Key lessons from America’s top executives.
By Harlan Steinbaum, author of “Tough Calls from the Corner Office”
When I decided to buy back my company, a large retail drug chain, from a corporate conglomerate, my life changed dramatically. The personal impact this one business decision—this “tough call”—had on me made me wonder if others had experienced similar kinds of defining moments in their own careers. To find out, I reached out to some of the most successful executives in the country—leaders from companies such as Verizon, Chrysler, ESPN, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Wellpoint, Monsanto, Ogilvy and Mather, Build-A-Bear, McDonnell Douglas, and Panera Bread Company—to explore the career-defining decisions that were integral to their success.
The result of that journey is “Tough Calls from the Corner Office,”a series of personal stories told by top business executives about the single most important business decision they made during their business careers. The book provides an insider’s view into the surrounding events, stakes, and pressures of the decision-makingprocess. Through these stories, we see how these top executives handle no-win situations, manage risk, take advantage of opportunities, and how they respond in crisis.
Of course, each story has a unique setting and plot, but there are some important and universal principles that run through each of them. I can vouch for the validity of these principles as I have experienced or witnessed them and absorbed them in my own career. If anything can be called universal, these principles certainly come close.
Below are excerpts from the book, taken from the final chapter where I sum up the key lessons from this extraordinary journey into the lives and “tough calls” of America’s top executives.
There’s no substitute for strong leadership. I define leadership as theability to set a direction and motivate people to move in that direction. Sometimes this requires getting people to do things they initially don’t want to do or don’t think they can. It’s about getting them into a mindset in which they genuinely wantto follow the mission and they put their reservations aside. You don’t always get to make important decisions under ideal circumstances. Any effective leader must be comfortable operating in this environment.
Ethical behavior is not just right;it’s smart business. I would hope ethical conduct would be an obvious and compelling principle in its own right,but we constantly see so many business leaders and people in general sailing ethically rudderless that it’s apparently not so obvious. If you are at all cynical about the benefits of principled behavior, then these stories, I hope, have convinced you it’s not just right, it’s also smart business. For every deal point, negotiating position, higher price, or other advantage you might give up by being ethical, you’ll get it back in multiples for doing the right thing and the moral thing.
Always have a plan. I’ve heard corporate executives say,“My industry moves too fast for strategic plans,” and I’ve spoken to entrepreneurs who feel they are too busy to go throughthe “academic” exercise of business planning (unless,of course,they’re looking for money from professional investors, in which case they’re forced to go through the motions). Planning is not about tying yourself down to any particular set of steps. It’sabout disciplined thinking—forcing yourself and your team to work through issues so you’re prepared either to follow the script as it continues to make sense or go off in new directions as necessary. Planning is about imagining the future, and when circumstances change, re-imagining it.
Be comfortable with risk. No business is without risks. Even in the slowest-moving, most conservative industries, there’s always a challenge, always some changing circumstances that must be dealt with. (Who would have thought the stolid mortgage banking industry would be turned into a behemoth that could savage our economy?) Business is about risk management, which means you are constantly analyzing and assessing new scenarios. I’m not a gambler by nature, but as an executive, I had to take risks. For me, my task was getting as comfortable as I could with the information I had. If you are truly risk averse, you probably don’t want to be the boss. Remember, not to act is still an action.
Know yourself and follow your heart. We’ve seen in many stories throughout the book how CEOs listened to their inner voice despite conventional wisdom. Every good leader must have the courage to go against the pack, or even against advice of respected advisors, family,or friends, if his or her internal compass is pointing in a different direction.
Take responsibility. Nobody is perfect—andthat includes you and everyone you’ll ever work with. When the outcomes of your actions become clear, it’s fine to take credit where credit is due (although even better if others give it to you), but it’s more important to accept the blame when it all goes wrong. Be humble in success and open in failure. Once again, if you’re cynical about what should be an obvious principle, how about this: When you fail, you’re usually going to be found out anyway, so take responsibility upfront;you’ll look strong.
Never stop learning. Leaders are naturally curious about every aspect of business, the complex psychology of work, the management of people and enterprises. They are hungry to know more. I tell would-be leaders that it’s not enough to go up the mountain, you also should want to find out what’s on the other side. And in the pursuit of knowledge, there is no such thing as a stupid question. If it’s important to you to know the answer, then it’s important to ask the question.
Since there is no complete user’s manual for business, the best way to learn is through our own experiences and, much less painfully, through the experiences of others who have walked the pathbefore us. Faced with any difficult business or career decision, you are ultimately on your own. Nobody can definitively tell you the right answer. But by broadening the inputs—and listening to the voices of those whose journeys have taken them to similarplaces—we can find comfort, direction, and inspiration for the moments that will determine our course, and on those rare and special occasions, those moments that will come to define us.
Harlan Steinbaumwas the founding chairman of Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits management company ranked 135 on the Fortune 500 list, and former chairman and CEO of retail pharmacy chain Medicare-Glaser Corp.“Tough Calls from the Corner Office,”published by HarperCollins, is his first book. For more information, visithttp://www.amazon.com/Tough-Calls-Corner-Office-Career-Defining/dp/0061802492/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1.