“We know a lot – because we’ve seen a lot.”
Anecdote: a short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.
One of the great privileges in my life is getting to hang out with you. By “you” I am referring to the fifty thousand or so leaders I have spent time with over the last seventeen years talking about the challenges to sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of the day. And what it takes to accomplish the single most important goal every business leader on the planet has: safety.
You might think I was born with a silver spoon in hand, but I was no fortunate one. That privilege was earned through a thirty-year apprenticeship on your side of this deal. It started on midnight shift, working as a General Helper, July, 1968. For the next three decades, my “good fortune” was to get to work around literally a thousand leaders: people that I knew by name, and watched in action. If it’s anything, my genius was simply paying attention.
Pay attention I did. It was easy to know who was really good at leading, and what they did to lead so well. Comparing what the best did with their so-called “peers” the best practices in leadership became stunningly obvious.
As you might imagine, in that combined forty-seven years experience, I’ve seen a lot, and from that, know a lot.
Here are a few anecdotes collected along the way: some first-hand accounts, and others in the form of stories told to me by other leaders who I admired, and respected.
The Case for Safety
One of the things the best leaders do is to explain things. Put things in perspective. Give darn good advice. A leader’s words can live on, long after the leader has gone on to his reward.
Here’s one such anecdote, sent my way by a leader who had a very successful career in management with one of the most respected names in the industry. It was about a conversation he had early in his career.
A Moment of High Influence I experienced as a young, driven and career conscious production supervisor had a big influence on me. My boss, Steve, came to me one day and said, “We need to talk”. I went in his office and he closed the door. I knew something was up.
Steve said the following: “I know you are trying to do the best job you can, and you are a very ambitious guy, but I need to remind you of something. All those people up there at HQ will forget tomorrow that you set a production record today. But one thing they will never forget is if someone working for you gets seriously hurt.”
Those were words I never forgot. The message was clear. Can’t say I always behaved accordingly but they stuck with me for the rest of my career. That was Steve’s way of making the Case For Safety.
He was a great leader.
Sure, actions speak more powerfully than words, but that doesn’t mean for a moment the words of a leader don’t matter.
These days, there’s a popular trend to talk about values, list values, communicate values. When I’m on site with a client, it’s a good bet there’ll be a poster on the wall delineating their corporate values. I’ll always make a point of giving them a read.
But here’s the thing about values: companies don’t have values, it’s the people running the company who have values. As to what those values really are, I suppose you could read the poster, but you’re always better off watching how those leaders behave.
Values get revealed – not “communicated.”
Twenty-five years ago, I got an interesting job offer. One of the biggest bosses in my company wanted to take a big chunk of the business private. He assembled a team to run the business, and I was picked for one of those big jobs in the new company.
Of course, nothing was official until the deal closed. And that required an appraisal of the worth of the business: “valuation” was the term, and the appraisers were a bunch of college professors in finance who did this sort of thing for a living.
They wanted to meet us for dinner. Talk about a big meeting! This one was as big as it gets. Of course, I got to drive my boss – the soon to be CEO and Chairman of the Board – to the meeting.
We were running late, stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 84 that wasn’t moving. Command and control kind of guy that he was, the boss started barking orders…..to me.
“Paul, I want you to take this car over to the shoulder, down to the next exit. From there, I know the back way to get there.”
And, assuming what it would take to seal the deal: “If you get a ticket, no problem. I’ll take care of paying that.”
Reading that, I bet I know exactly what you’re thinking: Paul: you got ticketed?
You’re thinking a lot faster than I did. This one took some thought on my part:
Will Accounting actually pay for this item on an expense report?
Even if they do, it’s still on my record.
And….What kind of a leader would even think to say something like this?
No leader I’d ever want to go to work for, that was for sure. Not with those values.
So I didn’t. Drive on the shoulder. Or take the job with that leader.
Don’t Judge a Book..
Suppose I were to gather up a representative sample of the really good leaders that I’ve seen in action. Stand them up in front of a crowd of you and your pals, but without telling you who they were, or what they had in common. “Here are ten people I know. What do you think they have in common?”
It might take you a long time to figure out the answer: really good at leading. Not every leader looks the part.
A few years ago, at an outing with a good client, I was informed their CEO would be flying in that night, and speaking the next morning. “By the way, he’s a really good guy.” I bet I heard that from half a dozen people.
I showed up the next morning, eager to meet a CEO widely regarded as a good guy. Scanning the crowd, I saw no one who looked like the big boss. But, by my count, there was one more foreman in the room than the day before. That scruffy looking guy with the jeans and well-worn boots had to be another front line leader, who’d just gotten in late from a hunting trip in West Texas.
You can guess how that story ends.
Properly introduced, that CEO walked to the podium and kept every one of us hanging on his every word for the next forty-five minutes. Starting with his observation, “When you’re a leader, people are watching you” and closing with his advice, “As leaders we need to make it easier for people to do the right thing, and hard for them not to.”
This leader was awesome! Some of the best stuff I’ve heard from any leader, anywhere on the planet.
Backbone: Not Outwardly Apparent
From outward appearances, leaders are indistinguishable from the rest of us: they come in all kinds of sizes, shapes – and skill sets. Some are brilliant at explaining and giving advice. Some are more of the strong, silent types, but who lead fabulously by their example. Know both types well.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking every great leader is good at everything. Some are even flat out boring.
But the one thing the best all have in common is backbone: the willingness to stand on principle; make the tough call; do what’s right, even when it’s not popular. That’s why you can’t really tell who’s best at leading just by their appearance…or even their words. You have to see them in action.
Here’s a story passed along to me, about one such leader. The kind you’d characterize as tough, demanding: a no-nonsense kind of guy. The type you could never completely relax around.
Over a business dinner, one of the topics that he talked to us about was safety. I will never forget his words – “You are not serious about safety until you have fired a supervisor for a safety issue.”
His point was that we were always pretty quick to hammer a wage roll employee about a safety violation, but the supervisor of that employee never suffered much if any consequences. Termination of a supervisor for safety reasons sends a very powerful message to the organization about how serious we are about safety.
He was also saying that as a supervisor you are always responsible for and should be held accountable for the safety behaviors of your people. Some supervisors struggle with holding their people accountable for safety, and never buy-in to the importance. Those are the ones that need to be identified and dealt with. Sometimes, termination is the only solution.
A stern, sobering message.
Sometimes that’s what it takes.
One of the nicest leaders I have ever met in my entire life wasn’t afraid of making a tough decision. He worked in part of the world where the local culture was to do everything but follow the rules. This leader’s advice on the subject was simple: “When you set foot in this plant, you’re in MY country. And in my country, we follow all the rules, all the time.”
One day, one of his followers took a deep breath, entered a confined space, and rescued a fellow employee who’d been knocked down by nitrogen. The rescuer was a hero.
But he violated one of the most important safety rules in the book. A couple of days later, the hero was out looking for a new job.
Backbone. Sometimes that is exactly what it takes.