Will Rodgers once said there were two kinds of people in the world: those who march in the parade and those who sit on the curb and watch as the parade goes by. He concluded that anyone is much better off watching depending on the parade. Those who march see the same thing the entire time. Those who watch are witnessing a long succession of wonders and learning from each one.
I have had the unique experience over the past few decades of being on a curb watching the most notable and acclaimed corporate and civic leaders as well as an array of famous people who excelled at their trades. I became public relations director of the Atlanta Braves at age 24, and mostly because Hank Aaron was in the world spotlight for chasing the home run record held by Babe Ruth, I was in fairly regular meetings with well-known leaders like Ivan Allen Jr. and Robert Woodruff as well as notable leaders who weren’t as well known like Mills B. Lane of C&S Bank or the various owners of Major League Baseball teams. I knew I wasn’t their peer, but I was their friend, privileged with a front-row seat to watch them work. I watched as Hank Aaron navigated the national spotlight and traveled with the hundreds of media who were with him during his journey. Some were somewhat famous themselves like Tom Brokaw, Brent Musberger, Keith Jackson or George Plimpton. I was an observer of fame and greatness.
For years, I worked alongside Ted Turner. He later described the two of us as the “marketing department” saying, “there are hundreds of people now doing what we used to do, and we did a better job than all of them.” Not true, but it gave me a lot of exposure to Ted as well as other unique and great leaders.
Over the years, that spot in the peanut gallery watching the great and famous continued. I sat in the office of Roberto Goizueta, the legendary leader of The Coca-Cola Company as he responded to the national outrage about new Coke, and then I went to dinner with him as an observer while living in New York and working alongside public relations guru Harold Burson. Harold counseled all the top CEOs during a time when high profile corporate leaders were abundant. He would invite me to go along when he met with the likes of Jack Welch of GE and Warren Buffet but also mystical figures like then Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth or the exiled King of Greece or Dennis Connor of America’s Cup fame.
Over the history of Hope-Beckham, I have continued to work alongside, know and observe many very accomplished corporate and civic leaders. If there were such a thing as a doctorate in corporate leadership, I have benefited from being in the classroom for a long, long time. Just through pure exposure, I was bound to learn some lessons from them. This is my chance to pass a few of those lessons along.
1. The CEO is the voice of the organization. Companies can’t speak, only people can speak for a company. The communication buck stops with the CEO. The term chief executive officer was originally chief spokesperson, a designation required by law for public companies to assure transparency. Any CEO who dodges that responsibility has failed. After all, leadership is communication. The voice that leads the company can’t be followed or respected unless that voice communicates clearly what is expected and how those expectations are going to be met.
2. The culture of a company is a reflection of the personality of the leader. There is a saying that culture eats strategy for lunch. Employees as well as the outside world look to the
leader to determine what is expected and allowable, as well as how to act. Nothing can replace charisma and charm at the top. It is step one to success.
3. Keep it simple. I was always fascinated that top CEOs could be very different types of people. A Ted Turner is a much different type of person than a Warren Buffet or a Roberto Goizueta or even a character like Fred Smith of FedEx. I would watch closely trying to figure out the common ground they held. One thing I liked was that they always seemed to understand what I was trying to say, regardless of how awkwardly I said it. One day I was explaining something to Wayne Huizenga who was at the time CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment. I was fumbling through several sentences of explanation when he stopped and said. “What you are saying is….” And he said it in one sentence. He then told me that the primary leadership skill of a CEO is to keep messages very simple. He compared it to the child’s game called telephone, where something is whispered from person to person in a circle, and what comes out at the end is typically nowhere close to the initial message. If you are leading thousands of people, a key is to keep the messaging clear and concise, otherwise, it becomes a game of “telephone” as it moves through the ranks.
4. The CEO is not an operator. CEOs typically get their jobs because they have been excellent operators, and it is initially very hard for them to realize that their job is to hire the heads of the operating units, set direction and get out of the way. Anything else is meddling, getting in the way of the people responsible for running business units. That sounds easy, but it somehow isn’t.
5. The CEO got the job in most cases because of making good decisions along the way. Good decisions come from thoughtful analysis. However, some CEOs go from making the right decisions to thinking decisions are right because they make them. Harold Burson used to call this the “infallibility syndrome.” They feel they know all the answers, even if many of those answers are wrong.
6. The boss is either the smartest person in the entire company and everyone looks to the boss for answers or the boss is just the boss and has the final decision-making authority but everyone in the company is smart and can make decisions well. If the boss is viewed as having the answers, the clog in the drain of efficiency stops up in a hurry. Delegating the right to be smart and make decisions seems difficult for some CEOs.
7. The ivory tower is very wobbly. The air is very thin at the top, and those who report directly to the CEO tend to want to paint a rosy picture. Once Ted Turner told me I was important to him because I always told him what I thought, even if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He noted that most people who worked with him smiled and agreed with everything he said. But then he added, “I like it when people agree with me.” A CEO is wise to have outside observers who are true to the truth of reporting what is being said in the ranks of the company, in the industry, in the media, and generally, in the community the company serves.
8. There is no such thing as an inconsequential comment. Words said by the leader are often repeated and sometimes lead to strange things. When a CEO says good morning on an elevator, it brightens the day of those who are there. If the CEO says nothing, observers feel slighted. If the CEO says there is a spot on the carpet, the carpet will likely be changed overnight. There is a unique power in the words of the leader, and sometimes a few well-chosen words can become a legend.
9. Heritage is the history and brand of a company. A good CEO tends to add folklore to that heritage and that folklore keeps it alive and well. Some CEOs are folklore on steroids, like Fred Smith of FedEx – his C-minus term paper in college on the hub-and-spoke
approach that became FedEx, his gambling to make payroll, his vanishing to Beirut to come up with the big idea of 10 a. m. next day delivery, his “red memos.” Those were extreme legend builders, but James Quincey wearing jeans to work or Ed Bastian running a marathon to raise money to fight cancer, those are the things that build the heritage of corporate culture and also humanize the leaders.
10. Finally, be the darling of the media and Wall Street. Friends tend to treat friends well. It is smart to be friends with key media as well as key analysts. Friendship transcends and strengthens business relationships.
CEOs sometimes avoid stepping up to lead through communications by saying they don’t want to be viewed as self-promoting. “Self-promoter” is a personality, not related to the leader being seen and known. The general public knows a lot about the personal life of Warren Buffet. We know he eats at Dairy Queen, that he lives in the same house he always has in Omaha, that he was Daddy Warbucks in the local theater production of “Annie.” We know more about him than almost anyone in the business world, and yet he is not regarded as a self-promoter.
I’ve enjoyed being friends and observing these great leaders. They are good people, often no smarter than the rest of us, but they have been driven to be high achievers, and they are the ones who set the pace to keep the economy strong and moving forward.