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Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Truly Decent, World-Class Leader

Friday I had lunch with Stephen Harrison, founding partner and current Chairman of Lee Hecht Harrison. LHH was one of the handful of companies who helped invent the professional outplacement industry and Steve, along with Bob Lee and Bob Hecht, were its founders. Steve is the author of "The Manager's Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies" (McGraw Hill, 2007) which I began reading last night (even though I typically detest business books).

Our company used the Nashville office of LHH for the majority of our professional outplacement during our April staff reductions; their service was spectacular. After meeting their Chairman, I have a better understanding of why their company performs at this level.

Steve was in town to visit the local office, and Mark Marshall, who heads that office, told me in a private moment how Steve spent Thursday and Friday. Thursday was spent in the LHH Nashville office with Steve speaking to people who were in outplacement; hearing their stories, asking their opinions, and finding out what was going on in their lives and the companies that had just separated them. He spent Friday talking to clients; our lunch was at his invitation. During our time together he was interested in how I came to Nelson, what our business issues were, and he had some really good questions about a current area of interest for him; how compliance regulations are or are not driving corporate culure, and an HR leader's role in defining culture for our organizations.

Two things I found most refreshing and impressive about Steve; even though he's a senior executive for a global conglomerate, he is soft spoken, thoughtful, and decent. Mark confirmed with me that he's "easy company" when they travel. The second thing is that, in a difficult economy, Steve was out where leaders should be; on the front lines and out of the office. How many times in my career have I seen, at the first sign of trouble, the senior executives of a company huddle together in multi-day meetings to try and figure out what's going wrong. It makes as much sense as a captain of a battleship, at the first sound of cannon fire, going down below to confer with his officers. A leader's place in time of trouble is on the front lines listening to employees, customers, and end users. They know more about your business than any focus group, survey company, or consultant.

On that note, for those of you are who scheduled to be in the Publishing division's compensation meetings next week, I'm looking forward to spending the day with you, sharing what we've done and are doing, and hearing back from you in what promises to be a day of dialogue and collaboration.

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