The Person You Want to Be – Part 1: Ray Conner – Boeing Vice Chairman

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Having over 20 years of leadership experience, I love to tell stories of my success and the successes of those who have impacted me. But when I reflect on those stories, there is always conflict. And it’s the conflict that makes a good story great.

Today’s Simple Advice is Part 1 of 2. The theme of these two stories is to focus on being the person/leader you want to be, and that will lead you to the work you want to do. The conflict faced by the leaders in these two stories tested them to the core, and presented challenges that would break anyone without the fierce focus on exactly what kind of leader each one wanted to be. Enjoy.

Ray Conner – Vice Chairman of Boeing

A light bulb went off while I was listening to an interview with Boeing Vice Chairman Ray Conner recently. He told the story of his journey from the shop floor to the top office and what factors he believes contributed to his success.

He credits having a sharp focus on the kind of person he wanted to be, and letting that lead to whatever kind of work he ended up doing. The kind of person he knew he wanted to be from day one was a servant leader. He focused everything on being that kind of person and it led to upward moves, one after another, throughout the organization.

He literally went from working on airplanes as a mechanic for Boeing to holding one of the top offices in the entire organization (a $100 billion company).

In hearing Conner tell his story, the real light bulb for me was from a specific point in his journey, overcoming a massive point of conflict. He had to lead his company through some very tough negotiations with suppliers and unions, and either outcome was going to hurt the company and its people. The company had to restructure its pension plan and agreements with the workers’ unions, or move jobs oversees.

Conflict reveals a leader’s true character. Conner says this about his focus through that conflict:

“I wanted the keep the jobs here, in Seattle. That was the most important thing. That was the best outcome for everyone. I knew it was going to be tough. I even got emails from people saying they hoped I died of cancer. I answered every email personally, with the answer I believed was the best solution for everyone.”

A leader who doesn’t value serving others isn’t going to sit there until all hours of the night and on weekends and answer emails from people wishing him death.

But he never changed his approach, and stayed true to the person he wanted to be from the very start. And he credits his entire success to that fact, all the way through his story.

Conner’s story appeals to me because my journey mirrors his in so many ways. I started my financial career on the teller line at a bank while I was in college and ultimately worked my way up to senior management before going into consulting. In my current roles, I am near or at the top of the organizations and my focus continues to be “what can I do to help others succeed?”.

But even before this story played out professionally, I found early on that I tended to elevate to leadership roles in most groups or organizations I joined.

In high school, I was voted into a group called Teens Need Teens. The school administration polled the entire school basically asking “who you go to if you need to lean on someone?”, and “who has helped you most while you’ve been at Parkview?”. I was one of the eight students appointed to that group, one of two sophomores and the other six were seniors.

In sports, I excelled and was typically one of the team captains, but it wasn’t because I was a good player, it was because I was focused on helping the younger team members develop and feel like they were a part of the team.

But professionally, my story took it’s biggest positive turn shortly after the single largest conflict I had ever faced. Those who know my story know I lost a job in right in the middle of the financial crisis and economic downturn almost a decade ago. But just like Ray Conner, I focused intently on serving others during that time, placing that before “I need to get a job”.

As a result of that focus, my consulting business was born, along with a mentoring ministry that ultimately led to bringing The Mentoring Project to Memphis and launching Virtue Quest Mentoring through a joint effort with Heartsong Church and the Memphis Grizzlies. Had I focused on anything else other than serving others during that time, none of this would have happened. I can’t even stand to think “what if”.

I hope the story of Ray Conner (listen to the interview here) mixed in with some of my story can help you as you begin or further your leadership journey. Through the good times and the conflicts, have a laser sharp focus on the kind of person you want to be, and let that lead you as you influence those in your care. Stay tuned for part 2, the story of Alan Mulally and his masterful leadership at Ford.



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