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Focus on Five Things to Be a Great Leader

Over the last several months, I have received emails or have had students stop by my office and ask what it takes to become a CEO. I really don’t know if there are steps to get there, but in my experience, if you are a great leader, you will eventually become a CEO. I’ve put together a simple list of the five things that I believe all great leaders should do. These five steps have worked for me and I witnessed them from those that mentored me early in my career.


#1 It Isn’t About You


Early in my career I was fortunate to work for, and be mentored by, Ross Cooley, president of Compaq Computer Corporation. Ross took me out to dinner and every five minutes someone would come to the table to say hello or introduce his or her spouse. I made a comment that he must hate going out to eat. Ross responded, “They are coming over because I’m the president of Compaq and not because I’m Ross Cooley. You should never forget that.”

Fast forward to four years ago. I was having lunch with Craig Van Slyke. Craig is the former Northern Arizona University W. A. Franke College of Business Dean. As he was discussing the newly created Executive in Residence Program, I asked him what advice he had for me leaving the corporate world and entering academia. “Remember that it isn’t about you, it is all about the students.”

Those lessons from Ross and Craig are really important. If you are a CEO, executive director, manager, etc., and you think it is about you, you need to get some help because I guarantee you…it isn’t.


#2 Communicate Openly and Constantly


I can’t stress the importance of over-communication in an organization. Everything from the strategy to the business plan to the financial results to the hiring plans should be communicated to all employees on a regular basis.

Make it a point to have regular Friday All Employee meetings and tell them everything. More importantly, accept questions and give honest answers.

I once had a company where we were slowly running out of money. Every week I gave an update on how fundraising was going: who was interested, how much they were considering, chances of it happening, etc. I even gave everyone an update on when we would run out of money if I failed to find new investors. Not a single employee resigned or left during that period because they knew exactly what was happening.

If you fail to communicate, your employees will get their information via gossip and the rumor mill. Don’t do that to your employees.


#3 Mom is Watching You


This one is really simple. As a CEO or executive director, you are the organization leader 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Everything you say and do (regardless of it being while you are at the office, or on a Saturday night while you are at a party) will reflect on the organization.

If you always pretend your mom (or your children or spouse) see and hear everything you do, you will most likely conduct yourself in a way that will lead to great leadership. Make sure you include email and social media in this.

If you want to take this to the next level, assume every employee knows what you do and say. This is a great way to make sure you are treating everyone fairly and equally.


#4 Never Believe You Are, or Strive to be, the Smartest One in the Room


In some ways, this is similar to No. 1. I have worked with (and continue to see) CEOs, presidents and executive directors who truly believe when they have a senior managers’ meeting they are the smartest person in the room. This is a really dangerous way to operate.

My real intention for No. 4 is to urge you to hire the smartest people you can. Don’t be so insecure or evil that you hire only those that you can control or dictate. This will never help the organization.

A true leader goes out of his or her way to build an organization that will grow, succeed and flourish regardless of them being there and calling the shots. Ask yourself, “If I had an issue that took me out of the office for 30 days, what would happen to the organization?” Hopefully your answer is that things would continue like normal and not that the staff would throw a big party.


#5 Find the Little Things that Matter to Your Employees


And finally, remember that employees need more than a paycheck to stay happy and motivated. Take the time to find what that is. It may be something as simple as an early weekend once a month, a chance to learn new skills or just having you know their family.

Leading an organization is a privilege. If you are fortunate to become a leader, strive to earn the respect and dedication of your team…not their fear and distrust. FBN

By T Paul Thomas

T Paul Thomas teaches business and non-profit entrepreneurship at Northern Arizona University, serves as the CEO of the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance (NALA) and is the Chief Entrepreneur at the NACET Accelerator. Prior to joining NAU in 2013, Paul spent 25 years as a serial CEO and President. Paul can be reached at thomas.tpaul@gmail.com

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