Best New Leadership Book Of 2014

After reading nearly 40 books about leadership released this year, my pick for the very best is the book, The Front-Line Leader: Building a High-Performance Organization from the Ground Up, by Chris Van Gorder.

This book is my top choice because it:
  • Covers the issues most important to today's workplace leaders
  • Provides "real-world" and practical everyday steps you can take
  • Gives you specific techniques and tactics
  • Tells powerful, life-experience stories
  • Capsulizes "Take Action" to do’s for you at the end of each chapter
  • Reveals how to create a culture of accountability that creates a high-performing organization with a competitive advantage

And, most important, because the entire premise of the book is:

  • People come first!

Today, Van Gorder is the President and CEO at Scripps Health, one of America’s foremost health systems with 14,000 employees and 2,600 affiliated physicians.  He has presided over a dramatic turnaround, catapulting Scripps from near bankruptcy to a dominant market position.  But, he started with Scripps Health back in 1973 and rose through the ranks, learning along the way the lessons he shares in his book.

Equally impressive, Van Gorder had to reinvent his career after having been injured on the job as a California police officer.  That reinvention led him to that 1973 hospital security director job.

You’ll find the 200-page book easy to read.  Each chapter is comprised of short sections, often about the length of a blog posting.

My favorite chapters are:
  • Know Your People
  • Tell Stories
  • Create a Culture of Advocacy
  • Build Loyalty and Engagement from the Middle
  • Bring People Together
  • Ask “What If?”

This week, Van Gorder kindly answered the following questions for me:

Chris Van Gorder

QuestionEven when a CEO does his/her best to be approachable to their employees, often employees find it difficult to approach that CEO.  What couple things can a CEO do to make that a less threatening experience for the employee?

Van Gorder: It is up to CEOs to make themselves approachable and it does not happen overnight.  There is no doubt that the title can be intimidating but the best way to break down the title is to let the employee get to know who you are – that you are more than just a title. 

I’ve found great success in developing programs like our year-long Leadership Academy for middle managers or our six-month program called Employee 100 for front-line staff.  The initial sessions are always a little awkward but when we spend time together, talk about our backgrounds and how did we get to where we are and answer questions candidly, the artificial barriers start to break down and a relationship – even trust – develops both ways.

Another way to do that is to spend some time working side-by-side with your employees doing their job with them.  When that happens, the CEO is working for the front-line employee.  Relationships and understanding develop.

The point is it takes time and consistency – and it takes effort on the part of the CEOs.  Fly-bys don’t count.
QuestionCan work ethic be taught?

Van Gorder:  I believe a work ethic is cultural – both from an individual and corporate perspective.  My father always told me, “don’t steal from the hand that feeds you.”  What he meant by that is that nobody owed us (me) a job.  He believed that it was a privilege to be employed and that we owed our loyalty, dedication and hard work to our employer.  In that regard, he taught me a “work ethic.”   But it’s also an issue related to organizational culture.   If the culture of the organization is to be productive and focused as an organization – where there is fair and equitable accountability – the organization can have a strong work ethic.   But if there is not a sense of “accountability” from top to bottom, a work ethic will be sporadic if it exists at all.

Question:  Why do many CEOs forget their roots?

Van Gorder:  I think they lose contact with their roots and start to believe their own “press.”  We live in a competitive world and it’s not that easy to achieve success and become a chief executive.  But it’s important for every CEO to remember they did not get there by themselves.  They were mentored, taught, supported and in almost every case, it was hard-working employees and managers who helped the CEO achieve their success.  It’s important to reflect on that point regularly and go back to those roots.   And if nothing else, volunteer with an organization where you are not in charge so you can remember what it is like to be an employee just like everyone else.

Question:  How do you engage middle-managers to effectively reflect your philosophies?

Van Gorder: Spend time with them.  We established a Leadership Academy that runs one full day a month and I spend my entire day with that group starting with a wide open Q&A session with them for about 2.5 hours.  It is very candid and transparent.  Over the course of time, an understanding of both personal and organizational philosophies becomes understood.   When the class graduates after a year they join the Leadership Academy Alumni Association and I meet with that group every month just to do a Q&A.   Over time the philosophies become well-understood.

Question:  How much of a person's positive morale is based on that individual versus the influence of the organization where they work?

Van Gorder: There are certainly individuals in the world who are so positive consistently and so self-motivating that they have the greatest impact on their personal morale.  But most people need a combination of personal or mission-oriented morale and organizational morale.   So care of employees is as important as the success of the organization in building and sustaining morale.  It’s a combination of personality, organizational culture, organizational purpose and mission, and success.

Question:  When things aren't going so well for an organization, how much of that situation do you recommend a CEO shares with his/her employees?

Van GorderTransparency is transparency – not selected transparency.  I believe employees should know as much as possible about what internal and external forces are impacting the organization.  So in our communications and Q&A sessions we share everything except three things: we don’t violate patient confidentiality, we don’t talk about personnel actions as they relate to individuals and we don’t discuss business transactions if there is a confidentiality agreement in place.   Absent those three conditions, we share everything we can as soon as we can.

Question:  The downturn in the economy during the past few years has caused many people to have to reinvent themselves.  What advice do you have for those struggling with their reinvention?

Van Gorder: Reinvention starts with a positive attitude.  I like to hire people with positive attitudes as we can train people for almost everything except attitude.  The second thing to remember is that nobody owes you anything – it’s up to you to get the training and prepare yourself for the career or job you want.  But at the same time, there are organizations that believe in investing in their people and helping their people achieve their career aspirations.  Find those employers.   So it’s a combination of personal attitude, proper preparation and a great employer.  Find those and you will likely find success.

Thanks to the book’s publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.


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