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C-suite sweetness: How to become a leader people want to follow


Three weeks before his retirement in February, John S. Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron, shared some reflections on Linkedin. He wrote:

“If I were to start my career over, I would do one thing differently. During my early years in the company, I was fairly analytical in how I approached most situations. And although that served a purpose, I later realized that you can be much more effective if you recognize the importance of people in business. The sooner you learn about reading people, listening to others and building relationships, the sooner you will be more effective.”

I’m so passionate about this topic that I moved on from a role as chief information officer at MillerCoors to start a business that prepares future leaders for the people dynamics they will face. I found a calling in helping professionals burnish their people skills until they become second nature and prime them to weather any storms that come along the way. It’s the type of spirit, by the way, reflected at BAI through its Emerging Leaders Network, which seeks to promote learning, mentoring and visibility for rising stars. (Editor’s note: The deadline for early applications is Friday, June 28.)  

What does leadership in financial services look like? By sharing some of my story and outlining the strong suits today’s leaders must develop, I hope to illuminate the changing dynamics of leadership and the so-called “soft skills” that produce tangible, valuable results.

‘Crunch’ time: A leadership journey begins

I began my career as a recent University of Iowa grad with an operations degree on a shop floor supervising production of Cap’n Crunch cereal. What a learning experience! I worked the third shift with a crew of employees who knew a heck of a lot more than I did about the operation, equipment and processes. I remember asking myself, “Who am I at 22 to supervise this experienced group of individuals?”

I held many roles in my journey from that position to today: production planner, buyer, planning manager, supply chain manager, director of business solutions, vice president of change management, chief of staff to CEO and senior vice president. Each challenged me more than the last.

But even when I stepped up as a CIO, my twentysomething question remained pretty much the same: “Who am I, now 50, to lead hundreds of individuals who have amazing technical expertise in supply chain, finance, data centers and cybersecurity at this $10 billion organization?”

Each role required gradual steps to increase and develop a strong technical ability. But sophisticated people skills really helped me succeed. Now, these competences were never taught to me—not in school nor any of the hundreds of training hours my employers made possible. But I was fortunate to have mentors and role models as well as the time and money to seek out additional training.

Unfortunately, not everyone has these opportunities. What’s more, the dogged pace of business in the 21st Century means some leaders dismiss the people side of things as a tangent or empty slogan rather than mission critical. 

Looking forward

The complexities of people dynamics change as we move into higher leadership roles. The people dynamics encountered as a third-shift supervisor on the Cap’n Crunch line are quite different than those at the CIO level and each one in between. The bottom line is this: As our responsibility grows so does the responsibility of those who work for and around us—and thus the stakes rise exponentially related to our success in navigating difficult people issues.

As Watson noted, most leaders are very comfortable when someone comes to their office with a technical problem. But how about when someone tells us about a family emergency or that they’ve witnessed an ethical violation? Obtaining the people skills to handle such cases demands that leaders practice and rehearse how to navigate conflict and crisis—even as they get feedback and guidance from someone who has held a leadership role themselves.

It demands that we make ourselves and all our fellow leaders comfortable and confident with the people we shepherd. The ultimate goal must be to create company cultures where people skills are valued as much as technical skills when people take on leadership roles.

Parting thoughts: Invest in your own success

If you want to become an inspiring, effective leader, invest in yourself. Work on specific people skills: Learn to listen better, ask the right questions, and master techniques to get beyond biases and assumptions about others. The countless interpersonal interactions leaders take on every day directly affect team engagement, trust and how much discretionary time and effort employees put forth.

By paying some time and attention to develop these capabilities, I have no doubt that every leader can attain remarkable transformation. I hope you’ll join me in the quest to build the best possible leaders for a rapidly changing and turbulent business climate.

In the meantime, consider this listening exercise: Talk to your team about what they want, expect and hope for in a leader. Everyone wants to feel like their work matters and to belong to an energized culture. Looking in the rear view mirror of a storied career, Watson shared this hard-won wisdom at the helm of a $240 billion company. It can prove priceless for us all:

“I would have spent a little more time on the people side, a little more time on the relationship side, early in my career.”

In work leadership and leading a life that matters, it’s all about relationships, isn’t it?

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Karen Alber is co-founder at The Integreship Group, where she works with rising leaders to master the people parts of their jobs. She previously served as chief information officer at MillerCoors and HJ Heinz.