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Leading in Tough Times: Wisdom from CEO’s

After I saw the ravaged store shelves this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to get some perspective on piloting through choppy waters from local CEO members of The Entrepreneurs Organization.

Many of them started tiny businesses that grew into much more serious enterprises and unknowingly committed themselves to quarterback a lot of folks. One recurring theme they brought up is the realization that there is no escaping the obligation to lead, especially when an emergency like the current COVID-19 pandemic is raging.

Here is a summary of the sage advice I gathered speaking to some of the city’s top business brains today on how they approach a crisis:

-Stay positive. No matter how crazy things are you are still in control of a lot of moving pieces. Fight the urge to be overwhelmed and focus on the positive things you are able to achieve.

-You set the tone. The leader’s positive energy will give more comfort and strength to your team than you know. In a crisis, the leader’s every action is noticed and scrutinized. You can make the most of this.

-Get the facts. Good decisions come from good data. Take time away to read, listen, talk to colleagues so that your decisions are well informed.

-Use your powers of vision. Not everyone is born with the ability to see the future. Many entrepreneurs, however, have this gift. Use it to prepare people for what lies ahead and to set their expectations as to how you will deal with the challenges to come.

-Comfort. Listen to everyone’s concerns and validate them, even if you disagree. This lowers anxiety and lets people focus rationally on the tasks at hand, of which there will be many.

-Keep some perspective. This is not the first or the last health crisis we’ll have. It will require decisive action over a prolonged period. However, sure as the sun will rise, we will get through it intact.

Wisdom’s retirement party

I like politics, so I stayed up late to watch our youthful federal leaders deliver their post-election speeches.  There was a strange chaotic moment when, the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP all tried to take their respective stages at exactly the same time – perhaps each hoping to drown out the others – forcing the poor CBC anchor to jump feverishly between them.  But it was the contents of their speeches that really dismayed me.

The NDP crowd burst into an animated chant of TAX THE RICH, TAX THE RICH that the leader encouraged along for two full uncomfortable minutes.  Andrew Sheer for his part went on about how his loss was really a win and he was going to beat the encroaching forces of socialism next time.  Our prime minister dished his regular pablum and seemed to think that liberal values had triumphed and been embraced by all, when in fact only 32% of our country supported him.

What was missing for me, was any recognition that the election is over and it is time to bury the partisanship for a bit and get united on governing the country.  We have ample big problems:  resource development and Alberta’s place in a new economy, housing the next generation, Indigenous reconciliation, how to pay for our cherished education and healthcare systems, getting citizens to take responsibility for the hot mess we’re making of our planet…to name a few.  But our leaders were not talking about solutions for Canada’s problems.  They were each preaching to their bases and bashing the other two thirds.

The only redeeming moments of the night were the gracious speeches from Conservative Lisa Raitt and Liberal Ralph Goodale – two seasoned and respected parliamentarians who each went down to defeat.  They both seemed to come from a more civilized planet than their respective leaders.  Godspeed.

It made me think about the changes in the construction industry that EllisDon’s Jeff Smith observed in an article recently:  our industry is becoming nastier.  I agree with Jeff.  Over the last couple of years, my company’s jobs have become more about emailing than millwork, more about building arguments than structures, more about protecting interests than getting the work done.  Of course, we all have to look out for ourselves in business, but it can’t be the only thing we do.

I fear that the old guard that has been retiring over the last few years were the holders of a more balanced common sense.   They were leaders who could leverage relationships to get work done without a single trip to their inbox.  Their underlying ethic was win-win in spite of whatever crusty exterior they might have presented.

It’s funny because when I started in the construction industry I thought this group of gruff, old-school men where the problem (yes, they were all men).  In retrospect, in almost every case these gentlemen had an uncanny sense of the best way to get a project to the finish line with all of the players intact.

My friends, reflect on this.  Is it possible that our industry has become too political, too partisan?  Is it possible that our younger generation of project managers is more concerned with winning than with satisfied customers and successful projects?  As this industry’s leaders, what can we do to improve this?  I’m going to suggest we need to act less like our current political leaders and look to the values of the old guard who are now retiring.  Let’s make sure we extract and hang onto their ethic as they take their retirement.  We’ll be a poorer industry without their wisdom.

Our MVP Plan

I learned why Alan Mulally is such a unique CEO when I heard him speak last October.  He changed the way I run my business and inspired me to create our MVP Plan.

What makes him unique

First off, Mulally is responsible for saving the Ford Motor Company. When Ford was at its lowest point (losing 17 Billion in 2006) hled the company back to profitability.  This included weathering the 2008 financial meltdown, that bankrupted GM and Chrysler, without taking any government assistance. 

Another is his unique style.  Mulally describes his leadership as service and combines this with infectious optimism and gracious humility – traits that let him unify a fractious company around a shared mission.  He says his leadership values are based on snippets of wisdom his mother ingrained in him such as  “It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.” And “The purpose of life is to love and be loved.”  This is not typical thinking from a corporate titan.  However, it struck me that his message of collaborative teamwork is the way forward not only for manufacturing but also for our construction industry.

The most powerful lesson for me was Mulally’s integrated operational plan that he summed up on a single slide titled:  ‘One Ford: one team, one plan, one goal’.  It laid out the way Mulally united a complex global corporate culture around a single compelling vision and tied that directly to an operational plan that was tracked with detailed metrics.  

Mulally famously carried this out at a weekly Business Plan Review meeting (BPR), which he established to track the progress of the One Ford plan with his 16 senior managers.  At the Thursday meetings, each director was responsible for reporting on a host of green/amber/red colour coded metrics that tracked their department’s progress against the plan.   The focus and accountability that the BPR ultimately created are credited with Ford’s turn around.

How he changed my company

Understanding this simple, powerful system connected deeply with me.  We started building and tweaking our own Business Plan and identifying the right metrics to drive the results we’re looking for.  I call the result ourMost Valued Partner Plan’ because our Mission is to be just that for our clients – their most valued partner. 

Internally we now track 37 metrics under the four categories that are critical to our customers’ success: 

  • Competent People
  • Obvious Value
  • Flawless Execution
  • Excellent Quality

I’m already noticing that seeing the data weekly is causing us to uncover longstanding problems and motivating the team to cooperate on eliminating them.  

Starting next week, we’ll be surveying our customers and our staff and integrating their ratings of our performance into our dashboard.  This data will further confirm that we’re ‘on plan’ and show us where to focus our efforts.

These are exciting times and I’m grateful to Mr Mulally for showing me the path. 

Learn more about Mulally’s turnaround in this book by Bryce Hoffman .