Leaders today also need to broaden the scope of their collaborators. Good ideas can come from anywhere. I include new hires in strategy sessions and invite all our staff to company status meetings. Innovative solutions have emerged from people you’d never expect. If you lead a finance team, bring someone from HR to your next staff meeting. They may have a perspective you haven’t considered because you’re stuck in the weeds.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Neal Frick.

Neal Frick is a CEO with more than twenty years of experience in organizational growth and development. His experience spans organizational growth, operations leadership, strategy development, talent development, and program management. Throughout his career, he has held several executive leadership positions and currently serves as the CEO of a company supporting the United States Intelligence Community.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

Thanks for having me! My first book was just released, and I’ve been in the process of sharing it since it hit the shelves on January 10th. It was written in collaboration with a colleague and focuses on the emergence of empathy as a critical tool in leadership. Writing it was a great experience, but I enjoy sharing the lessons it contains even more. I love making a positive impact on the way that businesses operate — personally, I think we as a community do a lot of it wrong — and I’m excited to be part of the conversation pushing for more openness, empathy, and equanimity in business.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with several people over the years that have dramatically changed my approach to leadership. In my 20s, I worked with a person named Jennifer Walker. She had a fundamental impact on my leadership. It was my first professional management opportunity, and I was still learning the ropes. The company was small with a stellar culture that the owners cultivated. Jenn wasn’t my direct supervisor, but her leadership style still made quite the impression on me. She had an unfailing positive demeanor, even in difficult situations, and supported everyone she came in contact with.

I can vividly recall a tense meeting wherein it was clear that a program manager was drastically unprepared. I remember thinking that if he reported to me, I would have openly eviscerated him during the meeting, making an example of him. Instead, she made it clear that she wasn’t pleased but took the opportunity to deliver a firm message about expectations while acknowledging the challenges he was having with bandwidth. This evolved into a longer one-on-one conversation about prioritization and focus with Jenn’s end goal being to provide the structure the individual needed to be successful. My reaction would have done nothing to set up him up to succeed and likely discouraged him further.

The take-away for me was simple — shaming people, berating people, and making examples of people are not necessary to achieve a positive outcome and rarely result in one. If someone working for you wants to be successful but is failing, most of the time there’s a way to provide support to them to help them achieve success.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

My biggest mistake was allowing an employee who was very successful to continue working for me despite toxic behavior towards his team members.

At the beginning, this employee was very successful in their role, and provided me everything I needed from them in a timely and efficient manner. We became friends, spent time outside of work, and cultivated a strong relationship over the years we worked together. As time passed and the nature of our business changed, this individual had trouble adjusting and was not seeing the same successes. That lack of success led to them becoming combative and disruptive to the rest of the team. I wasn’t initially aware of the extent of the toxicity, in large part because my team felt that our friendship would render me blind to the problem. For a while, they were right — I counseled the individual; but, as the behavior continued, I didn’t act because of their past success and my sense of loyalty.

That experience changed a few things about my leadership style. First and foremost, it caused me to reevaluate friendships with subordinates. There are situations wherein friendships are acceptable, even beneficial, but setting boundaries is critical. If you are a deeply-feeling leader, you have to ensure that you can separate your affinity for a person from an unbiased evaluation of their work. You also need a check and balance from an unbiased source.

I also realized the danger of misapplying empathy. I knew I had to act, but worries like “how would they support their family?” kept me up at night. I felt strongly that this person was acting out because they were having a hard time adjusting to the company’s new direction — was that really their fault? I was so concerned about having to do something “bad” to this person that I overlooked the damage my indecision was doing to my team.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

I was a retail manager very early in my career. My management style was simple: I tell you what to do, you do it, everyone goes home happy. That authoritarian approach is now largely antiquated, even when managing less experienced workers. Young people entering the workforce have a stronger sense of self than my generation did, and they expect that their voice will at least be acknowledged. This frustrates a lot of my colleagues but I view it as a good thing. Good ideas can come from anyone, at any stage of their career. Silencing the voices of employees because of their lack of experience not only stimies progress but it also slows the employee’s professional development. If a team member suggests something that you know doesn’t work, use it as an opportunity to educate them.

Good leadership today is about inspiration and collaboration. It’s about prioritizing the growth and development of the people we work with. Tina Fey has a great quote in her autobiography, “In most cases, being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.” I would take that a step further — being a good boss means hiring talented people and then doing everything you can to ensure they have the tools and support they need to be successful. Modern leadership is leading from the bottom up and creating a framework for the success of talented people.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

Annual performance reviews. I have yet to see an organization that truly benefits from an annual performance review. That’s not to say performance reviews as a whole are not valuable — quite the opposite — but the standard approach of meeting once a year to talk about an employee’s performance has never worked. It’s impossible to encapsulate someone’s performance over the course of 1800+ hours. It allows for too much recency bias — meaning that the most recent performance is what gets evaluated — and it doesn’t provide a support structure for employees throughout the year.

Performance analysis needs to happen on a near constant basis. Feedback should be given in real-time, counseling should happen when issues arise, and opportunities for improvement should be worked on throughout the year. If you’re not meeting with your direct reports on a regular basis to talk about their performance and encourage their growth, you’re missing a critical opportunity to improve not only the quality of their work but the culture of your organization.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

Empathy. I swear, this isn’t another plug for my book, but it is why I wrote about it. Empathy doesn’t mean overlooking bad behavior (as I learned from the situation with the toxic employee that I told you about), and it doesn’t mean going easy on people. It’s about context. Empathy helps contextualize behavior and situations in human terms. Until AI officially replaces all of us, businesses are run by people. People are flawed, they have needs, they have differing motivations, they have lives. Empathy helps you understand what makes someone tick so that you can help them get what they need, and they can give you what you need.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

Read and listen. There are voices out there telling success stories and leading by example. There’s a plethora of modern leaders walking the walk and they’re sharing what they’ve learned. Tuck your ego away, practice humility, and expose yourself to people who do things differently than you do. Take what resonates, apply it, and throw the rest away. None of us are perfect and no one has all the answers.

If you’re having a hard time succeeding and you suspect it’s because your patterns need to change, think back early in your career when you were just learning those patterns. I bet you learned from successful people and emulated them. What worked then may not work anymore, so look at leaders who are succeeding now and integrate that wisdom with your own experience. Expand your worldview and you will see results.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

Honestly, the same advice I’d offer to experienced leaders who are struggling — read, listen, and practice humility. Get out there and find examples of people who lead the way you want to be led. Soak up as much of that knowledge and wisdom as you can. Everyone can learn how to be better. Be grateful for the opportunity to learn.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?

The first thing that comes to mind is integrity. Frankly, no other leadership trait really matters if a leader doesn’t have integrity. I worked as a recruiter for a small organization and was tasked with finding a program manager for a recently awarded contract. The customer was difficult to deal with and had very stringent expectations. I struggled to find someone that met their over-the-top expectations, and ultimately had the task taken away from me by an executive who subsequently took over the search. He quickly filled the position but failed to disclose several of the customer’s requirements and challenges. The new hire left after less than a month and disclosed our executive’s misleading behavior to our customer. We did not have the contract long. Lack of integrity isn’t a shortcut, it never works out in the long-run. Consider leaders that have been in the news for fraud in the last decade — even though they got away with it for a while, it eventually caught up to them. It always catches up.

I find that the most successful leaders have a drive to continuously improve themselves and their organizations. Continuous improvement in the workplace drives productivity, grows employee’s skills, creates efficiencies, and boosts morale. Formalize this by establishing a committee or having a leader focused on analyzing departments or processes and looking for areas of improvement on an ongoing basis.

Leaders today also need to broaden the scope of their collaborators. Good ideas can come from anywhere. I include new hires in strategy sessions and invite all our staff to company status meetings. Innovative solutions have emerged from people you’d never expect. If you lead a finance team, bring someone from HR to your next staff meeting. They may have a perspective you haven’t considered because you’re stuck in the weeds.

One of the biggest challenges new and experienced leaders struggle with is delegation. The obvious benefit to delegation is increased bandwidth, freeing up more time for you to focus on strategic initiatives. There are less-discussed benefits as well; team members become more empowered when they’re delegated to and it helps to build trust. When paired with appropriate training, it also increases the knowledge and skills of your team, which prepares them for the next step in their career.

Finally, I’ll once again tout the benefits of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to an individual’s emotional state, motivations and needs. Understanding the people you work with, your customers, the people in your industry — all of this leads to better, more precise decision making. Empathy has a direct impact on productivity; in a Forbes Magazine study from 2020, 74% of participants indicated they would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer. Sales, marketing, recruiting, management: every aspect of a business is about the people. Empathetic leadership makes those relationships much more impactful.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

Frankly, for most of my life I didn’t embody that quote. I lived my life in a very reactionary way due to a lot of unresolved trauma. We don’t talk about it much as businesspeople — the topic of mental health is still very taboo — but the reality is when you’re struggling with your mental health it’s hard to live intentionally. You can be very effective at your job, but each day is an island and you’re just trying to survive for one more night.

The thing about masterpieces is that they take an incredible amount of work and intentionality. When I say intentionality, I’m talking about making conscious choices to do things that better your life, help you achieve balance, or get you closer to your goals. It’s purpose-driven.

I am closer to embodying that quote these days. The hard work is there, and I’m working on the intentionality. The biggest shift for me came when I experienced a significant health issue. There’s nothing like poor health to wake you up from being on autopilot. I started to reframe “work”. Yes, I have to earn a paycheck to continue to live; but, what if I looked at it as an opportunity to make a positive daily impact? What if I took time every day, intentionally, to do something to improve a situation — mine or someone else’s? What would “work” look like if it paid me and made a positive impact?

I try to live every day like that: making waves, no matter how small. I don’t always get it right, and some days autopilot is all I can manage, but intentional living and hard work is getting me closer to my masterpiece.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

My only real goal in life has always been to leave people in a better place than when they met me. I’ve mentored and managed a lot of people who have gone on to bigger and better things, some of whom have significantly eclipsed my own successes. It brings me an incredible amount of joy to know that I had a (very small) part in it. At the end of my career, I’d like to look back and see that I opened doors for people and gave them tools to cultivate their already existing talent and capabilities.

Now that I’ve finished my first book, I’d also like to use my writing as a way to help people that I can’t work with directly. In any capacity I can, I want to be a force that pushes for reformed workplaces that put employees first.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

I am admittedly not great at social media, though I am on Twitter @theanxiousceo and on Medium @neal.frick, where I write about leadership and mental health. I would love to hear from people. If you do reach out, mention this interview. I have a handful of free electronic copies of my book, and I would love to share them with your readers.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!