What John Graham Taught Me About Caring Leadership

August 16, 2016

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“How’s Shamu?,” John would begin with interest. After a long day, he relished strolling the halls to check in with the after-hours crowd, one by one. For me, a junior exec in the early ‘90s, this was rarefied time with the global CEO.

Back then I worked in our headquarters on the issues-rich Anheuser-Busch theme parks account. There was always something new and he was eager to listen, advise and encourage. I marveled at how he made the time for such individual attention across scores of people in an agency growing like wildfire.

Over the 26 years of working with John, that has never changed. It’s just one of the countless, indelible ways John Graham made the simple act of caring contagious as a leadership quality and growth driver.

Building an empire the way John did took more than his own phenomenal determination. It is his canny appreciation for people and what motivates them that set a culture of respect, collaboration and excellence in motion which grew and grew, taking the agency with it — from a single office in the Midwestern U.S. to more than 80 worldwide.

He didn’t follow in anyone’s footsteps on this mission. Nor did he achieve it alone. A great many talented, loyal FH legends stuck by him to make it possible. Just as John never forgets where he came from – starting at Fleishman as a junior exec himself 50 years ago — he makes sure people never forget those who make the agency great, then and now.

He has forever practiced the art and power of a good story to keep FH lore alive. Group dinners with John are memorable storytelling occasions. With glorious detail and wit, he recounts tales of victorious pitches despite unexpected snafus, pulling clients out of seemingly impossible dilemmas, and the fascinating backstories of how fabled ideas and strategies were hatched. Colleagues and alums feature as heroes. But listen closely for the lesson in leadership, integrity and teamwork. There is always a point that traces back to values.

His genuine personal interest as CEO and later Chairman has reached people like me deeply. On the day before I left for Hong Kong in 1997, John met with me to make sure I felt prepared for the challenges ahead. As usual, he stressed the importance of fostering a strong people-first culture and let me know the firm had my back. “You’ve got this,” he said, setting a confident expectation for success and watching positivity work its magic.

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Notes like the one from 1998 (which is still tucked in my top desk drawer) send a message that, ‘I notice, even if you’re on the other side of the world.’ Small personal gestures go a long way.

John taught me so much as a leader. It’s hard to distill it to just a few, but these stand out:

  • Authenticity – Successful leadership is often defined by the hard numbers. But it’s your soft power that makes them soar.
  • Compassion – We are all people. We encounter challenges as people, not just employees. True leaders are there for encouragement in the good times and more importantly, when we encounter difficulties.
  • Growth mindset – It isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about growing as individuals, grooming others, cultivating relationships, building a reputation for quality, championing collaboration, and continuously innovating. The business will follow.
  • No ego – You’re usually on the side of right if your motives are in the best interest of the firm rather than yourself.   Don’t let personal agendas get in the way of doing the right thing.
  • Vision and values – Communicating the end goal is not as important as reinforcing how to get there. Focus on the qualities that are necessary for success in the organization and celebrate them in action every chance you get.

As we have flourished in Asia Pacific, the values inspired by John continue to be a positive driving force today. A super-powerful culture that attracts smart, nice, driven people is tough to beat. It’s also a great place to spend a career.

Here’s to the remarkable John Graham on his milestone anniversary. Thank you for showing us that true leadership comes from the heart. And together, there is nothing we cannot achieve.

Lynne Anne Davis receiving the John D. Graham Award for Excellence at FleishmanHillard’s Worldwide All-Staff Conference in 2001. The award is the agency’s highest honor, given to those who exemplify the firm’s culture and values, established by Graham.

Lynne Anne Davis receiving the John D. Graham Award for Excellence at FleishmanHillard’s Worldwide All-Staff Conference in 2001. The award is the agency’s highest honor, given to those who exemplify the firm’s culture and values, established by Graham.