Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus is quoted as saying ‘We were born with two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we talk.’ Or, was it Mark Twain centuries later? It doesn’t really matter who said it; what I tend to notice more are the people who actually put it into practice. A relative SEI-newbie, I noticed active listening and open communication consistently practiced by our leadership. Intrigued by this, I started wondering what other key leadership dogma helps keep our unique, employee-owned consulting company thriving in good times and bad. I began digging into the SEI newsletter archives to see what other leadership themes I could glean – and I found three that were woven throughout our ‘Boss Talks/Listens’ columns:
• Core Values
• Sense of Family
I started my search by randomly opening company newsletters dating back to 2003. Several times I picked a newsletter in which the Boss column chronicled a recent Listening Tour of our various LOCs (Local Operating Companies – SEI offices in other cities) and the changes that would be implemented because our CEO had ‘heard the employees loud and clear.’ A Listening Tour – really?!
My curiosity piqued, I opened a more recent newsletter which highlighted a vigorous debate about whether to hire a potential candidate who was going through our interview process, which we call the Gauntlet. Although SEI leadership believed that there wasn’t a strong fit between SEI and this candidate, other members of the interview team felt strongly about moving the candidate forward. After vigorous debate, the team decided to keep the candidate in the Gauntlet, and scheduled more interviews. Hmm….a leader who allows, even encourages, differing opinions.
Rewind to a 2006 column outlining the chaos of having our LOCs in various stages of growth – one was brand new, a few were in fast-growth mode and a couple were enjoying solid momentum. This particular Boss column reminded employees that while issues will arise, ‘most are the result of misunderstandings – resolved only by intense communications and sticking to our core values’.
If you’ve ever visited the SEI website, you’ll see that our core values are centered on what we call the EPIC Model (Excellence, Participation, Integrity, and Collaboration). While that’s great website content, my newsletter mining expedition shed more light on how SEI is centered on these values – no matter what the market conditions. In one of the many refreshingly frank Boss columns, our leader got some feedback on EPIC from a former CEO of a very successful aircraft engine company. This venerable CEO told our leader that ‘Excellence and Integrity aren’t necessarily core values – they were personal traits that someone either possesses or doesn’t.’ Humbly, our boss acknowledged the critique and explained that our stringent hiring practice actively screens for these traits and yet we keep them as ‘core values’ because they are integral to the fabric of SEI.
The Participation component of EPIC, where employees participate in the management and ownership of the company, was especially underscored in an October 2006 column which explained how and why our employee review process was changed. When was the last time your company leadership clearly explained why and how you are being evaluated – and encouraged questions?
Finally, scores of Boss columns highlighted how our Collaboration and Collective Value principles make an indelible impression on our clients. As a November 2007 column reminded us, ‘If we stay focused on fundamentals, we will weather any economy.’
And then, as if right on cue, 2008 happened.
The turbulent 2008 market was the focus of an early 2009 Boss column, which underscored the SEI sense of ‘family’ as a key factor in weathering any economy. While our Cincinnati, Boston and Atlanta offices were mature and had more solid foundations, Phoenix and Dallas were the younger siblings for whom the turbulence was particularly trying. Other LOCs jumped in to help. Boston had an opportunity with a new client but gave it to the Phoenix office because it was physically closer to the work. Likewise, Atlanta engaged with our Dallas office to help them ‘round out’ their expertise and support for a particular client, leading to more work.
As if forewarning potential difficulties, the January 2008 column emphasized the necessity of demonstrating patience as we opened new branches, saying ‘they will go through a period of awkwardness, like a toddler trying to get his footing before walking…but toddlers eventually become runners, given patience and encouragement –SEI is very good at providing patience, encouragement and support.’
To sum things up, management guru Jim Collins – who has done extensive research about why companies succeed – was featured in a Fortune article a few years back. Mr. Collins touted the same key components of success that I found woven throughout our SEI Boss columns. Some nuggets of Jim Collins wisdom: ‘…in times of great duress, tumult and uncertainly, you have to have moorings … the more challenged you are, the more you have to have your values’…’if there’s a storm on the mountain, more important than the plan are the people you have surrounding you’ (like family, they have your back). The use of these fundamentals – tempered with active listening and intense communication – is how SEI leadership has, and will continue, to keep our business thriving.