A few months ago, I took an interview for a CEO role with an amazing company. I flew to the Midwest and spent two days in one of the corporate hubs primarily with 7-8 members of the leadership team. We quickly concluded that we should turn the interview into a 2-day working session.
If I was going to take this role (and if they were going to make me an offer), I needed to learn everything about this firm and provide them with an opportunity to get to know me intimately. It was a risk. We agreed to be vulnerable and that meant not simply selling each other on ourselves, but (more importantly) identifying the areas that needed work. In this situation, that meant that they needed to let me into their world so that we could talk openly about what wasn’t optimal and what needed attention in the business. For me, it was being open and honest – not only about how I could help, but also about where I might need help.
CEOs don’t often ask for help. Sometimes because they don’t have a mentor in the business, or they don’t have a leader that they can turn to in times of need. Often, it’s because they feel that they should have all the answers, and that the ‘buck’ stops with them. That’s not my style, and thankfully it wasn’t theirs too. This amazing group was looking for new perspective, and I was so impressed with their passion for their business, their product offerings, and for their people.
It’s an understatement to say that we got along well. This was validation for me in so many ways. After living my leadership life for almost 20 years in technology services, it was amazing to spend time with a group of leaders with backgrounds different than my own, and much different from those leaders that I’ve been colleagues with for a couple of decades. I’ve worked with such great leaders, at certain times in my career, and this experience confirmed that there are amazing people in so many companies – regardless of industry. Opportunities are endless when you get to work with great people.
This leadership team welcomed me as one of their own and we accomplished more in a two-day working ‘interview’ than I have on several week projects, in the past, that became derailed by insignificant questions and concerns about the impact of change. Change isn’t easy in business, but it’s often needed. In businesses that are transforming, change is required.
There were very little politics involved. Not much jockeying for position. There was a high risk-tolerance for change. Risk tolerance is defined as the acceptance of the outcomes of a risk should they occur, and having the right resources and controls in place to absorb or “tolerate” the given risk, expressed in qualitative and/or quantitative risk criteria. Sounds complicated. It really isn’t. Risk tolerance really is just about your appetite for change, given that no outcome is guaranteed.
This team knew that they needed change, they embraced that things weren’t going to be ‘the way that they had always been’. Sounds easy, but with 2 integrating legacy firms (now one company), with over a century of combined experience, there's a ton of history there. For me, that was invigorating to say the least. They were ready for it, and their level of maturity for the unknown was refreshing and exciting. They had done more work in the business than they gave themselves credit for, and what I found was that many of their workstreams were 70-90% complete, and they just needed validation and support to get these initiatives over the finish line. Their practical approach to these problems was energizing. I suppose the engineering DNA that they all have helped the cause. These were, in fact, problem solvers by trade. More importantly, they were a team that put the business first. What they needed was support.
Executives often feel that they need to solve for all the problems, have all the answers, make all the decisions. I disagree. In fact, a great executive sometimes actually needs to counter that notion, simply with trust. In addition, you can also give leadership teams the authority to innovate. Give them the ability to identify solutions to the challenges that face the business, and the confidence that you will support their path to change, not rebuke it. Letting leaders come together to analyze challenges, solve problems, and make decisions is a core principle of tribal leadership and many of the world’s most admired companies have grown this way intentionally.
As an executive one of your main responsibilities is to upskill your people. How about letting them gain this experience by giving them the autonomy to instill real change? If the timing was right, I would have taken the job, but the experience is one that will last with me always. For that I’m grateful and better because of them. There’s no doubt that they will succeed and short of officially being part of their team on the field, I'm excited to watch their journey as a huge fan from the stands.