Friday, July 30, 2010

The CEO Archetypes #6 Atticus Finch

Wise.  That is the watchword for the Atticus Finch.  They are first and foremost, wise.  

They are thoughtful.  They are circumspect.  They do not rush in or rush about expending unnecessary energy.  As one Atticus Finch said to me, "you do not win the game by running the ball all over the field, you slow down and figure out how to get it over the goal line."  The Atticus Finchs have a tendency to speak in metaphors, similes and slogans, all adding to the illusion/allure of their wisdom.

The real Atticus Finchs are truly thoughtful.  The Atticus Finch impersonators are indecisive.  You must be very careful in determining which you have encountered.   I have run into both in my career and it took me some time to sort out who was who.  Some authentic Atticus Finchs in my past are Tom Thilman, Bob Adler, Kevin Melia, Linc Holland, Greg Lang and Gene Haley.    These circumspect, values driven CEO's can appear slow moving.  They may not always be the first horse out of the gate, but they do not make mistakes once they are in the race.  They measure twice and cut once.  They do not shoot from the hip.  They are frequently the last to speak on a topic.  They listen well.   They spend a lot of time alone, thinking about what they have heard.  They spend a lot of time considering the future.  They never lead from zeal, they lead from logic and reason.  They rely on their values.  They worry about having the right answer and about doing the right thing.  They take their role seriously.  

I worked with Kevin Melia when he ran World Wide Operations at Sun Microsystems before I consulted to him from 1996-1998 at his billion dollar start-up, Manufacturer's Services Limited (MSL).  Kevin was known at Sun for his leadership style; a combination of wisdom and his competitive spirit.  I got to know Kevin pretty well when we worked together at Sun and saw this recipe of thoughtfulness and stubborness move mountains there.  

But, once Kevin was the CEO, once he was truly in charge, there were some changes to the guy I knew at Sun.  As CEO, Kevin led first with his values.  He took the responsibility of using other people's money very seriously.  He did not just see it as a business arrangement, it was a covenant he had entered into with his investors.  Investing money in a high risk/reward scenario was acceptable, but losing money made his head explode.  He was a steward of the investment, it wasn't his too lose.  So, he drove the company along a set of values that started with the understanding that it was someone else's money.  The juxtaposition of Kevin's philosophy and value set with the values and attitudes of other start-up CEO's is startling.  So many CEO's discuss how many more months or years they will lose money before breaking even without the least bit of chagrin or embarrassment.  That was not Kevin.  He was mortified by the period of time when MSL was not performing at expected levels.  But, Kevin did not rant.  He did not default to drama or drastic measures.  His mantra was "We will manage through this together."
He was calm and focused and kept listening...always listening.  He took MSL public in it's 5th year as the third largest outsourced manufacturing provider in the world.  

I worked for Tom Thilman at a company in Chicago, long before my days in Silicon Valley.  Tom had inherited a large commercial insurance brokerage from his father. He merged this business with a competitor and while the partners shared the CEO title, the truth is, Tom Thilman was in charge.  Tom was 39 or 40 when I worked with him, but he was, as they say, wise beyond his years.  Tom's partner was a likeable-but-always-agitated guy (also named Tom) and Thilman's ability to listen, negotiate, smooth the waters, soothe feelings and keep emotions from running amok was the rock that anchored the company.  Tom was the first person I ever knew who really considered the unintended consequences of an action or decision.  He would say, "Now wait, what if XYZ is true?  Would we do the same thing?  Let's slow down and think this through."  Tom was such an Atticus Finch his employees came to him for personal advice.  They sought his counsel on many topics.  He approached their problems with the same quiet thoughtfulness that he applied to the business.  He asked questions and it was clear he was focused on the problem at hand.  He would never tell anyone what to do, but he would lay out several alternatives, speak to the consequences of each and let the person plan their course.  I was lucky to have known Tom in my early 20's. 

Gene Haley is the CEO of Wilmington Pharmaceuticals in Wilmington, NC.  Gene is a smiley, fun loving, guy.  He certainly has a disarming style, but he is, at his heart, an Atticus.   Gene seeks input from as many sources as he can.  He listens respectfully, always seeking the nugget of gold in all conversations.  It is common for Gene to say, "I was speaking to so-and-so the other day and they really made me think about XYZ"  then it turns out that "so-and-so" is the valet at a restaurant Gene likes or the security guy at the airport or the Chairman of the Board of a Fortune 100 Company.  Gene knows no class boundaries when it comes to seeking input that might spur a new thought or dislocate an arcane one.  That is why Gene enters into conversations; to generate thinking.   Gene is the most patient man I know.  His company, a privately held drug technology provider has taken time to grow.  Gene works the process, methodically.  Educating and reeducating his investors and partners about the opportunity.  A big payoff is worth the patient wait and it takes an Atticus' wisdom to tolerate that wait and be able to bring the less patient along for the trip.   Atticus' also have an innate charm.  Gene is a fabulous story teller, as are most Atticus'.  They use stories to prove a point, teach a lesson or illustrate how they learned something.  They choose their moments for storytelling...and predictably their stories have lessons, morals and ironic twists.  All designed to make us consider our options for a moment longer before plunging over the cliff of impatience.  Most of these introspective types are humble and do not want the spotlight for very long.  But they enjoy the effects of the stories they tell.  Just like a small town lawyer enjoys arguing his case in front of a jury. 

Atticus' like people.  They respect the talent around them.  They trust a process because they trust the people who populate it.  This is one of the secrets of this types success.  They are wise enough to know they cannot do it alone.  They are wise enough to listen to the talent they have around them.  They are wise enough to know they don't know everything. They are quiet but approachable so all the problems get escalated to them and their powerful problem solving capability.  

And that problem solving capability, provided by their wise ways, is the secret to their success.

I am not, by nature, wise nor patient, consequently I love every minute I get to spend around one of these powerful leaders.

#7 is a surprise.



  1. I agree totally about Kevin Melia. He was the first and only boss I ever had whom I did not know before he became my boss. But we got along great. He was calm, reflective, wise and decent.
    As long as you were honest with him, he'd forgive almost anything. But dishonesty? He'd never forget it! Of all the folks I've met in my career, he's among the ones I most admired.

  2. when do we get to find out the #7 of the archetypes.

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