‘Never Forget Where You Came From:' CEO Tom Coyne on Learning How to Be a Leader

July 1, 2015

Tom Coyne
Tom Coyne

I recently spoke with Tom Coyne, founder of Coyne PR, who has used a distinctive leadership approach to successfully build his agency from a one-man operation to 150-plus people over nearly 25 years.

Tell us about a great leader who inspired you — and why?

I didn’t have many bosses over my career, so I had to look outside our industry. If I had to single out one, it would be John F. Kennedy. He was thoughtful, he was inspiring, he was empathetic, he looked to break new ground, he effectively used his personality and he took leadership to places it hadn’t been, combined with unrelenting hard work.

What leadership lessons did you learn?

Rule No. 1: Never forget where you came from. That applies to the business, by remembering that each client enables us to have a company. Each client is a valued friend. Each client makes this possible. Having utmost respect for them is critically important.

Rule No. 2: Treat people like people. Whether it was organized labor or a political campaign, every person counted, and every person deserves respect. You have to view every person and his or her needs and ambitions; you have to have a genuine interest in getting them to their goals, not just the organization’s goals. When you think about them and their needs, they really get behind you.

Rule No. 3: Never stop improving your organization. A great organization is never complete; it’s never at its peak. Keep striving for better. This will keep your organization sharp and on a path toward a bigger future.

Tell us your worst leadership failure and what you learned from it.

It was earlier in my career. I tried to change people to fit the job. I was strict about when they arrived and prescriptive in how I wanted things done. I soon learned that worrying about whether someone comes in at 9:15 rather than 9 is meaningless, that the person I was frustrating most was myself and I was driving people away.

So instead I focused on, are they doing the job? Are they getting results? Are they making clients happy? That took the rigidness out of the jobs and performance increased. Now my people come and go as they please, and they get the job done. They don’t have to take the same path to work, they just have to get to the right destination. I give guidance, but I allow people to work to build on their strengths. You build on strength rather than box them in.

Can leadership be taught?

I believe it can. There are born leaders who have innate traits they’ve developed over their careers, but leadership is about vision and effort, so it absolutely can be taught. Many effective leaders have role models in their lives to whom they look for inspiration. If you “apprentice” for a great leader you can become a more effective one. 

And there is that other half: what you observe from what’s out there. One can read so many great biographies of leaders, who lay it all out for you, from Ted Kennedy, to Jack Welch, to Dick Cheney, to Robert Redford. Obviously, I run the gamut! 

How has your leadership style changed over the years?

I believe my leadership style has stayed fairly consistent over the years. Of course your leadership evolves as you go from running a small organization to a large one.

Leadership in a small organization is about leading by example, getting out in front, being the first in and last out. Leading a large organization is about making sure that your people are well employed, that they understand your vision for the organization and know they’re being watched out for, guided and brought along.

You go from people-watching to focusing on being an effective communicator, aware that actions say 1,000 words. Inspiring, informing and collaborating require effort. You can’t just lead by example. You must take the time to communicate what you’re doing and why. You must then have the confidence to seek out feedback and the wisdom to use it.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).


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