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Top Leadership Tips from CEOs of Ford, Silver Oak, Southwest & Chick-fil-A

(posted: March 4th, 2019)

For those of you who don't know, I recently attended a conference hosted by Patrick Lencioni and his Table Group. You probably know Pat as the author of books like The Advantage and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Dubbed The UnConference, this was a three-day event filled with insights and inspiration from the leaders of highly successful organizations that prioritize their teams, their employees, and their company culture.

I can hear you thinking, "Hey! Kristi went to Patrick Lencioni's UnConference, and all I got was this recap! What gives?"

Okay, yes, I attended three days of the UnConference (don't you love the name?) without you. But you said you were busy! So I said I'd bring back goodies to share, and I have.

But first, a short quiz.

What do the CEOs (or former CEOs) of Silver Oak Cellars, Chick-fil-A, Ford, and Southwest Airlines have in common?

A. Consistently successful products or services
B. Ongoing positive sales growth and/or revenue
C. Happy customers
D. A cohesive leadership team
E. Focus on organizational health
F. A rubber chicken
G. All of the above
H. All of the above except F

If you chose A, B, C, D, E, or H, you win! And the prize is...the satisfaction of knowing you were right!

Goodies from the UnConference

Hearing from leaders themselves about their experiences in pursuit of organizational health, and the outcomes and benefits, was eye-opening. For some of them, it was a natural part of their leadership, while others came to it as an answer to their challenges.

One thing that was clear, though, is that visionary leaders, or any leaders who recognize that they need success to be sustainable over time, are embracing the ideas of improving their teams, finding genuine ways to engage their employees, and consciously choosing to work on their company culture. But let's hear it directly from them.

Tips & Inspiration for Leaders from Alan, David, Gary, & Chick-fil-A

One thing that we heard from all the leaders across all three days was that creating a strong, effective culture within your company takes time. It is an investment in organizational health, and it requires dedication from the CEO, the other leaders, and the teams. However, they were all also really clear that the ROI is priceless.

David Duncan, CEO Silver Oak Cellars: Create Space for Change

You probably know Napa's Silver Oak for their Cabernet wines, but you may not know that they are a second-generation family business. David Duncan and his brother now run the company their father started in 1974, and their wines have reached legendary status. They also continuously look to incorporate sustainable options for the winery and their wine production process.

Duncan is, as he says, a lifelong student of leadership, always learning and growing. He has taken his team through the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team program several times, and even though all of their behaviors register "green" (highly functional) they still revisit the work to help them stay engaged and collaborative.

"I have supreme confidence that organizational health is the most important thing in business. I don't have supreme confidence in anything in business EXCEPT this." David Duncan, CEO, Silver Oak Cellars

Duncan is adamant that the time spent on improving organizational health by encouraging new behaviors, especially in the leadership team, is the most valuable expenditure a company can make. "Other leaders say that they can't justify the expense, or the perceived rate of return. But what is the cost of losing an employee? What about if they sue the company? What is the "soft" cost of disruption to the team? Any costs pale in comparison to the gains, and the primary cost is time."

Duncan's top tips? In addition to the ROI, he says:

  • Take the time to do the work. It's not just a flip of a switch and everything is going to go well. It's risky.
  • Make the space to be together as a team to learn and be courageous. Retreats are perfect for this, even if you just "retreat" to your conference room and exclude all other work for a select period of time.
  • Change mindsets to change behavior. Let go of egos to move forward.

Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Company 2006 - 2014: One Ford, People First

Alan Mulally turned Ford around in spite of an economic crash and recession with his now-legendary leadership style, leading Ford to become the #1 automobile brand in the U.S.

He was an amazing speaker, so humble and so smart about people! The first half of Mulally's focus when he took over Ford was on behavior and culture. Values are important, but making sure people understand the behaviors that are expected in support of those values is critical. He says, "People need to be reminded more than instructed. The boss needs to be the CRO, Chief Reminder Officer."

Mulally printed cards with his One Ford goals and behaviors on one side and his working together principles on the other. He handed the cards out, kept them with him, and talked about the process and expected behaviors constantly - CRO in action!

Alan Mulally's Working Together: Principles, Practices and Management System

  • People first...love them up
  • Everyone is included
  • Compelling vision, comprehensive strategy, relentless implementation
  • Clear performance goals
  • One plan shared with all
  • Facts and data shared with all
  • Everyone knows the plan, the status, and areas that need special attention
  • Propose a plan, positive, "find-a-way" attitude
  • Respect, listen, help, and appreciate each other
  • Emotional resilience - trust the process
  • Have fun - enjoy the journey and each other

There is a story from Mulally's earliest days at Ford: In his very first BPR (Business Plan Review) with senior executives, Mulally stopped the meeting about halfway in and said, "We're going to lose billions of dollars this year. Why is every line on every chart green? Isn't there anything that's not going well here?" The executives were conditioned to hedge and not bring bad news to their boss.

Before the second BPR, the President of Ford Americas at the time, Mark Fields, contemplated his report. The new Ford Edge was in production, but there'd been some problems. Would delaying the launch to find and fix the problems enrage his new boss?

"Turning an unhealthy company into a healthy one will not only create a massive competitive advantage and improved bottom line; it will also make a real difference in the lives of the people who work there. And for the leaders who spearhead those efforts, it will be one of the most meaningful and rewarding endeavors they will ever pursue." ~ Patrick Lencioni

In the second BPR meeting, Fields was the only one whose slide showed any red. The room was dead silent, and his colleagues remember thinking things like, "Dead man walking" and "I wonder who will get his job?" But then someone started clapping. It was Mulally, who said, "Mark, that's great visibility. Who can help Mark with this?"

When that meeting ended with Fields still in charge of the Americas, his peers stepped up to communicate honestly what was happening in their divisions. A week later everyone's slides were covered in red. And Mulally thought, "Now I know why we're losing so much money! But they also trust me, and the process, and we finally have it all out in the open. Now we can start fixing it."

With his questioning of the validity of the data, and then his positive reaction to seeing poor results, Mulally instantly gave his team the space and the respect to be open and honest. Then they could actually work to identify and solve the problems rather than brushing them under the rug.

Clearly, Alan Mulally was onto something. Check out American Icon for more about how Mulally's innovative leadership saved Ford.

Gary Kelly, CEO Southwest Airlines: Committed to Dignity and Culture

Southwest Airlines has consistently received the fewest ratio of complaints per passengers boarded of all major U.S. carriers since 1987. They are the 3rd largest airline in the world, employ approximately 58,000 people and have never had a layoff in their 47 years. They are in their 45th consecutive year of profitability, and were on Fortune's "World's Most Admired Companies" list for the 24th consecutive year.

Founder Herb Kelleher: The core of their success is the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. "They can buy all the physical things. The things you can't buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty - the feeling that you are participating in a crusade."

In spite of Southwest's continued success, their executives and employees aren't complacent. They are always striving to improve their culture.

Kelly says that they use the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team to remind them to be hungry, humble, and smart as a leadership team, and they ensure that the team leaves meetings with clear-cut, active, and specific agreements about decisions. See also Death By Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni

They are clear about their purpose, grounded in who they are and what they stand for, and hire carefully for people who embrace the culture, mission, and vision. Their CLO (Chief Learning Officer) also spoke, and was clear about the importance of training and culture, and making people feel that they matter and the work they do matters.

Tim & Andrew, President & Sr. Vice President, Chick-fil-A: Value People, Serve the Community

They've experienced a more than 10% sales increase almost every year since launching in 1946, reporting more than $9 billion in revenue in 2017, marking 50 consecutive years of sales growth, and ranked #1 in customer satisfaction three years in a row.

The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition is to treat every person with honor, dignity, and respect and to serve great food with genuine hospitality. They, like other successful company cultures, recruit for culture first, focusing on their three C's: character, competency, and chemistry.

We should be about more than just selling chicken. We should be a part of our customers' lives and the communities in which we serve." ~ S. Truett Cathy, Founder

Excited to Come to Work

As you can see, these successful companies are similar in their approach to culture and their commitment to the development and health of their leaders and teams. What's more, three of the four are family businesses whose successes came because of, not in spite of, their focus on people. They all want their employees, at all levels to come to work excited, not to pull into the parking lot and say, "Oh no, HE is here."

I hope that you find inspiration in these stories from successful companies. If prioritizing organizational health was this beneficial for them, imagine what it could do for your team and/or your company!

Learn more about how the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team helps teams go from "meh" to "Yeah!"

Challenge Yourself
  • How do you prioritize your company culture as a leader?
  • What is your experience with being on, or leading, a team that doesn't quite function as it should?
  • Have you experienced the benefits of exceptional teamwork? What was that like?

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