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A maverick’s lessons

WS talks to bold CEO Frederick Abrew

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in Dealing with Bosses,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Office Communication,Office Management,Workplace Communication

Fred Abrew, 62, became CEO at Equitable Resources Inc., a Pennsylvania utility company, after nearly 40 years of climbing the corporate ladder. He served as CEO for three years, leaving in 1997 with a “golden parachute” worth $1.35 million. We spoke with Abrew about his steady ascent to the top:

WS: In a recent Wall Street Journal profile, you were called a “maverick.” Why?

Probably because what always worked for me was to express different opinions from the status quo and attach my views to the organization’s best interest. I realized that if I could understand what the organization was trying to achieve, and link my ideas to that goal, then I’d better speak up rather than just go along.

WS: But don’t you risk alienating higher-ups by doing that?

It depends how well you identify with their needs and consider their point of view. I have an old college friend who was also a maverick. He got plenty of promotions early on, but his demands were too ambitious. Management couldn’t handle him. And he didn’t do his homework to prepare his bosses for his ideas or appeal to their best interest. He wanted too much, too fast. He’ll never be a CEO.

WS: Can you give an example of a time you took a bold stand?

When I came to Equitable, management was concerned about labor. They didn’t believe they could weather a strike. I saw the only way to get work-rule changes was to get a strike. So I convinced management of my plan to survive a strike and that a strike was OK. Selling my plan was the key. I covered all of management’s concerns.

WS: What happened?

When the strike occurred, we held our ground long enough to get what we needed. We were ready for the strike. We had a plan to deal with it.

WS: It must have been tough to win over skeptics or tyrants. How did you handle difficult bosses?

Changing someone’s mind is rarely easy. But if you understand what they value most and what they’re most protective of, you can assure them your ideas won’t threaten that. Then they’ll at least listen to you.

WS: How did that shape your communication style?

I would never start by making some lofty, inflated promise, like declaring how my idea would revolutionize the company. The bigger the steps you take, the more likely you’ll fail. Take steps small enough so that you incrementally get where you’re going.

WS: Do you have any other tips on how to present an idea so that it gets noticed?

Provide multiple answers as opposed to the single right answer. Then guide others to settle on the best one. When you give a menu of choices, and then let people see why one option is better, you come across as more persuasive.

WS: As the CEO, how did you spot mavericks in your ranks?

I loved employees who asked, “Why do we do it this way?” Then they would come up with alternatives and show some excitement for enacting change.

WS: But those people are rare.

They’re the ones who get ahead. I hate people who say, “We can’t do it this way because we’ve always done it another way.” Actually, they may not use those words. They might say “Our program won’t let us do that” or “It goes against the grain” or “We’ve already set this in motion.” Those are career-killing statements. Remember: The natural trait of human beings is survival. That means you must try new things to survive.

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