What I’ve Learned About Being A CEO

Today’s guest blogger is Charles D. Morgan, former CEO of Little-Rock-based Acxiom Corporation, world leader in data gathering and its accompany technology. Today he leads a new tech startup called PrivacyStar. His memoir, Matters of Life and Data: The Remarkable Journey of a Big Data Visionary Whose Work Impacted Millions (Including You).

I’ve been a CEO for nearly 40 years, and whenever anyone asks me what’s the most important thing I’ve learned about building successful companies, I answer with two words: corporate culture.

Leadership is about what you do, not what you say, and a healthy corporate culture is evidence of a CEO’s leadership. Some of that evidence is physical, such as daycare centers and basketball courts and exercise rooms, three facets of the culture we created at Acxiom Corporation that contributed to our being named one of America’s “best places to work” by both Working Woman and Fortune magazines.

But while those physical amenities are nice to have, I believe it’s the more abstract parts of a corporate culture that ultimately matter most. In the late 1980s, Acxiom was growing so fast that we lost our way. We were adding so many people, and building up so many layers of management, that we were having trouble getting things done. By the time we woke up, we had 13 layers of management in a company of 400 employees.

We slashed the management structure down to three layers, eliminated corporate titles—mine became simply “Company Leader”—and got leaner and looser and quicker on our feet. By cutting all those layers of supervision we created a culture of engagement in which our “associates,” as we called our employees, were encouraged to think freely, to make mistakes, and to be as creative as possible. We actually institutionalized a philosophy stressing leadership at every level. “You manage projects, and you lead people,” became our mantra, “but you don’t manage people.” To my mind, there’s no faster way to kill creativity than over-supervision.

Our people responded exactly as I hoped they would—they stopped checking their brains at the door and started enjoying the challenges that came their way. By the end of the 1990s, Acxiom was a fully international company with 5,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue. I have no doubt that our success was due to our people’s new sense of freedom—of being respected, trusted, and expected to strive for excellence.

Recently I traveled to Silicon Valley, where the subject of corporate culture came up in several meetings—often in a negative context. At one tech company boasting every luxury that so often characterizes top tech firms today, the executive I met with appeared to resent his pampered young employees. Between the lines, he seemed to be saying, I hate that I have to give these spoiled people all these entitlements, but that’s what it takes to hire and keep them. To me, that seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In contrast, I also met with executives at Hewlett Packard, and they couldn’t stop talking about how Chairman and CEO Meg Whitman had “blown up” the stuffy old HP culture. They showed me the telecommunications room, a space much smaller than a typical boardroom. “This is where Meg spends most of her time,” one executive said. “She sits in here and talks with HP employees all over the world.” Now that’s how to make high-tech really work for you.

Meg Whitman’s telecommunicating reminded me of Sam Walton, whom I got to know in my early days at IBM; in fact, I made the presentation that resulted in his buying Walmart’s first computers. Even in those relatively low-tech times, Sam showed his leadership by creating a culture of interaction that became part of the DNA of his company. He would climb into his twin-engine piston airplane and fly himself from town to town visiting his growing chain of stores, walking the aisles and listening to his people. It didn’t take long for his managers to get the message, and soon Walmart had a fleet of 20-or-so planes. Every Monday morning at 7 a.m., the little Bentonville, Arkansas, airport sounded like the U.S. Air Force was getting ready to take to the skies.

To me, the lesson is crystal clear: Empowerment always trumps entitlement, and the very best CEOs work to create a healthy corporate culture of engagement with, and self respect among, their employees. That’s the kind of culture that positions a company for success.

To learn more about Charles Morgan and the use of data in today’s business world, join us for our Soundview Live webinar: The Remarkable Story of a Big Data Visionary.

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