Leadership : a personal story of transformation

As a result of my last post, 21st Century Leadership, many of you have written me asking for examples of such necessary transformation and adaptability. I thought of many scenarios of famous, well publicized leaders. Names of people we all respect a great deal, spanning politics, business, technology, etc. Instead, I decided to share a personal story I had submitted as part of a graduate paper for a class project at Harvard while discussing Leadership mini strengths.

In the summer of 2001 I received a phone call from a recruiting company asking if I would be interested in taking over as president of a company in XXXXXXX, Canada. The company was XXX . My immediate reaction was that the caller most likely was an intern, or first year associate, who had overestimated the qualities I had listed on my online resume. I without further ado discounted the phone conversation and went back to my Chess game. A week later I had received a second call. This time it was the principal of the recruiting company asking to meet me in person. To make a long story short, within a months’ time, I had met the owners and board of directors of XXX at some inconspicuous hotel in downtown Toronto. What began to emerge from the series of meetings that followed was that XXX was looking for a candidate that had traits that were dissimilar to the candidate being replaced. They were looking for a leader, first. They were looking for someone who can easily adapt to the changes in the market place. They needed an person who easily adapted to the cultural changes brought about the many faces, religions, and ethnic backgrounds that comprised the service industry in Canada. They had realized, accidentally, that the job required a leader with emotional intelligence, and not necessarily technical or subject expertise. A good leader, through collaboration and a common cause, can put together a team of people who are experts in their own fields, and good managers who speed up the company vision, they surmised. In spite of my lack of experience in leading anything more than a $10 million operation, they had decided I was that candidate.

I had many mixed feeling and thoughts, including occasional self-doubt, in taking on such a monumental task. But, for every moment of self-doubt, there were many that were exhilarating.  I remember talking to colleagues and any one that would listen about the challenges of the position. I asked many questions, and began reading anything I can get my hands on. Most of my research focused on vision, mission, team building, buy-in, transparency, accountability, and over all leadership. I enlisted the help of the internet in researching national companies in the US, who the leaders were and their success and failure stories. I made appointments with some notable companies in the Boston area that provided similar services to XXX Corp.

I officially took the position three months to the day my chess game was interrupted by a phone call from a head hunter. And almost immediately my excitement began to wane.  On my thirty-day anniversary at the position, I woke up to CNN broadcasting the twin tower terrorist attack on NYC. That was the beginning of what, undoubtedly, will be the most difficult time in my professional career. I never complained much about it, especially when reading news clipping of what America in general, and the families of the victims of the attack, in particular, were going through.

My challenges grew exponentially, and they were not just professional. My North African- Muslim background provided much of the fodder for the fuel my detractors needed. Add to that my no non-sense and straight forward style of leadership, and you had a formula for an explosive situation. On one occasion, a young disgruntled manager placed a box cutters in the trunk of car the day I was to drive back to Boston to see my son, hoping that customs would catch it.

I realized much-needed to be done, and quickly, that required very little in spreadsheets, charts, or weekly conference calls. With the help of the ownership, and a few supporters, I began a series of “town hall” meetings that would have made Barak Obama’s campaign manager during the last presidential elections very proud. I covered every division and outlet in a matter of weeks. I spoke to every employee, as most attended. Some were there to meet this young “American maverick”, others out of curiosity about what an Arab-American Muslim looked and sounded like. The rest, I had hoped, believed in my vision of change, and were there to offer support. As I recall thinking half way through this campaign, every leader of a large organization needed a road show like this one. For, I believe, I had learned some very valuable leadership lessons, and in the meantime, stumbled upon the very core of the problems ailing the organization.

Conspicuously absent from many of these voluntary meetings were several unit mangers and non-core administrative staff. They had not drunk the cool aid, and were waiting on the sidelines for the momentum of this new style of leadership to fizzle away. Perhaps they thought I would tire and give up. They were the old guard, and they were dead wrong. I actually anticipated and was ready for this part of the turnaround. What was really surprising though, was the amount of distrust and negative- counterproductive energy that permeated in the halls, dining rooms, and employee cafeterias. For years, according to most employees, the company took and never gave back. Soon I realized my promises for change would fall on deaf ears. Just like others before me.

My plan was to build not only consensus, but also ownership and buy-in, through accountability and transparency. I was the first to volunteer for this plan. I made my compensation public and a function of the general performance of the company. Soon afterwords, I suggested, through indirect influence, that all managers do the same, each reflecting the performance of his or her unit of operation. Then I made sure all that information was available on a company intranet that all employees could access with a simple user name and password. The results were not surprising. Within a year’s time, the old guard had changed to new, invigorated, and full of energy and passion type of future leaders. Employee retention improved by nearly 200%, and same store sales realized a double-digit yearly growth rate (The last part of the plan never took place. In fact, other internal issues within the company derailed these efforts from being realized, even though there was every indication that we were on our way)

I later decided that seeing my son more than just on the weekends was more rewarding, and returned to Boston. My mission of taking on a monumental challenge, and succeeding, was accomplished.

Disclaimer: Although this is a personal account; names, dates and financial data were changed to protect against any possible breach of confidentiality.

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