August 9, 2022

Corner Office: John W. Rowe: A Sitting Duck Can’t Catch a Moving Turkey

Q. Talk about some important leadership insights you’ve gained through the years.

A. We can talk about how people follow directions. Heading a large company, I could probably decree a dress code in great precision. And while it would cause riot and insurrection, most employees would in fact obey. But on the other hand, you tell your employees you want to make the company greener while keeping your focus keenly on the bottom line — that’s all too amorphous. They think you only mean one or only mean the other. It turns out that you can give orders far more easily if they’re very detailed and precise. But telling people that this direction is really important takes a whole lot of work to get people to follow it and implement it. And so I’ve learned the importance of conveying a clear direction and the need to reinforce it, day in and day out, in what you do, whom you promote, whom you give bonuses to, what’s rewarded.

Communication is one of the most difficult things. In my first C.E.O. job, a young woman who worked for me walked in one day and said, “Do you know that the gossip in the office is that the way for a woman to get ahead is to wear frilly spring dresses?”

And I just looked at her and asked, “Where did this come from?”

She said: “Well, you said, ‘pretty dress’ to four women who happened to be dressed that way. And so now it’s considered policy.”

I said: “Well, it’s the furthest thing in the world from policy. I was just trying to be pleasant in the elevator.”

People hang on a leader’s every word on what seems like trivia and can resist like badgers your words when you’re really trying to say something you think is important.

Q. Why is that?

A. It’s human nature to be more comfortable with very clear instructions than with general ones. Hard things are hard. I mean, there is no simple detailed instruction when you’re dealing with things that are complex and fuzzy, or when you’re dealing with two or three important trade-offs.

Q. What were some leadership lessons for you growing up?

A. I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin with Depression-era farming parents. And there’s just no doubt that the work ethic that they instilled is just a huge part of it. My father believed you should work most of the time and my mother couldn’t quite see why he inserted “most.” There’s just a huge influence of growing up with two people who believed so much in work, duty, responsibility.

I also had bosses on my way up who taught me key lessons: One is how important action is — to always be looking for something to do that moves the ball. Don’t sit still. My aphorism for it is, better a moving turkey than a sitting duck. If you’re just standing still, whatever you’re doing is going to get shot apart. I also learned that you have to act on the best information you have, and to not wait for the nonexistent perfect level of information.

Q. What about some lessons on how you deal with people?

A. The first thing I try to do is use simple things, like the company vision statement. In an almost papal way, I will say: “Look, everything we do is complicated. But these things are basic.” And I’ll say to a group, “I can tell you what every word in this document means.” It’s important to explain to employees that these principles really do impact how we function in our business. And by papal I mean not so much the red shoes, but you recite the creed. And you try to convince people that you believe the creed. Because you can’t actually influence 17,000 to 18,000 people on a personal basis, day to day. So that’s one thing I try to do.

I can look at people and say, “Here’s how each one of these lines affects something we do in our business.” And I’ll point out that most of what’s in the creed would be the same for most other utilities. The real difference is we believe them more deeply. At least I do.

Q. How else do you make the creed stick, rather than just becoming a poster on the wall?

Article source:

Speak Your Mind