How to be the CEO with fully engaged teams
Michael Garrity, CEO and founder of Financeit, one of Canada’s 50 fastest-growing companies according to Deloitte, credits his parents for his leadership approach. Both were teachers who had a love of learning and encouraged their children to never consider their learning complete. It developed in him a curiosity to constantly find the next chellenge: “I’m a leader with a goal, but we’re never done. My job is to continue to refresh my vision, mission and covenant with our people.”
Garrity always felt drawn to leadership roles, realizing at an early age that he liked taking on additional responsibilities and organizing people around a common purpose. To successfully do this, he has learned it is about “inspiring and empowering people to take the mission and vision you created and take it over the line.”
Although he acknowledges the importance of crafting a vision and mission for your company, he cautions that excluding others from contributing to or changing it can create engagement challenges. “You’re never going to get to where you want to go without the support of your employees. This means being open to them commenting on and even shaping your vision. Although it may be in a different direction than you originally thought, their input will make your vision 10 times better and will make their engagement that much higher because they had a role in crafting the direction.”
This heightened desire to learn from those around him extends far beyond crafting a shared vision and mission. “What I’ve learned about myself is that I have to get that feedback from people. I need them to be an extra set of eyes for me on every aspect of the business.”
Not surprisingly, obtaining honest feedback is at the core of both his company’s culture as well as his own leadership philosophy. However, he recognizes that this is easier said than done, as his employees may fear delivering direct upward feedback may get them into trouble. “You have to create a space where your direct reports can be honest with you.”
Garrity acknowledges that creating this safe environment saved him from continuing to invest time and energy in an initial concept for the business in 2008 that ultimately proved unworkable. “That was the darkest time for me as a CEO. It was the realization that my ability to inspire people through really hard, difficult times was ineffectual. It’s easy to be a leader when you’re winning. However, those moments where you have to grind it out is the ultimate test of leadership.”
He recognizes that one of the lessons learned was to rely on the people around him to advise him on when to let go. “I can have unrealistic expectations sometimes about what we can achieve. When I see a wall, I want to push through it. I realized that during those difficult periods, I thought I could try to will us forward. This created frustration for the people around me because the road ahead was not possible in their eyes.”
Garrity learned several other key lessons through that dark period. “An important question I learned to ask myself was ‘How can I make sure we have the right people on the bus for the task at hand?’ ” When they hit that wall, Garrity says, it was difficult asking people to take 50 per cent pay cuts and telling them there’d be an uncertain future. Some decided to leave, and so after a significant reorganization, Garrity and the remaining team rebuilt the business, which was the beginnings of Financeit. It now numbers over 130 employees and has processed more than $2.5 billion CDN in loans since 2011.
If a reset of goals is necessary, Garrity says, continue the focus on honest dialogue, because it creates an atmosphere of joint accountability. “If you don’t have truly honest discussions about what’s really going on and the problems that we have to solve, then you’re not going to be successful. I have also found that the more empathetic you are, the more people engage with you in the new path forward.”
His experience has also taught him that alignment is crucial in order to maximize individual and organizational potential. To ensure this happens, Garrity relies on weekly one-on-ones with every direct report. “There can’t be wide dissonance between what’s written down and what you’re doing every day. Otherwise, that’s a serious breakdown.”
Garrity is excited about where he and his employees are taking Financeit, which acquired Centah late last year and was nominated for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2017: “We’re never going to be done and that’s exciting. We just keep resetting what that next challenge is, ensure that we’re all on the same page, and (going after) it. That brings the ultimate inspiration and fulfilment.”
• Craig Dowden (PhD) is president and founder of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Dowden delivers evidence-based executive coaching and leadership development training to his clients. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @craigdowden.
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