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Art of Leading

Replacing “Corporate Antibodies”​ With a Culture of Real Accountability

July 15, 2019

Bill Amelio, the CEO of Avnet, has been hired to do turnarounds at several companies. Over the years, he’s developed a playbook on how to get everyone aligned around a clear strategy, and driving greater accountability through the organization. In our conversation, he shared his key insights, and memorable leadership lessons he learned working in his father’s shoe repair store.

Replacing “Corporate Antibodies”​ With a Culture of Real Accountability

Q: What’s your strategy when you go in to lead a company through a turnaround?

A: It starts with inspecting three areas of the company. One is the strategy process and the strategy of the company. The second is the execution process, and third is the talent management process. You have to get those three right. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to be successful.

It also starts with your top team. You interview your top team, and spend a lot of time with them. You get their feedback, because there’s a lot of information they’ll share with me as the new person about all the things that they wanted to do before but couldn’t. They want to tell you about it.

I go to the next level of leadership and talk to them, as well, and start doing some town hall sessions with Q&As, and I’ll also meet with smaller groups of employees to get their feedback. Then I’ll meet with my staff to say, “Here’s what I heard. Where am I wrong? What seems to be going right?”

Then I’ll get the data dump on the whole strategy. What is it that we’re doing? What’s our purpose? The whole concept of strategy is about choices. What are you going to bet on, and what are you going to stop doing? Most companies do a good job of figuring out what to bet on, but they have trouble stopping things because people will say, “Give me 90 more days, and it’ll be great.”

Q. When you’re meeting people as the new CEO, what are your best questions to develop a fingertip feel for the company?

A. One question is, “What is it that you always wanted to do that you couldn’t do here?” That opens up a whole dialogue. Another one is, “If you were CEO, what exactly do you think we should do?”

Q. What about your leadership team? What do you tell them about how things are going to change?

A. There’s going to be a tough cadence on execution, and you’re going to be held accountable. You’re also going to get a lot of feedback, because I believe feedback is a gift. Anybody who’s going to be successful needs to get feedback early and often. You’re not going to get any better if you hear that you’re wonderful every day. People need to know what their talents and strengths are, and what their soft spots and areas of development are. That is really a helpful thing for each and every one of us.

“Anybody who’s going to be successful needs to get feedback early and often.”

It’s an amazing, refreshing thing when you hold somebody accountable. If you tell me something, I’ll accept what you say. And then what surprises people is that I have a relentless follow-up system that says, “You said you were going to do this.” They might think that I don’t have the capability to remember all these things.

But if you build a decent follow-up system, you’re able to stay on top of a lot of things, and you’re able then to say, “You said you were going to go do this, and you’re not doing it.” All of a sudden, bingo, it happens, and either the person says, “I’m going to raise the bar and get a lot better at this, because now there’s a new sheriff in town.” Or they say, “I don’t want to do this.”

Q. People are often resistant to change, and I read that you call them “corporate antibodies.” What does that behavior look like?

A. Someone will be in a meeting and they’ll nod their head, and say, “Yes, yes, yes.” But they’ve got their hand under the table, with their fingers crossed, and then they do what they want to do. And if you don’t stop that and hold them accountable, then it’s going to keep happening.

You’ve got to stop that behavior by calling people out on it. And when you start hiring people who understand accountability, it becomes infectious inside the company, and everybody starts to hold each other accountable.

Q. Tell me about when you were a kid.

A. I played football, I wrestled, and I boxed. I was very accomplished at wrestling. I like to tell people that nothing was ever harder than that. When you’re losing a bout, and your face is getting rubbed in the mat, and you’ve got to get to your base and stand back up again, that is really hard.

When you compete at some of the top levels, you’re going to lose, and there’s nothing I hated more than losing. That’s resonated with me most of my life – the idea that I hate to lose. It’s not about winning at all costs. It’s simply that the feeling of losing doesn’t feel so good, so I do whatever I can to avoid that feeling.

Q. How did your parents influence you?

A. I’m second-generation Italian. My dad was a shoe repairman, and he taught me how to fix shoes at an early age. My brother and I would go down to his shop after school when we weren’t playing sports, and then on Saturdays, we’d work all day, and we learned the trade. I learned how to deal with customers, and what quality meant. It was an education about business. My dad was a tough guy. I liked that. He set a really high bar and said, “Look, I expect you guys to be able to make this happen.”

Q. Why do CEOs fail? What’s the most common pattern that you’ve seen?

A. They most often fail because they didn’t build the right cadence in the company on execution. If you’re a public company, you have 90-day windows to make things happen. I like to tell any senior leader that I hire that they have to realize that there’s a target on your back, the bullet’s already been shot, and it’s only a matter of time before it hits you.

“If I can get you to believe in me and trust me and have confidence in me, we can do a lot together.”

If you think that way, then all of a sudden you’re making sure that you’re going to outrun that bullet, because it’s been shot. It’s only a matter of time if you’re not delivering. You’re accountable, so you’ve got to figure out how to make sure that happens.

The other area CEOs get in trouble with is with the board. You’ve got to build relationships with the directors. If you’re a brand-new CEO, you may not realize that you’ve suddenly got nine other bosses, and you may not realize that all of the Wall Street analysts are your boss, all your investors are your boss, and all your employees are your boss. You realize, “I’ve got all these other people who are really running the show.”

You’ve got to learn how to manage each of those relationships so you’re not creating a lot of conflict. If you create conflict in the board, they’re all going to talk about you, and they’re going to get in an executive session and say, “Throw the CEO out.” Which is not what you want to have happen.

Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

A. I’d say the foundation of everything is trust and confidence. If I can get you to believe in me and trust me and have confidence in me, we can do a lot together. But the minute I see it’s not a trusting relationship, the whole thing falls apart. If I promise you I’m going to do something and I don’t follow through, I might forget it, but you won’t. And therefore, I eroded our trust.

Also, if you make a mistake, right the wrong. We’re all going to make them, so go out there, apologize, right the wrong, and go work on doing the next thing right.

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