Over the past five years, I have served as "Chief of Chiefs" in West Monroe’s Chicago Office. The goal of the Chiefs program is quite simple: It is a program created and intended to help foster a culture specific to the interests of each West Monroe office (we have nine of them), while allowing people an opportunity to own and lead. The program was established in the early days of West Monroe, and the role of Chief of Chiefs – the person who oversees them all – has been passed down since our inception. (Read coverage of the Chiefs Program in SHRM.)
As Chief, I’ve been lucky enough to watch the program (and our people) evolve from a small social committee to a firmwide program that is a lynchpin in our culture—and a driver for attracting and retaining top talent. As West Monroe continues to grow, the Chiefs Program is a critical element in building the next generation of leaders, the mission of West Monroe.
As my tenure of Chief of Chiefs nears its end, I want to share four ways that our Chiefs Programs helps build the next generation of leaders—in case you want to consider a similar program for your own organization.
To be completely honest, the structure we’ve established is unstructured. We grew organically and without processes, policies, and standards because we wanted the Chiefs Program to be fluid and adaptable. However, as we’ve grown, we’ve been naturally forced to standardize and establish more controls (admittedly, with areas for improvement). However, the program still requires incredible amounts of initiative. We’ve had plenty of Chiefs ideas never get off the ground. Being a Chief means taking initiative, solving problems, and making decisions. If you’re looking for a guidebook on ‘how to add new hot sauce in the kitchen,’ you won’t find it. But now, we have a Chief Hot Sauce officer.
Each Chiefs position thrives on the people in each office. Awareness, excitement, and momentum are all key elements of a successful Chief. In some instances, we’ve had to brainstorm creative ways of drumming up excitement. Who on earth would have thought the Chief Running & Fitness Officer would get more than 150 people to sign up for a 5k race? By listening to our peers and not being afraid of change, we’ve been able to fund big campaigns in the office, host pre- and post-race parties, and even started a t-shirt design contest. Creativity in adoption tactics has been an enormous success factor, and one that I’ve carried over to my client delivery work.
While leadership and visibility might not be 100% synonymous, there is no doubt that being available and known among your peers enhances and cultivates a sense of ownership and subsequent empowerment to lead. The Chiefs program is one of the few components that allows for enhanced, office-wide visibility across all levels of our firm. I preach about personal brand and building a mechanism for visibility at both the peer and office leadership level, and this program supports that.
Without fail, inclusivity is one area that we’ve encouraged (and challenged) our chiefs to think about each year. Every event and initiative is challenged with the question, ‘How can we make this more inclusive?’ Our Chief Golf Officer, for example, has done a fantastic job of making golf, who many would argue is an unapproachable sport, much more inclusive for all levels of players by incorporating a charitable and volunteer aspect to the events vs. being seen as a “boy’s club.” As an organization, we’re maturing as we think about inclusion and diversity. We’re moving toward a model that supports both employee resource groups and Chiefs. I learned a lot about my own leadership capabilities as I faced many of these issues for the first time. It took me a while to come to grips with this, but different groups need different support styles and visibility, and for good reason. While the Chiefs Program was never intended to tackle broader social concepts, it does force our people (me included) to be aware and conscious of the community we’re building. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made.
As my tenure as Chief of Chiefs nears its end, I’m excited for what the Chiefs Program has in store for the future. The very nature of the program lends itself to adaptability, and the program maintains its natural fluid state by always embracing the changes in our culture and workforce. I firmly believe that an underlying denominator of the success of the Chiefs Program is its leaders. I’d tell any employee that a role in the Chiefs Program is an undeniably welcoming environment to practice, hone, and experiment with your leadership skills. By showing initiative, flexing creativity, becoming more visible, and establishing an inclusive, people-first culture, we can all build the next generation of leaders.