Henry Givray on Leadership

SmithBucklin Corporation President and CEO Henry Givray can trace his interest in leadership - or “aspiring to positions of influence, responsibility, and impact,” as he calls it - all the way back to the sixth grade, when he was captain of the safety patrol.

He played bass guitar and led a rock band in high school and college where he booked gigs and “learned to make things happen through influence versus given authority.” And at Cornell University, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, Givray served as president of the Interfraternity Council—“kind of a big deal,” he said, because it represented 45 percent of the male student population. By the age of 27, he had become a manager at a small company in an unrelated industry, and from there, he said, “It was an immediate connection, fascination, and keen interest around the requirements, challenges, and impact of business management. I instantly knew that I wanted to pursue a career in executive management.”

It’s not about the rush of power. According to Givray, occupying the corner office might make you an executive with formal authority, but it doesn’t automatically make you a leader. He says that true leaders earn an invitation to lead others, and then successfully deliver on leadership’s promise by making a meaningful and lasting impact on the lives of people and on the success and long-term vitality of the organizations they serve. His refreshing views on the nature of leadership have been published in BusinessWeek and Crain’s Chicago Business, and in several business books.

PCMA Education Conference attendees will get to experience Givray’s “The Passion of Leadership” in San Antonio on Monday, June 11, when he takes the stage for the morning general session. An interactive session that follows will help participants apply his philosophy to their own roles. He recently spoke to Convene about why his take on leadership is different, and what Education Conference participants can expect from him.

How did you start speaking about leadership?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an intense interest and fascination around leadership principles and practice, though perhaps it was more unconscious early on. I have always been in awe of the power and impact of great leaders and the profound difference one person can make. As a dedicated student of leadership, I have studied, observed, thought about, learned, discovered, and practiced various aspects of leadership and management. As a result, I have been developing my own evolving knowledge, ideas, and principles around leadership meaning and effectiveness. My earliest memories and actual notes of my own ideas date back to the early 1980s.Over the years, I’ve used my thoughts and ideas to teach, coach, and set expectations around performance and outcomes. Up until 2006, I did this primarily in the context of my position and role within SmithBucklin and other companies I have worked for the past 30-plus years.

In 2006, I was invited to speak on leadership to a client association’s board of directors. I accepted, knowing that it would require me to organize my ideas and notes in order to deliver a professional, meaningful, and cogent presentation. Since that time, I’ve been invited to speak at dozens of association conferences, corporate meetings, and educational forums. I do about 10 to 12 speaking engagements per year purely by word of mouth and invitation. While I truly enjoy and derive great fulfillment from such activities, I am not seeking to be a paid speaker, book author, or leadership consultant— at least not in the foreseeable future! Instead, my desire to speak and write [about leadership] comes from my passion for the topic as well as my deep commitment to help grow others to become leaders, to the extent that I am invited to do so. As importantly, it’s the reaction from those who hear me or read my ideas and thoughts that motivates me to press forward and to do more of it.

Given the plethora of materials on leadership, what is different about your approach?

I start with the notion that there are no playbooks that guarantee an organization’s long-term success and vitality regardless of inevitable up and down cycles or unpredictable shocks to the general economy or specific industry. But there is one certainty: All of the best strategies, creative ideas, and brilliant game plans cannot succeed or be sustained without strong and effective leadership. In fact, leadership is the uniquely consistent and defining force behind great, enduring organizations. Leadership is recession-proof, and the principles of leadership are timeless. By the way, what was true in the past is true today and will always be—time reveals true leaders and exposes false ones.

The concept of leadership, of course, is elusive. But from my perspective, the core essence of leadership is profoundly uncomplicated, involving three critical actions. One is visualizing, imagining a better future state. It could be something modest – a major improvement in an important process – or it could be transforming a company or even shaping the course of a nation and its people.

The second critical action is getting others to join you on the journey. The third critical action is getting there. Understanding these three actions is pretty easy. But here’s the rub: There are no simple formulas or instruction manuals on how to become a true leader. There are only concepts, principles, and guidelines. That’s why leadership can’t be taught; it must be learned and applied only through a process of personal, active engagement and self-discovery.

The other piece is that leadership is not something that is bestowed upon you. Nor is it something granted to you by virtue of your title, status, money, or power. It is not the same as having authority. In fact, leadership is invited and can only be given willingly by others based on who you are and what you do, and it is revealed by what you inspire and what you enable. So it’s not for me to say I’m a leader. Others may or may not give me permission to lead them. In other words, I have to earn the invitation. And ultimately whether I am in fact a leader will depend on how successful I am in eliciting positive actions, emotions, and behaviors in others without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment, as well as producing tangible outcomes through others. By the way, I have a very strict definition of what inspiration means, and it’s not the same thing as motivation.

Please explain the difference.

Motivation’s source of influence is often a carrot and/or a stick, but inspiration comes from the heart and it flows naturally and willingly. Think about certain human elements such as trust, common purpose, hope, engagement, and shared meaning, among others. Their real and pervasive existence within an organization is an imperative in order to ensure sustainable success.

So you’re saying that there are CEOs of organizations who are successful in terms of bottom-line results, but that doesn’t mean that they’re great leaders.(bold)

You got it. CEOs drive annual quantitative results. CEOs who also are true leaders build great, enduring companies. That does not mean they don’t do the first piece really well. They must and they do. Steve Jobs will go down as one of history’s greatest business people, visionaries, and innovators. The question is, what happens to Apple now without him? If Apple continues to be a great company and it endures over a long period of time, then I would say, “You know what? He’s passed the test of true leadership.”

So it’s a matter of instilling a culture?

It’s funny that you mention that. I’ve concluded that there are three foundational requirements for building a great, enduring company, one of which is around articulating, aligning, nurturing, and protecting an authentic culture that guides and inspires.

And how do you recognize and nurture leaders within an organization?

Well, you bring up another good point. The second [foundational requirement] is around assembling and developing a talented and cohesive executive management team. But the third foundational requirement is the hardest one of all – which is to grow leaders from within, to build leadership capacity throughout the company. Over the past several years, I’ve been pondering how best to deliver on this third foundational requirement in a way that is purposeful, organized, disciplined, impactful, and sustainable.

In early 2010, I had my ideas and thoughts around content, desired outcomes, student selection, and other key aspects sufficiently developed to seriously begin the planning of a leadership program within SmithBucklin. The SmithBucklin Leadership Learning Forum, which was launched in March of last year, is an intensive, high-impact 12-month program that exposes 15 to 20 selected top-performing employees to leadership concepts, principles, and guidelines while stimulating and inspiring their individual self-discovery, learning, and personal growth. The program is a gift of great value and lifelong impact to the students. I’m enormously proud of the program’s accomplishments and the depth of the students’ engagement during its inaugural year. As importantly, I’m confident in the program’s far-reaching and long-term impact on the individual students, on SmithBucklin, and on our client organizations.

I’m highly vested and commit significant time, energy, and heart to the three foundational requirements, because it goes back to this: If I aspire to be a CEO who is also a true leader, there are not many more important things that I could be doing or working on. You can’t just delegate these activities.

That doesn’t mean that others aren’t responsible for doing their part, especially other executives, but it starts with me, as I’m the one who needs to set the tone on what’s important as well as create the conditions for success.

What can PCMA Education Conference participants expect to get out of your talk?

I will introduce a working framework for defining, understanding and measuring leadership capacity and performance. This framework and its underlying principles and concepts are drawn from my personal life-long journey of learning, growing, and discovering. I will also share a few practical ideas and principles that participants can put into everyday use at work and in their personal lives. Perhaps most importantly, my hope is that my thoughts, reflections, and ideas will resonate with participants and that I would, in a small way, contribute to their enthusiasm and commitment to continuous leadership learning, self-discovery, and personal growth.

All of us have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people and in the success of the organizations we serve [regardless of] your field or profession.

I would argue that for meeting professionals, the bar is pretty high because meetings—which embody education, networking, and other crucial activities – [at least] for associations are core to both the creation and delivery of value to members and other stakeholders.

How Associations Lead

When it comes to reviving our economy, the country’s leaders focus on encouraging entrepreneurship, small business, and private enterprise. We asked Henry Givray where associations factor into that mix.

Volunteer-governed organizations possess some incredible, amazing, mind-blowing, inherent strengths. An association is essentially a community of individuals who share a commitment, passion, and vested interest in a particular industry, profession, or cause. Obviously, trade associations represent companies, but a company doesn’t exist without individuals.

Now here’s the kicker: These individuals are willing to give of their time, energy, dollars, and heart – for no compensation! Think about that. What an incredibly powerful and compelling force to be reckoned with. The possibilities to advance ideas, take action, drive desired outcomes, and create value are truly limitless. What do I mean by value creation? There’s a difference between delivering service and creating value. Service is about reliability, quality, genuine care, consistency – all pretty important stuff.

But for an association, creating value means that you’ve improved the state or condition of your individual stakeholders, industry, or profession. It may mean you’ve advanced your cause in a significant way. So in the broadest sense, when you think about what associations can do as it relates to the economy, it could be improving education, driving innovation, boosting productivity, or initiating incremental and even transformational change with possible ripple effects beyond the specific industry or profession. Associations have this incredible power to harness the human potential in an impressive, cost-efficient manner.

But, by their very nature, volunteer-governed organizations have to also overcome some inherent hurdles and challenges. Volunteer-governed organizations operate in an environment of planned and rapid turnover, and are subject to varying and often conflicting objectives, discontinuous interactions, and fragile commitments of time-pressed volunteer board members.

To overcome these inherent hurdles and fulfill their promise, associations must not only have boards comprised of skilled, dedicated individuals, they must also acquire and possess certain organizational competencies such as effective governance, strategic thinking and action taking, innovation, change management, and, most importantly, leadership. Building leadership capacity on the board and with the association executive goes a long way toward ensuring the association is vital, creates value, and is sustainable.


Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.