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Q&A With Peter A. Howley

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In my first issue of Peter’s Principles, I discuss what some of the common traits legendary CEOs that I have known shared. Most surprising is that these traits were coupled with honest business and ethical standards.

Q. Are Legendary CEO’s made or born?

A. I’d argue that they are self made. It takes focus, drive and ambition to set very high personal and professional goals, and then reach them. Achieving greatness means molding yourself by learning and improving every day.

Q. How can a CEO of a larger corporation with hundreds, even thousands of employees separated into numerous divisions and departments best foster innovation?

A. Not easily. As a manager at the startup MCI, I observed that rank had no special privileges in McGowan’s successful fifteen-hour day work ethic. McGowan had an open door policy that was simple. Every day after five o’clock any employee who cared to could join him around his oval desk. This kind of approachability encouraged frank discussion, a strong sense of being an important part of the team, and stimulated many valuable exchanges with employees at every level. McGowan’s style set the example for the company and created an atmosphere that permeated the entire company that encouraged cooperation, teamwork and an unusual corporate esprit de corps.

Steve Jobs and other successful CEO’s built on McGowan’s model by eliminating separate work spaces for different groups, reducing private offices, creating shared spaces like break rooms and cafeterias, and intermingling groups and management levels on work projects, retreats and even reward trips. These are all aimed at eliminating “silo’s”, thereby encouraging cooperation, idea sharing, and enthusiastic teamwork.

Q. How do you stick to high ethical standards today with the huge pressure and demands for quarter to quarter earnings and revenue growth?

A. Good leadership is honest leadership. CEO’s are fully responsible for the risks and “results”, whether it’s the success or failure of the enterprise. You can always find an accounting rule or legal loophole to support questionable decisions. But will that decision stand the “light of day” exposure on the front page of the Wall Street Journal? Missing an expected earnings number is obviously disappointing. But far more important than meeting the current quarter’s expectations are the long term results based on the direction of the CEO. That’s what builds the reputation and success of the company.

Q. What is your definition of vision?

 A.  There is no magic to “vision,” despite all the great books and articles written about it. Frequently, it is a matter of looking hard at a complex situation, seeing an opportunity, and doing some solid thinking about your “solution” for it. Bouncing the idea off other smart and experienced folks can be invaluable. Ultimately, you have to decide if the risk you’ll take to achieve your vision is worth the reward.