Forbes September 2023

Stuart R. Levine, Chairman and CEO, Stuart Levine & Associates LLC

Growth and leadership development are critical. Change requires discipline, time and planning. When you observe an accomplished leader, know they weren’t necessarily born that way. Some may have better skills than others initially, but developing listening skills, patience and dedication to learning is challenging. The ability to prioritize and focus on mission is an absolute. 

Really smart leaders elevate the dialogue. They focus on building their organization’s culture based on standards and providing opportunities for people to learn and grow together. They recruit and retain the smartest people and build the most vibrant cultures. They recognize that the way people work together based on new AI technologies will require more trust and learning together. Engaging people through data takes emotion out of the conversations and moves people towards participating in the strategic direction of their organization. 

The collection and sharing of data becomes key, whether it’s for board assessments or organizational surveys designed to provide clarity on what people are thinking and saying. Data then enables people to have inspiring and engagement conversations, better relationships and more productive lives with alignment around the organization’s mission. Surveys strengthen the culture by asking people’s opinions that enable both CEOs and leaders to make the right decisions. 

Data enables CEOs to create dashboards that reflect the goals of the organization. These dashboards then must be shared and communicated on a regular basis. Employees need to embrace and understand not only the values of the organization, but the key dashboard strategic items on the CEO’s dashboard and be able to link it to their daily activities and use this to prioritize their intellectual energy and focus. 

Throughout my career, I have had the benefit of learning from leaders who excelled based on values, mission and having clear dashboards. When I worked as a New York State Assemblyman at the early age of twenty-two, I could see Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s light on in his office at 3AM. His mission-focused work was never done. I was fortunate to have carried his environmental and pharmaceutical legislation, being mentored by Dick Parsons before he became the CEO of AOL Time Warner. Dick sat by my side on the Assembly floor coaching my every move. Rockefeller put him at my side for me to learn and grow. 

Rockefeller surrounded himself with highly intelligent people. Dick explained the legislative process to me, which enabled me to have about eighteen meaningful bills signed into law within two years — including the elimination of architectural barriers for individuals with handicaps. When I brought my mother to the Legislative Dinner in Albany, she stood on the line to meet Rockefeller. When she arrived in front of him, he spent time to encourage her and express gratitude to her with the following words, “Mrs. Levine, I too had the greatest mother in the world, and let me thank you for what you did for your son.”   

Our firm was fortunate to be invited to work with one of the most successful technology companies in the world. When I first went to Silicon Valley over a decade ago, I understood about two out of every ten words the engineers spoke. I watched computers talking to computers which was the forerunner of AI. I listened to learn and grow from developing relationships with people in a different industry. They learned from me and vice versa. Do you put yourself in a position to continue to grow and learn? Do you put yourself into situations in which you are unfamiliar? Do you surround yourself with people who have different ideas and different approaches? If you serve on a board, are you taking class trips that might take you outside of your comfort zone, to observe patients and the customers you serve? The world is changing so dramatically, you need character to admit that you don’t know everything and that you need to learn. This is actually a righteous discussion around character. 

Larry Fink CEO BlackRock, in his 2022 letter to CEOs, shared that over the last three decades he learned from countless CEOs what distinguished truly great companies. They all share a clear sense of purpose with consistent values. They also recognize the importance of engaging with and delivering for all their key stakeholders. In today’s tumultuous environment, stakeholders and employees need to hear from CEOs and leadership teams even more, in order to be engaged and inspired. 

Surround yourself with smart, value-driven leaders and force yourself to continue to learn. Push yourself with determination into a zone that is uncomfortable but will lead to growth and opportunity. It’s the only way forward in today’s complex and challenging world. You will not be disappointed as to where it leads.