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If Eighth Graders Could Run Your Company

May 27, 2013

HH Girls on Grounds 2

Although my blog posts are almost always all about the value of the brand and sales growth, a recent personal experience reinforced my sense of how critical a company’s culture and values can be to the bottom line.

Ready for a story?  This one points out how a Nashville girls’ school teaches values which could help run companies more effectively.

Earlier this year my wife and I traveled to Nashville where we lived over ten years ago when I was Cracker Barrel’s head marketer (and leveraging its brand and culture to help fuel growth from $750 million to $1.3 billion in three years).  My wife and I were there for a long weekend and the wedding of one of my daughter’s best friends.

As we had not been back to Nashville since we left for Boston, it was our chance to reconnect with some very good people, check out how the city has changed (and it has), enjoy some very celebratory moments, and enjoy the Sunset Grill, one of our favorite restaurants.

One stop had to be to E.J.’s school (all girls, grades 5—12), which had developed significantly under the aggressive leadership of a Head of School who had arrived three years before my daughter left.  What had not changed was the school’s focus on helping young girls build the discipline, perspective, and poise they would need to succeed in life at whatever they would choose.

The physical change was remarkable and demonstrated growth and progress. But what caught my eye the most were vertical banners attached to the light posts following the paths snaking through the campus’s mildly rolling hills.  The banners repeated the schools mission:  Think Critically.  Lead Confidently.  Live Honorably.

I don’t know what committee or leader or committee and leader thought that combination up, but it’s very powerful.  They are “words to live by.”  And it’s not too late for us—and for me—to remember those words and keep our sights on them.  What company, team, or person would not profit by integrating those thoughts into their culture or values?

Think Critically

Even when I was in elementary school, one of the “check marks” on our report card was a willingness to take criticism and be self-critical.  Rehash a few of those negative business experiences of yours or track some cases you’ve read about recently.  Would the outcome have changed if the CEO, Founder, or management team had been more open to a different reality, more self-critical, and more objective?  Would JCPenney’s Ron Johnson have found a less absolute but better path?  Would Michael Dell have been able to keep his company on a more positive course?

Lead Confidently

Leading confidently is different from leading through power or sheer will.  To lead confidently means not only knowing your team is looking to you for answers and next steps—they’re depending on you—but also being able to lead through persuasion and motivation.  It means making the effort to do your homework and know the answers while fully seeing the options.  It means knowing you have to work as hard to deliver an effective execution as you did to create a meaningful brand or business strategy.  IBM’s Lou Gerstner seemed to have an ability to push toward new ground while understanding the importance of culture and communication to achieve goals and create growth.

Live Honorably

How many times have our politicians hurt their cause and their constituents by looking for shortcuts or taking advantage of a fluid situation for their own gain rather than the political body?  How many times have our business leaders put their personal financial benefit over the growth and stability of the company? Integrity and living honorably seem to be about doing what you know is right even when no one is looking.  As a CEO of mine once said, “If you have the right culture, no one has to refer to big thick operations manuals because they will know what to do.”

As we finished our campus visit, I was a satisfied father who felt good that he had sent his daughter to a school with such fundamental values and could see how they had helped her to her early achievements.  Living honorably can be the powerful cultural catalyst that turns critical thinking and leadership into success.

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