Srikant Ramaswami|Sep 6, 2017

I’ve had the distinct honor and privilege to work for many great companies during my 25-year tenure in public relations. Indeed, the experiences have been rich, diverse, and truly global.

But most importantly, during this time, I’ve had the opportunity to observe strong and mediocre leadership and learn valuable lessons from both.

In summary, I have found the following characteristics to be prevalent in great leaders who have motivated and inspired me.

1. Great leaders all have IQ and EQ, but the very best have CQ (curiosity quotient)

Truly inspiring leaders are interested in you – not just your skills at work. They want to learn about your background, understand your values, and celebrate your diversity. They see you completely for who you are and what you want to become.

During my career, I’ve had the great fortune to work for Christine Barney and the partners at rbb Communications. They are a unique group, with a wonderful ability to cut through the clutter and truly focus on how you can bring out your best. Christine’s CQ is “off the charts” and she has always been driven to run the firm with decency and decorum.

When I decided to join rbb for the second time, she and partners Lisa Ross, Tina Elmowitz and John Quinn asked all the right questions because they saw that I could bring value to the firm, in a way that I could not even comprehend. Leaders can gain from being genuinely interested in others and not treating relationships with their staff as transactional episodes. rbb’s leadership excels at this.

2. Great leaders use humor to laugh with you, not at you

Humor can be a wonderful way to de-tress teams and to make employees understand that while the job to be done must be taken seriously, it’s OK not to take yourself seriously.

Regrettably, many senior executives often use their position of power to poke fun at the junior members of their team. Using this type of cruel humor is one-sided and only moves employees away.

I have found in my career that leaders who use humor for personal gain are always regarded as jerks and unauthentic. Having the ability to use humor in a genuine and self-deprecating way, and to do so with an insouciant flare, makes a leader likable. I will never forget the wonderful way in which Harold Burson of Burson-Marsteller has used humor to illustrate a point. He is always genuine, funny, and inclusive.

3. Great leaders reward employees in unique ways

Some years ago, I was working on the acquisition of an Alzheimer’s drug. When the acquisition was made, my leader at the time, Susan Odenthal of Johnson & Johnson, requested if I could stay a little later to complete a media report for her. I was only too eager to help, but didn’t tell Susan that it was my wedding anniversary.

The next day, a bouquet of flowers arrived at the door from Susan with a note that read “if we were to keep you and your wife away from each other on your wedding anniversary, just know it was because we wanted you to work on a drug that one day may help you not to forget each other.”

My wife and I were so elated by the gesture and the note, and stunned that Susan had discovered it to be our anniversary. Her actions made an indelible mark on me.

4. Great leaders rarely talk about humility

I have observed that leaders who constantly get on their soap box to talk about humility as being an important aspect of leadership are the least humble. It is important for leaders to show humility in their actions, and for others to talk about them in this light.

The person who set an example for me early in my career was Ken Frazier of Merck & Co. Inc. who led the public affairs function at that time. Ken always set the example with his actions, and employees at Merck always knew they were led by an authentic and genuine leader who possessed humility and heart.

5. Great leaders set the same standards for themselves as they do of others

How many times in your career have you encountered the power-hungry, hypocritical leader – one who has a different set of standards for themselves than for others?

Sadly, I’ve seen this often in my career. But there are others who are kind and lead the way, always holding themselves to the same standards that they expect of others.

One outstanding leader who always stood side by side with the team was Nancy Daigler who retired from Kraft Foods. Nancy always worked very hard and was fair to a fault. She stood up for her team, sometimes battling senior management to ensure that her people were rewarded for good work. She made people feel that they were with her together as they forged ahead with best-in-class public relations plans.

6. Great leaders do not instill fear in their people, but treat them as equals

When employees sense that they have a direct line to their leader and can discuss anything with them, they will often go the extra mile to support them. Leaders who treat their teams like family by leading with fairness, often succeed in every endeavor.

Tom Sanford, recently appointed to Corporate Affairs at Amgen, is one such leader. People who have worked for Tom have always respected him because he had the ability to make his teams feel empowered and important. In addition to being erudite and socially gifted, Tom has fought hard for his people, and never made anyone feel like they couldn’t approach him.

It’s the dictatorial leaders, often driven by their own insecurity and a perverse desire to lead by fear, who ultimately fail.

7. Great leaders know the strengths of their teams and have the creativity to harness it

Being an effective leader involves being able to understand team dynamics. It involves having the genius to galvanize employees by playing to the unique strengths of each individual. Turning teams into execution machines can be very rewarding for leaders who have an eye for specific aspects of talent.

I have found Vladimir Makatsaria of Johnson & Johnson to excel at this. Vlad has the great ability to understand how to bring highly effective teams together. He is masterful at understanding how to make teams “click” in ways that yield very positive results, and, in the process, create unique bonds among team members that last long after they move up in their careers.

8. Great leaders have lived and worked in different parts of the world, and they understand culture

By embracing global positions, many based outside the U.S., these leaders have developed a sensitivity toward other ways of thinking and learning. They are truly citizens of the ocean, able to straddle various approaches to problems and open-minded about seeking the right solutions. They’re incredibly well read, have great adaptability, and are knowledgeable about marketing and selling in different cultures.

They’re also keenly aware of their leadership styles that they constantly hone to be more effective and successful with teams that operate in different parts of the world. Raj Kannan of Merck Serono is one such leader. Raj has spent much of his career in global positions outside the United States and he has developed an incredible understanding of people, cultures, and insights.

9. Great leaders lead their teams to do social good

In the healthcare industry, making modern and innovative medicines is par for the course. Walking the talk is far more powerful. For companies to use their leadership to leave the world better than they found it is a critical and important mission.

Whether it’s the work done to prevent river blindness, or cure a child of a birth defect, or raise funds to help cancer patients, how leaders assemble their teams to take on social causes and use their monetary might for social good is important.

In 2016, Fortune ran a piece that mentioned two healthcare companies at the forefront of doing social good and I want to commend the leadership at both for their important work.

The first is Merck & Co., Inc. that had cash contributions of $132.5 million in 2015. Merck’s corporate giving initiative focuses on reducing maternal mortality. In Senegal, Merck partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the national government to develop a network of entrepreneurs to supply rural health clinics with contraceptives. For employees, Merck offers a yearlong fellowship to volunteer with nonprofit organizations.

The other is Pfizer Inc. with cash contributions of $93.3 million. In 2015, Pfizer donated more than $3 billion in medicines, in addition to cash. Some of the grantees of these donations include the International Trachoma Initiative, which seeks to eliminate the eye infection that can cause blindness, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which increases access to immunizations. Pfizer also provides employees with the chance to spend up to six months embedding with international aid groups.

Do you have any other examples of great leadership tenets? Share them in the comments below.


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