Connect the Dots Through What and Why: An Interview with Steven Guida

My bold leader interview with Steve Guida picked up after a 15 – 20-year gap. Neither of us could remember exactly the last time we saw each other. As so often happens when you haven’t seen someone in a while, you have dated perceptions of who they are—as if they’ve been in a time-stopped bubble since you last connected. That was true for me in this case. Boy was I out of date!Steve Guida Image

I knew Steve had built a great career and life over the years and was anxious to re-meet him. Today he is President of American Funds Service Group. A simple title for a quite diverse portfolio of responsibilities.

Steve has had a number of interesting roles in public and private companies. He’s been with American Funds now for ten years and loves it. Specifically, he loves the broad roles, chance to make significant impacts, freedom to truly think long term, and willingness to make some strategic bets that come with being a private company.

I gave Steve our Aveus definition of a bold leader—someone who thinks and acts beyond the existing organizational limits, is imaginative, and is willing to take risks to get rewarding results—telling him I knew ‘back then’ he was one of these folks, and asked, “Do you see yourself this way?” The short answer was “yes.” And I loved this as a perfect example of why:

“About 3 years ago our CEO came to me. We were having challenges in our distribution networks. Initiatives were stalling out. We created a team that I led called the GSD team.” GSD?  “Get S**T Done.”

My next question: “So, when you need to get a lot of things done, how do you translate the challenges that others may not see or fully understand?”

“One of the largest areas of failure in every situation is the lack of clarity around WHAT and WHY,” he answered. “What are we trying to do and why is this important? I wouldn’t say I’m a great strategist but what I am good at is asking the right questions, and getting the right people—key participants and key sponsors—to be really clear about what we are about to do.” Steve had several examples of getting teams to better decisions through questions. One example I’m guessing many of us have painfully lived through was a technology decision that was heading in a potentially disastrous direction without clarity around the higher purpose. By backing folks up, clarifying the goal and raising it to a higher level, the better direction was set and accomplished.

“I see myself more as a dot connector,” Steve said. “There is bureaucratic stuff in all organizations that gets in the way. Many people don’t know how to effectively navigate it. They don’t know how to get out of the hierarchy. My approach is: Forget where you work and just start connecting dots. Think about and find answers that benefit the whole organization.”

Steve pointed out that if you’re going to be effective, you have to be a relationship builder and an educator. You are most often not the one pushing things through—you enroll others and they do that.

Another key, he mentioned, is setting and maintaining a sense of urgency. To do that, you have to get into the details—make sure folks are accountable and working the agreed upon plan. Whether you call him the “chief urgency officer” or the “chief helper officer,” his point is that you get a lot more things done by helping others.

I asked about the characteristics of people he surrounds himself with. “This is something I’ve come a long way in,” he answered. “I used to hire people that thought like me, were like me. I’ve learned you need a lot of diversity, people with contrarian points of view to challenge you and each other. The other big thing I look for is learning agility. You can find functionally great people, but they also have to balance that expertise with learning agility. And they have to show a drive for results. Folks on our teams wear two jerseys:

  • The TEAM jersey. We are going to lay a big question on the table. Come to the table to improve the thinking of the whole team.
  • The FUNCTIONAL jersey. Bring your expertise – that is table stakes.”

I asked Steve what kinds of people he admires as bold leaders. He answered, “They are the ones demonstrating managerial courage, the ones in the room asking the profound question that others were afraid to ask. By their questions and actions, they change the dynamics of the conversation. And, frankly, it can be a risk. It may sound like they don’t know what they are doing. Or, by asking the uncomfortable question, they are testing something that others in the room are supporting. I have found this pretty remarkable. Someone willing to stand alone when the group is going the wrong way. They offer a perspective or question that redirects the discussion and decisions.”

It was so fun for me listening to someone, who I knew long ago had a lot of talent, and hearing the truly bold leader that has emerged… and along the way someone that GSD!

When you are challenged to bring clarity and urgency to an initiative and drive for results, what questions do you ask? How do you connect the dots in ways that enroll others?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.