Working with Tom

My favorite lesson in leadership from working with the former head of the Metro Denver EDC and all around amazing leader, Tom Clark. 

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This is a long overdue article for me. Back when I had my digital agency, I had the privilege of working with the MetroDenver EDC. At the helm of the organization was Tom Clark. As a young man in my late 20s and early 30s I was hungry to find leaders I could emulate. Leaders that inspired others owned their shortcomings and produced outstanding results in their areas of influence. Tom was one of those leaders. Rarely have I ever crossed a business leader that was this loved, authentic and inspirational. During one of our many discussions Tom shared with me his "Working With Tom" memo that he shared with all new hires at the MDEDC. Even nearly 20 years later, this document is still a powerful example of excellent communication as a leader.


What I value and respect:

Honesty. I don’t mind if your screw up. I mind when you don’t own up

Yelling.  I respond very well to yelling. If you feel you have to yell at me, I know there’s something I’m doing that needs to be changed.  If I yell at you, I also know there’s something about me that needs to change.

The greatest good for the greatest number.  If a staff person consumes a majority of the rest of the staff’s focus because of interpersonal problems with the staff, I will take corrective action.  That person will be helped to find a job where they can be happier.  Sometimes good people are simply in the wrong job.  Their unhappiness should not be the burden of the rest of the staff.

Including me in the planning of a project.  I like to participate with you when a project is being planned.  After that, I leave most of the decisions with you.  If I get in on the front end, I can’t come back and second guess you on the back end.

Vesting responsibility with authority.  There are few things worse as an employee than to be held responsible for something over which you have no authority to make decisions. If I put you in that box, call me on it.  It is not intentional.

People who make decisions. When it comes to “decisions” the only time you will get in trouble with me is the failure to make them. If they’re wrong, I will defend you publicly. Then you and I will meet privately to talk about how we will do it differently in the future.

People who think ahead and think for me. If you anticipate the consequences of an action or what needs to be done and then do it, you will get my undying devotion.

Team. “Organizations don’t work, people work.” I don’t suffer organizational structure very well.  We will rise or fall together. Each of us has unique talents and skills that don’t fit in a structure.  They are unique to each of us.  We can bring them to the table to solve problems, regardless of where we are in the hierarchy or what our job description says.

Queen Bee.  We operate on the Queen Bee philosophy.  Regardless of your rank in the organizational chart, if you are the person in charge of a project you are the Queen Bee.  That means that you give the orders and the rest of us follow.  That includes me.  Sometimes I’m the Queen Bee and other times I’m the Worker Bee.  Don’t be intimidated if you ask me to run the copier.  In some instances it may be the only part of the project that I’m really qualified to do.

Everyone’s opinion. Our staff meetings will be long and seem somewhat aimless at times.  This is deliberate on my part.  We need everyone to know what everyone else is doing. You are expected to contribute in the discussions. In that way we can cover for each other, be smarter and more knowledgeable when we are asked to make decisions and, ultimately, serve our customers better.

A willingness to grow and learn together.  I believe in creating a team of experts. I want each of you to be an expert in one or two aspects of economic development.  I want you to train the rest of us in those areas.  I also want you to be cross-trained in areas where other staff members are experts.  None of us come to our job with all the skills required to be an expert.  It must be learned, acquired and practiced.  This will enhance the quality of our programs, improve your resume and give each of us a closer tie to one another.

Being the “best.”  I like being #1.  I like the feeling of being the best.  I like it when other people try to copy the things we create as a team.  I’m motivated to always be the best, the trendsetter, the organization that sees the future before anyone else does and then gets there before they do.  I want us to be the best metropolitan economic development program in the U.S. within the next two years.

Vision: Voltaire said, “Without vision, the people perish.”  We will develop together a vision of what the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation will be.  When that is accomplished each of us will be better able to make decisions within that vision.  Remember, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Laughter. There will be no bigger fool on the staff than me.  You will accumulate a bucket of stories about my mistakes and stupidity.  I don’t mind.  I learn the most by screwing up.  But I want a working environment where we can laugh and laugh a lot.  We’re spending lots of time with each other, we might just as well enjoy it.

The “planning,” not the “plan.” The Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation plan will constantly change.  In fact, it might be outdated from time to time.  What is important is that we become a “planning organization,” a group that is constantly looking over the horizon and anticipating what changes we need to make to adapt to the changes around us, while including and sometimes convincing our boards and customers of the wisdom of our choices.

Getting to know you personally.  It’s important to me to know who you are, what you know, what you aspire to become.  If I know where you want your life to go, we can fashion opportunities within the organization to get you there.

Tolerance.  A good staff is one that bring different personalities together that both “fit” together but also create friction.  Friction sparks creativity.  It also creates conflict.  Some people are “process” people.  They want to spend the time to define a path and then pursue it with perfection.  Others are “vision” people. (I am.)  They don’t place much emphasis on how we get there, they just blast away.  Both types will often conflict with each other.  It’s OK.  What is not OK is a lack of tolerance and compromise in their dealings with one another.  Both are essential to our mutual success.

People who foster good relationships with the rest of the Chamber staff.  We will be in a unique position within the Chamber staff structure.  We’ll have millions of dollars at our disposal and will be buying lots of new toys.  This will create jealousy and some envy from the rest of the staff.   We must be vigilant in fostering an understanding by the rest of the staff as to the “whys” of this apparent special treatment.  We must also go out of our way to support others, to lend a hand whenever asked and to make certain we are not viewed as a “separate” group from the rest of the Chamber.

A “live” voice.  We will answer the phone with real people and real voices. In a sales and marketing organization it is inexcusable for prospects to get lost in “voice mail jail.”  We will structure the organization and phone system to make that happen.

People who HATE gossip.  Organizations like the Chamber are gossip central.  Lots of information moves through our organization that can be viewed as gossip.  It is important that we have that information and that it flows freely through us.  We can do a better job with it than without it.  What is NOT important is gossip about staff members.  If you engage in it I will fire you. Gossip about fellow employees is a toxic compound that undermines everything we do.  It is the only behavior (that is not illegal) that will get you fired by me.  You only get one chance on this.  You can do it once.  After that, you’re gone. And I don’t have to catch you doing it. Complaints from other staff will suffice.

Using me as a resource.  Yes, I know I’m the boss, but I want you to view me a little differently than some other bosses you’ve worked for.  I will have my own job to do, just like you.  I don’t have the time or the disposition to watch you do your work or tell you what to do.  I do have, however, lots of experience in this business.  I’ve failed often and repeatedly.  I also know a few things that actually work.  I am a resource to you.  Use me.  I like to bounce ideas around.  If you have an idea of how we could do things differently, or create a new program, or if you’re having questions about how to deal with the politics of a situation, please feel free to use me.  And when you do, bring your ideas of how to solve the problem or do the project.  Think it through, even if it’s just a little. Giving me options of what you’re thinking about will demonstrate that you’ve wrestled with it first and will help me understand your thinking.

Failure. I’ve learned my greatest lessons not through success, but through failing.  We will have a tolerance for failure on the hard stuff. If we do not try the hard stuff, we can only be imitators of what’s already been done.  We want to be the ones who are imitated.  That means risk.  That means failure sometimes.  Failure, however, will not be tolerated on the easy stuff.  Remember, we are “performing” everyday in this job.  Sloppy research, late notification of meeting, stalled committees, inattention to customers is a sign of an organization not intent on being the best.  And that, to me, is real failure.

Emperor Justin.  This emperor lived in Constantinople following the split of the Roman Catholic Church into Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. When asked how he led his people to salvation the Emperor said, “I know where salvation is.  But each of us must find our own path.  My job is not to lead them along my path, but to follow behind so that they do not lose site of their own.”  Justin was the ultimate “servant leader.”  He led by keeping people headed towards salvation, not dictating the path.  In an organization as complex and fluid as the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, we are “herders” not “leaders.”  We will become leaders through the delivery of highly valued, sophisticated and responsive products and services to all our customers.  We will become leaders through acclamation, not proclamation.