How a Pivotal Moment Can Change the Way We Lead

“A leader doesn’t lead a company. They lead and care for people. They create a bond stronger than any compensation package or offer letter.” When retired CEO of Trammell Crow Matt Khourie shared this thought with me, it confirmed what I’d heard about him. Khourie’s always been described as someone who focuses on people in our industry.

When I interviewed him in my most recent Off the Rak series, I asked him, “What has helped you succeed year after year in your career?”

Khourie’s response began with this quote about creating a bond stronger than one’s salary or what’s put on paper. He went on to add that a leader gives more than they receive; they give in ways that don’t allude to any future quid pro quo. It’s a selfless mindset. Khourie explained that his frame of mind is strictly others-focused when he makes a gesture, but as his work relationships grow, team members respond with loyalty, hard work, and an above-and-beyond effort.

“Most business isn’t rocket science; it’s about relationships. It always comes back to people,” said Khourie. When I asked him if there was a seminal moment that helped him arrive at this leadership philosophy, he said, “Yes, it’s interesting how these teaching moments are not some great victory…they come from tough times.” If you’ve read my book, Transfluence, you know that I agree wholeheartedly with Khourie’s statement. Adversity is a great teacher.

Trammell Crow had purchased a company in Florida that developed shopping centers. Khourie recalled that the merger was a disaster—culturally and financially. Khourie’s CEO at the time was George Lippe, and Lippe asked Khourie to get down to Florida and see if he could figure things out.

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Khourie met with the local people and did his best to keep an open mind, but everything was pointing to the fact that the merger wasn’t going to work. The only solution seemed to be “winding things down,” Khourie said, which would take some capital and additional human resources. “I felt like I was handcuffed because I didn’t have any of the resources I needed,” he added. Then out of the blue, Lippe called Khourie and said, “Matt, what can I do to support you? What can I do to help? What’s bothering you [about this merger]?”

The support in the form of these simple questions was all that Khourie needed to relieve the pressure he felt and share his frustrations. When Khourie told Lippe exactly what he needed in the form of capital, resources, and HR, Lippe’s response was, “Matt, it’s done. You got it.”

The lesson in that dark moment resonated loud and clear with Khourie. The relief and gratitude he felt from receiving the support he needed in the moment was a feeling he wanted to share with others from that day forward. “Now I try to ask the same questions of my direct reports,” said Khourie. I ask, “What can I do to give you what you need to be successful?”

The gratitude Khourie was feeling is no coincidence. In a recent post where I highlighted the long-standing work of The Leadership Challenge coauthors James Kouzes and Barry Posner, the two explained that the top four characteristics employees look for in a leader have remained much the same for the past forty years: honesty, competency, inspiring, and forward-looking. Closely following these traits were supportiveness and dependability.

Khourie’s story and his selfless approach to caring for people are a testament to this research. The lesson he learned from Lippe in the midst of experiencing adversity changed the way he served others from that moment on. What might be a lesson you can learn from challenges in your past?

Join me for the third and final installment of this series, on Off the Rak+, when I share Khourie’s two pieces of advice for rising leaders that he learned in the trenches when he was at the negotiating table and faced with tough assignments.

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