Leadership columns

Previously published by The News-Press

"While experience is ideal, it is not always a prerequisite."

"I set a high bar, then methodically, steadfastly pulled and pushed and nudged the team along."

"Even a superperson would not succeed if continually second guessed, nitpicked, micromanaged, given mixed messages and directions.."

Critical ingredients for top leaders

Published in The News-Press on 5/26/13

 

Southwest Florida has a window of opportunity like never before.

 

We’ve soared into the national limelight, thanks to Florida Gulf Coast University’s high-flying Eagles and to Hertz’ relocation plans.

 

The light of economic revival is faintly visible at the end of the tunnel. We’ve had record tourism and air travel numbers; new home construction is up while our unemployment rates are below 7%, the lowest in five years.

 

It’s our moment to aggressively reach out and seize our shining opportunities. All hands on deck.

 

But we’re playing short-handed.

 

We have significant leadership voids in our community.

 

We are in a hunt for a county manager, a county attorney, and a schools superintendent in Lee County, and economic development champions in both Lee and Collier with the departures of Jim Moore and Mike Reagan later this year.

 

These are all important, big jobs. Really big.

 

Multi-million dollar budgets; tens of thousands of employees, constituents and stakeholders; short and long-term strategies that will shape our community for years to come.

 

A large organization is a complex, ever-changing organism. It expands and contracts, stretches and attacks, evolves and matures. It must be deftly tended internally for maximum effectiveness externally. That requires unique skill sets, acquired through years of often painful lessons.

 

My personal studies of leadership began with a crash course after I was plucked out of news coverage to newspaper management. While experience is ideal, it is not always a prerequisite.

 

In 1997, Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, appointed me to run the Circulation department, consisting of 700 employees, 2,000 independent contractors, 11 union contracts, $40 million in revenue and $22 million in expense.

 

Many people questioned his decision. My background was news. The biggest scope I had handled was about 40 people and $1 million annual budget.

 

What did I know about distribution or sales or customer service or systems or unions? What value could I bring? How could I possibly be successful?

 

Good questions. Ones that often haunted me in the middle of the night as I grappled with a gargantuan learning curve.

 

Frank and I had become acquainted some years back. He reasoned that my leadership talents were transferable, that my integrity and conviction would set a clear course, and my fresh perspective would be invaluable.

 

I threw myself into investigative learning mode, studying, reading, interviewing, reaching out internally and externally at all levels (just as I did when I started here at The News-Press). I sought out best practices and counsel from the best. I set a high bar, then methodically, steadfastly pulled and pushed and nudged the team along. 

 

And, while there were plenty of bumps and and some tears along the way, the calculated gamble paid off.

 

Any hire for any job is a gamble. The bigger the role, the bigger the risk. In this fast-pace changing landscape, past success is no longer a predictor of future success. 

 

What can swing the odds of success are these critical ingredients:

 

  1. Picking an individual who has the right talents, clarity of direction and self awareness

  2. Ensuring the boss or board provides clear guidance and expectations, then lets the leader do their job—not tries to do the job for them.

  3. Surrounding the leader with a fantastic team to help develop and carry out the vision

 

Let’s focus on No. 1: What are the right talents needed for top leaders?

 

The Center for Creative Leadership surveyed more than 2,000 leaders across three countries in 2009, and compiled this list of top traits:  planning, capacity to lead, resourcefulness, commitment, advocate of change, adaptability, seeks knowledge, ability to manage, creativity, honesty.

 

The Wharton School reported in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year six skills that define strategic leaders, based on 20,000 executives: the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn.

 

I asked some local leaders, and they added these attributes; problem solving and critical thinking, listening, learning, flexibility, transparency, communication, high emotional intelligence, creating change, nurturing cooperation within competition, character, respect, courage.

 

Clearly the list is endless; each of us would advocate different priorities and add our own.

 

Superman and Superwoman are not readily available. So it’s imperative to prioritize the most important qualities for this moment in time. What are the most important traits needed for this particular job over the next three to five years?

 

Which brings me to No. 2; the bosses of the leaders.

 

Successful leadership requires a partnership and alignment at the highest levels. 

 

Whether one boss or a board of bosses, they must also have the right talents, clarity of direction and self awareness.

 

They must be crystal clear on the expectations for the position, the metrics of success. And they must be equally clear on their own role and responsibility in the partnership. What are they hiring the person to do, and do they need to do to enable the individual to be successful.   

 

Even a superperson would not succeed if continually second guessed, nitpicked, micromanaged, given mixed messages and directions.

 

Then again, he or she would never consider the job for exactly those reasons.

 

This is our moment. Let’s go get the best hands we can.

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© 2015 by Mei-Mei Chan Kirk