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Who is a Leader?

Posted on : 19-11-2010 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Business, Social Media

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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I apologize for not posting for a while.  With my recent job transition I have been taking a lot in and continuing on my personal path of learning and growing in my career.  I promise you that I have been thinking of many posts that I want to share and discussion I would like to have with my readers on topics from Customer Service, social media, marketing, and leadership.  Hopefully you will see many more of these posts in the coming weeks, and I hope many of you take part in the conversation.

As many of you know I tend to be very opinionated on a variety of topics.  Most of these opinions have been built over time by listening to others, reading and trying to think through various topics of interest.  At the same time I love alternative views because they add to the learning experience.  At the same time I am never afraid to be a lone person on a topic, even if it is not a popular position within the discussion.  As an example I always see the debate who should own social media.  The two areas discussed are PR and marketing.  Of course now I work in marketing, so I should probably take that side of the debate, but instead I like to point out that the Customer is the one who really owns the discussion regarding a brand in social media, so why not Customer Service?  They are the most suited for the discussions with Customers.  At the same time, I think it really needs to reside throughout the organization, especially since many employees are already taking part in the conversation, no matter what your company policy may say.  But this takes me to the point of this post.  Over the years I have read many books on leadership and other business related topics.  Many of the books are from the most respected people in the business world.  I have always had (and still do) the utmost respect for these business leaders, but as I grow I wonder how many were truly leaders vs great business people?  I do not see anything wrong with being a great business person.  That means they had a phenomenal career and did well for their shareholders and employees (in most cases).

I have always had a fascination with Jack Welch, who many consider a leader who not only brought great profits to GE shareholders, but has also been emulated by many other business people.  According to Wikipedia, he also teaches leadership to select MBA students at MIT.  But was Jack truly a leader or a successful business person?  This is a point that can be debated for days.  On the leadership side he was relentless in cutting costs, driving units to be 1 or 2 in their business, and he grew GE from a $14 billion dollar company to $410 billion dollar company.  In the mid 1990′s he brought Six Sigma to GE from Motorola and made it a basis for reducing more costs.  In his book “Straight from the Gut” he has a chapter called “The People Factory.”  In this chapter he outlines his belief regarding forced rankings, and how imperative it is to cut the bottom 10% every year.  In other parts of the book he also outlines his belief regarding professional development and bringing in the top talent.  He created the famous training facilities on the GE campus.  I used to be blown away by his success and what I perceived as leadership.  Six Sigma became popular through business culture for over 10 years due to Jack.  But today as I look back I wonder how much of this was leadership?  Six Sigma was simply following.  Who does not want to be number 1 or 2 in the business they are in?  Rankings and cutting the bottom 10% seems easy and not that uncommon?  At the same time the reason why rankings, and curves became popular was because it is always easier for managers to rate people higher, even when it is not deserved.  That was the point behind his chapter.  At the same time the trouble I have always seen with Six Sigma is people used data that made sense to the point they wanted to make, even if there was conflicting data elsewhere.  Anybody who has worked with forced rankings have seen ways that it’s manipulated (oh this person quit, so now we will rank them low so we can bring up someone else).   As I look at GE after Jack has left I have seen an NBC unit that has not performed as well, and a culture that was simply broken.  The competitive nature made it hard to get things done, and the organization ran on fear.  Jeff Immelt, the current CEO, in my opinion has done a great job, but much of the early years were spent making the organization more nimble and creating a culture that is innovative, more nimble and more team oriented.  I recommend reading more about Jeff and the post Jack period in this 2005 Business Week Article “The Immelt Revolution.”  History will decide the leadership of Jack, but it is an interesting discussion on what leadership has been and what it will look like in the future.

So that was enough about Jack!  Now let’s take a look at a few people who I believe truly meet the definition of leader:

Jack Bogle is the founder of the Vanguard Group, but many do not know the details of this company.  As you may know Vanguard Group is a financial services company that is mainly focused on mutual funds.  What you may not know is the company is actually owned by the funds it operates, which is very unique and is the reason they have had such a focus on the Customer.  It did not come about in a usual way.  Jack was chairman of Wellington Management company when he was fired.  What you may not realize is most funds have their own board.  He convinced the board of the funds to allow him to create a company to service the fund for low cost.  The fund’s board followed him and now Vanguard offers some of the lowest expenses in the business thanks to this new ownership structure.  It was outside the box, and in many ways permanently changed the mutual fund business.  Expenses continue to be driven down around the industry thanks to Jack.

Steve Jobs has to be on this list, no matter how you may feel about him or Apple.  Steve does not follow anyone, but instead works of instinct as to what Customers want, whether they realize it or not.  There is a lot of risk in leading the way, but the reward, as Apple has seen, can be great.  Apple was not the first computer, phone, mp3 player or touch device, but each device was designed in a way that was and continues to be a game changer.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett under any definition have been great leaders in business, but I am more fascinated by the work they have been doing to lead others in giving back to society and the world.  They are leading their peer group and much of it is by example.

The reason leadership is so fascinating to me is I see a change being caused by social media in business.  This will cause new leaders to arise, and many we have seen already.  Because this form of communication is so new, we really do not know what will happen in the coming years, but many of us are connecting the dots and taking our positions.  As we look back we will see many who were true leaders who use this technology to drive change.  Many, like me, see large changes in organizations which will bring a new focus on the Customer and the employee.  We see greater efficiencies, sales opportunities, and many other facets that social media can bring.  None of us know truly what will happen, or when our thoughts will come to fruition.  We are willing to take the risk and enter the debate.  Whether you agree with someone or not, they are showing leadership in their willingness to take the risk.  History will judge where the leadership is.  I think history can already declare the following as true leaders:

Cluetrain Manifesto was written by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger was written in 2000, well ahead of time but their thoughts were on target.

Brian Solis has been talking about the impact social media will have on business well before many of us even knew what social media was.  His insights have been coming true for a long time and this has made him one of the most respected people in social and in business itself.

Chris Brogan has made a career out of teaching us how to effectively use social media.  He has taught us how to best speak in the space, understand the marketing benefits and connect with each other.  Chris is one of the most giving people I have ever met.

Tony Hsieh and Zappos have  shown us the importance of running a business with the right culture in this new world.  What some may refer to as an experiment, is a successful business model that will tried to be emulated by others in the coming years.  Reading Tony’s book Delivering Happiness provides insight into this model, but beyond that interacting with anyone from Zappos shows what it is all about.

I can go on forever speaking about people like Paul Greenberg, Scott Monty, David Armano and so many others.  My point is social media is filled with leaders, and no matter what, it pays to at least listen to many views.  We all can learn from each other and maybe some day we will be viewed as the leaders.