You can figure out who moved your cheese. You can become a one-minute manager while you go from good to great. You can even apply the art of war to the job of running a business. But there is nothing like taking over a struggling company whose shares fell dramatically when the dot-com bubble burst to really learn the lessons of effective leadership.
As the chief executive officer of a company that was forced to emerge from the ashes of the dot-com era with a much leaner workforce and a new business model, I have had to unlearn some of my most cherished leadership lessons. Here are the top five myths I overcame:
1. Leadership is a process. Leadership is a behavior, not a process. A process implies a routine set of repeatable steps, but true leaders continually lead others by what they do—not what they say. There is no cookbook process for taking a startup back to being private or trimming the workforce dramatically. No memo or town hall presentation will convey nearly as much as the closely observed, day-to-day actions of the CEO and his or her senior management team. Conversely, lack of action or the wrong action will immediately cancel out all those carefully chosen speaking points.
2. A leader needs to be ready with an answer. Being ready with a question can be far more productive. Questions allow for clarification. They quietly open the door to necessary conflict and can convey a message about incomplete staff work without causing embarrassment. Asking for input or ideas will not make a leader look weak. In fact, asking questions is what saved SciQuest after the dot-com flameout. The question was how to better distribute software to clients, and the team’s solution inadvertently led the company to become an early adopter of the software-as-a-service business model.
3. Great ideas come out of debate and conflict. Healthy conflict is a rarity. Conflict creates situations where ideas and people harden into "positions"—and positions are very difficult to change. Great ideas come from open, constructive, and positive discussion driven by questions. Everyone contributes and therefore buys in to the idea. As someone who began his career at GE and graduated from its infamous Financial Management Program, I know a lot about confrontation and sharp elbows. But experience has taught me that constructive discussions produce far better results.
4. A leader needs to maintain power and authority. Wrong. Give power and authority away every day. In meetings, understand where the power lies and respect the lack of it. One way to give away authority is to ask for feedback. If you as a leader are willing to receive that feedback, you’re teaching others how to receive it. As for anger, it is just plain counterproductive. It brings all dialogue and problem-solving to a halt at the worst possible time: when you need it most. A further way to give away authority is to hold company-wide social functions. Our company hosts employee and family outings and periodic "beer Fridays," which allows employees at any level to ask questions or give and receive feedback.
5. A leader mandates change. In times of crisis, yes—but at all other times, a leader must coax change. "Tell" is the normal behavior for CEOs, but "ask" is more powerful and longer-lasting. Focusing on positive reinforcement and removing stress from a situation yield better results.
Leading a company through a transformation often starts with unlearning before you can learn. If you run your business like an open kitchen and are not afraid to ask questions, it won’t matter who moved your cheese. You and your employees will find it together.
President and CEO
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