The Card Playing CEO

by Jennifer Miller on December 20, 2009

in Leadership

Now, here’s something you don’t see every day:  a company CEO sitting in the firm’s break room playing cards with his frontline employees. 

Or do you? 

This is the question I’ve been pondering for awhile after I witnessed this exact scenario at a client’s headquarters a few weeks ago.  After making a few discreet inquiries with other members of the management team, I discovered that this is not unusual for the company’s CEO, Pete.  “Oh, yeah, Pete will do that every so often.  You know, to get the pulse of things going on” said one Vice President.  Here’s another thing that I noticed: it wasn’t some awkward “I-have-to-mingle-with-the-rank-and-file” scene that could have been straight out of The Office. Both Pete and the employees seemed very at ease with this activity, as if, (gasp!) they actually enjoyed hanging out together.

So how does Pete do it?  How does he create approachability?

1. He creates ways for employees to gain access to him. Playing cards is just one way he stays in touch with his workforce.  For example, he has regular “Lunch with Pete” gatherings, and he has a true open door policy.

2. His ego is an asset, not a liability. Pete knows he’s at the head of this company’s food chain. He wields this power with care and only when needed, such as making the final call on organizational strategy after having listened to a variety of perspectives.  

3. He packs his own lunch. Literally.  The day I saw him playing cards, he had just pulled a steaming container of leftovers out of the microwave.  This has a humanizing effect that telegraphs to the employees: “Pete is down-to-earth (like us); he even brings his own lunch”. It also sends a subtle message about frugality and corporate resources.  If the CEO is willing to eat leftovers rather than dine on $100 lunches at a fancy bistro, then he’s probably going to spend the company’s money wisely too.

4. He genuinely cares about his fellow employees. He takes an appropriate interest in their lives outside of the office, knowing the names of kids, spouses and other significant events in the employees’ lives.

Are you a leader in your organization?  How do you create approachability with your co-workers?  Even if you don’t play cards with your employees, you can still create an atmosphere that encourages respect amongst each other and open communication.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas Waterhouse December 20, 2009 at 9:13 am

Jennifer, there are so many ways to approach this issue. I’ll address it from an obligation of the “workers” as contrasted to the demeanor of the CEO. “Friendliness” with the “troops” has a foundation in the capacity of the “troops” to understand and respect roles and positions. For example, I think of being pulled over in my car by a law enforcement officer. Their level of friendliness or approachability will not have a bearing on my demonstrated respect for the role or position they represent. We can be friendly and approachable as leaders with tremendously positive or terribly catastrophic outcomes, and the maturity of the “troops” in grasping this dynamic is a crucial variable. As always, you are incredibly thought-provoking. Thank you!

Meredith Bell December 20, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Very insightful post. Your points come to life with this excellent example of Pete. It illustrates one of the key pre-requisites to be a strong leader – being comfortable in your own skin, with who you are. This level of self-acceptance and self-respect means that there’s no need to impress others or rely on the authority inherent in the position to control others. Being authentic, accessible and open builds the trust necessary to get cooperation when you need to ask people to do hard things in an organization.

I’ve added your blog to my list of blogs I follow.

Jennifer December 20, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Thomas, thanks for turning this around a bit and examining the mindset of the “troops”. There is a tacit understanding about roles and what a leader “should” and “shouldn’t” do. I would expect that some reading this would think it’s not appropriate for “Pete” to play cards with those he leads. You point out a key factor (one I didn’t think to highlight) contributing to Pete’s success: that his employees are mature enough to understand that even though he plays cards like “one of them”, he’s still the boss.

Meredith,

Welcome to the People Equation! Thanks for stopping by. You are correct in perceiving that Pete (based on a real person, but not his real name!) is very comfortable in his skin. . .with no visible arrogance. I appreciate what you’ve added to the conversation and hope you’ll join us again.

Shannon (ITSoftSkills) December 20, 2009 at 4:16 pm

This is a great example of authentic leadership. I’ve seen executives and managers try to just show up every few months and try to engage in conversation and it doesn’t work. But the ones that let others get to know them as real beings – sitting in the break room enjoying lunch or break, stopping in the kitchen to pick up a drink and have a short conversation, creating real opportunites to connect on a regular basis are authentic and builds trust.

I know of one executive from a mid-size company who even pitches in periodically on the production floor or in the sales dept during crunch times or when change is needed. And nothing allows him to connect more with the front-line troops than being out there sharing in the work. Not only does it allow him to build relationships with his teams (and buyin) but also him to spot potential employees to develop in leadership roles.

Great post.
…Shannon

Jennifer December 20, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Shannon,

Thanks so much for stopping by The People Equation. It’s nice to meet you!

You are so correct about executives that “pitch in”, whatever that means within the norms of their organizational culture. I often counsel my executive clients to go “on the floor” and see what’s happening. Some of them buy into it immediately, some don’t.

Guess which ones are more respected?

I look forward to hearing from you again.

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