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How I earned my credibility stripes

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Ask most employees in industry what makes a great executive and they’re likely to say, “He or she should be able to do everyone’s job, only better” or “Our leaders should know more about our business than anyone else here.”

In truth, it doesn’t matter how much or how little the person in charge knows about the details of the business. And a great executive certainly doesn’t need to know how to do everyone’s job.

I’m living proof. I had to run a subsidiary of our parent company that made products I knew nothing about. I’m pretty sure the employees shook in their boots when they learned I knew next to nothing about their business. But I soon showed them that it didn’t matter.

I’d learned that, to prove myself, I couldn’t possibly pretend to know what everyone actually did there all day. And I couldn’t play the philosopher king, either, because I knew basically nothing about the business, and I had no grand vision for it.

So, rather than letting the employees’ doubt get to me (and, believe me, it was hard to miss), I earned credibility the old-fashioned way: I led people to think differently about their jobs.

Establish values Examples abound of successful execs who come to big organizations without knowing much about those organizations’ products. What those leaders do—and what I tried to do—is communicate an unshakable set of values that permeate the corporate culture.

Here’s an example:

Although I couldn’t win over my people with technical insights into their business, I could tell that they were unhappy with all the changes that had rocked the place. So I told them: “You know more than I do about your work, so I’ll leave it up to you to do it. While I’m learning every day, I’ll never catch up to you. But I can promise you one thing: From this moment on, as long as I’m here, you will never, ever be blindsided by big changes. You’ll hear from me probably more than you want to about our plans.”

Most of the doubt evaporated soon after that. I understood what bothered them, and I addressed it. It sounds simple, but in my mind, that’s what a good leader does.

Consistency from the top

I once read a book about the head of Oracle Corp. A former board member criticized Oracle’s CEO for failing to establish a “magnetic north … common direction” for the company. That’s something a leader must do.

You’re probably thinking: “Hey, that’s easy. I can do that.” Values seem so warm and fuzzy, and a lot of people think it’s absurd that some CEOs earn millions just to instill integrity in a work force and rally them to feel good.

Still, from my experience, only a handful of gutsy leaders can admit their weaknesses and show the strength to communicate openly and honestly with people. That’s a sure-fire way to earn credibility.

Each month, “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to lead an organization.This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to lead a $100 million information-services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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