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 Ritch Eich.
Ritch Eich is a nationally-known expert on leadership, the author of 5 books on the subject, a retired Naval officer, former hospital executive, and former Chief of Public Affairs for Blue Shield of CA. He has served on more than 12 boards of directors and trustees of for-profit and non-for-profit organizations.
Ritch’s thoughts and insights on leadership have been published in Bloomberg Business, Forbes.com, Leadership Excellence (HR.com), The Journal of Values-Based Leadership, The Hill, Fast Company.com, Investors Business Daily, The Globe and Mail, Directors & Boards, Fox News, CEO Magazine, Modern Healthcare, and Monster.com, among others.
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?
If you had told me four decades ago that my career path would include being asked to join the board of directors of my alma mater’s half-million, living-member alumni association; that I would be selected as the chair of our regional for-profit hospital’s board of trustees; or that I would publish five books on leadership, I would have likely laughed out loud. But then again, I’ve always believed what my parents said about God working in “mysterious ways.”
In retrospect, I think my initial curiosity with leadership can be traced back to being selected for the Marysville (CA) Little League “All-Star” team to play first base at age 12. The team’s manager, Ralph Leslie Palm, was someone I greatly admired. He was a highly decorated WWIl veteran with a calm, steady, and nurturing exterior backed up by an intensively competitive interior drive. It was a leadership approach that brought out the best every player had to offer. I observed him closely and in my own naïve way wanted to emulate him.
From as early as I can remember, I loved to read books, especially about people from all different walks of life. Among other things, I learned that many of most fascinating of them read extensively themselves and had abundant intellectual curiosity. For example, I recall reading a quote from Army General George S. Patton that stuck with me: “Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”
My childhood hero (and to this day) was Jackie Robinson and I believe I’ve read most every major book about his life. If Little League baseball was the initial stimulus and reading the second, my experiences first as an enlisted sailor and later as a Navy officer were the third driver of what has become over the years a keen, ever-broadening interest in leadership. Over time, I hope I’ve become much more skilled at differentiating effective leaders from just bosses.
A common thread that runs through the leaders I most admire is what I call “moral courage.” To me, it means having a clearly defined set of values and consciously striving to behave in accordance with them — — not when it is convenient — — not to one audience and yet not to another — — but every day. And, what most concerns me today is the fact that there are so many people in leadership roles who aren’t taking a stand, aren’t speaking out for what they know in their hearts is wrong. In the last several years, I believe we have swerved so wide that we now find ourselves on a precipice. To use a nautical term or two, we seem to be largely ethically adrift or rudderless. Don’t ever think we can take our democracy for granted. We can’t, we must not.
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?
I had recently been hired at a mid-sized California organization and I was invited to join a facilities planning meeting. At one point, the discussion turned to architecture, a long time interest of mine. We were in a building with an exterior barrel style decor and I was asked what I thought of it. I remarked that it reminded me of a wine rack, which drew laughter from all but one of the committee members who as it turned out just happened to be sitting near me. I didn’t know anything about the gentleman. Quietly, he turned to me and said, “I designed and built “those wine racks!” After picking myself off the floor, he reached over to me, extended his hand and introduced himself. To this day, I think I was the butt of a planned practical joke. The wonderful part of this story is that the builder and I became good friends.
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?
A wonderful role model and mentor of mine, Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D., has what she dubbed “a mentor’s quilt.” Inherent in her dossier was having several different mentors for different professional requirements and challenges that she encountered. Rather than relying on just one or two resources, she had several people with a very broad range of distinct skill sets that she could reach out to and count on to provide her with wise counsel when the need arose. Throughout her brilliant career as a gifted pediatrics researcher, hospital CEO, major pharmaceutical company executive and university president, I have steadfastly tried to follow her example.
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?
As a student of leadership, I would offer the following: hire the best team who genuinely care about the mission; dream about their work and can envision their future success. As a leader, be humble, take care of their finances and provide them with a stake in the organization. Be principled in everything you do! Spend less time talking and more attentively listening. Be tech savvy as it is less costly and more productive than hiring consultants. Finally, be sure you are able to regularly differentiate between assumptions and data/facts. Lead on…
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The story begins with the announcement of a joint venture (eventual merger) between two large, well-respected healthcare institutions, Indiana University Hospital and Riley Hospital for Children (part of Indiana University Medical Center) and Methodist Hospital, each with very different cultures. NOTE: I describe more on this topic in my book: Leadership Requires Extra Innings: Lessons on Leading from a Life in the Trenches. My primary responsibility was to maintain our function’s services to our internal and external customers while helping plan what the combined organization would look like. My Navy experience proved invaluable to me. I had worked in a Marine Corps brig for a time where we experienced race riots, prisoner escapes, maltreatment and other problems. Later I had been abroad at NATO South during the Bosnia War. I had become somewhat accustomed to the “unexpected.” From observing U.S. Navy Admiral Leighton “Snuffy” Smith, Jr., Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Forces Europe and NATO Allied Forces Southern Europe, I was reminded of the Peter Drucker quote, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — — it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
Providing as much clarity to my team as I was permitted to share about the merger planning and decisions reached had to be balanced against my desire to help position my team members for what their future in the new organization might or might not be. There were numerous barriers presented practically every day that I had to overcome. My intent was to be as transparent as possible and do what any good supervisor would do: help prepare his or her staff for an unclear future for them (and for me for that matter) and help them understand to not “put all their eggs in one basket” as far as their future employment was concerned. I would liken the experience to walking a tightrope. That said, I had learned long before, people come first!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I was fortunate to have parents who provided love, structure and regular life lessons among which was one very straightforward principle: “when you get knocked down, you get up.” My brother and I were taught to learn from our mistakes, modify our faults and experiences where we failed and to learn from them. Words like quitting, giving up or “throwing in the towel” were absent from our respective vocabularies. Substantial participation in athletics and striving to achieve academically were major drivers for each of us. My older brother was a superb role model with well-developed leadership expertise at a very young age. My parents and my brother taught me that in order to lead you have a responsibility to “teach” or “mentor” and “set an enviable example” for others to follow. Michelle Obama has a quote that seems apt here about helping others: “you reach back and give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A particularly seasoned and savvy journalist once told me: calmly and quickly take charge, stand up, be counted, be honest, engage your team and invite their ideas, be as uplifting as you can, never lie, be as transparent as you can be, get the facts out at once no matter how unsettling, and don’t obfuscate. It is some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Workplace morale — whether high or low — is a result of leadership, effective or ineffective. Morale not only heavily influences a firm’s productivity, retention and profitability; it also determines a business’ reputation and longevity.
The best leaders I’ve been associated with see their staff’s morale as an indispensable part of their regular, ongoing attention. Here are a few of the most successful leader behaviors and principles to establish and enhance morale that I have been a part of and ones I’ve tried to practice:
- They are committed to regularly sharing with employees pertinent market data; current trends; competitor advances; anticipated pitfalls; financial forecasts and any other information to foster employee understanding of the business and the industry of which they are a part.
- They regularly invite their employees’ ideas, suggestions for improvement and, most important, they seriously consider them.
- They shun giving mass produced gifts to employees when recognizing their contributions and seek to identify more thoughtful, personal gifts that the employee being recognized will genuinely appreciate. Hence, they shun “staffing it out.”
- They don’t wait to recognize exemplary performance based on some HR calendar; they seize the opportunity to recognize the contribution shortly after it occurs.
- They pen personal, handwritten notes soon after they become aware of an associate going “beyond the pale” in his or her job or in helping another employee solve a major work-related problem. In my latest book Leading with Grit, Grace and Gratitude: Timeless Lessons for Life, I discuss this important, yet too seldom used practice.
- They are keenly aware that some jobs can seem mundane or are full of routine tasks and they seek ways to enhance and broaden them. A case in point: Chelsea Milling Company, the “JIFFY” Mix family-owned business founded in 1901 where my friend, Howdy Holmes, is the president and CEO. They invest in their employees. They spend considerable effort in testing during their recruiting and hiring process and in evaluating and providing multiple ways for employees to improve their skills. On a plant tour my wife, Joan, and I took with Howdy, he was able to call each person that we saw by his or her first name. But, Howdy could also tell us quite a bit about each member of “Team JIFFY.”
- Someone once said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Heightening employee morale is a very serious matter but it can also be fun, not staid, humdrum or predictable!
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Face the facts, share them as soon as you understand them, don’t wait for rumors or leaks to arise as they inevitably will if you delay sharing the difficult news, reveal your humanity, be empathic, seek others’ ideas, provide understanding and collaboratively craft a direction forward. Above all else: don’t sugarcoat the difficult news. Be as proactive as possible. This is not a time to be aloof, distant, secretive, or to assign blame.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader’s first rule should be “plan for the worst, pray for the best.” Functionally speaking, your annual plan should include scenarios, exercises and pathways for activation in particularly unforeseen times. Flexibility should be built into such a plan. Quarterly updates should occur every quarter unless required sooner. The key point here is to develop a comprehensive plan that are based on the best data available so you can better anticipate the kinds of roadblocks likely to be thrown in front of the organization. The annual plan must include a crisis management and communication annex that clearly spells out each person’s role in such a circumstance. And, a schedule when crisis management drills are to occur must be adhered to as outlined in the plan. As a former Naval Reserve EPLO officer (Emergency Planning Officer), I can assure you planning and exercising the plan go hand in hand.
If you have spent quality time with those you are expected to lead so you know what is important to them and they to you, the likelihood of your being an effective leader when you are in rough seas is much greater. There really is no substitute for understanding and appreciating each member of your team. Inherent in this belief is the importance of showing that you care about each team member’s future, having shared your previous successes and failures with your team, and developing a shared commitment to the particular challenge at hand. Trust is never more severely tested than in stormy weather!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
No, I suggest there are three major principles I can think of at once:
A good plan: One including crisis management planning and execution timetable with relevant exercises: Have a plan in place that anticipates as best as an organization can for the likely roller coaster. The plan must include quarterly ‘rocks’ that are the “must do” actions and be sure they spell out clearly who helps whom out and helps resolve hurdles to be encountered along the way.
Leadership development: Develop leaders throughout the organization, regardless of size. In other words, build leaders at every level of the business. Leadership training should be continuous with executive participation a must.
Consistency: during the last several years we have seen the pitfalls associated with constant turmoil, turnover, disruption, unpredictability, whipsawing, dysfunction and worse at the national and state level and among companies and agencies big and small. There are numerous lessons to be learned these last several years.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Among the most frequently observed errors are inequities between hourly and part-time help during this pandemic, cover-ups, poor execution, misreading customer wants and needs, blaming others, being AWOL in a major “flare –up, and pretending a problem will miraculously disappear.
Effective leaders get results. They have good values. They are trustworthy. They listen to their team’s ideas and evaluate them. They maintain vigilance and help remove barriers as needed but they don’t micromanage and second-guess. They are inherently curious and ask questions. They rely on their team, and are good cheerleaders. They recognize team achievement in ways that are meaningful to the team members themselves.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
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.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
The five most important actions effective leaders take in period of rough seas are:
- Be highly visible and keep a steady hand on the till. And don’t panic…maintain your composure. Be courageous, honest, transparent, candid, reassuring and show you are genuinely empathic; always keep an open mind and solicit others’ ideas; remember to use your sense of humor when appropriate as it can defuse tension and conflict; don’t over-promise but if you’re confident the organization will overcome the challenge, let them know this; i.e. “with your help, we’ve got this.” EXAMPLE: Howard “Howdy” Holmes, president & CEO of Chelsea Milling, manifested this skill throughout the substantial restructuring of his company. Chelsea Milling’s competitive landscape is all about change as they successfully compete against such behemoths as General Mills, Pillsbury and others in the retail prepared baking mix industry.
- Substantially increase the number of regular, ongoing interactions and communication with employees and other key constituencies. It’s better to over-communicate during difficult times than be absent. Allow the staff or employees to express doubt, fear, grief, loss or whatever the major emotions they want to express. If it is severe, bring in grief counselors to help employees deal concretely with their concerns. EXAMPLE: Mario Alioto, executive vice president of the San Francisco Giants baseball club, and a couple of his colleagues skillfully held things together after their CEO was suspended by Major League Baseball.
- Share your vision for the future by engaging employees throughout the organization. Remind key constituencies of the collaboratively developed game plan by the organization and the direction you’re heading. Never forget, as a leader you are expected to be able to see down the road, anticipate as many obstacles as possible, and plan for overcoming them. Importantly, this is the time to ensure that the leaders you have trained up and down the organization are fully empowered to reinforce the vision with their own staffs and invite their ideas going forward. EXAMPLE: My friend, distinguished consultant, Ross School of Business (Michigan) professor and author Noel Tichy said it best: “Winning companies win because they have good leaders who nurture the development of other leaders at all levels of the organization.” Tichy led G.E.’s Crotonville Leadership Development Center for legendary CEO Jack Welch.
- Adhere to your values. In our family, one of the cardinal rules is “we will not, lie, cheat or steal.” Our two sons were raised this way and as grandparents, we are reinforcing our sons’ and daughters-in-law’s values and expectations whenever appropriate. As a business leader, it is imperative that you constantly earn your team’s trust by being truthful, honorable, under control but not controlling, and a person of integrity. Never is this more important than in times of organizational stress. EXAMPLE: Robert M. Gates, throughout his outstanding career working for eight U.S. presidents and two institutions of higher education, maintained his values.
- Treat all people respectfully and uphold their dignity at all times. As a Rotarian, I’ve always liked the motto: “Service above self.” As a veteran and father of two sons who were a Marine officer and a Navy officer, “Leave no one behind” has a particular calling. Real leaders are not among those who “smile up the organization, and frown down the organization.” Treat everyone, especially those subordinate to you, the way you would want to be treated. The Golden Rule has never been more important than today. EXAMPLE: Indra Nooyi, until recently, the 12-year PEPSICO CEO and prescient chairwoman, boldly took her company’s products beyond what many people now view as unhealthy drinks and junk food snacks. She understood the strength of reaching out to people at a personal level at all levels of her company including interestingly, in some cases, employees’ parents.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Colin Powell said: “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.” This insightful quote has shaped much of my thinking about leadership. It’s something I have kept in mind when writing my books and advising others about effective leadership.
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