What It Takes To Lead a Fortune 500 Company, A Start-Up, and, Yes, Schools

Advice from leaders of successful corporations, sports teams, and school districts is like nectar for hummingbirds: sweet tasting but fleeting. A recent entry into the nectar-producing industry comes from The Corner Office where Adam Bryant interviewed more than 70 CEOs and leaders of non-profits representing “decades of collective experience … [who] learned firsthand what it takes to succeed.” For all of those boards of directors eager to choose their next CEO and school boards dithering over who the next crackerjack superintendent (Newark and Atlanta are searching) should be, here are the five qualities that Bryant distilled from his interviews:

Passionate Curiosity: [it is] “indispensable, no matter what the job is.You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged  with the world and wanting to know more.”

“In every business I’ve worked in, there’s been a lot of cost and value locked up in things that are deemed to be ‘the way we do things around here.’ So you have to talk to people and ask the, ‘Why do you do that?'”

Battle-Hardened Confidence: “I like hiring people who have overcome adversity because I believe I’ve seen in my own career that perseverance is really important… I will ask them directly: ‘Give me an example of some adverse situation you faced, and what did you do about it, and what did you learn from it …. The people I hired [were] able to sort of fall down, dust themselves off, and keep fighting the next day.”

Team Smarts: “Team smarts refers to the ability to recognize the players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal…. Just as some people  have street smarts, others have team smarts.”

A Simple Mind-Set: Most senior executives want the same thing from people who present to them: be concise, get to the point, make it simple….Few things seem to get C.E.O.’s riled up more than lengthy PowerPoint presentations … What irks them is the unfocused thinking that leads to an overlong slide presentations.”

Fearlessness: [CEOSs are] looking for calculated and informed risk-taking, but mostly they want people to do things–and not just what they’re told to do….”I have to have people who not only can manage change but have an appetite for it.”

The good news for wannabe principals and superintendents–recall that many-business inspired reformers have renamed principals CEOs and district office administrators have appropriated corporate acronyms such as Chief Operating Office– is that all of these behaviors can be learned. The Corner Office author says they are not genetic.

The bad news is that all of these are personal traits reinforcing the stereotype that individual leaders can do it all–turning around basket-case companies, districts, and schools by virtue of their energies and moxie with little regard for the organization or context. Find a tough-minded superintendent who succeeded elsewhere–say Paul Vallas–and send him into the failing district. Doesn’t matter whether it is Chicago, Philadelphia, or New Orleans. Heroic leaders who by sheer force of will, personality, and smarts turns lemons into lemonade.

But if there is one thing that has been learned from the leadership literature, it is that the setting has an enormous influence on what a principal, superintendent, and CEO does, much less what he or she and accomplishes. Consider all of those successes in one setting–think football coaches, baseball managers, and superintendents–who fall on their swords in another place.  Casey Stengel managed the New York Yankees for 12 years; in that period he led the team to 10 American League pennants and seven World Series championships, In 1962, he shifted to the New York Mets who then lost 120 games and finished last in the league for the four years that he managed the team.

Successful principals who move from suburban schools to largely poor and minority schools struggle for a few years and leave. Parker Land, for example, went from a high-performing suburban school in Virginia to a middle school in Richmond. He lasted one year (TurnaroundPt4). Also superintendents. Rudy Crew was a star leader in Tacoma, WA, (30,000 students) went to New York City (nearly a million students) where, after four years, Mayor Rudy Giuliani ousted him then ending up in Miami-Dade public schools where after another four years, the school board forced him to resign.

The focus on getting the right leaders with personal traits including those listed in The Corner Office remains strong today in a culture where individual action is highly prized and linked to positive outcomes. Organizational settings are seen as obstacles that the right leader can simply turnaround as he or she had done before. Didn’t work for successful Hearst publisher Cathy Black who lasted three months as New York City Chancellor before Mayor Bloomberg pulled the plug. Didn’t work for former U.S. Army, three-star General Julius Becton who was appointed to lead the Washington, D.C. schools and exited two years later.

Context matters. Saviors with the right personal traits might make a difference if they adapt to and work with the new setting rather than repeat behaviors that seemingly worked elsewhere.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What It Takes To Lead a Fortune 500 Company, A Start-Up, and, Yes, Schools

  1. Larry, thanks for another thought-provoking post.
    I recently wrote a post on this topic called Quick—Hire the Wrong Superintendent! about how the traditional hiring process weeds out the candidates some districts may need in favor of the charismatic and heroic leader. I think it complements your post nicely.

    I think the issue is less about the available candidates and more about a process that works like a casting call rather than a search for the best fit.

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