Early in my career I experienced at close range a CEO not walking his talk. I was serving as chief of staff to the president of a large three-campus community college. With the urging of his board’s officers, my boss decided that he needed to focus far more heavily on the institution’s external agenda – specifically, on building close working relationships with the chief executives of critical stakeholder organizations like the community foundation and neighboring universities. So, as a strategy to buy precious time for his expanded external role, the president tapped his executive vice president to become the college’s chief operating officer. The division of labor was simple. The president’s direct reports would now include only myself, the chief financial officer, and the vice president for community affairs. The executive vice president/COO would supervise the other collegewide vice presidents and the three campus presidents. The president was, he said, “100 percent committed” to the new CEO-COO arrangement, which would “free him up” to focus on external relationship building. I sat in on the meeting where my boss assured his new COO that he “absolutely” wouldn’t be drawn into internal operational matters, leaving the COO free to do his new job without interference.
As our readers know, words can be cheap, and this turned out to be the case. The new arrangement at the top lasted all of six months, falling victim to the president’s continuously second guessing his COO’s decisions and constantly going around the COO to direct the campus presidents. Over the course of my 30 years of work with nonprofit and public organizations, I’ve seen many other examples of CEOs who talked a better line than they walked. Not so with General Manager Jeff Knueppel on the employee engagement front at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, as the podcast Jeff and I recently recorded for this blog indicates.
Jeff not only believes that employee engagement is critical to SEPTA’s attracting and retaining capable employees in an incredibly tight labor market, he walks his talk, committing substantial time to playing a hands-on role in a variety of employee engagement initiatives. And he’s keenly aware that as executives and senior managers throughout the SEPTA family launch their own engagement initiatives, he and they – together – are transforming SEPTA’s culture. Listening to Jeff describe his hands-on involvement in the employee engagement arena, I couldn’t help but think of CEOs I’ve encountered over the years who bought into what I think of as “cultural change on the cheap,” relying on exhortation and training classes they could observe at arms-length. How refreshing to talk with a CEO actually walking his talk!