George Bodenheimer is one of the most respected leaders in the sports business over the past 30 years. I’ve never heard one negative word uttered about him, and people who worked for him unanimously praise him as a humble leader who created a positive and productive culture at ESPN. He and I talked for 45 minutes last week at our Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York about culture and leadership, and his comments generated some of the most positive feedback I received all year.
The stories about Bodenheimer starting in ESPN’s mailroom in 1981 are well documented, and he acknowledged that when you deliver everyone’s mail, “you end up meeting everybody.”
After 17 years of moving up through the company, he was named president in 1998. But his style didn’t change.
“Just because I had become president didn’t mean I became a lot smarter overnight.”
Instead of telling staff how to do their jobs, he focused on the culture.
“I thought of myself as a servant leader. How can I help you do your job better? Let me get you the resources you need.”
He had a clear definition of what culture represented at ESPN.
You show your people you care about them? That’s power. That is how people will go through a wall for anybody. That’s when you get the best out of people — when you show them you have their back.
“It’s what you stand for. Integrity. A handshake is a deal. No legal department is going to screw up a handshake. Dealing with people in a straightforward manner. Were we aggressive? Yes. Were we trying to be the best in the business? Yes. Were we trying to get a first-mover advantage in whatever business we were in? You better believe it. But there is a way of doing that with integrity and doing things the right way.”
Bodenheimer recalled his first all-staff meeting as president as a key learning point. “My first-ever speech to the company, on the ‘SportsCenter’ set, broadcast all over the world. I was going to take questions, the whole bit. I had worked so hard on it; I memorized every number. I could have told you what our growth was going to be anywhere around the world. I gave the most boring speech possibly in corporate history. I can’t believe anyone was still around after about 40 minutes of nothing, and we open up the phone lines.” Instead of questions about ESPN’s business, he was startled when the questions were about why the company still used Styrofoam in the cafeteria, or asking for better lights in the parking lot at night and about the lack of day care. “I had no answers. Boy, was that one of the most valuable of all possible corporate comeuppance lessons of all time. It taught me on my very first week as president of this great company that you pay attention to what is important to your people.”
He said leaders must have more than the business qualifications to be successful.
“You better pay attention to what is important to your people,” he said, adding, “You show your people you care about them? That’s power. That is how people will go through a wall for anybody. That’s when you get the best out of people — when you show them you have their back. I learned that lesson during that first meeting. That was a big-time wake-up call.”
He also stressed listening to the ideas of fellow employees.
“I wanted ideas from everybody in the company. I used to really come down hard on people who wouldn’t take meetings or give proper due to people who had ideas that they wanted to talk to management about. It’s our jobs to listen to our people, and there are good ideas that come up from the organization.”
He believes such idea sharing sparks innovation, and if you’re able to embed innovation within the culture of a company, you’ve found the holy grail for business.
“You talk about innovation. You reward it. You don’t punish mistakes. You encourage everyone to give ideas to help the company. Because when an idea bubbles up that ends up becoming a big thing, that word spreads like wildfire when you give credit where credit is due, and you reward the right people. Listen to your people. Don’t think you’ve got all the good ideas.”
Humble, powerful and worthy words from a servant leader.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.