Become an Athletic CEO to Lead in Turbulent Times

athletic ceo

Throwing Out the Book

High-performing leaders don’t always lead by the book. They may not be full of praise. They may not celebrate small wins and give positive feedback. But somehow, some way they manage to deliver growth year after year. They can even set the bar for the entire industry. This leadership philosophy is different than what many of us follow today. Since I enjoy studying these various models, I wanted to share it with you.

Stanislav Shekshnia, Veronika Zagieva, and Alexey Ulanovsky have studied them for ten years. And they write about their findings in Athletic CEOs: Leadership in Turbulent Times. I recently asked Stanislav to talk about their research.

 

“Don’t let anybody work harder than you do.” -Serena Williams

 

The Athletic Leader Attributes

What is Athletic Leadership and what are Athletic Leaders’ unique attributes? 

Athletic Leadership is a model, a construct, which describes effective leadership in the specific context, defined by rapid obsolescence, high turbulence, heavy government involvement, high-power distance leadership tradition, and a medium level of development of human capital.

Athletic is a metaphor which we used to emphasize a very important characteristic of the effective CEOs we have studied – mental toughness. Just like top athletes these leaders are super-ambitious, passionate, focused, cool-headed and merciless to the competitors, followers and themselves. This evokes images familiar to all of us: Usain Bolt, Wane Gretzky, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.

At the same time, business leadership is more complex than sports. Athletic CEOs combine toughness with mental adaptability. They are proactively curious; they constantly reinvigorate knowledge, and they change their mental models. This almost improbable combination makes them effective.

 

“I love competition, so when you talk and tell me what you’re gonna do, all it makes me wanna do is work harder.” -Usain Bolt

 

The agendas of athletic leaders – their ambitions and major themes –  are complex and multidimensional, with many different overarching themes, time horizons and specific projects. However, there are two central leitmotifs in all this diversity: winning and transforming.

Athletic leaders strive to beat specific competitors – companies and leaders they recognize as such. They work hard to beat their own records, e.g. they want their companies to constantly outperform themselves. They would like to set world records. Their playing field is the world, and their benchmarks are the global leaders. And athletic CEOs want their companies to win championships as well as single matches; they make the long-term success of their organizations a very important element of their leadership agendas.

Leadership is always about transformation, and this priority sits high on the agendas of athletic leaders. Transformation, or positive change for its own sake, has a profound meaning for them. And, as with ‘winning,’ athletic leaders pursue different kinds of transformation at different levels. They change people who work for them, the companies they manage, the industries they compete in, the communities their businesses operate in and the countries in which they live and work.

Athletic leaders also use some distinct iterative behavior strategies for leading people and organizations which I call meta-practices. These practices produce superior financial performance (outputs of athletic leadership) and long-lasting transformational legacy (outcomes of athletic leadership).

 

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” -Pele

 

What do these leaders do that is not necessarily “by the book”?

The model of athletic leadership describes what effective leadership actually looks like in the specific context. This model seems contradictory: it reflects both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of leadership. Some specific elements of athletic leadership go against well-established and widely-accepted leadership models. Let me give you some examples.

Athletic leaders do not fit into the well-known ‘Level Five Leadership’ model depicted in Jim Collins’s bestselling book From Good to Great. They are not humble, but openly ambitious. They say ‘I’ much more often than ‘we.’ They do not follow ‘the Window and the Mirror’ pattern that Collins describes; rather, they habitually take the credit for success and may blame subordinates for underperformance. They usually decide on a course of action and only then think about the people who will carry it out (contravening the ‘First Who … Then What’ principle of ‘Level Five’ leaders). They do not shy away from the limelight, but constantly seek it. CEO Vitaly Saveliev appears in every issue of the Aeroflot inflight magazine; Herman Gref has given more than a hundred press interviews since becoming Sberbank CEO.

 

“I hated standing on that third-place podium. Hated it, hated it.” -Michael Phelps

 

Athletic leaders do not always demonstrate another recognized attribute of effective leadership: emotional intelligence – at least not in the way described by Peter Salovey, John Mayer, David Caruso, or Daniel Goleman, who write about understanding and regulating personal emotions, understanding the emotions of other people, and interacting with them on the basis of that awareness.  Athletic leaders are relaxed about managing their own emotions and give themselves the freedom to raise their voices or threaten followers. They criticize more often than they praise. Providing positive, constructive feedback is not their strongest competency. One of them said to us, ‘My deputies are mature, well-paid professionals – if they don’t understand what they do well, they should not be where they are. They don’t need feedback.’  Athletic leaders do not often reflect on what effect their actions and words have on other people and rarely take any steps to correct negative outcomes. They are so passionate about what they do that they assume others share the same passion, demonstrate the same level of commitment, and therefore do not require any kid-glove treatment. Like top athletes, athletic leaders are so concentrated on winning that they tend to forget about the people who help them to win.

 

“I don’t fold under pressure, great athletes perform better under pressure, so put pressure on me.” -Floyd Mayweather

 

Outcomes and Outputs

Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders

Tales from a Reluctant CEO

Maxine Harris and her partner Helen Bergman started a business and grew it to $35 million through trial and error and constant change. In her new book, Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders: Tales from a Reluctant CEO, Maxine shares lessons that can benefit all of us starting something new. She shares how they overcame obstacle after obstacle to succeed. I recently spoke with her about the lessons she shares in her new book.

 

When should a start-up start thinking about culture?

Culture is not really something that you think about when you first start a business. You might say, we want to be casual or formal, or we want to maintain an air of professionalism, but short of being doctrinaire, you can’t really control what organizational culture will become.  More than anything, culture evolves from the personalities of the founders. I happen to be very chatty and like to ask a lot of questions.  Some employees see that as friendly; others see it as intrusive.  When I push people to “think smart” and try to do things in better and more creative ways, some people see me as demanding and judgmental, others feel that I am encouraging and stimulating. In both cases, it is the employee who identifies culture based on how they interpret what is going on.

Culture is one of those things that exists in the eye of the beholder.  An employee, an outside consultant or a business colleague takes a step back and sees the unspoken rules and nuances of the organization.  Sometimes people are only aware of the organizational culture when they are asked what they like or don’t like about their jobs. When we asked people who were joining the organization what they were looking for in their selection of a job, we got a glimpse into the kind of culture in which they would feel most comfortable.  And while many said they were looking for an environment in which their opinions were valued and respected, others wanted a cultural milieu in which the boss would tell them what to do and they would have clear guidelines for performance.

Over the years, as Community Connections grew in size and diversified in its programs, culture changed. You could feel the difference. A business with three employees can’t help but be informal and casual.  But as we grew and increased our size to over 400 employees, it became impossible not to have some hierarchical structure. You can remember the names of three people, but when the size gets big, and leaders are rushing from one meeting to the next, it’s hard to be as friendly as you’d like to be.

 

“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.” –Thomas Wolfe

 

You wrote fairy tales for each chapter. That’s unusual in a business book. Why did you decide to do that?

Essential Business Advice from One Generation to the Next

mba

From a Mom

Karyn Schoenbart is CEO of The NPD Group, a global provider of information and advisory services to the world’s leading brands. A working mom, she often gave career advice to her daughter Danielle as she was growing up. By the time Danielle entered the workforce, she joked that she had received a “Mom. B.A” giving her a tremendous competitive advantage. Now years later, Karyn has written MOM.B.A: Essential Business Advice from One Generation to the Next, based on her “lessons” to Danielle as well as on her thirty years of experience building a successful career. The book, filled with wise advice and numerous personal anecdotes, is noteworthy for Karyn’s candor and her delightful sense of humor. I recently spoke with Karyn about her favorite tips for those just starting out or climbing the corporate ladder.

 

“Your integrity is your biggest asset.” –Simon Chadwick

 

Make a Good First Impression

What’s the best way to make a good first impression?

It starts with how you show up.  It’s important to dress appropriately for the occasion.  But that doesn’t mean it is a “one size fits all” rule.  Dress the way that matters to the people who matter. And when in doubt, find out! A few years ago, we were looking for someone to fill an executive position that would report to me. One of the candidates came to the interview in a very low cut dress. She was clearly qualified, but we didn’t know what to make of her choosing that particular dress for the interview. In the end, we all agreed: The candidate’s attire demonstrated a lack of judgment, and we didn’t want someone with poor judgment helping to run our company. We didn’t hire her.

How you speak is also a reflection on you.  Avoid bad vocal habits like the dreaded up-speak (where every sentence ends as though it is a question).

In my experience, people like it when you call them by name – it shows you care.  Make it a practice to remember and use people’s names.  My tip for remembering names is to use it three times when meeting them; when introduced, during the conversation and finally when saying goodbye.  It really works!

 

How do you build a good relationship with the boss?

Be the person your boss can count on. Step up and go above and beyond.  Every positive interaction that you have is like putting money in the bank. Then if there is a problem, you have something to withdraw. Think of criticism as an investment in you.  Your boss is taking the time to help you be better.

It’s also a good idea to get to know your boss as a whole person.  Find out what matters to him or her and show an interest.  One way to break through is to check in on a Monday or Friday, which creates an opportunity to interact on a more personal level (i.e. do you have any interesting plans for the weekend?).

 

“Focus on being a good listener, which includes being patient and attentive.” –Diane Bowers

 

Survive the Bad Boss

What advice do you have for surviving the occasional bad boss?

5 Books Recommended By Leaders Like Warren Buffett

This is a guest post by Lior Grossman. Lior is the founder of BookAuthority, designed to help you find the best business books by top industry leaders. Personal note: I was one of the first CEO’s to make a few recommendations on the site.

 

The Power of Books

I firmly believe that reading the right book can open your mind to a whole new world of ideas and opportunities. The right book can inspire and empower you to overcome your challenges and take action. As a leader, I understand I need to expose myself to ideas that are capable of transforming me and the people that I lead.

The world of leadership is evolving, and present-day leaders should seek insights and context to understand this changing world better. Leadership development is a must because what was applicable in the past no longer applies today.

Reading is the one habit that almost all successful people have in common. Bill Gates reads about 50 books every year; Mark Zuckerberg resolved to read 24 books a year; Mark Cuban reads three hours every day, and Warren Buffett spends 80% of his day reading!

Yes, I know. Unlike Mr. Buffett, you cannot afford to spend the majority of your time reading books, and you really don’t have enough time to dedicate to your personal development. However, sharpening your skills can be as easy as updating your reading list, so that when you do find that one precious hour to read, you’ll spend it on a book that will be worth it.

The idea of helping people identify the few books that are worth reading is what led to the creation of BookAuthority – a new website that helps you identify the world’s finest business books, by collecting and aggregating book recommendations from 150 of the most successful people in the world.

To help you find your next read, here is a list of great leadership books recommended by well-known leaders like Warren Buffett and Eric Schmidt:

 

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success

Author: William N. Thorndike, Jr., Founder of Housatonic Partners

Recommended by Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Is Leadership a Passing Phenomenon?

This is a guest post by Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes. Dr. Adizes is a leading management expert and author of over 20 books. He offers an interesting perspective below.

Leadership: Quo Vadis?

It is in vogue now to lecture, write and debate the subject of leadership. I claim it is a passing phenomenon, like the concepts of administration, executive action and management were before it.

All of those concepts deal with the same process: management of change, taking an organization from point A to point B.

At the beginning it was called administration.  That is why MBA stands for Master of Business Administration.

Over time “administration” was found to be too limiting as a concept. It was delegated to low level supervisory and bureaucratic positions, and the concept of management was born. Business Schools across the country changed their name from Graduate School of Business Administration to Graduate Schools of Management.

The concept of management was not yielding the right understanding of the process of transforming organizations, and the concept of Executive Action was born. Titles such as CEO, CIO, CMO etc. appeared like mushrooms after the rain, and executive programs emerged in the market place.

Still not good enough to explain how organizations should be transformed, the concept of leadership started dominating the literature.

What is going on here?

Administration, Management, and Leadership have a common purpose. They are theories that prescribe how organizations should be transformed and how to manage change. They are all based on the same paradigm of individualism, that a single individual is the driving force of this transformation, whether it is called Chief Administrator or Manager or CEO or Leader.

 

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.” –Vince Lombardi

 

As long as we remain with the same paradigm, no concept will be satisfactory. We will continue to change titles, embellish concepts and continue to chase our own tails, reinventing the same wheel from administration to leadership. Leadership will be assigned its place in the annals of social sciences next to management and administration.

Passé.

Individuals cannot transform organizations. It is a team process.

No individual possesses all the ingredients in his or her personality that are necessary for successful management of change.


“Individuals cannot transform organizations. It is a team process.” -Dr. Adizes

 

Change the Paradigm