“You need to put yourself out there and let people see the real you, admit your mistakes and acknowledge when you know you are about to make a decision that may not be popular.”
This, from Calian CEO Kevin Ford, who believes CEOs must possess humility to be successful in the corner office. “Own those moments — because I believe that the more people realize that you’re not acting like a persona but that you’re acting in the role, that carries a lot of weight.”
Putting ego aside is crucial to performing in high-pressure scenarios. “As CEO, things happen at lightning speed, and you make decisions with the data you have in that moment. There’s no such thing as a perfect decision, so you need to get comfortable with that reality because you will make wrong choices, and that’s okay,” he says. “It’s part of the process and you have to learn from that. And I can’t learn if my ego is constantly in the way.”
The toughest lesson Ford has learned relates to how much personal energy and time it takes to change a corporate culture. “An organization runs at the pace of its leader. You have to be committed 175 per cent to where you’re trying to take an organization. You really have to put your shoulder into it.”
And so CEOs must ensure they keep their own energy high. “Be cognizant of your own energy levels and limits and, with that knowledge, commit to doing the things to keep your energy up, whether that is making time to exercise, taking vacation, etc.”
Setting the right targets is key as well. You want to stretch, not overextend, and a strong executive team will ensure you achieve that balance. “I need to get feedback from our executive team if they feel our targets are unachievable. I rely on them for that honest appraisal and to let me know when to take my foot off of the accelerator.”
Chief executives can also use key metrics to see whether the pace of the organization is too intense. “Look at your level of attrition, especially if you’re losing high potentials, as well as (the amount of) sick leave. At Calian, we also pay close attention to our customer satisfaction levels. We know that if we start growing at a pace that’s too fast, rest assured it’s going to have an impact on how we treat our customers.”
What separates great from good organizations? “Passion,” Ford says. “If you’re passionate as a leader, it’s the secret sauce because it permeates throughout the organization. I can’t find enough people with passion. People can work hard, but are they passionate about what they’re doing?”
The answer for him comes from connecting with “why.”
“When you connect to why you exist (as a company), it unleashes that passion in your people. We are a publicly traded company with $275 million in revenue, but most people don’t connect to that. They connect with your ‘why,’ so you need to find the thing that allows your team to be passionate. People are excited by your core purpose.
“We took some time to define our ‘why,’ our core purpose.” In short, Calian, which offers professional services in health, IT, training, engineering and manufacturing, “helps the world communicate, innovate, lead healthy lives and stay safe.”
As for the best piece of advice he has received, he acknowledges it is tough to give just one. What was critical, however, was openness to hearing feedback and advice in the first place. “I have seen too many people in their careers who feel they are the smartest people in the world, but they keep hitting walls — because they stop listening to feedback. They feel they have it all figured out. You have to get your ego out of the way and listen, especially to the things you don’t want to hear.”
If he could go back in time and give himself some advice at the beginning of his career, Ford says he would say “don’t take yourself so seriously and have fun. Some people are so focused on the destination that they forget to have fun during the journey. I do a lot of travel in this business and I always look at taking an extra day and just enjoying where I am rather than rushing back to the airport as soon as business is done. It’s good to capitalize on the opportunities presented.”
He would also tell his past self: “Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that your success will be very much dependent on your ability to work within teams. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t follow that philosophy.”
The most important question he believes people can ask themselves is: “’What do I want my legacy to be?’ Everyone has an opportunity to leave a legacy so make sure your work is doing something that allows you to make a meaningful contribution to your organization.”
• Craig Dowden (PhD) is president of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Connect with him by email or LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @craigdowden.