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Play Chess, not Checkers

Part 1: The Best-Practiced Advice from Top Leaders

For three decades and counting, I have had the pleasure of partnering with hundreds of top leaders across numerous industries. There is no better talent pool to ask for leadership advice and lessons by which to live. As expected, there are common threads, so in no particular order, here are the first eight insights:

1) Be on time

This translates to “be early.” If you are on time, you are late, and if you are late, you are forgotten. This simple practice has been instilled from an early age by parents, coaches, teachers and managers, which makes it the most useful and most oft-repeated advice we've heard. First impressions matter and being on time (read: early) sends a positive message that you are organized, ready for whatever you showed up to do, and respect and value the time of others.

2) Trust is the fundamental basis of leadership

"Empower and show people that you trust and believe in them, and they will go through walls for you." Stuart Jablon, former President and COO of Backyard Farms, recalls promoting an individual into a senior leadership role in the face of adamant push back from a skeptical and vocal board member. Thrilled with the opportunity, the individual rose to the occasion, embraced the challenge and won over the board member. She built a strong team, took on more responsibility, and restructured the function to be more efficient and supportive of company's goals. It was a win/win for all and never would have happened without the gift of trust which, of course, has to be earned by all parties involved.

3) Mentor and develop your team

Every leader we've spoken to or even read about has underscored that mentoring and developing someone benefits the individual as well as the entire business. Every successful leader can recall at least one mentor who made an enormous impact on his/her development and finds tremendous joy in guiding their successors.

4) Be approachable and consistent: What you see is what you get

No one wants a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde as a manager or a peer. Show up the same person every day, so people know what to expect. Treat others as you wish to be treated, with honest, open and transparent communication, so people feel comfortable to express their thoughts, positive or negative, within a supportive environment where there is mutual respect no matter the circumstances.

5) Love it, leave it, or change it

It is inspiring and rewarding to lead teams when you passionately believe in the mission and can motivate and create a sense of being part of something important and greater than oneself. On the other hand, it's hard—if not darn near impossible—to lead when you don't believe in the mission, culture or leadership. Therefore, standard advice from these top leaders is to drive positive change to build an environment that will get the team back on track, or if that is not possible, leave before it gets toxic.

6) Play chess, not checkers

In checkers, all the pieces are the same, and they all make the same moves. In chess, each piece is unique and has strengths and limitations due to the role it plays. Outstanding leaders recognize this; they know their team's strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and build high-performing teams around their combined skill sets. Alisha Alaimo, Senior Vice President and Head, US Organization, at Biogen, inspires her team to be the best they can be, leveraging their unique "superpowers."

7) Trust your gut: Take educated risks and follow your instinct

No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. However, top leaders gain invaluable knowledge from their past experiences and strike the right balance with their core instinct. If they guess right, they reap the rewards; if they guess wrong, they own it and learn from it.

8) Have the confidence to make the tough decisions, even if they are unpopular

Leaders must make difficult decisions with grace and communicate transparently with an explanation. For example, a CEO can explain that the decision to restructure was in the best interest of the business.

Bruce Cozadd, CEO of Jazz Pharmaceuticals, had to drastically reduce the company's workforce in 2008 to keep the company afloat during a time of financial crisis. When he announced the reduction, he told his team: "Look around the room. The people you thought of as valuable colleagues yesterday—part of your team and the fabric of this company—did not suddenly get less talented in the last 24 hours. This isn't about them. It's about the company's need to survive."

He handled this terrible situation with such thoughtful sensitivity that the majority who were downsized returned to work for him when the business turned around. "It is not how you treat your star performer whom you're promoting, but how you treat the employees you have to let go. What are they going to say about the company after they walk out the door?" Anyone can look good during happy times. Rather, it is how one leads in overcoming tough challenges along the way that demonstrates true character and defines a true leader.

Next week, we will continue with Part 2: Best-Practiced Advice from Top Leaders.

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Beth Ehrgott

Beth Ehrgott

Managing Director