South Florida Business Journal: CEOs Reveal the Secrets to Leadership
CEOs reveal the secrets to leadership
Jun 17, 2016
While anyone can call themself a leader, leading a group of employees is about more than wielding a title. Chief executives need to act like leaders if they’re to inspire their teams to buy into their vision and goals, and effectively execute them.
The Business Journal invited 13 of South Florida’s top business executives to its Brickell offices on June 3 for a CEO Roundtable that highlighted how they accomplish just that.
The conversation was part of our Roundtable Series, for which leading executives are invited to share their expertise on myriad topics of interest to our readers.
In charge of hundreds of employees at some of the fastest-growing companies in the tri-county region, the CEOs shared insightful comments on leadership and how they became chief executives, and how others could apply many of their winning principles to climb the corporate ladder.
Editor-in-Chief Mel Meléndez moderated the roundtable, which was presented by Comcast Business and sponsored by Ascendo Resources, AvMed, Blanca Commercial Real Estate and the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.
Leadership is more than a title and a big desk
Becoming a leader is more than having great vision or being productive at a job; it’s about motivating and inspiring people to accomplish key goals.
But don’t confuse being a CEO with being a manager, as they are different roles, said Cesar Alvarez, senior chairman of law firm Greenberg Traurig. Most importantly, being named to a management role doesn’t necessarily make you a leader, he added.
“Leaders can only be made because people are willing to follow and accomplish a goal,” Alvarez said. “That’s what you need as a leader for people, to be passionate about what’s going on. I try to be a leader not by telling people what to do, but by listening to them and finding out what must be done.”
Managers, on the other hand, make sure people show up on time and enforce the rules, he said.
That’s not to downplay the talents or importance of effective managers, which become evident as they move up in the company – whether in creative, financial, technical or other key roles. But not every talented worker is ready for the responsibilities that come with the CEO chair, Alvarez said.
One of the characteristics that distinguishes a leader from a strong employee is perspective, or the ability to make the company - not the job - their top priority.
That requires putting what’s best for your team and your clients first, even if it’s not in your best personal interest, said Calixto Garcia-Velez, executive VP and regional executive with FirstBank Florida.
What’s more, leaders are easy to identify, as those are the people who, during extreme situations, workers will naturally recognize and follow. These are the leaders who are able to make the tough calls when times are hard - even if the decisions are public, said Henry Fleches, president and CEO of United Data Technologies.
“That’s how these executives earn respect,” he said.
Some CEOs are spellbinding orators. They captivate employees and customers with presentations, graphics and charts, which are always headed in a positive direction. Those are great skills to have, but becoming an effective leader requires more than that.
Leadership goes beyond making passionate speeches about your vision for the company; it requires communicating how the company will get there, saidSusan Amat, CEO and founder of startup incubator Venture Hive. If you’re only about generating ideas, perhaps CEO isn’t the right position for you, she added.
“Everyone is interested in being CEO, and it’s the worst job at a startup because you are responsible for everything and accountable for everything,” Amat said. “There’s nothing wrong with being an executive and not being the CEO. If you are a great technologist, be happy with that and let that move the company forward.”
True leaders also understand that you can’t micromanage.
When executing your plan, don’t be afraid to let employees take risks, and even fail, because that’s how they learn, said Pike Rowley, principal and managing director for Florida with commercial real estate brokerage Avison Young. Skilled employees will overcome failure and learn how to turn it into a win.
Rowley shared the example of a young broker he hired who was introverted at first. During a pitch to a client, Rowley noticed the broker was silent, so he pulled him aside and asked him to speak up.
“He told me, ‘Pike, it’s difficult because you’re doing all the talking,’” Rowley said. “I [realized I] was afraid he would say the wrong thing. I learned to let him talk.”
Ten years later, that same broker is among the most productive at Avison Young in Florida, he added.
But having those open exchanges with a chief executive isn’t always easy. For that to happen, there has to be trust so employees can view their CEO as approachable.
You start building that trust by being honest, which is the most important trait of a true leader, said Mark Perlberg, president and CEO of PEO firm Oasis Outsourcing. If an executive is honest and humble, people will give them the latitude to occasionally make mistakes.
“Effective leadership includes saying, ‘I am here to learn from you. Help me. Teach me,’” Perlberg said.
CEOs faced with nonstop challenges
Life changes when a person takes over the demanding CEO role. No longer can you shift a problem to someone in another department, as everything is your responsibility - even situations outside of your control.
So you gather inspiration from wherever you can, acknowledge that there will be wins and some missteps, and how you respond to them will define whether you’re respected as a leader.
“Everyone is watching how you will react to those defeats,” said Michael Balter, partner-in-charge for Florida with accounting and consulting firm Marcum LLP. “That is where you can see those leadership qualities, when those failures come through and how you react to them.”
Donn F. Flipse, chairman and CEO of Field of Flowers, takes inspiration from historical figures who overcame terrible losses. Both George Washington and Winston Churchill led armies that suffered bruising defeats before they eventually achieved victory, and CEOs need the same persistence because they will have to rebound from a crushing defeat at some point, he said.
Growth, a clear sign of success for a company, can also present a formidable challenge.
Law firm Greenberg Traurig has more than 2,000 employees and was growing 20 percent a year at one point.
One mistake Senior Chairman Cesar Alvarez made during his rookie years in the top chair was not repeating his vision and the business’s core values because he assumed all employees knew them.
“It can be challenging to keep your message on point when you have so many employees,” but CEOs should never shy away from delivering that message – and often – to keep everyone on track.
While maintaining consistency can be difficult, so can dealing with change.
Still, for CEOs, challenges come in different stripes. For example, one of Apollo Bank Chairman and CEO Eddy Arriola’s biggest challenges was arriving at the bank as the top executive, instead of working his way up from the ground floor.
Arriola led an investor group that acquired, recapitalized and rebranded the bank, and he was younger than many of the bank’s longtime employees.
At the time, he wanted to be well-liked, so Arriola made decisions he felt would be popular and inspire employees to cheer for him. In hindsight, that was the wrong approach.
“I realized it’s more important to be respected than to be liked,” Arriola said. “You need to make the hard decision if it’s right, even if it’s not popular.”
Perhaps the toughest decision is to let an employee go. But while it’s often an unpopular choice, it’s typically the necessary one when positions have changed, companies are under financial pressure to downsize or when an otherwise likable employee has underperformed.
Sabadell United Bank President Dwight Hill said he regrets holding on to certain employees for too long when they weren’t a good fit for their positions.
“It hurt morale at the bank, and it didn’t do the employees any favors, either, because they weren’t happy,” Hill said. “Those people are actually doing better now that they have new jobs.”
Downsizing is never an easy decision because others will have to pick up the slack for the open position, said Gigi Alvarez, CEO of interior design firm G. Alvarez Studio.
“It’s tough when an employee says, ‘I want to keep this person because I’m meeting a deadline and we are working until 8 p.m. every night,’” she said. “But you learn to do what you have to do and figure it out later. [Now], I try to hire slow and fire fast.”
But CEOs, especially entrepreneurs who start their own businesses, also have to acknowledge when they’re better suited for another role, said Henry Fleches, president and CEO of United Data Technologies.
“Sometimes, when a company grows so large, the people who founded it aren’t the best people to lead it going forward, and they should take different positions with the company,” he said. “That’s another measure of a real leader: when you look in the mirror and make that self-assessment and do what has to be done.”
Another challenge for chief executives is dealing with dissension, especially when it’s directed at the person at the top. But there’s a marked difference between dissent, questioning decisions and unfounded criticism, the CEOs said.
The key is managing it in a way that makes the company stronger, not rips it apart.
For Mark Perlberg, president and CEO of PEO firm Oasis Outsourcing, it’s all about transparency.
“When an employee comes to me with a disagreement, I ask them to raise the issue in front of everybody, including the individual they have an issue with,” he said. “I don’t let employees lobby me behind the scenes. Let’s settle it out in the open.”
Most times, what some managers consider dissension is an opportunity for a constructive discussion that can lead to inventive ideas, Fleches said.
“That’s especially true in the technology industry, so companies should create a platform for ideas to be heard,” he said. “Management needs to put its ego aside and encourage a forum for healthy debate to pick the right path, not [necessarily] my path.”
Always room to grow
When it comes to leadership, South Florida’s top executives say their personal growth and learning is never done. A CEO must work to become a stronger leader, after all, and should set an example for employees about the value of self-improvement.
Key to that is for executives to set aside time to invest in themselves, learn new things, refine leadership skills and understand the world around them, said Sandi Finn, founding partner of consulting firm EdgeCraft Advisors, and former CEO of Cross Country Home Services. The CEO must show a passion for what they’re doing to inspire employees to new heights.
Tere Blanca, president and CEO of Blanca Commercial Real Estate, agrees that finding quality time to recharge and be in the “right frame of mind” is essential. She schedules some quiet time every month to recharge, and gain clarity and perspective.
But she also tapped a small advisory board that supports her business.
“Because even when you head a successful company, you can still have mentors to help you grow even more as a leader,” Blanca said. “It’s always about improvement.”
Most of the CEOs said they also listen to their employees’ advice, and try to hire intelligent people they can learn from.
And if you can’t secure a face-to-face meeting with the people you’d like to learn from, books are the next best thing.
Some of the panelists recommended business books by W. Edwards Deming, “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” by Ram Charan and Charles Burck, and “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck.
Emulating others who have excelled in business is also advisable.
Gigi Alvarez, CEO of interior design firm G. Alvarez Studio, said she draws inspiration from studying the career of Elon Musk, CEO of such companies as Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, and the founder of PayPal.
“Watching how creative people operate and turn their ideas into businesses motivates me,” she said.
And true leaders then try to inspire and motivate others, Sabadell United Bank President Dwight Hill said.
“We all have some innate talents. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fail,” he said. “But when people fail, we must pick them up and help them move forward. That’s the sign of a real leader.”
“Always invest in yourself. You have to keep reading and join organizations.” Eddy Arriola, chairman and CEO, Apollo Bank
“Leaders need to self-assess. And don’t take on something you aren’t going to be good at.” Henry Fleches, president and CEO, United Data Technologies
“Hire better people, the best people you can. Don’t hire people who are just manageable.” Donn F. Flipse, chairman and CEO, Field of Flowers
“If you believe that a leadership position is an asset for you, you are not the right person to lead. [Be] very wary when someone wants to be made a leader.” Cesar Alvarez, senior chairman, Greenberg Traurig
“Be focused. Too many companies get caught up in letting multiple conflicting strategies move forward at the same time.” Sandi Finn, founding partner,EdgeCraft Advisors
“Surround yourself with really smart people and always protect your culture. That bad apple who disrupts your culture in a disrespectful way can be very damaging.” Tere Blanca, president and CEO, Blanca Commercial Real Estate
The best thing about being a leader
“I like the risk.” Pike Rowley, principal and managing director for Florida, Avison Young
“Being able to pursue your dream. You have the levers of control and power, and are in a position to do that.” Donn F. Flipse, chairman and CEO, Field of Flowers
“I wake up to a white canvas every day and get to start painting it.” Tere Blanca, president and CEO, Blanca Commercial Real Estate
“You feel pride in helping people every day. It’s helping people realize their dreams as we realize ours.” Susan Amat, CEO/founder, Venture Hive
“As soon as the year closes and you have a successful year, there’s not a lot of time to celebrate and get high-fives. It’s always about what happens next.” Michael Balter, partner-in-charge for Florida, Marcum LLP
“The accountability. It’s your opportunity to take [the company] into any direction you want to.” Mark Perlberg, president and CEO, Oasis Outsourcing
“You are the last one to turn out the lights and lock the door, and you have to be willing to accept that level of responsibility. As a leader, you have to be willing to take the last shot of the game.” Eddy Arriola, chairman and CEO, Apollo Bank