Life has a funny way of complicating simple things. Business books, courses, lectures, seminars…they usually go into deep descriptions about the profound qualities needed to be a good leader. But when you break it down, the basic requirements are the same ones we learned as children.
In our new book, Uplifting Women* (*Who Happen to be Women), we personally interviewed 25 of the nation’s most influential women business leaders to uncover how each of them empowers and uplifts others as they seek to progress in their lives and careers.
The insights and advice from these accomplished women (many of whom are located here in the Greater Cleveland area) didn’t come in the form of detailed matrices or lengthy how-to manuals. Instead, we learned these women maintain some simple—yet highly effective—truths:
- Have Courage. According to Denise Morrison, president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, “What you go through makes you who you are. I have more confidence than when I started out, and I’ve learned to trust the great talent working for me. But leaders have to lead, and you need a clear direction and a clear vision to do that. Then, encourage people to use creativity in how they bring that vision to life.” Courage and conviction are prerequisites for trailblazers like Morrison, who must adapt seamlessly to change.
“If things stray from the status quo, don’t wait for everything to get back to normal. Change is the new normal. In fact, it may be riskier not to change. And it’s so much better to lead change than be a victim of it” she says.
- Always Be Yourself. “Bring your whole self to work. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s been true for me, says Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council. “When I couldn’t be fully me and had to hide parts of myself, it limited my creativity and ability to fully engage in the work because it took so much energy to hide.”In Uplifting Leaders, Sherman shares her experience as an LGBT leader in a company that consistently denied domestic partnership benefits, while harboring negativity toward others in the gay community.
“On my last day, I went to the CEO’s office to say goodbye. I had the courage then to tell him why I was leaving. He was blown away. He’d had no idea about me. I explained that I couldn’t work in a place where domestic partnership benefits had been blocked over and over and where it took two years to write the words ‘sexual orientation’ into the diversity policy.” Months later, the company changed its policies and practices.
- Come Prepared. “How you show up every day is incredibly important. When you go into meetings or have an opportunity to address employees or a community group, be prepared. Everything you do needs to be conscious. It needs to be purposeful. You can never sleepwalk through your day,” says Beth Mooney, chairman and CEO of Keycorp.Mooney stresses the importance of preparation and staying present in any career—right from the start.“When you get the top spot, you’re the dog who chased the car and caught it. I remember how I felt when that happened to me. Even though I had aspired to a position like this my whole life, I was in stark terror mode. In my fear, I wondered if I’d ever be able to say this was the most satisfying time in my career.”
“But I had a deep sense of obligation, and I knew people were watching my every move. So, from my first day, with purposeful consciousness, I began planning how I would reach out to people and map out the goals that I set. I was determined to come to work every day prepared and organized with a thoughtful plan.”
- Find Your Purpose. “Find your own center and stay grounded. It all comes back to being driven to do something in the world that really matters,” says Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, vice chair of GOJO, a health and hygiene solutions company that invented PURELL Hand Sanitizer.Kanfer Rolnick notes that this self-reflection came through a mentor outside of her traditional work setting, Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service (AJWS).
“Through her own clarity of purpose and self-knowledge of her towering strengths, Ruth has inspired me to keep asking myself, ‘What’s my purpose? What change do I want to drive (since I can’t do everything)?’ to keep me from becoming complacent, diffused or ineffective.”
- Work Hard and Take One Step at a Time. “Be willing to work harder than anybody else, to roll up your sleeves when others have said, ‘Okay, this is enough.’ You can’t get away from hard work or ‘time on task’ if you really want to get to the top of your field,” says Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, CEO of Dream/Cather Educational Consulting Service and former president of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C).“My dad used to say, ‘There’s no elevator to the top. It’s one step at a time.’ So whenever I skip the elevator and take the stairs, I think about that. I say to myself, ‘It’s one step at a time…one step at a time,’” she says.
“I believe this is something young professionals need to be mindful of—I’m not sure they see those steps. They’re looking for the elevator.”
What we learned from gathering these women’s stories was that accomplished leaders carry with them simple life lessons that go well beyond textbooks and classrooms. If you’re seeking to provide good corporate leadership—the kind that drives better business results—get back to basics by breathing new life into those fundamental pieces of wisdom you learned growing up.