As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Ryan.
John R. Ryan is President and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of leadership development. He speaks frequently to corporate, government and NGO audiences around the world about the keys to effective leadership and has written for Forbes.com, Fortune.com, LinkedIn and The Washington Post.
Before joining CCL in 2007, he served as Chancellor of the State University of New York, the largest comprehensive system of public higher education in the United States. Prior to that, he was Superintendent (President) of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. **A retired Vice Admiral and former U.S. Navy pilot, Ryan commanded squadrons, wings and forces in Asia, Europe and the Middle East during a 35-year career in the military.
Ryan serves on the Board of Directors of CIT Group, Barnes & Noble Education, and the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation. He graduated with a B.S. degree from the U.S. Naval Academy and received an M.S. degree in Administration from George Washington University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For the past 13 years, it’s been my privilege to serve as President and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, a global nonprofit focused on leadership development for businesses, government agencies, educational institutions, and nonprofits. Before joining CCL, I was Chancellor of the State University of New York. Prior to that, I was a Vice Admiral and pilot in the U.S. Navy, serving in my last assignment as Superintendent (President) of the U.S. Naval Academy from 1998–2002.
For me, leadership has been a lifelong passion that truly began when my twin brother and I were high school freshmen in northeastern Pennsylvania. That year, we had a new coach named Al Shollenberger arrive at the school. He was a big believer in physical conditioning and would send us on multiple runs around the baseball field. Then he would go to the upper floor of the school to do some administrative work and watch from the window to see if we were actually running. One day, right before baseball season started, he observed two seniors hiding in the woods instead of running. These were talented players, potential starters on the team. He was very upset. He called us all together, said he saw what they’d done, and kicked them off the team. This made a huge impression on me — not just the fact that they were thrown off the team but what the coach also said about leadership: “We don’t win if everyone on this team doesn’t give their best every day.” He insisted that we hold each other accountable as teammates, and he was the first one to tell me, “People don’t care what you say; they’re watching what you do.” That is probably the most fundamental leadership lesson, and he taught it to me and my brother. Even though we were underclassmen, he also personally challenged us to step up as leaders on the school basketball and baseball teams by demonstrating the right work ethic to our teammates. His influence as a leader helped change our lives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Very early in my Navy career as a pilot, I was selected to lead one of our squadron’s largest divisions. It was my first significant leadership role. I was pretty puffed up with self-importance and thought I’d introduce myself to my new team with an inspiring speech. I wrote down some thoughts and, fortunately, shared them in advance with the division’s chief petty officer. He’d been with the squadron for a while and seemed like a good person to offer feedback. He told me, quite professionally, to tear up the speech. He said, “These guys aren’t interested in hearing you talk about yourself, your background and the geopolitical situation with Russia. You’re their third leader in three years. They want to see that you care about them, appreciate the critical jobs they do and help them get the additional technical training to advance their careers.”
So I tore up the speech and instead spent our first meeting together asking questions. What was working for them? What wasn’t working? What did we need to start doing to be a more effective team? I spent most of the time listening, instead of talking. And guess what? These were very talented, smart people. They had great ideas that we then put into action. After that, I made it a point to go around every day and find people doing good things and thank them for contributions. It was a rule I had for myself: don’t leave work till you’ve recognized at least three of your colleagues for something they did that day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful professional opportunities throughout my career, and one person who deserves much of the credit for that is the late Admiral Andy Wilkinson, who passed away about six months ago. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to him. When we met, he was a Navy Commander overseeing the flight squadron that I was part of. I’d done well in some course work that was part of my training with the Navy. He called me into his office and got right to the point.
He said, “You’re doing great work in this squadron but you’re not briefing anyone. You need to make it a habit to provide periodic updates to your immediate boss on your progress and your team’s achievements. Otherwise, this is a very big squadron on two separate islands, so how are we supposed to know what you’re good at and what you’re interested in?” He wanted to keep people in the Navy and see them advance, so he would do things that almost no one else did, like have individual meetings with all 60 of his officers and always ended by asking, “What do you want to do next?”
I was married. So what I wanted was an opportunity for “shore leave” — which means you’re not deployed on a ship or far away overseas base and can be closer to your family. So Andy helped my twin brother and I get assignments at the Naval Academy together. While working there, I earned a master’s degree and seriously thought about leaving the Navy for private business. A faculty member set up an interview for me at a major corporation, where I even got a chance to meet the CEO briefly. It was an incredible experience; it also made me realize I didn’t want to work in an office building. So, Andy and I discussed my future more, and he helped me secure a role on an aircraft carrier as an assistant navigator, which ultimately led to more promotions. Andy was my first professional mentor, someone who took a genuine interest in my success. This is what I call “who luck” — the individuals you meet, often through luck, who open doors for you that might never have opened otherwise. All successful people have “who luck”. Andy opened up one opportunity after another for the first 15 years of my career. If we’re fortunate to have mentors like that, we need to do the same for the individuals we’re privileged to lead by opening doors for them.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) is the epitome of a purpose-driven business. It was founded as a nonprofit educational institution in 1970 by the Smith Richardson Foundation with the mission of “advancing the understanding, practice, and development of leadership for the benefit of society worldwide.” Over the past 50 years, we have touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of individual leaders, organizations, and communities in every corner of the globe.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Though I later became the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, I thought of quitting several times during my first two years there as an undergraduate, despite having my twin brother there with me going through the same experiences. In fact, because the Academy wanted to toughen people up for the rigors of military service — where you can endure deep personal hardships and nearly constant risks — they tried to get you to break down and give up as a freshman. Nearly twenty percent of my class did quit.
There are probably not many people who have gone through the U.S. Naval Academy and haven’t thought at least once about quitting. What keeps you going early on are the friendships you develop and the support you give each other. You begin to learn very good habits — like how to take care of yourself physically, how to savor the small pleasures in life like going out for dinner or a movie, how to think positively and be grateful.
Most importantly, you learn that you will have setbacks throughout life and that you need to be ok with working through ambiguous situations. The earlier in life you experience adversity, the better — if you have the right support and coaching. That’s how you build confidence and resilience. It’s important to remember: resilience is not a destination; it’s a lifelong journey. And it matters more than ever during the pandemic. At CCL, we are helping many clients learn how to “Burn Bright” instead of burn out during these extremely challenging times by coaching them on how to build personal and organizational resilience. This is part of our organizational mission and part of my personal mission.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, leaders need to be three things in particular — 1) realistically positive, 2) totally transparent, and 3) authentic. So when the pandemic hit, we stayed positive at CCL but also realistic about ensuring the safety and security of our employees globally by immediately switching to a work-from-home approach.
Like many organizations, we experienced a sharp drop in business that meant we needed to shed expenses, and we were very transparent with the organization about what that meant for our workforce. We treated everyone with dignity and respect while offering various, generous voluntary separation options. I tried to be as authentic as possible in conveying that we are in extremely challenging times that will require sacrifice from all of us, while, at the same, not losing sight of the fact that we need to plan for the future too — and that we have a bright future at CCL.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In an unpredictable situation, one of the greatest temptations for a leader is to hunker down and look inward too much, trying to figure out all the answers in your own head or just with your executive team. We actually need to do the opposite, which means having a growth mindset and expanding our personal bubbles. I’ll explain what I mean by both of those things. Dr. Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work in her book Mindset has shown that most of us alternate between fixed mindsets — where we believe we’re only as good as the natural talents we were given — and growth mindsets, where we believe we have the power to improve our performance through practice.
A growth mindset is crucial during unpredictable times, and it means playing offense instead of defense — trying to make things happen through planning and proactively piloting innovative new products instead of sitting back and hoping something good will occur. Part of playing offense is what I call “expanding your personal bubble”. This means constantly talking to people outside of my usual circle to get their thoughts and advice. I did this fairly routinely before the pandemic, and now I do it all the time.
The more you can talk to people outside of your own industry, the more you learn. It’s about being humble about what we don’t know — which is a lot! — and having the curiosity to pursue feedback and new insights. Get out there and talk with people you do know and especially people you don’t know — and encourage your team to do the same. Our international, diverse and talented board has continued to be a tremendous resource throughout the pandemic.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
That №1 principle is “keeping your options open.” In turbulent times, things change quickly and unpredictably. You need to make some bets to keep moving forward, but you also don’t want to rule out other possibilities at the same time. There’s some things you keep front and center, and there’s others that you keep working at a moderate pace because you can’t be sure when they will move to the front.
Here’s an example. At CCL over the past couple years, we’ve been building an Equity, Diversity & Inclusion practice to help clients build these capabilities. We have a long and proud history of advancing women’s leadership; in recent years, a number of my colleagues have rightly pointed out that we need to extend that work to more diverse populations in new and innovative ways — and that we need to live those principles even better within our own organization. So we began to build this practice, not knowing that a movement for racial equity and justice would become a defining aspect of American — and global life — in 2020. When this happened, we were ready to accelerate our EDI work when clients began asking for our assistance in large numbers and quickly produce a truly impactful solution called Beyond Bias that is receiving a strong response from clients. We also had a superbly talented internal team on hand to help us make the changes we need to make at CCL to further advance racial equity and justice within our organization.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Prioritize the safety and security of your people: You need to show you’re concerned about them and won’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do. When I was in the Navy, for example, we wouldn’t ask someone to fly into an area with an enemy’s new missile defense system unless our planes were good enough to help them navigate the situation. Similarly when the pandemic started, we closed our offices right away so everyone could work from home in a safe and secure environment.
- Acknowledge the uncertainty and ambiguity — don’t be pessimistic but also don’t paint an overly rosy picture. The truth is, in situations like the early days of the pandemic, no one knows what’s going to happen. Be honest about that and reinforce that everyone’s contributions will be needed to steer through the time ahead.
- Navigate the immediate crisis while planning for the future — you need to keep your eye on two balls at once. The present crisis, whether it’s a financial markets meltdown or a pandemic, rightly demands most of your immediate attention. But a part of your brain needs to focus on the future and what’s coming next. A smart leader realizes they can’t do this on their own. Their team’s insights and input, as well as that of your board, are more valuable than ever in these situations. Reach out for those perspectives and for ideas from leaders outside your organization.
- Risk-taking: again, seek different perspectives, including those of current and future customers. Monitor trends impacting organizations and encourage colleagues throughout your own organization to provide their thoughts and ideas. Base your decisions on sound analysis and then be comfortable with making educated bets on where you’ll invest your resources. This takes teamwork, practice and judgment. In uncertain times, you need bets that cover different time frames — from 3 months to 6 months to a year and then out to 3 years. You won’t get them all right. But you improve your odds by gathering as much information and insight as you can from all parties.
- Manage the transition to a new future — when you see which bets are working and your new strategy is taking shape, you need to help the whole organization make the transition into the future. The pandemic accelerated the need for upskilling/re-skilling. For CCL during this pandemic, that’s meant going overnight from doing mostly face-to-face business to doing most of our work virtually. Our talented individuals and teams have done this very well. We moved with great velocity toward our digital transformation and our clients are now benefiting greatly from our Live Online solutions. Part of our success has involved improving our own communication through a process we call Better Conversations Every Day. It’s about listening carefully to colleagues, asking questions instead of giving advice, surfacing areas of agreement, and then moving forward with next steps. That’s what we’re constantly trying to do. You don’t come out of a crisis as the same individual or organization that you were when you went into it. That can be a good thing, even when it’s painful if you are sure to upskill you people and bring them along with you and help them unleash their talent and ideas in service of your mission.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” It’s often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson but does not appear to have been said by him. Whoever authored this quote was exactly right. It’s those qualities that we nurture inside ourselves and our organizations — a growth mindset, resilience, humility, curiosity and a driving sense of mission — that shaped the greatest leaders and organizations I’ve had the privilege to work for or observe. And for all leaders, the less we live for ourselves, the more we truly gain.