Managing around your blind spot

Three CEOs on how they have worked to become more effective leaders

You don’t get to the top without being very talented. But that doesn’t mean you can do it all — even if some big-time magazine cover subjects are regularly portrayed as all-knowing and omnipotent. It’s critical to have good teams surround good CEOs, but it’s also important to have CEOs recognize the limits of their talents. Here, three local leaders walk us through their thoughts on the topic.


Julie May
bytes of knowledge

“I run a pretty technical company but my background is in business and marketing. I have a basic understanding of technology, databases and design and that was absolutely fine for me and for the business when we started. But as time went along, we were putting in place for clients much more sophisticated solutions and I absolutely didn’t have the technical expertise and depth to give customers the experience we promise them.

I learned a long time ago that it’s OK to say, ‘I’m not sure. Let me get with our technical team to find out.’ We hired someone to oversee our software development division whose job it is to provide the technical sales angle when we’re talking to prospects. And on the network engineering side, there are a lot of hardware and technical components that have to fit together seamlessly. It’s far too detailed for me to get involved in. Understanding the basic processes and staying abreast of the current technologies is what’s required of me when it comes to this. I do not have to know to the nth degree how the details fit together.

My main jobs are to hunt for business, to strategize and to set the culture. I can help set the business problem our client is facing, put it in the right terms so our technical people can design the best solution. I end up serving as a translator who also asks the questions that get us to a deeper level of technical sales. It’s actually a benefit not being technologically entrenched because I might come up with the same solution every time if I was. Our team can come up with a more sound solution if multiple people are contributing.”

Lonnie Stout
J. Alexander’s

“We started J. Alexander’s with the idea of having a strong culture and we recruit almost exclusively on campuses for hospitality graduates. Then we completely immerse them in our culture — we see it as the great separator. Our culture is almost cult-like, but in a good way.

We compete for management just like we compete for guests. We look for coaches who can be hands on day to day and check in with every person on their team. We’ll sit down with our people and have career checks, ask for and give feedback and support their goals. Young people want to be part of a company that cares about where they’re going.

I have a lot of entrepreneurial experience and a financial background, but I’ve never been the general manager of a restaurant. So over the years, I’ve always focused on bringing in strong operators and worked alongside them when I could.

There have been times when I’ve totally immersed myself in the operations. At times in my career, I’ve spent a couple of hours working on a shift every day for a couple of weeks. And to this day, I still work the first shift and sell the first plate of food when we open a new restaurant.

No matter where you are in the organization — even if you’re the CEO of the biggest company in America — there’s something you’re not as good at as somebody else. I regularly do a thorough self-assessment to see where I am as a leader. It tells me what I still need to learn.”

Bill Nigh
The Bank of Nashville

“I look at this issue a little bit differently. There are certain things only a CEO can do and certain decisions only a CEO can make. So you need to think about the role you’re in and the responsibilities that come with it. Then you can figure out what the things are that only you — in that job — can do.

For the majority of my career, I was a commercial banker and a direct contact for my clients. I loved doing that. I have an analytical mind that helps me with numbers and I liked working with business owners on their hopes and dreams.

But as you move up in an organization the demands on your time and focus change.  We tend to want to continue to do the things we enjoy, that we maybe do well.  However, you quickly learn that your new responsibilities take too much time so you go through a process where you rationalize and figure out those things that only you can do.  It is not always fun because many times it means giving up something you are very good at and love.

The same goes for when you bring someone into your inner circle. You have to be clear with them about their new responsibilities and what success looks like.  You have to help them see what they will have to give up — whether they like it or not. It’s often the first time that they’re having to think about that.

There’s a process of acceptance that you have to go through. There might be two or three little things you try to hold on to for a while. But you ultimately realize that you have to let go because you're not doing as well as you could — or as others could — with those things or that it might be holding you back on your new priorities. As a CEO and a leader, you have to learn what you have to do to move your organization forward.”