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Essential Lessons For Leaders

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This long-time CEO shares hard-won wisdom, including the importance of modeling transparency, empowering your management team and remaining a continuous learner.

Banking is among the most antiquated, slow-moving industries in the U.S. It began as a family cottage industry. Being local meant the board of directors was usually comprised of local realtors, insurance agents and land developers, not professional businesspeople. But as banks became less localized and went public, they needed experts who could think outside the box, pivot when necessary, and think about their roles in terms of the factors I discuss below. These elements are germane to all companies and their ability to work effectively within a business or organizational context.

For any company, a fractured board severely impedes the superb execution of the company’s strategic vision. But the flip side is that alignment within the whole organization, including the board members and management team, is a key determinant of its success.

Whenever I reflect on the role of a leader, I look back on the lessons my father taught me. Four fundamental requirements are essential for an effective leader at any level of an organization.

The leader must:

1. have a clear vision, mission, goals and strategic plan to achieve those goals with alignment throughout the organization;

2. master their internal environment through authentic self-assessment of strengths and areas for improvement;

3. master their external environment, i.e., how are the economy, competition, and customer needs, etc., changing and impacting performance; and

4. be passionate about continual improvement.

All this requires focus. It comes down to being proactive and agile in the face of change, persevering despite obstacles, and passionately seeking continuous improvement. Other requirements for effective leadership include eliminating any bureaucracy that impedes progress, and being obsessed with creating a customer-centric company.

Building Alliances

My leadership style has always been to model transparent communication by asking meaningful questions and listening intently to the answers. One way I have done this is by empowering the management team.

To do this, as bank CEO, I facilitated offsite retreats every three to five months, and every senior executive had an opportunity to openly express their thoughts and opinions on our current state and future outlook. Spending time together outside the office served to foster an environment of personal and professional growth inside the office. Further, it unified the team to work together toward accomplishing a common mission. Besides regular board meetings, and at least once per year, we also had a board retreat with the entire senior management participating and engaged with the board for at least a portion of the meeting.

Five main areas of alignment emerged from these meetings:

• clarity on a company vision/mission, its strategy, its goals for the next three years, and the tactical plans to achieve those goals;

• company growth must be in accordance with our critical success factors as opposed to growth simply for the sake of growth;

• growth can stem from organic or external changes like mergers and acquisitions;

• not to focus on being everything to everyone but on being outstanding in a few areas; and

• success must be measured in customer satisfaction, growth, quality of risk management processes, and shareholder value creation.

Besides the offsite sessions, I held onsite office “Ask Jay” small group meetings with team members from various departments. This was another forum where I could communicate our strategic priorities, update everyone on the company’s progress and top management’s plans, get feedback, and listen to suggestions from our team members. At a meeting at one branch, someone shared an astonishing frustration. Every time the branch needed toilet paper, they had to complete a procurement request form—what a ridiculous bureaucratic procedure. The other senior executives and I became bureaucracy weed killers.

Nevertheless, once you get rid of one unreasonable process or policy, another grows. It’s a fact of organizational life that whenever three or more people are involved, a company becomes bureaucratic. However, when management is focused and engaged on priorities, execution and results are better.

Learning to Be a Leader

As a leader, I must be a continuous learner. Leadership is often confused with management. Many graduate schools of business, even prestigious universities, have the word “management” in their names. Leadership is a highly interpersonal endeavor; after all, leaders lead people. However, in my opinion, you cannot be a great leader unless you are a great human being first. And to be a great human being, you must be authentic. Some mistakenly believe that leadership skills are something that you’re born with. No! They can be taught, developed and continually improved.

When I became a CEO, I enrolled in Harvard Business School’s specialized “Leadership for Presidents and CEOs” program. This was an annual, week-long intensive learning experience. One of the special features of HBS is the way learning is structured. We formed a cohort of eight people, and each participant was a CEO in their respective businesses. I’ve met people from all different industries, continents and economies. In so doing, we became like each other’s personal board of directors, openly sharing our ideas. Since my first experience, I’ve participated in the CEO program 14 times.

Another valuable learning for me came from my monthly participation in the Young Presidents Organization (YPO). One of the many things I learned is that leadership development accelerates with networking. Accordingly, it opened me to the concept of having a “personal board of directors”—reliable businesspeople who turn into valuable advisors and trusted friends.

I also benefited from training at Dale Carnegie classes, which stress self-awareness—understanding your strengths and weaknesses and interpersonal relationships. I continually aspire to be a reflective human being. Another program I really liked was Tony Robbins’ seminars that helped to “unleash the power within.” 

Knowing What it Takes

Business, essentially, is all about being clear about your purpose/vision: what needs are you meeting. Be clear about your unique strategies. Be superb at execution. Focus on your critical objectives and continuous improvement. This cannot be accomplished without attracting, retaining and continuously developing your team. You must have open and engaging relationships. You must be aligned on your priorities. And, you must have a culture that promotes authentic supportive relationships with complete alignment on priorities between board, leadership team and other team members.


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