I am writing this article while attending a CEO leadership conference. More than 400 CEOs from electric cooperatives around the country are in attendance, sharing various approaches to keeping members’ electric supply Reliable, Affordable and Responsible.
The beauty of the cooperative business model is that it connects like-minded folks from all over America and facilitates an open exchange of best practices and innovative ideas. Cooperatives look at each other as partners in a noble mission to serve rural Americans, not as competitors.
Competitors must jealously guard trade secrets and solutions to problems to ensure that they succeed and gain market share at the expense of other rivals in the same business. Competition is good, and it fosters innovation and creativity. However, another and possibly more powerful force for innovation and creativity is an environment in which committed people working toward a common purpose can collaborate. I know this all sounds very Three Musketeers-ish with the “All for one, and one for all” statements, but it truly captures the essence of the cooperative business model.
It is in that spirit, and while thinking about the importance of leadership, that a memory surfaced and inspired this month’s article. Great leaders have a way of saying things that instantly strike you as wisdom and stick with you for years. Years ago, I had the privilege of listening to a wise CEO at an all-employee meeting. The CEO was on the verge of retiring and shared insights from his career with the cooperative’s employees. One employee asked the CEO why he left a very successful career and rising status at his previous company to travel halfway across the country and become the CEO of the cooperative. The CEO stated that he had reached a point where he could no longer lead in all three dimensions: up the chain of command, across the chain of command and down the chain of command. At some point, he realized that he could no longer look up the chain of command and do everything in his power with total commitment to make those above him successful. There was something about his boss that made him no longer willing or able to answer this simple question: “Can I come to work every day and do my very best to make those above me, my peers and those who report to me successful?” When he could not answer “yes” to that question honestly, he knew he needed to seek a new position. So, he left a successful career at a great company, took the CEO position at the cooperative and went on to have an even more amazing career.
The CEO said that if we couldn’t come to work every day and honestly give our 100% best in every way to make our bosses successful, our peers successful and our employees successful, we needed to resolve that issue. First, we should be transparent and work to resolve whatever issue is causing us to fail the test. But if we or our organization could not resolve the issue, we should consider finding another place — one where we could truly give the best of ourselves to make all three of these dimensions successful, as he had done.
I found this thought process to be incredibly insightful, and I added it to my own personal brand of leadership to help me be a better leader. I coined the phrase “Leadership in 3D,” and I ask myself the question often.
Personally, I am fortunate that I can honestly answer “yes” to the question in all three dimensions. I have the privilege of working for the 17 distribution cooperatives in Arkansas. I report to 51 cooperative directors, three from each of the 17, who are all committed to their members and to the overall success of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. So, it is easy for me to answer “yes” to that dimension of the question. I also have the privilege of having a talented group of dedicated professionals who comprise my leadership team and make it easy for me to answer the question in that dimension as well. Finally, I have nearly 700 employees who work hard every day to help us achieve our mission of Reliability, Affordability and Responsibility, providing outstanding service to our members and improving the quality of life for rural Arkansans. In addition to our employees, we serve 1.2 million members who are the very reason for our existence, and so it is easy to say “yes” to that dimension too.
Leadership is a privilege and not a right. As a leader, I realize that I set the tone and culture of my organization, so the more important question is this: “Am I setting an example and providing an environment in which all of my employees can answer ‘yes’ in all three dimensions too?” The only way to know the answer to that question is to ask them, which I do as often as I can.
Leadership in 3D asks a powerful question. Hopefully you can answer “yes” in all three dimensions — or find ways to make a “no” a “yes” — in your organization or your life as well.