Everyday Leadership Lessons

Sure. There is no short supply of people offering leadership advice. Many do so formally in fancy speeches at name colleges and universities and are paid handily. Some write books. Yet, some of the best counsel can come from people you know and work with every day.

Often, you may not realize how important what they say and do is until years later, when out of the blue, it pops into your head as you begin to tackle another business challenge. Yet, I believe when something sticks with you for years… there’s a reason for it… there’s a lesson in it. Here are some that have stuck with me. They were never formally conveyed; rather, they were said every day in passing or experienced in routine encounters. But they were powerful lessons all just the same.

1. Treat your client’s money as if it is your own.
Anyone who worked or works for Burson-Marsteller, a leading public relations agency founded by Harold Burson more than 60 years ago, readily knows: “Harold Burson took the subway.” To the man who grew up knowing the devastation and poverty of the Great Depression, he proudly admits that he took the subway most of his business life. The lesson was clear: treat your client’s money as if it was your own. And we did.

subway lettersCountless times I remembered Mr. Burson’s mantra when faced with the choice to hop in a taxi or walk three blocks to the 23rd Street subway to make a client meeting at Colgate-Palmolive’s Park Avenue headquarters. “If Harold Burson can take the subway, so can I,” I thought time and again.  Admittedly, the taxi won about 50% of the time. But I take some solace in knowing it was a conscious choice, rather than a fait accompli.

Years later, as I managed bigger budgets and decided how and where to allocate dollars, this money management lesson would pop into my head. It taught me to negotiate—always a fair deal, but negotiate just the same. It taught me to find the hidden costs when forecasting annual budgets. It taught me to make a strong, provable business case for the spending. Doing so earned respect in the eyes of the finance team—a tough group to impress. While I didn’t always get budget approval, when I did, they knew there would be no surprises.

2. Motivate and great things happen.
Once I was asked what it was like working for a now very successful advertising executive. He was being considered for a new position at a bigger agency and his future boss was doing his due diligence. I remember my answer verbatim: “He makes you do more than you thought was possible.” I didn’t realize the significance of that statement until years later when I was faced with motivating members of my own team.

It always seems impossible until it is done.What was it that this leader did that so inspired me?

He let me think for myself, take responsibility, make my own mistakes, chart my own path, find a better way, challenge ideas—even his ideas—without fear, and the list goes on.

Assignments often came in a passing 30-second phone call, but armed with context and confidence, everything was possible. It was for me then, and the thousands he now leads.

The lesson was clear:  it doesn’t take much to motivate people.   Inspiring confidence in those you manage is essential.   Acknowledgment is what most team members are looking for–no matter how big or small.

3. Introductions count.
We have all experienced it. You are in a business meeting with the higher-ups and someone you know of, but never met (or someone you don’t know), interrupts. The person to whom you are speaking immediately becomes engaged in conversation with the other person, leaving you out of it. What do you do? Introduce yourself, of course.

introduction - woman outstretched handThe truth is that should never have happened. It never would have if you had worked for Alex W. “Pete” Hart, former CEO of MasterCard International. Pete was the master of introductions. If he didn’t know you, he simply introduced himself. Whether it was in the hallway or on a lunch line, extending his right hand he would say emphatically “Pete Hart, nice to meet you.”  When Pete, the CEO, introduced himself to me, I felt like a million bucks.

As a result, I’m hyper-conscious of the introduction—introducing others and introducing myself when others are lax. It’s a first impression and it has to be good.

4. Give your undivided attention.
It was the 1990s. The paper “in-box” was thriving as email was just entering our consciousness. Papers piled up; and the higher the stack, the longer your “to-do” list.

When I walked into the regional president’s office for a scheduled, 30-minute meeting, I was prepared. I had to be. There was so little time and so much to cover. Peter was a Brit, about 20 years my senior, and judging from the multiple paper stacks on the table where we convened, he had little time for me. But for those 30 minutes, he focused on our agenda, probed unanswered questions and made thoughtful decisions. I marveled at, and was grateful for, his undivided attention.

undivided attention gorillaThere were no interruptions—no “excuse me, I have to take this call”; no notes slipped in by an assistant; no TV news playing in the background; no stolen glances at incoming texts (there were none then). That made all the difference.

One 30-minute meeting between two people who focus intently on a thoughtful agenda is more effective than an email string with countless people on copy weighing in, supplemented by private text messages to get the back story. Really.

5. Passionate pursuits are the most productive.
Leaders know when people care about something deeply, success follows. I have never met anyone more passionate than Joann Ferrara, a pediatric physical therapist by training who founded Dancing Dreams, a charity that gives children with physical challenges a chance to fulfill their dreams to dance.  It is her passion, her dedication, her sleepless nights and her dreams that enable her to turn what some may think are impossible dreams into reality.


Joann Ferrara, founder of Dancing Dreams, handing a ballerina a rose after her first performance.

Joann’s passion is matched equally by that of her student ballerinas. As a result, both teacher and students thrive and hundreds of children, parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and teens benefit from a dance experience they never thought possible. And dance they do, in a performance “extravaganza” on stage complete with costumes, makeup and glitter– just like their friends, sisters and mothers have done. Here’s a glimpse of their most recent performance on the Meredith Viera Show in September 2014.

Keep the passion alive.  So what if this ballerina is in a wheelchair.  So what if she has braces on her legs.  Where there is passion, there is always a way.

In business, this is especially important.  To me, it means understanding what’s behind a person’s passion and matching it to the business task. A mismatch is often misunderstood for incompetence and disappointing all around. But a perfect match is amazing.

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