A Test For Leaders: How the Company Operates When You’re Not in the Room

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

Robby Swinnen, who’s one of our mentors at Merryck & Co., a senior leadership development firm, has deep experience as a global business leader in sales, marketing and operations. In our conversation, he shared memorable insights about what it means to be an authentic leader and how to create an effective culture.

Q. What themes come up most often with all the executives you’ve advised with over the years?

A. It doesn’t matter what industry the executives are in or where they are on their career ladder, it’s all about how we, as humans, are wrestling with our core desires, our fears, our aspirations. Often it’s about how we are able to manage the voices inside of our heads to either help us in where we want to go, or the ones holding us back to achieve what we most desire at this stage of our life.

It’s the dichotomy between the sage pushing you forward and the saboteur voices holding you back. Those include, “I’m not good enough, I’m a fraud, somebody is going to figure out that I’m not as good as they think I am. Who do you think you are?”

If I connect that to the challenges that executives are facing today, it shows up in the pace of change and the fear of disruption, and the leader’s ability to foresee and plan for them. That often leads to them wondering, “I know it’s coming. Am I good enough to navigate this?”

Q. And what are the key skills to leading in that context?

A. At the simplest level, it’s IQ (cognitive intelligence) and EQ (emotional intelligence). IQ is table stakes in today’s leadership toolkit. The real differentiator is having EQ capabilities, like self-awareness and social awareness, to not only accelerate your career, the output of your organization, but also your life as a whole person.

Leaders often underestimate the importance of creating an environment where everyone can be human, and leaders can be seen as being human. The need to build a trusted and committed leadership team around you is critical for success in an ever-changing and fast-paced environment.

As an example, when I was running Asia Pacific for Intel, I knew the names of many of my employees, and about their life outside of work, including the janitor of the building. He and I had the same rhythm in the morning. I was one of the first ones in the office and often ran into him as he was doing his daily tasks. He was Cantonese Hong Kong, spoke a bit of broken English, but we had our small conversations.

“Be as genuine to the janitor as you are to the CEO.”

My philosophy is, “Be as genuine to the janitor as you are to the CEO. People are people and we all want to be seen.” Your ability to be human really shines through within your organization. You can’t fake it. You want to be genuine. That way you get a real feel about what is going on in your organization at all levels, including the culture.

Q. What is the playbook for developing committed leadership teams?

A. The word commitment means creating an environment where people are all-in with their heads, their hearts and their guts. You cannot demand somebody to be committed. They can be compliant to directions, strategies and tactics. But once you get their heart behind the task at hand, they will move heaven and earth in their teams to achieve what needs to be achieved because they are part of a bigger thing and are passionate about it.

That starts with galvanizing your organization around a common purpose, and then unleashing everyone to play their role in achieving it. You have to be able to instill pride in what your organization and the company does and, of course, you have to believe it yourself.

Q. What are the patterns you’ve noticed over the years about corporate cultures?

A. Let’s start with the positive ones. There will always be a degree of ambiguity in any organization, but the role of the leader is to minimize the ambiguity and provide as much clarity as possible so everyone can operate within that framework to execute. At the foundational level, the role of the leader is to simplify complexity.

Next comes clear, consistent and continuous communication. You can’t repeat things enough. When you think, “I don’t want to say this again, because people think I’m repeating myself over and over and over,” that’s when they really start to get it. That way, you create clarity around what’s important, what you stand for, what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to execute.

In toxic cultures, there are unfortunate examples of executives who are highly involved in the tactical execution throughout their organizations. They can reach multiple layers down into the organization and put their hands on the operational steering wheel. That basically neuters everything in the leadership chain. There is little consistent empowerment, and it also creates a culture of fear and then paralyzes the execution and achievement of long-lasting goals and objectives.

Q. What were early influences for you?

A. I grew up on an Army base in Germany. There was a code of honor, discipline, resilience and ingenuity, and they were part of daily life. My mother taught me empathy, the softer angles of a harsher military environment.

I was also captain of my soccer teams from a young age and into university. That gave me an opportunity to learn from highs, but also from failures I made about how not to lead. Later, I was an officer in special reconnaissance forces, and there I learned the value of leading by example and to improvise. That’s were I learned to see when people follow with their heart, and not just because of rank or authority.

Q. What has been a key leadership lesson for you personally?

A. One liberating moment for me was when I realized I did not have to be the smartest person in the room. If you as a leader think you need to be the expert in every single field that you are overseeing, you will stifle the organization and limit innovation to your level of knowledge. My leadership responsibility was to create a safe, diverse and trusted environment, where the smartest people possible could be their best selves.

Those are foundations to create the highest performing team and to bring diversity of thought into the conversation. When I realized that, a weight fell off my shoulder. A key test then became, how does the organization operate when I was not in the room?

Early on, I also learned from some important mentors that “you have to say what you think, and you have to do what you say.” It sounds simple, but it’s hard to do. You’ve got to be true to yourself at all times along your leadership journey.

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