Leadership Lessons: Let Them Play Their Symphony

I am very pleased to present a guest post by Steve McCullough. I have known and worked with Steve as a client for over 8 years.  We have a common interest – Georgia Gwinnett College – where I serve on the Foundation Finance Committee and Steve is an accounting instructor. As you’ll understand when you read Steve’s post, he is a natural teacher and extends his passion for teaching beyond the walls of a classroom to every employee at every level of the companies he works with. (John Lucht)

Let Them Play Their Symphony

I’ve never been one to ever consider myself successful in my career, but I guess I would have to say that since I’ve somehow worked for 32 plus years with some amazing companies and have had the opportunity to do so many interesting and satisfying jobs, I must be doing something right.  I guess the reason that I never had considered myself successful is that so much of it really isn’t me, it’s the people that I have had surrounding me. 

Over my career, I’ve entered into various situations upon accepting positions.  In some cases, I’ve replaced someone who has left, but in many cases, I filled a new position, due to the company expanding and the need for a higher level person to run the department.  In each case, I’ve taken the same approach.  I’ll break it down into the key parts, but I’ll warn you up front.  My approach will never get you the “Wow factor” coming in the door.  My approach is very much based on patience, learning the environment, learning the people and empowering the people.  It often takes 6-12 months before you start seeing transformation taking place.  I view everything like a long distance race rather than a sprint. 

I steal a great deal of my leadership philosophy from “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life”, so if you’ve read the book, you will see quite a bit of the tenets in that book weaved throughout.  The book was written by a husband and wife, and the husband is Benjamin Zander, a conductor of the Boston Philharmonic.  Mr. Zander compares the various components of leadership to leading a symphony orchestra.  The conductor doesn’t generate one note of music, but his role is to do everything possible to bring the best out of each performer in the orchestra and help his musicians generate a beautiful piece of music in unison.  In so many ways, that captures what I view my role to be: helping my group maximize their capabilities, maximize their talents, to produce a beautiful symphony in our business. 

In summary, here are my main beliefs when it comes to leading a team in a business environment:

Seek to Understand – Anytime I come into a new environment, the first thing I do is observe.  How do things work, why do they do things the way they do, etc.  In many cases, my first inclination may be that it really doesn’t make sense the way things are being done, but I hold all judgment until I have had sufficient time to really understand the process.  Only in rare cases, when I see something is going horribly wrong, do I act and change what is being done.

All Students (Employees) Are “A” Students – When I come into a new environment, I let everyone know that from my standpoint, they are all top performers.  I assume that everyone has the ability and the desire to do the jobs they are currently doing.  They will have to prove to me that they are not capable to do that.  In virtually all cases, they do perform and succeed.  In very few cases, people are ill-fitted for their role, and it’s best for them and the organization to help them find a new career path.  You need to get the right people in the right places within your organization, and in most cases, they are already there.

I Don’t Know – This is probably the toughest and most disconcerting for employees.  When I come into a new position, in many cases, the employees in place are looking for someone to come in with all the answers.  When an issue or situation comes up, and they look to me for answers, my response in most cases is, “I don’t know, what do you think”?  At first, to be honest, it really freaks people out, and they probably think, “why in the world did they hire this guy”?  Gradually, we work through the issue or problem, and in most cases, people know the right answer.  They know what needs to be done, they just don’t have the confidence or backing to implement it.  Once they have someone who is willing to allow them to make decisions and implement their own solutions, they gain confidence and start believing in their own capabilities to run their departments.

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously! – Business is important, business is serious, but you don’t always have to be.  I like to give people the opportunity to lighten up, have a little fun, and enjoy their time together.  We spend so much time in the work environment, we spend so much time together, and we need to enjoy each other’s company.  Recently one of our Accounts Payable Clerks told me that I couldn’t have a piece of candy because I was getting chubby.  Do you know how much fun all of the staff had with that one? 

No One Is A Peon – There are very few times I get really angry at work, but this is one of them, or one example.   I had one of my employees, our receptionist, come to me on an issue, and she made the comment, “Well, I’m just a peon”.  I immediately stopped what I was doing, and we sat down for a heart to heart discussion.  My Father taught me early on that everyone in an organization is important, no matter what he or she performs.  I firmly believe this, and I firmly shared this information with the young lady.  Any organization, any department is a team.  If any member of that team isn’t functioning at a high enough level, it impacts everyone.  A receptionist is the first person our customers talk to, the first person a visitor meets when he or she comes to the facility, the face of the organization.  How could anyone ever believe he or she was a peon in such an important role?  This holds true for any person or role within an organization.

Celebrate Success – I still wish we did this more often, but you need to take the time to celebrate successes.  Each time there is a major milestone or accomplishment, take the time to celebrate the success that your team achieved.  Recently we had the best audit we’ve ever had in the seven years I’ve been at WIKA.  We took the entire staff out for a nice lunch to thank them for all that they did.  Without everyone pulling together and making it happen, we couldn’t have done it.  It’s vital to take that time to make your group realize what they have done and how important it is.

Educate, Empower, Encourage – As time goes on, I start to figure out areas where my personnel need additional training or education.  I always try to grow the group as much as possible to be as self-sufficient as possible.  As time goes on, I give them the ability to make their own decisions and only bring issues to me that are beyond their capability or ones that could have a significant impact on the organization.  I always want the group to grow, to get better, to improve in their understanding of their jobs, their responsibilities, and to have to rely on me less and less.  I always am willing and want to be there as a sounding board, but I always encourage the group to make their own decisions and control their own departments and responsibilities.

When That Bus Hits! – This is one of the analogies I always use with my team, and I truly believe it.  If that proverbial bus runs me over tomorrow, the organization will go on without a hiccup.  While some people believe that a sign of their importance is that the organization would fall apart if they left, I believe that if I weren’t missed, if everything went on perfectly, I would have achieved great success in my job or career.  I’ve reached that level at various points in my career, and I’ve reached that point at WIKA.  I have confidence in my team that they could easily go on perfectly if I disappeared tomorrow.

As I noted, nothing magical here, and nothing to make you say, “Wow, we need to bring this guy in and turn our organization around”!  In most cases, you already have the right people in place; you just need to empower them, educate them, and give them the confidence to make the difficult decisions along the way.  Your people have a beautiful symphony inside of them, but you have to give them the opportunity to share that music with the rest of the organization.  They will make you proud.

About Steve McCullough, CPA

Steve McCullough has been the Chief Financial Officer for WIKA Holding, LP for the past seven years.  WIKA Holding is the US parent company for the various WIKA subsidiaries in the US, and is a subsidiary of WIKA GmbH in Germany.  WIKA is a global leader in pressure, temperature, level and flow measurement technology. 

Prior to joining WIKA, Steve has served as the Chief Financial Officer for Barco in the US, a subsidiary of Barco NV in Belgium, and also served at various times as a Controller, Operations Manager and General Manager for various Barco subsidiaries in the US for over 13 years.

Steve began his career at Deloitte, working his way up from an audit assistant, ultimately to an audit manager.  He has also served as Chief Financial Officer at Goodwill Industries of Dayton and as Controller at Adams Robinson Enterprises.

Steve has served as a volunteer at various nonprofit organizations, churches and universities, such as Miami Valley Literacy Council, Wright State University, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Dayton Habitat for Humanity, First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville, GA and United Theological Seminary.  He also serves as Adjunct Professor at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Steve has been married for 32 years to his wife Laurel and has four children.

For more on Steve, read here.





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