Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Global Leader of the Future

Guest post by John Spence:

I was recently asked by one of the most prestigious Executive MBA programs in America to give a speech on the most important skills needed to be an effective “global leader” in the future. To prepare for the talk I sent a note to more than 20 friends and clients that are CEOs or senior leaders at multinational companies for their input on the topic. Although I received replies from nearly every corner of the globe that answers were surprisingly similar. By a wide margin, this group of extremely experienced leaders identified the following traits as the most essential:

· Ethics
· Honesty
· Transparency
· Integrity
· Humility
· Respect
· Flexibility
· Collaboration

I find this to be a fascinating list, because this is not at all what I heard just five years ago. Until very recently the major skills most companies focused on in their leaders were things like vision, strategic thinking, decisiveness, execution, drive, and accountability for results. And while these things still remain important, it is obvious that the pendulum has swung from a focus almost purely on maximizing ROI to highly ethical behavior that still delivers the numbers.

I, for one, am extremely pleased to see this shift. I have worked in far too many organizations that drove their people into the ground in an all-out effort to “beat the street.” The quarter-to-quarter pressure to “make the numbers” was so overwhelming that people began to play fast and loose with the rules. For example, several years ago I was invited to give a talk on vision and values to one of the leading financial service firms in the world. For two hours, I stood before the thirteen directors of this multibillion - dollar company and shared with them my thoughts on the importance of setting a clear direction for the firm that was solidly grounded on unyielding integrity to their corporate values, which revolved around professionalism, teamwork, respect, service, and client focus. At the end of my presentation, when I opened the floor for questions, an interesting debate ensued. One of the directors raised the issue of what to do about a top employee: he was a multimillion - dollar producer but treated other employees aggressively and rudely in his quest to deliver his stellar numbers. I turned and pointed to the wall where there was a huge brass plaque with the values of the organization written in foot - tall letters and said, “If this employee is not living your value of respect, if he is running roughshod over the rest of his team and causing significant internal strife, then regardless of how much money he generates for the firm, he either has to change his behavior or be terminated.” As those last few words came out of my mouth, one of the directors literally jumped out of his chair as if someone had hit him with a cattle prod. “You have got to be kidding me,” he said. “ There is no way in the world I’ m going to fire somebody who brings in $30 million a year. ” I replied, “That’s fine, as long as you chisel respect off the values statement. But if this group of directors tells the employees that these are the values that the firm believes in yet allows people to violate them openly as long as they generate massive amounts of cash, then people will know that making money is much more important than living the values. ”

It is no surprise that this sort of behavior by the supposed “leaders” of this firm eventually led to the demise of the company when people realized the numbers they had been reporting to Wall Street were a complete fabrication. What’s worse, when an employee works in an environment like this and starts down the slippery slope of bending the rules (or their manager pushes them) the loss of personal dignity and self-respect can be devastating.

It has been an exceedingly painful way to learn the lesson, but if the events of the past year drive a resurgence of the importance of ethics, integrity, honesty and respect in global leaders then perhaps there has been a silver lining to this economic storm. The question I ponder though is how do we keep these things at the forefront? How do we train the next generation of global leaders to focus on corporate values as strongly as they do profit margins?

To me the answer is to clearly show them that servant leadership, a positive corporate culture and a true dedication to sustainable business practices… are the ONLY road to sustainable competitive advantage and long-term profitability. It is my opinion that the number one factor in building a highly successful company is in attracting the absolute best people to your team and making sure that they are totally focused on continuous innovation and extreme customer focus. That means that what we used to consider the heat of the business business – the numbers – have now become “soft” and flexible – and what we used to consider the “soft side” of business, the “people” side, has now become the rock-solid foundation for success. In other words: Talent x Culture = Success.

What does all of this mean to you? That finding, hiring and growing insanely talented people should be a strategic objective for your company. That corporate culture cannot be left to chance; it must be nurtured, shaped and supported strongly through the organization. And that a leadership style based on values, ethics and integrity will be the cornerstone for being a successful global leader of the future.

John Spence is a executive trainer, professional speaker and author. His latest book is entitled: Awesomely Simple – Essential business strategies for Turning Ideas into Action. To learn more go to:


Bob Hall said...

Very interesting post. Thank you.

I agree with your views on the importance of servant leadership and the impact that a positive corporate culture can have.

Color me skeptical, though. I find it difficult to swallow that all these leaders have made such a fundamental shift from the more "traditional" skills they embraced five years ago.

It just makes me wonder if they've truly changed their views. Have these CEOs and senior leaders really transformed themselves or are they espousing what they think others want to hear?

The almighty dollar still holds a lot of sway in the world. Don't get me wrong...people and culture can change, but it takes great effort and commitment. It will be interesting to see if their walk matches their talk. I remain unconvinced.

Maxwell Pinto said...

Excellent article by John Spence. I do hope leaders focus on an ethical approach to their business, instead of merely drafting and implementing a code of ethics for other employees to abide by, while making false promises and unreasonable demands upon others. Ethics would call for an approach based on respect and fairness towards everyone, including, but not limited to, women, other employees, undergraduates who seek employment opportunities in order to boost thier marketability upon graduation, customers, suppliers, the governemnt, the community, etc. This is easier said than done, because it is difficult, though not impossible, to change the basic nature of most human beings, pending divine intervention.
Maxwell Pinto, Business Author: leadership, ethics, teamwork,trade unions, women in the workforce, etc.

Unknown said...

As an employee, I watch management as they do or usually do not support the corporate value statement. Respect and integrity are treated like a Welcome Mat at the back door. I turned down a job earlier this year because the general manager would make me choose between my family and my paycheck. He was shocked when I told him why. His very old school thinking lost him a highly talented professional.

A couple of months later, I landed in a company where the CEO and the CFO state at every team meeting and demonstrate in their actions, that "we tell the truth" is our number one priority. I was shocked and amazed. This company is small company, only several years old.

This corporate environment makes it so much easier to work and to support the company's goals and objectives. Knowing that I could ask to see the financial statements or ask about a decision allows me to answer the phone with a genuine smile. (I work as a receptionist/admin assistant.) I've always asked tough questions and finally! I'm getting straight answers.

Bob--Think about Southwest Airlines or United Airlines and how they use John's equation Talent x Culture = Success. Then check out both the Top Line and the Bottom Line for each company.

I believe this change in management is happening.

It's refreshing to see the Welcome Mat moved to the front door.

Wally Bock said...

Gosh, I think this sounds swell. But like Bob, I'm skeptical.

You note that the list has shifted from one with vision and strategic thinking at the top to one with ethics and honesty at the top. Could be. But it seems more like the CEO and other senior leaders have learned what the current form of political correctness on leadership is and have fed it back. I suspect a change in language rather than one in behavior, value structures, or priority.

But note that none of the "skills" you mention in your old list is bad. Strategic thinking doesn't result in something bad. Accountability for results isn't a bad thing. And no one, including you has made the case that vision or decisiveness leads to an organization that doesn't value people or act ethically.

You state specifically that "it is obvious that the pendulum has swung from a focus almost purely on maximizing ROI to highly ethical behavior that still delivers the numbers." It's not obvious. In fact results aren't even mentioned in your list of "most importants."

Beverly Lewis said...

I really appreciate your clear expression of a valuable lesson that I do think many have learned the hard way and thus are more likely to carry into the future. Talent x Culture = Success; there you go again, making things Awesomely Simple. Great post.

Joe Abel said...

Wow - what a conversation and what a posting. I will be short and sweet in my response - as I just feel commpelled to give one! I think both lists are perhaps equally important and necessary. Lets face it, the bottom line will always be the bottom line! No business succeeds with out successful ROI. Its really about how you achieve it. And if we are going to call this a pendulum then lets remember, as the pendulum of a clock must swing back and forth in a balance to keep good time, so must the pendulum swing between these two lists to maintain a business balance. Trust me I am neither on the fence or being non-committed to this topic, but rather practical in saying that all of these things are necessary for true success.

Dan McCarthy said...

All -
Thanks for the comments and diverse opinions. I can't take credit or blame, as it was a guest post. John's a good guy - I've invited him to respond.

steve cunningham said...

The changes that John talks about are not only happening, they are inevitable. It used to be that you could "bend the rules" with your corporate values for star performers. Those days are nearing extinction because not only are leaders being held to account more often now, they are being held to account publicly.

Screw a customer, or profess core values and not live them, and the world now hears about because of the radical shift happening in the way we communicate.

I disagree with the commentary above - these shifts CAN happen quickly, and the WILL happen quickly. Thankfully, it's going to be one of the unexpected side effects of our "new world". Honesty and integrity are no longer "nice to haves", but "musts".

I think John has this one right.

John Spence said...

Hello – this is John Spence, the author of this guest post. I am so sorry for the delay in my response, I have been sick in bed for the last two weeks – so I missed out on the conversation until I today!

Wow – great comments – I LOVE the feedback – and I agree with much of it. Hey, I am skeptical too. Keep in mind that the group of CEO’s and senior executives I contacted were my friends --- because they are truly great people and great leaders – so I would expect them to be at the forefront. Is the pendulum swinging more in the direction I talked about? Yes. At every company…NO!

I have been doing a lot of leadership training lately, as I am running a handful of executive leadership programs for Fortune 500 clients, and what I have seen is a yearning, a demand, a plea for more honest and ethical leadership… from the tier three leaders in most companies. The regional manager, VPs, directors. However, I still see the command and control, do as I say not as I do, leadership[p style in far too many senior leaders. But I have hope. I am skeptical yet hopeful that society, workers and thought leaders (like us) will be able to keep pushing the pendulum until we move it to ethics before profits. That is right – honesty and integrity before share price. Can we make this change overnight… no… it took us decades to get into this mess, but we must start a push for true leadership to equal vision, decisiveness, ROI + ethics, transparency and compassion.

I truly look forward to your comments – my very best to you – John Spence