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By Samantha Marshall
As part of the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership, Columbia Business and Law Schools hosted five executives from a variety of industries to participate in the Reuben Mark Organizational Leadership Series which focuses on the intersection of leadership styles and workplace cultures. Whether it was financial services, professional sports, or tech startups, the one through-line that stood out in our conversations was the importance of leading with humanity in an era rife with socio-political divisiveness and economic upheaval. That means leading with your values to stay open, humble, transparent and passionate as you interact with all your stakeholders, as well as navigating through the constant churn of transformation that all businesses are facing today.
Of course, each leader had their own slightly different spin on this people-first principle. So, here are five lessons we took away from the series:
Talk to People Who Disagree with You
Jeff Cruttenden, co-founder and CEO of SAY, a tech startup that helps small shareholders be heard by the companies they partly own, likes to be challenged.
Speaking with those who disagree with you keeps you accountable and pushes you to go back and refine your concept. If people criticize or tell you no, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bad idea; it may even mean you have a good idea, but you need to be better prepared to address questions or concerns.
“My first pitch was a disaster but, looking back, it was a success in that I got properly skewered,” Cruttenden recalled.
Cruttenden, now 31, later realized he had prepared the concept too narrowly and failed to talk to enough experts. As much as it hurt, the skewering was an opportunity for feedback from a roomful of seasoned investors.
“I was ripped apart. I think I was even called a ‘token college kid’ and told that my idea was impossible.”
But that idea was Acorns, a savings and investment app he also co-founded, which went on to phenomenal success as one of the most disruptive fintech companies.
Lead with Passion
Even if that means contradicting the majority.
Collette Veronica Smith, the NFL’s first African-American female coach, and the first female coach in the New York Jets’ franchise history, wants to see more people speaking and acting from a place of passion. Addressing the controversy over Colin Kaepernick’s taking of the knee during the singing of the national anthem, and the league’s failure to address diversity and race relations in the sport, Smith commended the athlete for holding to his principles
“I stand with him and for him and his issues…He believed in something and courageously stood for it, something more of us need to do."
It takes a similar level of commitment, persistence and drive to make it as a female leader in a male dominated sport. Throughout her career, Smith shared, she always tried every possible avenue, calling and emailing weekly, even when it didn’t seem likely she would receive a call or message back.
“Don’t ignore a door, a doorbell or a phone call,” she said “Tackle it.”
Today, in the next phase of her career following the NFL, Smith is Founder and President of Believe N You Incorporated, an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality in sports and inspiring young women to enter leadership roles in all fields.
It’s About EQ, Not IQ
Long-term, sustainable success in business hinges on these gender equality and diversity issues. It’s why business leaders can no longer stay aloof from the national discourse, said Tim Murphy, General Counsel of Mastercard, whether the topic is diversity and inclusion, the environment or gun violence. But they can’t just pay lip service or virtue signal to appease their employees. They must show up to the conversation committed and authentically engaged.
“Companies are being called on to lead on a whole range of issues that weren’t part of how corporate executives were thinking even a few years ago,” Murphy explained. “What we try to do is be authentic to our purpose and to our team...”
Of course, it takes a degree of emotional intelligence to drill down into what associates are thinking and feeling about certain issues. Mastercard’s unique tone of transparency and open line of communication emanating from the top makes this work culture possible.
“Ajay Banga, our CEO, speaks constantly about a culture of decency and about how IQs not important, but EQ, and how you go about conducting yourself as a leader is critically important.”
That is why Mastercard has been working to craft positions on issues such as the environmental, political and social concerns of its team members.
“That’s why we’ve staked out some really strong positions on marriage equality and making sure that we’re using Mastercard benefit programs not just in the US but around the world to treat people equally, no matter who they love.”
“We're not perfect. We’ve got a lot of work to do in a whole variety of areas, but we know where those things are, and as a leadership team, we're committed to getting at them and we will.”
Treat Your Boss Like a Peer, and Your Peers Like a Boss
The notion that we can all learn from each other is embedded in this collegial attitude among leadership teams and associates.
As Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former General Counsel and the inaugural Leader- in- Residence for the Initiative put it, “at the core of successful relationships between peers, in the business context, is trust…And, once you have that relationship, people are willing to listen and take time to understand your perspective.”
This is one of “Sewell’s Rules” that the former C-suite executive came up with to help people think differently about their relationship to the company and their colleagues.
“Treat your peers as you would normally treat your boss. And then, by contrast, treat your boss more like a peer…It sounds a little odd, but if you back up and analyze it, the things that your peers really need from you are good communication. They need to know that your word is your bond, when you say that you’ll deliver some piece of work or that you’ll be a team member that you’ll show up, you’re there.”
"That mindset helps ensure that decisions aren’t made in isolation. Leaders benefit because it enables them to more effectively shape attitudes within the company, while the team members will be entrusted with more responsibilities, ensuring a more cohesive, productive and effective organizational culture."
Bring Your Personal Values to Work
Another pillar of this kind of progressive workplace culture is respect. Leaders and team members need to communicate that they respect and value each other. Colgate Palmolive has been globally recognized as having a strong workplace culture based on a longstanding principle it calls “Managing with Respect.” As Elaine Paik, the consumer goods giant’s former Corporate Treasurer said, “We teach people how to
communicate effectively, provide and seek feedback from each other and walk the talk as leaders.”
Paik shared her experience with Colgate’s strong organizational culture for over 25 plus years in a special edition of the series inn conversation with the former CEO who brought her into the company, Reuben Mark. With 39,000 employees around the world, Colgate has been “very purposeful” in the implementation of processes and policies to help reinforce a culture based on caring, global teamwork and continuous improvement. But, beyond the intensive leadership training around values, it’s the quality and diversity of the individuals who make up the Colgate population that strengthens the team.
“I really value the diversity and knowledge of people from around the world – that’s something that has resonated with me,” noted Paik, who began her career as an intern at Colgate while at business school. “It doesn’t have to be a homogenous team, because everybody brings their unique contributions.”
Again, effective leadership is about creating an environment of mutual learning stemming foremost from a respect for a diversity of viewpoints. As Paik would say to any first-time leader:
“Really focus on building skills and competencies. Think about what type of organization you are goingto lead and motivate. It’s all about the people and teams that will drive your success.”