By Dave Crisp
CEOs are evolving. A growing number of them "get it" — they know effective leaders spend more time listening and asking questions to learn rather than simply giving orders.
Encouragingly, the media sometimes report on these leaders and occasionally get it right as well. But even so, the tone of many articles still leaves way too much emphasis on CEOs most likely being right the first time as opposed to learners in a learning process.
I really enjoyed finding out in Profit about a Canadian construction success story. Here’s a CEO who led her team to 800 per cent revenue growth in the worst years of the recession, who recognized her own role and obviously played it well. This is a no-nonsense look at what effective leadership can do. No need to dwell on the story, as if it’s entirely the work of one person. Of course the leader gets credit and should — for leading, but not for doing it all single-handedly. Yes, decisions get made at the top but, even in smaller organizations, collaboration is needed for truly effective results.
But then CNN posted an article about “How Apple has changed under Tim Cook.” (Cook is Steve Jobs’ successor). OK, do we really think the entire company has changed in one year? It’s good that Cook is personally building bridges with government and stakeholders in ways Jobs pointedly refused to do. These are probabaly valuable business directions, but hardly something that vibrates through the entire company in a few months.
Then they note Cook has given most Apple employees at headquarters the “entire week off for Thanksgiving."
Is that a precedent he will extend more widely to staff outside headquarters? Was it actually his decision and should he be deciding such matters? That’s how it sounds. Will it change the entire company? Given the rising importance of American Thanksgiving, now eclipsing Christmas as the biggest holiday season, that’s hardly over the top. Most of those employees probably scheduled themselves off for almost the full four extra days anyway (plus the stat holiday), so how much work would get done?
With family members flying cross-country to see each other and massive shopping, partying and more, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this elsewhere. But apparently it is enough evidence for the pundits writing about Apple to suggest Cook is causing Apple to coast on success. Heavens, there have been no brand new, startling products launched in the entire last year they say. Oh, except for the iPhone5, but then we hear from the media that it’s either just a "minor" upgrade (of Cook’s) or it was all laid out by Jobs.
Tell the minor upgrade story to the thousands of purchasers who lined up for hours and activated so many ohem they absorbed so much bandwidth that my massive Internet supplier’s cable speeds slowed to a crawl. Tell the “Jobs did it” story to the thousands of employees who made the launch work, starting then, finishing now — all led by Cook.
Among other stories of note, Target’s CEO credits wide-spread mentoring and team work with his company’s results. That’s great, but we still need to see how it plays out in its Canadian takeover of Zellers where existing Zellers employees have been unceremoniously dumped as far as we can see. I guess until you’re part of the Target team legally, you don’t count. Filtering teamwork down and embedding it should move things in more positive directions eventually. We hope CEOs talking this way actually follow through and aren’t simply telling the public and shareholders what they are beginning to want more of.
All in all, the more one reads about what CEO said or did what, the more it starts to seem a bit irrelevant compared to what they are building internally that we don’t hear about through normal media channels very often. Of course, individuals at the top get to make big pronouncements and bask in the reflected glory, but surely it’s time we started looking beyond that just a bit more often.
I can’t fault a CEO like Jason Fried of 37signals for expressing his opinions on specific issues about his business and suggesting others follow his lead. That’s fair game and interesting to read. Nor do I want to fault media for reporting it. I know sometimes it sounds like nothing would make me happy, but this does. Despite Fried’s desire to see others emulate his model, he isn’t trying to disguise this as anything but personal observation and opinion. He gives his reasons for why he believes his approach works and we’re left to decide.
I’m also fine with a series Forbes ran: Why jerks get ahead, Why jerks don’t really get ahead and Steve Jobs was a jerk. Good for him. The theory in the latter, though, goes back to “Jobs was Apple” and vice versa, as if no one else there matters. The contrast among the three articles is interesting and instructive. The challenge we face in organizations is how to capitalize on the bubbling energy of raw talent that can be raw in the most outrageously ‘jerk-like’ ways.
How do we integrate and usefully channel super-contributors who disdain everyone else and still make a team function? Unfortunately, I think we’re a long way from answering that question and the media are doing a poor job of helping us face it squarely as one of the most significant problems we have to understand if we want to raise the contributions of our organizations.
Finally it is good to see a site like the one mentioned by Laurie Bassi (McBassi & Company) who evaluates companies on leadership and HR issues. She is pleased with glassdoor.com where employees and applicants rate companies, interviews and CEOs. Perhaps if some of those ratings got wider coverage we wouldn’t have the blind faith in CEO pronouncements that we currently are routinely subjected to.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.