Over a 30-year career, Robert Vanourek was chief executive of Sensormatic, a $1 billion security firm, and group vice president at Pitney Bowes, a $5.3 billion company. He’s chairman emeritus of the VailInstitute and co-author of Triple Crown Leadership.
EL: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?
Vanourek: Great leadership is not a solo act. It’s a group performance. You need to connect through the heart to lead effectively.
EL: But don’t leaders need to act on their own to make tough decisions?
Vanourek: In a crisis, you have to listen to alternatives and make a command decision. But if you operate like that all the time, people will wait to hear what you think. They won’t think for themselves. Leaders at times bite their tongues even if they think they’re right or they can do it better, as long as it’s not a bet-the-company decision. They’re able to listen and let others lead.
EL: Does listening come naturally to you?
Vanourek: No, I used to write a note to myself in meetings, “Be quiet. Listen.” The problem is ego. Some CEOs think, “This place is lucky to have me.”
EL: If you listen well, you might hear what you don’t want to hear. Then what?
Vanourek: When I arrived at Sensormatic as CEO, we were burning cash. It was a turnaround, and I had Saturday morning meetings with 12 managers. One of them, let’s call him Phil, always had an excuse for his. At one meeting, I couldn’t stand his dog-ate-my-homework act anymore. I lost it. I slammed the table and yelled at him. Later when we left, I asked a colleague, “What did you think?” He replied, “Well Bob, you didn’t treat Phil according to our shared values.” He was right. So I reconvened the meeting, apologized to Phil and asked for forgiveness.
EL: How did he respond?
Vanourek: He accepted my apology and became a dedicated team member who did extraordinary things in helping us turn around the company. That meeting was a watershed for us.
EL: Talk more about the role of shared values.
Vanourek: An organization needs a set of shared values. Yet people can interpret those values in different ways. So you have to dialogue with people and be patient. That means getting them to talk about the values and their impact. And you have to get feedback from all stakeholders. That allows you to make the best decision in light of their feedback, anchoring your decisions in shared values.
EL: In your book, you write that lack of commitment and other issues can cause a breakdown in aligning values. How can a leader prevent this breakdown?
Vanourek: We list 10 steps to create alignment. I bet 95% of organizations do some, but not all, of our 10 steps. You have to do all of them, collaboratively, through dialogue. It’s a continual process that requires patience, listening, repetition and reinforcement.
Editor’s note: The 10 steps to the Alignment Model are: purpose, values, vision, goals, strategy, people, structure, processes, action plans and communication loops.