In July, I had the privilege of attending Chief Executive magazine’s CEO of the Year Award dinner. Every year this prestigious honor is presented to an outstanding corporate leader, nominated and selected by a group of peers for their exemplary vision and execution. The dinner was preceded by a reception on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where I met Ann Mulcahy, Chairman of Xerox Corporation, who won the CEO of the Year Award in 2008.
She recently retired from the CEO post on July 1st, but she retains the position of chairman. She immediately recalled being on the cover of Selling Power and was happy to pose for a photo. Mulcahy was quickly surrounded by other CEOs who were eager to talk shop. One CEO commented how much more relaxed she looked since she no longer has to carry the daily stress that comes from being in the hot seat 24/7.
Mulcahy is charming, tough, and humble. When she introduced the CEO of the Year for 2009 later that evening, she reflected on receiving the award the previous year and spoke about the true recipients of this special award, saying, “I know whatever success we enjoy is merely the product of the tens of thousands of hardworking people that we are privileged to lead in our companies.”
At the reception I also met with Fred Hassan, CEO of Schering Plough, who spoke at last year’s Selling Power Sales Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, where he shared his success story: growing up poor in Pakistan, moving to London to study chemical engineering, and getting an MBA from Harvard. Earlier this year, he created a $41 billion merger with Merck. Today, Hassan is one of the most respected and trusted CEOs in America. When I asked him to consider speaking at a future Sales Leadership Conference he was very enthusiastic about the idea. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope that his schedule will allow it.
I introduced myself to Steve Odland, CEO of Office Depot, since I like his stores. They always carry what I need when I’m on the road (like chargers, recorders, flash drives, wireless remotes, etc.). I also liked when his stores carried Selling Power magazine on their shelves.
I also had a great conversation with Howard Brodsky, chairman and CEO of CCA Global Partners, a $10.2 billion company in the floor-covering business with more than 3,600 locations worldwide.
Although I have never met him before, he treated me like a long-lost friend, saying, “I love that magazine. I had no idea it was you who started it. Every salesperson should read it, especially in this economy.” He asked a lot of questions, which told me a lot about his curiosity and ability to listen. He was proud that one of his sons is now running a bicycle division, and he got really passionate when he began sharing his new plan to create a nonprofit in the childcare field. I was able to speak to many other CEOs, and since these conversations were off the record, I will summarize their thoughts and insights in the aggregate below.
Of course, the highlight of the evening was the presentation of the CEO of the Year Award to Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s Corporation. After serving nearly 10 years in the United States Navy, Skinner started his career with McDonald’s in 1971 as a restaurant manager trainee in Carpentersville, IL. He is modest when he says, “I sell hamburgers,” and he also admits eating a McDonald’s meal every day. The company serves more than 58 million people in 118 countries each day through more than 31,000 restaurants. More than 75% of the restaurants worldwide are owned and operated by independent entrepreneurs. McDonald’s sales and profits have increased steadily year over year since 2005. (He assumed the CEO role in 2004.)
In his acceptance speech, Skinner explained that being a CEO in today’s market isn’t easy: “We are the public face of our brand, the voice that gets heard above the rest. Our decisions, our demeanor, and our directions set our business on the right course. Being a CEO is not an easy role. These are tough jobs in the best of times. When it’s going well, it’s complicated; when it’s going badly, it’s more complicated. In this environment cynicism, suspicion, and a high level of scrutiny pretty much rule the day.” Skinner’s secret to good leadership: Focus on core values.
Success in business, according to Skinner, requires that we “balance epiphanies with execution. Anybody can create a strategy or innovative ideas. But those who can execute on ideas and deliver on the epiphany – they will drive value to the bottom line.”
Here is my summary of insights shared in conversations with America’s leading CEO’s:
- "The economy is on the road to recovery. It may not be fast, but we’re more certain than ever that the tough times aren’t going to last."
- "We have taken a hard look at every part of our operation and identified and plugged many efficiency leaks, aggressively cut waste, and judiciously moved into new territories."
- "CEOs need to take the lead when it comes to restoring trust. The headlines created the now familiar joke, “One year you can be on the cover of Time, the next year you can be doing it.”
- "It is incredible what can happen when you can mobilize the creative powers of an organization. We have such great potential to innovate and move our business forward."
- "The recession certainly looked like a big lemon, but with sweet new ideas, we’re now getting better-tasting lemonade."
- "If you have available cash, this is the best time to go on the hunt for acquisitions. There is no better time than now."
One person that stood out in the crowd was Brig. General Keith Thurgood who heads the $10 billion Army & Air Force Exchange Service, a profitable, global company operating over 3,100 retail facilities. He said, “Running a successful business hinges on flawless execution. It all starts with quality leadership.”Please share your comment on this post.
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