Executive Suite: Looking in the Mirror

The late James X. Ryan, former executive director of the Printing Industries of Illinois and Indiana loved to tell the story of the consultant hired by an owner to assess his failing business. After completing the diagnosis, the consultant entered the owner’s office to share the results. “So what is the problem?” the owner asked him gruffly. “The problem is you,” replied the consultant.

In business, everything floats downstream. As certainly as the cops will begin looking at people close to the victim in a murder investigation, any professional consultant will start looking at the top to understand the success or failure of a business.

Among my activities, I teach graduate courses in leadership at a major university. The students regularly have to weigh in on the issue of quality leadership, reviewing the latest research and sharing their own experiences.

If I had to distill the findings on good leadership down to two items they would be integrity and communication.

Part 1: Integrity

This is an old-fashioned word making a strong comeback in the new millennium. In an era besieged by insider trading, Enron, and Bernie Madoff it should come as no surprise that integrity—character, trustworthiness, and honesty—is at a premium.

The essence of any relationship is trust. In our industry, filled with small and middle-size businesses in which most of the employees have at least some contact with upper management, trust is critical if the relationships are to be healthy rather than toxic.

Our people, from shareholders to clients to employees, know that there is constant change in our industry, mistakes will be made, and drama is inevitable. But if we are going to hold things together with our shareholders, gain cooperation from our workers, and maintain loyalty from key clients, we are going to have to cast a profile of integrity.

But what if a good chunk of your credibility has been lost (whether not you are at fault)? Either pack it in or do what you have to do to confess your sins and restore it. Americans are incredibly forgiving souls as long as they do not sense the culprit is engaging in manipulation or a cover-up.

Friends, in boom times integrity is not so central because everyone is making a good buck and victims are few. But in these times of zero-sum financial musical chairs, in which one person’s gain may be another’s loss, the glue of success has integrity written on it.

Although they may put on a happy face, people are scared in tough times. Many are looking for someone to follow, provided he or she can be trusted. For those of who occupy of the Executive Suite it is time to take off the makeup and look in the mirror. If you see integrity, keep moving. If you don’t, you know what Job 1 is.

Part 2: Communication

Why is communication so highly valued? Because it relates to integrity. Leaders who communicate often and honestly create stability and foster trust, provided they are honest in their communication. Those with whom they communicate know what they want, where things are going, and what they think. Clearly, there are some things in any company that must remain private. But far fewer than you may realize.

People want direction and accountability. Communicate that direction at every opportunity and do so responsibly. You can use every venue to do this, from face-to-face interaction, to email, to promotional pieces, to correspondence, to company newsletters. Let everyone know who is sitting in the Executive Suite, what he is thinking, and that they can cash their check on his word.

Gone are the halcyon days of explosive profits in which manipulation, deception, and clever dealing were often privately admired. That era is gone along with the two-color press. This is a challenging age, one crying out for strong leaders who communicate often and honestly and whose actions are behavioral expressions of their words.

This is an age of incredible opportunity. With constant, gurgling change as the context in which we operate our printing companies, we can literally re-create major aspects of our companies. So much of the market is up for grabs, and workers are eager to buy in to a quality company led competently and responsibly.

So chart your course, communicate your direction, encourage your people to hold you accountable, and keep your mirror handy and clean. You may have fun and make a few dollars along the way.

Dr. David Claerbaut is a consultant to the graphic arts industry, focusing on workplace dynamics and employee relations. Give him a call at 702-354-7000.