The CEO of Footlocker, Matt Serra, once said to me, “It’s lonely at the top. Being the leader is a big responsibility.” Over the years, I have thought endlessly about this quote and what it means. Fortunately, in my career, I was provided with examples of what this meant, not just from Matt, but from working with a number of strong leaders. With all of these people, I noticed a set of similar traits. Primarily, they took their responsibility seriously and showed a great custodial awareness of their tasks. They all:
· Made fact-based decisions
· Built great teams
· Made ethics a part of the culture
· Engaged listeners
· Evaluate constantly
· Embraced change
Make fact-based decisions
At the start of each morning, Craig Ryden—the CEO of Yankee Candle—would look at the sales from the previous day in great detail. Inevitably, he would discover something he didn’t understand. He knew there was an answer and would ask each of us why. Sometimes he got opinions and sometimes he got facts. Craig was polite to whomever gave opinions, but became riveted when he got facts. Once he had all the facts, he helped us with the decision necessary to make the required adjustment.
Over time, we all learned facts first, opinions second. From this leadership, we developed a culture of fact-based decision making. As Craig’s CFO and CAO, I always appreciated this leadership style. It made our days easier and our decisions better.
Build great teams
In the early dark days as CFO of Footlocker, we had a struggling company that was deeply in debt. On top of that, we had people in the wrong places and we needed to change quickly. This meant a significant amount of change within the organization. We had to put the right people in the right places quickly. To accomplish this, we created the following profile of the type of employees we needed. They all had to:
· “Get things done”
· Listen to learn
· Develop other people
· Analyze effectively
· Be assertive but warm
We then began promoting or hiring people that fit this profile. Resumes and experiences were important, but these characteristics were key to our success. Over the next year, we promoted or hired well over a hundred people that fit this profile. They weren’t always the best talkers or best dressed, but they just knew how to do their jobs and work within our culture. After two years, we went from being a “financially troubled” company, to being praised for our turn-around efforts. Largely as a result of these “profile” employees.
Making ethics a part of the culture
A critical trait I noticed in great leaders was a consistent set of ethics. Dave Farrell, the long serving CEO of May Department stores, was always very consistent with ethical decision making. His consistency allowed those of us who worked for him to predict his response to most business questions. In turn, it shaped us as an organization. We knew what to expect and we knew how to act. Many years later, when I speak with former executives who worked in Dave’s organization, his culture and sense of fair play is what we remember.
Be an engaged listener
As a young executive and newly appointed CFO, I was fortunate to work for Jim Hageman. Early on, I observed Jim’s motto in meetings: “questions first and decisions second.” Jim had a friendly style and for the majority of the meeting, would sit and listen. When he didn’t understand an issue, he used “probes” to learn more. He coaxed us to explore the issue at hand and develop our own thoughts. Invariably, Jim waited until nearly the end of the meeting to express himself. Sometimes, it would be as simple as, “I think what you decided will create a great outcome.” Sometimes he would be more expansive, but we always knew he listened.
It was always easy for me to spot whose business was running well and whose wasn’t. It lied in the quality of their evaluations of the business. Over time, I noticed those whose business was running well, knew the facts and what to do about it. They were constantly probing the organization to learn more about trends. Any discussion about their business always had an unusual depth of knowledge.
While things didn’t always work out in the short-term the way they hoped, in the long-term they were successful. They could spot momentary trends of weakness and know what to do. They didn’t hide from problems, they solved.
At Yankee Candle, we actually had a position for a “Change Agent.” Though not his actual title, Reggie Thomas was our executive who looked for ways to make our operation better. In effect, he spent his day trying to make us better. While not all his ideas were agreed to, many were. In any given year, Reggie saved our company millions of dollars through new methods and technology.
What was remarkable about Reggie wasn’t what he did, but that he worked in an environment that solicited new ideas. Change is inevitable and companies that actively search for new ideas thrive!
Many of us associate inspirational leaders as great speakers. Surely there are many who lead with words. But inspirational leadership goes deeper. They are the ones, “who do what they say and say what they do.” They inspire by their own personal commitment. They lead from the front and not from the back. They don’t abdicate, they embrace their responsibility.
Great leaders make us want to be better by their own actions, not just by well strung together words.
Being a leader is hard, and as Matt said, it can be very lonely at times. Acquiring the seven traits listed above may not reduce the loneliness, but will help inspire others to perform at a higher level.
Bruce Hartmanis the founder of Gideon Advisors, a Christian advisory firm committed to “walking with people into a brighter future” as they navigate life and career transitions and advance Christian values in the marketplace. Hartman is a seasoned executive with 30 years of success creating shareholder value for Fortune 500 firms. Prior to founding Gideon Advisors, he was the Executive VP and CFO at Yankee Candle Company, Cushman and Wakefield, and Foot Locker, Inc. where he established global banking and capital market structures and contributed to significant increases in enterprise value. He is the author of the new book, Jesus & Co.: Connecting the Lessons of The Gospel with Today’s Business World (Post Hill Press, March 2018).