Leadership Traits of Business Greats

Reflecting this week on things I’m thankful for has reminded me of the many terrific leaders and colleagues with whom I’ve worked.

I have had the good fortune to work with and for some of the best minds in American business. People like Toby Lenk, the founder of eToys.com, co-founder of GameFly, and former president of Gap’s online retailing operation; Scott Beck, founder of Blockbuster, Boston Market, Einstein Bros. Bagels; and John Cranor, former Chairman of KFC Corp. and current Chairman of AFC Enterprises, to name a few. The lessons learned from them are invaluable and serve me daily.

In trying to distill what sets these individuals apart, I can identify the leadership traits that many of the greats share:

Passion. Strive for greatness.

Toby Lenk created eToys which, for a time, was one of the hottest Internet startups and a beloved consumer brand. Toby’s vision of a better way to shop for kids fueled every aspect of eToys from the consumer interface to the amazingly talented group of executives he recruited. Toby’s energy and passion were palpable in meetings and his relentless drive was occasionally exhausting. But, you knew you were in the presence of a great thinker who cared deeply about doing something distinct and special.

Commitment. It’s not a part-time thing.

When I first met Scott Beck at the company’s offices in Naperville, Ill., Beck was sleeping on a cot several days a week in a storeroom. Boston Market had about 185 restaurants at that time and was gearing up to open units at a pace of one new store every business day on its way to 1,200 units. Beck didn’t ask others to sleep in the office but his commitment was clear and obvious. As a result, we threw ourselves into building and growing the brand and making history in the foodservice industry. His commitment was intense and nobody ever questioned it.

Civility. Disagree without being disagreeable.

John Cranor ran KFC Corp. which, at the time, counted 9,000 restaurants spread around the globe. I recall many meetings in which John questioned colleagues specifically and at length about certain things. I can remember having fundamental assumptions challenged by John to see how strongly I believed my data. But, I can’t recall a single meeting where anyone left the room feeling anything less than respected and more unified about our team’s approach. That’s what strong, smart leaders do. They forge consensus through civil discourse and strengthen their teams in the process. Cranor elevated the level of discourse in a room and in the process, elevated everyone around him.

For current or aspiring leaders, these traits are characteristics we can all take to heart and apply to our daily lives and interactions in the business place. Happy thanksgiving! 

Gary Gerdemann has nearly 30 years’ experience helping companies address challenging issues in the marketplace. He has significant experience in the food and beverage industry including work at Pepsi, KFC, Boston Market, Long John Silver’s, IHOP and Einstein Noah Bagel Corp. 

Posted on November 25, 2014 in Article

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