Chances are even if you aren't familiar with the AMB Group, you're familiar with their work: it is the investment management and support services arm of Home Depot founder Arthur Blank's for-profit businesses, such as the Atlanta Falcons, PGA TOUR Superstore, and Atlanta United FC, among others.

While he could have snagged just about anyone to lead AMB, Blank hired Steve Cannon to be its CEO. Cannon has become a well-respected leader, starting in the military and with service to country. "I am a student of leadership and will always be a student of leadership," he explains, which is fitting, given that he is graduate of West Point, often considered the preeminent leadership school in the country.

As I strive to always become better at leading Firebrand Group, I seek out leaders who've met with some acclaim, and Cannon's one of those. In our discussions, here are the traits that stand out in making him such a respected leader:

#1: Emphasizing Leadership

All of Cannon's organizations have something in common: a core focus on leader development. As people move up in an organization, they tend to become more focused on management, as opposed to showing leadership in their particular organizational function. Cannon encourages his people to think differently: "I try to instill in my teams that they are leaders, not managers," he explains. He even renamed the Executive Management team the Executive Leadership Team simply to send a message that leadership is more highly valued.

#2: Creating a Laser Focus

Cannon is most proud of the laser focus he was able to implement upon his arrival at Mercedes Benz USA (MBUSA). When he began his tenure as CEO of MBUSA, they were 22nd in delivering value according to JD Power & Associates. Customer experience, Cannon decided, was going to be the focus of his organization. If we are the best at that, he believes, we will win. Trying to coalesce a 130 year-old company around a single focus? That's no easy task, yet Cannon did it: the organization was ranked as #1 in the American Customer Satisfaction Index during his tenure.

The lesson? Say you want to get to the moon and you might not get there, but you'll nevertheless wind up somewhere spectacular. You'll certainly do better than those who are opposed to not setting an audacious goal in the first place. "We are going to set a ridiculously high standard," Cannon says of his organizations; they want to set the highest possible benchmark for success.

#3: Focusing on Employee Experience

"If you want to have the best fan experience in the world," says Cannon, "you need to have the best employee experience in the world." Without the right culture, you cannot have the right business outcome. You need people who care, people who are empathetic, and you cannot achieve your ultimate objectives within a toxic culture.

Leaders are the ones most responsible for the culture. "How do we create a 10x employee experience?" is something Cannon has instilled at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. From recruitment to how they get greeted on game day to feeding them, Cannon has seen the positive ROI from investing in his employees. When he was at MBUSA, Fortune called it one of the best places to work for five consecutive years. If employees have a positive experience, the likelihood they delight the customer increases dramatically. "You have to create culture where people feel valued," Cannon explains. "No one will go the extra mile if they feel that if they fail, they'll be summarily dismissed."

#4: Remembering You're a Leader

"It's easy to become a captive of your schedule," Cannon admits, as typical leaders often run from one agenda item to another. You can realize you have held one thousand meetings at a breakneck pace, but haven't stopped to ask your team how they're doing, or tell them that you're proud of them. Cannon recommends that leaders ask themselves, "how much time did I spend leading today?" Asking questions, motivating, providing vision: those are all facets of leadership. "How much of my day did I spend actually doing those things?"

#5: Finding Small Ways to Make a Big Difference

When he became CEO at MBUSA, Cannon spent the first few days introducing himself to everyone in the company. Four days, walking from door to door, introducing himself, and shaking hands. It may sound like a small thing, but Cannon received heartfelt thank-you letters. Sometimes small gestures like that have an outsized impact.

Showing appreciation for what people do doesn't have to be a one-time thing. Cannon asks his assistants to schedule blank space so he can write thank-you notes, do stop-ins, and show other measures of gratitude, saying that: "appreciation is the most underutilized asset in corporate America, period."

For a few weeks, Cannon's team was consumed by getting 2,000 people to Houston for the Super Bowl. He spent hours afterwards writing thank-you notes to everyone who helped make the trip happen. "That personal note is only a 3x5 card. Three sentences of, the impact of that."

#6: Understanding You're a Servant

"Forget the idea of CEO as rock star," Cannon emphasizes. Plenty of leaders are creating cultures where one needs to metaphorically bow and bend over backwards to get on a CEO's good side, but that's not how it ought to be. A CEO's job is to look out for his people and serve them. "Good leaders cannot serve from the corner office. Leadership is a people visit."

#7: Drawing Inspiration from Others

With his reputation, Cannon doesn't need to spend anytime studying other leaders, right? Not so fast. He gets to see Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn in action and as an avowed student of leadership, Cannon is wowed. He admires that Quinn has created a sense of purpose and a level of accountability. After all, the emphasis on personal accountability created by Quinn helped take the team to the Super Bowl in 2017.

Of course, working for Arthur Blank is a natural inspiration to Cannon; after all, as the co-founder of The Home Depot, Blank built the world's largest home improvement retailer. Cannon appreciates that he's been able to get up close and understand how Blank has done it: on core values. Staying humble and admitting he still has the capacity to learn from other leaders is one more way Cannon has stayed at the top of the leadership game.

Are you investing enough in these different leadership areas?

Published on: Mar 21, 2017
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