As small business owners, we work hard to develop ourselves as leaders and seek role models who can help show us the way. Yet we so often hear from associates, the media and people who work for large companies about corruption in top-level executives. You know, the stuff that makes the news. Rarely do we hear about the good.
And so, when I became a Huffington Post blogger, I decided I would find 10 CEOs who could perhaps teach me (and fellow small business owners) something about effective business leadership. I was also looking for leaders who had taken measures to ensure happiness in their organization, from the top down.
After three months, I found 10 CEOs who I felt fit the bill. Moreover, I discovered five traits these leaders generally had in common. Here they are:
1. Curiosity about others: I found these CEOs to be generous with their time during our interviews. But, the generosity didn't stop with their own stories. They were all curious about me and my business as well. In fact, sometimes I didn't know who was interviewing whom! Mike McNally of Skanska USA (9,600 employees) told me that he tries hard to emulate the family atmosphere that exists in successful small businesses, and we discussed strategies for finding and retaining good employees. Joel Manby of Hershend Family Entertainment also spent at least 20 minutes asking me questions about my company.
Additionally, Mike Hislop of Corner Bakery Café wanted to know what a "Time Millionaire" was (it's my coaching and speaking platform). Both he and Mr. Manby invited me to stop by a location and give them an evaluation of their company. It was fun to go into the Corner Bakery Café in Fairfax, VA and give Mr. Hislop a review of the restaurant. He acted on my suggestions right away, bringing pertinent comments to the COO of the company. I'm looking forward to checking out Hershend Family Entertainment's newly renovated Camden Aquarium as per Mr. Manby's invitation in the near future!
2. Tenacity in the face of obstacles: The CEOs shared stories of serious hardships and how they pulled through. One example was Sharon Napier of the advertising firm Partners and Napier, who told me her story of "The brave 40," as she likes to call them. "As an employee of the company, I had borrowed from my 401(k), cashed in all my insurance policies and bought out the CEO, rescuing the company from going belly up years ago. I saved the jobs of 40 people, and the next thing I knew, we had a big sign with our new name on our building. The employees chipped in themselves to buy it." Sharon's company now boasts 150 employees and four corporate headquarters across the country.
And then there's the story of Jay Steinfeld of Blinds.com. After starting his company in his garage and opening a couple of stores, he lost his wife to cancer, leaving him to raise three young children by himself. In spite of this tragedy, Jay continued to build a $90 million company.
3. Self-reflection: All of the CEOs interviewed expressed that self-reflection was key to their success. They all felt that a major part of their job was to set the example of what they wanted the company to be. Therefore, the company's core values had to closely align with their own. For example, after serving on the board of directors of Hershend Family Entertainment (owners of theme parks around the country), auto executive Joel Manby took a leap of faith, left the automotive industry, and accepted the position of CEO with Hershend. Why did he make this move? Manby discovered that the values that Hershend represented, especially in the way he saw employees being treated, more closely matched his own ideals than what he witnessed in the automotive industry.
Joel Manby's new book, Love Works, outlines seven principles of leadership, explaining that treating people with respect and dignity in a corporation is not only possible, it's necessary. Under Manby's leadership, two of Hershend's theme parks have won the highest honor in the industry: The Applause Award.
4. Great team: All of these individuals spoke of how vitally important a great team is to the health of the company. For example, CEO Julia Hu, whose "Lark" sleep monitoring devices can be found in Apple stores all over the world, states that she chooses her teammates very slowly and carefully. After parting ways with her first business partner, she set out to build an extraordinary team whose strengths complement each other. Infusionsoft's leader, Clate Mask, states that teamwork with his two brothers was key to finally (after five years) getting a software product that best served the small business market. And, Angela Jia Kim's Om Aroma store on W 11th Street in New York started to take off once she hired and trained the right manager, sales people and estheticians.
5. Perseverance: Marjorie Perry of MZM Construction stated that perseverance is crucial for success. "It took me 15 years to get to the point where I could consider myself a serious, successful businesswoman," says Perry. Perry's company has taken on many large hotel projects, and was recently subcontracted by McNally's company (Skanska USA) on the massive Met Life Stadium project in New Jersey. Among receiving numerous other awards, Ms. Perry was just named "Small Business Person of the Year" by the State of New Jersey.
Peter W. Davis principal and one of the founding partners of Epiphany Partners, Inc. indicated that "getting to success can be a painful, long process. People don't necessarily understand that." Peter has successfully built and sold one company and, at age 76, is creating another one that's already turning out to be a success: a specialized database for cancer statistics that can be used in the pharmaceutical industry.
In conclusion, I found it fascinating to speak with these individuals for a variety of reasons. First, the CEOs came across as friendly and down to earth whether they had 15 employees or 14,000, and whether they had $1 million in annual revenue or $5 billion. Everyone was easy to talk to. Second, I realized that while these leaders had very specialized skills, experience, and talents that enabled them to effectively (and happily) lead (e.g., excellent communication skills), they had also cultivated their level of mastery in business by learning from setbacks and staying in the game.