10 Leadership Lessons from a CEO Mentor

Over the first 35 years of my career — in roles ranging from fudge maker to CEO — I’ve experienced lots of different leaders. A few were great, like Wayne Calloway, former CEO of PepsiCo, many were quite good and some, quite frankly, were awful.

I’ve learned a lot from each and every one — what to do, what not to do and just how hard it is to be a great leader day in and day out, year in and year out. Here are ten of the many lessons that helped me grow into a successful leader:

  1. Mission matters. Job one for leaders is to connect people to a meaningful purpose, worthwhile work and a chance to make a difference in other’s lives. Research has shown that when a leader can connect people to a mission that’s greater than themselves, it has a huge impact on their motivation and their work performance as well as their health and well-being, whether they’re selling soda or changing the world.
  2. A leader’s primary job is to help other people be successful — customers, staff and investors. It is never about the leader’s success first.
  3. Listening — to customers, staff and investors — is the most powerful skill a leader can possess. As Stephen Covey said, Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  4. Trust is the currency of leadership; it is earned and lost every day through actions — big and small — more than words. Trust is built on clearly articulated values that guide strategy, priority setting, decision making, investments and relationships.
  5. Having the right people on board is essential — select candidates for competence but hire people for character. Never, ever settle. And, as hard as it is, never allow individuals with the wrong values to stay and poison the organization — especially high performers.
  6. Given the right leadership, people will surprise you with what they can do and just how smart they are. Frontline staff knows most of the problems and a lot of the answers.
  7. People will tolerate management’s conclusions but will act on their own.
  8. Success requires answering the five questions that every member of the team wants to know:  What do you want me to do?  How am I doing?  Where do you want me to go from here?  How do I get there?  What is in it for me?  They want to know this for the strategy, the operating plan and very, very personally for their job.
  9. Providing measurement, feedback and lots of recognition is essential to driving high performance, continuous improvement and effective teams.
  10. Trust but verify. While trust is a foundation of leadership, blind trust doesn’t serve any team well. Instead, leaders should assume their teammates have positive intentions but look for opportunities to check the facts themselves.

Becoming a great leader is a lifelong journey just as being a great person is a lifelong journey. Great leaders and great people are always learning, always growing and always seeking to become their best selves.

At Building Champions, we coach great leaders to lead with intention. Contact us today to learn how you can work with a coach to become the leader you’ve always wanted to be.

Gavin Kerr is our newest CEO Mentor. Click here to read more about his career and experience.


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