Todd Bluedorn of Lennox International: A Cadet in the Corner Office

 
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Todd Bluedorn became CEO of Lennox International in 2007, following successful executive stints at large manufacturing companies including United Technologies, Otis Elevator, and Hamilton Sundstrand.   When you speak with him, which I did back in 2009, it becomes clear that in addition to being a smart and competent executive, he brings to his job the hallmarks of a high integrity leader; traits that were honed during his time at the United States Military Academy and with the Army Rangers.

When most of think of that first summer at a place like West Point, images of push-ups, long marches and getting screamed at (at close range) come to mind.  While these are all elements of the experience, Bluedorn explains there’s another important component.   

“You arrive at the beginning of July, before the school year starts, and you do 2.5 months of training called ‘Beach to Barracks,’ and it’s essentially the equivalent of basic training for enlisted soldiers. In addition to just hazing you and making your life miserable one of the main focuses is multiple blocks of training in ethics and morals and what is expected of you as an Army officer.”

Central to this training – and to the entire experience at the Academy - is the Cadet Honor Code.  Bluedorn describes it as, “the baseline – if you can’t follow that, they throw you out.”

A primary virtue of this code is its simplicity:

“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

While many corporations struggle to keep their ethical guidelines to one page, one sentence here serves as a model against which nearly any dilemma can be assessed, and this clarity is invaluable.

Bluedorn is also a passionate advocate for another style that some might not associate with a hierarchical, “chain of command” structure that exists in the military: servant leadership.

“I actually think that integrity and ethics as an officer is more about a philosophy of what’s expected of you in terms of how you treat your soldiers, how you treat your fellow officers, how you carry yourself and I think about it as the ‘servant leader’ philosophy.  What you get ingrained in your head in the military and at West Point is, the leader eats last after all his men eat.  The leader goes to bed last after he makes sure all his men are safe.  The leader leaves the battlefield last after everything is done.   That’s sort of a higher level of ethics – you make sure that others are taken care of before you take care of yourself.  I think that selfless way of thinking about things is sort of like thinking about your shareholders before you think about your own paycheck.  Again, lying, stealing, and cheating is sort of the baseline, it’s this higher level of ethics that separates true ethical leaders from others.”

Turning to his role as CEO of Lennox, I asked Todd about the corporate culture there, and he explained that the fabric was woven by his predecessors.

“John Norris II, who was CEO for close to 30 years, really set the tone for Lennox, and it ties to my value set which I would shorthand ‘Midwestern values.’  Being humble, putting other people first, caring about the company more than caring about yourself.  So, you have this fabric in the organization and with something like ethics, it’s always sort of short stories that people know about leaders that they can re-tell that that allow them to understand what’s expected of them.”

Bluedorn explains that Norris eschewed the usual trappings of senior management power.  There were no executive parking spaces and stories are told of Norris bringing guests to the parking lot and having to park far away with them since he had arrived at the company late that day.  “The guy owns 10% of the company,” Bluedorn elaborates, “and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and he still carries an LL Bean briefcase and wears a Casio watch.  People see that and understand how the game’s played at Lennox.”

As the sitting CEO, keeping this culture alive is now Bluedorn’s responsibility, and he tries to be clear about his expectations.  “We don’t lie, steal or cheat, we don’t cut corners, we play as a team, we play to win, and we create shareholder value and return.  I try to be very transparent about my expectations, use every opportunity to communicate them, and then on an ongoing basis I look for opportunities to talk about these things.”

From there, it’s important to try to hire in your company’s ethical image.  While admitting he’s made hiring mistakes in the past,* he explains one behavior he looks out for:

“If someone uses ‘I’ too much in an interview, that’s important to me, that sort of strikes them off the list.  People talking about themselves too much – even in an interview, aren’t giving credit to other folks that they’ve worked with – is a telltale sign of someone who is narcissistic and often an indication that they’ll cut corners for themselves.”

When asked what might be different about leading in today’s business environment versus the days of his parents’ generation, Todd says, “I think now there’s more pressure to perform, given global competition.  People aren’t taking two-hour martini lunches the way they did in the ‘60s.  It’s a much more competitive world and people are looking for every angle they can.  But in the 20 years that I’ve been around, I don’t think ethical standards have changed.  As people who work in business know, the vast majority of people want to do the right thing, are trying to do the right thing, and leaders are trying to do the right thing, but there’s a handful of folks who do it wrong and cause problems and then it’s on cable news for five months.”

 

Takeaways

Todd Bluedorn is an example of a leader who keeps his messages clear and straightforward and repeats them to his people whenever he has the chance.   When it comes to standards of ethical behavior, the best maxims are often the simplest.  Whether it’s Mark Twain’s “When in doubt, tell the truth,” or Warren Buffett’s “don’t do anything today that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your local paper tomorrow,” the less complicated the message, the more likely it will be remembered and followed.  Combat veterans often speak of the “fog of war,” pointing out that when things are at the murkiest or most difficult, that’s when their training kicks in.  To a less dangerous or dramatic degree, a similar fog can creep into a business setting.  With time-sensitive, high pressure decisions to be made, one can be tempted to take the wrong path to achieve a desired result.  That’s when “training” needs to kick in, and understanding the ethical framework your supervisors and overall organization expect you to operate within becomes invaluable.

*Footnote on hiring: Ted Turner told me that his father used to say that hiring the right people is one of the toughest things to do in business.  “Heck,” he’d say, “even Jesus only had to hire twelve guys and one of those didn’t work out so well!”

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William Burke