Why We Do What We Do

The true perks of being a CEO go well beyond increasing profits.

When I left my second large-company experience to become president of a small manufacturing company, I did so driven by ego; I fancied the title. Soon enough, I realized I was in for some major challenges, the likes of which I had never before experienced.

At first, I was motivated by self-preservation, but, over time, I found a greater purpose. After a year of rough waters, layoffs, staff reductions, cash flow issues and more, the seas calmed, and we began an exciting journey.

Once out of the rough patch, with everyone feeling more secure and confident, an engineering manager asked me, “Why are you doing this, what’s in it for you?” I answered without thinking, a trait I had not yet mastered, and said, “George Washington slept here.” He was puzzled by my answer but not nearly as much as I. For the first time in my life, I realized how important it was to be remembered for having a positive impact on people’s lives. The seed was probably planted early in my childhood but conveniently hidden until I was mature enough to allow it to blossom.

Recently, a group of 181 CEOs representing the Business Roundtable, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, American Airlines’ Doug Parker, Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, Coca-Cola’s James Quincey and many others, formally “redefined” the purpose of an American corporation to embrace the needs of constituencies other than shareholders. It seems the CEOs of these large public companies understand now what many of us in the mid-market learned long ago—the true perks of being a CEO go well beyond increasing profits.

From that point forward, as I learned more about myself and the client leaders with whom I worked. I’ve come to cherish many of these perks. Here are a few:

• Guiding an enterprise in charting a course to the future and then leading it through its evolutionary cycles.

• Testing your own limits of leadership and then expanding them.

• Learning new disciplines, new processes, new technologies and new protocols.

• Creating and sustaining an environment of dignity and self-fulfillment.

• Sponsoring and enjoying a culture of continuous improvement, both for the enterprise and for its participants.

• Mentoring the willing and coaching all, openly sharing failures as well as successes to help them grow.

• Taking pride in the personal growth and accomplishments of others.

• Supporting the community with both dollars and deeds.

• Being respected by customers, suppliers and industry peers, as well as the governance professionals serving the enterprise.

• Building a foundation so strong that it survives you.

• Being remembered not only for the strength of the enterprise you guided but by the many lives you touched.

• And, finally, humbly taking pride in the road you have walked and the path you have cleared for others to follow.

After many years of working with so many clients, I was asked to become CEO of one of those clients while still maintaining my practice on a limited basis. I accepted, and when asked, “Why are you doing this?” this time the answer didn’t come as a surprise. It was not only the opportunity to continue to learn but for me to share in one place all the lessons I’d learned along the way.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.