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Getting the Leadership Basics Right

Whether they’re selling concrete or chocolate, CEOs can still look to five steadfast rules.

I recently had the opportunity to interview two CEOs on a single day. While the interviews were conducted for two different projects and initially seemed dissimilar, my review of the notes revealed great commonalities in how the two run their businesses. Their insights make a great playbook for the leadership basics from which every executive can learn.

The first was with Sophi Tranchell, CEO of Divine Chocolate. Divine is a privately held social enterprise based in the U.K. that sources fair-trade cocoa beans from farmers in Ghana who are also part owners of the company. The second interview was with Bill Sandbrook, CEO of U.S. Concrete, a publicly held company based in the U.S. that produces ready-mixed concrete and aggregates. Tranchell is a former antiapartheid activist; Sandbrook’s early career was in the military.

In addition to the everyday challenges of being a CEO, each leader wrestles with making a product composed of multiple commodity ingredients subject to fluctuations in price and availability. Each faces tough competition that requires striking a balance between cost and quality. Each has intricate distribution channels where things can go awry. And both are succeeding by getting these five often-overlooked fundamentals of leadership right.

Hire people who can find meaning through your business. You may think that because everyone loves chocolate, everyone wants to work for a chocolate company. But it is Divine Chocolate’s social mission, not its product, that makes it distinct and draws talent. Tranchell said she seeks to work with people who are “passionate and curious” and want to change the world for the better. She looks for an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to see “the mission impact along with the business impact.”

Conversely, you may think that it is tough to find top talent longing for a career in concrete. But in an increasingly digital world, working with a tangible, durable product has appeal, said Sandbrook. He tries to find people who “like to build things and spend time outside.” Sandbrook said that he wants people to grow to love the industry and the company. And that’s how you make concrete as sexy as chocolate.

Provide clear, compelling goals. Sandbrook explained that concrete is “a business of small, incremental improvements. You don't run it with 100 metrics — focus on the key ones.…If you can get your team excited about achieving a goal, what the business is isn't actually that important.” Tranchell noted that as the CEO of a relatively small business, it is incumbent upon her to ensure that everyone knows what they're doing. “You have to get good at telling stories so that people know why we are doing what we're doing. I learned that from my work as an activist,” she said. “Then, be open and transparent with information so everyone knows where we are and where we are going.” She sends employees to Ghana regularly to see how their work affects the farmers with whom they work.

Give people a path for growth and impact. Tranchell said that for many young people, “student debt makes it difficult for them to put their money where their mouths are” with regard to bringing their values to their work. Social enterprises can help fill that gap by paying a wage that allows young people to recognize their impact while still being able to make ends meet and pay off student loans. Furthermore, she hires people in all stages of their careers in each of the geographic areas from which the company distributes, and gives those employees freedom to build that local business.

The CEOs’ insights make a great playbook for the leadership basics from which every executive can learn.

Sandbrook said that U.S. Concrete lays out a clear map for maturing into management. “Expect to make decisions early and be rewarded for performance,” he said. He wants people at all levels to be strategic “chess players,” willing to make decisions and be innovative and creative in the “basic blocking-and-tackling” in the business. Strategic thinkers at a concrete company may have a different kind of impact than they would at a social enterprise, but it can be just as motivating to make a difference in how a company does business as it is to affect society at large.

Foster a positive, supportive culture. Sandbrook said that he encourages an environment of collaboration and respect where “egos are checked at the door” and expressed a high tolerance for low-consequence mistakes as learning experiences. “If you cut people off at the legs for making a mistake, they will work to be the one not to decide,” he said. “That hurts the business.” He also noted that the company’s performance focus means that no one has to watch a clock. “You can succeed here and still have a life.”

Similarly, Tranchell spoke of a culture that is “fair and inclusive that emphasizes sharing,” one in which “we try to stay nimble and have fun.” As a small business, “we can still get everyone in the same room once a month to celebrate success and solve problems.”

Lead with a higher purpose. Tranchell told me that she has trouble with the notion of leadership as an end in itself. “You don't [run an organization] to ‘do’ leadership,” she said. “You do it because you see change that needs to happen and you can make a difference. I believe we need accountable and transparent companies that are willing to address social injustice.” Tranchell clearly draws heavily on her experience as an activist, a time she describes as one in which people wanted to change the world and, in the case of apartheid, actually did. She aims to pass on not simply the passion but also the belief that collective action can have impact. “Lots of people thought Divine Chocolate wouldn’t work,” she said. “We believed it would and it has.”

Sandbrook came into the private sector after cultivating an ethos of service in the military. His higher purpose — “having that team accomplish things they might not have even known were possible” — reflects that heritage. He described his greatest satisfaction and self-actualization as team building. “It's the intangible rewards, not the tangible,” he said. “I thrive when I can motivate them to a higher level.”

The hard (and sweet) truth: Amid the never-ending blizzard of leadership books and talks with the latest advice, it is good to remember that getting the basics right is the first, essential step to building a great organization.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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