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Six leadership lessons that every CEO should follow

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My interest in leadership began long before I became CEO of an 85,000-member, South Carolina-based credit union in 2013. It began early in my 39-year career as I absorbed lessons from everyone around me. And I mean everyone.

I didn’t learn just from the higher-ups. One of my best role models was Charlton, a security officer at a California credit union where I worked early in my career. He was always upbeat, always happy to see you and interested in knowing you. He treated everyone with the same respect. He greeted me – a rookie discount broker – with the same enthusiasm he did the CEO.

Treating people equally, no matter their title, is a good policy for any leader. Being an egalitarian is necessary at a credit union. Some of our members are people big banks overlook. They may have limited savings; they may have consumer debt. It’s our duty – and should be our honor – to educate them on how to build a more secure financial future.

Working at a credit union is in my blood. If you’re a member, you’re an owner. It’s that simple, and I love it. We’re all in this together. And together is one of my favorite ways to learn. I try to learn something from everyone I encounter. Here are the six biggest lessons I’ve learned in business and in life.

First, be a collaboration junkie. No one gets by alone. Ask for input, because the team will always come up with a better idea than any individual can.
Some behavioral scientists have looked to the military to understand teamwork. “How well people work together may be more important than how well they work on the tasks,” says Gerald F. Goodwin, of the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. “The secret sauce comes from the teamwork.”

Second, you’re never too high up in the organization for feedback. Everyone can benefit from feedback. I want people to play devil’s advocate.
When I started as CEO, my predecessor gave me a two-inch thick, three-ring binder and told me it contained everything a CEO needed to know. When I opened the binder, I saw every page was blank. I got the joke. The minute you start thinking you have all, or even most, of the answers is the minute you’re proven wrong. Every situation is different, the outgoing CEO was trying to tell me. There are no prescribed answers.

I felt unprepared for the role. And I realized that’s how a lot of chief executives feel at the outset. I think it’s actually a good sign. Overconfidence can lead to trouble.

So, I started my own self-directed “CEO 101” period and began by calling other credit union CEOs to ask if I could interview them. (I asked them questions like: How do you interact with your board? How do you organize your day?)

Then, I called CEOs in other fields to ask the same questions. I called board members of global organizations, including Disney. “What do you need from your CEO?” This was great wisdom: “Don’t surprise your boss” – or in my case, my 11 bosses on the board.

Third, let others do the talking sometimes. I want everyone to feel comfortable speaking up. To me, CEO also means chief encouragement officer. It’s my job to encourage people to take part.

A member of my leadership team once told me, “Bill, you can’t speak too soon in a meeting. If you do, no one else will feel comfortable offering a different opinion.” That was great advice. One of the best ways I can invite everyone to share is by keeping quiet and listening.

Fourth, invest in people. At Sharonview Federal Credit Union, we created a leadership development program modeled after the Center for Creative Leadership’s program. It includes 360-degree feedback, the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQI) and a Myers-Briggs type indicator. We also bring in coaches and offer in-person leadership classes.

And there’s lots of recommended reading, like “The Advantage and The Ideal Team Player” by Patrick Lencioni, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “5 Levels of Leadership” by John Maxwell. In some positions, the reading is required. The latest book I’m encouraging my leadership team to read is Angela Duckworth’s “Grit,” which deals with the importance of passion and perseverance.

Give people the tools they need to succeed. How much they want to learn and grow is up to them.

Fifth, don’t be a hermit. I learned this one the hard way two years ago. I had gotten so busy doing “important CEO stuff” that I began to feel I’d lost a sense of connectedness to my folks. We’d grown a lot. We had 175 employees when I first joined. Today, we have over 300. It’s a challenge to get to know the names and stories of that many people, but it’s what I aspire to.

Last year, I got back out to the branches. I’d meet the branch staff, say a few words and then spend half a day just hanging out, greeting members, asking about their experience and how we’re doing. The simple act of getting out of my office and being pro-active in talking to people was a game changer.

Sixth, measure your progress, and don’t aim for perfection. “Progress; not perfection” is what you’ll hear a lot of our staff saying. That mantra has now worked its way into our core values. We’ll never achieve perfection; no one will. But if we’re getting better every day, that’s progress. And it’s worth celebrating.

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