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Commanding grasp of leadership

Published on Friday, 15 Oct 2010
John R. Ryan
President and chief executive of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)
Photo: Jonathan Wong

As president and chief executive of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), John Ryan must ensure the organisation has the right talent and strategies to provide high-quality executive education and “accelerate” the performance of clients. Previously, he was chancellor of the State University of New York, having earlier served as superintendent of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. A retired vice admiral and former US Navy pilot, Ryan held a series of senior commands in Asia, Europe and the Middle East during a 35-year military career. He holds a BS degree from the US Naval Academy and an MS in administration from George Washington University. Jan Chan reports.

Which part of your job provides the most satisfaction?
Without a doubt, it is watching the talented men and women at CCL bring out the untapped potential in our clients. It is wonderful to see people learning more about themselves and understanding how they can be more effective leaders.
During my time in the US Navy, I had a great experience as a client of CCL. In fact, that’s what inspired me to become more involved with the organisation. Now, it’s a real pleasure to see new generations of leaders benefiting from those same powerful learning experiences, finding their strengths and developing them further.

What does it take to get the best out of every individual?
Regardless of age, it is important to have what we call a “growth mindset”. Essentially, that means believing there is really no limit to what anyone can achieve. The proviso, though, is that we have to be willing to work at it and must get the right kind of training, education and development. At different times, all of us will face obstacles that are difficult to surmount. For corporate executives, that can be confronting a complex global marketplace. For educators, it is trying to enhance student achievement. We believe that solutions to challenges exist within ourselves and our colleagues.

As a leader, which factors are most important in motivating staff? 
My experiences in the military, higher education and here at CCL have shown that the most important thing is to be competent, credible and authentic. If you score well in those areas, it means you are professionally capable and people are going to trust you. More often than not, trust makes it possible to get things done. It is a sign you are true to your values and do what you say you will. Conversely, if leaders aren’t trustworthy, in the end nobody’s going to follow them. In terms of general motivation, leaders also need to demonstrate that they care about the professional development of their staff. Beyond giving specific, timely, on-target feedback, there should be effective coaching. This gets people to look at situations in new ways, prodding them to broaden their thinking and identify worthy goals.

How important is it to have a strategic vision?
Strategic vision is one those things that differentiates leaders at every level.
The higher you are in an organisation, the more responsibility you have not just for executing today’s tasks, but also for planning the future. If you are in middle management, you should be thinking about what it will take to sustain the organisation three to five years from now. As a supervisor or dealing directly with clients, it should be several months at least. And if you are on the executive leadership team, it is necessary at times to look ten years ahead, while still taking care of current priorities. 

When facing business problems, where do you turn for advice and inspiration?
When you are around a wonderful, engaged group of people, you will be excited and inspired by your work. Our board of governors, made up of talented and committed men and women, is also a great resource. And I have friends from all over the world to whom I turn for advice. I find too that consulting for people outside your organisation gives another view of the challenges and opportunities you face. And reading is an ongoing source of knowledge and wisdom, so I’m always digging into magazines and newspapers, business books and biographies.

What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?
I hope to bring more incredible people to CCL and watch them do a terrific job unleashing the talent of executives, managers and emerging leaders from around the world.

Nowadays, what are the essential skills for young people to build a successful career?
Young people should cultivate four attributes. These are urgency, learning agility, a mindset for personal growth, and a sense of humility. In a world where the landscape is constantly changing, we all need to be learning continually and applying that knowledge very quickly to whatever challenges we face. It is also crucial to believe we can get better every day, while understanding that hard work and consistent practice are the key to improvement. And since none of us can claim to know everything or to be right all the time, we should always be ready to seek out colleagues, learn from them, and help them too as our careers progress. 

Rewarding work

  • Ryan finds it very rewarding to learn from clients around the globe
  • Is a big fan of biographies of the likes of Marshall Goldsmith and Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Personal goal for the next 10 years is to be in touch with as many leaders as possible at all levels

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