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Note to the C-Suite: Do You Encourage or Discourage?

Kenneth Greger

I was originally going to title this article: Leaders: Do You Encourage or Discourage? Sadly, I instantly realized the title was wrong and will share my reason for that later, so read on.

First, let’s take a quick look at the C-Suite. As we know, the ‘C’ stands for ‘Chief,’ as in Chief Executive Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Human Resources Officer, etc. Some of you reading this article hold such titles. While one can easily look up the Latin origin of ‘Chief’ or Webster’s definition, let’s see what the good ol’ Thesaurus has to offer as synonyms for this noun: Ruler, Head, Boss, Captain, Commander, Leader, Superior.

In order for someone to be a ‘Chief,’ or to hold any of the above designations, one key ingredient is required, without exception: People, also known as workers, employees, associates. There is no C-Suite executive, anywhere, that would have his or her job if it wasn’t for the people. Otherwise it would be Chief of what, exactly? And, given the assumption that one must be pretty smart and successful to have achieved C-Suite status, why do so many – too many – such executives fail to value the people? Worse – and this is why I couldn’t go with my first title – how can someone like that be called a leader? Merely running a company is not leadership. Typically, if the numbers look good, owners and shareholders applaud the “leader” and the C-Suite team. But what lies beneath the surface? What sort of culture does one find? How loyal are the employees? Is it an us-them environment? How sad, especially since, over the long-term, attrition will continue to be an issue when the goal should always be to attract and retain.

How does this contrast with a C-Suite comprised of true leaders? Our Thesaurus offers other words for ‘leader,’ such as Guide, Director, Influencer, Model, Example, Mentor. While these synonyms are on point, leaders are also associated with authority, but no one has authority unless the people allow and honour it. Again, without the people, there are no C-Suite jobs.

Here’s a quick story starring one of my clients – I will never forget it. The client is an honoured icon in the hospitality industry and was earning in excess of $10 million per year working for a highly profitable Fortune 500 company. One of his top executives told him that a woman at the supervisor level had sent him a note about one of her employees. It seems that the employee and his wife had a two-year-old daughter who was born with a physical defect and was now terminal. The executive suggested that the company pay for the funeral. My client said, “No, but I’ll write a personal check for $5,000.” Impressed, the executive said, “I’ll pay half,” at which point my client told him, “I make more money than you – you can pay 20%!” In addition, my client told his executive to let the supervisor know that the company will support any effort she makes to create a fundraising campaign within her division. She did so, the child subsequently died, and there was plenty of money to cover expenses.

I heard this story while sitting in my client’s office, at which point he pulled a document out of a file cabinet. It was a letter from the supervisor and went something like this: “I was already loyal to the company and enjoying my job. However, what you did was amazing, particularly someone of your stature supporting this effort and writing a personal check, in addition to the $3,000 we were able to raise. This was so meaningful and I am more loyal than ever.”

After sharing the letter, my client looked at me and said, “That word ‘stature’ really bothers me. The only difference between me and her is that I have more responsibility and make more money.” He went on to tell me that, with billions in cash, the company could certainly have written a check without blinking an eye, but “to many of our associates, we’re like the government, so we have to be careful. It was much better to empower her to raise funds than to give a handout; it sends a better message.”

So here it is – the theme of this article: Encouragement. My client was encouraging to his executive. He was encouraging to the supervisor and, indirectly, encouraging to the employee and his family. Further, he encouraged action and self-reliance instead of dependence on the company. How insightful. How wise. That’s an example of leadership.

So let’s connect the dots: As a C-Suite executive, is your style one that builds and encourages others? Or would the people describe you as harsh, aloof, cold, and discouraging? Let’s check that Thesaurus one more time and look up ‘Encourage:’ Inspire, Hearten, Cheer, Reassure, Boost, Embolden, Buoy.

Guess what? ‘Discourage’ means the opposite.

Which is your style? Do you build people up and encourage them, or do you have a negative, discouraging style? Does it take more time to encourage than to discourage? How does your style impact the company culture? The employment brand?

Several years ago I had the privilege to sit with Issy Sharp, founder of Four Seasons. I asked him, “You’re the CEO of a global hotel company and have a lot of priorities. What’s your #1 priority?” What do you think he said? What would you have said?

Issy turned to me, looked me in the eyes and gently said, “The self-esteem of my people.” I’m not a cynic, but I wonder how many CEO’s would have given that answer, versus financial performance, stock price, executing on the strategic plan, whatever. If anyone reading this isn’t familiar with the Four Seasons culture, and how difficult it is to recruit anyone out of that company, just know this: Issy Sharp’s words were said in all sincerity. He is authentic, the real deal. So Four Seasons reflects that, and is the real deal.

That’s leadership. And the result of encouragement.

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Kenneth Greger, Partner

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