What Does It Take To Be A Fortune 500 CEO? Being a Perpetual Learner
Being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company puts a person in a fairly elite club. But being a female Fortune 500 CEO is even more exclusive.
Kathy Mazzarella is CEO of Graybar and one of just two dozen female CEOs in the Fortune 500. Kathy worked for Graybar, a global supply chain services company, for 32 years before becoming CEO. She started as a customer service representative and worked her way up through sales and marketing before becoming the SVP Sales and Marketing and eventually CEO. Kathy knows the business inside and out because she has experienced nearly every part of it hands on. One of the reasons she is such an effective leader of her more than 8,500 global employees is because she is constantly learning.
As I talked with Kathy for my book The Future Leader about how leaders need to think and act to be successful in the next decade, the idea of constant improvement and development kept coming up. Kathy’s own dedication to continually push herself has clearly played a large role in her success.
“Leaders must possess a growth mindset in which they are constantly learning, innovating, and exploring new ideas,” Kathy said. “They must learn to ask different questions and analyze issues critically, rather than relying on past experience and long-held assumptions to make decisions.”
Being a super perpetual learner is more than just always having your nose in a book. Future leaders must be well-rounded and continually learn and improve in a number of areas.
Learning To Adapt
In our interview, Kathy talked about the danger of becoming complacent. When leaders get comfortable, they lose a sense of urgency and a desire to change. But the world is changing at a breakneck pace, and leaders can’t sit idly by. Kathy says leaders must model a sense of urgency for their employees.
Because the world is constantly changing, leaders must be able to see the big picture, anticipate what lies ahead and position their organizations for future success. Leaders create an environment where employees are encouraged to experiment and fail and then learn from their mistakes.
Kathy feels a sense of stewardship over Graybar because she has been with the company for so many years. She believes her job is to leave the company better for the next generation of employees. That comes by moving the company forward, adapting, and putting it in a position to lead the industry into the future. Long-term success is only possible for companies and leaders that adapt and continually re-evaluate how they operate.
Learning To Engage
Good leadership is really about people. If a leader doesn’t have people to lead or can’t motivate or inspire people, they aren’t a true leader. Learning to engage with diverse groups that are constantly changing and evolving is what sets a great leader apart from a mediocre one.
Kathy says leadership is first and foremost about creating an inclusive environment where people feel valued, connected, and safe. Leaders must create a sense of belonging where people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. That comes from engaging with employees and providing a sense of purpose and meaning. It’s building an environment and culture where employees come to work every day because they want to be there, but because they have to be.
Kathy told me: “Leaders must be intentional about developing their people and providing opportunities where their talents can be used to have the greatest impact on the success of the organization.”
As the workplace changes — and it certainly will over the next decade — leaders need to adapt their approach to best match what employees need. Kathy says that instead of focusing on differences, leaders need to set the example and focus on uniting people around a shared purpose.
Learning To Decide
Leaders of the future will be bombarded by huge amounts of information. That data will help them lead their organizations by providing insights into markets, customers, and employees, but it can also be crippling. To best leverage information and move the company forward, leaders must learn how to decide.
Kathy says that leaders must be comfortable dealing with complex information from many sources and have a strong understanding of data analytics. They must also ask the right questions, recognize patterns, and use data-driven insights to make strategic decisions quickly. They must learn how to discern the right information and who to trust to make calculated but quick decisions. That means collecting information from a diverse team and sources that challenge their ideas instead of working with a team of people who agree with everything they say.
Leaders are ultimately responsible for the success of their organizations, which means they have to achieve results but also take responsibility for the outcomes. Not every decision will go over as planned, but good leaders move forward, adapt, and continue to learn the best way to make decisions.
How Can You Become A Super Perpetual Learner?
- Stay informed about what is happening in your company, in your industry, and in the world. Don’t sit idly by because you don’t know what is going on.
- Experiment and encourage others to do the same. Take action and be innovative. Even if your risks don’t turn out, they can create learning opportunities.
- Play to your employees’ strengths. Build people up and provide opportunities for them to make the biggest impact to the organization. Spend time with people to learn about their skills and interests and put them in the best places.
- Learn about data. Know what type of data your company collects and uses and the stories it tells.
I also love this quote from my interview with Kathy: “Leadership is not about holding a specific title or achieving a certain level in an organization. I believe leadership is about helping others realize their potential and inspiring them to work with you to achieve a shared vision for the future.”
Kathy Mazzarella shows the power of perpetual learning. Great leaders keep pushing themselves to grow and develop skills in a variety of areas. As they do, they can lead their organizations and themselves to success.
Leadership is changing. What are the skills and mindsets you need to master in order to lead in the new world of work? According to over 140 of the world’s top CEOs there are 4 mindsets and 5 skills that leaders need to master. Learn what they are and hear directly from these leaders by downloading the PDF below.
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