For the first time in American history, we have a president who ran for office largely on the strength of his business acumen. What America needs right now, Donald Trump argued, is not another politician but a seasoned CEO who knows how to run a smooth operation. America agreed, and soon approaching a year since the election, is as good a time as any to ask ourselves just what we expect a good CEO to do.
It wasn’t always a question I thought I’d be in the position to answer. I emigrated to New York from my native Ireland with no money and no prospects, and I made ends meet by working in a variety of manual jobs. I worked hard and got lucky, and eventually made my way from the docks to the corner office of New York State’s largest private employer. But no matter my position on the corporate ladder, one question continued to preoccupy me at every turn: the question of leadership.
When you run an organization of more than 62,000 people, as I now have the privilege of doing, leadership may seem like an amorphous, almost theoretical question. It’s easy for a CEO to feel like he or she needs to do little but worry about the big picture stuff. But having observed men and women who’ve successfully led companies, organizations and even nations, I’ve come away with a few insights on things they all do that make all the difference in the world.
First, great leaders proactively set the vision and culture of their organization, and communicate their goals and expectations clearly and effectively. And, since no objective is more critical to success, the time to start doing this is at the very beginning.
For the past 15 years that I have been CEO, I’ve started off every Monday in the exact same way: with a three-hour meeting with new employees. We hire more than 150 of them each week, and whether they’re custodians in charge of keeping the bathrooms clean or senior executives managing millions of dollars, they all start out by meeting with me, hearing about the collective vision for the organization, and having an opportunity to share their own ideas, observations and concerns. This kind of hands-on approach may strike some managers as needlessly time-consuming, and a poor use of a chief executive’s valuable time, but the moment we fail to set a common vision, we also lose with it the capacity to truly come together as a team.
And that’s a tragedy, because being part of a team is a fundamental human need. Ask people what it is that makes them truly happy about their jobs, and they may talk about their compensation or their benefits, but, more likely, they’ll say that they love coming in to work every day and doing something meaningful, something that makes them proud. Employees don’t just want to work for a company – they want to belong to something.
To that end, it’s well-worth the investment in giving employees precisely that feeling. The vision of the ultimate CEO as a cold and calculating cost-cutter who cares about nothing but bottom lines is deeply outdated. The only way to succeed in a complex global economy — in which everything from the products and services we provide to our ability to reach new and diverse markets is rapidly changing — is to have leaders who are as emotionally savvy as they are intellectually sharp. Such a passionate and attentive outlook doesn’t come naturally to many of us, but — thankfully — it can be taught. To this end, our company decided to invest in creating the Center for Learning and Innovation, an in-house corporate university that teaches life-long learning skills to people at all levels of the organization, including how to get better at listening, empathizing and inspiring their teams. It took a considerable investment, but I’m happy to say it has proven tremendously effective in nurturing a much more fertile and nurturing work environment.
Finally, there’s the matter of change. All good leaders, to some extent, are expected to take their organizations through a transformation of one sort or another. Politicians understand this best, which is why they always promise to be the candidate of change. But as great leaders know, once you start implementing change, you run into what experts call the "change paradox," namely how to evolve for a better future while keeping the here and now as stable as possible. This is an immensely complex question, but one simple answer is this: because we are all human, and because change, by definition, may lead to mistrust, we would be well-advised not to challenge the status-quo unless we’re certain that the change we’re about to implement is sustainable over time. By first creating and reinforcing a common culture and investing in leadership, we are able to face the change paradox head on — when we truly understand our environment, know its pressures and appreciate its opportunities, we put ourselves in a position to decide how to make it even better.
In this time of upheaval, with so many of our notions and our traditions — economic, political, cultural — challenged and repealed, we need good leaders more than ever. If the men and women fortunate enough to shoulder the burdens of directing not only our government but also our corporations and our institutions speak clearly and listen intently, if they constantly hone the great craft of empathy, and if they strive for change while always remembering that change isn’t something to be taken lightly or practiced irresponsibly, we will all thrive.
This op-ed originally appeared in Thrive Global.