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Who is your teacher? | Christopher O.H. Williams

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Who, living or dead, has inspired you the most? This is the go-to question for many an offsite ice-breaker or team face-book question.

I have participated in my fair share of corporate retreats and, like most people, have my own perennial shortlist of greats whose lives and legacies have been sources of inspiration to me. However, for the pragmatic tasks of managing in business day to day, leading teams effectively and better influencing upwards, downwards and sideways, I come closer home and count some of my direct reports as my biggest inspiration. Indeed, I became much better at creating value in all my roles, even as a senior executive, by learning from the methods and approaches of some of the people who reported to me.

On Determination

Our investment banking team decided to create more service for clients with a weekly brief on our sector, and the writing and editing honor fell to me. Shortly after, my new assistant volunteered to take on the routine, even though it meant giving up a large part of her Sunday afternoons. I was grateful but uncomfortable about her sacrifice, other assistants were derisive and banker colleagues were incredulous that a missive for CEO clients was being placed at risk, but “A” was determined to use the opportunity to prove her abilities, learn about the business and, as she put it, “think and act like a manager”. All three she did! Today, she is very successful as Executive Director for a non-profit and CEO of a company she founded.

On Resilience

A former boss called me to his office and introduced a young man. I think you both will get along, was all he said. “D” had tons of passion, and I did feel compelled to hire him by the end of our first chat, even though he was fresh out of college and did not bring any clear skills to the team. More than passion though, he had resilience – never said no to a challenge and stuck with a task to the very end, not losing even an ounce of zeal. He made himself indispensable within a few weeks. I asked him later how he came to know my boss. As an intern in the company, after failing to get through by email or past the assistant’s desk, he found out where my boss parked his car and camped out next to it for several hours until my boss came to drive home. Today, he leads his own agency dedicated to helping youth achieve their best selves.

On Agility

“B” spent many years building an account base and growing a good, profitable business. Then I showed up and changed his strategy. I challenged him – Lets lose half of these partners and reset our relationship with the biggest one, placing 30% of the business at risk. He paused and said nothing for many moments, then looked up and was ready to go! In contrast, his partner decided it was time to leave the company, while he plodded on. Over 2 years, I watched him learn new approaches, reverse his own past direction, refocus his team and have many very difficult conversations with partners, and moreover, still succeed in creating a healthier and high growth business. Today, he is the national GM for a well-known global brand.

On Authenticity

“K” introduced me to Radical Candor. More importantly, he showed me how to earn it. He was quite good with his team – knew how to simplify their lives with clear work focus, challenge them with lots of responsibility and support them with ready and patient guidance. They had a routine of doing sport together once a week and having lunch together each day. Their trust was so deep that it became easy for them to give and receive feedback from each other and, consequently they became stronger, more cohesive and more productive as a unit. What I admired most was how plainspoken he was to his team, and they to him. “K” ended up reporting to a CEO as head of Corporate Strategy.

On Playing it Forward

“T” was action oriented. No matter how short our conversations or how murky my guidance, when we next met he would have moved the topic forward – a lot. He was not hesitant about enriching my vision with own ideas and was adept at creating modular scenarios to challenge me further, so his time alone and our time together was never wasteful. He was the most diligent at keeping 1-on-1 time with me and he could also find me when others bemoaned how inaccessible I was because of my meeting and travel schedule – “T” was master of the “drive-by” and “lets grab lunch” meetings and never let me become his bottleneck. I supported his promotion right before I transitioned away from managing him and today, still follow him closely and I know that even bigger things are ahead for him.

On Institutional Respect

“J” was a brand, and a premium one at that. She led the Insights team for a business that was obsessed with data – that consumed large amounts of it and would not suffer spurious facts or conclusions gladly. She was encyclopedic in her knowledge of the science of data and boundless in her ability to recall and connect the dots from past to present to future. Her judgement and decision-making were respected without question. Not one to lose her cool or raise her voice, forever patient and calming of the most spirited meetings, she always firmly resisted analysis paralysis and was universally trusted to always give the last word. Her commitment was unwavering, her delivery was reliable, her word was gold and she was pure perfection to witness in action. “J” is happily retired.

It has been said that a leader is only as strong as their team. I can attest to this very strongly. “A”, “D”, “B”, “K”, “T” and “J” are but a few, albeit some of the most memorable of my directs, who drove big change from within and behind. They all enhanced my professional journey at various stages, and beyond being partners in transformation projects, were unwitting teachers and role models who helped my own transformation. That they all continue to make waves is a clear reflection that their many traits of leadership endure to good effect. They, and many others like them who you all have on your teams, can, if allowed, be teachers of all of us.


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