Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Aron Ain, CEO of Kronos

I spoke to Kronos CEO Aron Ain about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Aron: I’m a pretty average, down-to-earth kind of guy. I don’t jump out of airplanes, and I clearly don’t run marathons. I like to joke around, and I love spending time with people, chatting with them and learning about their lives. It sounds silly, but that’s probably what surprises people the most: I’m accessible and genuinely interested in their lives, even though I run a billion-dollar company. I chat with everyone: employees, customers, job candidates waiting in our lobby, vendors who happen to be visiting our office. People whom I don’t know will email me, and they can’t believe it when I email them back right away. I chat up younger Kronites in the elevator, and they can’t believe that they’re talking so informally with the CEO. I ask a lot of questions. Genuine, casual conversations like these can derive so much value for leaders – both in strengthening your culture and gaining deeper insights into your business. In my book, “WorkInspired,” I call this ‘the fine art of kibitzing.’

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Aron: My brother Mark founded Kronos in 1977. I graduated college two years later and figured it would be exciting to work at his scrappy start-up. It was fun—I did everything from tracking down sales leads to janitorial work. As the company expanded, I took on more responsibility, moving around across the company’s functional areas. Having the opportunity to work in so many different parts of the company during my career directly contributes to my deep understanding of business today.
Transitioning to CEO in 2005 was interesting and a challenge. No one teaches you how to be a CEO. I was used to running my ideas by others for final approval. Although I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do as the CEO, my decision-making wasn’t as clean or crisp as it needed to be. It took me that first year to adjust. My lightbulb moment was, ‘I don’t need to ask, I need to decide.’ I knew then that the sooner I started acting like a CEO, the sooner I could be an effective CEO.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?
Aron: An effective leader sees leadership as a privilege, and people as the organization’s greatest strategic weapon.
An effective leader doesn’t control people or crack the whip. They empower and inspire people to grow and become the best they can be.
An effective leader trusts employees and speaks honestly and transparently—in fact, he or she over-communicates, taking time to truly listen. Trust leads to more innovation, more enthusiasm, more energy, and the ability to better bounce back from mistakes.
An effective leader genuinely cares about people and supports them. As I always tell our employees, our company isn’t and shouldn’t be the most important part of their lives. Their families are. It’s not even close.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?
Aron: When I think about who has most inspired my leadership philosophy, it’s my parents, Pearl and Jack Ain. They were truly remarkable people and imparted a strong set of values to my siblings and me, including the importance of family, community service, caring for others, and treating people with respect. Growing up, I saw my parents constantly helping people, including total strangers. Today, their values live on in the welcoming, empowering, giving, and compassionate culture of caring we’ve created at Kronos.
Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Aron: There’s no easy answer—you have to work at it. It takes incredible courage to be a leader. Everything you do – and don’t do – matters. Are you trusting your team-members as much as you could? Are you communicating as honestly as you might? Are you quickly addressing mistakes or bad behavior, or are you letting issues fester, hoping they will work themselves out? (Hint: they won’t)

Don’t underestimate strategy. Great leaders believe the saying, “Hope is not a strategy.” When you set a clear direction to move the organization forward and are decisive in your decision making, employees respond with their confidence. Employees will really respond when they see how their role personally drives that strategy.
And lead by example. Look for small opportunities in your daily routine to improve your skills. You can help others develop leadership skills by practicing what you preach every day. All of these factors are vital, and bringing them to life so others can act on them in their own organizations was one of the reasons I was inspired to write “WorkInspired.”
Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?
Aron: Put your ego aside. Make it about the team, not you. Trust your people, and don’t micromanage. Don’t get hung up on your own authority and title. Don’t feel you always have to be right. And for goodness sake, have fun! Why does work always have to be so serious?

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?
Aron: I devote a lot of time to philanthropic and social causes. Volunteering gives me a great deal of joy and adds meaning to my life. I’ve tried to give employees this same sense of meaning by providing opportunities at our company to give back, and by creating a culture of caring. Work should be a place to make a difference in the lives of others, including customers, colleagues, and members of the broader community.
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Aron: One piece of advice: You don’t own your employees’ careers. They do. You must inspire them to find their passion and showcase what they do best. You can’t hold grudges when people leave. The sooner you accept this, the more engagement and loyalty you’ll receive in return. Great employees who do leave may return one day as boomerang employees with a new perspective and deeper skills (we have more than 200 proud boomerang employees at Kronos!). 
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