Robert Murray is an author, strategist, and stark raving culture advocate. We recently had a chance to sit down with Robert to hear his thoughts on leadership, culture, and communication – as well as their importance within a company that is struggling.
Tell us a little about your background. Why did you decide to write books on leadership?
I started out as an electrician while attending university at night. After graduating, I moved up quickly in management (I prefer the tag “leadership”) and was CEO of a $200M organization by age 39. After the company was acquired by a much larger organization, I fell into the role of being a corporate turnaround guru – going from one business unit to another and fixing what was about to become shut down. This is where I cut my teeth on developing a clear, compelling, and simple strategy – and building great cultures.
I finished my corporate life as an officer in Vodafone in Europe. There, I was a raving lunatic on building great culture – which, I discovered, had an amazing ROI compared to executives that were trying to grow by controlling costs.
Since being an electrician, I always have focused on being a leader – one who keeps things simple and focuses on people’s ability to innovate and serve customers. People make decisions emotionally, and leaders need to learn how to connect emotionally with their people in order to achieve the logical, left-brain goals they have.
Given that you have been called the “Gordon Ramsey of the Boardroom,” many people might envision you as a leader with a fiery temper and a penchant for being explicitly blunt. Is there any accuracy in that depiction?
I have been called that (as well as a mercenary) because I am very visionary and focused. I don’t have a fiery temper at all. In fact, I am very thoughtful and calm. I can be blunt, but more importantly, I hold people accountable and push them into their “uncomfort zone” in order to unlock their remarkable potential.
Since you say that you try to “help people find the keys to unlock the leader they have within themselves,” does that imply that anyone can be a great leader?
I believe that all great leaders had a whole lot of nurturing to bring out their greatness. I always tell people not to confuse charisma or extroversion as leadership. Some of the best leaders I have learned from were extreme introverts, and some of the worst were charismatic and extroverted.
Name one thing that managers or executives can start doing today to help improve employee engagement.
I see far too many leaders that spend the bulk of their day in front of a computer screen. The number one thing that leaders can do immediately to improve employee engagement is get up from their desks and go out and talk with people about how they are doing, recognize good work, talk to them about their development, etc. They will see an almost immediate payoff!
When you were tasked with turning around struggling or failing business units, how did you go about getting support for your ideas and initiatives from employees who were afraid of change and/or had poor attitudes?
When a business or business unit is in trouble, everyone knows. Everyone on the team also wants to be part of a winning formula. I paint clear and compelling pictures of what good will look like, why, what the plan is, and (most importantly) what their roles are in achieving the plan. I have always been amazed at how people deliver magic when they know the plan and their role! The poor or bad attitudes are mitigated by the energy of the rest of the team, and one of two things will happen: they will change their attitude, or they will self-select out of the organization.
Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. It is essential that leaders focus on the culture by giving people a clear sense of where they are going, why they’re heading in that direction, and what the plan is along with their role. I can’t emphasize that enough.
In one of your books, you talk about when it’s appropriate for a leader to overreact and when he or she should underreact. Could you give a scenario for each of these responses?
When a business hits a rough patch or there is some form of crisis, great leaders remain calm and focused. The team needs direction and the knowledge that leaders have a plan. The last thing that a team needs is a leader that comes in and lays waste to everyone!
In contrast, I always coach leaders to overreact when there is a values violation in the business. Values are the core fabric of the culture and the culture, is only as good as the worst behavior that the leader is willing to tolerate.
As the world gets flatter and business gets more disruptive, what must a leader keep in mind if he or she is to succeed in the future?
There are businesses and people in emerging economies that are extremely well-educated and willing to work for a fraction of what you are. Every corner of the world is becoming disruptive. To thrive in this chaos, leaders need to get back to basics, such as:
- Remember that culture has an ROI.
- Remember that culture is also a competitive advantage.
- Keep strategy simple.
- Lead with purpose and vision.
- Make sure people know the part they play.
Need to change the culture in your organization? See how John can help.