Tony Chivinski (Caring)

Part 2 of 4

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Tony & Sherry Chivinski at their alma mater, a little-known university in Central Pennsylvania known for its ice cream.


Geoff:  What do you see around the level of competency that leaders have in leadership?  Is that a contributing factor?

Tony:  Something I learned myself when I was 33, and I share this with leaders and CEOs all the time:  if there’s anything in the organization not going well, and you wonder what the root cause is, you simply have to go home at night and look in the mirror.  And you are it.  You are fully responsible.  There’s a saying that leaders get the behavior they exhibit or tolerate.  So, if there’s a behavioral issue as it relates to values and things, it’s because the leader has either exhibited it himself or has tolerated it.  And there’s the problem.  To me, those last couple comments is where I think a lot of this is grounded.

Geoff:  So, what’s a particular success story you’d be willing to share?

Tony:  There’s a couple things.  I was hired by an organization to help them get themselves back in shape; they were not doing very well.  We did that.  I was asked to go on their board, which I did.  I was the first outsider on the board; and when it came time to approve the budget, I wouldn’t approve the budget.  Everyone looked at me because that’s not something you usually did. I said, “I really think we’re about $500,000 short here.  I really have a hard time approving that budget.”

So, the CEO said, “What do we do, just change the budget?”  I said, “That’s not what we’re going to do.  We’re going to get all the key leaders of the business together, we’re going to thank them profusely again for the great job they’ve been doing, then we’re going to tell them this comes up short and we need at least another half a million dollars.  We’re going to ask them to go back to the business units, work with their people, and come back with a plan.  And it’s not just come back with a number, but the steps they’re going to take to do that because we’re going to monitor it.  They came back with a plan to do that. Over the course of that year, those folks delivered about another $750,000, not the $500,000 we asked for.  What was really significant is that all we did was make a strong request.  They did the work; they executed.

It’s even more significant than it sounds, because once you do that, if you maintain it, then every year you have another $750,000.  So that’s something that I’ve been very proud of.  And there’s a number of other examples where in working with companies, they’ve been able to add another million, two million dollars to the bottom line. And the ideas weren’t mine, the work was not mine, and I didn’t execute it.   I knew what they were capable of, and I made a very strong request.  That was really it.  I think those are the kinds of things and, of course, they all felt like winners and felt terrific at the end of the year when they saw what they had done.  They get all the credit, not me.

Geoff:  What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to every leader?

Tony:  I’ll give you a couple of words you can pick from.  Number 1 is, I think one of the biggest mistake’s leaders make is they fail to make strong requests.  Those stories I just told you about, all I did was make a strong request.  I think there’s a lot left on the table because leaders fail to make strong requests.

I just have to use this one other word:  I don’t use the word “communications” anymore.  I use the word (this comes from Patrick Lencioni) “creating clarity.”  I think the other key thing:  leaders’ primary response is to create clarity—where are we going and why.  What are the expectations of the organization, expectations of the people?  If I can just urge leaders to make sure they’re creating clarity, which takes constant repetition, and make strong requests, I think there are two things where organizations can be much more successful and enjoy themselves much more by those key things.

Geoff:  Why did you become a leader?  Why did you agree to do it?

Tony:  When I joined the Jaycees, I immediately was asked to take on projects and do things.   Immediately it just struck me how much fun it is to be in charge.  My thought about being a leader is like being a conductor.   Individually I’m not good in most things that have to happen.  But I can make sure the right people are in the right seats; I can orchestrate all that.

It always struck me, and I was very young, I thought being a leader is great, it’s a lot of fun.  You don’t have to do all the dirty work. So many people say, “I will help but I don’t want to be in charge.”  I just thoroughly enjoy being the person in charge.  I never tell people what to do but to get great people together, come up with a plan, and help them execute on it.  It’s just very enjoyable, and I think anyone who is a leader should consider it a real privilege to be given that opportunity.

Geoff:  Who influenced you in your leadership development?  Who did you pattern yourself after?  Who’s been a model or a mentor?

Tony:  Everybody.  I’ve been asked that question before, and I cannot come up with one person.  I’ve always read a lot.  I’ve always been fortunate to be around a lot of great people, like yourself.  I’ve always learned and absorbed things from everybody I can.  And then I try and take the very best of what I see and try to model my behavior or improve my competencies based upon those things which those folks have been really, really good at.  I think in terms of treating people well, one of the best things you can do is send people personal, handwritten notes.

George Bush No. 1 was really great at that, was known in his presidency.  We recently had a mayor, Rick Gray of Lancaster, who always sends notes.  So, I just try and take and absorb what I think are the best from folks and do that.

If somebody said to me, “Who was a business leader that you might model critical processes after?” it would be Charles Koch from Koch Industries.  He has a book called The Science of Success.  He has been phenomenally successful on many different levels; not just one company.  In terms of the process of running a business, I would say he is somebody that to me stands above so many other people because he’s been able to do it at so many different types of businesses, not just one.

Geoff:  What would you say your leadership philosophy is?  I think we’ve picked some of this earlier in the interview, but how would you summarize it?

Tony:  I would say, you have to look at the mirror and say, “Why would somebody follow me?”  And you’ve got to be able to answer that question, knowing what people are looking for.  I’ve always demonstrated that I care about folks, I treat them with great respect, I put their needs ahead of my own.  I think that’s philosophically, foundationally key.

The other thing has to be absolute trust.  You have to be absolutely trustworthy, never throw anybody under the bus, never give anybody a reason not to trust you completely.  Without that, you’re just going to fall short as a leader.  So, the trust, I think, has to be paramount and then we have to find whatever is special about us to put in there that will cause people to want to follow us.

Some people have been great leaders because they have this great visionary idea that has been amazing.  That’s not been me.  That’s not a skill that I would say I have.  I’ve had to bring those other things to the table to get people to work, so that they are willing to follow me.

Geoff:  Has there been a time where an event or something happened that taught you something important about leading?

Tony:  Years ago, at the company I was at, we had a situation where there was a very catastrophic industry event.   It could have meant the end of our company and many other companies.  And it required horrific amounts of work and overtime by so many people to overcome this.

One of the things that the person I reported to wanted to do to our company was to freeze wages and cut wages back.  I was always at the board meetings, and he put that idea out.  He didn’t tell me he was going to do that.

One of the owners looked at me, even though he knew I had reported this to him and asked me what I thought and I said “I think that would be a terrible idea.”  I said, “What we’re going to save . . . if the company goes, it’s going to go.  This is immaterial.  We have these people–hundreds of them–working horrific hours, stressful, to get through this.  And the worst thing we can do is treat them this way by cutting their wages.”

We didn’t do it.  But that did cause that person to never work with me or talk to me again.  But I wouldn’t have changed that; because to me, I think leaders put others first.  It should never be about you; and you ought to have courage to do the right thing, even if it causes you personal problems.  I’ll never forget that.  It was the right thing to do and I never regretted doing that.

Geoff:  You’ve run Leadership Advisory Services for thirteen years.  And you’ve been very successful at helping companies turn around their results.  I’ve seen it happen first-hand.  So, if you were to give yourself advice when you were a young leader, what’s one thing you wish you would have known how to do that would have made you a better leader?

Tony:  The first three years of being a leader in a business—I was very lucky.  I was 30 years old and I was given an almost $100 million-dollar business with 500 employees to run.  At the end of the year, I kept thinking, “We’re not getting as much done as I thought we would.”  And about the end of the third year, I went home and looked in the mirror and said, “Oh my gosh.  It’s me.”

My level of execution and levels of accountability were not what they should have been.  I had to work very hard to change that, which I did.  I wish I would have learned that a little bit earlier in life.  We would have gotten some more things done and gotten some better results and things like that.

When I think back, certainly that is probably the biggest thing.  I think high levels of accountability and of execution—if you don’t have that in an organization, for profit or not, you’re going to come up short.  I think that was one thing that would have helped me a lot earlier.

Geoff:  I hear a lot from my clients about this accountability issue, and I keep hearing, “We need to hold people more accountable.”  What are your thoughts on accountability and whether or not you can even hold people accountable?

Tony:  First of all, you should look for people who mostly do that for themselves, if at all possible.  Sometimes when you inherit an organization or go to an organization, they are there.  To me, and I work with a lot of organizations on accountability, so I’ll share some thoughts that I share with them.

When I tell this story, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m talking about or implying that you should have a parent/child relationship with your peers—that’s not it.  But we’ve all been out to a restaurant, sitting alongside of a young couple with two young kids who are pushing their food all over the plate.  Sooner or later mom or dad says something brilliant like, “Well, if you don’t eat, you’re not going to get dessert.”  Ten minutes later, the kids are eating dessert—they haven’t eaten; and they wonder why there are problems.

And so, where we have accountability issues, I think it’s pretty simple.  The leaders have allowed that to happen, and they have trained the organization that they don’t really mean what they say.  Therefore, chaos continues to reign.  But if people know you’re very serious about those things, if dates are set, actions are supposed to be taken, results are supposed to be achieved, and people know you’re going to be paying attention to that and not accept an excuse for that at a very high level, things change very quickly.

I’ll give you an example.  There was one part of the company that I was asked to run that I previously didn’t have responsibility for.  But when I got it, there were about ten people on the leadership team.  Our CFO who reported to me said, “Well, you’re not going to be happy about that team.”

I said, “Why not?”

He said, “Well, they have a monthly meeting and they can show up late to it. And I know that’s not going to work with you.”

I said, “Wow.”

So, the first meeting, we had some fun, talked about good things and what’s important to them.   Then I simply said, “I understand some of you come to the meetings late.  That doesn’t work for me.  If it’s a family illness issue, if it’s a customer issue, get-out-of-jail-free card.  Anything else, at 8:30 the door is locked.  Just go back to your desk.  The second time you go back to your desk, clean it out, go home, you’re fired.”

And I said, “The reason is we have 800 employees and 7,000 customers.  If you’re treating your peers this way, I can’t imagine the damage you’re doing to our employees and our customers.”

And then I said, “Are there any questions?”

There were no questions.

For the next ten years I never had to talk that way, I never had to talk about this issue, and nobody ever came to the meeting late.  I’m not suggesting we have to be nasty to people.  As a leader, people simply need to know what you’re going to do.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the general manager and head coach of the Manchester United Soccer Club, one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world.  He had a variety of operating rules, one of which is never cede control.  He didn’t say to be controlling; he simply meant everybody has to know who’s in charge.  So, for me, helping companies get accountability is fairly easy, as long as the leader realizes it’s his fault and he needs to change his behavior.  And once people know he or she is serious about that, then those issues go by the wayside.


In part 3 of this series, we’ll hear what Tony has to say about the importance of culture and how leaders can continue to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

© Geoff Davis, 8/2/19

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