According to This Day in History, on this day 70 years ago, the balsa raft Kon-Tiki, captained by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, completed a “4,300-mile, 101-day journey from Peru to Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago, near Tahiti. Heyerdahl wanted to prove his theory that prehistoric South Americans could have colonized the Polynesian islands by drifting on ocean currents.” To the amazement of the world, he did so.

Heyerdahl was born in Larvik, Norway, on October 6, 1914. He “believed that Polynesia’s earliest inhabitants had come from South America, a theory that conflicted with popular scholarly opinion that the original settlers arrived from Asia. Even after his successful voyage, anthropologists and historians continued to discredit Heyerdahl’s belief. However, his journey captivated the public and he wrote a book about the experience that became an international bestseller and was translated into 65 languages. Heyerdahl also produced a documentary about the trip that won an Academy Award in 1951.” He was named ‘Norwegian of the Century’ in homeland in a popular poll.

One thing that has always fascinated me with the Kon-Tiki story is the bold vision of Heyerdahl. I thought about this when I read a recent article in the Adam Bryant’s New  York Times (NYT) Corner Office column, entitled “A Bold Vision Sets Things in Motion”, where he interviewed Nancy L. Zimpher, the Chancellor Emeritus, State University of New York. Although she comes from the world of academia, Zimpher presented some interesting ideas on her leadership style which I thought were useful to any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or business leader.

In the more mundane leadership lesson, Zimpher noted you must be able to lead a meeting. It is critical to start on time, end on time and have closure on items. She was spot on when she stated, “This sounds trivial but you can die a thousand deaths in a bad committee meeting.” She likes, even thrives, in the multiple person meeting format, stating, “You’ve got to have the team present, and you’ve got to have everybody’s opinion on the table. There’s so much more synergy in this room if we were having a group discussion. And it’s a lot more fun.”

Yet this success in group meetings does not transfer to one-on-one meetings, which Zimpher believes are about “the most boring thing in the world to me”. She recognizes she has “a degree of impatience. I want to get to the work and convene the people who are going to do the work. Let’s get on with it. Don’t tell me what you’re doing. Just do your job.” However, this facilitates her external bold vision approach as she stated, “I’m much more external to the vision than the internal day-to-day operations. I have very low patience with hearing about why we can’t get something done.”

Yet she also shared some ideas which were closer to those of Heyerdahl as Zimpher noted one of the most important things she has learned in her career was vision. She stated, “If you really know where you’re going, and you have a clear vision for the institution, that can be really powerful. Over the course of my career, I have successfully articulated a vision three times over.’ She provided the example of her first meeting with the State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees, she told them she was bring vision to the table, adding, “I don’t know what it is at this point. I’m not coming with the answer chiseled into a tablet but I’m going to find it.”

She is not a lone thinker going off to seek inspiration as she works with others to achieve the vision. She works with “all the stakeholders, understanding the history and seeing the potential future.” It is from this initial formulation that everything flows. Zimpher related, “Once you have it and articulate it, then people in the organization need to be able to repeat what that vision is. I don’t care if they’re making fun of it, but at least they know we have one.”

Zimpher takes her bold vision approach to leadership in the interview process. She stated, “If I’m interviewing someone, I assume they have the credentials. But I want to know what you can get done. I want to know your role in the equation, and how you made things happen in your previous roles. So I’m very action oriented and I listen for that.” She said that she listens for “collegial course of action” for interviewees, focusing on how they will work in a committee structure. She said she will ask such questions as “what is it you wanted to get done? Were you just going to let the committee decide? What did you do that moved the institution to a place where you wanted to go but you had to get the group to get there?”

Obviously, Heyerdahl had a bold vision that he was able to follow through on. But he did not accomplish the Kon-Tiki saga in a bubble as there were five other crew members on the ship. He followed the voyage with a book aptly named Kon-Tiki and the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Yet I found Zimpher’s leadership concepts channeling her inner Heyerdahl. Any CCO or business leader must not only have a vision but must be able to articulate that vision.

In the area of compliance, you should work in your organization to develop a vision that is practicle, has buy-in from the C-Suite and is something you can commit to paper. Mark T. Jones, in his article entitled “Nautical lessons for leadership”, wrote, “Leadership has always been about people being put to the test, this is as true of the corporate world as it is of other fields of human endeavour.” You can draw inspiration from Heyerdahl and his vision and take some of the practical steps suggested by Zimpher to run your meetings efficiently and on time.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2017