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Learning from the Best: Musings from a Successful Top CEO


20Oct 2008

This weekend I had the opportunity to speak at a conference for major donors of a charitable organization. It was a beautiful setting in Southern California, and my wife accompanied me, which was a treat.

The other keynote presenter was Carlos Sepulveda, who is the CEO of Interstate Batteries, and a dynamic presenter. In addition to his presentation, Mr. Sepulveda had a follow-up question and answer session in which he expanded upon the concepts he shared. I thought I would share some of his thoughts which were thought provoking to me:

  • “There is no such thing as business ethics.” He did not mean this in terms of an oxymoron. Rather, Mr. Sepulveda’s point was that there really is no division between public and private behavior — choices and decisions are made by individuals, whether or not the context is in the home, community or workplace. As Carlos stated directly, “Truth cannot be compartmentalized.” Unfortunately, we have seen this issue (behavior and choices matter, regardless of the context) impact our lives and news repeatedly (Enron, sexual misconduct by business and government leaders, business policies driven by greed).
  • “Successful people absorb early in life what reality is, and they spend the rest of their lives making and managing decisions made in reality.” Mr. Sepulveda shared some about his early life’s history, which was rocky, and the resulting lessons he learned. He affirmed straightforwardly, “You will never be any more successful than your understanding of reality” and that this is true in one’s personal life as well as in business.
  • Regarding businesses delivering value, he stated that “competence delivers value.” He stated that the way to increase competence is through a combination of “ability + technique + effort”. He reported that our culture is always trying to “get around” work, but that ultimately work is good, brings value to our lives, and the means by which goals are reached.
  • The definition of the role of a CEO, according to Mr. Sepulveda, is encapsulated in the initials CEO. The primary responsibilities of a CEO are to: 1. Organize (goals and resources); 2. Encourage others to always be coaching those around you; and 3. Confront — to confront actions, beliefs and policies that don’t match reality, and to confront the gap between promised results and what is actually delivered. In a follow-up discussion, he indicated he tries to accept bad news well (that is, not “blow up”) but he asks the question: “How did it happen?”
  • There are two primary activities that make up life — resource allocation (time, our “brain”, talents, financial resources) and conflict resolution. We are constantly making choices about how to use our time, talents, money, etc. and this is the daily activities of our lives. But because we live in relationship with others, and we all have our unique perspectives, values and priorities, this leads to conflicts over how resources should be allocated. And so the second most frequent activity we engaged in is managing these conflicts over the use of our resources.

    I found Mr. Sepulveda an extremely engaging speaker, a thoughtful leader, and one who clearly caused me to repeatedly ask myself: “Really? Is that true?” He brings a unique perspective to leadership and daily life. If you ever have the chance to hear him speak, I would encourage you to choose to do so.

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