In recent weeks as I researched my current book project, I’ve taken time to talk to some CEO’s at small to mid-size companies coast-to-coast. As part of these discussions, I’m trying to understand more about the modern leader and what they believe are the keys to success for them and their people. They’ve given me some innovative leadership insights I thought worthy to share here.
These are not CEO’s at big Fortune 500 companies, but many of them have been before. What I’ve found very interesting is their shift in thinking, particularly around hierarchy and their management style. I asked these three men and one woman to give me their top insights for what it takes to be an effective, motivational and impactful leader.
- Run as flat as organization as you can. One executive I spoke with in the Silicon Valley made it a point to talk about this throughout our conversation. “The days of assigned parking spaces, ivory tower office suites and executive dining rooms is over,” he said. “I used to have that but it’s just not valid anymore. I want to be as close to my people, be approachable and challenge innovation at every turn. You can’t do that if you create a aura of prestige.” Of course renowned Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh recently took this philosophy to a whole new level when he announced the abolition of titles and managers inside his company. Radical? Perhaps but according to these CEOs, it’s an imperative.
- Invite dissent and encourage open discussion. In her outstanding book Open Leadership, The Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li talked about what constitutes an open leader. I’m paraphrasing but what Li said was simple: open leaders “have the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control, while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.” One CEO agree whole-heartedly telling me: “I can’t imagine running this company as some leaders might have decades ago,” she said. “We have technology, we have a more educated workforce than ever before in human history. To be successful you have to let go, trust your people, and get out of the way. You can manage openly, confidently, and genuinely without controlling everything thing every day.” When I asked several of the CEOs about open disagreement within their ranks, they all agreed that it was good, as long as it was based in good business thinking. “Dissent for dissent’s sake isn’t necessarily productive,” one chief executive told me. “But if my people take me on because they have a good sound business reasoning to do so, I’m open to it. I am the decision maker but I expect them to call me on something if I’m misguided, uninformed or not seeing what they are.”
- Hire diverse and disruptive leaders. Many times, when a CEO takes on a new role or someone is elevated to a position, they, under the old model, surrounded themselves with those loyalists who helped them get where they are. But today’s progressive and disruptive leader wants to surround themselves with others who understand this. And that often means no people they might not have worked with. “Sure, I have my go-to people that I know can get the job done,” one CEO told me. “At the same time, I know the importance of bringing in new blood, new thinking and not just bringing in all of the people I’ve hired in the past. Diversity isn’t just about gender, ethnicity or sexual orieintation. Diversity of thought and style is also vital to me.” Why do these leaders equate diversity with disruption? “It’s simple: disruptive leaders are looking to change the world,” a CMO at a start-up told me. “I don’t want people comfortable with the status quo or the way things are. I’m looking for leaders to stand by my side and change everything.”
The time I’ve spent talking to these insightful leaders has been time well spent. They reaffirm my belief that no matter what business your company or brand may be in, leadership is evolving in the age of technology and instant communications. Employees, leaders and customers are all requiring us to act differently, act with humility, and be fully transparent. There is no divorcing these traits when you’re at the office versus when you’re in the comfort of your own home.
How open of a leader are you? Do you practice the traits these CEOs said was vital to success?