No pedestals for these top leaders

Their employees hold them up as the best. And in a roundtable talk, they explain how they view the job.

The trio of top executives: Jeff Kaliner (left), cofounder and CEO of Power Home Remodeling Group; Bill McNabb, chairman and CEO of the Vanguard Group; and Tom Spann, CEO of Accolade Inc. (Curt Hudson)

People have been clamoring for better leadership from leaders everywhere, from Washington to Cairo, and certainly from the corner office.

While most workers in North America trust their immediate supervisors, half of them do not trust their organization's top brass, according to poll results released last month by the global consulting firm BlessingWhite, based in Princeton. (If it's any consolation, top bosses in Asia fared worse.)

Meet three exceptions to the rule: Jeff Kaliner, cofounder and CEO of Power Home Remodeling Group; Bill McNabb, chairman and CEO of the Vanguard Group; and Tom Spann, CEO of Accolade Inc., an innovative start-up that hires personal health assistants to help employees at its client companies navigate their health-care benefits.

Our Top Workplaces survey asked 30,674 employees at 163 workplaces in the Philadelphia area to rank how much confidence they had in their organization's leader, and these three CEOs topped the leaderboard for large companies (McNabb), medium-size firms (Kaliner) and small companies (Spann).

We brought them together at the Vanguard campus in Malvern for a roundtable discussion of what it takes to be a great boss and trusted leader. Here, an edited transcript of their lively give-and-take:


Question: As an icebreaker, do any of you watch the TV show Undercover Boss, in which the CEO goes undercover to work in the trenches alongside his company's employees?

Tom Spann: I've seen it a couple times. My guess is that the guys sitting next to me are less likely to be surprised than the bosses in that show by what's going on with the people who are serving their customers.

I had lunch with one of our health assistants today for no purpose other than "How's it going?"

Bill McNabb: You know, it's interesting you mention that. We just did our annual meetings. Somebody actually raised a hand and said, "Have you ever thought about going on Undercover Boss?"

The response from the room in general was, "Oh, you wouldn't be able to do that because everybody here knows the leadership team. So you wouldn't be able to surprise anybody."

But the concept that goes on in the show is not a bad thing. I serve on the phones and try to talk to clients directly. And we have a thing called Breakfast with Bill. So once a month, 12 different crew members from anywhere in the company come, and they bring sets of questions with them. It's really a fantastic way to stay in touch.

Jeff Kaliner: I got the same exact question a couple weeks ago: "Why don't you go on Undercover Boss? Oh, my God, you'd be great on it. But you couldn't."

McNabb: They'd know you.

Kaliner: Right.

Adam and I also do lunches, with new hires. [Adam Kaliner, Jeff's cousin, is cofounder of the company.] As mundane as it sounds for us to repeat our story of how we began, it's still new to the incoming class. And it shows them that we're everyday people.

We also are very big believers in doing every job, you know? If you're going to be the leader of a certain job, you'd better know how to do it yourself and do it real well. Then find people who are better at it.

Q: What's the business benefit to staying in touch with your employees that way?

Spann: In our business, we've got to get better as fast as we can. We're a young company. We think we've got a really neat idea. But other people are going to copy it, right? The only way to take advantage of our head start of it is to get better as quickly as you can.

And when you are constantly asking people for their ideas and giving them the authority to fix things, you've got a whole system of people who can say, "This could be better," whatever it is.

It's everybody's job to make us better all the time. And if they feel that you're no care - then why should they be worried about it?

Kaliner: Right. And I think people want to be heard. Part of my job responsibility is to listen.

McNabb: From a service standpoint, if you're going to be a great service provider, you have to have great people.

And you know how there was this whole thing in the late '90s where essentially people were treated like a commodity? You'd hear the term "the knowledge worker," and you'd get a group in for a certain program and then you'd move them out and you'd bring a new group in.

We want people, when they come here, for this to be their last stop. If they're coming out of school, we want it to be their only stop.

If you're going to put that kind of emphasis on the people side, then you have to figure out ways to stay in touch. I liked Tom's comment: You're just trying to figure out how to get better every day, and that's sort of the way we approach it.

Q: You're here today because your employees rated you as the Philadelphia area's best bosses, specifically because they trust your leadership. What's one thing that you've done recently to deserve that profound trust?

Kaliner: Go on to the next question.


Kaliner: It's difficult to say what did I do right.

For us, as a team, something recent was moving our corporate headquarters to Chester.

That showed our dedication to community. And we have a group of people that respect that. I think they'll look at that and say, "Wow, what a decision that was" - not only in terms of where we were located, but also the size of the building.

We quadrupled or something, just in preparation for growth.

McNabb: For us, I think the way we came through the crisis was probably pretty important to our people, so it goes back a little bit longer, to the fall of 2008: Lehman Brothers Monday.

We tried to be really transparent to people as to what was going on. You know, it was a pretty scary time, and there was no way to massage that message.

We had a lot of communication to our clients on the website, which of course all our people can see. We also tried to do an awful lot of internal communication.

And I think one of the important decisions we made was to be very up-front with people at the end of the year that, you know, we were going to have budget constraints and we were going to be tightening the belt, but we weren't going to have any corporate actions. We wanted to keep everybody charged up and working on behalf of the clients.

Spann: Listening, I had the thought that it's probably a little easier to be a good leader when things are going well than when you have these issues and these moments of crisis.

Ours are small potatoes relative to financial meltdown. But it's been a busy time of year for us, right? January brings new benefits, new cards. So with this seasonal piece combined with some other things, the volume of calls coming in is way over our capacity.

And, you know, the initial reaction was that, well, maybe we can get everybody just to work a little harder, a little more, put in some extra hours. Of course you want to do the right thing for clients.

But I and some others said, "We really ought to step back and do two things." One is, can we pitch in? The other was to ask everyone for a list of three ideas to help the health assistants get through this peak. So it's thinking about pushing something other than the "More" button.

My decisions are based around "How do we invest our resources to help our health assistants in the best possible way?" You focus on what's important and try not to let your ego get in the way.

And you can hear, listening to you guys with much bigger companies, that there's nobody here saying, "Yeah, it's because of me that this company is good." It's kind of the exact opposite. It's a little embarrassing sitting here. It is.

McNabb: We weren't going to do it. I got talked into it. But I'm with you. It's what the organization does. We're just representing the organization.

It's interesting. I got invited to this group of CEOs from a bunch of different businesses, up in New York, to talk about big issues on the horizon. And one question that we got asked as an icebreaker was, "What do you want your legacy to be, and how do you want it transcribed on a tombstone?"

And you never heard more nonsense about "visionary" and "transformational" and this, that and the other thing.

Spann: What'd you say?

McNabb: I just said, "His successor was better than he was."

Kaliner: That's what I'd go for.

McNabb: It's the same if you're part of any organization that has aspirations to last.

Q: What do you use as your crystal ball to anticipate new directions for your business? And how does that translate into being a great boss and trusted leader?

Spann: I was thinking, "I'm calling these guys."

Kaliner: Because there's no crystal ball.

I'm forever the devil's advocate - forever looking for things that are wrong, because you always want to be better, dissecting every piece.

Spann: I'm the same way. I'm always worried about what's going on. I worry, "Could it have gone better?"

But there's a point where some of the feedback I get is, "You know what? You don't sell great successes enough." Right?

Or: "Hey, you got great results. Why are you worried about next quarter already?"

McNabb: Having the ability to hold seemingly paradoxical ideas in your head at the same time is really big, so you can be paranoid and still celebrate the successes. You know?

You've got to try to plan for the extremes, in a sense, and at the same time be willing to celebrate when you do do something right. It's a complicated thing.

My predecessor, Jack Brennan, might have been the best in the world I've ever seen at this because he could create a celebratory event around something as well as anybody, and the next day he's saying, "OK, so - " and taking the very thing you celebrated and saying, "How are we going to improve this 25 percent?"

Q: How do you communicate to your employees your understanding of where the business needs to be headed next?

Spann: It certainly starts with helping them understand very clearly where it is now. I think you can't tell people enough about the current state of the business. And you've got to talk about it honestly.

And then I think the other thing is every company needs some purpose. Right? They need to know, what are we in business to do, besides generate money for shareholders or investors. In our business it's helping people get better health care. And we can tie everything we do to that.

I think if there's something I do pretty well, it's keep things simple. Maybe I'm not smart enough to have complex plans. Do the right thing for clients. Take care of each other. Keep getting better. We'll be fine. It's that simple.

McNabb: Pretty good formula.

For us, we're ultimately about helping our shareholders achieve their goals. But we've got people who are writing code in Java. We've got people who are producing prospectuses. It's getting the local teams, whatever their function is, to say, "How does what we do as a team relate to that, and how are we contributing?"

It's a really important point. And then you reinforce it over and over again.

Spann: I always find that I undercommunicate. You know, "I said that already." The good thing is that people give me feedback, saying, "You need to say it again."

McNabb: When you look at some of the great business leaders of our time and history, they're really good communicators around taking the same message and repackaging it over and over again in different ways, but still keeping it fresh.

Because I'm with you, sometimes I'm like, "Yeah, I already said that." It's like, "No, you didn't say it enough."

Q: In addition to inspiring employees, bosses sometimes need to be the bad guy. What's your approach in those situations?

Spann: You know, we had a situation when we started and a couple of the folks didn't work out. And I was very loyal. These people had come to this new company, and we gave them every possible opportunity. And eventually other people on the team said, basically, "When are you going to deal with this?"

Eventually, doing the right thing for our clients and for each other means you do have to deal with the problems. You don't need to get away from your principles to deal with the tough issues.

McNabb: So well said.

Kaliner: We're all going to say the same thing.

McNabb: Having a tough conversation with somebody who's not performing well is one of the worst things any of us has to do.

You have to be brutally honest. But you're brutally honest while at the same time always being very respectful.

Whatever the issue happens to be, I think the way you describe it is ultimately you have a responsibility to your clients and to the health of your overall organization. That's always at the heart of the right thing to do.

Kaliner: It's particularly hard in an organization that's thriving and an organization that's now voted best place to work, right? And now you're letting someone go from the best place to work. That's hard.

McNabb: And you know, thinking about this, it goes to more than just employment issues. There are strategic decisions, or you'll have people disagreeing on direction and you have to sometimes adjudicate. And somebody's not going to feel good about the decision.

Again, I think honesty and transparency as to how you're going about it and then real clarity and closure ends up being very important.

One things is - and as an organization we are far, far, far from perfect at this, we're really trying to get better - but I like to describe the executive team as a team that really fights well. We would pass all the marriage tests for being good fighters.

You have to trust each other. And you know, mutual respect doesn't mean agreement. One of the most sinful words here is "consensus." When people use it, we always correct them and say, "We don't want consensus. We want the best answer."

If you respect each other and are willing to trade back-and-forth opinions, you will often come to much better answers.

Spann: That's a good reminder. That's exactly right.