Profiles in Effective CEO Leadership
One of the many great experiences I have been fortunate to have in my career is to meet some impressive leaders – at the Department of Justice, on Capitol Hill, and in corporations. To focus on the latter, I have met some amazing CEOs, Chief Compliance Officers, and other senior executives. To be candid, I have also met some not-so-great CEOs and senior executives.
To broaden my perspective, I have worked with companies with strong, impressive corporate cultures and some not-so-great corporate cultures. It is easy to feel the difference. Frankly, I usually can tell quickly whether the company has a strong culture, or one where leaders mouth the words but do not really follow through (or even know how to follow through).
Without naming names (or companies), I wanted to provide a portrait of two incredible CEOs, whom I will never forget. It is an inspiring moment to witness an effective CEO, who displays effective leadership skills , sets the tone in the organization and leaves an indelible imprint on an organization.
CEO-1: Public Company
The first CEO-1 was the head of a major public company. CEO-1 rose in corporate ranks as the head of Human Resources and then eventually becoming the CEO of the primary, profit-producing part of the business. CEO-1 was a brilliant business leader, with vision and terrific communications skills. CEO-1 was not flashy, nor egotistical, and he led by example.
CEO-1 had terrific interpersonal communications skills, whether in a one-on-one setting, a small group, or a large group meeting. Coupled with his business acumen, however, was an important trait, recognized by everyone who worked at the company – he could – and did – incorporate compassion and empathy for individuals. What a difference this made – CEO-1 was accessible to everyone, led by example, and always made participants at a meeting feel valued, heard and even had the Jedi-mind trick ability to persuade employees through suggestions not directions. To watch CEO-1 in action was to watch an artist perform.
My impressions of CEO-1 were corroborated by speaking to CEO-1’s executive team, mid-level managers and line employees. Everyone admired CEO-1, recognized his leadership talent, and spoke of CEO-1’s compassion and care for company employees.
CEO-1 took over the company after a federal enforcement action, a difficult market environment, and questions concerning the company’s conduct. CEO-1 lifted the company, restored its rapid growth, its reputation for reliability and high-quality performance, and did so by inspiring performance from company executives, managers and employees.
The second CEO (CEO-2) is the head of a non-profit, professional trade association. CEO-2 took over the association in the aftermath of concerns about senior executive mismanagement and private corruption. CEO-2 immediately acted to clean out the executive team linked to alleged improprieties (which turned out to be true). CEO-2 then rebuilt the senior executive team and slowly transformed the organization by communicating an important message – compassion and care for everyone who worked at the organization.
Do not get me wrong – CEO-2 inspired performance. Employees worked harder, they pitched in to help each other, and all in the service to the organization. Senior executives and staff were loyal and committed to the organization. Employee turnover was rare – in fact, one employee who was terminated, later sought to return to the organization.
Like CEO-2, the entire senior executive team was accessible, meaning they urged managers and employees to raise concerns and issues directly with them. They wanted to hear any concern so the problem could be fixed.
CEO-2 was described by employees as a “beautiful man” who was compassionate and cared about the staff. When an employee had insufficient accrued leave to secure a needed medical treatment, CEO-2 organized donations of leave from other employees. When CEO-2 perceived that employees were working “too hard” because of their commitment to the organization, CEO-2 urged employees to ensure a proper work-life balance. Further, when CEO-2 was concerned about overall potential “burnout,” CEO-2 declared a extra day off before a three-day holiday.
CEO-2 attends every monthly staff meeting and leads the meeting. He demands the same from his senior management team.
When the pandemic hit, and everyone started to work from home, the organization maintained daily communications on how the organization was coping with the pandemic, how to reduce stress and maintain a proper work-life balance. It was a difficult time but CEO-2 was hands-on during this time, addressing employee concerns and pulling the organization through the pandemic.
Building on the strong culture, CEO-2 identified major reforms to the governance structure and overall operation of the organization. These changes were welcomed and long overdue. CEO-2 navigated the association through these changes, elevated the level of overall performance, and has firmly established the organization as a thriving and successful non-profit.