John Geisler, vice president and CIO of Cargill, was a guest 8-10 years ago on an internet radio show my Aveus Partner Linda Ireland and I hosted every week back then. Between that time and today, John has led some of the largest, global change initiatives inside the company. To put Cargill’s size in perspective, the company has $134.9 billion in revenues and 143,000 employees in 67 countries.
It would be fair to say that given some of his assignments, John has literally touched every corner of the business around the world and virtually every job in some large or small way. Just one of his assignments would test any bold leader, and yet here he is three years into his latest change position. From our conversation, I’m pretty sure this is also not his last.
I am so appreciative of John’s willingness to talk about his experiences and how he does it, when many others in these kinds of situations would have burned out or bailed out long ago. I don’t have a statistical sample yet, but based on what I see, some, if not most, bold leaders and change drivers hop organizations as often as they lead initiatives.
John has been at Cargill his entire career (now some 36 years). He reminds me, “Yes, one company, but Cargill is a pretty big sandbox. It’s been a privilege to do this kind of work with enough rope to make a true difference. I see a future others don’t see and have had the opportunity to bring those ideas forward.”
When I asked how he enrolls others in “the future he sees,” John shared nine leadership competencies that he says are framed, hang on his office wall, and have guided him since 1995:
- Inspire excellence
- Translate vision into results
- Champion change
- Operate with a high degree of integrity
- Possess a hunger for learning
- Be a strong people coach and developer
- Have the courage to take and manage risks
- Be a carrier of core competencies
- Be capable of thinking outside the box
All of those ideas make obvious sense. Putting them in practice is always the challenge. John said his personal hunger for learning (#6) is what grounds him. The people he works with know that by word and deed he will “go deep.” Could he get by knowing less about any specific assignment? Probably. But his desire to learn is what also engages the people around him and helps him build trust.
Who he surrounds himself with is important. “I look for people who challenge the status quo. The ‘if it is not broke, break it!’ types.” When undertaking multi-year, complex change challenges you need people who are willing to question, push and not fear upsetting the current order.
Other bold leaders have told me they realize at times that they are in a lonely position. Given the multi-year length and complexity of John’s assignments and his self-acknowledged ability to see things before others, I asked him if he ever feels that way. “Lonely isn’t a word I would have used. (Laughing) But then, I do sometimes say I wear my flak jacket backwards!”
Flak, doubt and dissatisfaction are part of any major change, using any model you prefer, so I asked John how he brings people with him. He went back to his nine competencies and mentioned that at the center of his leadership style, there is the notion that everything you do has to build trust. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘John, I don’t know where you’re taking me. I can’t say I like this. But I trust you.’”
John credits his start on the business side, working with customers and always leading from a customer-oriented point of view, as essential to how he works.
When he became the CIO, with no technology background by the way, he instituted an IT Salesman of the Year award. This is just one of his examples making the point that even though you’re an internal or infrastructure resource, a customer orientation still matters.
Examples, showcasing the great work of others, asking lots of questions and driving change – action by action – are all skills and approaches he’s honed over time. “I made thousands of mistakes ‘telling’ people what to do. I learned in part by watching other great leaders, to ask questions, listen, and celebrate others as the way to be successful in helping people change.”
Do you see a future different than others in your organization? If so, how has that insight ability impacted your leadership and career practices? Do you have a core set of competencies you’ve carried with you and/or developed over the years? If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear from you. Please send them my way.