Mel Parker is internationally recognized and known for his business leadership as well as his ability to turn around, transform, and upgrade businesses while generating optimum value for shareholders, customers, and employees.
A distinguished Army combat veteran, Parker transitioned from the military and spent 25 years in corporate America with senior leadership roles at some of the best organizations on the planet: PepsiCo, Corporate Express (Staples), Newell Rubbermaid, Dell Computers, and Brinks.
He is currently president and CEO of Take The Limits Off L.L.C., a leadership development, executive coaching, and business consulting firm based out of Austin, Texas. As an international speaker and best-selling author of The Parker Principles: 10 Leadership Force Multipliers, Parker has shared his leadership and success strategies with audiences from around the world.
In an interview, Parker discusses how trust has impacted his personal life and leadership success.
Black Enterprise: You’ve described your leadership journey as a series of extraordinary experiences that began on the family farm and were fueled by the wisdom of your amazing grandmother. Can you explain the impact of your grandmother’s wisdom on your current leadership success?
Mel Parker: [I] was born to a young single mother in the mid-1960’s, poor, and on my grandmother’s pig and tobacco farm. A black male child born at that time, under those circumstances, had a tendency to fall into three categories – undereducated and criminal, undereducated and poor, or uneducated and dead. Often times all three. My grandmother, through unshakeable faith and sheer force of will, refused to allow me to be swept up into that fate. She was the daughter of a sharecropper and made of a unique combination of faith, humility, strength, and grace.
She showed me that the combination of education and leadership was the key to defeat poverty, pain, fear and create unlimited opportunities. She was one of the few–if not the only one–to believe my dream to go to West Point was an achievable goal and not some irrational fantasy. She taught me to be courageous in the face of my fears. She introduced me to the super powers of humility, authenticity and trust. I have spent most of my life trying to live and lead in a way that would make her proud.
Why is trust such an important principle of effective leadership?
Trust is the delicate interpersonal link between leaders and their team. It inspires reliance on a leader’s actions, words, and intentions.
Throughout my career, I have engaged a simple leadership philosophy I call C-C-T (Capability, Credibility and Trust), and I have yet to encounter a situation where these three concepts did not apply.
We have all been followers in our careers so we recognize the sense of vulnerability that comes with the territory. I have been blessed to work for many great leaders throughout my career — as well as a few terrible ones. I know that sounds strange, but in reality the great leaders validated the characteristics and behaviors of the leader I aspire to be. The terrible leaders demonstrated and substantiated the implications and impact of the leader I refused to be. While I can name a dozen important leadership characteristics that differentiated the great leaders from the terrible ones, only one differentiator mattered most – trust.
Can you share a situation where you’ve directly observed a leader’s inability to establish trust?
Yes. I’ve observed many and most have resulted from a lack of character or composure. One incident, however, stands out. During a team meeting of about 15 people, Leader X (my direct report) received some unexpected, significantly bad news and he literally “lost it.” It was bad.
By the time he regained his composure, and got himself under control, I could see the magnitude of the damage that was done. The room basically went silent; minimal team interaction and conversation; no new ideas; challenging feedback; or competitive tension. The next two hours were some of the most miserable I can remember.
Word got out of “the incident” – rumors spread and perception quickly became reality. Leader X’s ability to lead, recruit talent to his team, inspire trust, innovate, and provide constructive feedback were all compromised. Soon the situation became untenable and required that drastic change be made.
What has been your most exciting leadership accomplishment during your time as a senior executive?
While delivering business turnarounds, new initiatives around customer engagement and activation, [as well as] major technology-driven operational efficiencies [that] have all been part of my success as a senior executive, I never felt that credit really belonged to me.
My secret sauce and most exciting accomplishment has been an ability to recruit, train, and retain superior leaders. The process is straightforward: Surround yourself with the best possible leaders on the planet, listen to what they have to say, and empower them to make decisions. The catalyst and chemistry for this ‘magic’ is trust – mutual trust. For me, great leadership = IQ*CQ*EQ (Intellectual Horsepower(IQ), Intellectual Curiosity(CQ) and Emotional Intelligence(EQ).
What is your best advice for emerging leaders and seasoned leaders who want to maximize leadership effectiveness from the outset?
My best advice I have for emerging and seasoned leaders is the exact same – focus on your front wheel.
Leaders at every level should focus relentlessly on augmenting, elevating, enhancing, and strengthening their front wheel skills. We talked earlier about my equation for great leadership (GL = IQ * CQ * EQ). The equation works like this: The purpose of the back wheel of a bicycle is what? Simply to provide power… that is the IQ part of the equation – intellectual horsepower, functional experience and technical expertise – leadership horsepower. The purpose of the front wheel – to provide direction and stability… that is the CQ and EQ part of the equation. These front wheel skills, sometimes referred to as the ‘softer” leadership skills, include intellectual curiosity, emotional intelligence, trust, authenticity, relationship building, active listening, humility and more.