5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from a Surprising Source

On Tuesday night I attended an event to hear Richard Fairbank, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Capital One, talk firsthand about his business journey.

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical going into the event.  What could I (a small business owner and non-profit consultant) learn from the story of Rich Fairbank, the CEO of a very large, very for-profit company?

Turns out, a lot.

I was surprised, inspired, and moved (to tears) by Rich Fairbank’s bold vision, ferocious commitment, and pure authenticity.

Here are the 5 leadership lessons I learned from Rich Fairbank.

1. Find your quest

Quest/kwest/noun: Any journey or undertaking in pursuit of a lofty or noble goal.

What the dictionary calls noble, Fairbank calls pure.  His pure quest is to use the power of technology, information, and great people to change the way people bank.  He has also built Capital One on the principle of “do the right thing,” which shows in how the company invests in its people and the community.  Where leaders fall down is when they make the quest about themselves and their own success.  No one wants to sign up for your quest.  But they will join you on a quest that is pure and that sets out to create something great for people.  What do you dream to change in the world?  Find your quest and pursue it with passion, commitment, and pure, noble intentions.

2. Hire the best people

It may sound cliché, Fairbank admits, but it’s much easier said than done.  Most companies (even those that say they’re committed to finding top talent) spend minimal time on recruitment, and waste much more time managing their recruitment mistakes.  Capital One invests strategically in recruitment, with Fairbanks and other bank executives spending 20-50 percent of their time on finding the best people to lead the company into the future.

3. Strategy is all about markets

A strategy must begin with identifying where the market is going.  Most companies don’t do this.  They look forward from where they are now and build a plan that makes incremental improvements from that starting point.  So they don’t really build a strategy, they build a to-do list (and call it strategy).  Fairbank is fanatical about analyzing the market and knowing where it will be in 5 years.  If you know this end game, and build a strategy to meet the future market reality, then you’ve got destiny on your side.   Too many businesses are working against the grain of the market, and they are working too hard.

4. Hire an Executive Coach

Shortly after Capital One went public, Fairbank recognized that the company was going to change rapidly, and that meant he was going to have to change as well.   So, he hired an Executive Coach.  Working with his coach, Fairbank has been able to consistently raise his game and reinvent himself as a leader.  Fairbank believes so strongly in the power of coaching, that he has launched a coaching program for leaders throughout the company.  Those participating in the program, Fairbank says, have made noticeable changes to become more effective leaders.

5. Find the leader inside of you

Fairbank compared the process of becoming a leader to what Michelangelo once said about sculpture:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Each one of us has a leader inside, and it is our job, over time, to carve out who we are as a leader.  With each carving, you discover something new and connect more deeply to yourself as an authentic and powerful leader.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

Which of these 5 lessons is most important to you as a leader?  And what do you have to add to the list?

Share your great insight in the comments area below.  Thanks as always for your time and contribution!