Knowling on knowing how to be a leader

The Covad Communications chief lists the following as the three biggest mistakes most people make in business (and in life):

1. They forget the grass roots.

"The workers are the backbone of the company. All the good ideas typically come from the front line. But the typical executive is disconnected from the front line."

When Bob Knowling became vice president of network operations for US West Communications he spent his first 61 days in the field.

His visits included a trip to the company's one-man outpost in Grand Canyon, Ariz. For the startled worker onsite, it was his first visit from an executive in 21 years. Even more amazing to him was that Knowling spent two days listening to him, then acted on his suggestions.

Most executives don't pay enough attention to people and little things, Knowling says.

2. They don't invest in teams.

"A team that's aligned has a better chance of winning. It's got to be united, one team, one voice, with time and a forum to discuss strategy. There can't be any hidden agendas."

Knowling emphasizes strong two-way communication for a successful team. "As a leader you've got to put yourself out there for them. You've got to be vulnerable."

University of Michigan business professor Noel Tichy says one of his first impressions of Knowling was watching him stand in front of a group of executives and telling them that he'd been wrong about a course of action he'd been arguing against.

3. They forget that life is an ongoing learning process.

Three years ago, Knowling earned his MBA from Northwestern University. Already a vice president at Ameritech when he enrolled in the program, Knowling hardly needed the degree for professional purposes, but says he did it mostly for his four children.

"I wanted them to see that you never stop setting goals, you never stop the learning process. I wanted them to see me making sacrifices for school."

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