Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the action of leading a group of people or an organisation’, leadership is often described as different things by different people. The words ‘assertive’, ‘risk-taker’ and ‘persistent’ seem to be inextricably linked to the leadership persona.
But how does one lead?
In the past as well as the present, the titans of business leadership used strategies that made them truly extraordinary and led their companies to staggering heights. Here are five lessons from the legends of this world.
Innovation is not a one-time achievement
Whether your company is a start-up or an established giant in your industry, innovation should always be a part of your strategy.
When Ginni Rometty was appointed as CEO of IBM in 2012, she faced a Herculean challenge. One of her primary tasks was to infuse a spirit of innovation within the rank and file of this company. IBM was already a tech giant with about 350,600 employees and over a hundred years of experience.
Rometty realized that one could not be innovative simply by working harder and faster. Instead, she started with minimum viable products, got them right, and worked towards making them bigger and better. During her tenure, she was responsible for introducing several changes in the company. Rometty pushed for constant reinvention and risk taking — 45% of IBM’s current products were launched in 2017-18. To her credit, she was also hugely successful in maintaining company values such as dedication and responsibility.
In 2019, Rometty received the Edison Achievement Award – the world’s foremost honour for innovation. An attitude of lifelong learning is the basis of innovation. In fact, Rometty would insist that innovation also means that a company enables its employees to learn new skills.
Innovation is not something to accomplish once – it must be woven in the fabric of your business culture.
Make honesty a priority
The flow of ideas, information, and opinions is integral to the growth of a company. If you ask Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar, he’d say a lack of hierarchy can enable openness and communication. Purists, watch out!
There is no greater example of the success of this concept than Braintrust. Perfected by Pixar, Braintrust is a unique feedback mechanism that includes the freedom (and encouragement) to express opinions and ideas. What is crucial is that the Braintrust, one of the most cherished traditions at Pixar, has no authority. Meetings, Catmull says in Creativity, Inc., are not top-down affairs. ‘You are not your idea…. To set up a healthy feedback system, you need to remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself … to focus on the problem, not the person’.
The Braintrust worked on creating an atmosphere of trust and establishing a feeling of mutual respect before it tried to solve a problem. As a result, the people involved were compelled to focus on problem-solving, rather than problem-finding.
Candid feedback sets a company on the path of self-examination, making improvement inevitable.
To be trusted, you must be trustworthy
Reputation is the lens through which current and prospective clients view a company. The multinational corporation, FedEx, has a presence in over 220 countries and territories across the globe. It is known for introducing radical changes in delivery methods, including real-time tracking. Over the years, FedEx has developed a peerless reputation for being reliable and trustworthy.
The well-known Purple Promise to ‘make every FedEx experience outstanding’ is a testament to the company’s commitment to superior customer experiences. FedEx’s quality-driven management is focused on keeping the trust alive. Overall, the organizational design remains centred on creating and delivering a promise. Not an easy task, but the team at FedEx seems to have done it smoothly since 1971.
On Fortune, Frederick Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx, said, ‘…what we call reputational intelligence is particularly important in our organization because at the end of the day we’re essentially selling trust. People give us some of the most important things that they own.’ The basis for this, he states, is taking action to support your statements. There was not a year where they did not invest in making the company better; there were years when they could have not tried to do that, for various reasons, but Smith made it a prime concern.
Gaining the trust of the people you have chosen to serve by delivering your promises is crucial, and will set you apart from your competitors.
Foster an inclusive environment
Henry Ford was, in many ways, ahead of his time. He supported the need for inclusiveness and diversity within the workplace. Indeed, by 1916, the Ford Motor Company represented myriad nationalities, and employed several hundred people with disabilities.
In his autobiography My Life and Work, Ford writes about how he made this idea a working reality. He mentions that in order to accommodate people with disabilities, he classified different jobs to the kind of machine and work – whether the physical labour involved was light, medium or heavy, whether one or both hands could be used, whether it was a wet or dry job, and so on.
Ford demonstrated that, so long as work is suited to a person’s condition, the standard of that work will remain high. He writes, ‘We have experimented with bedridden men – men who were able to sit up. We put black oilcloth covers or aprons over the beds and set the men to work screwing nuts on small bolts…. The men in the hospital could do it just as well as the men in the shop…. In fact, their production was about 20 per cent., I believe, above the usual shop production.’
If you want benefits such as access to a broader range of skills, retention of valuable employees, an extended market, and increased productivity and creativity, supporting diversity is a good place to start.
Go bold. Really bold
There are many self-made female millionaires in the US now, but no one embodies ‘bold’ quite like the one who is widely considered the first – the iconic Madam C.J. Walker.
Madam Walker was perhaps not ‘set up’ to succeed, given her circumstances. Born in 1867, she was orphaned at seven, married her first husband at fourteen, and worked as a laundress at twenty. Because she had little formal education, she was only assigned hard labour and menial jobs.
Due to her personal issues with hair loss, Madam Walker was inspired to create a solution. She experimented with home remedies, consulting her barber brothers, until she came up with an ointment. In 1906, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was born. To promote her products, she travelled for over a year throughout the American south, selling door to door. Eventually, she was able to mobilize a network of nearly 1,000 female African-American sales agents.
‘Bold’ may be an overused buzzword in corporate culture, but it is hard to examine Madam Walker’s life and not see the immense value of her indomitable will. Whether one’s station in life is that of a CEO or a janitor, Madam Walker’s story holds a valuable lesson.
To find the right direction in today’s business climate, a leader must be bold enough to do the extraordinary.