Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success


Be You

Individuals and businesses want to stand out, to be different, to attract others by being better in some unique ways. That’s what Stan Silverman has preached in his hundreds of columns for years.

It’s through differentiation that you or your business become successful.

I recently spoke with Stan, thought leader, columnist, and business leader about his new book Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.



Become a Preferred Provider

The title of your book is Be Different!. Different in what way?

There is one universal principle that determines the degree of success of all businesses: Be the preferred provider to your markets. What Is a “Preferred Provider”? It’s a provider that a customer or client favors in the purchase of a product or service versus its competition.

A preferred provider has a significant competitive advantage over all other providers, because it is the “go-to” provider in the marketplace. Whether a business sells autos, groceries, clothing, computers, bicycles, or raw materials to a manufacturer of industrial products, it wants to be the preferred provider of those products. Whether a business is an Internet service provider, a hospital, or a physician, an attorney, accountant, or a roofing company, it wants to be the preferred provider of those services.

So, how does a business build competitive advantage by becoming the preferred provider to the markets it serves? It differentiates itself from competitors by excelling in the following areas: offers high quality products and services, provides a great customer experience, delights the customer, is trustworthy and is on a journey to be the best in the world at what it does.

It takes effective leadership with the right tone at the top and leaders who will nurture the right culture to build the organization needed to become the preferred provider to your markets.



What are a few of the qualities followers look for in an effective leader?

Effective leaders have a vision of what they want their company, their institution or their organization to become, and have a strategic sense of how to get there. They communicate with everyone within their organization about the vision, and the role of each individual in achieving that vision.

These leaders surround themselves with the team that will help make the vision a reality, and inspire their team to achieve it. Effective leaders and team members challenge each other’s paradigms and to think out of the box. The team helps further define the vision and participates in setting goals.

Companies in which leaders at every level nurture a culture where employees can develop a sense of ownership in what they do are the companies that excel.

They are focused on achieving results through others, and understand that having the right people on the team is of critical importance for success. They understand that a vision cannot be achieved without people who have good critical judgment, interpersonal skills and are effective leaders in their own right.

Effective leaders know how to achieve operational excellence, and they embrace continuous improvement. These leaders never micro-manage. They ensure their people have access to both the financial and human resources they need to get the job done and cut them loose to do their thing.

Effective leaders aspire to the following words from the West Point Cadet’s Prayer: “Make us choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” These are words to which we should aspire.


Watch the Tone

Tone at the top is critically important. What are some of the signs that the tone is off and problematic?

Effective leaders set the right tone at the top, which becomes the organization’s ethical standards. They establish the right institutional culture, which are the values by which employees conduct the business of the organization as well as interact with each other and the firm’s stakeholders. The CEO is responsible for tone and culture.

A climate survey of employees is one of the best ways to gauge whether the tone at the top and culture are problematic. All employees want to work for a company where they look forward to coming to work and are not worried that one day it will appear in the headlines for unethical or illegal activities.

An example of a CEO setting the wrong tone and culture is Travis Kalanick, the founder and former CEO of Uber.

In a blog published February 19, 2017 by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, she outlined how her sexual harassment complaint to the Uber human resources department against her team manager was ignored.

Fowler wrote, “When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”

Fowler said she was given a choice: move to another team and avoid her former manager, or remain on the team and probably receive a poor performance review.

Uber has seen a decrease in female workers, from twenty-five percent to six percent according to Fowler’s post. She stated most women are either transferring to a different part of the company or simply quitting due to organizational chaos and rampant sexism.

Concerned about the adverse impact to Uber’s reputation, within days of publication of Fowler’s blog, Kalanick tweeted, “What’s described here is abhorrent and against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.” Kalanick should have ensured the proper tone and culture as he was building his company.

Kalanick was eventually removed as CEO in part due to the wrong tone and culture not by the board, but by two major investors who knew that he was not the right CEO to take the company public.



How to Earn Trust

What are some ways a leader earns trust?

Trust is earned by being consistent and readable by those within your organization. As a CEO or other leader, there should be no misunderstanding as to your tone at the top – the values to which you hold yourself and your employees accountable, and the type of organizational culture you are nurturing. Employees trust and want to work for an organization with high ethical standards, and work for a leader who lives by those standards.

Meet your commitments. Don’t make a commitment you cannot keep. If the situation changes and you find that you can’t keep a commitment, notify the individual immediately. She may have made a commitment to others, based on your commitment to her.

Don’t blame other people for your mistakes. If you make a mistake, own it and share how next time the issue will be handled in a different manner. You don’t create trust by blaming others for your mistake. Employees who do this never last long within the kind of organization in which we all want to work.

Allow your direct reports to share a contrary point of view. I have worked for bosses who were not interested in contrary views. This did not engender trust. As the leader, compare other’s opinions on how to proceed on an issue with your own view. Through discussion and debate, you may accept their view, or may discover a third alternative path, better than either of the first two paths. Follow this process and you will rarely choose the wrong way to proceed.

Create an environment that allows employees to share the brutal facts of reality. As a leader, you want your people to feel safe in sharing bad news. Don’t shoot the messenger. You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is. You want your people to have trust and confidence that you will listen to them.

Be accessible and transparent. Create opportunities for all employees – not only your direct reports – to talk with you. Walk around the office or factory floor. Ask how people are doing. However, avoid telling them what to do. If an issue arises that needs to be addressed, talk with your direct report responsible for the area. Hold town meetings to talk about the business and respond to employees’ questions. Be as transparent as possible, realizing that there are things that cannot be publicly shared.

Before making a decision, hear both sides of an issue. No matter how compelling an argument is presented by an individual on one side of an issue, there is always the other side, which may be more compelling. The individual on the losing side of the issue won’t like your decision, but will respect the fact that you went through a fair process and heard both sides.

Live your values. Living your values engenders trust. As CEO of PQ Corporation, I experienced a minor OSHA recordable accident while traveling on business. I insisted that the accident be written up, and for that quarter, I was one of PQ’s safety statistics. Word was spread to our 56 manufacturing facilities around the world that the CEO called an OSHA recordable accident on himself. This demonstrated that I held myself accountable to the same standards as I held our employees.



You share some tactics for dealing with a toxic boss. What are some ideas that can help someone in this challenging situation? 

Toxic bosses who disrespect their direct reports cause untold damage to the performance of their organization as well as make life miserable for those who work for them. These managers tend to micro-manage, blame others for their mistakes and sap the creativity, initiative and vitality from the workplace. They also adversely impact the ability of people to make decisions without “checking with the boss.”

Toxic people will throw others who stand in their way under the proverbial bus for their own purpose of advancing through the organization. They will complain about others and talk behind their backs to undermine them.

Those who are toxic are not trusted by their peers or direct reports. The actions of everyone they work with have a defensive component, which hinders any group from becoming a high-performance team. Toxic people within the organization don’t realize that their personal integrity and reputation is a valuable asset. It determines if people want to deal with them.

Toxic people are good at managing up, so their behavior may not be transparent to their boss. Eventually, the boss learns about them and everyone hopes that sooner or later they will be terminated.

I once worked for a toxic manager and learned how to deal with him. I was very close to leaving the company. Had I left, the company would have been deprived of its future CEO.

I was eventually promoted out of that manager’s organization, and then promoted again and became his boss. He continued to treat the people in his organization poorly, so I terminated him. The employees within that organization celebrated for days.

So, what should you do if you work for this type of manager? Do your job, and do it well, which is what you should always do. This will lessen the probability that you will be treated poorly. If you do work for this type of boss, you will learn much – how not to manage and lead people, and the damage this type of manager can cause.

Ensure you are part of an informal network within your organization. It’s a source of mutual support on developing strategies to deal with toxic individuals.

You can use the whistleblower hotline of your company to report this type of manager. Even though this is a human resource issue, whistleblower hotline complaints are reviewed by the audit committee of the board.

You may get promoted and no longer work for that toxic boss. You may decide to transfer to another position within the company. You may decide to wait until your toxic boss leaves the company or is fired. You need to weigh your alternatives and decide on your personal course of action.


How does a new leader get started in establishing a positive culture?

Tone at the top and culture are mission-critical. To realize their importance, one only needs to look at the failure of tone at the top and organizational culture that resulted in scandals at Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Uber and Theranos to name a few, to see the damage done to these businesses, their customers, employees and the reputations of their leaders.

Tone at the top is set by the CEO and the senior leadership team and reflects the ethical climate of the organization, while culture reflects how employees within the organization deal with each other, customers and other stakeholders. As the leader of your business, ensure that you set the right tone and culture. They become the behavioral norms of your employees.

Both tone and culture determine whether employees will trust their leaders and their fellow employees. Trust is built on honesty, ethics and integrity. Without trust, you can’t build a high-performance team. Without trust, you suffer high employee turnover and lose the talent you need to achieve business success.

The employees at your new company are wondering about your leadership style, your tone at the top and culture you want to nurture. What you say and do will be watched intently by everyone within the organization. As the new leader of the organization, what should you focus on?

Learn about the norms and practices established by the former CEO. Understand the tone at the top and organizational culture under the previous CEO. Do the tone and culture need to be changed?

Understand the leadership styles, tone and culture of the senior managers reporting to you. Do they listen to their direct reports and do they surround themselves with people who will point out the brutal facts of reality? Do they engender trust from the people within their respective organizations? Are they toxic managers? If so, get rid of them.

In my conversations with current and former CEOs, they all commented that trust among the leadership team is paramount to the success of their organizations. The foundation of trust is honesty, ethics and integrity. This is the kind of culture you want to build.

All boards need to put a process in place to insure they are aware of the tone and culture set by the CEO and treat it as mission-critical. CEOs need to know that their performance, in part, will be assessed on their tone at the top and the organizational culture they nurture.



You cover several leadership disasters and debacles. Would you share one and a few of the lessons that aspiring leaders can utilize?

Wells Fargo violated the trust of its customers through unethical sales practices. If you can’t trust your bank, who can you trust?

Driven by very aggressive sales goals, as many as 3.5 million bogus customer accounts were opened over five years at Wells Fargo bank branches. Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and VP of Community Banking Carrie Toldstedt were eventually terminated.Stan Silverman

Bank branch employees used the Wells Fargo confidential ethics hotline to report a toxic culture and fraudulent, unethical activity within the community banking division. In a January 17, 2017 CNN Money article headlined, “Wells Fargo admits to signs of worker retaliation,” columnist Matt Eagan wrote about the employees who trusted that their reports of fraudulent activity to the confidential ethics hotline would be investigated. A few of these employees faced retaliation and were terminated.

After an investigation of the ethics hot line terminations, Wells Fargo chief operating officer Tim Sloan, who replaced John Stumpf as CEO said, “Anything more than zero is too large.”

Did Stumpf and the Wells Fargo board know that these employees were terminated? This is a very serious failure of tone at the top and culture, and it is illegal. The resulting financial and reputational damage to Wells Fargo were in the billions of dollars.

Stumpf didn’t hold Tolstedt accountable for the proper tone and culture within the Community Banking Division. The board did not hold Stumpf accountable for the same and were delerict in their oversight duty of the bank. It is apparent that neither Stumpf nor the board considered tone and culture mission-critical to the company. The Wells Fargo scandal is a lesson for all CEOs and boards.


Image Credit: Noah Naf.


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