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Inspired to Lead

CEOs and senior leaders reveal the secrets of their motivation — and how they use that passion to build better companies

By Kari Richardson

A CEO's fiery speech can rally shareholders and motivate the company faithful to reach for the next goal. Their passion for the firm often seems unwavering, even as they work days that stretch late into the night.

When crisis visits, they remain the company's bedrock, never appearing in doubt about the firm's strategy. And when they must shift gears in response to market dynamics, you won't find them griping to co-workers about the latest challenges.

Where do senior leaders find the inspiration, insight and counsel they need to make difficult decisions? We asked some Kellogg School alumni in top leadership roles to share their secrets.

A special passion to lead
For Cheryl Mayberry McKissack '89, founder and CEO of Nia Enterprises, the key to remaining inspired is working toward a goal she believes in. Her company, founded in January 2000, provides marketing data that helps companies target their products to African-American women and their families. She says the firm boasts one of the largest consumer advisory panels of African-American women, who test products and provide feedback.

Mayberry McKissack began the company to fill what she perceived as a gap in the marketplace. "I really consider my company my life's work," she says. "My interests are building new leaders in the ethnic space and using technology to connect people. When I look at what I do, it's not hard for me to remain up."

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John Bachmann '62, managing partner of Edward Jones, agrees. He says that the social dimension of his work — helping people tackle their financial planning worries — keeps his enthusiasm high. He adds that the firm's high growth rate, which has forced it to reorganize about every four years, has created a sense of excitement that is infectious.

Bachmann, recently announced he is stepping down from his chief executive role at the end of the year and will serve as a principal with the firm.

In the typical CEO fashion of passing along praise to others in the organization, Bachmann and many senior leaders credit their staff for keeping them inspired.

Kellogg School Dean Dipak C. Jain is quick to note the importance of collaboration in achieving a collective goal. Despite his marketing and leadership expertise, Jain insists he "does not run alone" but as part of a strong team of faculty, staff, students and alumni who have worked to elevate Kellogg into the top echelon of management leaders.

"My efforts are supported by a network of outstanding colleagues with whom I exchange ideas," says Jain. "Leadership to me is about inclusivity. Each of us contributes our particular talents to help elevate everyone around us and produce the best outcome for the Kellogg School community."

Richard Lenny '77, chairman, president and CEO of Hershey Foods Corp., says he keeps his finger on the company's pulse through regular meetings and consultations with staff from different divisions — from research and development to marketing and sales.

"My enthusiasm comes as much from the people with whom I work as it does from my own passion to inspire my colleagues," Lenny says. "If you stay connected, it matters little where you are within the organization."

Other top leaders, such as Bill McDermott EMP-37, CEO and president of SAP America Inc., a provider of business software solutions, speak of a passion for leadership itself. McDermott, who established and ran his own delicatessen in Amityville, Long Island, during his high school and college days, says he's always been driven to reach for — and beyond — his personal best.

"Leaders are absolutely seized with a special passion for getting the job done, whatever the job is, whether it's business, sports or the arts," says McDermott.

He adds, "My drive comes from my my desire to create teams of winners who perform to their potential."

Who can you trust?
Though their enthusiasm for their companies is great, it's not enough to ward off the challenges that inevitably crop up in any industry, these leaders say.

‘hen they need to make difficult decisions, chief executives can seek direction from an executive committee, board of directors or other group of top managers. But many times, the CEO's is the final voice.

"I think with time you become more discerning about who the trusted advisers are and, in many ways, the further you go, the fewer trusted advisers you have," says McDermott, who cites his wife, his executive assistant and a few key advisers as the people he can count on to level with him in any situation. "That's part of the pressure," he says.

McDermott says he often returns to his deep entrepreneurial roots — he worked as a paper boy even before his days as a deli owner — to examine the situation from a customer's point of view.

Others rely on peers or former associates when they need advice. Mayberry McKissack says she values the opinion of fellow entrepreneurial women. Hershey's Lenny taps the insights of several former Kraft and Nabisco colleagues who are now CEOs of other organizations, including Bob Eckert '77, now chairman and CEO of Mattel Inc., whose career has followed an astonishingly similar trajectory.

Lenny befriended Eckert during their first year of studies at the Kellogg School. After graduation, both began new jobs at Kraft Foods Inc. on the same day.

"There's a ready reservoir of friends and former business associates who share commonalities," Lenny says. "We know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we won't pass judgment. We have such a high degree of respect for each other."

Bachmann, of Edward Jones, frequently looks to academicians for the underpinning theories that help him better understand his field.

"I've found that studying and spending time with educators who are doing original research is extremely valuable," he says. One of those he finds the most helpful is Kellogg School marketing guru Philip Kotler, the SC Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing. In particular, Bachmann values Kotler's insights regarding customer-centricity.

Also helpful, he says, is attending industry roundtables and trade association meetings — not always as a keynote speaker or panelist, but just to observe.

Fred O'Connor '86, a consultant with the retained executive search firm DHR International, finds a valuable sounding board in longtime friends.

"We know each other — our strengths, weaknesses and aspirational values," O'Connor says. "They don't candycoat their comments."

O'Connor also confers with his parents, mother Ellen and father James J. O'Connor, who served for two decades as CEO of Commonwealth Edison.

"They taught me to remember where I came from and to conduct myself so that if my actions were written about on the front page of the newspaper, I'd be proud to see them there," O'Connor says.

But when it comes right down to it, the power of a "gut feeling," honed by years of experience, provides a beacon for some, including SAP's McDermott.

"The thing I never forget in any decision is my instincts," he says. "People tell me to go right, and at the last minute, I'll take all the data, discard it, and go left. Every time I've fought against my instincts, I was less likely to make a decision I was comfortable with. In the end, the right decision is the one you believe in."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University