Transformational leadership: Be an elephant, not an alligator

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With 30 years of international business experience and 13 years of experience living in countries outside of the United States, I’ve learned that one of the keys to transformational leadership is to listen. Once, in Japan, I was out with a customer who asked me an innocent question (after a few beers): "Would you rather be an elephant or an alligator?" I immediately answered "alligator" because they’re tough, aggressive, and fearless! Those traits were key for me as a collegiate athlete and served me well in my 27-year career in the Air Force and Air Force Reserves. Unfortunately, alligator turned out to be the completely wrong answer. 

The Japanese customer shared a valuable lesson that night — that I should want to be an elephant because they have very large ears but very small mouths. Alligators have small ears but large mouths. I learned that anyone who wants to succeed – in any industry – should strive to be an elephant, not an alligator.

The value of listening

That was a key turning point for me and has guided my career ever since. Getting out and listening to customers is honestly the best part of my job as CEO. I have the amazing opportunity to travel the globe talking to companies in a wide variety of industries about their business goals and challenges — and I enjoy hearing about how they are delivering innovative products using our company’s technology and how we can better serve them. It is imperative that all CEOs and anyone in an IT leadership role recognize that negative feedback can be even more valuable than positive feedback, as it forces us to challenge ourselves to remove impediments and deliver the best possible customer experience. The feedback we receive during face-to-face engagements and with the community is key to helping any company refine its product roadmap and strategies.

[ Take a deep dive on digital transformation. See our related article, 10 digital transformation must-reads, for expert advice from CIOs and IT leaders. ]

Leadership doesn’t mean having the last word. And transformation can only take place with a team effort

Listening to employees is also critical to the success of any IT leader. Employees are our most important asset and our best advocates. It is their efforts that have the greatest impact on customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.  Strong employee engagement is only possible when people feel valued and heard. That’s why I like to operate in a very open manner and solicit feedback from all functional areas and levels within the organization. Listening to different points of view is essential to reaching the right decisions. I may not always agree with all of the feedback I receive, but it is important to me that employees feel like they’re heard. Software is a team sport that operates across a wide variety of challenging environments. That’s why I hire and listen to problem solvers. They look across all aspects of the organization to gain a deeper understanding of the end-to-end operation and build positive relationships that enhance communications. 

How leaders can improve their hearing

In business and IT, at the end of the day, we’re pretty much all the same, no matter how many years of experience we have or what role we hold at our companies. A transformational leader understands this and consistently does “hearing checks” by truly listening to customers, peers, and team members. Leadership doesn’t mean having the last word. And transformation can only take place with a team effort — with a leader who’s more like an elephant than an alligator.

Start taking these actions today as a business and IT leader to become more “elephant-like”:

  • Foster a backchannel. Employees, partners, and customers will share their most candid feedback only if they think they will be taken seriously and that some positive action will result. A public forum such as an all-hands meeting or town hall is rarely the appropriate place for difficult feedback, so make sure you create an appropriate forum where people can share their most candid feedback. As CEO, I encourage people to approach me directly and privately to share their perspective on important issues. When I’m on the road for work, I make it a point to schedule meals or coffee with customers, partners, and employees so I can listen to their feedback in a more informal setting.
  • Increase your emotional intelligence. According to National Geographic, elephants are empathetic beings. An important lesson I learned from my international experience: It's critical to put myself in someone else’s shoes and not only understand but also appreciate cultural differences and working styles. To be even more effective as a leader, take active steps to increase your emotional intelligence, to better appreciate the perspective of others and build stronger working relationships. 
  • Understand that speed may not be your friend. As a business leader, you are likely often praised for your ability take quick, strong, and decisive action. However, resist the urge to act like the alligator and make snap judgments. Take time to listen to others' viewpoints when making long-term roadmap decisions. Make sure you’re properly compiling and evaluating the feedback you need to achieve the best outcomes possible. 

It’s rarely only the best technology that wins. Most often, it’s good technology coupled with positive chemistry, fostered through open lines of communication — and elephant-like ears.

Art Landro is CEO of Sencha, a company providing a unified platform for designing, developing and testing cross-platform web applications. With over 25 years of global business experience, Art brings to Sencha deep operational expertise across sales, marketing, product development, services, and support.