Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Two Leaders - One Message

  • Ed Clark, CEO of TD Canada Trust, speaking at the Rotman Speaking Series. 
  • Stanley McChrystal, four-star US army general, speaking at TED 2011. 
 Leaders are not the most knowledgeable or 'perfect' individuals but those who can build strong teams with shared vision and culture.  The biggest challenge is molding a team comprised of individuals with vastly divergent backgrounds.  Leadership calls for  humility and the willingness to learn - and relearn - over the course of a varied career and varied conditions.

Clark, CEO of TD Canada Trust, a bank which emerged almost unscathed from the financial meltdown, is Canada's CEO of the Year.  McChrystal, author of many successes at the head of American forces in Afghanistan, is enjoying retirement after some, ah, blunt talk about Washington politicians.  Two highly regarded leaders from very different backgrounds, but delivering uncannily similar messages about what makes a great leader.
McChrystal described the imperatives in the military today, with increased speed, scrutiny and sensitivity around your actions.  He remembered the parachute jump he made on September 11; by the time he landed, everything was different, requiring totally different approaches in the military, and in his leadership style.

With the advent of modern technologies in war, there's an 'inversion in expertise', with people under you understanding those technologies better than you.  In fact, you often depend on reverse mentoring to understand those technologies.  So you don't become a great leader because you're always right, but because you listen and trust.

The army is dependent on trust -  trust that your fellows will not desert you in direst danger.  So the sinew of the military is built on relationships, transparency, and listening.  And as a senior leader, you must lead people whose life experience is totally different from your own and build a common vision despite that difference in background.  Moreover, with a highly dispersed force in 20 countries, and a need to communicate missions quickly, McChrystal often didn't have the luxury of face-to-face interaction.  He used everything possible - video, email, twitter - to build consensus, a contrast to his early career when leaders just issued orders.  

Clark sees himself as the custodian of a great Canadian financial institution, responsible for building a franchise that is sustainable in the long term for the benefit of the shareholder and the country.  He disdains financial leaders whose goal is to get as rich as possible as quickly as possible and exit while the going's good, using the excuse that they are looking after the shareholder's interests.

Clark, in almost an exact paraphrase of McChrystal, argued that a great leader is not the one who can answer all the questions.  Business today demands intensified product knowledge.  But one person cannot know everything; rather the great leader is transparent and builds great teams with a culture of pushback and challenge.

In his humble way, Clark stressed how much he'd had to learn - and how he was still learning, again mirroring McChrystal's explanation of the need to relearn things over his career.  Clark said that his biggest learning was the need to explicitly create an employee brand, because you want to attract great people who buy into the culture.  Cultural principles must be explicitly articulated, consistently over a long period of time.

In another echo of McChrystal, Clark described the challenge of integrating the very different cultures of TD and Canada Trust when they merged.  After external consultants had struggled and created a 'pablum' culture statement, he and one other colleague were more direct by simply writing down what would get people hired, fired and promoted at TD.  This is important mostly in terms of the signal it sends to employees, who want to know how they can contribute.  He has no time for people who 'manage' their careers - to him that smells of politics, and 'there's no room for politics' at TD.  Do your job well, and success and promotion will come to you.

Another topic touched on by both men was failure and how leaders respond to it.  McChrystal described a war game where the team he was leading was almost instantly captured by the simulated enemy.  He was totally deflated, but his commander told him "You did great", allowing him to get past the defeat to the learning from it.  When a mission he led was an utter failure in Afghanistan, this lesson was top of mind as he had to rebuild his troops' confidence.  Clark also talked about how TD's success in the US (7th largest bank in the US) had come about because they had the courage to go to the States and 'get bloodied and bruised' many times as they learned about the market.  (Parenthetically, he argued that the Canadian government was right to prohibit Canadian bank mergers, forcing them out into the world to learn and ultimately succeed.)

It was a fascinating juxtaposition to hear these two men speak.

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