Bruce Gordon’s Leadership Lessons | ExCo Insights
December 19, 2023
In this series, we explore some of the most important lessons and insights from our executive coaches and mentors. The ExCo Group executive coach and mentor Bruce Gordon, former Worldwide Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the Disney Interactive Media Group, shares his lessons, including his “listen more and hear more” approach, the importance of “anti-vague” communication, and more leadership insights.
KEY LEADERSHIP LESSONS
Number one, for me, is based on a style and rubric at Disney that consisted of four words: ideate, debate, decide, and align. You have to create an environment where you welcome new ideas. That’s ideating. Then you debate. Is it a good idea? And maybe it is a good idea, but not for now. Debate means having a respectful dialogue while understanding that there’s going to be agreement and disagreement. Then, once you’re done debating, you decide. That may be a group decision, or it may be the most senior person at the table who is making the decision. Once you make a decision, everybody needs to align with it. There can’t be any public acceptance and private denial.
Part of alignment is making clear who’s got the ball and what the timing is for that next step. Having that full discussion with your team enables everybody to be involved, helps you arrive at the best decision, and builds accountability. Now, you don’t need to use all those four steps for every decision. Part of your responsibility as a leader is to have the judgment to understand the 10 percent of the decisions you face where you need to bring the team together to discuss it.
The second lesson is one I learned from all my work as a mentor, which is to listen more and hear more. Sometimes, as a leader, when you are running discussions, you just don’t listen enough. And there are times, even when you’re listening, when you may not be hearing what they’re trying to say. What words aren’t they saying? What is their body language telling you that would help you understand what they may not be articulating well? You also have to take a pause and let the silence do the heavy lifting. If you just are quiet for a moment, that allows ideas to bubble up, rather than jumping from one topic to the next.
WHEN I COACH CLIENTS, WE OFTEN TALK ABOUT…
Clients will often ask me for advice about how to finesse a tricky conversation that they need to have with their boss or maybe their peers. That’s when I use the phrase “anti-vague.” I believe that the best way to be understood and get to the optimal solution is to be as direct and apolitical as you can. Try to hit the ball down the middle, which gives you the mandate and ability to say exactly what’s on your mind. That way, what you want to say won’t be left open to interpretation.
A good place to start is to convey the headline of the conversation. That way, the person who’s listening doesn’t have to spend any energy trying to figure out the main point you want to get across, and they can then focus on the details you’re sharing to support your point of view. I’ve found this approach to be effective for me, and my clients have adopted it, as well.
People shouldn’t hesitate to raise an issue or ask questions just because they don’t have the specific expertise of their peers. It’s a matter of having the leadership skills to make judgments about topics that you think need to be explored.
Another theme that often comes up with the senior executives I work with is the importance of thinking beyond their functional discipline. Too often, they’re sticking to their swim lane. And so I remind them that they have two responsibilities as a senior leader. One is to be a functional leader, and another is to be an enterprise leader. As an enterprise leader, you have a mandate to speak on any topic that you believe is important and potentially beneficial to the company. People shouldn’t hesitate to raise an issue or ask questions just because they don’t have the specific expertise of their peers. It’s a matter of having the leadership skills to make judgments about topics that you think need to be explored.
People can get defensive when a peer is asking questions about their area. But to create a free-flowing relationship where they’re open to at least hearing what you have to say requires building a relationship and an alliance with your stakeholders in a way that makes them understand that you have the best intent. At the end of the day, some leaders may think of it as competition, but at least they know where you’re coming from.