Industry Insight

Leadership Lookback: The 4P's of Leadership Refined by Lessons Learned on the River

|Jay Shah

For as long as I can remember, my true passion outside of work has been fly fishing — I’ve been hooked since I was a little kid. Whether it’s the everchanging current or insect lifecycles I’m emulating with artificial flies, fly fishing is an unpredictable, humbling activity that’s never the same on any given day, and that’s exactly how I feel about being a CEO. It’s also the best job on the planet.

The main responsibilities of a CEO — developing a business strategy, driving results, and defining company culture — is a complex balancing act and getting it right is extremely rewarding. For me, I’ve relied on these “four Ps”: purpose, perspective, process, and personality, to help maintain that balance.

Finding Purpose

Identify what inspires you. If it’s making the world a better place, seek out roles at purpose-oriented companies and use this passion as a guide for making important decisions.

I was a college intern in the late ‘80s when I got my first finance job at a credit card bank, cold-calling members with a script that essentially said, “Congratulations! Our bank has approved you for a credit card, can we mail it out to you today?” It was so gratifying to be engaging directly with customers about ways to enhance their financial lives. The second half of the summer, I rotated into a customer service role that was really “code” for collections. In the early days of credit, many credit card holders were unknowingly going deeply into debt, and it was my job to let them know about the damage being caused to their credit profiles if they didn’t pay up. So, for the first half of the summer I felt uplifted while the second half left me feeling pretty lousy about the conflict I was accelerating for these consumers.

That was my first exposure to how a lack of purposeful work could affect me, but the importance of purpose didn’t fully crystallize until more than a decade later. In the early 2000’s while working at the internet lending pioneer E-Loan, we started a movement to give consumers access to their own credit scores, to illuminate the power of credit worthiness. What’s now a national standard started with ground-breaking legislation that enabled people to see their FICO score and understand their loan eligibility for the first time – paving the way to greater financial awareness and empowerment for consumers. After being exposed to work that changed the world for the better, I realized purpose-filled work is what drives me. It’s much like the feeling I get on the water, knowing I’m part of something bigger, with an appreciation for what’s around me.

The importance of purpose resurfaced again in a very meaningful way after I joined as a founding team member at Personal Capital. During my tenure there, which culminated as CEO, I had the incredible opportunity to be part of a team that defined a new category in wealth management. We had a clear purpose, which was to give consumers greater access to professional financial advice through a hybrid offering that combined technology and human-driven insights to drive better financial outcomes. Aligning around this purpose provided a north star for all of our important decision-making, enabling us to develop a highly successful solution that gave clients a strategic 360-degree view of their finances, a concept that was relatively new at the time. Our purpose also helped us at a pivotal juncture, when we realized in 2020 that it was the right time to look externally for a partner to help accelerate our mission of empowering consumers with technology and data. Our decision to combine forces with the second-largest retirement services provider in the country provided the right opportunity to scale our purpose and reach even more consumers across new demographics – something we would not have been able to do otherwise.

Soliciting Perspectives

Avoid the tendency to become a myopic CEO. Build a cabinet of trusted outside advisors, including confidential peer groups, to get a different perspective.

I started at Personal Capital as CIO before moving into the COO role, and ultimately CEO. At that point in my career, I incorrectly thought the main difference between a COO and CEO was just a slight upleveling of the same operational skills – perhaps expanding my proverbial “tackle box” with a few extra flies and equipment. Like any novice fly fisher wading into the river for the first time, I couldn’t have been more wrong! Fortunately, I had joined a CEO peer group before I was appointed to the role and was educated on the significant differences between these positions.

One of the most important lessons my peer group helped me understand early on was that a COO supports the CEO’s strategic vision by making sure all of the trains are running on time and everything is working as intended. A CEO, on the other hand, sets the cultural tone, builds the strategy with their team, and optimizes the best model for execution. A CEO that’s diving too deep into the operational functions of the business isn’t doing their job. Not to mention – they’re also undermining the trust and respect of the team. It’s not unlike crowding into a popular stream and crossing lines with your fellow anglers.

I’m no longer new to the CEO function, but the role has many unique challenges, which is why we tend to do better when we seek the input of other CEOs to enrich our perspectives. So, I still spend at least half a day every month with my peer group, while always building on a network of leaders with complementary perspectives and skills. My cabinet has been an invaluable resource for me, and I strongly recommend that every CEO build their own circle of trusted advisors and subject matter experts to discuss challenges in an unbiased, confidential, and safe environment.

Establishing Processes

As a new CEO, make a plan. Listen, learn, and formulate an opinion to introduce and operationalize a long-term business strategy.

I’ve long followed a leadership framework called Scaling Up authored by Verne Harnish, a compendium of cultural, strategic and performance best practices to facilitate flawless business execution. I had the opportunity to revisit that framework when joining Edelman Financial Engines as CEO this summer. Whether you’re coming into the role as an outsider or building a company from the ground up, it’s crucial to take in information first and use those insights to develop a strategic direction for the company.

In my quest for continuous learning, I was recently introduced to another management consulting leadership framework that specifically helps CEOs of private equity portfolio companies hit the ground running. Much like navigating a new body of water for the first time – this has been my first time working with private equity investors – so this framework added new context to assess what’s obvious on the surface, what’s happening beneath, and how to make informed decisions based on past experiences.

Using these frameworks together, my new team and I are setting new norms for improved performance by resetting the tone of how we can do our best work together. After fully contextualizing where we are as an organization, we are collectively defining a panel of “leading” and “lagging” metrics while delegating cross-functional collaboration and decision-making authority. At the same time, we are identifying the right people to put systems in place for accountability, measurement, feedback, and rewards. The goal in all of this is to empower everyone to spot both small and large challenges across the business and address them with a common language and framework to methodically execute as a cohesive team. The art of leadership is bringing these pieces together as a system, coordinated in rhythm, like an artfully presented fly fishing cast.

Highlighting Personality

Don’t shy away from bringing your entire self to work – and sharing who you are beyond your professional persona. Emphasize your humanity with vulnerability and humility to promote collaboration and inspire others to do the same.

I believe that in today’s environment, there is an appreciation more than ever for employees to bring their entire selves to work – and this is especially true for senior management. An organization typically wants to know what makes their leaders tick, what they’re passionate about, the personal interests they have, and anything about their family and past experiences they are willing to share. I also think it’s important for a CEO to acknowledge that they are not the smartest person in the room on every topic. A successful leader relies on the knowledge and expertise of the team around them.

Personally, I make it a point to lay my own less than perfect qualities on the table right from the start. Whenever I introduce myself to a new team, I enjoy seeing their reaction after I share one of my perceived imperfections – for example, the fact that I tend to talk a lot as I process information. Admittedly, if I’m too busy broadcasting, I know there’s a good chance I can monopolize the forum and miss valuable opportunities to listen and learn. The good news is I’m also very self-aware of this trait and instead of hiding it or feeling ashamed, I lead with it. Hierarchy can stifle innovation, particularly at fast-moving tech companies, and when leaders display vulnerability and humility it flattens an organization and encourages collaboration and trust.

As I reflect on my experiences on the river, it’s evident to me how many of these same leadership principles apply. For those who’ve never tried it, fly-fishing is a very systematic and process-driven sport – from the way you cast your rod, to the flies you choose for bait, to the watery spot you decide to wade into. It requires endless amounts of patience and perspective. It’s also a good test of personality, because every angler knows the best-laid plans are not always fruitful and how you adapt and embrace humility can greatly determine your success. I may go fly fishing to unplug and find solitude, but it’s also primed my passion for being a life-long learner, whether I’m navigating the unpredictable waters of a riverbed or the unpredictability of leading a performance-driven, purpose-oriented company.