How leaders contribute to organizational success

“Leadership accounts for, at the very least, 15% of the success of any organisation,” the management and leadership studies pioneer Warren Bennis is quoted as saying in The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham. It’s a figure that may surprise some people, and it made a good starting point for a recent conversation I had with Chompoo, one of my clients.

“Khun Chompoo, your organisation is a high-performance organisation. How much do you think your CEO accounts for when it comes to its success?” I asked her.

“A lot.”

“Give me a guesstimate.”

“Fifty percent.”

“Wow, that’s a lot _ how do you think he merits that high a number?”

“First, he deals with each person individually,” she explains to me. “He has eight direct reports. The way he approaches each of them depends on each person’s character.

“For example, in the executive committee, he confronts straightforwardly the head of sales because she’s an aggressive lady. But when he deals with CFO he’s more polite and friendly with her. When he seeks an opinion from our head of operations, who’s an introvert, he’s more patient, smiles a lot and gives him some time to articulate his thoughts.”

I decide to play devil’s advocate. “It sounds to me like he has double standards _ no, in fact triple standards for these three executives,” I say.

“I asked him the same question,” Chompoo replies. “He asked me to check with these three executives to find out what they thought.”

“What did they say?”

“They said they didn’t perceive his approach as a sign of inconsistency. Each individual is happy with his or her tailor-made style. They said, ‘We’re unique _ treating the three of us the same would drive us crazy.”‘

“What else does he do?”

“He hires good people to surround him and turns them into great ones. In his first year, he changed half of the team. Those who were not the right ones were rotated or asked to leave politely. He told me that it’s nothing personal _ if someone does not fit a key position, don’t waste time waiting for that person to change.

“He told me that if we wanted to be a high-performance organisation, we couldn’t compromise on the calibre of those in the key positions.

“Once he got the right people, he gave them authority and accountability. There’s no checking for progress on how to do things. Each key person has to figure out the best way to operate. If they needed support they came to seek it from him. He’s very decisive in terms of yes or no. You didn’t have to waste time guessing with him.

“One thing that he’s good at it is expressing a clear vision. He said to us five years ago, ‘We grow business with two differentiations: the variety of services and people’s capabilities.’ If any investment is needed to add value to these two aspects, don’t waste time. Whatever resources you need, ask him. Then he arranges them for you. He fought with the head office in Europe for us.”

“Do you think that his being an expat helps?” I ask.

“It helps. He’s be able to confront and be assertive with the head office. Language is one thing but culture is another. If we had a Thai CEO, we might not push to this degree. But my CEO, he’ll push, nag, fight, and also protect his team.”

“What else?”

“He knows quite a lot about the people in the company. You can’t say that about a lot of chief executives. He knows the nicknames of all the managers one and two levels down the line _ that’s about 50 people, considering he has eight direct reports. He also knows a little bit about each one of these people’s strengths.”

“How does he manage that?”

“He spends time taking part in outside activities of each department. When each department has an outing upcountry, he’s there as well. He observes how middle managers interact in workshops and meetings. At night, he joins the party with them. He learns by listening to each person’s viewpoint and opinion.”

“Khun Chompoo, I notice that all eight direct reports work very hard. I didn’t see much in terms of your CEO following up on them. So how does he keep track of progress?”

“In first two years, he did monitor us,” she says. “But once he trusted us, he didn’t feel it was necessary to be checking on us. Each of us acts like an entrepreneur because our boss acts like one. So we don’t think we work for him. This is our business. You only meet with him when you need something. He comes to us from time to time _ mostly to congratulate us on our success.”

“That’s great. Everyone is so passionate about the work. Nevertheless, you are eager to take on additional assignments. I’m impressed.”

“Coach, I give a big credit to the CEO. He has a one-on-one session with each of us once a month. In the meeting, he asks us how we’re doing. That’s an opportunity for us to share with him on our success stories and our strengths. He listens attentively. He congratulates us.

“Then, he ends each conversation with two great questions: ‘That’s good. I know you can be great, how do you plan to do it?’ And, ‘What support do I need to give to make it happen?”‘