Four Steps to Becoming a Better Leader
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The former CEO of a multibillion dollar health care company shares his thoughts on values, ethics and having an impact on the next generation of leaders.
By Patrick K. Burke
Harry Kraemer Jr. recently shared his thoughts with CIO Insight on how to become the best leader possible by focusing on a set of core values that help in the boardroom as well as in daily life. The former CEO of Baxter International now devotes his time, among other worthy causes, to teaching at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. His latest book, “Becoming the Best,” focuses on leadership, values and ethics and what it takes to become a better leader.
CIO Insight: You’re currently a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Prior to this you were the CEO of a multibillion dollar health care company. What inspired you to become a professor?
Harry Kraemer Jr.: As a student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management many years ago, one of my professors was Don Jacobs, who went on to become the world-renowned dean of the school. After graduating from Kellogg and going to Baxter International, Dean Jacobs called me frequently to ask if I would be a guest speaker or participate on a panel. I always agreed because if it weren’t for Kellogg, I wouldn’t have become chairman and CEO of Baxter International. When I was leaving Baxter 10 years ago, Dean Jacobs called me and said, “OK, now it’s time to teach.” I was intrigued by the idea of teaching, focusing on leadership, values, and ethics, and having an impact on the next generation of people leading organizations.
CIO Insight: Your latest book, “Becoming the Best,” takes a values-based approach to leadership and management. What are some personality traits that successful leaders have in common?
Kraemer: Leaders who achieve success and also make a significant positive impact are values-based leaders. I define values-based leadership in the context of four principles, starting with the first and foundational principle of self-reflection, which is the ability to identify and reflect on what you stand for, what your values are, and what matters most. The second principle is balance, striving to see a situation from multiple perspectives, including different viewpoints, to gain a holistic understanding. The third principle is true self-confidence, which is acceptance of yourself, recognizing your strengths and your weaknesses, and focusing on continuous self-improvement. Genuine humility is the fourth principle, never forgetting who you are, appreciating the unique value of each person in the organization, and treating everyone with respect.
Successful leaders who are committed to values-based leadership understand what it means to lead and influence others, how to catalyze change and how to drive results.
CIO Insight: Do you believe leaders are born or made?
Kraemer: Whenever I’m asked this question, I always tease and say, “The answer is ‘yes’”—it can be both. If you are blessed with some natural leadership talent, you have a little bit of a head start—depending, of course, on what you do with that ability. Every day you’re given is a day to become a little bit better than you were before. Those who don’t have as much natural ability may have a slower start, but if they are disciplined, focused, and consistent, they can actually end up becoming much better leaders than those who are born with a certain amount of natural talent.
It’s like the tortoise and the hare. The hare who is naturally gifted with speed can’t count on that trait alone to win the race if he’s not disciplined. The tortoise, while obviously not gifted with speed, can use perseverance and discipline to come out ahead. Moral of the story: whether you are born with leadership skills or your build them, if you become complacent others will pass you by.
CIO Insight: The world of business, and more specifically, the tech space, can be ruthless. Is it a challenge to maintain certain values as a leader when faced with adversity? For example, having to defend a patent from a competitor or implementing unwelcome change within an organization?
Kraemer: Those times of adversity that you describe are precisely when you need to live and lead by your values! Change, crisis and controversy are all part of what a leader faces in any organization. It’s not a question of “if” something is going to happen—only “when.” Therefore, a leader has to be prepared in advance by knowing how he/she will act when change, controversy or crisis arises. To my way of thinking, it comes down to two commitments: The first is to know that, no matter what happens, you will do the right thing. (Determining that “right thing” will be aided by a group of people with strong values on whom you can depend.) The second is to know that you will do the best you can do. As simple as it may sound, if you can put those two commitments into action—that no matter how dire the situation you will do the right thing and the best you can do—then you will prevail.
CIO Insight: Describe your management style.
Kraemer: I am a values-based leader, which means I put the four principles into practice every day. I take time to be self-reflective. I make sure that I look at things in a balanced way and strive to understand all perspectives. I have enough true self-confidence to know what I know and admit what I don’t know, and surround myself with people who are more knowledgeable in areas that I’m not as familiar with. And I maintain enough genuine humility to respect every single person on the team as someone who truly matters.
CIO Insight: Can you think of a scenario that you should have handled differently in the boardroom?
Kraemer: In my experience serving on many boards difficulties arise when people violate a simple rule: Management should manage; boards should govern. For example, among my board memberships today is serving as chairman of VWR International. I always make sure that there is clarity that management is responsible for managing the company and that the board is responsible for governance. As long as the roles are clear, things go smoothly. In any organization, confusion sets in and even a crisis could arise if board members think their role is operational or if a CEO starts to depend on the board to run the company.
CIO Insight: How has technology influenced management style?
Kraemer: Technology has enabled us to communicate with a vast number of people instantaneously and on an ongoing basis. While those communication tools—email, texting and social media—are great, there is one caution that I am always mindful of: It is important to communicate via these technology-enabled channels in a self-reflective way; for example, to read an email one more time to make sure the message is clear and the tone is what you want.
CIO Insight: What can IT managers do to be more effective leaders?
Kraemer: The best way for IT managers to become effective leaders is by gaining a clear understanding of how their function and activities fit into the overall goals and objectives of what the entire organization is trying to accomplish. When I give presentations to IT managers, I ask them a very simple question, which gets to the heart of this topic: Do they want to be IT managers who are good at what they do in IT and who happen to work for a particular company? Or, do they want to be leaders who play key roles in driving the company forward and who, among other things, know a lot about IT? There are far more than semantic differences between those two questions.
And, of course, IT managers, like any leader, can become more effective by practicing the four principles of values based leadership: self-reflection, balance, true self-confidence and genuine humility.
Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.