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Are You an Authentic CEO?

Amidst the craziness of running a start-up, your internal compass can get knocked awry. How to make sure it returns to true north.
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As the CEO of a mission-driven, socially-conscious firm, I’ll be the first to tell you that vision and values are crucial, but it takes more than big-picture thinking to make a company sustainable. The balancing act lies in how to run, grow and scale a profitable business without diluting your vision and values. How do you remain a genuine CEO and lead an authentic company?

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started out, like all successful entrepreneurs, as dreamers. From their first homemade scoop shop run out of an old gas station in Vermont, they grew. Their company went public. They sold to Unilever. Debate ensued. Many patrons of this values-based brand, which had made a strong name for itself through its sustainability efforts, responsibly sourced ingredients, and anti-corporate corporate culture, saw selling as selling out. Yet the founders, who still sit on the Board of Directors today, acknowledged that they were also obligated to make the best possible decision for the company’s financial future and to maximize shareholder value.

But ethics and profits don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I set out to prove this is possible in finance when I founded Lexion Capital. Nonetheless, is there a risk that I could forget how important our work is? Of course. That’s true of any business leader. So, we build in practices, such as these, that guard against that risk.

Get back to basics--often

We constantly drill down to our company’s core ethics (our independence, our fiduciary responsibility, our client-centric approach). Every advisor works through the lens of the all-important question: Is this financial advice good enough for your mom? Create a structured system, such as a quarterly or even weekly meeting, where you convene specifically to reiterate core values and discuss how they are playing out in your current initiatives.

Bring your work to life

Don’t just talk about your core values. Write them down. Put them on posters -- everywhere. Having visual reminders reinforces the fact that these are not just words. They are guidelines, motivating and giving purpose to everything you do. In the early days of our company, I printed and framed the thank you letters from clients, words of praise from press features, and other good vibes about what we do. They served as tangible evidence of why it all matters. Especially in a field like finance, it’s vital to put faces and stories to numbers, because we don’t just work with money - we work with people’s lives and dreams.  As a business owner, you have to connect your core values and the day-to-day in a way that helps them come alive for your team.

Even with a group of A-playing, mission-driven employees, business leaders must actively create a culture that always circles back to the company’s values. Otherwise, you may well end up as a well-marketed brand extension, in a massive global conglomerate, far away from the show factory and the milk co-ops of Vermont.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Sep 11, 2013

ELLE KAPLAN | Columnist | CEO, Lexion Capital Management

A finance expert and self-made entrepreneur, Elle Kaplan is the CEO and founding partner of Lexion Capital Management, the only 100 percent woman-owned asset management firm in the U.S.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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