Good leadership is hard to find. Most bosses are forgettable.
Sometimes the unfortunate reason for leaving a job is to actually forget your boss. Evidence even suggests many of us quit either because of leadership, or for reasons that are directly under the control of our boss and respective employer.1 Any element of your workplace, especially your culture, environment or even perception of the job and opportunities (or lack thereof) are all factors that employers and their leadership have direct influence over.2
During my 36 years of working I’ve held a total of twelve jobs including my current position. I left nine primarily because of the toxic culture and work environment. I left five of the nine specifically because I will not work for abusive leadership that are disrespectful of their staff. That is one of my core principles that I won’t apologize for. It appears I am not alone.3
However, I will not go down the rabbit hole by rehashing all the poor leadership traits I’ve seen. I would rather present examples of awesome leaders. Leaders who have positively influenced me over the years. My goal in this article is simple – to inspire more people to be a little more like the following leaders.
Royal Trust (1990-1991)
Still in my senior year of University I landed a spectacular intern position at a progressive trust company. My manager Susan was not only a graduate of my program, but it turns out she was also a great leader. I had so little work experience that it took years to realize just how good she was.
Susan kept a door-open policy that I have not seen repeated in over 28 years. She always made time for her staff no matter what the demands were on her time. During crises she even turned her office into a war room and vacated so the team could focus.
Define Expectations and Allow Creativity
When it came to the work Susan was patient and guiding. She knew what she wanted. She was clear in intent and purpose. But she was also very willing to listen to and accept new ideas. We were creating a new service for our retail branches that provided each with targeted demographic and competitive market data. Susan detailed why it was important and what she expected, and then she constantly encouraged and challenged us to iteratively make it better.
As an intern I was the brightest shade of green you could be. Rather than simply offload me on the team Susan made time for one-on-ones. We would discuss not just the current work, but options and career choices that were not obvious to someone with no experience in the corporate world. Unknown to me at the time this advice would pay off in dividends years later.
Unfortunately, timing is everything. The company was bought out. Hiring freezes were implemented overnight. Layoffs were imminent. In my final weeks as an intern Susan took time to help me clean up my resume. And she gave me a very personal letter of referral that I still have.
Susan taught me that a good leader is patient, clear in intent, and also willing to empower and encourage people to do more.
Dave Barnes & Brad McDonald
North York Hydro / Toronto Hydro (1993-1999)
Our team at North York Hydro was primarily responsible for the outage management system. It was used by the city’s operations control centre to track in real time the entire electrical distribution network. It was a critical piece of technology that could not afford down time. Our job was twofold – to decommission the antiquated system while simultaneously supporting the smooth development, implementation and operational use of the replacement, all with a focus on improving services while having zero impact on customers.
Lead by Example
Dave oversaw the entire project and did so with the skill of a Jedi Master. When challenged to deliver he took well-calculated strategic risks and openly displayed confidence in his staff to succeed. He also expertly navigated the turbulent political waters of a closed-shop where union and management worked together to deliver a service.
This relationship created very unusual dynamics for those of us working in the information technology sector as unionized employees. Expectations around compensation, performance, working hours, breaks, collaboration, and volunteerism were all substantially different when looking through the lens of a union member. Despite the challenges Dave always made it clear our primary focus was to be on customer satisfaction, quality delivery, dependability, and employee engagement. He successfully rallied the entire team to those common causes regardless of position or politics.
Dave is also undeniably one of the most intelligent and insightful people I have ever met. He was a true lifelong learner. He was genuinely excited about new and unexplored information and had a deep comprehension on a multitude of topics. Dave could pick up something new at a pace I have never seen. He was technical, empathetic, artistic, and eloquent all at once.
I cannot emphasize how awesome and at the same time how frustrating it was to have a manager that is so much smarter and faster at learning than you. Dave would often provide me (the hired technical expert) with tips and pointers. How to improve my code, or where to look in the 14+ reference manuals for guidance on how to implement net new functionality. He always empowered and encouraged his staff to reach and do more. At the same time he always accepted that we grow and learn at our own pace.
Inspire Confidence by Trusting Your Team
Brad was my direct manager whom reported to Dave. Brad had a calm, collected disposition that transcended confidence, and on occasion he almost seemed unflappable.
Several times I remember project crises emerging where deadlines or delivery were at risk. Brad would calmly evaluate our options and provide advice and guidance on how to proceed. He would make time to provide support and assistance whenever it was required and he coached and mentored his staff on procedures and expectations, always keeping safety and customer needs first and foremost.
Brad never issued directives or orders, but he was always clear on what outcomes he expected. He provided an accurate understanding of “what” was needed, he created a great culture for his team to excel in, and he trusted us to figure out the “how”. Brad never criticized us for mistakes, and instead of ridiculing us in front of peers he guided us towards discovering the answers and achieving success on our own.
Dave taught me a good leader can be incredibly smart and still confident and humble enough to empower others to try, then be genuine in rewarding them for doing their personal best.
Brad taught me a good leader fosters a good working environment and trusts people to get the job done.
Together they showed me a great leader provides a calming effect, guidance, support, shelter and protection from negative forces that are often out of your control.
Karen Fulcher Scholz
MapInfo Corporation / Pitney Bowes (2006-2010)
Our teams at MapInfo Corporation were focused on developing and supporting a number of enterprise-focused spatial data systems and tools known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The skill and expertise required to lead and develop this cutting-edge technology were not trivial. Despite the products being stable the company itself experienced a period of unprecedented change that would have irreversible impacts on the organization, its structure, and on its customers and product lines. Karen was a director at the time for several product lines and teams and she set the bar high for leadership qualities.
Grace and Focus Under Pressure
Karen performed amazingly during this very turbulent period in the company’s history. The company had recently been purchased and massive business restructuring was underway. Employees whom had been stable for decades suddenly experienced four rounds of layoffs, full restructuring, the closing of several core product lines, and the movement of most jobs to the offshore, all of which effectively crushed morale and crippled focus and ability to deliver.
Despite the constant threat of unemployment, funding cuts, team restructuring, outsourcing, and other various distractions Karen always ensured her staff were kept as focused as they could be on what was necessary – customer delivery and the hope for tomorrow. She always took time to attend our Product Reviews, she met often with the Product Owners and teams to ensure we had the support we needed to deliver, and she provided guidance on where we should focus our efforts.
Transparency and Honesty
Karen was as open and honest with her staff as she was permitted. Often we knew there were leadership conversations going on that she was aware of, however we also knew that senior leadership would not allow her to share or divulge most information. Somehow Karen managed to diligently walk the thin line between maintaining corporate secrets while also ensuring her staff were prepared for the turbulence they were about to experience. She was extremely empathetic and honest with her staff while also maintaining a firm level of control to help our teams focus.
In the end, many good people were let go because of the changes to the business. Karen herself even became a casualty of the cost-cutting and restructuring. Yet through it all she maintained a professional attitude and even continues to do so. To this day Karen has never said a word to me (even in confidence) about the frustrations and disappointments she must have felt. I have a deep respect both for her poise, her ability to lead by example and for raising herself above the turmoil. To her credit Karen has become something even better in the years that have followed.
Karen taught me a good leader exudes grace under pressure and shelters their team from the politics, toxicity and turbulence of an organization, respects the chain of command and the responsibilities of corporate leadership, all while providing clear objectives and expectations on outcomes, and they can still do so with a sincere empathy and appreciation for their staff.
Mike Kavaner and Jean-Francois Gingras
RBC Royal Bank of Canada (2010-2013)
Our select team of professionals at RBC had a monumental task. We were focused on transforming IT and the business to Agility. We took a three-tiered approach. Build and deliver awesome learning experiences for teams and their leadership. Provide expert coaching to teams and leadership making the change to Agility. And manage and develop the Agile management framework for the enterprise. This included supporting all those departments across the global organization that our transforming Agile teams were dependent on. Mike and Jean-Francois were pivotal to forging a small but mighty change force during those very early years. In doing so they, defined a standard for leadership that I continue to measure others against even today.
Shelter from Culture and Opposing Forces
Sometimes you don’t realize just how much impact someone has on you until they are gone. That was our experience with Mike and Jean-Francois. For the first year and a half while we were changing the way teams and their managers thought and worked Mike and Jean-Francois were building relationships. They were identifying influential leaders throughout the organization, all in an effort to manage expectations and increase odds of success. Unfortunately, when Mike and Jean-Francois left RBC to pursue better career opportunities our cultural “bubble” of protection ruptured. Our transformation team became exposed to all the raw culture and politics of a multi-billion-dollar financial enterprise. Once our protective leadership was gone the culture literally ate our strategy for breakfast.
Support Growth of a High Standard of Excellence
Jean-Francois was a man of patience and fortitude, and at the same time he knew what he wanted. He was a critical thinker and could with extreme clarity provide focus and guidance on expectations not just for the product or service we offered but also on quality and the customer experience.
Jean-Francois was very effective at setting and communicating a high level of excellence for our team and he worked very hard to coach and mentor us to succeed. He clearly articulated what he expected as well as why it was important and yet he was also open to discussion on alternatives. Like Jean-Francois, more leaders need to be clear in intent and need and at the same time open to criticism and challenge from the knowledge workers and domain experts on their staff. The result is a better leader, a dedicated and more dependable team, and better solutions for the customer.
Clear A Path
Mike was often very busy stick-handling the mid and senior level managers and executives in the organization. Sometimes his skills were required to smooth things out because we as coaches would often “ruffle feathers” by going against more traditional approaches. Much of what Mike did wasn’t overtly obvious but we felt and saw his positive impact in the transformation strategy. He would literally clear a path so we could get stuff done. Mike was also very approachable and open to dialogue. He was keen on hearing what we were experiencing and seeing at our level in the organization. This would give Mike the critical information he needed to take action where necessary.
Target Outcomes for Success
One thing Mike and Jean-Francois did together was to define specific outcome goals, not output goals. They weren’t interested in transforming X teams a year. Instead they were interested in ensuring those that transformed were successful and realizing clear benefits towards delivery. To that end they set clear outcome-based goals that we could get behind and work towards. Of course many others in the bank wanted more vanity metrics such as number of teams transformed or number of people trained. We complied with those requests, but those metrics did not define our actions.
Mike taught me that a good leader listens intently to what their staff are experiencing, works hard to support their teams at the higher levels and doesn’t take credit for doing any of it.
Jean-Francois taught me that a good leader empowers and challenges their people to do amazing things and helps them grow their abilities to achieve more.
Both taught me a good leader will shelter their people from “noise” so they may focus on getting the work done.
Aero Plastics (1987-1989)
At the risk of sentimentality, I don’t feel this article would be complete without adding my father. To be clear, I am not recognizing him because of my relationship. Rather, it is because of the business and professional standards he set for me at a very young age. He owned and operated his own manufacturing company from the early 1970’s through to the early 2000’s. He spent much of his time designing and building prototypes and new products or fixing machinery, then he would engage with customer to find out what problems they have so he could craft a solution.
Customer Focus – First and Always
My father’s key focus was always on his customer. From the first step of every prototype he built all the way to seeing the final product in use at a customer’s site he always sought their input and feedback to ensure he was solving a real problem. His contributions were never time-boxed, which sometimes meant he worked evenings and weekends to get things done. But he always iterated and provided multiple opportunities for the customer. He wanted to ensure what they were going to get was absolutely the best solution.
Despite his customer focus this did not mean the customer was always right! On more than one occasion I remember a customer insisting the product was sub-standard quality. They angrily demanded that my father’s company fix the problem immediately for free. When this happened my father would insist on going on-site in person, which usually resulted in many hours away from home and business.
To his credit almost every single time the issue ended up being on the customer side. Maybe it was a technical skills gap. Sometimes, a tooling or equipment malfunction or limitation. Or even perhaps a lack of understanding on how to build their own product. My father would never bill to go to the customer site. He delighted in showing them his product and service was fine and that he could still help them improve their own business, products and operations.
That commitment tended to win over even the most skeptical customers. It earned a lot of respect in the industry, even from his competitors.
Share the Success and Struggles
I often observed my father sharing the success and struggles of his business with his employees. When things went well he would personally go out to the shop floor. There, he would openly thank the individual(s) that made it a success, and express his appreciation for their ideas and commitment. At times when the company struggled or a mistake was made no one ever got fired or laid off. He would sit down and discuss it, determine what went wrong, and what they could do to help the customer, the employee and the company succeed.
Without getting in to any details I am aware of several occasions when a dedicated employee was quietly given either paid time off or an interest and condition free loans to get them a down payment on the house they wanted, to pay tuition for the education they wanted, or to get them out of a difficult bind in their personal life. On one of the company’s most profitable years ever my father gave every employee and their significant other an all expense paid four day trip to Las Vegas.
When he retired and sold the company he personally gave each employee a bonus relative to their years of service which came from out of his own pocket and not from the company funds. Some dedicated employees received tens of thousands of dollars just as a thank you, not to mention they earned the deep respect and admiration from my father which continues to this day.
I’ve been very fortunate to have experienced some great leadership as it has helped me grow my own abilities. Like most skills some people are naturally talented leaders. Others may require considerable effort to even offer a passable state of leadership.
It is important to recognize that different leadership skills are required for different circumstances and outcomes. What makes a person a great leader in one domain would not necessarily make them successful in another.
Regardless of your current leadership qualities at BERTEIG we can provide tailored coaching and mentorship experiences to help you set appropriate outcomes and improve your skills. Check out our website, email us, or give us a call (1-800-215-2314) if you are interested in learning how to become an effective leader with an Agile Mindset.
One aspect that I do firmly believe is that organizational culture comes from the leadership. In my opinion great leaders cultivate great cultures that engage staff, encourage ownership and dedication, and result in awesome experiences. Poor leaders cultivate fear-based, blame centric, toxic work environments which ironically result in a self-fulfilling negative cycle. Those same leaders then have to deal with low morale, low motivation, lower productivity, lower quality outputs. That often leads to unhappy customers. That typically leads to high turnover and termination rates, and higher cost run rates.
If you own, operate, or manage a business first ask yourself what outcomes you want. Then identify which kind of leader you need in your organization to achieve those outcomes. Your next step is to lead the change you want to see by actually setting the example.
- “Employees Don’t Leave Companies, They Leave Managers” by Brigette Hyacinth – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/employees-dont-leave-companies-managers-brigette-hyacinth/
- “Top 10 Reasons Why Employees Quit Their Jobs” by Susan Heathfield in The Balance Reviews – http://www.thebalancecareers.com/top-reasons-why-employees-quit-their-job-1918985
- “Why People Really Quit Their Jobs”, by Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, Adam Grant in Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs
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