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Northern Trust Corp. President and CEO Frederick “Rick” Waddell ’79 spoke about the importance of “service leadership” to alumni at a Kellogg CEO Series networking event.

Rick Waddell

Leading the way

Northern Trust CEO Rick Waddell ’79 shares the key leadership qualities alumni need to navigate the corporate world

By Sara Langen

9/22/2009 - Whether sailing through calm financial waters or riding out stormy economic seas, Northern Trust Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Frederick “Rick” Waddell ’79 believes a company is only as good as the hand upon the helm.

Effective leadership is what keeps an institution afloat, Waddell told an audience of Kellogg alumni at a CEO Speaker Series networking event Sept. 17 at Northern Trust’s Chicago headquarters. In the 34 years he’s spent working his way up within the company, including as chief operating officer and executive vice president, he learned that the best leaders don’t steer the ship alone.

“I go around to people and say, ‘How are you doing? What can I do to make you more successful?’” he said. “I’ve got a role; I’ve got to set goals and allocate budgets, but I can’t do that — we as a management team can’t do that — unless we are very close to the front lines of our organization.”

Waddell calls this approach “service leadership.” It requires not only close relationships within the company, but with the clients as well. “The reason we want to be intimate with our clients is because the clients will tell us what they need,“ he said.

Taking direction from clients requires help from everyone in the organization, starting with the most important people at the company — those who interact with the clients on a daily basis. That’s why Waddell believes it’s important that everyone hired at Northern Trust possess five essential leadership qualities: integrity, vision, visibility, balance and lack of ego.

“Integrity is knowing the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m also looking for someone who can articulate an aspirational vision for where the organization is going and what obstacles and opportunities lie ahead.”

A willingness to engage oneself personally inside and outside the organization is also essential.

“Being visible within the organization makes you vulnerable. If it’s good news, that’s great, but if there’s bad news, you’ve got to be able to take that, too,” he said. “You’ve got to expose yourself in order to be effective.”

One of the most difficult tasks is balancing the many demands people face today, Waddell said. “I think leaders need to have a clear set of priorities that frame their lives so that they have time to engage in the business, to reflect on the challenges and to rest up and be ready for the next battle.”

Being ready for the next battle includes checking your ego at the door.

“I look for leaders who are willing to be good teammates and will sacrifice for the greater good,” he said. “If you work effectively in a team, if you service that team and that team services the clients, you’re going to be successful. ”