Pivot. Delegate. ‘Be an Adult for Goodness’ Sake.’ Leadership Lessons From the World’s Top CEOs

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(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? The piece below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Aug. 30; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

“I like to sleep late and then take a short nap during the day to recharge,” said no CEO, ever. Whether it’s the demands of the job or self-selection, the typical rising time of chief executives appears to be 5 a.m. And they’re not waking up early to finish binge-watching Season 6 of Alone. They’re hitting the gym for some sort of intense cardio workout.

One fiscal quarter into TIME’s weekly Leadership Brief series, we are hitting pause to offer some lessons learned from our first 13 installments. Even though our sample size is relatively small, our interview subjects own outsize influence: they’re running some of the world’s most important companies, like Delta and Microsoft and Pfizer, and offering real-time insight into navigating unprecedented challenges. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Their decisions are likely to be studied for decades to come.

So it’s important to take stock. We launched the series in May, on the premise that the twin crises facing the country—health care and economic—acutely demonstrated the need for strong leadership. And now, in the wake of national protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the very notion of leadership, and the system that produces who gets to be in charge, is subject to vigorous debate.

In the words of Kevin Washington, the first African-American CEO of the YMCA, “it’s a very tricky time” to be in charge. Younger workers today, says Washington, “expect and demand a different kind of leadership. They’re not as patient with the status quo or the hierarchy of an organization or a company.” Leaders already coping with issues that seemed unimaginable just months ago—like figuring out how to protect essential frontline workers, establish millions of home offices and cope with rolling supply-chain disruptions—are now facing pressure to implement truly equitable recruiting, hiring and promotional practices.

So let’s pivot
to our lessons. The year’s barely three-quarters done, but I’m making an early call on the business word of the year: pivot. Whatever plans a company had in January were abruptly revised in March. Closing call centers and equipping thousands of employees to work from home were not included in any 2020 strategic goals. Everyone is pivoting. Maybe that’s why we are all so dizzy and disoriented: the mass pivoting.

Here’s another observation, though our small sample size may make data-driven CEOs cringe: growing up in a large family seems to help one muddle through chaos. I was struck by the number of leaders who hail from crowded houses. Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America and one of eight kids, takes pains to note that my observation is not “mathematically correlated.” But he offered the following theory: “You learn how to get along and manage many different personalities and many different viewpoints,” he says. “When you’re in the younger side of that large family, you get a lot of feedback.” Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’Lakes, also had seven siblings. Margaret Keane, CEO of Synchrony, was one of six kids, as was Progressive CEO Tricia Griffith.

Equally striking is the number of CEOs who grew up in households where money was scarce. A number worked their way through college. Growing up in Iowa, Ford shared a bed with a sister and was allotted one drawer. “Had to put those hand-me-downs somewhere,” she wrote me after our interview. Keane of Synchrony grew up in Queens, the daughter of a police officer, and she worked her way through college making $5.50 an hour as a debt collector. Griffith of Progressive recalls, “My dad sold life insurance door-to-door so we were really broke. I had a very small house with a lot of people.”

Running a modern multinational during an economic catastrophe is not a job for control freaks. These are big-time delegators. John Foley, CEO of Peloton, says, “Our CFO does 99% of finance. I engage because I want to know how we’re doing. But to say I don’t add value to her operation is an understatement. You can also say the same with technology. Our CTO doesn’t get any help from me. I’ll go sometimes months without talking to our CTO, which as a CEO of a technology company, that’s kind of rare.”

Chris Kempczinski, CEO of McDonald’s, says, “I’m usually not involved until there’s a problem, and then I get heavily involved.” David Taylor, CEO of Procter & Gamble, also doesn’t believe in micromanaging. “My job is not to manage,” Taylor says. “It’s to lead.”

I was struck by the CEOs who said they didn’t read conventional business-leadership books but instead were leaning on history. They’re learning from past eras, when world affairs also seemed grim and America appeared stretched to the point of breaking. Enough mentioned Ron Chernow’s Grant that I began reading the book. It’s indeed compelling, and also a grim reminder that the country has been trying to address systemic racism since the end of the Civil War.

Finally, the animated responses to my favorite question—What behavior do you not tolerate?—spawned a list of seven deadly workplace sins: nastiness, passive-aggressive behavior, pocket vetoes, PowerPoint presentations, lack of preparation for meetings, lobbying the CEO privately after a decision was made in a group meeting, and my favorite, from Midwestern-born Beth Ford, who says, “I’m not somebody’s mom, so don’t come to me with ‘I am not getting along with Joe or Sally.’ Absolutely not. I am uninterested. And if you do that, God help you. No, no, no. Be an adult for goodness’ sake.”

Thank you for your readership. We are taking next week off and will be back Sept. 13, with a strong lineup of interviews for the fall. I welcome your feedback and suggestions. What should we be asking the world’s business leaders? I’m eager to hear from you at leadership@time.com

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