When I started working 10 years ago, I joined a local advertising agency in Vietnam. I was an Account Executive, the lowest rung of the ladder. I worked under an Account Director named Quang. I didn’t know much about her. In fact, I never got a chance to get to know her better at the time since she left two weeks after I joined. But she taught me an important lesson. One time, we were preparing a pitch deck for a potential client. I was tasked with doing some market research and putting together a few slides. Upon review, she told me that my slides didn’t have smooth transition because images were off by a few pixels from one slide to another. What she wanted was that when the audience moved from one slide to the next, everything would stay in the same position and there would be no movement, no changes in size of the images. Only the content of the images would change. I was shocked at the attention to detail and more when I saw the final product and other pitch decks from her. She did what she asked of me, even though I didn’t know her credentials at the time.
Almost two years ago, my company recruited a new person. This guy didn’t have any experience managing a credit card portfolio at an issuer before. Somehow, he was trusted by the leadership team to manage the acquisition side of a portfolio worth millions of dollars. The first few months on the job, he kept preaching about data-driven decision-making. Whenever somebody proposed something, he challenged by asking what data supported this. To me, that was a legitimate question. You need to back up your hypothesis with concrete numbers. The thing is that the standard doesn’t seem applicable to him. He repeatedly makes suggestions and decisions by starting with “my guts say” or “my hunch is”. A case of “do as I say, not as I do when the track record is non-existent”.
Amazon is known for putting a lot of thoughts to ideas before execution, even if such ideas might be crazy and far-fetched. The objective is to make the initiator think through the idea as much as possible. In “Amazon Unbound”, Brad Stone described two stories that were contrary to that reputation. In one instance, Jeff Bezos, the founder and legendary former CEO of Amazon, proposed off the cuff that the company should launch food trucks that roll into neighborhood and sell steaks to residents. Internal teams were tasked to develop a plan for that idea and execute. After more than one year and numerous days and nights worth of efforts, the service went live. But it was unsuccessful and abandoned shortly.
In another example, Jeff Bezos wanted his team to create a “single cow” burger that can only be bought from Amazon. The idea is that this Amazon burger would have meat from only one cow whereas commercial burgers on the market sourced the meat from several. It was even designated as one of the high-priority goals, directly tracked by Bezos himself and his direct reports. After almost one year, the product launched with great customer feedback initially. But the unit economics of this product didn’t make sense, as feared. Consequently, it eventually fizzled out.
You see, the one common theme of the three stories above is that a person in power asks somebody down the food chain to do something. The difference lies in whether the authority has credentials and whether such authority sets examples. My first manager showed leadership by setting examples, even though I had no idea about her credentials. The guy at my company didn’t adhere to the standard he set despite non-existent track record. Jeff Bezos didn’t demand of him what he demanded of others, but he had a monumental track record of great decisions.
The lesson here to me is that leaders should lead by examples. Show the troop that the standard is applicable to everybody, not selectively only when the situation suits those in authority. That’s especially important when a previous track record doesn’t exist. An established successful credential will earn a leader some leeway, but he or she should not use up the rope and act like they are THE culture and the expectations don’t apply to them. Aldi wouldn’t be what it is today if executives drove fancy cars and splurged the company’s money on themselves while forcing employees to find ways to cut expenses. Warren Buffett wouldn’t command respect and following if he showed up on newspapers with a scandal every 6 months, would he?
The longer leaders lead by examples, the stronger a culture becomes.