CEOs Don’t Come Pre-Made, Authentic Leadership Has To Be Learned

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Editor’s note: Scott Weiss is a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and the former co-founder and CEO of IronPort Systems, which was acquired by Cisco in 2007. Follow him on his blog or on Twitter

“There are a bunch of aggressive, ivy-league-educated, high IQ people working in Bentonville whose careers are going nowhere because they never learned how to connect with other people.” ­­­— Lee Scott, (now former) CEO of Walmart, circa 2008

During my short tenure at Cisco, I attended a leadership offsite where Lee Scott was the featured speaker. I certainly knew of Walmart but had never heard of Lee before this meeting. He humbly delivered a powerful hour-long speech on leadership ­­­— without notes or slides, as he paced the stage, hands in pockets. While I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak, I’ve never come away more impressed with how the delivery matched the content.

What struck me the most? That authenticity and humility lead to trust. Trust leads to approachability and open communications. And after listening to Lee for just an hour, he felt familiar and approachable. Honest and fallible. He definitely knew how to be authentic. For others, this may not come so easily.

At the core, coaching authenticity is complicated ­— some might say impossible. Telling someone to be authentic sounds pretty low calorie, especially to a founder plowing through a list of product and operational goals. But it’s important. An approachable and authentic CEO is essential to fostering a high-performance, open communications culture.

About the clearest discussion I’ve seen on authenticity is a paragraph in Jack Welch’s book, Winning:

A person cannot make hard decisions, hold unpopular positions, or stand tall for what he believes unless he knows who he is and feels comfortable in his own skin. I am talking about self-confidence and conviction. These traits make a leader bold and decisive, which is absolutely critical in times where you must act quickly, often without complete information. Just as important, authenticity makes a leader likeable, for lack of a better word. Their realness comes across in the way they communicate and reach people on an emotional level. Their words move them; their message touches something inside. When I was at GE, we would occasionally encounter a very successful executive who just could not be promoted to the next level. In the early days, we would struggle with our reasoning. The person demonstrated the right values and made the numbers, but usually his people did not connect with him. What was wrong? Finally, we figured out that these people always had a certain phoniness about them. They pretended to be something they were not ­­­— more in control, more upbeat, more savvy than they really were. They didn’t sweat. They didn’t cry. They squirmed in their own skin, playing a role of their own inventing. A leader in times of crisis can’t have an iota of fakeness in him. He has to know himself­­ ­— and like himself ­­­— so that he can be straight with the world, energize followers, and lead with the authority born of authenticity.

He absolutely nails it. The passage clearly illuminates the issue, though stops short of giving practical advice. I am often asked by founders and CEOs how to be more approachable or make a personal connection. And of course, while being authentic means something different to everyone — here are a few ways one could start:

Get self-aware. As I mentioned in a previous post (Treating the Dysfunctional CEO), all leaders need feedback. Having an understanding of how others perceive you — through a solid 360-review process — is the crucial first step towards being real. Learn and accept your foibles and faults. Poke fun and work on them out in the open. “I’ll try to keep this short, I know I can be long winded…” etc.

Talk about failures. Nothing helps make a leader more approachable than admitting your struggles, screw-ups and behind-the-scenes thinking on hard calls. If the leader makes this a priority, the whole company will be more open and methodical learning from failure. At IronPort, we used to go through exhaustive post-mortems: customer losses, engineering slips, and misplaced strategies.

Show up to socialize. Have a beer bust on Friday afternoons. Take a team to lunch. Drop in on a late-night networked video game war. (As a newbie, I was slaughtered pretty quickly). Especially if you are naturally an introvert, you must go out of your way to socialize with your team.

Embrace “professional intimacy.” I love this phrase. It describes a leader’s willingness to get personal and talk about life at home or their own career struggles. E.g. “My wife once threw my Blackberry in the toilet… It’s essential to be able to balance home and work before it blows up.”

Nix multi-task listening. It’s one thing to ask someone what they are working on and another to really tune in, give them your full attention and ask follow-up questions. I constantly see bad behavior with executives checking their watch or texts, or looking over a shoulder to see who else is in the room. That’s just phony crap.

Loosen up! This is really about speaking to others as though you really trust them with your thoughts vs. reverting to canned responses or the “company line.” Leaders that can explore the poles of an issue in their own words and off the cuff with employees will gain real trust. This is especially true during all-hands company meetings.

Get good at speaking. As a CEO, if you are a nervous public speaker, you need to practice. Find a coach, do some videotaping and/or try Toastmasters. The goal is to have a marathoner’s heartbeat when speaking to a crowd so as to be natural and comfortable.

Embrace different views. Encourage employees to challenge your decisions and approach. Let everyone know that you are not perfect, you don’t always have the best answer, and sometimes they have better answers.  In some cases, you will get good ideas too. You are obviously the decision maker but embracing different views will improve openness. (Thanks to Yoram at Maxta for this suggestion!)

I leave you with two examples:

Alec Baldwin’s parody of a GE exec on “30 Rock” comes to mind. Yet for all that’s been said, good and bad, about GE…the company does actually have an enduring, high-performing culture for a reason.

And secondly, from what I understand, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, is the embodiment of an authentic leader. He would fly around and hold informal meetings with groups of employees that would yield all kinds of new innovations.

It’s leaders like Herb and the execs at GE – whom employees actually trust – that inspire ideas, push back, and foster tremendous loyalty.