--Effectiveness comes from those qualitative things that give you the ability to network, communicate and lead people toward an outcome they can’t see.
I regularly read interviews of senior officers and CEOs in newspapers and magazines. As often as not, my responses follow a number of critical patterns. The most typical response to the interview is so what else is new? Not that insights necessarily need to be new to be valid or significant. But just as often I respond with thoughts like, that’s really off focus, that wouldn’t make much sense in most companies, that’s not a transferable principle, you really don’t get it, why did you go there, or. . . well, you get the point.
But I found myself nodding in high agreement, even delight, with the comments of Lynn Good, the CEO of Duke Energy. It started out with the focused, analytical thoroughness of her answers to questions. The naturalness of her business identity as CEO, the straightforwardness with which she responded to the interview and her insistence upon the nuances and complications of business leadership are unusual in today’s business world.
Family of origin
Lynn Good obviously comes from superb parenting with a father as a marine turned high school principal and a mother who also taught school, both with a solid work ethic. You recognize her intense, almost matter-of-fact sense of accountability in the answer to questions about what she learned from her parents: They demonstrated accountability to me through actions. When I was growing up, we had a widow living next door to us. So the habit was that if we went to the grocery store, we called her first. If we cut our yard, we cut her yard, no questions asked.
Yet unlike many of these interviews, this is not a “look at me.” It is an inquiry into the nature of leadership, enhanced by intimacy and a rich knowledge of the task. Intriguingly, the vocabulary reaches a level of emphasis that is rare: There is a comfort level with people you’ve known for a long time—when you’ve been in the foxhole with them. But when you bring an organization together (she led the merger of Progress and Duke Energy), you need to be agnostic about background, and to interview on capabilities and track record.
Good’s support of her work force is not a hollow, thoughtless allegiance. Rather, she demonstrates the ability to express solidarity and criticism simultaneously. With people at this level in their career, it’s no longer about whether you are the smartest subject-matter expert in the room. It’s whether you can be effective in leading a diverse team. Can you adapt? As you think about developing people through their careers, you’re looking for that transition from being the smartest person in the room — and caring so much about that — to being the most effective. It’s about how to develop a team. It’s about how to solve something where the solution isn’t obvious.
Predicting career success, like predicting organizational success, can be delusional with errors and logic and flawed judgment to distort our understanding of the real reasons for success. But my strong suspicion, even confidence, is that she’s close to foundations of business success when she emphasizes the role of effectiveness: Effectiveness comes from those qualitative things that give you the ability to network, communicate and lead people toward an outcome they can’t see. Of course we’d like more context, but this is all substance with no sizzle.
Far too often the executive’s advice provided to graduating college students emphasizes business as the sole guiding principle of life. Too often, also, the comments are indicative of the smallness and stupidity of those who would marginalize the humanities and social sciences, ignoring the most long-lasting challenge relevant to all of us: creating lives of purpose and meaning. Good chooses to address the issue directly. I’ve had an interesting career in that I was with Arthur Andersen when it went out of business. So in my 40s, everything I’d worked for disappeared. That changes you. It causes you to refocus on what’s important. So I’d say: “Be passionate about what you do, but also be passionate about your relationships and family and other things in life. That’s where happiness is. It’s not all about career.”
When asked about the risk implications of her experience with the demise of Arthur Anderson, she concludes that “risk is an interesting way to think about it, but I would say it refocused me on the importance of family and where happiness comes from. The lesson was that I’m not defined by my career, so I need to be prepared at any time to go or to change careers. There’s a freedom with that. It’s not that you’re disloyal or don’t like what you do or aren’t passionate about what you do, but your asset is you. It’s not who you work for. So is that risk-taking, or just recognizing that a career changes over time and you have to be ready at any point?”
Lynn Good’s comments provide an antidote to so much of the conventional thinking that clutters so many business career bookshelves. When I shipped off a copy of the interview to my bibliophilic Gen-Y protege, he sent back this brief comment: Just read this. Wow. Great stuff! By the measures of business past, and by the measures of business present and future, this brief interview is a memoir for keeping—and revisiting.