationalized profitably with excellent shareholder and stakeholder returns.
A solid foundation of recruiting and coaching support these three levels of engagement in the business. Contrary to popular wisdom there is no shortage of talent. There is a shortage of leaders who know how to get the best from their teams by developing them to their fullest potential.
Establishing Specific Goals and Milestones
Successful people are highly task-oriented. They create mechanisms to force action. If you don’t have goals, you will have a harder time recognizing failure. If you don’t recognize failure, then you cannot change behavior to improve performance.
So, how does a CEO get things done? Achievement of strategic, operational, or financial goals requires significant clarity of thought to define exactly what must be accomplished and when. Each business must develop a way to make its strategy real. The organization must build a bridge to that future – year-by-year, quarter-by-quarter. Only then can the enterprise rigorously and honestly assess its progress toward that destination.
Operational plans speak to the daily, weekly, and monthly activities and results that collectively enable the firm to win today while moving toward its strategic goals. There must be a frequent, thorough review (on a monthly and quarterly basis) of Key Performance Indicators.
In addition to these formal processes there must be a series of informal processes for gathering feedback from customers and employees. These can include: a routine schedule of customer visits to align internal perception of success with customer perception, field sales office visits, town hall meetings with employees, skip-level meetings, and simply conducting meetings in other executives’ and staffs’ office areas.When a milestone or goal is met, reward the individual or team. Positive reinforcement of results fosters a high performance culture.
The Power of And, Not Or
Shortly after arriving at Aetna, I brought together the senior leadership of the information technology and finance organizations to lay out my vision for an Executive Management System (EMS) to provide meaningful information to effectively manage our businesses. I spent several hours reviewing requirements for the system with the team, and asked that the system be up and running in five months. The team told me there was a tradeoff: they could produce the system in 20 months or deliver a cobbled together solution that failed to meet the business requirements.
Some executives would have threatened to fire the team and find a new team that could deliver. I did not. Leaders must focus the team on an ambitious goal and ask them to consider creative solutions which achieve the objective. If the team struggles, the executive cannot say, “If you can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can.” Rather, the executive needs to work with the team to address the barriers to success one-by-one. You accomplish the impossible by empowering your people and partnering with them, and when you do so you reshape the culture.
Real and imagined barriers often constrain the imagination of teams. Teams that overcome “business-as-usual” excuses and obstacles move from thinking in terms of “or” thinking to embracing “and” thinking. And thinking is how the airlines reduced costs and improved customer satisfaction with the check-in process by introducing electronic kiosks. And thinking is how companies aggressively grow the topline, while expanding margin. And thinking is how teams harness the ingenuity and creativity inherent in each individual to deliver exceptional results.
Act with Urgency
When I joined Aetna – I walked out of my prior organization and walked into Aetna the next morning. If I had truly understood the turnaround challenges, I might have started that evening and not the next morning.
How many times do you see a new leader take a vacation before assuming the helm of a business in crisis? What urgency should they expect based on their own behavior? In a crisis, acting with great urgency is one of the single most important actions leaders can take. You must model urgency in how you behave. It is also critical to act urgently on customer-related issues.
Weighing the issues which come across your desk and assessing their urgency and their importance ensures you have a plan to avoid misallocating time and resources. Important issues deserve attention. Urgent issues require attention. However, placing too many items in those categories can lead to a misallocation of time and resources (or even burnout).
If you care deeply and passionately about the work you do and results you must achieve, you must care even more about the people who do the work.
As leaders, we tend to be highly task-oriented. Successful people focus on getting things done, such as launching a new business line, developing a new product, completing an acquisition or merger, or implementing a new computer system. Yet, it is important to always focus on your people. At senior levels in all organizations, results are produced by people. Understanding each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and what is important to them is vital to their success and the organization’s success.
The Courage of Candor
The lack of honest discussion of challenges and opportunities and the failure to surface bad news early enough to take corrective actions sinks many organizations. Leaders understand that bad news and business disappointments are ever present. Problems are an expected aspect of business. Delivering bad news early and personally is the sign of a mature, successful leader. What really riles the CEO is not the bad news, it’s when the bad news comes too late.
How many times have you seen this scenario play out? A product development team convenes to get briefed on a new product idea. After a meeting in which no objections were voiced, several team members caucus and complain about what a bad idea the project is.
This type of situation reflects a failure to have the courage to honestly share your perspective real time – in the meeting. It is a failure of the culture to cultivate honest dissent and dialogue. Organizations must create an environment where disagreement is acceptable and commitment is expected. There should be vigorous fact-based discussion of all points of view. Ultimately, someone must decide the course of action, though once the decision is made – everyone must proceed to implementation as if they agreed with the decision. Even if you disagree, you must commit.
You’ve Never Arrived
There is a mistaken notion that you reach a point in your career when “you have it made.” Have you imagined what life would be like as the CEO? Senior Vice President? You fill in the blank. In reality, each time I’ve reached the “mountain top,” I’ve realized that there is another range ahead. There is no such thing as “maintaining” your position. You are either going forward or you are going backward.
As a human being, are you continuously learning? How do you push outside your comfort zone? What new capabilities are you building? The successful leaders I know are constantly reinventing themselves.
Every year, you must set goals that make you a better and more effective leader. What would you have to do to be fifteen percent better next year? Fifteen percent is both achievable some years and it is symbolic of serious, substantial, and meaningful improvement. As the CEO I set a leadership tone that says everyone including me must improve substantially every year – no one can coast and no one can stand still.
The greatest risk in life is not to take risks. People often feel like they are taking more risk than they do. In reality, growth is all about risk. You must be comfortable with failure. Success literally is the progressive elimination of failure.