Feeling like instant road kill, I thought it impossible to get myself out of the mess I had created, much less figure out how to get my organization to embrace the Vision I held for the company. My surprise and shock made matters even worse.
Less than an hour earlier, I was walking on clouds as I directed the caterer to arrange the food spread in the boardroom and the bar near the reception desk. We were hosting an open house for our customers to showcase our latest network technology, having installed a multi-million dollar investment in technical gear with blinking lights and fiber optic cables.
My earlier optimism was not without merit. After all we were the first company in our home state to be licensed to compete with the legacy monopoly providers as congress had just passed legislation to open the market to competition. We recently raised a significant war chest of private equity and were described as an emerging success story by our regional news media.
So why was the CIO of a publicly traded tech company (which happened to be one of our largest customers) reading me the riot act? He had me in a corner (literally) and was well into his list of examples as to how we had completely messed up his network services. With each example he cited, my anxiety increased because HE WAS RIGHT! As I listened, I thought to my self- “my gosh, how could we have messed this up so badly?”
Not knowing what to do, while also worrying that other customers may walk in and decide to join my roasting, I felt desperate. After racking my brain, searching for ways to de-escalate the situation, I finally asserted my self as the founder and CEO with the best reply I could muster. “Do me a favor,” I pleaded. “Here is my personal cell number. You have my assurance that we will make this right. And, if you encounter any future frustrations with our service, call me. Call me at home. Call me on the weekend. Call me the moment you see the need. You are a critical customer and my highest priority”!
Well, it worked- although it caused me great pain for several weeks. This CIO proceeded to call me several times a day. In the beginning, I had great energy and pulled our smartest people together to meet his every need. After several weeks, however, I began to feel frustration as I would be interrupted in meetings or while at home with my family. Caller ID only made it harder. When I saw his number I would ask myself if I made a mistake. Is taking this customer call really the work of a CEO?
In the moment, I did not realize the impact my actions were having on my team and on the entire organization. I was simply trying to keep a key customer happy. At the time we were an early stage company and I was a newly minted CEO.
Years later this story would continue to be told in the hallways, in our network operations center (NOC), in our repair organization and throughout the company. Over time, I learned that leader’s behaviors, which evidence their commit to their organization’s Vision, inspire and compel others to engage in the Vision.
My decision to provide my cell number and personally take care of the service needs of this key customer evidenced my commitment (as the CEO) to our Vision. Our Vision was to lead our industry in providing quality, user-friendly service. While I did not take this action in order to enhance my leadership ability that became the overwhelming consequence of my actions.
Leaders in all organizations make daily decisions that present the opportunity to evidence their commitment to their organization’s Vision. Unfortunately, many leaders fail to make the right decision, allowing their decision making to be driven by their self-interest rather than what’s best for their organization’s Vision. Examples include how to conduct a meeting and who becomes the smartest person in the room? Who the leader prioritizes when booking their calendar: the front line workers or the fellow executives and board members? How leaders allocate scarce resources like payroll, floor plan space and staffing support. Leaders who prioritize their own self-interests unwittingly send the signal that the organization’s top priority is to make the leader wealthier and more powerful. When leaders send the message that the organization’s top priority is the comfort and wealth of the leader the organization’s Vision becomes hollow and empty.
To be clear, this distinction between acting to advance our self-interests over the interests of our organization is not about ethics or what’s right and what’s wrong (although ethical questions certainly surface). This is about generating world-class results. When teams of people come together with a shared commitment to that team’s Vision amazing things happen. For us at Integra, we grew to become one of the 10 largest companies in our industry and (according to many investment banks) among the most profitable in our sector.
This distinction regarding the behaviors of leaders that attract organizations to a shared Vision and how those behaviors differ from those that drive workers away from an organization underpins the key principles of Fusion Leadership. As the title implies, Fusion Leaders lead with an approach and a philosophy that “fuses” organizations together around a shared Vision.
As I learned through that difficult customer encounter at our open house that afternoon, articulating a Vision is only the first step in leadership. Leaders who truly change our world are those who inspire others to implement the Vision.