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The hard truth by 'Z': How I prove myself

CEOs need to earn credibility, too

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

There’s a big misconception out there about what makes a great CEO. Ask most employees in any industry to define the ideal chief executive, and they’ll say, “He or she should be able to do everyone’s job, only better” or “Our CEO should know more about this business than anyone else.”

In truth, however, it doesn’t matter whether the person in charge knows diddly- squat about the details of the business. And a great CEO 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 that I knew nothing about. The employees scoffed when they heard I didn’t know their business.

I learned that in order 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.

So rather than let the griping get to me (and believe me, the griping was hard to miss), I earned credibility the old-fashioned way. I led people to think differently about their jobs.

Establish values

There are plenty of examples of successful CEOs who come into big companies without knowing much about those companies’ products. Both AT&T and IBM are run by dynamic guys who never worked in telecommunications or computers, respectively. What they both have done—and what I tried to do—is to communicate an unshakable set of values that permeate the corporate culture.

Here’s an example: Although I couldn’t win over my employees with my 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 perform. While I’m learning every day, I’ll never catch up with 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 any big changes at this company. You’ll hear from me probably more than you want to about our plans.”

Most of the griping stopped soon after. 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’m reading a new book about the head of Oracle Corp., a huge software firm. A former board member criticizes Oracle’s CEO for failing to establish a “magnetic north—no common direction, no sense of how things would or would not be done.” I think a leader must establish that magnetic north.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey, that’s easy. I could do that.” Values seem so warm and fuzzy, and a lot of people think it’s absurd that a CEO 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 demonstrate the strength to communicate openly and honestly with people. That’s a sure-fire way to earn credibility.

“Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 20-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $10 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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