At C-Level #2: Too much noise!

At C-Level #2 is the second blog of an eight-part series following a first time CEO’s educational journey in a very challenging business environment, exploring global concepts in leadership theory and practice.

At the end of each blog are reflection questions for readers to consider as they navigate their own leadership journey.

This post by Mike Sayre, Executive Coach — experienced software, e-commerce and electronics manufacturing services CEO, COO, CFO, CIO and Board Director — is based on his first-hand experiences as a first-time CEO. Its intent is to provide additional insight or ideas to those in, close to, aspiring to, or trying to understand the top leadership role in any organization.

I was a first time CEO of a manufacturing services company that was lacking in leadership and focus. I had been the CFO for five years and sensed these shortcomings were somewhat shortsighted as well. I thought things could be better and tried to fill in some of those gaps as CFO. However, providing leadership and focus for the whole company as CEO had just become my responsibility, and the questions I was being asked by the team quickly sharpened my sense of how much more important leadership and focus were than I had ever thought before!

Prior to me becoming CEO, the company had engaged a leadership coach, Chet, for the management team. Chet had been running periodic leadership development sessions with the group. However, and somewhat surprising to me, the sessions after the CEO change quickly eroded into serious complaint sessions, raising even more questions and doubt about the company’s lack of leadership and focus, and seriously challenging my readiness for my new role! 

All of this noise was totally distracting the leadership of the company, including me! 

Chet counseled me, “You can’t lead others until you can lead yourself.” Then he proceeded to ask me some very personal questions…my life’s purpose, what I wanted out of life, my work/life balance, etc. I was very uncomfortable talking about myself and was having a hard time figuring out how to respond to this line of questioning, let alone how it would help the company!

So, Chet gave me a long list of personal questions and asked me to write not only my gut reactions to each one, but also why I felt that way. Chet had no interest in seeing what I wrote. He said it was only for me and to just write, not in any specific format or with any regard to spelling, words used, etc. No one else ever needed to see it. Hmmm… 

Over the next several weeks, I wrote in two- to four-hour intervals until I had several of the questions answered, as well as several “why” follow-ups for each one. At first, it was a very painful process. But as I pushed through, it got easier. The process of self-exploration and giving it life through writing it down provided me with such a high level of clarity of what I am all about and what is important to me, that I felt a huge weight of personal uncertainty lifting off my shoulders and being replaced with a much greater sense of self-worth and confidence. 

However, while I felt stronger and more confident, the company’s leadership and focus challenges had still not been addressed. I now needed to use what I learned and share my newfound clarity. In about two hours on a flight to the West Coast, I created the first draft of a “philosophy card” for the company with a mission, vision and operating guidelines that aligned with my own personal mission, vision and operating philosophies. The leadership team fine-tuned “the card,” and had it printed and distributed to all of the company’s associates. I personally provided a training session for the associates and went over each section of the card, so the associates all knew how much I believed in the mission and vision, and how serious I was about following the operating guidelines.

Thereafter, “the card” was often referenced in both leadership and associate meetings. It was easy for me to reference and consistently apply the philosophies and guidelines on the card because of my own personal alignment with them. It also made it very easy for everyone else to make decisions, even when I was not around, because they knew “the card” was where I would start my thought process. Using it as a leadership tool became second nature to me and our  team, and significant improvements in leadership, focus and performance were almost immediate. It was a great first step in a longer and more complex turnaround process.

[Note:  Many companies have “philosophy cards.” But, if you don’t directly refer to it and demonstrate your use of what’s on it in your daily interactions, it’s not worth having. If it isn’t used, it becomes a negative and is just thought of as meaningless rhetoric that impugns your integrity.  I first learned how to effectively use a philosophy card during my time at Worthington Industries, and I’ve since used a similar card in an e-commerce company with great success.]

In Jim Collins’ bestselling book Good to Great, leaders shared firm belief in seven tenets, three of which our processes and the resulting “philosophy card” fully supported and which helped me drive company progress forward:

Stay focused on the essentials, stop the distractions, and cultivate that discipline. [“The card” brought new focus on the mission and vision of the company, and the operating guidelines cut way down on the distractions caused by uncertainty around what kinds of behaviors were expected.]

Greatness comes from sustained commitment to disciplined people, disciplined thinking, and disciplined action that creates breakthrough momentum. [“The card” and it’s constant and consistent communication and application introduced a level of discipline that did not previously exist!]

Reflection Questions

Here are some personal questions for you to answer for yourself. Write the answers in free form and do not worry about formatting, etc. Just write. Nobody else needs to see your writing.  After you’ve written your first response, ask yourself “Why do I think that?” Then, ask yourself that again for up to four responses. By the fifth “Why” you should be at the real core of your thought processes and truly begin to understand what makes you…well, you! Many people will totally resist taking the time to write it all down, just as I did initially. Push forward and do it anyway! The process of writing actually activates the brain in a different and deeper way than just “thinking” about the topic.

What is your greatest fear? Why is it your greatest fear? Why do you think that? Why? Why? Why?

Who has been the most influential person in your life? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

What is your purpose in life? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

How does/will your current company/role help you accomplish your purpose in life? Why? Why? Why? Why?  Why?

Take your time in thinking through these questions, formulating your thoughts, and writing your responses. There are no right or wrong answers. It’s okay if you don’t do it in one sitting. Spread it over days if you need to. Knowing with great clarity how you feel deep down is important for you and your organization, and it takes time! 

For additional support creating your own personal mission and values statements, please see the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook, co-authored by Maureen Metcalf and Mark Palmer and its corresponding workbooks that contain a chapter that will guide you through a more in-depth process. My reflection process to clarify my personal mission and values, and also those of the company, was very similar. Our leadership team then took my ideas as input and developed something they could all align around and consistently implement in the company. This process allowed them to reduce ambiguity and act as one team with a clear focus on the future. 

In At C-Level #3, Mike will write about having several new bosses (yes, that’s plural…do you only have only one or two?), how he approached that challenge, and the conscious capitalism movement: leadership with purpose.

Mike Sayre has successfully piloted businesses through difficult times of crisis for over 20 years – as a CEO, President & COO, CFO, and/or Board Director. He is currently an independent executive leadership consultant working through Civilis Consulting and the Innovative Leadership Institute, trusted partners inspiring and enabling perpetual innovation, evolution, and growth in leaders and their businesses.

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