Leadership Round Table December 2013

Pointing the way

Three nationally known CEOs share thoughts and advice on leadership,
which to them is more about refining the process than waiting for results.

Today’s business environment is changing rapidly. That puts a premium on people who understand workers and the workplace and can develop more leaders in their wake. High Point University and Business North Carolina invited three acclaimed chief executives to share their experiences and thoughts on what it takes to lead and how to assemble a team capable of navigating new challenges and meeting company goals. Participating were Ric Elias, CEO and co-founder of Fort Mill, S.C.-based Red Ventures LLC, a marketing company with offices in Charlotte and Wilmington; Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, founder and CEO of Greensboro-based Pace Communications Inc., the largest custom publisher in the country, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and current board chairwoman of the American Red Cross; and Kelly King, CEO of Winston-Salem-based BB&T Corp., No. 2 on BNC’s Financial 100, a ranking of the largest North Carolina-based financial institutions, and the nation’s 12th-largest bank by assets. He was named one of the top three CEOs in the U.S. by Institutional Investor magazine. High Point University sponsored and hosted the discussion, which was moderated by its president, Nido Qubein. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s the best leadership advice you have received?

Elias: The one piece of advice that has stood the test of time for me is that effective leaders are authentic. Being true to who I am is what that means to me. Leadership is a journey that takes you many places, and the only way to be grounded is to be authentic. That might not always be popular, but if you can maintain authenticity, you’re more likely to evolve as a leader.

King: After I’d been with BB&T for a couple of years, the president told me, “You know, it is not about you. It is about them.” His words hit me like a bucket of ice water. Any effective leader who goes about their business trying to claim credit, making sure everybody knows that he has all the answers, may achieve some success but will never acquire a sense of self-esteem and true happiness. I am committed to creating an environment where associates succeed through learning, growing and being fulfilled by their work. If they are successful, I’ll be successful as well.

McElveen-Hunter: Everybody builds their life on a foundation, and mine is wisdom from my mother: Time is precious, use it wisely; mediocrity is the greatest sin; work is the greatest privilege; failure is a comma, never a period; and “can’t” is a word that does not exist. We were living in Bossier City, La., when she had my brother, sister and I write “can’t” on a piece of paper and place it in a shoebox. She took us to the backyard, and we dug a hole for that shoebox and covered it. She told us the word “can’t” had been buried forever in Bossier City. I grew up understanding that — with hard work, God’s help and confidence — the possibilities were endless.

How can a life event or situation shape leaders?

Elias: I bought a lucky plane ticket for US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009. It was headed to Charlotte Douglas International Airport from LaGuardia Airport in New York City when it hit some Canada geese right after takeoff, and the pilot was forced to splash down in the Hudson River. Everyone on board survived. It was actually a calm experience because I thought I was dead. I remember my mental countdown — if you fly often, you almost don’t need to look to know when you are about to touch down. It’s like your body feels the speed. I started counting 10, nine, eight — then I was interrupted by a thought: I wish I could see my children — ages 6 and 7 at the time — grow up. It’s a wonderful gift to have 90 seconds to say goodbye to your life, only to have the chance to do it again. It changed who I am. I live every day to its fullest. Now I collect bad wines, because I drink all my good ones. That level of purpose and intensity is how I approach leadership. Bringing that into the business has been important to its evolution. It’s no coincidence that our company has grown 40% each year since that winter day.

McElveen-Hunter: I started my working career as a banker. It was not necessarily the job for my skills or interests. This past year, I received an entrepreneur of the year award named for Hugh McColl, the former CEO
of Bank of America Corp. It was his company that ended my stint in banking. Looking back 35 years later, I’m grateful for the opportunity to discover that I didn’t enjoy banking. In our company, we allow people to fail. We need to embrace failure because it can be a life-defining moment, like it was for me. It’s OK to fail, as long as you get up, apply what you’ve learned and the wisdom that you gained to your benefit. You’ll be ahead of the game if you do.

King: You can be just as happy cleaning the rug on this stage every night as being CEO of a major company if that’s what makes you happy. The recent graduates we hire all believe they’re doing the right thing. They go to school and get good grades. They find a good job and buy a house and a car. Eventually some of them realize they aren’t happy. They get depressed and frustrated, losing their creativity along the way. In the end, it’s not about what you achieve but how you achieve it.
Qubein: I teach the freshmen and senior seminars at the university. I tell students that people who are afraid to fail may not deserve to succeed. Maybe that is why immigrants tend to do significantly better on average than people born in America. They take an enormous risk coming to America, most starting from nothing, and give everything to their investment.

When we train people, we show them how. When we educate people, we show them why. How does each affect the development of a leader?

McElveen-Hunter: An environment that demands you fall in line also stifles opportunities and possibilities. Pace is a creative organization, so we live and breathe by that. If you look at the products that we produce for Verizon, Wal-Mart or any of the other companies that we work with, the best thing is we get to see them every month. We can step back and look for ways to improve them. We’re always engaged and receive instant gratification, which is very important.

King: We hire people who fit our culture. When we investigate a possible merger, we first decide if it’s a cultural fit. I don’t care how much business sense a merger makes. It’s dropped if it’s not a cultural fit. Developing and sustaining culture requires work. Why do you think preachers preach basically the same sermon every Sunday? They are trying to indoctrinate you in those beliefs. Any leader’s job is no different. We start our folks in a nine-month leadership-development program that immerses them in our culture. Afterward, they are sent throughout the company to spread it. Associates train often and spend time at company headquarters in Winston-Salem. I spend a day each year in each of our 37 regions. I answer questions from tellers, meet with senior leaders and visit branches. All of this reinforces our culture.

How do you sustain and spread effective leadership?

King: You’re never going to satisfy your clients’ needs without good associates, and you’re never going to have good associates if you don’t develop them. In a difficult economic environment like we’re in today, finding the money to invest in your team can be a challenge. But it must be done. You should always be willing to invest your first dollar in growing your people. Then be the first to applaud their performance because recognition motivates the entire team. For example, each quarter after earnings are released, I take part in a video of 45 minutes or so that allows me to congratulate our associates on how we’ve done. Many managers focus just on results. That’s counterproductive because most people are doing the best they can. If you clamor for more results, you make anxious associates, impeding production. People behave consistent with their beliefs, so the job of a leader is to teach beliefs. That’s one reason BB&T can have 35,000 associates across 10 states. I know what kind of results we’re getting because we share beliefs. We define culture as the combination of vision, mission and values. At BB&T, our vision is to create the best financial institution possible. Our mission has four components, and those are beliefs that each of us must hold dearly to accomplish our goals. We have 10 core values — including honesty, integrity, teamwork and independent thinking. All of those work into our leadership model. We constantly teach those beliefs.

McElveen-Hunter: I was returning from a presentation in Atlanta, riding in a van with an art director and a top editor. The art director asked the editor, “What do you think of your boss?” I thought, “Oh my gosh, I think that’s me.” The editor replied, “Well, I never think of Bonnie as my boss. She always makes me feel like the boss. And I work a lot harder for myself than I would for someone else.” To me, that was the ultimate compliment. All three of us here would agree that one of the smartest things we’ve done is hire people smarter than we are. The process becomes clearer for people when they own the outcomes. I hire them, provide resources, become their biggest cheerleader and then get out of their way.

Elias: I use events in my life as teaching moments for my kids, so I told them I was coming here to talk about leadership. They said to me, “You know what? I think technology makes it really hard to be connected.” Technology isolates people, hindering them from learning how to read body language, understanding personal interactions and developing self-awareness. I worry about future generations losing sight of the qualities that make good leaders. We hire for behaviors; we don’t try to change people’s values. At the end of the day, we feel that’s a higher bar.

How can giving back make someone a better leader?

McElveen-Hunter: Many young people tell me, because I am chairwoman of the American Red Cross, that they want to work for a nonprofit. My advice is don’t at first. Go get skills first. Nonprofits need people such as lawyers and accountants who can contribute to their success in a tangible way. One of the most important things you can do for your business career is volunteer on a board. Many of the people I have met weren’t directly through my business. I met them through relationships that developed through volunteering.

King: When the recession started about five years ago, I was struck by how many people were going through difficulties. I could see the agony on their faces. I thought: We have to do something. We created Lighthouse Project, allocating $100 per associate, who could team up to multiply the effect of their effort. A 20-associate team, for example, would have access to $2,000 for materials. There was one rule: You have to volunteer on company-paid time. Associates have done more than 1,300 projects and helped more than 7 million people. Our executive team, for example, volunteered at Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing to families of children undergoing medical care. We landscaped and painted. I cleaned windows. The positive effect it had on our associates impressed me most. Many never had volunteered and didn’t understand how helping others can make you feel like gold inside. Lighthouse helps communities and enriches our associates. Planning and implementing a Lighthouse Project team may be the first opportunity for them to step up and lead.

Elias: I view giving back as a responsibility because I have achieved more than I thought possible. At Red Ventures, our belief is that community service should be employee-driven. The company’s Golden Door Scholars program was founded a year ago, but it started to take shape five years earlier. I’ve known a terrific young man since he was 6 years old. In his senior year of high school, he was ranked No. 2 in his class but had no plans for college because of the cost — he was undocumented and didn’t qualify for in-state tuition or financial aid. There are more than 1 million undocumented kids younger than 18 in the country. Less than 5% of them will enroll in college, and 50% drop out of high school. Sure, their parents broke the law, but why are we punishing their kids? So I put him through college, and he earned chemistry and computer-science degrees and a minor in math. He will make his life, his family’s life and our country better. Then I realized these kids couldn’t get jobs because of a law forcing them to leave the country for 10 years. Last July, President Barack Obama signed a law that allows them to get a work permit. I remember reading that news with tremendous joy. So I donated some money to send more to college, and we started Golden Door. We had 500 applicants, and 60 of them had a GPA of more than 4.0. We invited the top 20 in hopes of picking five, but we couldn’t. We’re helping 13 freshmen. We are doing a second round, so I’m matching up to $1 million in donations because the need is that great. I’m humbled by what they have overcome and accomplished but also by their aspirations.

Qubein: About 35 North Carolina institutions of higher learning formed  the Campus Compact, which promotes service learning within its members and their students. High Point’s Service Learning Program is an example of that work. Our students learn to be leaders by helping Triad residents.

What is needed to make North Carolina a leader in the nation? 

King: Not unlike many states, North Carolina has a structural problem. We tend to segregate business and political leadership as if we don’t share a purpose. We have to come together and commit to building a better state. That’s our responsibility, and we’re not doing a good job meeting it. We need a clear path to where we want to go. As chairman of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, I led a passionate and committed group in improving the region. We needed the right people, and it never occurred to us to ask about their political affiliation. We can do the same thing at the state level. The trajectory of the state is not moving in the right direction. We have educational and infrastructural issues. We struggle moving people off farms, out of factories and into new opportunities. These problems can be solved if we share vision, responsibility and work.

McElveen-Hunter: No matter where you are in the state, there are places in the country worse off than you. There are many advantages to being in North Carolina, but we don’t always focus on them. The state is battling other states for jobs, but so
is the country against the world. There are approximately 3 billion people worldwide looking for work, and there are only 1.2 billion formal jobs available. The rest are searching for the dignity and purpose that working brings. One of the most important things that we can do is inspire entrepreneurship, which creates jobs. I’m amazed at how surprised young people who have come through difficult circumstances are to learn that businesspeople are not greedy or unwilling to share. Business leaders need to change that perception through their actions. For example, each year Pace ties 15% of its profits to the community.

Elias: It’s hard to fathom how special interests and minority groups hijacked the agenda of the country. There’s a saying that it’s impossible to boil the ocean, meaning changing things at a larger level — like the federal government — is nearly impossible. The fights over airports and other things in North Carolina are nonsense, especially when we could be creating jobs and educational opportunities. Perhaps our state can step up and be the one that proves large changes are possible.