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How these 3 executives learned to lead by example

From iLead speakers, expert insights on leading organizations.

By Tom Relihan  |  July 9, 2018

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From left, Blue Nile COO Ruth Sommers, former Microsoft chairman John Thompson, and Okta co-founder Frederic Kerrest speak at iLead last during the Spring 2018 semester.

Why It Matters

You can’t lead from the corner office. You have to get out in the field and set the bar for achievement.

They came from across the spectrum of global business — from retail to technology to identity management — but all had one thing in common: None of them were afraid to lead by example.

Each of the speakers featured in last semester’s Innovative Leadership, or iLead, speaking series has been a driving force behind the companies they’ve helped lead. Here’s what they said on campus.

When you’re new, join the culture and listen up 
To lead an organization, you have to become part of the culture, not stand aside from or above it.

Microsoft Chairman John Thompson took that lesson to heart during a sales job early in his career, when he found himself modifying his attire to fit into the role.

In fact, he said the first 90 to 100 days on a new job should be spent listening.

“The human body was created with two ears and one mouth,” he said. “Use them proportionately. Leadership is about listening and reacting.”

Set the tone through action 
Okta co-founder and COO Frederic Kerrest said a successful leader sets the example for the rest of the company by being willing to “do it all.” The Monday after the company went public, he was making sales calls.

“It’s not about what you say — it’s how you act. Lead from the front,” Kerrest said. 

Be resilient
Everyone will experience points in life or their careers where they face adversity — sometimes it will be quite extreme. That’s why Blue Nile COO Ruth Sommers, SF ’01, said it’s crucial to develop resilience and to take care of yourself first.

It’s a lesson she learned when her husband suddenly died, leaving her as a widow, a single mother of two, and the chief sourcing and promotion officer of clothing giant American Eagle.

“The single biggest thing is to focus on yourself and prioritize things that matter to you. When you identify what self-care means for you … you can realize that you’re in a moment in time, that this shall pass.”

Own your errors
Thompson, the Microsoft chairman, knows everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Owning those errors is just as important as fixing them when they occur, he said.

“As a leader, it’s important to be open and admit when you’re wrong and made a mistake. People on your team, or customers, are far more respectful of that,” he said.

Learn more about Ruth Sommers’ career

How John Thompson built his career

Frederic Kerrest: “Be like the fox”