When I first became a CEO (of Integra Telecom) I was terrified. As cofounder and newly minted chief executive officer, I was clearly in charge of the company, but I was intimidated by the workers—all nine of them. These frontline employees were hard-working, smart people but, in part because of my own insecurities about not knowing how to relate to them or what they might think of me or how they might react to me being the boss, I was frightened.
I was especially afraid of a man I’ll call Tony.
Tony was an engineer and a no-nonsense, in-your-face guy. He had garnered the respect of the entire organization—that is, the other eight people. If you said something that was wrong or uninformed or if you offered an idea that would move the organization in a direction that Tony was uncomfortable with, it was like a load of bricks coming down on you.
At times, I felt like matching his demeanor and asserting my authority; I was, after all, the boss. But, even though I had technical training, I didn’t know anything about this complex data network and the different devices that connected fiber cables together, which allowed our early and relatively small number of customers to maintain their communication. The last thing I wanted to do was drive away Tony—the one guy who made it all work.
So I assumed a walking-on-eggshells approach with him, manufacturing rapport slowly. I took many deep breaths and expended a lot of patience in my interactions with him, but, honestly, I didn’t undertake this investment in Tony because I knew anything about effective leadership or had any appreciation for where the company might go. I certainly couldn’t have predicted how much Integra Telecom would grow or that this kind of delicate handling of a challenging but vital employee would become an important tenet in my leadership philosophy. I just wanted our network to function properly. I wanted Tony to be a contributing member of the team. That was my focus. And on top of that, as I said, I was simply frightened.
Then I made a pivotal move that won him over.
When Integra purchased and installed a switching network that was comparable to those used by telecom heavyweights like Verizon and AT&T, one of my roles was to negotiate the installation contract with the vendor. This was a huge, multinational, multibillion-dollar technology company that had built the telecom infrastructure for our country, and I was stepping between the ropes and into the ring to negotiate the contract. They gave us the form of agreement that they doled out to everybody, but it contained a few things that weren’t right for us. I ended up becoming a pain in the ass to this vendor—even introverts like me can get under the skin—because I made a point of stopping the negotiations and forcing them to deal with a couple of issues.
These issues were a little bit unusual. Not only were they important to me from a contractual standpoint; they were important to the network. And the network was all-important to Tony. He saw that I negotiated and stubbornly fought for and won the contract changes, providing tangible evidence that I was committed to our Mission. The Fusion Leadership process starts when employees see tangible evidence their boss places the success of the organization at an equal level to their own needs.
Soon after those negotiations, Tony invited me and one or two other people from the company to come over and have dinner at his house. His parents were coming to town from New Jersey, and he wanted me to meet them. I really hit it off with his parents, and from that point forward, things went well with Tony and me; we became close colleagues and friends. Building a relationship of mutual respect is what made it happen.
While I knew that I needed Tony, his knowledge base, and his influence over the other employees, I had no idea just how important he’d become as Integra Telecom grew. I didn’t know the significance of what was incubating as I forged a strong bond between us. He went on to become one of our long-time engineering leaders and accomplished great things for the organization. He stayed with us for many years, building and rebuilding the network until we ultimately operated in eleven states. And, importantly, he became a great evangelist for Integra Telecom, singing our praises to those both inside and outside the company.