Larry McIntosh doesn't always take himself seriously - and that may be the key to his success.
"A lot of people take themselves too seriously and worry about the line of staff and management," says the president and CEO of Winnipeg-based produce conglomerate Peak of the Market.
"We try to have fun together, we make mistakes together and we grow together."
It's a leadership philosophy that's grown the Manitoba business into a global supplier of produce. Injecting more than $60 million a year into the economy, Peak of the Market has had its 14 best sales years in the company's 66-year history since McIntosh took over the reins - you guessed it -14 years ago.
"Leadership is key to running a business, but a leader does not do it by his or herself and it's the success of my team that makes us a success," McIntosh says. "That said, I think a leader can make or break a business."
Indeed, good leadership is crucial to not only a company's bottom line, but also workplace satisfaction, retention in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and future growth.
It may be surprising to learn then that a new survey has revealed many top executives think they're doing a much better job than they actually are.
The Refinery Leadership Partners/ Ipsos Reid survey of top executives at some of North America's largest organizations found that 74 per cent of executives polled thought their overall performance was better than that of other executives in their industry and 89 per cent said they were doing better than their peers were when it came to collaborating with their team.
"Clearly, not everyone can be performing better than everyone else," says Rosie Steeves of Refinery Leadership Partners in Vancouver. "This study shows that today's leaders are not aware of how well they're performing and are out of touch with their leadership abilities."
The survey also found that while 82 per cent of executives rated leadership development for their managers as a top priority, only 61 per cent said it was a priority for themselves.
"Many traditional leaders get to the top and they think they're good - they stop questioning themselves - but an out-of-touch executive is going to significantly impact employees' attitudes and ultimately, the bottom line," Steeves explains.
"We're also seeing a lot of executives focused very externally - they're spending their time on planes and with stakeholders and at investor meetings and not spending their time internally or, when they do, it's with their direct reports who aren't going to tell them what they really think."
So what's a busy leader to do? Management experts say taking stock of what you're doing - and looking externally for mentoring or coaching support - can make a big difference.
"We know that these are the most effective ways to change behaviour and yet only a small percentage of leaders polled actually did this," adds Steeves.
"The majority engaged in less effective leadership development activities such as attending seminars or reading books and that's a concern because the performance of the senior leader will determine the competitiveness of the organization - businesses are leaving money on the table and those that get a handle on this will get ahead."
Companies including Calgary-based TEC, an international executive coaching and mentoring group, have been working with leaders for years. They've found that putting executives in non-competing industries together in peer groups helps them to be better leaders.
"By talking to people without a stake in it, you'll get a more objective response, says TEC peer group chair and mentor Mac Bourassa. "Often, people coming at it from a different perspective can see your blind spots and help you look at the problem differently to find a better solution."
A former senior executive, Bourassa says it's not easy getting feedback when you're in the top job. To be a good leader - at any level - he says you have to be an effective listener and open to new ideas.
"Good leaders are good communicators and very effective listeners," Bourassa explains. "They lead by example; they can put themselves in other people's shoes, they're good at motivating people and helping them to grow, and they tend to look at what went wrong instead of who done it."
Hard on issues and soft on people, experts agree good leaders aren't adversarial - but are able to make the tough decisions when they have to.
After almost 30 years of management experience, it's a business truth McIntosh knows all too well.
"As a CEO, you have to make tough decisions to move forward and it's important to make those decisions, whether they're popular or not," McIntosh says. "Having said that, I have to keep in mind people's livelihoods are at stake and I try to make decisions with that in mind."
While making tough decisions is never easy, getting a more accurate assessment of how you're perceived by your employees is actually relatively simple. "You need to walk the four corners - whether it's going out on the plant floor or the construction site and engaging people on other levels in an honest way," advises Bourassa.
"It may not tell you what other people are thinking about you, but people will admire that and feedback will get back to you."
To stay connected with his staff - and how he's doing as a leader - McIntosh goes a step further. He makes time to meet one-on-one with every single staff member each year.
The sessions are totally confidential and employees are encouraged to speak their mind. "At first, it was hard for the managers who thought I may have been over-stepping into their responsibility," McIntosh admits. "But we've found it very valuable - a lot of really good feedback and suggestions come out of those meetings."
The company also has an annual "Lunch with Larry" where employees sit down with the big boss over pizza in an effort to keep the lines of communication open. "We probably over-communicate," McIntosh jokes. "But seriously, we want to over-communicate so everyone knows what's going on and how it affects them."
It's no wonder Peak of the Market - and McIntosh personally - have been awarded a slew of leadership and business awards over the last few years.
"The hardest thing is really finding the time to stay connected as a leader but it's such an important thing to do," McIntosh says. "I truly believe people working for you have much more to offer if you just give them the chance."
(Tess van Straaten can be reached at email@example.com)