My father was an Episcopal minister in the Midwest and, for my money, the best preacher I've ever seen in a pulpit. He was a masterful storyteller and charming in the way he made the Bible relevant and commanded his audience's attention. He had a charisma that reached the back of the church on Sunday mornings, but also had the power to motivate individuals. I wasn't always the ideal listener--my sister and I perfected the ability to quietly kick each other in the shins while sitting in the front pew--but I witnessed the power my father had to influence people for good, and those lessons have stayed with me to this day.
We are different people in many ways, my father and I, and have obviously followed very different career paths. But as the company I lead has expanded and experienced growing pains over the past few years and I've come to crossroads and dealt with unfamiliar situations as its CEO, I've realized that Midwestern minister taught me a lot me about being a leader.
Get People on Board
Within the church, my father was a change agent; he was somebody who would go into a problem organization, recognize what was wrong, and get it fixed. So he was sent to churches that were having difficulties--maybe the current minister was having personal issues, or the church had fiscal problems, or it was new and needed to transition from mission level into a full-fledged church.
As we've tackled our own transitions and reassessed our goals at my company, I remembered how my dad would go right to work when we arrived in a new church. He opened lines of communication with the whole congregation from the pulpit, and he was an amazing motivator one-on-one. Whether it was a donation he really needed to pursue a program, or an important deacon whose thinking he needed to influence to support a change, each of those individual conversations added up. Sometimes enlisting individual supporters is important to rallying a team to carry a leader's plans forward.
Get Your Game Face On
Once my dad put a church on solid footing, he was always asked to go fix the next one. We never actually lived in a place for more than about two years, which turned out to be pretty good training for corporate life in itself, when you have to be willing to move around and start over in a new place.
But the lessons only began there: When you are a minister's kid, especially in the small towns where we mostly lived, you are very much in the public eye. There's a kind of perfection expected of minister's kids that may not exist in reality--I know it didn't in my case--but you are aware that you are being held to a standard that other kids may not experience.
That was strong training for corporate life, too. There are mornings, not many thankfully, but they happen, when I head to work knowing it's going to be a rough day. When you're the leader, everyone is looking at you--and --looking to you. No matter how you feel inside, those are the days when you give your shoes an extra polish, pull your tie up straight, and hold your shoulders high, a corporate version of our "Sunday best."
Have a Vision and Stick to It
The biggest challenge of my dad's career before he retired was a project in Chicago, a massive church on the South Shore that was very well endowed and economically sound. It owned an office building, and the church itself was on the fifth floor; it basically ministered to the office workers. My dad, always a disrupter, had a completely different vision for expanding the mission of church outside those four walls. In fact, in a bold move, he sold the office building and moved the church into the Printer's Row area of Chicago, which while transformed now, in the 1980s, was a dicey neighborhood. My dad's vision was to create a new, more open physical structure that would engage new parishioners in that area, and he did it. He created an award-winning loft-style building with a vibrant community of members.
The church's trustees weren't all behind the project at the beginning, but they had to be in agreement to get the office building sold. It took a lot for my dad to convince everybody, and it did not happen overnight. During this time, I saw in my dad this unwavering conviction and belief in the mission. At that point, I was old enough to understand all the side conversations and twists and turns it took to get the job done and how much dad needed to stick to his dream and vision to be able to persuade others.
My dad had such conviction that the setbacks he suffered didn't really set him back much at all. His attitude was more about "How do I work harder?" That resilience became a really important lesson for me. Another was that when it's time to make big changes a leader had better truly understand his or her vision to be able to articulate it and influence others.
Leadership Lessons that Last
Coincidentally, I work with a number of PKs--preacher's kids--and while we didn't all share exactly the same experiences, there was certainly something formative about that particular upbringing that has influenced most of us throughout our lives. The standards I was raised with are with me today, in my understanding of the importance of buy-in and reaching alignment, in the way I view my responsibility to represent our company and its stakeholders well, and in my absolute conviction that leading with mission and purpose is the best way to get to the right outcome for all.
Of course, in any leader's life there are times that test the lessons we learned in our youth. In moments like those, and there are more of them than you might expect for a corporate CEO, this PK can hear his dad's voice, and for that I am grateful.