Markus Neukom: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
… Build psychological safety. Make sure that your actions are in line with your corporate values. Psychological safety requires rebuilding trust. Many of my client’s examples often show that their words and actions may be part of the problem. I believe the most dangerous organization is a silent one. As an executive, it is your job to make sure that your employees feel safe to voice concerns, be proactive, take risks, or report problems.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Markus Neukom.
Markus Neukom is an inspiring and successful result-driven leadership coach, business strategist, and CEO of Markus Neukom International. After spending many years of his career going from mid-management to the top, he concluded that he could help those stuck in their careers in lasting and meaningful ways by breaking down how to work seamlessly in what are too often unfair and arbitrary workplaces. While intelligence is prized, Markus focuses strongly on igniting the emotional intelligence of every client to help improve communication, management, problem-solving, and relationships within the workplace.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
It was 20 years ago when I was told by the head of operations at that time that to create real change, I would have to leave my ivory tower position as a Human Resources Executive and become a line manager. That statement never left me. It took another incident shortly after — where I was told by a manager — right after we had let go of one of his employees ‘that this person would need you now; however, due to a conflict of interest, that wouldn’t be possible.’
These two incidents must have triggered something in me because I did leave the company not long after. I spent the next 8 years coaching managers who found themselves in real need of change and a proven process.
After spending many years of my career going from mid-management to the top, I concluded that I could help those stuck in their careers in lasting and meaningful ways by breaking down how to work seamlessly in what are too often unfair and arbitrary workplaces.
That said, ten years ago, I decided it was time for a change and became the CEO of Markus Neukom International. I work with managers and top executives to help them position themselves strategically as a solid leader, become a collaborator who inspires others, and build and nurture strong alliances.
Over time I developed the Neukom Method, which has consistently proven itself and empowers my clients to short-circuit their inner paralysis.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
While on a train to Zurich, I met a very tall man (and I am a tall man myself) who came across as a small man. Bad posture. Lack of confidence, but a charming person. We just naturally chatted and came to what I do, and suddenly, he had a lot of questions. When I spoke to him about a phrase I have come to use often with my clients: “Is this as good as it gets?” resonated very strongly within him. Shortly after, we met for a walk, where he told me he wanted to work with me. That was five years ago. Since that day, I have been his sparring partner and confidant, providing him with solid guidance and counsel as a management consultant. If you could see him today and see how he’s grown into a highly respected and competent key leader in his industry, you would see a truly remarkable transformation. And by the way, his posture is fantastic, and he looks just as tall as he really is. He walks differently, talks differently, and deals with superiors and colleagues with emotional and intellectual intelligence like a pro. This is one of the greatest stories of transformation I’ve witnessed in my over 20 years of being a management consultant. He became a new man with a great life he never believed possible.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Several years back we were introducing a new service. After explaining this to a prospective client I literally asked how much they think this would be worth for them to pay for. Big mistake! I knew it as soon as I said it. It didn’t help that my wife, who is my business partner, almost fainted on the sofa overhearing this. As I have already said, I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. By the way, the client’s response was: Awkward silence. After a minute we had no choice other than to just laugh about it — and we still do from time to time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There were many influential people along my way to success. That said, there was one person, my late father-in-law, whom I had the privilege to have as a loving friend and incredible mentor. He had been a very successful CEO and president. Further, he had a style of unusual leadership. His word was always his bond, and his reputation in his industry was undeniable. He taught me the ins and outs of being a CEO and how to best manage people, and to be frank, I would not be the man nor the success that I am today if I wasn’t as lucky as I was to have him as my guide and counsel. I fondly remember the countless hours he so willingly and generously gave to me.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
First and foremost, because a diverse executive team represents an increasingly diverse workplace and the people you need and want to be included and successful. Until we succeed in getting this more right, we all lose. Furthermore, this allows for a far greater ability to relate to employees and clients. This always increases performance and success. It’s just not happening enough. While there are many more reasons, let me share this. Great talent wants to see themselves reflected and represented at the top. Getting this right will be rewarded with the ability to attract and retain top talent. We must not continue to “forget” about gender inequalities which have also been ignored for far too long.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Sincerely reflect with lateral thinking who and what your workplace and its employees comprise of. And what do you see?
Do you see people, especially minorities and women, being treated and paid equal to their peers? If not — fix it!
Define and execute a lasting work culture where people feel safe and able to share their ideas and input.
Inspire and lead from the top and be the role model you know you really want to be. That reminds me of my father-in-law, and I wish you had the chance to get to spend some hours with him as he embodied all of these things.
It is critical to not just quickly train but really train your managers and supervisors regarding inclusion, and its necessity for everyone.
Make sure that your managers and supervisors understand that this is required for their performance and success.
The topic of inclusion needs to be reflected in performance reviews and build a foundation regarding promotions and the manager’s future success with the company.
If you can accomplish this and transform managers and supervisors into more successful leaders who are taught, trained and also being led by example, you will have accomplished more than you could now imagine.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
First, I can tell you what a good CEO or executive does. The CEO’s main job is to strategize the best ways to achieve the company’s goals. Its leadership is primarily strategic, defining and understanding the ‘big picture.’ Further, assisting the executive team in setting long-term goals and working with management to develop executable and solid business plans. The CEO takes final responsibility and ownership for the direction of the business, whereas other managers commonly oversee sections of the company, operate in shorter time, and are directly related to the tasks required.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Here are two that come to mind.
Firstly. CEOs make all the critical decisions alone.
I learned early on the success of an organization is rooted in recruiting an experienced senior management team.
Critical decisions that have profound impacts should always be discussed and then put to a vote with the senior management team.
Secondly. A CEO has superior know-how about everything.
I rarely call myself the most competent person in the room. That is because I surround myself with confidants, true specialists in their fields, drawing on their intellect and experience. A good CEO should readily lean on colleagues or friends for advice in growing and fine-tuning their business. The courage to turn to others for help is empowering.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The most striking difference I experience is the fact of how lonely it is at the top. If you don’t manage to develop a culture of trust and safety with your employees then you will never learn the truth of what’s really going on in so many important ways. If you don’t inspire and foster trust you’ll get yes-men/women just blowing smoke up a certain area. That includes your executive team.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The short answer is: No.
A bit more extended is: The specific traits increasing the likelihood that someone will be a successful executive are empathy, vision, emotional intelligence, and risk-taking. Further recommended skills are adroit agility, adaptability, decision-making, conflict management, negotiation, focus and result orientation, critical thinking, and cultural intelligence.
The type of person who should avoid aspiring to be an executive is someone who doesn’t like dealing with people, hates their job, or does it primarily for the money.
Here’s why. To be successful as an executive, you have to have rapport. That requires empathy, trust, and candor with your team. If that’s missing because one doesn’t like to deal with people, it will lead to the manager being in constant reactive management mode and hugely frustrating to teams. In addition to hurting everyone on their team, how can a manager who doesn’t like his job, sell to others, why working is excellent here?
And lastly, experience shows that managers who took the job for the money likely hide from problems, fearing that this could lead to them being removed. That often leads to the fact that these managers don’t ask for help nor admit issues as they worry this problem would cost them their job.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Define and communicate your values.
Your values should represent your vision for what you believe your company should portray.
Your employees have to feel good about what they do. You want clients and employees to say, I really want to be part of this institution.
If you want to earn the trust of your employees and buy into the process, you have to commit yourself and the executive team to consistently act within the defined values.
Listen to your organization.
When I was a young human resources executive, I implemented a process called “management by walking around.” I realized that I had to get out of the ivory tower and learn to carefully listen to the employees. This data either confirmed that we were on track with our culture and that it was motivating for our employees or alerted us to signs that required changes. Sure, you can conduct surveys measuring engagement or trust. However, history shows that you should not rely solely on indirect listening. Direct communication like one-on-one meetings, and workshops, must be a crucial part of your daily process. It enables you to communicate values from the top-down, but it also, and critically so, helps you take the pulse across your organization.
Build psychological safety.
Make sure that your actions are in line with your corporate values. Psychological safety requires rebuilding trust. Many of my client’s examples often show that their words and actions may be part of the problem. I believe the most dangerous organization is a silent one. As an executive, it is your job to make sure that your employees feel safe to voice concerns, be proactive, take risks, or report problems.
Encourage others to make and learn from mistakes.
Admit that you make mistakes. Openly acknowledge that mistakes will happen. In my organization, we review how an error occurred, enabling us to learn the needed lessons. That is the prerequisite for promoting risk-taking, innovation, and creative culture.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Reflecting on what my success truly is and has been, then it’s the countless lives I was privileged to touch through working with them. Be it my clients all working in separate organizations, or my employees with whom I work daily — I have experienced and learned of the proven ripple effects it had on their professional and personal lives — this fills me with humility, gratitude, while at the same time with a sense of real pride. It all comes down to making a difference person by person, and culture by culture, making the world a better place.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
When I first became a CEO, I wished someone had told me not to expect to be able to treat my employees as a family. The reason why is that it is impossible to make everyone happy.
Another thing is: Everything is not about you. I learned from my mentor early on that the art of listening to others can never be underestimated. It is also essential to your success, as much as theirs.
Not to hope that everyone has the same motivation as I do and would pull their weight because of the trust I put in them.
Change and growth takes the time it does. Period. Assuming there is no learning curve is a fool’s errand.
Lastly, something that was surprising to me, was that a higher education definitely does not guarantee motivation, the right attitude, or results.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
To expand on the great work of Dr. Nicole LePera. Author of “How To Do The Work.” I would approach this by firstly working with her and finding the missing puzzle pieces that do include how to manage personally the professional workplace.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life knows no failure. Failure exists only for those who are always comparing themselves with others.”
Once I understood this concept my life became much more enjoyable. I am blessed with innate curiosity which is why I like to try out things not knowing how they will turn out. Everything that happens in life is a valuable lesson to me. This is an important lesson I teach my clients. Stop comparing yourself and you’ll get much further in life.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
My most crucial professional inspiration has been Sir Richard Branson. He is able to rise in times of distress and significant change. I consider him a role model regarding his transformational leadership style and would love to learn from him. His leadership style must be the key to growing his company Virgin paired with his adaptability to change. What I admire the most is his ability to turn his failures into stepping stones for success. Learning about his social values which align with mine — I feel a kindredness to Sir Richard Branson. All of which is my’ why’ for wanting to have that precious one-on-one time with him.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.