You have to admire a leader with the courage to say to his team, “Chances are I’m going to get fired and, if so, I want to get fired for doing the right thing.” This is the philosophy of Wayne Shurts, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Sysco. With more than 18 years of experience in top-level positions in IT, e-business, supply chain management, sales operations, and logistics, Shurts has never been fired—and he probably never will be. In my experience, leaders with the courage to do what’s right, without fearing possible repercussions, rarely are.
I first learned about Shurts while writing the foreword for Confessions of a Successful CIO (Wiley, March 2014). The book serves up rich narratives about how he (and eight other executives) have successfully navigated the notoriously difficult CIO/CTO role. Captivated by his story and curious to learn about how he laughs in the face of corporate fear, I reached out for an interview.
Spend an hour with Shurts and you will leave wanting (at least) an hour more. He is the best kind of leader: equal parts wise, courageous, kind, and funny. His optimism and energy are infectious. Shurts recalls his mentor, Weight Watchers CEO Jim Chambers, saying to him, “The weird thing about you is that if I gave you the job to clean the toilets, you would get excited about it.” In Wayne’s optimistic state of mind, there are no “bad jobs” but “opportunities to gain a lot of different perspectives and experiences.” Throughout his career, he has focused on “adding value” rather than getting promoted, which of course, has allowed him to accomplish both.
Shurts is happy to take on critical—but risky—jobs “that nobody wants to do.” He counsels his people to “celebrate and revel in the hard job” because “the easy stuff won’t get you there” if you want to make an impact. To convey this point, he frequently shows people his favorite clip from A League of Their Own. In the movie, Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) encourages a frustrated Doris Murphy (played by Geena Davis) to participate in the World Series. “It’s supposed to be hard,” he tells her. “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would be doing it. The hard... is what makes it great.” Shurts makes hard work make sense by ensuring that he and his team “rub their noses in the dirty reality of the business” in order to identify outcomes that matter.
It’s not that Shurts feels no fear when he’s up against a difficult situation. But he has the ability to make hard jobs easier by keeping his focus on the next achievable step, rather than trying to get to the end all at once. He encourages his team to “lean in to the difficulty” by “doing the hard things first.” He doesn’t seek perfection, but recognizes that “something made better today is worth far more than something made perfect a year from now.”
He also recognizes that there are going to be times when the hard stuff causes problems. But, he adds, it’s better to “deliver a great product late than deliver a crap product on time.” Shurts believes that most people know the “obvious right thing” to do in the face of an unexpected obstacle, but often lack the courage or permission to “pull the plug” on a project in spite of the fallout. Yet finding the courage to do the “obvious right thing” can lead to a reenergized organization, and increases the likelihood of success down the road, he says.
It’s better to “deliver a great product late than deliver a crap product on time.”
In the end, Shurts doesn’t take himself—or his job—too seriously. He realizes that work is not a life-or-death matter and conveys that perspective to his organization: “If the worse thing that could happen is that we don’t ship cookies,” he says, “how bad can it be?” He strives to foster a fun and “politic-free environment” and create “healthy relationships” by showing his fallibility, laughing at his own expense, “assuming positive intent,” and “getting tension on the table immediately.”
But most important, Shurts does what he believes is right to get his job done, and lets go of the things he can’t control. By holding on tight to the belief that “I can make the decision or they can make a decision about me,” he gives himself and his team permission to play offense, not defense. He avoids the trap of trying to work someone else’s agenda with someone else’s approach and team, a trap I’ve seen derail more than one promising career.
The leader who knows the right thing but doesn’t have the courage to lead the charge may not be fired—but he may spend his days wishing he had been. Or, he can decide to be like Wayne Shurts: Look risk in the face, shrug it off, and get on with what needs to be done.