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:
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: http://www.awesomelysimple.com/