Orchestrating Success: Leadership Advice from the Pros

March 9, 2012
Perhaps there has never been a time in American history where it was more important than now for leaders in industry to rise—whether it is leading teams in the plant or taking leadership in national discussions. Several leaders deliver tips for navigating the ascent

The audience quiets. The conductor raises his arms, baton aimed skyward. He moves his arms and the orchestra begins to play. The conductor is giving signals, encouraging. The musicians are seldom watching, though.

As a percussionist in high school and at the University of Cincinnati amidst all the College Conservatory of Music students, I learned some of the secrets of musical leadership behind the scenes. Except for the important cues to begin and to stop, the conductor’s actions are about 90 percent “show” during the performance. The real work of leadership is done before the concert. The conductor has a vision of how the piece should be played. Tempo, dynamics, pauses are all determined before practice begins. The important work is to impart the vision of the piece to the musicians, and then to lead them in practice so that the final performance brings the audience to its feet.

Whether it’s leading teams in the plant or exercising leadership in national discussions, industry leaders are a lot like conductors. Here are several willing to share their behind-the-scenes secrets for success.

Bruce Boyd, president and chief executive officer of Amos Press, a hobbyist publication company located in Sidney, Ohio, has several tips, and offers a Leadership Assessment Inventory (see link below). Boyd particularly acknowledges the importance of creating a vision and communicating it. He says, “A leader has the ability of establishing and articulating a vision, and holding that vision for the future and getting people to align with it.” Beyond the vision, the next step is bringing people along. Boyd cites the noted researcher and writer on leadership, John Maxwell, and his book “21 Laws of Leadership,” saying the essence is influence and the foundation is trust. You establish trust by being trust-worthy — that is, by keeping your word. Examples that agree with Boyd are all around.

>> Click here to see Bruce Boyd's checklist assessment for successful leadership.

Vision and communication
Ben Horowitz of Venture Capital firm Andreessen Horowitz explains the leadership traits he and his co-founder Marc Andreessen look for before they invest in a startup. Much will sound familiar. Writing in the popular technology blog TechCrunch (www.techcrunch.com), Horowitz  states, “At Andreessen Horowitz, we favor founders running the company. The reasons are many. As a result, we spend a great deal of time thinking about the characteristics required to be a founding CEO. Perhaps the most important attribute required to be a successful founding CEO is leadership. So what is leadership and how do we think about it in the context of the CEO job?”

Horowitz says that most people define leadership in the same way that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography when he said, “I know it when I see it.” He adds, “A better definition comes from former Secretary of State Colin Powell who said, ‘You have achieved excellence as a leader when people will follow you anywhere if only out of curiosity.’ ”

So what makes people want to follow a leader? Horowitz and Andreessen look for three key traits:

  • The ability to articulate the vision.
  • The right kind of ambition.
  • The ability to achieve the vision.

Horowitz  explains: “Can the leader articulate a vision that’s interesting, dynamic, and compelling? More specifically, when the company gets to a point when it does not make objective financial sense for any employee to continue working there, will the leader be able to articulate a vision that’s compelling enough that the people stay out of curiosity?”

Consultant? Venture Capitalist? Andy Grove once remarked that a company needs highly ambitious executives in order to achieve its goals. However, it’s critical that those executives have “the right kind of ambition” according to Horowitz— ambition for the success of the company—rather than the “wrong kind of ambition”: ambition for the success of themselves.

>> Click here to read 10 mistakes leaders should avoid —at all costs.

“The first thing that any successful CEO must do is get really great people to work for her. Smart people do not want to work for people who do not have their interests in mind and in heart,” Horowitz adds.

“Most of us have experienced this in our careers: a bright, ambitious, hard working executive that nobody good wants to work for and who, as a result, delivers performance far worse than one might imagine,” Horowitz concludes.

The final leg of our leadership stool, Horowitz adds, “is competence, pure and simple. If I buy into the vision and believe that the leader cares about me, do I think she can actually achieve the vision? Will I follow her into the jungle with no map forward or back and trust that she will get me out of there?”

Joys of leadership
John Berra, retired chairman of Emerson Process Management and Automation World columnist, recently wrote, “One of the real joys of my 42 years in the automation industry was working on leadership development. It is a treat to see people grow. Over the years, I developed a personal view on what qualities make a successful leader. There are six competencies that make a leader—vision, passion, integrity, action, influence and belief in others.”

Berra describes vision as the ability to sort through complexity and see a pattern, then project that pattern into a future picture. “Vision is not only about the picture—it is about painting that picture in vivid terms and ‘selling’ that picture to those whose work is needed. Vision requires comfort with ambiguity and the ability to take setbacks.”

Passion, he adds, is not table pounding or yelling. Passion is showing commitment in every meeting, in every one-on-one conversation, and in every decision. Passion is about focus. Passion means having managerial courage to stand up for what you believe.

“When most of us think of integrity, we think of the obvious things like telling the truth and owning up to our mistakes,” notes Berra. That’s just the beginning. Leadership integrity also means that you don’t set one set of standards for your people and a different set for yourself. Leaders must earn trust, not with speeches or memos but with unwavering daily demonstrations of personal integrity.”

Action, according to Berra, means driving for results, making decisions, and challenging the organization to get its blood pumping. “In my experience, there is nothing worse for an organization than uncertainty. When people don’t have a clear picture, they understandably fill in the blanks with the worst possible scenario.”

Influence is the most important and least understood competency. It is not politics or connections. It is the ability to motivate and energize others. Influence means getting people’s hearts before you get their minds. People must believe in you or they won’t follow you.

Belief in Others may seem obvious, Berra concludes, but many leaders fail because they don’t stand behind the team. Leaders do not take all the credit for success; they also don’t run for cover when there’s trouble. The team must know that you believe in them and are on their side. Good leaders seize every opportunity to develop people. Praise the good things. This belief should not be blind, however.

>> Click here to read more from John Berra, retired chairman of Emerson Process Management, on leadership, manufacturing and innovation. 

Control emotions
Early in my career, I was blessed to work for some people and companies who offered me a lot of management training. A Harvard MBA who later became CEO of larger corporations taught me about budgeting and control. At another stop in my journey, a corporate Human Relations group traveled to various manufacturing sites offering management training courses. In one such course, they offered a question: Who do you think makes a better leader—one who has a great feel for people or one who has good intellectual control over emotions?

It was a trick question derived from a study they had seen. It turns out that “a feel for people” does not matter. Effective leaders may be cool and aloof or may be warm and friendly. Either way, that had little impact on leadership. Also, the leader who keeps everyone off balance by being hot one day and cold the next is not effective. What mattered was good intellectual control over emotions. (See matrix on p. 34.)

Speaking of knowing your followers’ needs, yet being in control of yourself, here’s a brief story from Twitterer @CowboyWisdom: “When you are tired, thirsty and looking for shade..... Remember the horse is doing all the work.... think about his needs....”

One of the earliest memories I have about leadership came from reading a series of books about the Civil War when I was about 8 years old. There was a story about a general in the Southern Army who, when he stopped the march, sent word down the line about whether there would be time for the soldiers to brew coffee. Soldiers often had to throw out half-brewed coffee and resume the march when working with other generals. This leader knew down to the lowest detail what mattered to the troops.

You can learn to be a leader through practice. There may be no time in American history when it was more important for leaders in manufacturing to rise.

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