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7 CEOs share their leadership hacks

25 Feb 2020

Author and futurist Jacob Morgan explores some of the skills and mindsets CEOs have been adopting in order to flourish in the future of work.

If you want to be a great leader, it helps to learn from the best. Great leaders don’t appear overnight. They are developed over years and continue to grow their leadership skills with thoughtful routines, habits and mindsets.

As part of the research for my new book, The Future Leader, I interviewed more than 140 CEOs around the world. I asked them each to share their top leadership hack or practice to become and stay a great leader. The responses showed the diversity of approaches to leadership.

Being a mindful and prepared leader will become even more crucial in the future as the pace of change, technology, globalisation, shifting demographics and a variety of other factors will create an uncertain environment for leaders. Learning from today’s strong leaders can help future leaders develop a solid foundation, no matter what comes their way.

Here are leadership hacks from seven top CEOs.

Jacob Morgan is smiling into the camera, wearing a black t-shirt and standing in front of a white background.

Jacob Morgan. Image: The Future Organisation

Barbara Humpton: Be unexpected and unassuming

Barbara Humpton is CEO of Siemens USA where she oversees more than 50,000 employees. Her leadership hack is to be unexpected and unassuming. Leaders don’t need to present themselves as the smartest people in the room. In fact, Humpton believes their strength comes from listening to others and having an unassuming presence.

In the early days of her career, Humpton regularly surprised people by being a breath of fresh air. Instead of barging into the room thinking she knew everything, her unassuming presence brought great success and helped her build trusting relationships with the people around her.

Keith Barr: Get employee feedback

Leaders are often removed from what is actually happening with the customers. Keith Barr is CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group. With more than 400,000 employees at 5,600 hotels around the world, it’s impossible for him to really know how every customer feels, no matter how hard he tries to be on the ground. Barr realises that the higher leaders get in the company, the more detached from reality they often become.

To combat that, Barr regularly spends time with employees and customers around the world. At almost every meeting, he asks front-line employees what the company can do better. His answers have included feedback on a new laundry provider from the housekeepers, or hearing from the kitchen staff that certain deliveries are late every day.

Taking it one step further, Barr takes those insights and actually puts them into practice. He says listening to front-line employees gives him a real idea of what is and isn’t working at the hotels and keeps him grounded and connected.

Aaron Levie: Add value and communicate

Aaron Levie is CEO of Box, a rapidly growing tech company. At 34 years old, he is also one of the youngest leaders of a large organisation, overseeing more than 2,000 employees at the company he started in college.

He learned early on in his career the importance of adding value when you can and stepping out of the way when there are other people who can do the job better. It can be tempting as a leader to be involved in everything, but the best leaders realise when other people will do a better job at something and create management systems that allow people to do their best work.

Levie also recommends that leaders get exposed to what is really happening in the business and constantly communicate their vision for the future.

Peter Simpson: Follow the golden rule

Before becoming CEO of Anglian Water, Peter Simpson had a number of jobs to get through college. Those experiences taught him the importance of treating people how you would like to be treated.

One of his college jobs was as a gardener at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. The organisation was full of esteemed scientists, but many of them wouldn’t give Simpson the time of day just because he was the gardener. The people who acknowledged him stood out to Simpson because they recognised him as a person, not just a position.

It doesn’t matter what you do or where you are, you should always treat people the way you would like to be treated. Simpson believes that if the golden rule is fundamental to your mindset, you can’t go far wrong.

Chris McCann: Ask the right questions

Early on in his career, Chris McCann, now president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, learned one of the best ways to lead people is to coach them into leading themselves. Instead of giving directions, he asks questions to encourage discussion and collaboration.

McCann believes it’s important not to come across as knowing everything and instead ask the questions that get people to think and contribute in a collaborative manner.

Arnold Donald: Be authentic

Arnold Donald is CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines where he leads more than 120,000 employees around the world. His best advice is for leaders to be authentic and connect with people.

Employees have to know that they are more than just tools to make money but that the leader actually knows them and cares about them. That comes from leading by example and being committed. As Donald says, sustainable leaders can’t fake it – people will know if leaders are authentic or not by how leaders interact and connect with them.

Carrie Birkhofer: Practice self-awareness

For Carrie Birkhofer, CEO of Bay Federal Credit Union (with just over 200 people), good leadership comes from knowing yourself and always striving to improve internally.

Looking inward to see the fears and struggles she has as a person and then working to overcome those issues makes a difference in her leadership. If she is fighting with internal issues, she often finds it reflected in her outward leadership.

Birkhofer also practices self-awareness by asking people their perspective of how she leads and really listening to their feedback. When people she trusts give her suggestions for improvement, she takes them in stride and works to continually fine-tune her approach to leadership.

Taking a proactive step to seek out suggestions for how she can improve keeps Birkhofer on track with her leadership development and helps her see herself as other people see her.

Leadership doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for some people and organisations might not work for everyone. However, creating intentional habits and mindsets can help all leaders, especially those in the future, thrive in an ever-changing world.

These seven leaders show the value that comes from caring about people and continually striving to develop into a better leader, which is something all future leaders can learn from.

By Jacob Morgan

Jacob Morgan is an author, speaker, futurist and the founder of the Future of Work University.

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