Lessons in Leadership: Consistency (an excerpt from Dr. Bandelli’s Book, What Every Leader Needs)

Tom was the CEO for a specialty clothing retailer. He was a veteran of the industry with over thirty years of experience. He was recruited into the organization to drive its sales and revenue growth over a five-year period. In the first several years, the company had tremendous growth. They adjusted their strategic plan to go after a larger market focused on customers in the 13-22 age range. This enabled the company to offer several different product categories (e.g., boys and girls clothing, jewelry, accessories, and perfumes) for their customers. They built out an e-commerce platform and put in place an omni-channel marketing platform. They updated their IT infrastructure and put in place an ERP software system. They began identifying and selecting A-player talent for key roles throughout the leadership team and broader organization. Things were really starting to fall into place for Tom and his organization until major adversity hit the business.

At a macro-level, the teenage and adolescent specialty clothing retail industry hit a major slump. Competitors were cutting costs left and right to survive. Tom had to do the same with his organization. Month after month they missed their revenue targets. SG&A expenses started to become a serious problem for the company. Tom, and his executive leadership team, had to keep SG&A expenses under tight control, and limited to a certain percentage of revenue, by reducing corporate overhead (i.e., cost-cutting and employee lay-offs). This effected the company in a major way. People began fearing for their jobs and performance suffered greatly. Despite all these challenges, Tom remained steadfast in his approach to managing the business. He led with personal courage and high integrity at all times. He presented a calm and composed demeanor around his direct reports, and in his monthly town halls to the entire organization. As bad news continued to pour in from the market, he continued to communicate the challenges and difficult news to various stakeholder in a straightforward and honest manner. Tom demonstrated the courage of his convictions by showing up every day at 7am and staying until 8pm to work through critical issues with his team. I began coaching him around this time to help him navigate through all the challenges that he faced from a leadership and talent perspective with the organization.

When we first sat down to outline an agenda and plan of attack, he shared his fears and doubts about the future viability of the company. He had to revisit his executive leadership team’s structure and make some tough decisions with regards to letting go of key leaders a level below the senior team. Although it was an extremely difficult time for Tom, I was impressed with his ability understand and embrace the burden of leadership. He made the tough decisions with respect to letting key people go, but dealt with these issues in a pragmatic, emotionally mature, and even-handed manner.

After close to eighteen months of economic challenges and declining revenues, things slowly began to improve. Foot traffic in their stores across the country began to pick up. Customers were buying again. Throughout this transition period, Tom solicited the input and counsel from his direct reports to strengthen the business in each of their respective areas of expertise. He also continued to work with my firm to rebuild their culture and focus on talent development. We conducted a culture survey to examine the current levels of employee engagement. The feedback was tough to swallow, but once again, Tom took the information to heart. He took action to regain peoples’ confidence in the company’s vision, their mission, and their hopes for the future. He was authentic in his leadership, and showed people he was motivated by more than personal gain. He made every effort to refocus people on the core attributes of the organization’s culture while proactively seeking to enhance it. Employees began to respond positively to his efforts. The business and employee morale continued to improve for the organization. Tom was hopeful and re-energized for the future until a devastating personal tragedy struck his family.

Tom had three children, two sons ages 19 and 22, and one daughter who was 26. His youngest son had recently started college and was attending a large state university. One night his son was out drinking with friends and one of the young men decided to drive the group across town for a party. They got to the party and continued to drink and socialize. On their ride back, the driver fell asleep at the wheel and the car hit a tree on the side of the road. Tom’s son was thrown from the vehicle and passed away before the ambulance could arrive on the scene of the accident. Tom and his wife received the call at 2am in the morning. Their world came crashing down upon hearing the news. No parent should ever have to bury a child.

I was scheduled to meet with Tom three days after the tragic event took place. Despite the funeral preparations and other family-related issues, he still wanted to meet. He spent most of our session crying and confused. How could this have happened to his son? How was their family going to be able to move forward? How were they going to be able to pick up all the pieces? I offered all the support and encouragement that I could, but it was an extremely painful and difficult time for Tom and his family.

His direct reports and the broader organization were all supportive. His COO told Tom to take some time off to be with his wife and children. Although he was hurting tremendously, Tom continued to show up to work day after day. He was one of the first cars in the lot at 7am, and continued to be one of the last people to leave the building in the evening. This steadfast personal courage despite all the negative things that his family was going through was truly inspirational to others. Make no mistake, Tom, and his family, were going through an extremely dark period. There were days when he would just call me to talk about how his wife was doing, or how much he missed his son. However, his focus and determination with the business did not waiver. When tragedies like this occur, some leaders will hunker down and focus more on their business. It helps them to compartmentalize and get through the difficult periods. I saw this in action with Tom. He continued to have his moments of difficulty during his grieving period, but his resolve grew stronger over time.

Tom embodied the leadership competency of consistency. During difficult times in the business, he remained calm under pressure and delivered on his commitments. He demonstrated the courage of his convictions and set an example for others to follow. He inspired trust through his daily behaviors, and always operated in an open, honest, and transparent manner. When personal tragedy struck his family, he continued to do what was necessary for the business, and acted with unquestionable ethics and integrity. His personal moral compass served as a beacon of hope and encouragement to his employees. He is a great example of being a true ambassador of consistency in both words and actions.

For more information on Dr. Bandelli’s book, What Every Leader Needs, contact Bandelli & Associates at abandelli@bandelliassociates.com.

Leadership Matters. Without It, People Fail.