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Tips From The Top: One On One With Clarke Murphy, CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates

I spoke to Clarke Murphy, CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates, about his best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Clarke: I was born in to a sailing family. My father was a big sailor, so I was exposed to it from a young age.  I sailed professionally for two years after graduating college. Since then, I have completed six transatlantic ocean races, including three in the last 10 years.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Clarke: I have spent almost my entire career at Russell Reynolds Associates, working in multiple countries, and holding ten different roles over the years. Given all that change, it has not felt like one company or one job, but a multitude.

That does not mean it has always been easy.  I was not named chief executive in 2006, the first time I was considered for the role, and working through that is probably the biggest challenge I faced in my career, but also resulted in one of the greatest opportunities.  I went on to lead our Board and CEO Practice for the next six years, and spent every day observing and learning from great leaders in other organizations. When I was eventually named CEO, I put all those lessons to use, and I think I am a much better leader as a result.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Clarke: I would highlight three things:

First, the best leaders spend a tremendous amount of time with leaders outside of their own industry to understand how those leaders think, and how they run their organizations, and identify transferable lessons or behaviors.  Looking elsewhere helps spark creativity. If you are just looking at your competition, you run the risk of playing it safe, focusing on the tried-and-true, and never making a truly bold move.

Second, effective leaders also need a willingness to embrace change.  Part of that is anticipating the future, be it examining potential new market opportunities, changes in the workplace, or emerging competitors.  Leaders who are willing to learn and relearn as business changes will always be in a better position than those leaders who are stuck in one way of thinking.

Third, the best leaders understand that diversity of thought is not just a slogan, but a real opportunity.  You often learn the most from those people who are complete opposites of you in thought, perspective, and beliefs.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Clarke: Early career leaders who aspire to more senior roles need to build a network of senior colleagues who they can turn to for mentoring and advice, who can talk to them honestly about their strengths and weaknesses, and who can provide an external perspective on their growth and development.  People often get stuck on their self-imagined identity, and do not get enough clear feedback on their real performance and reputation in the workplace.

For the same reason, senior leaders who are looking to move into the corner office should have current or former CEOs and board members that they are going to for advice outside their own company or own industry.  They need the same feedback as more junior colleagues, but they also need an antidote to the problem that befalls many successful leaders: Getting stuck reusing the same strategies, tactics, and thinking that helped them be successful earlier in their career.  Leaders need to be agile and constantly growing, and an external perspective is an important enabler in that.

Adam: What are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to identifying great leaders?

Clarke: Great resumes do not predict success.  Underlying behavior does.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Clarke: It is easy for leaders to fall into a habit of hiring people who look like them or think like them.  You want to hire these people because you are comfortable around them. But for a team to truly succeed, it has to be comprised of individuals with the right skills and mindset to address the challenges and opportunities in front of them.  Often, those people do not look like or think like you at all.

Adam: What should employers look for when hiring senior executives? What about at junior levels?

Clarke: We spoke about focusing on underlying behaviors not impressive resumes.  That is critical. You should look for leaders who have a willingness to take on nearly impossible projects or tasks, who really relish the opportunity.  Focus on that rather than whether they simply have a warm, engaging personality, or who found themselves in the right place at the right time earlier in their careers.

And remember, leaders who take on the big challenging projects in the workplace will not always succeed.  Do not be put off if a candidate has a failure or two in their history, so long as they learned from that and can show that they did things differently the next time around.  That is how strong leaders build successful careers.

Adam: What should companies look for when bringing on board members?

Clarke: Fancy resumes might look great in the proxy statement, but at the end of the day how a director performs in the boardroom is what really matters.  Can they leverage their experience to convey lessons learned and provide sage advice? Will they help the company think about the future, and not simply talk about the past?  Can they effectively collaborate with a small group of other experienced executives? Those are the things that matter most.

Adam: What can those interested in serving on corporate boards do to make themselves attractive to companies?

Clarke: First of all, it is important to realize that this is a multi-year journey.   It will not happen overnight.

It is important to let people know you are interested in serving on a board.  Speak with current directors, both to express interest, and also to hear from them what the reality of board service is like.

If you know any private equity partners, reach out to them.  They are often looking for executives who can play a governance role in the private companies in their portfolio, especially if those companies may go public in the future.

Regardless of who you are speaking with, make sure you can clearly articulate the value you would bring to the board, what your area of expertise is, and how you would be able to translate that expertise to impactful guidance to other experiences leaders.

Adam: What is the best advice you have ever received?

Clarke: If you are very upset about something, sleep on it before making any rash decisions. A full night’s sleep generally leads to a more balanced and thoughtful perspective the next day.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Clarke: Leaders should be speaking with those more junior than them and sharing lessons from the two or three biggest mistakes they made in their career.  People spend too much time talking about their successes. It is the failures and stumbling blocks and learning moments that really result in the impactful lessons that we should be passing on to the next generation.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Clarke: It looks like we are heading into an economic downturn.  What does that mean for leaders? While downturns disrupt markets, they also create opportunities.  To be successful, executives need to be able to switch focus as their environment changes.

An investment-focused growth executive in the boom years has to become a cost-cutting, offshoring executive during a downturn.  A strategic visionary in an easy market needs to become scrappy and disruptive when things get tougher. Agility and transformation are becoming more and more important.  Leaders who think they do not have to change their ways to maintain their success are mistaken.

Regardless of the specific decisions you are making, you need to be able to communicate your thinking and your plans to your board, your workforce, your investors, and other stakeholders.  Excellent communication skills are critical. If you cannot communicate clearly, especially when things get tough, nothing else really matters.

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