Embracing Moral Leadership: Insights From Tom Monahan

In a recent HOW conversation on moral leadership, Dana H. Born sat down with Tom Monahan, the newly appointed CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, to discuss his journey and the principles of effective leadership. Tom’s diverse career and profound insights offer valuable lessons for leaders at all stages.

The Influence of Early Experiences

Tom Monahan’s roots trace back to Weymouth, Massachusetts, where he grew up in a family that owned a carnival business. This unique upbringing taught him early lessons about creativity, curiosity, and the importance of passion in one’s work. Tom credits much of his success to luck—supportive parents, good schools, and mentors. Reflecting on his family business, he emphasized the value of asking questions and learning from others’ expertise.

Transitioning Across Sectors: Challenges and Insights

Tom’s career spans senior roles at Deloitte, CEO of CEB, president of DeVry University, and now CEO of Heidrick & Struggles. When asked about the challenges of transitioning between sectors, Tom highlighted a critical insight: leadership is fundamentally about people. He shared an anecdote about evaluating a leader who was not good with people, underscoring that people are the essence of any business. His experience at CEB, where he was deeply involved in building the company, taught him the dangers of over-relying on past knowledge and the necessity of continuous learning.

Core Principles of Effective moral Leadership

Throughout the discussion, Tom shared several core principles that have guided his leadership journey:

Curiosity: Staying curious and continually asking questions is essential for growth and adaptation.

Active Listening: Listening is an active process that involves seeking diverse perspectives and ensuring all voices are heard.

Facts Over Opinions: Basing decisions on facts rather than opinions leads to better outcomes.

Collective Ambition: Fostering a shared vision and collective ambition within the organization is crucial for long-term success.

Humility and the Role of Curiosity

Tom emphasized the importance of humility in leadership. He mentioned an exercise where reviewing past headlines showed how quickly the world changes, reinforcing the need for leaders to remain humble and open to new information. This humility is closely tied to curiosity—an essential trait for effective leadership in a constantly evolving world.

Developing Future Moral & Ethical Leaders

Tom offered valuable advice for young and aspiring leaders. He stressed the importance of self-awareness—knowing how you do your best work and being honest about your strengths and weaknesses. He also highlighted the significance of summoning and switch boarding in leadership. Leaders should actively encourage potential leaders and connect them with the right mentors and resources.

Finding Hope in Moral Leadership

Despite the challenges of the present, Tom remains hopeful about the future. He believes that technological advancements, when harnessed correctly, can lead to positive outcomes. His optimism is grounded in the long-term trend of progress and improvement, which he views as a source of hope and inspiration.

Tom Monahan’s insights on moral leadership provide a valuable framework for current and aspiring leaders. His emphasis on curiosity, active listening, humility, and gratitude, coupled with a data-driven approach to decision-making, underscores the essence of ethical leadership. As he embarks on his new role at Heidrick & Struggles, Tom’s commitment to developing impactful leaders and fostering moral leadership will undoubtedly inspire and guide organizations towards success.

Read the Transcript

Dana H. Born: Welcome to another how conversation on moral leadership. We’re really happy to have with us today a friend and a partner of the Howe Institute Tom Monahan. Tom was just recently announced as the new CEO of Heidrick and struggles, an executive search and management consulting company. Tom, welcome. And we’re so looking forward to this conversation with you today. How are you? Where are you and before I get into an interaction, we just want to hear from you.

Tom Monahan: Sure, I’m in Washington today or the Washington area. As you know, I’m about 10 miles north of where you are so but we’re both in the DC area. And for those who care about such things, you can just really feel spring, which it’s been a gorgeous couple days.

Dana H. Born: Fantastic. We do have the magnolias and we also have the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Tom grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, actually in a small town outside some of you may know Weymouth, Massachusetts, his grandparents owned a carnival business that is still in the family today. And I think you’ll hear throughout this conversation, a real theme of creativity and curiosity. A Tom graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude. And he also served as a former CEO and Chair of the Board of Directors of CEB Tom, also his managing partner in a family investment fund called Norton Street Holdings, and is the former CEO and President of DeVry University, now vice chairman of the board. And I’m so looking forward to this conversation with our listeners here today.

Tom Monahan: And thank you, and thank you, Dan, for, obviously, professional partnership and inviting me to this, and thanks to the thanks to the HOW Institute more broadly, this is that the set of set of activities, HOW Institute engages in in the set of conversations they enabled, here, elsewhere, and most importantly, and workplaces around the world are so important that I’m delighted to be a tiny contributor to the work.

Dana H. Born: We’ll jump right in then. And I know that this is going to be a timeless hell conversation on moral leadership with some of the lessons that you will share with us and maybe even charge us with. So let’s go back. Winston Churchill says the further back you look, there may be further ahead, you might see. So let’s go back to the beginning a little bit, we can talk maybe about your grandparents owning a carnival business and, you know, lessons learned from childhood growing up in Weymouth and what Norton stream means to you, and how that’s forged your how your background and your childhood has forged the leader that you have become and are becoming

Tom Monahan: Sure, I think, you know, the anybody who’s lucky enough to lead people or work in an environment and have had professional success. Who doesn’t work the word luck into their first 20 words, and their story is, has some has some soul searching to do because any one of us who’s enjoyed successful careers and doing work they love has to recognize that there’s all sorts of luck goes into that, right, just parents who believed in me, good schools nearby, lots of people happy to provide mentorship and advice and you know, health all is born in the US in the latter half of the 20th century into a happy healthy family in a neighborhood with good schools and lots of other tailwinds at my back, but the family business wasn’t is a carnival, and like all family businesses, you get put to work early. And well the point of most important lesson for me there, it’s a fascinating business system, in that you have kind of different businesses under one roof, if you will, if you think about rides and games, very different businesses, but the one human lesson I learned was, as you know, it’s some combination of people really have passion for most people have passion for doing the work they do well, and are eager to share what they know with people if you just ask him, you know, what do you do? Why do you do it this way? Why and? And I found if I carried away one lesson from those years, it was, you know, if, if you ask people they’ll tell you stuff.

Dana H. Born: Tom, throughout your career, you’ve had really varied experiences Deloitte as a senior consultant, CEO of CEB, president of DeVry university now stepping up as CEO of an executive search and management consulting company, Heidrick & Struggles. What is it that draws you to such diverse opportunities? And are there leadership challenges that come with changing sectors?

Tom Monahan: You know Dana you and I talked about this which is um I get I guess the unifying theme is, someone told me the story, which I thought was a good one. They were being asked to evaluate a, you know, a leader for a role. And their boss said, you know, what about so and so what about sons? What about so and so the leader said, leader said to their boss, this person’s amazing, they’re one drawback is not that good with people, but don’t worry about it, they’ll be fine. And the more senior leader said, that ends up being a problem because people are the only species we employ. And those business these businesses are all people driven businesses, I think what’s been interesting, and maybe this was the a learning you had back to the luck thing, I the CB experience was incredibly fun being part of really building the company. Maybe the most interesting thing about it was it is a timeless story, which is the because I had been part of building the company and so a lot of our businesses and a lot of our processes, etc. I was an expert in our business, which is dangerous, actually. And, and probably I need to go through a little bit of a re acquaintance with leadership principles to be to learn to be an effective leader, which is Will Roger, my favorite quote is Will Roger said something the effect of it ain’t the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so it when you’re in a business, you’ve been in for a couple decades, you know things and find some change, the market has changed, people have changed the work boy works on this change. But in your knowing that isn’t isn’t an asset, that curiosity, and also businesses built around exceptional people. It’s a theme that that that has recurred, even across industries that actually look different, but ultimately that that exceptional people at the center is is a real commonality.

Dana H. Born: Let’s keep going on your time because you are with a CEO of CEB from 2005 to 2017. So that’s a long time. And the goal there was to practice research benchmarks, decision support tools for business leaders. And so what are some of the frameworks maybe leaders can be equipped with in today’s society, and ways that we can support developing leaders along that journey?

Tom Monahan: I think a couple of things that are a couple again, every every leader has their own toolkit. But you know, I obviously put curiosity pretty high on my list do I have I really listened. The second thing is listening is not a passive activity. In particular, we’re learning that is we start to think about a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Desire to talk in knowledge aren’t perfectly correlated. I’m not going to get to the point that they’re inversely correlated, but how do you seek out perspectives? How do you make sure you’re kind of checking out silences? How do you make sure you’re bringing a full perspective because there’s a natural tendency in any organization to you know, listen to the speech as it is, rather than be curious to me that’s the second thing which is in first curious second thing is listening is not a passive activities, an active activity. Third thing is facts to your friends. If you go with CEO, it was but used to say if we’re going to run the run the operation off of opinions, we should probably use mine because I’m the CEO. But if there are facts that might also be a different and more effective way, your organization I think, facts your friends, chasing the stray fact, of four sort of big leadership principles. You know, curiosity, listening is active activity back to your friends and finding the collective and shared ambition.

Dana H. Born: In your description of curiosity, I really hear an underlying humility and being curious and admitting you don’t maybe know everything, which is hard as a leader, you know, particularly people on the hero’s journey, like I need to know everything because I’m the CEO. So would you elaborate a little bit more on this curiosity? And I think for our listeners, why leaders really need to be asking more questions. And to do that from a place of humility.

Tom Monahan: For some reason I undertook this exercise. And it’s you can go on to the pick the New York Times website, most major newspapers have a feature where you can go just pick a day and look at the headlines from that day. Go back even two years and how if you had formed an opinion based on the headlines of that day on anything. In the world, how incorrect you would have been. And and that itself if you’re if you need like a booster shot of humility, take a look at that and take a look at what your mental model might have been pick a date and go to it. And for that reason, you know, the world’s in a state of consistent reset, and curiosity is the only way to encounter that we deal with a lot of work in hydric. Around you know, what, we, obviously a very common thing that are exceptional people at the core of the business are exceptional people are the folks are, who are in our search business, who are in the boardroom every day helping companies choose great leaders. The shared wisdom and a recent report we put out right here, what kind of the overarching question, what are what are boards looking for right now, and let’s say in particular, and CEOs, but C suite leaders more broadly, they are looking for the ability to learn. So boards are looking for, you know, kind of the ability to learn as a senior leader be because they’re realizing that that any attempt to sort of replicate the past is highly unlikely to reflect the future. And so that curiosity is a really important part of learning.

Dana H. Born: And you wrote recently, and I’m going to share with our listeners a quote, if you don’t mind, Tom, of anyone who knows me, or reads, what I write understands that I’m passionate about the work of finding, developing and supporting impactful leaders experience and data have taught me that great leadership is the single most important element of great organizational and corporate performance. And so some people still are buying into this, you know, there’s natural leaders out there leaders are born. And you’ve talked about qualities that are important that can be grown curiosity, learning how to learn. So how do you respond to the that statement that, you know, there’s natural leaders, and or there’s this opportunity to learn through experience? Where do you fall on that spectrum?

Tom Monahan: It is totally okay, both across time, or at a point in time for someone to say, hey, I want to be an individual contributor right now, again, some of the some of the most impactful leaders are people without a leadership title, whose professional excellence in their values, shape and organization, but it’s totally, it’s totally, totally, totally okay for someone to say, I don’t want to form a leadership role.

Dana H. Born: And yeah, and we talked about that in terms of positions of authority, or, you know, having people with moral authority, you know, in positions of authority, you use the term summoning and switch boarding, which I find really intriguing in this Do you mind sharing with our listeners, what you mean by that summoning and switch boarding,

Tom Monahan: When you say, Who Wants to Be a leader on balance, or who wants his next big Leadership Summit unbalanced? Sometimes you’ll find in different organizations. There are categories of folks who say, it’s not for me, I don’t look like the person who had that job, the last three times, I didn’t come from the background of the person who had that job the last three times. So an important part of being a leader sometimes is to summon people, you know, not just that it’s not open up call is to go check someone out and say, hey, you know, what, why haven’t you put your hand up to this leadership development program? Why haven’t you? You know, because you can see that they’re great, but there is that and often there’s a couple of things people often uncomfortable sometimes with your Will my style work, and I’m like, that hasn’t hurt you yet. And we all grow and change as leaders. But I think you’re really important work of the leader is to summon to create interest in summon people to the work of leadership. And when I talked about switch porting the, the logic there is leadership development. I an important, at least for me, being a developer of leaders, back to humility. And so he spent a lot of time in developing leaders not so much saying, Let me teach you this, you know, get your pen out, because I’m about to talk to you. But instead saying, okay, that that’s No, that’s, I think that’s an important area for you to grow and develop totally hear you. I don’t know don’t think it’s just or I’m not that good at it. Let me let me find the person who you need to learn from on that issue you’re trying to keep as part of people I’ll say you should have a personal board of directors. I agree with that. And part of the reason you should have something like that is if that group gets broad enough, you start to be able to say, well, this is the person who teaches. It is the person I know who teaches this thing best. There’s a great book called The Council of dads, which our mutual friend Max Steyer features is there’s a chapter about Max. And it’s it’s what’s interesting is it was written by a friend of Max’s who was totally at a terminal disease and had to confront the fact that his kids might not have a dad and sort of said, How do I is gonna do the the dad work? And came to that conclusion that actually, you know, he had a number of good friends, each of each one who had something really important to teach. And it was rather than trying to replace you know, him with one person, he sort of tapped into the friends to teach that important thing. And in some sense, that’s a good metaphor for how a leader ought to think about developing the team is the Council of Council of developers, if you will,

Dana H. Born: Tom, you’re very busy leader and I know our listeners are as well. And our how founder and chairman Dov Seidman often talks about the pause and the importance to take this time to reflect, reconnect, rethink and reimagine our future. How is it that you pause and recharge,

Tom Monahan: There are a few things that I’ve found to be useful one is kind of the loosely coupled a gratitude practice. So it’s like usually my gratitude practice involves actual people. Thank you for doing this. But yesterday, I was talking with my colleagues, Billy next right? So but he was actually just as a fun guy, small world pack, Billy wrote the foreword to our friend James Russo’s book, unbelievable. Lisa, leader, hydrogen here are chatting. And I said, I’m practicing little little, I’m gonna thank zoom at the end of the day today, because it’s been hard on me today. But it’s been hugely important. And teams and the engineers and people who built those products and made them have made all of us more effective at work. It’s companies are but gratitude practice ends up here, sort of who am I saying thank you, at the end of the day to have a really active sort of intention and meditation practice. My meditation teacher, Jonathan Faust always says, look at your calendar, look at every meeting, think about how you will do feel at the end of that meeting, physically feel. And that will like and then then think about how you want to manage that meeting. And I’m not perfect at that. But it is, it’s a really useful practice for me to say, you know, what, how do I want to feel at the end of that meeting? So just a couple more questions. One is, as we think about our listeners, and a lot of young and aspiring moral leaders, what kind of advice do you have for them? I would, I’d go back to that Peter Drucker theme of get to know yourself really well. How do you do your best work? Because I think that that turns out to be you can’t make the world conform to how you do your best work, whatever. The but you can know how you do your best work and you’d be honest about that, you know, know what you’re great at and, and organize how you work around that being super clear on your strengths, how you do your best work, and being honest with it with other people like I don’t know, just this is how it worked. For us, it probably is the most important thing. Second, our friend and colleague Elisa Juan always talks about always gives you advice bloom where you’re planted, every role has an opportunity for you to grow as a leader some have huge opportunities and those are fantastic. But even once you say this is probably not the right place for me, you can actually still find ways to exert your leadership Jalen and grow yourself and I think that’s really powerful advice. Because I think you’re like when you’re earlier in your career, you’re you may be sometimes you’re looking around for the right and the perfect next thing and you miss some of the opportunities to say hey, how can I lead and grow and have more impact on Toria Excellent advice for all of us as as learners and growing moral leaders. So the final question is, you know, moral leaders tend to be purveyors of hope. And so in this moment in time, what’s giving you a sense of hope? There’s so much to be and I tend to be also you were little bit of a flop time is it in we’ve had these rough times before and I’ve never been so pollyannish to say, you know, this advances technology is unequivocally good, right? But I think on balance, most advances in technology have been good. They’ve helped us we found ways to harness them to govern them. And they’re not without negative consequences, though, again, back to my gonna go on to the New York Times page and pick any date, you know, more than a year ago and click on the front page and see what predictions you would have made based on reading that front page. And, you know, I’ll probably be very wrong but uh, those a lot of things give me hope and back to the facts right back to the not not what I happen to, to now the TV, but the long arc of most of these trend lines is going in a really positive place.

Dana H. Born: Fantastic message and, you know, begs the question, do we really want to go back? And Tom Monahan, you have been just a joy to having conversation on moral leadership. It’s an honor to have you as a partner and friend of the Howe Institute for society, we know that these lessons are going to live on and we appreciate the fact that you’re going to continue to be on this journey of advancing the wave of moral leadership with us. So we’re grateful and we wish you all the best in your new position as the CEO of Hendrick and struggles executive search and management consulting company, so congratulations, and do great work.

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