July 10, 2014, 11:05 AM — Do you remember when you were first assigned a leadership role? It's an exciting adventure, filled with anticipation, anxiousness, fear of the unknown and an overwhelming need to ensure you're ready to take on one of the greatest responsibilities of a career.
For me, it was a dozen years ago. I'd been in a lead role and responsible for delivering solutions to my organization, but in 2002 I officially received the title of manager. I immediately started planning how I would engage with my team, and I looked for that one spark of advice to turn the key and start the engine that would drive my career.
That spark was How to Become CEO: The Rules for Rising to the Top of Any Organization by Jeffrey J. Fox. I'd read many literary greats, but this single book set the foundation for many of the practices I would use as a leader and manager in my career.
The most compelling part of How to Become CEO is the ability to convey complex topics with such simplicity. This 162-page book discusses a different thought in every chapter; a collection of great suggestions, with each chapter no more than three pages. It's thought-provoking while invoking common-sense logic.
I was so inspired that I began sharing quotes with my colleagues, making full-page printouts of my favorites and placing them on my wall at work. I even purchased a copy for each person on my team. The key to success isn't making everyone live the same parallel dream and vision. Instead, it's making sure that those who work with you understand your core values and expectations.
After absorbing and applying the principles of this book to my life, I read many others by Fox. They taught me how to be a great boss, a rainmaker, a marketing superstar, a fierce competitor and, most recently, a transformative CEO. These books share the same writing style: Short, crisp chapters that challenge the reader to continuously improve.
Fox rose to the top of my bucket list of great writers and leaders to meet and interview. I got this opportunity recently and wanted to share my interview.
Mike Lyles: My favorite quote from How to Become CEO is: "Be a credit maker, not a credit taker." It changed my perception in the office. Then the book Brag! The Art of Tooting your Own Horn Without Blowing It describes how to ensure you get credit without begging for it or appearing to brag. What advice do you have for people who feel that, in their organization, if they don't continually try to take credit for their own work, they'll be left behind by others who do?
Jeffrey Fox: This is a real problem. It generally happens when the culture of the organization changes from a winning culture to a losing culture. However, in a good company, good people who do good work will get noticed. The focus should be less on taking credit and more on reporting what you did. Use monthly reports and other means to show outcomes. Become an expert. Carve out a niche. The best way to be perceived as an expert is to teach your area of expertise. Start with something as simple as a 15-minute presentation on, say, how to choose a brand name, after working hours.
It's critical to work for a company with a winning culture. Even winning cultures aren't for everyone. Not every good soldier wants to be a Marine. Ask yourself, "Is this a good place to work?" and ... "Am I doing anything?" When people complain that they aren't being recognized, they have to be sure they aren't just making an excuse.
Early in my career, I was the marketing guy for a California champagne [company]. I was asked to deliver five cases of champagne to the CEO's wife for an event. Some people might have seen this as a demeaning task. However, I asked ... if she'd like me to give a champagne tasting for her guests. I showed her guests how to open a champagne bottle and good accompanying foods. The CEO was impressed.
Sometimes you have the opportunity to make a big splash instead of a lot of ripples.
Lyles: In a college commencement address, Steve Jobs once said that we always connect the dots backward, not forward. He went on to say that there are times when we look back and realize that a tough time, a setback or a change in direction, was really critical to where we are today. Do you have that one change in direction that defined the overall path of your life and profession as a writer and leader?
Fox: In my 8th grade social studies class, I was asked to do a report on Gen. William Custer. I found myself short on the word counts, [so] I took a new approach: I went back through the report and interpreted Custer's personality. I created new ideas, new perspectives. I knew I'd accomplished something when the teacher asked if I had done the work myself. I received an "A" on the report. This completely changed my view on how to write. What I didn't know then, that I know very clearly now: Don't be afraid of new thinking, of being different than accepted wisdom.
Another example was a school science fair. I worked with one friend, who was a genius and very mechanical. My job was to come up with the idea and ... market [it] to the judges. My friend's job was to build the exhibit. We built a camera that could photograph an actual snowflake. The cost to build the "camera" was $14. The cost of a camera that would photograph snowflakes like this, at that time, was $100,000. We won first place.
Lyles: What's the most important advice you've ever been given? What's the most important advice, from your books, coaching, speaking and mentoring, that you ever gave?
Fox: I have a weird memory. I can't tell you my license plate number, but I can remember things from when I was 3-years-old. I've been absorbing good advice all my life.
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Remember what people say and what they actually do. As I noted in How To Become CEO, you must always practice ... words are cheap and deeds are dear. People will respect you based on what you do. If you tell someone you'll be there, and you're late, you lose value with that person.
Lyles: Who was the most influential person in your career?
Fox: I'm a "blender." I don't have just one person ... I have many. I'd start with my 6th grade teacher, Gertrude Laughrey, at Towpath Elementary School ... The thing that stood out was [her book report] contest. We were required to do reports on note cards, and the winner got a prize. I had to win. I read more than 40 books. She said, "I'm not sure I approve of all of the books you picked. They aren't typical school books, but I do approve that you read 40 of them." She made reading a game, a competition, and people reacted to it positively.
My basketball coach, Bill Risley, taught the team how to comport [itself] before, during and after the game, and in the classroom ...
Lyles: It's a statistical surety that there are people reading this very article who feel they have no control over their future that no matter how hard they try, the organization will never see their value, never promote them, never show appreciation for their contributions. What advice do you have for someone struggling to feel appreciated and important?
Fox: This goes back to the first question. Find out how the company makes money, and then do the things that make the company money. Focus your efforts there. Most people don't understand the company strategy the "real strategy." Know what your company's doing and how it's thinking about its profits. Part of Burger King's strategy is to let McDonald's find the best location, and then build a location across the street from McDonald's.
If you really want to be appreciated for your work, start doing what others won't do, can't do or don't do. Be the one who visits that long-lost customer. Get your hands dirty. Talk to prospects, report back on the results, call your own customer service number and see how they treat customers. Do you think the new government healthcare website folks called the customer service number even once?
Remember that most people overestimate their contributions to the organization. They think the company cannot run without them. To be great, we must have humility. Focus on the outcomes. Lots of people don't do this. Stop talking in jargon and bafflegab. Stop using terms such as "think outside the box." Don't be swayed by the buzzwords. Focus on your contributions, how you can help the organization.
Lyles: I've quoted many times your suggestion, "Make your boss look good and your boss' boss look better." One question I receive is, "What if my boss doesn't like or support me?" This is a struggle for many who believe that, if they try to make a poor boss look good, then the boss won't acknowledge or give credit for the work that was done. Do you have advice on the best way to handle this type of situation?
Fox: This strategy is designed for people wanting to move up the ladder. The focus should be on the boss' boss. If your boss doesn't like you, then this is always a challenge. But remember that, in most situations, your boss can't get promoted unless you're promotable. You have to convince the boss that he or she won't get promoted until there's a replacement: You.
If you have a bad boss (not just one who doesn't like you) ... everyone knows it. In Zero Dark Thirty, the boss didn't support the leading character but as soon as her boss' boss heard her speak, he knew she had the goods.
Lyles: You've written a lot on studying the great boss, understanding how they lead, manage, appreciate their people and learn their way. Many of us have been fortunate to have that "greatest boss ever" in our careers. Mine recently passed away, and I still remember what I learned from him.
I've also found that, throughout my career, I've examined the good, and also the bad, from many bosses. Everyone has great and no-so-great attributes. Even though you talk about emulating the great boss, do you have suggestions on how to assess, understand and compile those traits of a no-so-great one and how we, as leaders, don't emulate the bad traits as well?
Fox: Sometimes you get a bad boss, sometimes you get a good boss. Remember that both are great teachers. Having a bad boss is a rich opportunity to note all the things you wouldn't want to do to your team or colleagues.
When I think of my worst boss ever, I remember that he took all the credit for other people's work [but] he didn't realize that everyone knew this about him. Back in my marketing days, my bad boss left me a note on my desk that said, "Tell me that I didn't just see a billboard for your new product on the highway?"
I answered, "Yes, you saw a billboard. Isn't it good? I'm testing the creative for $2,800 as opposed to a national rollout. Would it have been better for you, and every other driver, to have not seen the billboard?"
Lyles: A quote from your book, "The executive that brags [he] never takes vacations is either a fool or a poor manager," really hit home with me. I continue to work a lot, but I plan vacations and I take them. What advice do you have to people struggling with the ability to take vacations?
Fox: At the beginning of every year, I plan my calendar. Everyone has 52 weekends. We know Christmas ... Thanksgiving, Halloween, birthdays, etc. I schedule them and block them on my calendar. Then I work diligently to keep them in stone and not move them. I do the same with vacations and the schedules of the kids' games.
Lyles: Technology, digital consumerism and the way we operate in our daily lives is so different than many years ago. In fact, it's evolving at an exponential rate. We're forced to keep up to maintain success. Years ago, computers were on a desk at home or in the office. Today, almost everyone carries one in a pocket.
Do you see the roles of leaders, managers, mentors and coaches changing as part of this continued change in the world? Are there core values and leadership principles that you feel are unchanged by the changing times?
Fox: I was asked in a recent interview, "What technology have you discovered that could make a difference in marketing?" My response surprised the interviewer: "A personal letter with an envelope and a stamp." A personal letter trumps 1,000 emails. It has a huge impact. No one disposes an old-fashioned letter.
We have 18-year-olds texting today. [Soon they'll be] 40. We can't predict their world. They'll enter the workforce all at the same time. Social media, to me, is more antisocial than anything else. People would rather email, Facebook or text, than pick up the phone and call or meet a customer face to face. Many schools today don't teach cursive writing. Too many kids today can't tell time on an analog clock. The question at the end of the day is, "Do they know how to communicate?" Kids send Grandma an email to say thanks for the birthday present. That's antisocial.
Social media doesn't talk to you. Great leaders should still stand up in front of everyone and talk. Do you think the government would send an email stating, "Let's go to war"? Which person will you purchase from the guy [who] meets you face to face to sell the product or the one [who] emails you saying, "Buy this from me"?
We once heard that TV will put radio out of business. Movies would put Broadway out of business. Catalogues would put retailers out of business. These predictions weren't, and aren't, true. Stupid email, stupid letter, stupid ad (and so on) are stupid regardless of the medium. Quality communication will never be trumped by media.
Lyles: Many people ask, "How do you want to be remembered?" The answer is different for many people. Some prefer to live a simple life, enjoy their families and leave the world as they found it. Some want to be revolutionary, to see their name in the stars and to be remembered as someone famous. Some want a hybrid: They want to enjoy life and make a change but, in the process, leave the world as a better place than they found it.
What about you? If Jeffrey Fox could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?
Fox: "Per ipsa loquitur," which is Latin for "the thing speaks for itself." If anyone's going to be remembered, it will be by the things they did: Grandma's apple pie, the father who showed up at all of his kid's games. The rememberer will create memories based on what the person did for them. Maybe I'll be remembered for what I did for others.