It’s About Their Passion...Not Just Yours

Jan 24, 2019

By Sander A. Flaum

How does a leader allow for his people’s personal passions? Are large corporations with massive bureaucracies and thousands of employees capable of acknowledging the personal? They don’t have a choice. Talented people are leaving organizations in large numbers because the corporate structure is not accommodating or integrating or recognizing personal passion. The good news is that the great companies are starting to do something about it. And this denotes a big change in business ideology. My students got the message firsthand when Bill Toppeta, president of MetLife International, told the Fordham Leadership Forum, “What you need to know as the leader is what motivates your people, not what motivates you.”

To bring this philosophy into the corporate structure, Toppeta uses a very revealing yet simple exercise. He hands out a questionnaire to managers and their direct reports. The manager ranks the items on the page in the order of what she believes most and least stirs her direct reports’ passions. At the same time, the direct report also ranks the items on the list. The lists are compared and then dialogue ensues. Toppeta tells us that, for the most part, managers do horribly on this exercise. They think they know what their people are passionate about, but they don’t. But as these dialogues take place and the central issues are made clear, amazing things happen: people get to know each other as people, not simply as functions that help the department make its numbers every quarter. The result? The people working for Toppeta have a voice in where they can best make their personal contribution to the company. The outcome of marrying personal passions to company goals breeds deeper job satisfaction for employees and more profits for the company.

Bill Gray, President of Ogilvy & Mather, seconds Toppeta’s point of view. At his top-ten advertising agency, Gray runs one of our industry’s most successful creative enterprises comprised of 1,600 people. These creative and strategic people tend to be, they’re a smart, stubborn and take-no-prisoners kind of workforce. Gray’s job is to get the best out of these highfliers every day, and he does so by infusing the language of passion in all his dealings. He loves the quote attributed to the Emperor Napoleon that “leaders are dealers in hope.” That’s how he sees his role.

Gray also told the Fordham Leadership Forum class that for years he golfed with General Electric’s legendary CEO, Jack Welch. That experience taught him heaps about passion, and that great leaders such as Welch give it a lot of consideration. Welch gave him this piece of advice: Be passionate all the time and know everyone’s name, from bottom to top, and show you do, especially to the people who least expect you to know their name. Welch’s point, Gray told us, was that a leader can use the language of passion to create the soul of a small company in the body of a giant. And that is a very unique advantage in business.

Gray also evoked another lesson from Jack Welch, which is that there are three Es he leads by: energy, energize, and edge. That’s a good definition of a passionate leader from one of America’s most passionate of leaders.

Building on his comments about Welch, Gray said that he personally views leadership like a person on the field of battle, actively engaged in the war. He stayed with this description, telling the class that a leader needs to know his troops, treat them as colleagues, get out in the field, be next to them and seek to understand how the people on the front lines deal with the challenges they’re confronted with. Match your passion to theirs and let them see what you’re all about. A leader’s biggest mistake? Forgetting the troops on the ground. And not trusting that they are giving their heart and soul to the fight. Even if a course correction is indicated, there can be an enormous unforeseen negative effect on the results you produce if you make the correction without first assessing the work in progress. That’s a passion evaporator. Creativity, Gray believes, is very important to the goals of leadership. Leaders need to face problems with creativity. And solve them with creativity, too. It’s an essential ingredient of the recipe to build lasting passion. For Bill Gray, leadership must instill passion or you’re not truly leading.

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].