CEO Summit: How To Foster Engagement And Produce Great Leaders

What should leaders do to instill resilience emerging from the Covid crisis? What will a new administration mean for the economy and social climate? In November, CEOs gathered for a two-day conference to share strategies for these and other business challenges. Some takeaways.

‘Micromanagement is Not Scalable’

Great leaders bring out the best in people by giving them the freedom to do their jobs, says Garry Ridge, chairman and CEO of WD-40. It’s a philosophy he practiced for more than two decades at the helm of the $423 million revenue company, and one he credits for its impressive 93 percent employee engagement index. With Covid numbers once again on the rise, Ridge shared five rules for leading during a lockdown with Summit participants.

1. Don’t try to control things beyond your reach. If you can’t change it, let it go. At the beginning of the pandemic, we decided to focus on three things at WD-40: ensuring the safety and well-being of our tribe; staying connected with and serving and supporting our customers and vendor partners; and three, maintaining our business structure so we would be ready to thrive when the world emerges from the pandemic.

2. Let empathy lead the way. Everyone is going through a personal journey during the pandemic, coping with stress and anxiety stemming from their personal circumstances. Be sensitive to what your employees are going through and the effects that may have and adapt your leadership accordingly, urges Ridge.

3. Define a clear set of values and how you will work within them. Values act as boundaries that help people feel safe and free them to make decisions with confidence. “Purpose-driven, passionate people guided by values create amazing outcomes,” says Ridge, who adds that values are at the core of a healthy culture. “Culture happens when values plus behaviors are honored and implemented consistently.”

4. Resist the urge to micromanage. “It can be tempting, in a crisis, to seize control,” says Ridge, who points out that micromanaging is not scalable. “At a time when you need people looking for innovative ways to tackle the unknown, you don’t want to clutter their thinking with your own.”

5. Use your vision to rise above fear. When navigating a crisis, leaders must simultaneously focus their teams on future possibilities, painting a picture of the future that offers a level of hopefulness that will carry them through near-term challenges.

‘This is a Time to be Totally Authentic’

CEO Summit attendees asked Marshall Goldsmith, America’s preeminent CEO coach and author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, for insights on their most pressing business challenges. His answers:

• On finding the right coach…

Get the right guy for the job. “Don’t tell the coach what the problem is. Ask the coach, ‘What do you do best?’ Unfortunately, there are too many coaches, so if you tell the coach your problem, they will say, ‘I can do that.’ Instead, ask, ‘What are you best at?’”

Don’t use coaching to segue someone out. “This shouldn’t be a seek and destroy thing. If you want to fire somebody, fire them; if you want to help somebody, help them. But don’t jerk people around. Don’t use coaching as some trick to get rid of people.”

• On succeeding with family business succession…

For the outgoing CEO: Find something else to do. “You need to wake up in the morning with something to look forward to or else, you’re going to go back to work and drive everyone around you absolutely crazy. And I’m not talking about crappy golf at the country club. It has to be something meaningful. Something that won’t make you feel like a ‘used to be.’”

For the incoming CEO: Forgive your parents. “Realize how hard this is for them. Try not to judge. You’ll probably be in their shoes someday, and it’s going to be just as hard for you. By the way, your kids are watching, so if you say bad things about your parents, what do you think your kids are going to be saying about you when it’s your turn? Having some patience as you work through this with them will dramatically improve your odds of, number one, having a good transition, but number two, maintaining sanity.”

• On leading in a pandemic…

Strive for pragmatic optimism. “This is not the time for motivational speeches or a pep talk. This is a time to be totally authentic and serious and confront the reality that exists. Great leaders don’t really get paid for what they do in good times. You get paid for what you do in hard times. This is what you’re getting paid for. Just make peace with that. Don’t try to sugarcoat it. Don’t try to pretend it isn’t what it is, and, on the other hand, you still have to keep focused on how we can make the best of this moving forward. What we can do in the future to make the best of what’s there.”

‘Context Matters’

When it comes to leadership no organization does it quite so well as the U.S. Army. Brigadier General Bernard Banks, Ph.D., who retired from the Army in 2016 and is now part of the faculty at Thayer, offered lessons from West Point’s playbook on developing leaders.

• Widen your scope. “There are lots of studies that reveal your brightest stars create outsized organizational benefits, so many organizations bet on their best talent. At West Point, we bet on everyone but make differentiated bets based on the potential we see. Because if you only bet on the most talented members of your team, you’re compromising your team’s potential. Ask yourself every single day, ‘What are we doing at every level of the organization to put our people in a position to win?’ because those bets matter.”

• Consider context. “Identify the knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes needed for your organization to thrive. Context always matters, and context is always changing. So, you’ve got to know—and invest in—what you’ve got to be good at right now and what you’ll have to be good at in the future.”

• Challenge but don’t bury talent. “If an assignment is too much of a stretch— you put them in too soon—they can actually cause harm, a loss of motivation. But if you wait too long, there’s no stretch, not a lot to learn. It can actually cause harm.”

• Shore them up. “Are you getting people who are occupying managerial roles inside your organization to understand that their job is not simply to evaluate the performance of their team members? It’s to foster better performance by their team members, by provisioning support for every one of their team members. Whatever challenge you provide, you’ve got to support your people, providing encouragement, coaching, mentoring and ensuring that you’re role modeling the behavior you’d like to see leaders demonstrate at every echelon of the organization.”

• Measure results. “Are you applying the same rigor to developing your people that you apply to other areas, such as managing costs, evaluating operational efficiency or growing sales? Most organizations are subpar as it pertains to measuring efforts to developing talent.”

• Make time to reflect. “The military calls this an after-action review, but you can ask these four questions at any stage of an activity: What was supposed to happen? What did happen? Why did things happen that way? What will we do differently the next time? Bake that into your daily activities so that you’re always trying to take the insight generated and apply it into the next iteration of what you’re doing.”

A Talent Playbook

Long after Covid is vanquished, says economist Dr. Mary Kelly, companies will be feeling its effects—in where we find talent, how we evaluate it and where and how we all work. “Because of Covid, we are going to be sourcing more locally but developing talent globally,” she says, noting that this may relieve companies of the need to pay a premium in high cost of living areas. “As Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said to his employees, ‘If you want to work from home from now on, you can, but we paid you to relocate to Manhattan or Minneapolis or Tampa. Now, if I say you can work from home, we don’t really have to pay you Manhattan salaries anymore.’” The freedom to work remotely is a “double-edged sword” for workers, who won’t necessarily need to live in near urban headquarters—and, as a result, may no longer be able to afford them.

The pandemic has also expanded our understanding of the types of jobs that can be done remotely and the demographics of the remote-work population. “Before Covid, remote workers tended to be 49 years old, college-educated, making over $70,000 a year, working for a company with over 100 employees,” says Kelly. “Now, it is literally all over the map. So, this is a huge shift.” In the past, the ability to work remotely was generally viewed as a perk—a privilege earned after building equity at a company and with a supervisor. Today, workers are being hired into remote-only positions at all levels and from all over the world.

These shifts will have long-reaching effects on talent development, distilling performance metrics by removing the nuances inherent to office interaction. “The remote-work environment is a great equalizer,” explains Kelly. “You’re actually finding out who your producers are. That will give you great clarity moving forward because it’s not just based on personality—on charisma—it’s based on sheer productivity.”

Finally, companies will need to find ways of supporting their remote-only workforce and addressing challenges unique to the work-from-home environment, such as protecting IP stored on computers in the home and facilitating a distraction-free environment, says Kelly. “Are there some minuses? You bet, especially as people try to juggle working from home with their kids, their dog, their spouses and everything else, it becomes more challenging for some people to focus. We have to help people do that a little bit more. But work from home is here to stay and on the plus side, it also means we do have more talent available to us in the workplace. I am so excited about that.”

Great Expectations

Political strategist Peter Zeihan, author of The Accidental Superpower, The Absent Superpower and Disunited Nations, delivered a keen assessment of how geopolitical risks, demographic trends and economic opportunities will play out across the globe. Three predictions from his insights on the U.S.’s future, edited for clarity and length, follow:

Party Reform

“The two-party system that runs this country at the moment is in a moment of breakdown. We have a Republican party that has no business leaders, fiscal or national security voters. It has, in essence, degraded into a cult of personality. We have a Democratic party that’s under loud assault by radicals who aren’t even Democrats that has now consolidated into its own cult of personality. The bottom line is until our parties can reshuffle and consolidate into a newer, more stable and more appropriate format, we will have this sort of political chaos and bitterness. This is our new normal.”

Less Divisiveness

“Looking at groups we thought of as being ironclad one group or another, at how they actually voted… these are all categories that we thought were very clearly in one category or the other, but they are all within six points of dead center. This is not how harsh national division looks.

“Have we made mistakes? Certainly. Do we need to overhaul our parties? Yeah. Parties adjust based on circumstances, cultural, economic and geopolitical. Thirty years ago, the Cold War ended and the digital revolution started. We still haven’t retooled. Do we need to rebuild our media system? Oh yeah. Do we need to regulate social media. Desperately. But are we broken? No. Despite the screaming and the acrimony, the election has gone off without a hitch. We can fix all of this. And every Democracy in the world is going through these sorts of issues. We’re just a lot louder about it. We’re not broken, but we can do better.”

Millennials as Economic Saviors

“The Year 2022 is the year that the majority of the world’s baby boomers, the largest demographic class ever globally, on average would hit mass retirement and start spending less and switching investments to T-bills and cash because they can’t take the volatility. But in the U.S., boomers did something that no other country’s boomer cadre did. They had kids, they had the millennials. Millennials are now at the height of their consuming experience from 2011, when we were pretty sure that the financial crisis was to finally be over, until February of this year, their consumption kept us out of recession. We probably would have had three industrial recessions in that timeframe if not for their spending. And then in a few years, they’re going to start saving, and their saving is going to balance out some of the investment problems that we’re starting to see and the burden of [entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid]. It’s not perfect, but I can say without a doubt that the millennials will save us all.”