Leadership Skills of Extraordinarily Successful Executives

A recent focus of inquiry has been why certain companies are very successful while others are less so. As you might expect, the answer is a combination of factors, some common across the field while others are more specific to individual companies. However, a key determinant, evident in almost every case, is effective leadership at the top.

I am a student of the veterinary pharmaceutical industry. A recent focus of inquiry has been why certain companies are very successful while others are less so. As you might expect, the answer is a combination of factors, some common across the field while others are more specific to individual companies. However, a key determinant, evident in almost every case, is effective leadership at the top.

The leaders of the most successful companies are a diverse group, to be sure. However, I suspected that there might be certain fundamental traits that helped elevate each of them to their current positions. To identify those central characteristics, I decided to interview as many of those successful leaders as I could. I was quite fortunate to be able to speak with ten of them, and I was rewarded with a wealth of insight and sage advice on a range of topics.

I have organized and summarized that information under ten categories. In this article, I will discuss the first five: productivity, delegating, coaching and mentoring, resolving disputes, and colleague challenges. I will cover the other categories in the next article, as well as relay some important life lessons that these leaders learned from their pets!

Everyone gets things done, but some people get more done than others. The path to productivity includes some tried- and-true techniques like “to-do” lists. However, the first and most important step is to make sure that everyone involved understands the expectations. Unless the expectations are clear – and accepted by all – the road to productivity can be quite bumpy.

Ceva Animal Health’s CEO, Craig Wallace, agrees. He has found that his company’s productivity excels when expectations are clear. Everyone “must see the short- and long-term vision so they can balance the expectations of both.”

Mark Heffernan, CEO of Nexvet, also starts by setting clear objectives and then uses them to prioritise the items on his list. He was quick to note that having a strong support team makes him more productive. Larry Miller, COO of Phibro Animal Health, follows a similar pattern of prioritized tasks, adding that working each one all the way to completion yields better results. PBI Gordon’s President and CEO, Don Chew, uses a daily to-do list as well, but credits the time management skills he learned during his public accounting days for helping him move through his list efficiently.

Both Lisa Conte, President and CEO of Jaguar Animal Health, and Aaron Schacht, Vice President of Global Research and Development for Elanco Animal Health, follow the “touch it once” philosophy. “Deal with it, make a decision, and move on,” advises Lisa. Aaron finds that, whenever he has to return to something that he could have finished earlier, the “productivity vampire” takes a bite out of his progress.

Neogen Corporation’s Chairman and CEO James Herbert’s key is a solid, well-understood strategy of where his team is headed. Robert Joseph, CEO of Parnell Veterinary Pharmaceuticals, agrees that a clear and unambiguous vision is one essential element. A second key element is ensuring that every member of his team understands and is accountable for their individual responsibilities. The third essential element is getting each team member to act as if they were an owner of the company. He suggests that those three elements will “drive people to think differently” and, as a result, drive productivity.

Carsten Hellmann, former CEO of Merial, invests the time to clearly explain to his team why they are doing what they’re doing, where they are headed, and how fast they need to get
there. “A clear strategic vision is important and it needs to be well-understood. You will want to truly engage with the team, and help them understand each individual’s role on the journey. It is like a lighthouse: everyone in the organization will know where to go. You can change course at times, but everyone still knows where to go.”

No one can do it all, which means that everyone must delegate to be truly successful. But delegating important tasks carries risk. The responsible party may misunderstand the assignment and deliver something else, or deliver something substandard, or deliver the right thing late, or not deliver at all. Becoming, and staying, comfortable with delegating tasks to others depends on the leader’s ability to set clear expectations and timelines, the willingness to hold others accountable, and a system for monitoring progress. It also depends on the leader’s ability to set priorities, distinguish between the critical, the important, and the urgent, and often a simple willingness to just “let go.”

Mark Heffernan used to do everything himself, which led to long hours and eventual burn-out. He then realized that, if he recruited the best people with the right skills, he could surround himself with a great team and be far more productive. He spends extra time during the recruiting process to determine whether a candidate can be trusted to perform to the company standards. And, from time to time, he still takes on a few key projects for himself, but only those that truly need his unique skill set.

Aaron Schacht admits to still tackling important tasks, giving the classic reasoning that it would take more time to describe what he needs than it would for him to do it himself. He recognizes, however, that this practice may cause problems in instances where his team might have been more sensitive to the nuances of the situation.

Still, he coaches his new managers to delegate more because, even though they excelled in their previous positions, which is what got them promoted, they cannot be effective as team leaders if they “hoard it all.” Once these new managers learn to delegate, their stress level decreases and their productivity improves. As for trust, Aaron sometimes just gambles. “You give somebody a chance to do something that you know they are not confident doing and maybe have never done before. What I tend to do is raise the bar and then help them over it.”

Like other entrepreneurs, Lisa Conte frequently finds herself in a position of doing the work herself. “When it is something that I consider life or death, or it is highly important and critical to the company, or it must happen exactly the way I want it, I will take it on myself. With some tasks, it often is just better to quickly get them off your plate.”

Craig Wallace remembers a time when some aspects of his business were solely inside his head and he did not have the time to explain them to everyone. Over the years, though, he started to take the time and now realizes that, if it really is faster for him to do the work himself, then somewhere along the line he made a poor hiring decision. He has confidence in his current team and constantly reminds them that they are talented enough to figure out any problem. However, if they want his input, he will provide it. He expects that they will make some mistakes, but that is fine because they will learn from them and do better next time. “It is like being kicked out of the nest. It puts my people in a position to make decisions and, eventually, solve problems.”

Rob Joseph first makes sure that he has the right team. He gravitates toward people he believes will be able to deliver and perform, especially on critical tasks. Then, he confirms that everyone understands their job responsibilities. Sometimes, though, he still does the work himself, instead of delegating. “Most entrepreneurs will tell you that they do this. It is not weakness; it is reality.” However, delegating to the right people who can deliver will foster a broader range of capabilities and insight. “It brings more minds and views and perspectives to the situation which inevitably gives a better result.”

While Don Chew knows that delegation is absolutely critical, he still wrestles with it. There have been many times when he did not delegate because it was easier or faster for him to do the work himself. Over time, though, he realized that he would not be able to accomplish all of his objectives if he did not assign some tasks to others. He also acknowledges that there are some people who can get the work done faster than he can because they have better technical skills. And he concedes that some things do not have to be done to the level that he would do himself. Accepting those realities, and realizing that another thought process or different skill set can still get the job done, makes everyone more productive. For Don, delegation is no longer optional.

To Carsten Hellmann, delegation is not a skill; it is a necessity. “You have to make sure you surround yourself with a diverse group of people who are capable of doing the work while allowing them to learn from their successes and failures. Then, create a culture of trust and empower and support them to do their best.”

Coaching and Mentoring
All of us have been helped at some point by the advice or guidance of others. A few of us even may have experienced painful lessons that could have been prevented had we been coached or mentored at that time. We all can do our part now by guiding someone else, and by supporting mentoring and coaching in our organizations.

Larry Miller tries to personally recognize and reinforce positive behavior on the job. He lets employees know that their actions are noticed, that someone is paying attention to them, and that their contributions truly matter.

A valuable mentor is one who is willing to be honest, notes Jim Herbert. Mentors will not always tell you what you want to be told. “Painful lessons should be painful…but only for a short period of time,” he says. We should learn from them and, then, move on. “Do your best and do not look back.”

Orion Pharma Animal Health’s Vice President, Niclas Lindstedt, believes that mentors enable career development. He advises employees to find mentors with whom they can discuss candidly all aspects of their life. However, for the relationship to really flourish, both mentor and employee must have similar values.

Rob Joseph has benefited from both formal and informal mentors. “They polished my rough edges. Anyone who thinks that they do not have a few rough edges in need of polishing is maybe a little delusional.” As for finding the right mentor, he advises searching for someone who has a high degree of introspection. Such a person can talk about their failures, their successes, risks they have taken, and how to best navigate those risks. However, he cautions that, while mentors can point the way, each person must complete their own journey.

Craig Wallace suggests that a good mentor is someone who can be trusted, is respected, and with whom the person can have a conversation about anything. Still, people must be willing to listen to honest, objective, and occasionally unpleasant feedback. “Sometimes what people need to hear is the unvarnished truth about their performance, or that they need to work on improvement, or that they should be open to other ideas.” In Craig’s experience, those frank observations rarely get communicated for fear of upsetting the person. Unfortunately, that leaves the problem in place to fester and, then, to resurface at a later time.

The single most important influence in Aaron Schacht’s life was his father. His father taught him the discipline of thinking first, then acting, then feeling. He also taught Aaron the wisdom of humility. Over his career, Aaron has had the good fortune of associating with other leaders who embody some of those same principles.

When asked for advice on finding a mentor, Aaron suggests that the person look for someone who has done something that they admire but do not fully understand. It is that lack of understanding that offers the potential for learning. “Look for someone who is different from you because reinforcing sameness keeps you where you are.”

Mark Heffernan has several business associates and board members, all seasoned professionals with vast amounts of experience, with whom he can discuss challenges. If one of his team members requests a mentor, he advises them to evaluate their skills and identify the gaps. Knowing their gaps helps determine which potential mentor might be most helpful. He also suggests that they attend networking events where they can meet people who might recommend mentors or be potential mentors themselves.

Don Chew has a personal coach who helps him step outside his business, look at it from that perspective, and gain focus on the really important tasks. Lisa Conte has retained a coach for the entire company. This has produced significant benefits because, as she notes, “Not everyone performs in the same way, but we all need to work together effectively as a team.”

Resolving Disputes
In any large group, disputes are inevitable. Unfortunately, resolution may not be.

For Mark Heffernan, the best way to resolve disputes is through open and transparent communications. He encourages everyone involved to stay focused on the same goal so that the discussion can be productive. If someone challenges the direction of the group, he tries to understand their point of view and, if possible, guide them back toward the group track.

Rob Joseph knows that resolving disputes is not an exact science. However, like Mark, he believes that candid and transparent communication is a critical ingredient. He also knows that some disputes do not get resolved because people confuse debate with conflict. Debate is healthy, but some people avoid debate because they view – or fear – it as conflict.

Niclas Lindstedt has encountered a different version of this misunderstanding in which two people are disputing an issue but view it as an ongoing debate. Such situations can fester and grow into a much bigger problem with wide-ranging fall-out. In such situations, the leader needs to intervene, listen carefully to each side, and then guide the parties to a resolution. Niclas views the most important step in this process to be “listening.” “That is why you have two ears and one mouth. When you start listening, you get to understand the two sides. It also is important to not be judgmental.”

“It comes back to understanding that everyone needs to understand the direction and priorities of the organization,” says Larry Miller. By cascading these priorities throughout the organization, teams can avoid conflicts and create accountability around the key initiatives that are the most impactful for the organization.

Finding common ground also is a major goal for Don Chew. One of his company’s principal values is its partnership with customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Without common ground, that partnership will not work. Don believes that, in most cases, both parties want to resolve issues as fairly and quickly as possible. Eventually, they will find common ground and put each issue behind them – as long as each party understands the other party’s objectives and recognizes that the outcome has to be fair for each party.

Whenever disagreement results in an impasse, Craig Wallace calls a time-out. He emphasizes that it is perfectly acceptable, and even positive, to hold different points of view. With that in mind, he encourages the parties to work through their differences toward common ground. If the parties just cannot agree, or if they escalate the dispute to his level, Craig will make the decision.

When one of Jim Herbert’s teams is deadlocked over an issue, the most senior person is charged with resolving it. Unfortunately, some managers are uncomfortable making decisions in such situations. For them, Jim advises, “You don’t lose the confidence of your team if you make the wrong decision. You lose the confidence of your team if you are unwilling to make a needed decision. In those cases when you do make a mistake, be willing to admit it, and then learn what made it the wrong decision.”

In meetings, Lisa Conte likes to hear everyone’s ideas. She asks each participant to free-flow their ideas and then asks the team to analyze each of them for their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It is imperative that these analyses be judgment-free. “If someone makes a judgment, they actually get a tomato thrown at them. It’s a very effective team exercise.”

Colleague Challenges
Our work colleagues come in all sizes, shapes, and temperaments. Some are easy to get along with and others are not. Each of these executives has faced interpersonal challenges, and they willingly shared their techniques for working through, and getting past, such situations. There are two types of people who pose a challenge to Jim Herbert. The first is the employee who knows everything and, in their opinion, does not need any instruction. “An example of this is someone fresh out of college with maybe two years under their belt. They are convinced they know everything there is to know. You need to sit them down and tell them, ‘No, you don’t. You still have a lot to learn.’ This type of person needs to be saved from themself.” The other type of challenging person is the employee who fears decisions. These people must be coached to be more decisive.

Craig Wallace feels that every leader should be prepared for challenges, so he welcomes them. “If you are going to step into the ring, you had better have your gloves on.” He feels that an environment in which people are afraid to offer different ideas – especially bad or unpopular ones – is a poisonous environment. In addition, he cautions his team against becoming emotionally attached to their ideas, and he also encourages everyone to be respectful of others’ opinions.

In any diverse environment, Don Chew expects that there may be people who do not get along all that well. However, they all should be working toward the same goal. Therefore, he tries to understand each person’s position and then look for areas of agreement. He also finds that, by exploring the implications of each person’s opinion on the team as a whole, it may be easier to reach common ground. Don’s advice to those who do not see eye-to-eye is to “keep talking…and work through the issues one by one.”

Lisa Conte has found that, if you put a rational solution in front of a practical person, or a practical solution in front of a reasonable person, you often reach agreement. However, the real challenge arises when one of the parties has a hidden agenda and feigns cooperation. In that case, it is very difficult to find a durable solution until that hidden agenda is exposed and dealt with.

Carsten Hellmann has observed that resolution of a problem often is hindered by some people’s need to find fault or place blame. However, once the blame mentality dissipates, the team usually unites and develops a solution that is acceptable to all and one that is aligned with the company’s overall vision and strategy. And, if it turns out that the team makes the wrong decision, Carsten encourages them to analyse their mistake so that they understand it, learn from it, and avoid making it again in the future.

Larry Miller starts by clearly outlining and communicating the key business priorities. He then asks his managers to assess whether an individual’s values and direction are aligned with the company’s goals. He warns them to guard against sending conflicting messages to their subordinates. It also is important to maintain an atmosphere in which employees feel free to contribute their thoughts on the company’s direction, and then see their ideas translated into individual objectives. This allows managers to have frequent, open discussions with employees to ensure their alignment with, and accountability around, key priorities. With proper implementation, these efforts facilitate completion of those initiatives with the highest company impact.

Aaron Schacht had a parallel experience during his first assignment as a manager. Since he reported to one executive but also supported a different activity, he often struggled with certain decisions. He noticed that a natural reaction for most people confronted by choice or uncertainty is to pick a side. Over time, he learned that the best solution in such situations often was to look for a third alternative. Today, Aaron tries to replace the “or” in most choices with “and” in an effort to find a solution that serves both parties.

Mark Heffernan has worked with a lot of academics who often come with unique mindsets, healthy egos, and strong opinions. Surprisingly, many can be motivated by money. Whatever their characteristics may be, Mark knows that open and honest communication is essential if he is to have a workable arrangement.

Niclas Lindstedt believes that he himself is often seen as a challenging colleague. “Someone needs to say the uncomfortable things and question the way things always have been done.” Niclas thinks that, if a person does not believe in what they are doing, they will have a difficult time achieving anything. Niclas remembered a former boss who was a perfectionist and always pointed out what was wrong. He wanted perfection but never praised what was good; he only complained. Niclas believes that success is achieved by praising people when they have done a good job and coaching them when they fall short. Otherwise, people will be afraid of failing. “There is a Yiddish word, kvell, which means to be very proud when someone does something well, to beam with pride and pleasure. That is something we need to incorporate at work…to get people to excel and do good things.”

I have learned many important lessons from these leaders, and I hope that you have as well. Please come back for the next installment in which I will share more leadership lessons from these extraordinarily successful executives…including important life lessons from their pets!

I am extremely grateful to the following executives who were most generous with their time and thoughtful in their insights:
Donald Chew, President and Chief Executive Officer, PBI-Gordon, the parent company of Pegasus Laboratories and PRN Pharmacal
Lisa Conte, President and Chief Executive Officer, Jaguar Animal Health
Mark Heffernan, Chief Executive Officer, Nexvet
Carsten Hellmann, former Chief Executive Officer, Merial
James Herbert, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Neogen Corporation
Robert Joseph, Chief Executive Officer, Parnell Veterinary Pharmaceuticals
Niclas Lindstedt, Vice President, Orion Pharma Animal Health
Larry Miller, Chief Operating Officer, Phibro Animal Health
Aaron Schacht, Vice President, Global Research and Development, Elanco Animal Health
Craig Wallace, Chief Executive Officer and North America/Pacific Zone Director, Ceva