Develop Your Leadership Language

 Develop Your Leadership Language

This article is adapted from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, The CEO Next Door by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell.

Before you became CEO, you likely added value to the business by being the one with the knowledge and insight to make the big decisions. But the higher you go, the more of your impact comes from the actions of others rather than directly from your insight, information, or experience. We like the way Tom Erickson, who has been a CEO and chairman of several companies, put it: “Ninety percent of CEO leadership is behavior modification.”  

Behavior modification is all about getting scores of people acting in an aligned fashion to achieve the goals of the organization. Trust people enough to step back and let them do their job, but also find opportunities to use your presence to keep people accountable and on point and to keep them moving in the right direction. Choose where you get involved based on what signals need to be sent to an employee, to your team, or to the broader organization.  

Leadership development

Thanks to “amplification”—the outsize effect the power of the CEO role has on those around you—any suggestion, no matter how gently you deliver it, feels like an edict. The best CEOs deliberately develop their own language of leadership, an idiosyncratic repertoire of small gestures that send big signals. Here are a few examples of the symbolic language of CEOs we’ve noticed: 

  • CEO for “This matters”: When Tom Monahan was CEO at CEB, he read every benchmarking report the company produced. Every so often he’d follow up to offer a specific point of view on something he’d read. The point he was making wasn’t as important as his sending a powerful message that product quality and customer experience were top priorities for the CEO. 
  • CEO for “I’m paying attention”: When a CEO drops in for a surprise plant visit or walks the halls to smile and shake hands, he or she does so in part to remind people that every single day they have an opportunity to excel or to slip up—and, yes, their efforts count. 
  • CEO for “I know you’ve got this”: You go to the meeting—just to listen. John Zillmer, a serially successful CEO currently at the helm of $16 billion Aramark, in his previous role decisively turned around Allied Waste. Yet, if you attended one of his management meetings, you’d be shocked to see that he often barely said a word. He was present where it mattered, and his silence said, “I’ve got the right people at the table doing the right thing.”  
  • CEO for “We’re discussing, not deciding”: When former CEO of Arrow Electronics Steve Kaufman wanted to remind his staff that his participation in discussion and debate is meant to explore—not direct—he literally took off his CEO hat (it’s a baseball cap) and put on a second hat that says TEAMMATE. “Otherwise, when I ask questions, people think I’m giving answers they have to run with,” he says. 
  • CEO for “I want the truth”: Steve Kaufman doesn’t just explicitly ask direct reports to tell him the unvarnished truth, he ensures that bad news travels up to him fast by thanking the bearer and reacting calmly and graciously every single time he’s given information, even when the responses aren’t what he wanted to hear. 
  • CEO for “I’m never too busy for you”: Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University, a school with more than 16,000 students, has office hours for students. Through an online signup sheet, anyone enrolled can get ten minutes with the president, with priority given to first-time visitors.1 
  • CEO for “I’m human”: Whether you wear a Hawaiian shirt or find other ways to bring your personality to work, people want to follow full human beings, not walking suits. For some CEOs, self-effacing humor goes a long way. After replacing half her team at Reader’s Digest, Mary Berner passed out Halloween costumes at a leadership off-site. Her costume? The Wicked Witch of the West.  

The language of leadership has to do with actions, not words; signals, not demands. In the CEO seat, success is no longer your success. It’s your team’s. 

Adapted from THE CEO NEXT DOOR: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders © 2018 by G.H.SMART & Co, Inc. Published by Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

Elena Botlho and Kim Powell

Elena L. Botelho advises leading CEOs and boards. She grew up in Azerbaijan and Russia in a family of mathematicians and earned her MBA from Wharton. She has advised more than 200 CEOs and boards over nearly two decades, first as a strategy consultant at McKinsey and currently as a partner at ghSMART. ---------- Kim R. Powell grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and earned a BA from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. For nearly twenty years, Kim has applied her passion for helping people to her role as a trusted advisor to CEOs and high-potential leaders, first at the Boston Consulting Group and now at ghSMART.

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