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Leadership Secrets of the World's Most Successful CEOs (Part II)

Who knows what it really takes to be an effective business leader? The world's most successful CEOs of course, the men and women who run the No. 1 or No. 2 corporations in their industry or market niche.

In “Leadership Secrets of the World's Most Successful CEOs,” 100 top CEOs reveal — in their own words and through exclusive interviews not published elsewhere — their secrets of effective leadership: the proven strategies, attitudes, behaviors, philosophies and tactics they used to help themselves and their organizations rise to the top.

Among them are William G. Crutchfield Jr., Crutchfield Corp.; Stevan Roberts, Edith Roman Associates; Lloyd G. “Buzz” Waterhouse, Reynolds & Reynolds; Ron Sargent, Staples; and Steve Wadsworth, Walt Disney Internet Group.

“Leadership Secrets of the World's Most Successful CEOs” was published by Dearborn Trade Publishing, copyright 2004.

Chapter 85: RON SARGENT, CEO, Staples

Get your hands dirty.

Ron Sargent, CEO of office supply giant Staples, advises leaders to “Get your hands dirty. Before you can be a great leader, you need to understand the inner-workings of the business and where and how the greatest impact can be made. In retail, it is about people — talented associates and satisfied customers.

“My first day as CEO I put on the red shirt and black pants (Staples retail stores uniform), went to a Staples store and spent the day helping customers and working alongside associates. Spending time on the front lines is invaluable to help a company achieve excellence.

“I interact with customers directly on a regular basis, and I encourage all associates at all levels to do so. I answer my own phone and e-mail customers directly. In my first year as Staples CEO, I have worked to rally all 55,000 of our associates around centering everything we do on satisfying customers. Everything in our strategy is built around customers.

“Our Back to Brighton customer service program is the pivotal element in a companywide cultural evolution. Everything we do at Staples is customer-centric. We have pumped-up training, added hours to further increase service levels, and even added team incentives that make it possible for hourly associates to increase their pay by as much as $2 an hour if the store as a whole beats its goals. Sales have increased and customer service metrics are at an all-time high.

“You can't go wrong if the two things you pick to focus on are staying close to your customers and associates. The others are based on the needs of the business.

“Whatever you pick, make sure you clearly communicate the goals and objectives across the company, and that you have the ability to execute on the plan. Keep it simple — to a handful of priorities — otherwise you can get distracted and add complexity. I call it complexity creep.

“There is no silver bullet for being a better leader. It is about never underestimating the power of appreciation, picking a few things and doing them really well, and having a deep understanding of your customers and your business.”

Chapter 95, STEVE WADSWORTH, president, Walt Disney Internet Group

I believe there is inherent leadership in the strength of a well-organized, focused team.

“I don't think about leadership as a set of techniques or planned behaviors or an image. I don't have a particular secret or set of leadership rules that I consciously follow,” insists Steve Wadsworth, president of Walt Disney Internet Group.

“I believe there is inherent leadership in the strength of a well-organized, focused team. If I had to describe my leadership approach, I would say it is about creating, empowering, and guiding teams that together will guide our organization to the right solutions.

“I rely on the wisdom of a team to set a clear vision, I rely on the intellectual capital of a team to develop creative ideas, and I rely on the resources of a team to execute. My role as a leader is to pull the team together, lead the team through these critical decisions, and help the team achieve its best.

“How I do that depends on the situation or challenge the team faces, but communication is always an essential element. If the business needs direction, I help the team come together, work through the challenge, and set a direction — one the team owns, together.

“If the team needs motivation, I challenge what they are doing, and challenge the team to come up with solutions to elevate to the next level. As the leader of the organization, I provide the broad vision and communication to ensure everyone is working together. I try to demonstrate that as an organization, we are dependent on each other's talents to succeed — and that with the right communication and teamwork, we will make the most of those talents.

“Like other Internet operations, our organization's most challenging moment came with the deflation of the Internet bubble. It was clear that the path we had been on required a radical change, that our broad approach needed focus, and that a new organization and direction were required.

“In my role as leader of the business, I needed to reinforce to everyone that major change was necessary. I pulled together a team of the right senior executives to set a vision for where we needed to be and to develop the restructuring plan and set the new direction.

“As the leader of the organization, my objective was not to develop and impose direction in isolation; my objective was to pull the team together to come to a solution using the knowledge and insight of the team.

“Only with input from a cross-section of the organization were we able to develop a very specific plan and direction, as well as critical business targets that became the rallying cry for the organization. By owning the outcome of that planning and restructuring effort, we all became bound to its success or failure. I believe that was a critical component of achieving a successful, on-schedule turnaround of our business to a profitable, high-growth operation.

“Teams are not democracies. Ask any football coach. Teams don't vote on which play to run or which strategy to pursue. The leader of the team ultimately has to make the decisions. In fact, the team or the business relies on the leader to make those decisions.

“However, in my approach to leading a team, I challenge the team to bring their experience, knowledge, and skills to the dialogue. I want my team's collective wisdom to help guide the ultimate decision, but in the end that decision rests with one person.

“If it is a critical business or strategy decision for the entire business, then the ultimate decision maker is the leader of the business. By relying on the collective wisdom of the team, I believe I am more likely to make a better decision and the team is more likely to feel vested in the decision — even if I, as the leader, ultimately override the team's consensus.

“Through the dialogue, the team will understand why I made the decision I made. Making decisions in isolation — without the dialogue or input of the team — means the team is less likely to understand the reason for the decision and will be less likely to be vested in that decision.

“I work hard to make my team part of the process. I challenge them to bring their knowledge and experience to the process. I do that through extensive communication. If I am successful, the organization will fully understand our direction, they will feel and be part of it, they will think as a team and operate as a team, and we will be much more successful. It is a virtuous cycle.

“As the organization becomes more vested in our success and feels more responsible for our success, they will individually and collectively be more proactive about ensuring we are operating at our best. From that virtuous cycle comes the inherent leadership in a well-organized, focused team. Someone has to build and maintain that virtuous cycle, guide and direct that team, and make the ultimate decisions.

“If someone on the front lines of my organization has important insight and perspective that I can't have because of our relative roles, I want that person to feel free, or even compelled, to share that insight with the organization. Ultimately, I want that insight to have the opportunity to influence our decision making, if appropriate. Then, when a decision is made, if that insight played a role, I want that person on the front lines to know they made a difference.

“If that insight did not play a role, I want that person to understand why it didn't play a role so they can understand the decisions that are made. The only way this process works is if you have a well-organized team with very strong, efficient communication in place, and an understanding that the organization is an important part of the process.

“Listen to the feedback of your team to understand what your organization needs and where your leadership is needed. Fill in the voids, whatever they may be. Ensure there is direction and clarity, that the team understands that direction, and that every person in the organization understands their role in it. Listening guides your own actions, and communication, based on what you hear, guides the actions of the rest of the organization.

“Building and maintaining an organization that works in this way requires aggressive leadership — a vision for what needs to be achieved, a clear message about how the organization will operate, and the constant communication and guidance necessary to make it work. That must come from the leader of the organization.

“Leadership is an imperfect process that is never done, which creates the potential for frustration. Organizations continuously evolve and change, are continuously faced with new challenges to be met, and communication is complex and takes time. Understanding that the job is never done is key to maintaining focus and avoiding frustration and distraction. The organization needs to know that as well. Individuals can and will get frustrated and distracted, but as long as the team overall stays focused and its leaders stay focused, progress will be made.

“In many ways, leadership style is very personal. The best approach for anyone to take in a leadership role is the one that gets sustainable results for them. Finding the approach that works may require effort and time. I believe there is inherent leadership in people that is shaped by both personality and experience from birth. I also believe leadership can and needs to be developed. Whether a person has an inherently high level of leadership skills or not, anyone can and will develop better leadership capabilities through experience, maturity, and proactive development effort.”

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