Sometimes when I'm interviewing executives, I find myself mystified by how they think: Take this quote from Daniel J. Hilferty, chief executive of Independence Blue Cross, just tossed off casually as he was describing his background: "...And then I realized I was a pretty good leader."
"Realized I was pretty good leader." ??? How does this kind of realization come about?
Do people keep finding themselves elected -- elected to the head of the Cub Scout pack? Elected to the president of the Student Council? Do they look in the mirror while they are knotting their red power ties and say, `Wow, I sure can lead.'"
So, politely, I inquired, "How exactly does one realize that one is a good leader?"
Here was Hilferty's answer: "I’ve always had a pretty good sense of my strengths and weaknesses. It’s part of the foundational part of my leadership. I think some leaders would say, ` Hey, I’m good at everything.’ For me, I have strengths and I have things that are not my strengths."
As a young man, Hilferty served as a volunteer in a program like the Peace Corps. He was assigned to Portland, where he worked with a community organization trying to improve a neighborhood playground.
"So starting with trying to get more money for a [playground improvement] program in Portland, I realized I was good at organizing and I was good at setting up the meetings," he said. "You bring in people that know the technical side of the issue and you bring in people that have relationships with folks around City Hall. It’s been really a positive in my development as a leader is that I take my strengths and I compliment them with the other strengths from folks around me.
"You want the strengths to complement each other and not everyone cut from the same cloth. I realized I was a good leader when I was able to let other shine when their expertise and their strengths helped us advance the agenda," he said.
Later, he elaborated via email:
"I think I am a good leader when I let others shine and use their skills to advance our goals. It’s important to me that I take my strengths and combine them with the strengths of those around me – together we are much stronger, more capable, and get more done than just one leader acting alone ever could.
To me, the secret to making good decisions is really listening to diverse points of view. You might have a different point of view than I do and see something I missed, or you may have a different way of doing something, a way that’s better. I seek different perspectives from others on my team, get lots of data, and when I feel comfortable, I make the decision. And I rarely look back.
Healthy, open communication where people are honest and feel free to disagree – always respectfully – drives a culture of innovation, and that’s essential for success in today’s rapidly changing environment.
One thing I work on improving is resisting the urge to make a snap decision. In today’s fast paced world, when we want everything done immediately, this can be a challenge. To overcome this urge, I take a step back and ask: Whose opinion would help me make the best decision here and would lead me to think more strategically – and for the long term?
Read my Leadership Agenda interview, published in Monday's Inquirer, here.
Tomorrow: More from Hilferty.