November 2021

Autonomy, Purpose, and Balance | A Leadership Study

by Kevin Boyd

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

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As the business world continues to recover from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the unforeseen challenges we're experiencing has been termed the "great resignation." People are viewing their work through a different lens; placing increased value on work-life balance, autonomy and purpose. As business leaders, our best hedge against losing irreplaceable talent is to cultivate a corporate culture that focuses on leadership, values personal development, and encourages personal initiative. The following is a compelling story of how just such a culture was developed and the significant influence that culture had on its leaders years later.

My colleague, John, is a local business leader with whom I've worked with for over 15 years. To my knowledge, John has been a strong leader all his life. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and spent several years as an officer in the submarine community. Qualified to operate nuclear reactors, he joined a company that specialized in training nuclear power station operators after he left the Navy. His innate leadership capabilities were quickly recognized, he was promoted, and given increased responsibility in the company. After several years, he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer (COO); second only to the founder/CEO. That's when adversity entered into John's life.

The company was very successful and quickly added a broad consulting business to their portfolio. Ultimately, the company's founder elected to take the company public. In doing so, they became subordinate to a Board of Directors. After a couple of years and a sale of the majority position by the original owners, the Board decided the founder was not moving the company in the correct direction. In fact, the Board eventually took action to remove the founder/CEO. The Board asked John to assume the CEO position after the founder was removed from office. A man of extreme integrity and literally loyal to a fault, John refused the offer and resigned his position as COO.

About that time, John had bought a new house. His three children were getting ready to go to college. Now that he had resigned, he had no job and no income. He told me that he found himself in an empty office with the founder and a telephone. In order to survive, they had to create an entirely new business with only those assets. After much deliberation, they created a new company that provided similar, but not directly competing services. The founder was able to fund the startup, which enabled the hiring of key staff members. Six years later, the company had about 400 employees, a home office in Maryland, and three satellite offices across the United States. Ten years later, the company employed nearly 2,000 people and maintained offices in six different countries.

Serving again as COO, I am convinced that his leadership was the primary reason the new company enjoyed such remarkable success. I joined the company at the beginning of a period of extremely rapid growth. We struggled to hire people fast enough to keep pace with demand. We were able to grow so fast and maintain our reputation of outstanding service because of the systems and processes that John initiated at the start of the business. One of the most important practices that John developed was an extensive and detailed training program that included three levels of leadership development. Another innovative idea that John introduced was the concept of each employee belonging to two different internal leadership organizations. Each consultant worked within a customer-focused project structure that was led by a Project Manager and a Project Director. For large projects, Product/Service Leads were also assigned and reported directly to the Project Manager. Project Management was a significant corporate focus, and the company developed a year-long training and development program which included internal certification, mentoring, and final certification by the Project Management Board.

The second leadership organization was the more familiar administrative organization of Team Leaders, Managers, Directors, and Vice Presidents. The people that served in those customer facing divisions were also expected to be certified Project Managers.

The leadership focus of each organization was different. Project Leads, Managers, and Directors focused on producing deliverables and satisfying customers. The leadership focus of the administrative organization was the development of their respective team members. One unique aspect of the administrative organization was that no leader had more than five people reporting directly to them. When teams grew larger, more leaders were created. This process maintained a healthy span of responsibility and allowed leaders to focus on subordinate development and team building. Most project team members had a Team Leader that was different than their Project Manager, allowing them another avenue for development and problem resolution.

The administrative leaders were also trained for their respective roles through tailored leadership development programs. All of these systems and processes were established by John when the company was founded. His vision and dedication to leadership development enabled that one lonely office with just a telephone to become a thriving international company with nearly 2,000 employees.

Not only was that company very successful, the lessons that we learned were universal and instrumental to our professional and personal development. Many of us have created thriving businesses by utilizing a plan that captured John's proven techniques and practices as our foundation for success. Those businesses remain successful today because they embrace a strong culture of leadership that values work-life balance, personal development, autonomy, and purpose.