My Interview with Ian Graham (a retired CEO) on Leadership with Conscious Confidence
“I don’t promise; I only deliver”
About ten years ago my husband and I took up ballroom and latin dancing. I could write a whole series of posts on the physical, mental, emotional and, yes, even spiritual benefits of dancing. We have met a range of wonderful people from all walks of life, with different outlooks, hobbies, political opinions, work and family situations. And yet everyone meets on the dance floor in an equality of friendship and intimacy.
Ian Graham and his wife Diana are a charming and talented couple who have become great friends of ours. The fact that Ian was for many years the CEO of a major corporation was not really relevant when we were trying to master a tricky Foxtrot move.
But when I wanted to interview someone who knew about values, principles and leadership, Ian was an obvious choice. What follows are some of the highlights from our conversation.
S: What was the core principle that you followed, or a saying or quote that guided you?
I: I did have one principle that I found useful for all occasions, almost a mantra: “I don’t promise; I only deliver.”
S: What a great principle. So first question, did you always want to rise to the top, to become CEO?
I: Not really, my goal was always to strive to do my best, to be the best at whatever I do. What I found is, if you’re good enough then the opportunities will come.
S: What was the main challenge you faced when you took on the top job?
I: I had been working in the company, mainly in the finance area, as a senior manager and when I was appointed CEO, what quickly became apparent was being a good manager didn’t automatically make me a good leader. In my management role I was chiefly focused on the customers of the company, on the shareholders and on the Board, it was an outward focus.
S: So what shift of focus was needed?
I: About half way through my time as CEO the company was bought out and typically when this happens the new owner wants to bring in their own team. I asked for a meeting and I suggested that the new corporate owners give the existing team twelve months and, if they were happy, keep the team, if not, then a full sweep of positions would be reasonable. I was pretty confident we would meet the needs of the new owners. One of my first steps was to commission a survey of customers and staff to get some data points.
S: And what was the result.
I: (laughter) It was actually pretty sobering. The customers were happy, and I was very motivated and enjoyed going to work every day, but the staff, on the whole, felt the company was OK but not exactly great. I realised I had to do better, I realised that meeting this lack of enthusiasm was exactly my job as CEO. It was the beginning of a journey for me.
S: So what did you do?
I: Given my conservative and quiet nature I knew I needed educating. I retained a leadership coach. Initially I thought I’d need six months, but it wasn’t just me that needed to change, it was the company and the corporate culture, so I ended up working with this coach for two years.
S: What were some of the key areas that needed to be addressed?
I: There were three key areas. Recognition of the great things the staff were doing; devolving decision-making to the management team; number three was improving internal communications, replicating the good communication we had with customers inwardly.
S: And did you begin to see results?
I: (More laughter) Not really! At least not as soon as I was hoping. We redid the staff survey every year and the needle moved each time but only a small way at first. It took three or four years to get meaningful traction. But when the changes began to kick in after about five years there was real enthusiasm and excitement amongst the staff to see how the company was developing and growing.
S: Wow, you were really playing the long game.
I: That’s the real challenge. Especially with today’s corporate culture where CEOs change every five years or so. You’ve hardly begun to really bed down an improvement in systems and culture and the leadership changes. Everything has to basically start all over again with a new CEO, with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Another issue here, with corporate culture, is that every company has a high-sounding vision and values statement, and people can judge you very harshly when there is a discrepancy with what you profess and what you actually do. If the CEO takes their eye off the ball then what the company says, and what it does can start to diverge.
S: I’m really struck by the humility in what you are saying. It’s about the company, the customers and the staff, not about you.
I: That’s a really important point. Leadership is not about the leader! One practical step we took was to change who was empowered to speak about the company and on the company’s behalf. Originally only the CEO was the spokesman for the company, but we changed that so that managers were able, where necessary, to be the voice of the company.
S: As I’m listening, I’m hearing some principles of great leadership.
I: Well, it was a journey. I certainly didn’t start out there. And I suppose it’s hard to assess your own qualities. When I shared the last few cultural engagement surveys with my wife she said: “I could have told you that and saved you a lot of money.”
S: So, getting back to principles. What were the chief principles you stuck by?
I: Well I’d say number one is Integrity. By that I mean everyone you deal with has to know what to expect from you, and that you will act and speak consistently. The second thing is to respect and trust your people. And they have to know that you will support them, and deal with problems and make the hard decisions when that is necessary. You have to nurture your team, make sure you are doing your job, and then make sure they are doing theirs.
S: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. See you on the dance floor!