Hit the Ground Running: A book review by Bob Morris

Hit the Ground Running: A Manual for New Leaders
Jason Jennings
Portfolio/Penguin (2009)

Through a rigorous process of identification, consideration, evaluation, and elimination best explained in the book, Jason Jennings and his research associates selected nine exemplar companies and their CEOs and examine how each of the nine leader/organization relationships demonstrates an especially important “Rule.” Jennings devotes a separate chapter to each of the ten rules.

He suggests that best way to measure the performance of a CEO: “We defined economic value as the sum of the profits generated, dividends paid, increases in sales and profits, and the increase in the company’s share price during the CEO’s tenure.” All of the nine CEOs took over companies because of death, retirement, resignation, or the poor performance of their predecessor. Each hit the ground running and “almost doubled revenues, more than tripled earnings per share, nearly tripled EBITDA, and doubled their company’s net profit margins.” How did they accomplish these exceptional results? Jennings provides the answer in this book.

The nine CEOs are Patrick Hassey (Allegheny Technologies), Marshall Larsen (Goodrich Corporation), Frederick Eppinger (The Hanover Group), Howard Lance (Harris Corporation), Jeffrey Lorberbaum (Mohawk Industries), Ronald Sargent (Staples), Keith Rattie (Questar), Mike McCallister (Humana Inc.), and finally, Tim and Richard Smucker (The J.M. Smucker Company). After lengthy interviews, Jennings notes an obvious connection between and among them, one overpowering characteristic that all the CEOs shared: “They told the truth. None of them deceived themselves about anything, nor did they surround themselves with executives who did; they all practice the Golden Rule; and as a result, they’ve become the best performing CEOs in the nation.”

In my opinion, one of Jennings’ most important points is indicated when he discusses how and why high-performance leaders (including the exemplary CEOs) view themselves as stewards. Their decisions are guided and informed by the Golden Rule or an equivalent thereof, they are authentic and humble, their ego is so healthy they do not hesitate to acknowledge their own limitations and ask others for assistance, they are purposeful listeners, they surround themselves with as many talented people as possible, they empower others to lead and sincerely and enthusiastically delighted by their success, they focus on what is most important now and will continue to be important in the future, they trust but verify, they never preserve their neutrality in a moral crisis, they are allergic to waste, (as Einstein suggests) they make everything as simple as possible…but no simpler, they always set an example for personal accountability, (invoking a football term) they “move the chains” toward each objective, and they cultivate and sustain “a fierce sense of urgency.”

They follow what Bill George characterizes (in True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, co-authored with Peter Sims) as their own “internal compass that guides you as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life. Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your True North pulls you toward the purpose of your leadership.”

On Pages 206-225, Jennings includes 120 brief quotations from the best performing CEOs he discusses in his book. I conclude my review with several that clearly indicate a strong sense of stewardship:

• “I need everyone to respect and support one another and work with each other. Everything else is B.S.” (Fred Eppinger)

•  “The CEO’s job is to be a destination expert. The CEO’s job is to let everyone know where we are going.” (Pat Hassey)

• “The idea of aligning your business with your customers is as natural as breathing. I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.” (Howard Lance)

• “Any CEO who thinks he can pull all the strings that make things happen is kidding himself.” (Marshall Larsen)

• “Oversimplify everything! Sit down and ask, `If I could start with a blank sheet of paper today and create the best answer, what would I do?'” (Jeff Lorberbaum)

• “We try to treat all of our people like they are adults, which sounds like straightforward common sense, but it’s amazing how many businesses don’t.” (Mike McCallister)

• “No spin. Look the facts in the eye and tell the truth. Always.” (Keith Rattie), “You have to communicate what you’re doing. If people don’t know what’s going on, they’ll think nothing’s going on.” (Ron Sargent)

• “Listen. Be Humble. Doubt your own infallibility.” (Tim and Richard Smucker)

Those who now struggle to improve their skills (especially their leadership skills) would be well-advised to read this book because there is so much of value to be learned from these nine CEOs whom Jim Collins would characterize as “Level 5” executives.

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