Intro: Duration: (01:40)
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Hi everyone. I'm Jeff Hunt, and this is human capital, a GoalSpan podcast. On Human Capital, I interview top business thought leaders to uncover the deeply human aspect of work. Today we get to discuss what it means as a leader to communicate persuasively, decide decisively and think strategically. I'm very honored to have Dr. Michael Useem on the show today.
Mike is one of the greats, an exceptional thought-leader, professor, and author in the areas of leadership and change management. Probably don't need to share his credentials, but I will anyway. He received his master's and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University and is presently professor of management and faculty, director of the center for leadership and change management, as well as the McNulty leadership program at the Wharton school at the university of Pennsylvania.
His university teaching includes MBA and executive MBA courses on management and leadership. And he offers programs on leadership and governance for managers in the US, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Mike works on leadership development with companies and organizations in the private-public and non-profit sectors.
And he's also co-anchor for a weekly program called leadership and action on Sirius XM radio channel 132. Mike's newest book, which I love. And we'll have the opportunity to talk about today is called the edge. How 10 CEOs learn to lead and lessons for all of us. Welcome, Mike.
Hi Jeff, welcome to you too. And it's my privilege to be in dialogue with you, thank you.
Topic 1. Who or what inspired you to become a leadership expert? (01:51)
Let's start by getting to know you personally a little bit. Is there, was there one person or event that inspired you to get into this field of leadership in your early years?
Jeff, it's a good place to start because I think, all of our listeners will have a moment, a little bit akin to what I'm about to identify.
That for me was a bit of a turning point, unexpected, but profound in its long-term implications. And my own particular turning point came when I joined the faculty here at the University of Pennsylvania at a time when the Dean of the business school, the Wharton School was hearing from many of our alumni.
Who's been out for many years and are in senior positions and typically in business, but well beyond. That so many of our graduates were technically, analytically great to hire when it came to they're leading a team, building a culture, providing a direction for the enterprise, beyond their own office.
Not as strong as they should be. So our Dean returned to the campus and, through several intermediaries, we ended up talking and he said, Mike, I would like you to develop a program on leadership, which we have not had. Our school goes back to 1881 Joseph Wharton steelmaker from Bethlehem steel, gave us a gift to get going back then.
And in the first hundred years, we offered very good coursework on accounting, on marketing, on operations, certainly finance, but in our history up till then, we had never offered, certainly never required a course on leading people in a business setting and beyond. So long story made short, the Dean said, could I do it?
I said, to be honest, my only qualification is that I've never thought about that before, and the Dean though was quick on the uptake to say, well, that's going to make you that much more objective, having not thought about this. So how about doing it as a result of that, Jeff, I plunged into teaching a required course.
In our executive MBA program. So we can program that we offer here and also in San Francisco, but I've also worked with several teams to build out just a whole range of leadership development opportunities, beginning with coursework, but not ending and honest to goodness. I'm going back to the turning point.
It was one of those conversations and it really changed how I think about leadership and certainly altered what I do with that.
It's amazing how those fine points can alter the trajectory of one's life and career. Right?
Indeed I think everybody has one. Jeff, I know you probably got a couple of yourself and having said that it speaks as we look to think about principles that you and I would say behind what we did this pivot.
Are some ideas that others I think would benefit from it. And this one in particular this particular example, I think it's a willingness to be agile when it makes sense. We don't want to pivot too often. We've got continuity. We want to build on our strengths, but if a moment comes when it really makes sense to reverse course or at least turn 90 degrees and you're staring it in the face. Don't wait too long to say yes.
Topic 2 The Edge (05:26)
This really goes to your, credo or your point about deciding or acting decisively. So I want to talk a little bit more about that, but before we do. Let's talk about the book. I'm, I'm almost done reading the book. I'm on the J and J chapter. I haven't read the chapter on George Washington.
I'm interested in having a little preview from you, but by the way, for those listeners that are out there, I've got a list of recommended books on our Human capital website. And I just added Mike's book here, the edge. It's a fantastic read. If you go to goalspan.com/humancapital, you'll see that book listed with some of the greats.
Of course, Jim Collins is one of my favorites. I've got several of his books right there next to Mike's. Jim also has a small part in your book as well. So I appreciated reading. But Mike, in terms of writing this book, it must have been fun. Say a little bit about the process. Did you have an opportunity to meet with these CEOs?
Was it more, research-based? Say a little bit about that.
Jeff, it's a combination of both in that as an academic, we read the research, the analytics are wonderful to draw upon and they informed what I was doing, but I've also found, or I should say, and I've also found.
That in conveying the ideas of how to lead, how to make a difference in the lives of other people, whether at a school, a hospital, a community foundation, or maybe a large publicly-traded company, we often learn as much from looking at people who are doing it or have done it as we do from research.
I'd make it an and between the two. Good to read the research and good to look close into people who are in the corner office. And in this particular book, I stressed the ladder spending time, thus with the chief executive, for example, of Johnson and Johnson, the executive chair, and the chief executive of Estee Lauder Companies, the chief executive of an NFL team.
The final chapter is about George Washington. I had no personal contact there to say the completely obvious, but probably the most written about person in American history as our first president and our commander in chief of the continental army and drawing upon his experience and that of the chief executive of Johnson and Johnson, DuPont, for example, Vanguard group, Estee Lauder companies.
I sought to provide myself, yourself, and people like your listeners with insight into how they make things happen when they get to work in the morning. They're in an office by themselves, often an elegant office, a large office, great view out of the office, but nothing happens unless they know what levers to pull, what strategy to follow, and how to make good decisions.
So anyway, a long answer is shortened to a sentence. This is a book about leadership as seen through the eyes who are leading for all the great strengths and sometimes the shortcomings that they come up with.
I also appreciated how many of these lessons are not limited to CEOs or even the C-suite, but that they are applicable to all of us.
In fact, I think there's a quote in the book somewhere that talks about that. I can't remember specifically what it is, but how we are all leaders in some capacity, right?
We are. And the phrase that I've always had trouble with within this field is that saying in essence, you need to become a good follower and it is true.
We all have a boss, we all report to somebody, in some way, maybe a board of directors, maybe to somebody way, way above that level. But however, we want to think about our ultimate boss here. In our own way, our own place, our own runway on life. We need to make a difference in a way that is going to benefit lots of people, your customers, your clients, maybe your students, that the people of a country.
And even though you're not number one, you're not in that high tower. There is leadership to be performed at every level. And the essence of the method here is to look at people who are at a very high level, who were at the top of that high tower. The person, for example, who owns a national football league team, the CEO of a bank that I profiled, but to look at what they're doing and ways that everybody, whatever the level can learn from, and in fact, strengthens their own leadership, even if they are not number one.
Topic 3. WSFS Bank and the learning tour (10:31)
And so if you break these down, these three elements of communicating, persuasively acting, or deciding decisively thinking strategically, those are really where the opportunities lie for all of us, regardless of our position, right?
Yeah, indeed. And just to make that, maybe tangibly, impactful on our thinking. I spent a good bit of time with the chief executive of a regional bank. The bank is called WSFS. I named the companies in the book, no secrets here. His name is Mark Turner and he could see FinTech financial technologies coming into an industry that for a hundred years and more.
Many banks, including his own, go back many, many decades, but the new financial technologies are fundamentally transforming how banking is done. And Jeff, you and I probably both appreciate the insistence now that we bring to our banking relationship with a financial institution. We want to open up an account in 30 seconds online.
We don't want to walk in and talk to a teller. We want to get a loan right now in the next five minutes and not spend a whole lot of time doing paperwork. We want to do it online. That said Mark Turner, chief executive of what's called WSFS bank. An east coast regional bank said to himself, I conceive financial technologies, upending our industry.
Just as they have in retail and now in-car services as taxis have been, not to replace, but this place by a ride-sharing, he went here. Here's for me, the useful extension of, of where I'm going with that he decided he did not know enough about how financial technologies were changing other companies to know tangibly, how to bring some of those ideas.
And how to avoid some errors in bringing in those ideas into his own bank. Thus, Mark Turner said to his board, I'd like to take a three-month learning tour. I'm going to hand the reins completely over to my number two person memo to that number two person said you're it don't call me unless there is some catastrophe.
And over the next three months, I think in the end, the traveling CEO on his learning journey did have only one phone. He spent time though, with Walmart challenged, as it is by Amazon, what was it doing to bring in new financial technologies? In a way that made sense for Walmart customers, he went to apple and went to spend time with DaVita, which provides for kidney dialysis.
So, he didn't just stay in banking. Although he spoke to some banks. The upshot of this though is the point of trying to bring across in the chapter. A, we definitely can't sit on our hands. We have to think strategically around the corner, we have to plan in ways that say, what is the leadership? What are the technologies we're going to need?
Not just now, but five to 10 years out at Jeff, just to end on a quick reference to the title of the edge. The underlying concept behind that is to paraphrase a person. I do quote in the book “if we're not on the edge, we're taking up room”, which is a way of saying we've all got we've, we've always got to be edging and need to know what we don't yet know and how to lead say, in a world that's very financially driven or where customers are tired of being treated at arms.
Or we're millennials want a different kind of relationship when they walk into the front door of an office and thus the edge here in the title implies using methods like Mark Turner use of the learning tour as he called it to appreciate not just what you need now to lead in his case a bank, but what you're going to need three, four, maybe even 10 years out. To lead it unequivocally is not going to be the same as what's needed today.
Yeah. I loved that chapter with mark because it also underscored the importance of being a lifelong learner, regardless. Like here's the CEO who in many ways has arrived, but he's not resting on his laurels. He's out there constantly looking and seeking and intentionally taking three months.
And I also am making the connection with. The title of your book, the edge, and what Mark Turner did at WSFS bank. Right. And in terms of succession planning, not only for himself but for the strategy of the organization. So making sure to be intentionally looking forward. And as you said around the corner, so that we are really giving ourselves the best chance for success, both in terms of our own leadership competency, our organizational culture.
And cultural competencies and our strategies that we're trying to deploy to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. Right?
Yeah, you're totally right on that. And maybe by way of illustration to anchor the point, I again spend time with the chief executive of Progressive it's often called Progressive Insurance, but the official name is Progressive Corporation.
A huge insurer, as we see its advertising on evening television frequently, with the flow or the great performer flow turns out to be an actress and a comedian, but for over a dozen years now has represented the Progressive in its advertising and the chief executive there, a person named Tricia Griffith move this company.
And most people would probably think ahead of time of what I'm about to say. When I say out if they've ever thought about insurance. Insurance to the outside eye looks like a straightforward, somewhat slow-moving industry, not subject to huge swings, hurricanes affected, but not a whole lot else.
Think auto insurance, millions of people insured lots of client representatives having to do the day in and day out thing. She, however, has taken Progressive into one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States leading fortune magazine itself to name her CEO of the year, a couple of years ago when the rate of growth of progressive exceeded that of apple.
So that was a bit of a wake-up call to me. So again, called up Tricia Griffith, I said, can I come out and just follow you around and talk with you and find out what you're not so secret was and in her case, um, and I think this is what's new. This is what it should be at everybody's edge.
Is the notion that while you are the big boss, generically, we've really ought to give up that term. The autocrat of yesteryear is just no longer in a work with many employees who want to be at the table. They don't want to be just told what to do. Do they want to know why exactly are we doing this?
And here are some ideas on how to do it better. And that's her storyline or that's her leadership methodology at progressive, which is to move away from the kind of high on, I'm going to tell you what to do. X cathedral, thoughts come from me. You execute. I tell you how to make things happen to a much more engaging model if you will.
Where people are pulled in, their thoughts are pulled up. And as a result of all that, she's been able to take a company which had been successful in the past. And put it into the category of one of the top three insurers in the United States now. I actually believe having spent time and watched a Tricia Griffith up close in a number of different ways. Having spent time with her as well, that her methods are not unique to her or insurance or large companies. I actually think this is one of those great trend lines that we all feel that we all know is out there and better to start leading with that now before somebody else has given our job to do it in a better way.
Topic 4. How to make better decisions (19:27)
Her track record is so impressive. And I also appreciate how the approach that she took was really one that benefits, inclusivity and belonging in organizations. So culturally it seems as though she did that in spades and down to the point where even though I think you said they have something like 40,000 employees and she would be in the cafeteria having lunch with some of them.
But to me, that seems to solve many problems at the same time, including the lack of diversity that we have in organizations and ultimately, and I want your opinion on this Mike, is our ability to make decisions, better decisions, enhanced by that diversity, that inclusivity, the additional belonging that we can bring to organizations.
Yeah, I think you've said it so well, Jeff, we want diversity, and then we want inclusion to go with it. So that's why DEI diversity, equity, and inclusion is the formula, not just diversity, that's vital for one obvious reason, the way that one of the CEOs I spent time with as often put it. If I walk into a room, says the chief executive of Johnson and Johnson, which has all your listeners will know, has a vaccine out there right along with Pfizer and Moderna.
And he has always said, and I’ve seen him present on so many occasions. If I walk into a room and I see a group of people who are on one of my teams may be in marketing or they're, they're involved in developing hip replacements and they all look like me. I don't need to be in the room. Right. I do want people that bring different backgrounds, different degrees of risk tolerance, different technologies, different ideas into the room.
If they're in the room and they're a little bit intimidated by the fact that I am the chief executive. I'm not going to hear much. In fact, the way he put it, the higher I got in Johnson and Johnson, the less bad news I heard and the funnier became my jokes. Which is saying that executives or mid-career managers, and many of your listeners need to get people into the room who don't look like them.
And then we got to work on it. I'm getting ideas from them cause they've got them. They're just ready to tell you if you just might turn to them and ask.
And it seems we talk on this show a lot about healthy conflict in organizations, and it seems as though providing, an environment where people can actually voice disagreements to your point and that ultimately leading to a greater diversity of thought and probably better strategies that are developed.
Totally. So here's an art forum and I would put this on anybody's, I tend to call it leaders checklist, all the principles you need to exercise if you're going to lead. You need to be strategic. You're going to make decisions in a timely fashion. You have to be a great communicator.
And along with that line vital principles, especially as hierarchies got a bit flatter. As we say everybody should be leading, not just me at the very top is the art of simply asking for guidance admitting when you are not all that totally informed and for me personally, a case for that is no less than George Washington's early experience as at a very young age, with a very little military background.
The continental Congress picked him as the commander in chief. We all know this history of the newly forming continental army. They confronted the British and Boston as soon after he took command, but he said, and historians have certainly agreed. That he had some somewhat unorthodox ideas, some very unworkable ideas, but he was thinking so much the better for that, about how to drive the British out of Boston.
For example, came up with the idea, knowing that the Harbor around Boston does freeze in the wintertime putting his soldiers on ice skates. And letting them do a sneak attack on downtown Boston by skating across the marsh that separated his forces from the much smaller Boston at the time, the three people who were the senior people reporting to him who didn't have the rank were not appointed by the Continental Congress to run the army.
And they said, George, that's nuts. And he said, explain why it's nuts? And they said, here are the reasons that it's a death trap. It's not gonna work. He said, oh, okay. Here's my new idea. And they also said, that's nutty. So several ideas later, he ultimately found a different solution, which was to bring, if you may recall, cannon from fight Fort Ticonderoga in New York, placing them on a hill overlooking Boston.
Forcing the British commander to simply abandoned Boston without a fight. And that what's become known as the evacuation of Boston happened without a shot being fired. No deaths on either side resulted in part because George Washington was a great listener, had good people. That's a precondition and then he was ready.
Okay. Explain to me why my ideas are dumb and yours are better, that is a hard ambiance to create Jeff. My guess is you've probably been in a few rooms where that didn't work out so well. But it's one of those skills, kinda one of those principles of leading well, a skillset that, certainly from George Washington's experience, I have personally been reinforced in ways that almost no other example can quite do the same.
Topic 5. The big ego leader (25:51)
What a great example and contrary to the big ego leader, who seems to have all of the answers, quote, unquote, that wants everybody to follow, but is more of a big presence. And it seems like that's not a healthy leadership style.
You know, it might've been and healthy one decade, a couple of decades ago.
This is not a criticism of Jack Welsh who ran GE for 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s, a huge success by the standards of that era increased the market value of GE manyfold over that 20-year run. And he was a very tough, demanding manager. I've met him a couple of times. He was on our campus, and he grew to live up to his reputation.
Being a very hard driver. Top-down big boss. I think that's a pretty good summary of his style. It worked then at many companies, certainly his, I just don't find evidence that it works in this era in part, because so many employees are so much better educated, informed. They come up with ideas.
You can direct the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Pentagon, but it turns out. On the big issues. That's where they, the ideas come from and the white house, but on the ground, that is amazing how much people facing customers or in those two settings and surgeons, how much they actually know that you need to know if you just ask.
So, Jeff, I think that's the kind of the new edge, which is to be mindful of the fact you've got dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of leaders working for you. And all you have to do is listen.
You make a great case in the book about holding. Managers and employees are accountable to things like core values, or I think in the case of J & J and the book, it was their credo, which changed over time.
Alex Gorsky had the foresight to be able to know when it was time to modify that important Prieto that they have. My question for you is it seems difficult in some ways to hold employees accountable, to these more soft or intangible elements. And I'm wondering, should these be incorporated into performance management processes?
Of course, I run a performance software company, or what ways or methods can we use to hold employees, managers, leaders, accountable to these important elements?
Two great interrelated points there I'll subscribe to and support them both. Number one, and this is a personal reference, to begin with, we have at where I'm located and the work I do.
Look very far away to bring ideas into our settings. So we have spent a lot of time with US armed forces. We've been up to the Naval academy at Annapolis. We've been up to the us military academy at west point. We've worked extensively with the New York fire department.
We've spent a good bit of time with the Marine Corps officer training facility in Quantico, Virginia. And we have learned, we bring this now into our business curriculum. It is really important to be extremely good at conveying intent. The phrase is different a little bit from the military setting to business, but the business phrase would be, we want people to understand our business or our strategic intent, and then we need to back off, not breathe down anybody’s neck.
We need to keep an eye on everybody so accountability, and it's the phrase that kind of sums it up I think. Eyes on accountability, but hands-off no micromanagement. So come to appreciate that by spending time with those who do serve our country in the armed forces, and then bringing that over to the business side and referencing, in particular, the Johnson and Johnson, famous credo.
It's about 300 words of commentary going back many decades seventy-five years now, inside Johnson and Johnson that will tell the 140,000 people who work at Johnson and Johnson today who maybe have never been to headquarters that never met the chief executive, what headquarters and the chief executive stands for.
So there's the guidance there, the strategic and eyes are on the people at J and J central doing cyst. Everybody know the 300 words apply to 300 words, instilled the 300 words into those they work for, but then it's hands off. And that's a way of saying, I think, I think this is part of the edge by the way, that companies with more than a dozen employees or small organizations at school.
A charter school with a relatively small number of teachers and principals, principals, and assistant principals. I think increasingly are going to want to rely on this concept of eyes on hands off, embodied in particular in the culture, the mindset you create. The cradle is one method for doing that, but there were others as well.
Topic 6. Persuasive communication (31:43)
It seems that is so supported by cultures of trust. And we have a high degree of trust. And what you mentioned earlier, which is really communicating persuasively. If we do those two things really well, then we can empower teams to really take it and run.
Well. I think you make another great point there in referencing persuasive communication.
I've always thought that it's an underdeveloped leadership concept in my humble opinion and my own view. And I've learned a lot from the people I spent time with on how they become persuasively communicated. I think it's, there is a premium here on the part of all of us to become more effective at communicating our strategy or strategic intent.
Providing the values of integrity and character and all that, of course, as well as part of that communication. And then knowing when to get out of the way back to the first point. And then another thought on the second point on the first point, sending out a memo, won't do it, giving us not anymore a speech at a big offsite.
Well that gets it going, but it doesn't do it. Learning how to make your ideas stick. That's the essence of persuasive communication, that some combination of leadership presence, conveying your character on and all of that. And then on, on the second point, and that is we need not only to get the ideas to stick, we then need to follow up.
And here's where the issue of accountability comes right back in. We need to check. Okay. Here's what we said. We're going to do. You said you would do it. And now I want to see that it gets done. That's the art of management, that anyway for me has really been driven home in, in very tangible ways. As I summarize in this book by the basically 10 CEOs of account, George Washington was one of those who have followed those kinds of prescriptions.
Topic 7. Lightning round questions (33:56)
Fantastic. Let's switch to some lightning-round questions. I'm going to throw some questions at you. You give me top of mind answers. What are you most grateful for?
I'm most personally grateful for the opportunity I have been provided individually to help people develop their leadership.
For me, it's a calling of an adder for quite some time. And for me personally, nothing has been more rewarding than doing that. But Jeff, like all of us, we're also grateful for the country, the civilization, the world that we're in. It's had a speed bumper too with COVID-19, but I think we are all grateful for the moment we live in and the opportunities we've been given to make a difference at the moment.
What's the most difficult leadership lesson you've learned over your career?
That is such a good question. I'll answer it this way. For reasons that I've alluded to in the past, we take students sometimes mid careers program participants, not degree credit students, but people in their thirties and forties and fifties, we take them for a day with the New York fire department and its training facility on what's called Randallstown.
We take students about 200 a year for a day and a half with the US Marine Corps officer candidate school in Quantico, Virginia. And we historically have taken groups out to the Himalayas, believe it or not. Heading up towards the Everest base camp. And one of the toughest lessons for me personally was when my own leadership was called upon when somebody not with our own team, but somebody with another hiking team fell quite ill.
I myself felt terrible. We were at high altitude. We had a long hike up to 14,000 feet. And I realized as I was called to come to the assistance of this other person, that my more abstract concept, that in leadership, it's never about you. It's always about the purpose, the team, the country. This is one of the main themes.
And in Jim Collins, most famous book good degrade. And I knew it. I taught the concept, and then have you been put to a test 14,000 feet in the Himalayas where I could focus on my own needs and wants, or I could focus on the ill health of another hiker with another group. I found myself grudgingly going for the ladder, but boy, did I learn that Jim Collins had it right in that book.
And that particular personal lesson has always stayed with me. And by the way Jeff, I think that's one way we really come to appreciate the ideas that have been brought to us coming from, well, some of the great leaders of history, mother Theresa, for example, if we can see these ideas embodied or written about by people like Jim Collins, at least I think they, they stick in ways that almost no other mechanism can provide.
So that's a way of saying, get out, watch what happens. Sometimes we fail. Learn from that, stand back up, do an after-action review, and move forward.
Great piece of wisdom there. Who is one person you would interview if you could living or not?
And I'm going to extend that to two.
And I would say I would begin with Nelson Mandela. The obviously. Everybody knows Nelson Mandela. And I went to an event some years ago when he was alive, where he came on stage. He was presented as a keynote speaker at a large event in Europe, and he received a standing ovation before he said anything.
Standing ovations are rare. I've never seen one offered even before he said anything. For what he had achieved peacefully in South Africa, the transition to a democratic multi-racial country. And I would like to understand more about his 27 years in prison, his commitment to a cause his unwavering dedication to the people of South Africa.
How did he get it? Where did that come from? The other person I would personally select is still in office. It's Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. Who has led Germany now for 20 years, she's a total survivor, but she also has brought policies to the European union that in my personal opinion are as good as any that have been put forward in that region.
And I would love to know more from Angela Merkel over lunch, how she from 20 years ago, has managed to evolve her own leadership of Germany and the EU as well to serve the union now and the country in particular, in ways that are almost completely different. What was required of her when she took off his 20 years back.
Mike, what's the single most important takeaway for our Human Capital listeners today.
The number one issue for me unequivocally is to look at yourself, even if your title has nothing to do with leadership. As a leader of maybe one person of a small office, of a classroom of students, five clients you might have, if you're a, for example, if you're a counselor or a coach, you are helping people develop their leadership.
That's a leadership act itself. And so, I think one central notion here. As that we are all leaders, we just need to figure out where we can best devote ourselves to make a difference in the lives of others to get to a more promised land.
Fantastic. Thank you, Mike, so much for sharing all of these insights with us and for coming to the show today.
Jeff, thanks for having me, best wishes for your leadership and the leadership of all those who are taking in your program.
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