With so many flavor-of-the-month leadership books beckoning us to the latest theory or big idea, sometimes you just have to get to the bottom of what actually works by simply asking the right people, "What does good leadership look like?"
Over the last few weeks, I've retrieved some fantastic wisdom and advice from four executives demonstrating remarkable leadership in the trenches of their respective companies:
Here are the results of email exchanges and conversations I've had with these exceptional leaders.
1. Leaders must exercise the power of intuition.
Great leaders can sniff out people and sense what's going on without having anything spelled out for them. They rely on off-the-charts intuition to very accurately judge people's character.
This is certainly a unique talent of Peter Cancro, CEO of Jersey Mike's Subs, especially in the hiring arena. While one can rely on scripted behavioral-based interview questions to filter out bad apples, Cancro told me it's his intuition that shines in normal discourse when sizing up a potential employee for culture fit.
"Our mission statement, 'Giving... Making a difference in someone's life,' is most important to us. The interaction of questions and general talking one-on-one with the prospective franchisee/employee helps us make the decision using our intuition," said Cancro, who purchased "Mike's Subs" as a senior in high school for $125,000. As of this writing, Jersey Mike's does a billion dollars in annual sales with 1400 locations in 45 states.
2. Leaders must communicate with transparency.
When you think of the word "transparency" in the workplace, what immediately comes to mind? Do you cringe at the possibility of being that open? That, perhaps, co-workers, direct reports, or even customers will perceive it as a weakness, and take advantage of you or your position?
The reason most leaders are not transparent is because they believe they will be viewed as less authoritative; that the credentials they worked so hard to attain will lose their power, leverage and gravitas.
Chris Grandpre, Chairman and CEO of Outdoor Living Brands, which includes, among others, a landscape lighting franchise and an outdoor pest control franchise, thinks otherwise.
"Our senior leadership team is transparent. We discuss the company's long-term vision, financial performance along with the key initiatives and priorities that management is working on to drive the company forward," Grandpre shared over email.
"Sharing our vision, results, and how our team fits into the key initiatives helps our team understand the 'why' behind what we are doing, which builds trust and commitment to our shared culture and goals as a result of the transparency," he added.
As such, turnover rate at Outdoor Living Brands has been less than 10 percent for over the last several years (and some of the folks that left, left to start or acquire one of their franchise businesses).
3. Leaders must manage from the bottom-up.
Bottom-up leaders serve the needs of their employees first by inverting the organizational pyramid, which results in greater trust and loyalty, and unleashes discretionary effort so people are doing amazing work.
Ajeet Singh, CEO and co-founder of ThoughtSpot, is keenly aware of the bottom-up approach, and he leverages the concept fully for business results. I asked him about how this philosophy has worked in day-to-day management practices for his Palo Alto-based, search and AI-driven analytics company.
"I practice the inverted pyramid concept all the time. In my one on ones with my direct reports, I focus the conversation on areas they need help, not on what I need them to do, and then figure out how I can actively contribute to solving the issues facing them," he told me.
"If that means helping a salesperson close a deal by leveraging my network, doing personal outreach to candidates for a role someone is having trouble filing, or even subbing in on a team to help them meet a critical deadline while a teammate is out of the office, I'll do it," said Singh.
In fact, Singh hires and promotes leaders based on the philosophy of the inverted pyramid, making sure to look for leaders he can promote who view themselves as problem solvers who share leadership, make others better, and put the needs of their team before their own.
4. Leaders must stay sane by keeping a healthy work-life balance.
Fred Stevens-Smith, the outspoken CEO of San Francisco startup Rainforest QA, an on-demand quality assurance solution for agile and CI/CD teams, offered some good tips for keeping leaders balanced while juggling the fast-paced demands of running a business.
Work/life balance isn't about time, it's about quality.
"Twenty minutes of deep and stimulating conversation with an old friend can do more to recharge you than 4 hours of Netflix," said Stevens-Smith.
"Being intentional about how to design your time outside of work is critical. Do more things that you know help you to relax, do less things that are boredom killers," he added.
Reduce stress by being outdoors more
Stevens-Smith loves camping and the outdoors and copes with a hectic work life by spending one night per week in a tent.
"Spending regular time away from cell service and screens is the antidote I need for the hectic digital life I live during the week. I've consistently recommended this approach to friends and other executives seeking to reduce their levels of stress," said Stevens-Smith.
Get a coach.
Stevens-Smith has two coaches and several mentors who help him to answer the "big questions" in life and in business.
"There's no shame in being coached -- the best athletes in the world all have large coaching staffs, and the core tenet is logical: it's very hard to be objective about yourself," he said.
Don't take things too seriously
"If you personalize the daily successes and failures your company experiences you will not last long," said Stevens-Smith. "Emotional resilience comes from getting distance from the source of stress. The way I achieve this it is to remember that -- for most businesses at least -- nobody is going to die if the service goes down."