CEO of ING
Direct Asks His People if He Should Stay - That's Moxie!
Arkadi Kuhlmann has been the CEO of ING Direct USA for
10 years. In December, he's giving ING employees the opportunity to
vote anonymously whether he should be CEO for another year.
Why does he ask?
Kuhlmann shared with The New York Times recently,
"I don't want to serve here unless I've got the commitment of
people genuinely wanting me to serve." He admits that if the ING
people are as important as he says they are, then they should have a
say in whether Kuhlmann continues to lead.
Not a popularity contest
Kuhlmann clarified that the vote is not about being
popular. He stressed that a vote in his favor is a vote of confidence
for the company's mission and a vote of confidence for his ability to
lead the accomplishment of that mission.
What he communicates with the vote
By calling for the vote, Kuhlmann is communicating two
important things to his people: (1) he doesn't take his job for
granted, and (2) he is accountable to them to walk his talk. Most
leaders fail to remember these points altogether.
Serve with him
"Would you vote for me to serve with you
for another year?" Pay attention to the words he uses in this
annual voting ritual. He doesn't focus on his position as the CEO. He
doesn't mention anything about "running the company." He
sincerely sees his role as one in which he has the privilege to serve
with people in the accomplishment of a mission.
Associates vs. employees
It is also interesting that Kuhlmann never uses the
word "employee" when interviewed by The New York Times
reporter. He refers to the people who serve with him as
"associates." An associate by definition is a partner, a
colleague, a co-worker, a comrade. That distinction breaks down the
wall that separates them vs. us. It acknowledges that we work with
people who contribute and solve problems instead of creatures called
"employees" who need things and create problems.
Kuhlmann must be nuts!
His colleagues and the directors on the ING board
think he's nuts. He's well aware of this. But he is nuts in
furtherance of his battle cry - to serve with people to accomplish
the company's mission. 'Being nuts' separates the moxie leader from
the mediocre leader. In spite of (or arguably, as a result of) 'being
nuts,' ING stock has gone up by 55% in the past 6 months.
The typical leader
Most companies run hierarchically. Leaders are in
charge of people below them, but they don't operate as if they are
accountable to those people. Instead they operate as if they don't
owe their people anything - not communication, not recognition, not
appreciation, and certainly not comradeship. This mentality usually
starts with the typical CEO who answers only to Wall Street and the
Board of Directors, and merely tolerates everyone else.
When did leaders forget what it was like to follow?
Have you ever asked?
Have you ever asked your people what it's like to work with
you? What you could be doing more of, better, or
differently? Has your leader or any leader ever asked you what they
could be doing better to serve with you? If it ever does happen, will
you instinctually look for the hidden camera?
Why it takes moxie to ask
It's a vulnerable place from which to stand. What if
your people tell you something you don't want to hear? What if they
point out one of your weaknesses that you thought you had beautifully
veiled? What if they tell you, in so many words, that you don't
have what it takes to be their leader? Ultimately, leaders fear being
rejected by their people... so they don't ask.
It takes moxie - guts, courage, perseverance,
determination, and a little 'being nuts' - to feel this fear and ask
anyway out of a commitment to something greater than ego.
Three reasons to be like Kuhlmann
(1) People support that which they help create.
When Kuhlmann asks his people if he should serve, he
is valuing their opinion. When they vote for him to lead for the 11th
consecutive year, they will support him as the CEO because they voted
for him. This is a behavioral phenomenon in action called
"irrational escalation bias."
(2) Asking builds trust.
By asking Kuhlmann is being vulnerable. The people
know this and appreciate it. This fosters trust. People will trust
him even more going forward because he is so willing to be vulnerable
with them today.
(3) It is impossible to succeed on our own.
The leader's ego tells us that we have all the
answers, but we don't. And even when we do, it's entirely exhausting
to carry the weight of the company, a department, or a team on our
What is your commitment?
As the leader, what are you committed to? If you are
committed to generating the highest stock price possible, you will
get it, people-be-damned! Just ask Jeff Skilling of the Enron scandal
or Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom disgrace. If you are committed to
accomplishing something great that changes the world in some way, you
will need others to serve with you. The choice is yours.
Gandhi said, "My life is my message."
Let's borrow this in our quest to ignite our moxie leadership and
say, "My leadership is my message."
What do you think?
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