One of the many gifts of the work I do as an executive recruiter is that I get to have deep and meaningful conversations with highly talented leaders at inflections points in their careers. We are often profoundly philosophical at the most vulnerable times in our lives. We know in vino veritas. I also believe in transitus veritas!
Recently, I had the great pleasure of sitting down (again) for a chat with Adrienne Axler, the now semi-retired, former CEO at Sodexo DACH. Adrienne has been a recent friend and mentor to me, and we have discussed many professional and personal topics.
It is clear to me and many others that Adrienne created an admirable legacy in her years of leading Sodexo DACH. All the recent fanfare surrounding her retirement is evidence of this.
I thought it might be interesting for her, for me, and for you - my readers - to hear a bit about Adrienne’s experiences as a leader. Our recent conversation touched on two topics that I suspect will be of interest to you:
Leadership that Leaves a Positive Legacy
Adrienne is admired as much for how she was as for what she did. I asked her if she could identify any reasons why that might be? Her first thoughts reflect the perennial advice of human resources managers the world over - you must find the right fit. “I have to be aligned with my work. I would recommend to any senior manager that they find the right personal fit in role and organization.” She said.
Adrienne has a reputation for high integrity. I asked her about this. She shared a list of traits that she looks for in the leaders she hires, that she also does her best to embody herself, “Congruency, accountability, trustworthiness, and predictability.
She went on to explain, “People need to feel that after you give them direction, you also give them support. They must also know that you will be there if they get into trouble and that you will not run away when something goes wrong.” It is apparent that one of the secrets to her successful leadership style is reliable follow-through.
“You must enjoy caring for and developing your teams. It was always the greatest pleasure in my work; to develop teams. I got the greatest satisfaction when I had built a team that was high functioning and people were happy.” Adrienne explained.
This is one of the great pleasures of my work at Robertson Associates as well. My relationships often begin when someone is ready to transition, but they rarely end there. I work hard to fit individuals into organizations for mutual benefit.
Knowing When to Transition
My work overlaps with the work of Adrienne and many leaders like her during those transition times when top leaders or those who work directly for them are ready for a change. But when is the time right? The higher you move up in an organization, the harder it becomes to get honest and useful advice on your own transitions.
As Adrienne shared, “Leadership is a lonely road. And the higher you get, the lonelier it becomes. I admire people who are CEO’s of big companies. At the end of the day, they have no colleagues anymore. On the way up, until you are the last one, you always have a group of peers even if the group gets smaller. And by the way, they are not necessarily sympathetic, but at least they are peers!”
So, how do you know when it is time for a change? From my experience, I know leaders usually consider a move when they get soft signals that it is time to move: colleague attitudes, market change, customer evolution - signals that things have changed and the local dynamics may no longer be in their favor.
Adrienne shared more behind the impetus for her transitions. “When I feel I am reaching my limits either because I feel that I cannot do more or because I know that I can do more.”
We did a survey of current and former clients at Robertson and Associates on the reasons for their transitions. Among the reasons for a move, money was third. First was relationship with current boss. Second was getting bored at work. I think this is quite congruent with Adrienne’s explanation. The old adage that Adrienne also repeated in our conversation still holds true, you join a company and you leave a boss.
I was not surprised at all that the former CEO regularly hit the performance objectives outlined for her by her board at Sodexo DACH. I was a bit surprised when she shared this, “I have never led a team by looking at the figures. It is all about the people.” This was refreshing.
As Adrienne heads into retirement, she will stay engaged in leadership with some non-profit board leadership, and at the suggestion of her many fans - myself included - she may take on some rising leaders. She shared, “Coaching. Is that the right word? I would enjoy helping people find their higher eye and purpose.”
Anyone would be lucky to have such a purpose driven mentor as Adrienne Axler. In transitus veritas!