A Leadership Lesson In Candy Bars

12 Aug


Excellent interview in the New York Times of Gary E. McCullough, president and chief executive of the Career Education Corporation. The entire interview is worth a read. Here are two sections I found particularly instructive, the first on the value of senior leaders paying attention to the needs of staff and how even seemingly small gestures can make a big difference:

Q. What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

A. The biggest one I learned, and I learned it early on in my tenure in the Army, is the importance of small gestures. As you become more senior, those small gestures and little things become sometimes more important than the grand ones. Little things like saying “please” and “thank you” — just the basic respect that people are due, or sending personal notes. I spend a lot of time sending personal notes.

I’ll never forget one of the interactions we had with my commanding general of the division in which I was a platoon leader. We were at Fort Bragg, N.C. We had miserable weather. It was February and not as warm as you would think it would be in North Carolina. It had been raining for about a week, and the commanding general came around to review some of the platoons in the field. He went to one of my vehicle drivers and he asked him what he thought of the exercise we were on. To which the young private said, “Sir, it stinks.” I saw my short career flash before my eyes at that point.

He asked why, and the private said: “There are people who think this is great weather for doing infantry operations. I personally think 75 and partly cloudy is better.”

And so the commanding general said, “What can I do to make it better for you?” And the private said, “Sir, I sure could use a Snickers bar.” So a couple days later we were still moving through some really lousy weather, and a box showed up for the private. And that box was filled with 38 Snickers bars, which is the number of people in my platoon. And there was a handwritten note from the commanding general of our division that said, “I can’t do anything about the weather, but I hope this makes your day a bit brighter, and please share these with your buddies.”

And on that day, at that time, we would’ve followed that general anywhere. It was a very small thing, and he didn’t need to do it, but it impressed upon me that small gestures are hugely important.

And a wonderful illustration of how staff judge your actions, your “comportment” as they used to say, and what you can do to develop deep and abiding relationships that will make a big difference in you people perceive you as a leader:

There was a woman named Rosemary who long ago retired from Procter & Gamble. Rosemary was a cafeteria worker, and at the time at P. & G., we actually had a cart that would come around at 7, 7:30 in the morning. They would ring a bell and you’d go get a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a bagel or something to start off your day.And Rosemary had an uncanny ability to discern who was going to make it and who wasn’t going to make it. And I remember, when I was probably almost a year into the organization, she told me I was going to be O.K. But she also told me some of my classmates who were with the company weren’t going to make it. And she was more accurate than the H.R. organization was.

When I talked to her, I said, “How’d you know?” She could tell just by the way they treated people. In her mind, everybody was going to drop the ball at some point, and then she said: “You know you’re going to drop the ball at some point, and I see that you’re good with people and people like you and you treat them right. They’re going to pick up the ball for you, and they’re going to run and they’re going to score a touchdown for you. But if they don’t like you, they’re going to let that ball lie there and you’re going to get in trouble.”

Again, I think it’s those intangible things. I had taken the time to get to know Rosemary and know that her husband’s name was Floyd and know the thing that they did in their off-time was bowling. So, it is all those little intangible things that you see, not when you’re sitting around a table in a conference room, but what you see in other ways.

Kudos to Mr. McCullough for being the kind of leader that seems in short supply these days– one who has willing followers.

2 Responses to “A Leadership Lesson In Candy Bars”

  1. George Guajardo August 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    I loved those stories. I especially liked the first one. I too would have followed that general anywhere.

  2. markhirschfeld August 12, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    Indeed. Peter Drucker so aptly noted that leadership is the presence of willing followers. We need more of those kind of leaders, those who are clearly inspiriring and engaging employees every day!

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